Posts Tagged ‘name of the rose’

The Slush Pile

January 20, 2010

Let us consider the slush pile.

David Patterson, a senior editor at Henry Holt, whose taste in books I admire greatly, sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal online entitled: “The Death of the Slushpile.”

Way back when, the slush pile was an uncomplimentary term used by publishers for the  unsolicited manuscripts they received by the bucket load from aspiring writers. As the above article will tell you, “slush is dead.” At least it is with commercial publishers. Apparently they  were finding that it exposed them to copyright infringement lawsuits. Every time a book was published with even the most remote parallels to an unsolicited submission, the publisher was accused of using the slush pile as a flower garden of ideas to pluck. Copyright infringement suits are to publishers what medical malpractice suits are to doctors. Publishers have attempted to reduce their exposure by inserting an “indemnity clause” in the book contract. This provision, hateful to all writers and their agents, puts the onus of defending against copyright infringement claims, no matter how frivolous, on the shoulders of the author.

 But I digress. Publishers were also finding that the payoff  from  sorting through slush didn’t justify the time and expense of a 22 year old entry level editorial assistant plowing through unpublishable manuscripts. And, in truth, finding  something good out of the slush pile was a little like winning the lottery.

So now if you push the “acquisitions” button on a publisher’s website, you will see that they will  accept only agented submissions. The slush pile is no more. On  one level, I find this puzzling. The legendary publisher, Alfred Knopf, once said, “Agents are to publishers as a knife is to a throat.” Now they have bestowed upon us at no cost the exclusive license to act as the toll gates of the literary superhighway.  

Well, ok. There is a cost. And that cost is – slush. Agents have replaced the editorial assistants in sorting through the unsolicited manuscripts. I don’t call it slush. It’s a demeaning term. I have spoken in a previous blog posting (Ann Lamott and Albert Camus on Writing ) that writing is a courageous act. And the activity deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. I  prefer to use the term: “queries received over the transom.”

A lot of the big-time agencies don’t have much truck with slush either. And I am told that finding an agent for a number of genres is about as hard as finding a publisher. But, look. I hear about agents who get 100 queries a day. What are they to do? I’m a smaller and newer agency. I get about 40 queries a week. It seems to be growing though.  Most of the queries I get are for fiction or personal memoir. My website and my listings on agent directories clearly state that I don’t accept fiction and personal memoir. But I try to respond in a timely manner. Mostly I politely copy and paste a “thank you, but it is not for me.”

I have taken on a few projects from the slush pile. Excuse me. From over the transom. And I got one published by an author who was living in his brother’s under heated attic in Maine. On the day of publication, he wrote the op-ed piece in The New York Times.  I’m pretty proud of that. And other agents whom I respect all have stories of great projects that they fished out of the slush. So I urge aspiring writers to send their projects out. Hope for the best…. But expect the worst.

People in publishing always like to talk about the great projects by unknown authors that rose above the slush. The Diary of Anne Frank was originally rejected by the Paris office of Doubleday.  Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was discovered by a young assistant agent. Philip Roth got his first story picked up by The Paris Review.  And J. K. Rowling had her Harry Potter rejected by 20 publishers before it was sold to  Bloomsbury UK.. John Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by just about everyone in publishing until it found a home after the author’s death. It went on to sell several million copies and win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

When I first became an agent, I went around New York for a few days talking to editors. I asked all of them what was their biggest mistake in book acquisition. (This would be a good blog posting. We’ll do it another time.) My favorite response was from a very prominent editor who rejected The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. But she said it wasn’t really a mistake. She thought it was lousy and boring. Because of her judgment on the book, it would never have succeeded with her as editor.

 And so, gentle reader,  if you will excuse me, I need to go back to reading my slush. I  will set aside my world-weary cynicism and approach the task with eagerness and hope. Because I know that, amidst the dross and the folly, lies the novel of the next Jane Austin – waiting to be born.

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More Recommended Books from Cody’s Archive

August 2, 2009

The Dream of Scipio. Iain Pears. This is a brilliantly conceived and magnificently executed novel, both an historical novel and a ethical and philosophical puzzle.  It is also a gripping story.  The action takes place in 3 historical periods, all of which are times of cultural dissolution: the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the Fifth Century, the time of the great plague in the Fourteenth Century, and Vichy France.  Each story is interrelated by characters who, as scholars, have studied the other characters in the novel.  Each character must face parallel ethical dilemmas. The book asks whether action in the world that is imbued with ethical wisdom makes a difference. 

The Seven Ages of Paris. Alistair Horne.  Alistair Horne is one of the great historians of France writing in the English language. For the past 25 years he has devoted himself to writing this book, a history of everyone’s favorite city, Paris,  from the 12th century to its liberation in 1945. As in all of Horne’s books  this work is imbued with a masterful narrative sweep.

Master of the Senate. Robert Caro. Caro’s Johnson is epic, larger than life,  great in his flaws, endlessly fascinating.  Just as the other great Johnson in literature was defined by the genius of his biographer, Boswell; so Lyndon Johnson will be remembered through the ages by this masterpiece of biography. This, the third volume in his story, takes us through the years in the Senate. It is as much a history of that great institution as it is of Johnson’s life. It is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in History for 2002. Also read the equally spellbinding first two volumesThe Path to Power and Means of Ascent.

 Hotel Honolulu.  Paul Theroux. This is a funny, mesmerizing and touching collection of related stories about Hawaii.  The author has  created a character, a composite of himself and his imagination.  The stories all center around a somewhat long at the tooth hotel off Waikiki Beach.  Guests come and go. All  seek a kind of paradise, but inevitably bring their own flawed existences with them.  

 War and Peace. Leo Tolstoy.  This is arguably (unarguably) the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy’s epic of Russia during the Napoleanic Wars contains both grand historical sweep and minute psychological detail. The characters are so real and so compelling that they practically walk off the pages. It is both profound and accessible. When you have finished, read Tolstoy’s no less magnificent novel, Anna Karenina.

 The Name of the Rose.  Umberto Eco. The English friar, William of Baskerville (his name, a pun on the Conan Doyle tale), is called to a monastery to employ his mastery of Aristotelian logic to solve a number of perplexing murders.  The brothers in the monastery represent the entire range of medieval thought. This book is a brilliant novel of ideas, a profound recreation of an historical epoch,  and a superb who-dunnit.

 Death Comes for the Archbishop. Willa Cather.  This enduring masterpiece is Willa Cather’s greatest achievement. It is the story of the French cleric Father Latour, who is sent to convert the American Southwest to Catholicism. He eventually becomes Archbishop of Santa Fe. With elegant simplicity of prose, we follow the life of Father Latour for 40 years, during which time he struggles with derelict priests, a beautiful but forbidding land, and his own loneliness.

 .A History of Warfare. John Keegan.  In this time of war, we all seek to comprehend how the activity of war, which is at once so horrifying, can yet be so embedded in the human condition.  The world’s preeminent military historian has written a masterpiece.  There are no long and boring descriptions of battle tactics and no indecipherable maps with black and white squares.  Instead, Keegan examines the role of warfare in all cultures from stone age to atomic age.  He shows that the history of warfare is really the history of human nature’s darkest side. This book is an eloquent and absorbing work of cultural history.

 A Thousand Acres. Jane Smiley. This book, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature of 1992, is Jane Smiley’s greatest work. It is the retelling of the King Lear legend transposed to a contemporary American family farm and told from the point of view of one of the older sisters. Smiley interweaves mythic themes with issues of family dysfunction. Throughout we are dazzled by the work of a master literary realist.

 Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte.  Is this literatures greatest love story? I think so. It is the tragic tale of timeless love between Cathy and the magnificent and mysterious Heathcliff.  It is written with beautiful descriptive language of the moors on which the action takes place.   The story builds slowly in momentum and volume of emotion until it reaches the climactic doom  of Heathcliff. Be sure to keep some hankies at your side.

 Gone to Soldier., Marge Percy.  Marge Piercy has written a sweeping epic of the Second World War. It is not a blood and guts battle saga, but more a tale of the other war, the men and women who were not on the front lines but on the assembly lines, the food lines, and behind enemy lines.The Second World War gave birth to our own age. No book has demonstrated this so well as Gone To Soldiers.