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Archive for the ‘Ruth Harris’ Category

Back in the twentieth century when I started out in publishing, publishers did not insist that all submissions be agented, and direct submissions, aka the slush pile, served as training wheels (more like hamster wheels as it turned out) for young editors. I was assigned a desk in the secretarial bullpen and a monster stack of manuscripts waited for me on my new desk. My job was to read them to see if any might be worth passing on to one of the older, more experienced editors. Conscientious and wanting to impress the senior editor who was my boss, I began to read, at first assiduously finishing one manuscript (I had learned by then they were referred to as “ms” in book reports) after another.
The quasi-literate (they were the ones who loved “big” words and used them incorrectly), sub-literate and illiterate were sandwiched at random between the religious visionaries, the sexually shall-we-say peculiar, and the politically febrile. There were the demented, the deranged and the delusional, submissions from jails and penitentiaries. Most of all there were would-be writers who had never met a comma or, sometimes, even a paragraph, who had no idea how to shape a scene or introduce a character much less write a line of dialogue that any human being might actually have uttered. To those wannabes (that word didn’t exist then), quote marks also often seemed a galactic mystery as did sentences containing both a subject and a verb. I was no literary snob and my reading choices embraced everything from Willa Cather to Mickey Spillane—but the slush pile did me in.
No matter how fast I plowed through the mss (that’s the plural of ms), attaching Bantam’s form rejection letter to the top and placing them in the required SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope), the pile never diminished. Every morning and every afternoon (two mail deliveries a day back then) the mail room guy dumped another stack of mss on my desk. They were typewritten, smeary, often single-spaced, sans margins, punctuation or paragraphing; some were hand written, scrawled on old-fashioned school notebooks, the kind with the marbelized black-and-white cover. They were held together by rubber bands, string, yarn and, once in a while, ribbon. The pages were occasionally pristine but more predictably smudged, dog eared, defaced by icky, unidentifiable substances, or dotted with coffee stains and cookie crumbs left by previous editors who had read—or made a valiant effort to read—the submission in question and, as they say in the trade, “passed.” 
I quickly learned to read the first one or two pages, maybe scan a few more, then flip to somewhere around the middle to see if anything had improved and, if any shred of hope remained, look at the last page to see if a more careful reading might be called for. (Dream on.) The only response from these would-be authors was an occasional complaint that they’d left a piece of white thread on page 125 and, when the ms came bouncing back, the piece of white thread remained in place. Why, they wanted to know, hadn’t the entire ms been read? How could we (the nameless editors because no one ever signed a name to a form rejection) reject their masterpiece without reading it in its entirety?
Let me count the ways.
I moved on and so did the slush pile: to agents who weren’t about to pay to get the slush sorted—often it was their unpaid interns who slogged through the mess. (As opposed to the mss.) There was a double benefit: publishers no longer had to pay salaried employees to sift through the slush pile and, in the bargain, submissions had now been vetted before appearing on an editor’s desk.
As time passed, we arrived somewhere in first decade of the twenty-first century and reading the slush pile had gone from paid labor to unpaid labor. A sort of progress, I guess, but one last glimmer of progress beckoned: the internet. The quick and easy upload that earned Amazon a 70% cut every time a 99c book was purchased. Amazon had managed what seemed the impossible: it  turned a time and money sink into a profit center. Or, as my Mom would say: Someone had finally figured out how to turn shit into Shinola.
And guess what? The same problems that beset me years ago at my piled-to-the-rafters desk persist today. Mangled grammar? Check. Run on sentences and run on paragraphs? Check. Typo infestations? Check. Also: terrible formatting, no discernable plot, “characters” unrecognizable as human beings, blobs, clunks and chunks of back story bulldozed in, hopeless attempts at description, even more hopeless efforts at narrative, character names that change from one chapter to the next. And so on. And on.
About the only thing that’s different is that today’s digitized slush pile comes sans icky unidentifiable splotches and previous readers’ coffee stains and cookie crumbs. And the little piece of white thread on page 125.
PS: Lest you think me excessively bitter and cynical, I will add that the SP is not absolutely, totally 1000% hopeless. There are writers who have made it out. Stephanie Meyers (Twilight) was rescued from an agent’s SP. Philip Roth back in 1958 from a Paris Review SP (you can look it up on Google). And I seem to remember that Kathleen Woodiwiss, one of the queens of the Bodice Rippers, was originally pulled out of the SP as was Rosemary Rogers. At Avon. (Anyone with info or memory better than mine, please confirm or refute.)
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