A Good Author Is Hard to Find
Memo from Inside the Publishing Industry
Mention the word "slush" to anyone who's worked in publishing for longer than five minutes, and you're likely to get an expression of sheer horror. Slush pile is a term used to refer to the collective mass of unsolicited manuscripts and query letters—novel or nonfiction synopses with a few sample pages attached—that daily deluges the offices of agents and editors throughout the industry. Occasional hits emerge from the morass: Twilight began as an unsolicited query. But far, far more often, the slush pile's contents are a cross section of the staggeringly mediocre and the truly deranged, the balance of humdrum-to-nutball shifting depending on the week, the season, and (I swear) the phases of the moon. As an assistant to a literary agent, my job is to act as a human spam filter, picking out the rare promising tidbit to pass on to my boss and deflecting the rest with a polite but firm form rejection.
The world of the unsolicited query is a strange one, populated by renegade aliens, evil Russian scientists, and improbably large-breasted women. Apocalypse is often pending. Aliens figure prominently, as do the Mafia, strong and silent men, vampires, demons, angels (fallen, guardian, tempted/ing, various degrees of smutty), disturbingly racist visions of extremist Muslim terrorists, passive and lascivious women from a variety of tropical locales, black gangsters, and money-grubbing Jews. Potential audiences in the millions are cited (e.g., "There are 3,456,787 people who like horses in the United States, all of whom will read my book Love on Four Hooves"). The query's author is regularly the next Dan Brown/Stephenie Meyer/William Faulkner or some combination of the above.
Any given morning might bring the Old Testament rewritten by George Bush Sr., a management guide whose author is possessed by the spirit of Nikola Tesla, a 200,000-word epic about a Nazi-battling rocket scientist, picture books featuring woodland creatures with nauseatingly alliterative monikers (Tippy Tommy Turtle, etc.), erotic poetry about Santa Claus: book ideas so startlingly awful I cannot even make them up, but must wait for them to arrive in the inbox one after another with the regularity of a metronome.
Rendered in a labyrinthine and frequently unintelligible grammar, the truly awful query is often notable for its length, its torrid verbosity, and the mechanical specificity of its sex scenes, which tend to read like appliance-repair manuals in their exhaustive and emotionless depictions of moving parts. The bad query's sentence sometimes resembles a battlefield wherein subjects hack it out desperately with adjectives,perennially besieged by legions of unwieldy adverbs. Apostrophes go on suicide missions and commas appear at random. Formatting tends to be interpretive; it is not uncommon to find e-mails that are 50 pages long, are bright pink, contain pictures of the author on vacation, or are written in Papyrus.
The general assumptions about successful writing one assumes to be relatively fundamental (author has fairly solid understanding of grammar, has developed cohesive and intelligible plot, possesses at least a tenuous grasp on reality) go out the window altogether. After years as a slush reader in various aspects of the industry, I am quick to recognize and dispatch; I can often tell within the first sentence if a query will be any good, and I am now so ruthlessly efficient that I can blow through an inbox of 50 e-mails in half an hour, sometimes rejecting submissions within moments of their arrival.
What is notable about these missives is that they emerge most frequently from placid backwaters and sleepy Midwestern towns, that vast expanse of "the middle" so famously spurned by New Yorkers and left-coasters alike. A slush veteran is left imagining a series of identical suburban homes, each containing its own madman churning out treatises on intrepid terrapins, the seeding of the earth by lizard people, and legions of brown-skinned immigrants constructing terrorist plots and conjuring the overthrow of civilized society. Persons who seem not to have ever read an actual book in their lives, but who have nevertheless developed comprehensive views on the nepotism and intellectual elitism of the publishing industry at large, which is (of course) controlled by "politically correct" quasi-Communists pushing some nebulous but entirely nefarious agenda of homosexuality and Jesus-hating. I know this because a number of unsolicited queries take great pains to tell me so, somewhere in between the synopsis, the character description, and the inevitable Erotic Moment.
The slush pile seems, in some sense, to serve as a sort of representative sampling of the collective unconscious of the American public—a surreal landscape of vengeance, conspiracy, otherworldly beings, and really big guns. Sexual relations between ladies and gentlemen are fraught with peril (especially given that one or more participants in any romantic endeavor may very likely be aliens, demons, were-vampires, undead, or in a coma); queerness is almost nonexistent, as is any sort of radical politics (unless by "radical" one means "hoping to overthrow the government and install in its place a parliament selected by extraterrestrials from a more spiritually advanced dimension"); and people of color exist only as grotesque caricatures.
I wish I could say that my role as an intermediary between the humble masses and a publishing contract has taught me grace and compassion; instead, it's taught me that the world is overrun with racist, lady-hating lunatics, hell-bent on inflicting their own horrific visions upon an unsuspecting populace. And yet, once in a very great while, I find a little island of magic in a sea of despair: that query so lovely, so perfect, so charmingly funny that I can almost picture its author, its sample pages peppered with a handful of flawless phrases that make me catch my breath in wonder and think, Yes, thank God, this one. This one. For that chance, I'll keep reading.
*The rejectionist is a pseudonym for an assistant to a major New York City literary agent. You can follow The Rejectionist's day-to-day adventures at www.therejectionist.com.