Many years ago, when I was a college student searching for summer employment, I realized that I had essentially no marketable skills. I spent the summer working through a temporary agency, and I was almost always assigned out as a receptionist.
My final placement that summer was with a small, middle/highbrow publishing house, focused mostly on literary fiction. I spent a week and a half filling in for the receptionist, but when she came back early, they didn’t end the assignment, probably because they had committed to use me for two full weeks. My supervisor, whomever she or he was, gave me an empty office (unassigned, really; it was extremely cluttered) to work in, and showed me the slush pile. It really was a pile of manuscripts; several piles, , actually, some of them in the process of collapsing into each other. For the next two or three days, my job would be to get through as much of it as I could.
There I was, 19 or 20 years old, never having taken a college-level literature class, with no more than five minutes of training, reading the manuscripts hopeful authors had poured their souls into. My instructions were simple: If I thought a manuscript was worth an editor’s time, I had to read the entire thing, fill out a one-page form, and prepare a synopsis. If I decided at any point while reading a submission that it should be rejected, I could stop immediately, fill out the form, and send it back to the author (if a self-addressed, stamped envelope had been enclosed), without writing the synopsis. My incentives were clear: The path of least effort for me would be to make decisions quickly, and reject almost everything.
In other words,
Although I reviewed a number of manuscripts, I remember only two: one I rejected, and one I flagged for review by somebody competent. The one I rejected was some kind of thriller, and I read about half of it before I finally gave up, turned off by what seemed like an interminable technical discussion about the architecture of nuclear power plants.
The novel I sent up the ladder was a drama about high school students, set in the contemporary rural South. I hated it. I didn’t like the style, I couldn’t identify with the characters, and it was sexually graphic without being the least bit titillating. It was, however, very well written, and I found myself unable to put it down — like watching a slow-motion train wreck, I wanted to see what (horrible) thing happened to these (idiotic) characters next. When I was done, I decided that I had no idea whether this was the kind of thing my employer would want to publish, but I thought somebody probably would. I filled out the form, wrote the synopsis, and left it for the professionals to deal with. I have no idea whether they, or anyone, ever published the book. I was also too stupid to try to maintain the contacts at the publishing house, which might have been useful to an aspiring writer.
As a wannabe novelist, I should have been horrified that someone like me was making decisions about the slush pile, but at 20, I was sufficiently vapid or arrogant not to be bothered by it. I’m horrified now, of course, but now it’s too late. The guy who wrote the nuclear plant thriller probably would have been the next Tom Clancy if a competent editor had looked at his novel and thought, “It gets a little wordy, but if he’d be willing to cut four pages from Chapter 14, we could have a blockbuster on our hands!” Maybe another publisher did. But I have this uncomfortable feeling that when the time comes to send out Meet the Larssons, my karmic debt is going to have to be repaid.
In other news, I’ve been too busy at work this week to post until now, so I haven’t been able to comment on the death of Gary Gygax, one of the creators of Dungeons & Dragons. I started playing D&D regularly when I was about 11, and played consistently until I was around 16, and then intermittently until college. Many thanks, GG. Here’s a link to Uncle Monsterface’s tribute song (thanks to GeekDad for pointing me to it), which captures the sentiment exactly.