This year, to mark International Slushpile Bonfire Day, 101 Reasons is proud to reprint the article that started it all. Edgar Harris’ groundbreaking coverage of this previously secret industry event was originally published in RevolutionSF.
New York – One of the most onerous tasks in the magazine and book trade is the sifting of the slush pile. Slush piles, the collection of unsolicited and unagented manuscripts sent to publishers by beginning or would-be authors, are sometimes the source of future literary successes, but more often than not are the source of headaches and indigestion. Many editors privately complain and scream about the uselessness of slush piles, but fearing a backlash from beginning writers who already assume conspiracies keep their work from being printed, very few speak out about the quality and quantity of the material received.
With this in mind, the international literary community announced a special amnesty day for those long-suffering editors forced to sift through manuscripts where everything but the name of the author was misspelled on the title page. April 31, 2002 marks International Slushpile Bonfire Day, where editors and publishers are encouraged to collect all of the unreadable or unusable manuscripts that have built up in their offices, in some cases since 1968, and burn them while drinking wine and singing songs. Since one of the worst offenders is the science fiction / fantasy / horror triumvirate, SF, fantasy, and horror editors are allowed to place the first documents and light the pile when complete.
New York editors gather for Slushpile Bonfire Day
"We’re burning everything," said Pablo Redondo, the organizer of the event and the only editor willing to appear on television. "All of the manuscripts with no merit other than the tag ‘Member, SFWA"’ on the cover page. The manuscripts where the author didn’t bother to read the submission guidelines and dumped off the copy to a magazine that doesn’t buy that sort of fiction, or doesn’t buy fiction at all. The manuscripts where the author already registered the story for a copyright ‘to keep editors from stealing their work’. The Wesley / Worf slash fanfiction sent in ‘just in case we had an interest.’ The manuscripts sent in on toilet paper or on Hello Kitty note paper, and the manuscripts sent with death threats against any editor who plans to reject it, and the 3000-page ’sequels’ to popular books written because the author didn’t like how the original ended. We’re making a big pile in the middle of Times Square, and every editor with a slush pile is invited to pitch in. Big magazines, small book lines, Webzines, rantzines, and weekly newspapers: every editor in the world is welcome to start the healing here."
In return, the rest of the publishing community will protect the identity of the participants in the bonfire and blame the disappearance of the manuscripts on the Postal Service. "After all, they were all contaminated with . . . um . . . anthrax!" said Redondo. "That’s right: anthrax and Dutch Elm Blight! Maybe a bit of tobacco mosaic and some cane toad venom, but anthrax was definitely involved somewhere. Of course, considering the number of manuscripts we’ve received with any number of bodily fluids all over the envelope, nobody will be surprised in the slightest."
If this seems a bit extreme, the words of an editor who wished to remain nameless explained the situation. "We’re constantly reading in Locus or Speculations about the bad editors who take more than a week to accept or reject a story or novel, but these people don’t know what it’s like. An intern who takes eight weeks to reject a story is most likely needing that eight weeks to recover from jamming a set of ten Lee Press-on Nails in her eyes. By the time she’s able to see again, that same author may have sent another eight to ten stories to the slush pile, and the cycle begins again. Even at our best, we can only afford to publish three short stories and a novella a month, which means we publish a grand total of 36 short stories a year, and we get eight to ten THOUSAND manuscripts a month. This is the only way we can keep up with the overload without going insane and shooting at school buses once we got off work.
"Let’s put it another way," the editor continued. "I hear from one writer who suggests that because of the delay in response to his submissions, we call out HAZMAT teams to pluck his envelopes out of the incoming mail and decontaminate them before opening them. I can’t bring myself to tell him that we can’t afford a HAZMAT team, and each and every one of his stories makes me scrub my arms with carbolic acid whenever I open it. Each one of his stories literally takes away my will to live, and I shudder every time I see his return address on an envelope. And he’s one of hundreds out there, maybe thousands. I have to buy elbow-length rubber gloves on credit just to keep up."
Electronic manuscripts are no exception. "Since the advent of the Web, we’ve been receiving material from people who apparently learned to type by throwing their cats at the keyboard, and some of it is so horrible that we don’t let it dare escape," said Redondo. "Some of it is so foul that we’ve decided to include hard drives in the bonfire, because any hard drive or mail server that contained that story is obviously too contaminated for future use. The New York Fire Department had problems with this at first due to environmental issues, but when we explained the evil that would be removed from the universe by its extirpation, they understood."
An unsolicited submission is thrown on the fire
Surprisingly, no news of this action appeared in any of the journals dedicated to collecting existing and new writing markets, such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, The Gila Queen’s Guide To Markets, and the innumerable Web sites cataloguing every market that pays in money, credit, advertising space, or raw meat still on the bone. Redondo said that this was deliberate. "The only publication that contained details was the American Editor’s Association newsletter Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and anyone who leaked the details to the general public was to be appointed the person in charge of dealing with the repercussions. I myself am going into hiding in New Zealand after this, and I’m not returning to work until after I’ve had extensive cosmetic surgery."
The response from the beginning writer community was, as expected, swift and terrible. A representative of the Eltingville (New Jersey) Science Fiction Writer’s Circle and Costuming Guild released a statement that read, in part, "We decry any efforts to rid the world of our works, and the ESFWC&CG will start up a GeoCities site to hold all of these orphaned stories until the New York literary establishment comes to its senses and buys them back for their full value." When the representative was contacted and asked whether starting up a magazine or book line might be of more value than lambasting the existing editors, the response was "Of course not. They’re supposed to pay us for our work; we’re not supposed to pay to get it published. It’s not our fault that everyone submits stories but nobody pays to read the stories submitted, and we’ll all go to SFWA to complain if the magazines go under. Now go away: I have a Buffy / Farscape crossover novel that I have to get off to St. Martin’s this evening."
Although the editors and publishers in other countries were sympathetic to the idea, it is currently unknown whether or not they will participate. At least one Australian editor expressed support for the bonfire, saying "Australia has only six million people, and between the four science fiction magazines in the country, we’ve received submissions from at least four million. Either we have a lot of razorback hunters and crocodile skinners with plenty of free time in the evening who will suddenly buy subscriptions so they can see their stories in print, or we’re going to have a bonfire of our own in our future."
– Edgar Harris is the former Sports Editor at “Science Fiction Age”. After this article was first published, Harris retired from most forms of journalism, and now makes his living as a horticulturalist specializing in carnivorous plants. He is attempting to breed a species of Sarracenia that will feed on unsolicited manuscripts, to provide a year-round, ecologically-friendly alternative to the bonfire.
Well-known writers who have suffered from writer's block include George Gissing, Samuel Coleridge, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Mitchell and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Writers who overcame writer's block and published new work after a hiatus of decades include Harold Brodkey, whose novel The Runaway Soul appeared some 30 years after it was first projected, and Henry Roth, whose first novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934; his second, Mercy Of A Rude Stream, did not appear until 1994.