A Literary Slush Pile

One of my gigs this summer is reading the slush pile for an independent literary press. Although I’ve done a lot of slush pile reading in the past, what’s different about this experience is that the writing is not geared toward genre or convention, and I doubt any of the writers expect to sell millions of copies. They aspire to be the next Dave Eggers or Alice Munro, not Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer. That means that (if they do what most literary fiction does) the writing will be focused on character development, interesting and beautiful language, and finding new ways to tell a story. With that in mind (and perhaps a little naively), I expected the slush pile to be filled with writers who command language and write engaging, unique characters.

You can probably see where this is going: to my disappointment, the slush pile is not filled with writers who command language or write engaging, unique characters. My request rate is way down compared to what it was last summer. I’m not actually reading the queries, but I read the first few chapters of a manuscript and then recommend whether to request more or not. So far, I have recommended requesting more of absolutely 0 books.

I think the reason (besides the fact that the manuscripts need work) is that I have higher expectations for literary writers. When reviewing paranormal romances or mysteries, I was willing to let sub-par character development or repetitive language slide (with a note to include it in a revision letter) if the story was remarkable. With a literary writer, however, there is no breathtaking story to rely on. Those elements I would say, “well, we can revise that” for a genre piece are what I am looking for in a literary piece. So you’d better have it down pat.

Considering literary fiction generally doesn’t sell well, I am impressed at the number of writers attempting it, and I applaud their efforts. But craft comes first, second, and third in literary fiction, so you had better get it down pat before trying to publish.

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Lessons from Sociology

I took a class this quarter called the Sociology of Rational Decision Making. While the subject matter is somewhat self-explanatory, thinking about decisions themselves allowed me to reconsider some of the decisions I’ve made without even thinking about them as decisions, and it provided me with some insight about query-reading that I think could be useful for all aspiring writers.

Last summer I interned with a literary agency and was in charge of reading the slush pile. Since I am also an aspiring writer, I often found myself straddling two different identities, which is something I think most agents deal with.

When I am wearing my writer cap, I know the pain of condensing your masterpiece into a mere paragraph for a query or summarizing it in a bland synopsis; of searching through agent websites and wondering if they will be good enough, or if they will deign to read your work; of waiting and waiting and waiting for a response only to get a dreaded rejection.

But when I open a query letter, the writer in me is on the backburner. I am thinking of what will sell, of what looks interesting, not of what the writer has gone through to get that query in my inbox. My sociology course talks about bounded rationality: when people make decisions, they do not evaluate all the alternatives, but go through each alternative until they find one that is satisfactory. In each query, I have to make multiple decisions.

As you can see, saying no takes a lot less time than saying yes. My sociology class also says that people have selective attention because they cannot possibly pay attention to everything presented to them. That means I am trying to limit how much attention I give this query, so I am sometimes hoping it will be a no so I can take care of it more quickly. The tree illustrates that it is only once I get to the actual pitch that I am indifferent about whether it is good or not. Before that, it will mean less work to say no than to say yes.

When the writer in me sees what the intern in me is doing, it is horrified. I want agents to give my query the benefit of the doubt when they are reviewing it. But it’s not that I am cold-hearted and don’t care about finding good fiction. I simply need to manage my time. Many crime shows show the difference between the theory of innocent until proven guilty and the reality of having to prove innocence; in the end, it is just plain easier to look for a reason to reject than to look for a reason to accept.

The takeaway, then, is that to get past bounded rationality and selective attention, the query needs to answer yes to all those questions: to be well-researched, well-revised, and well-written. Don’t give them a reason to reject, and they might just have to request more.