Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Friday, May 25, 2007

Slush Pile Baby

One sub-sub-genre of journalism that shoots up green every spring is the Cry of Woe (the not-lowing-but-bleating C. O. W.) from a radically disillusioned publisher’s intern or junior assistant-to-an-editor. That ever-renewing cry is the result of a time spent inside the unholy heaps and towers of the slush pile, where the hapless reader finds that all the world is crap. That’s why they call it a slush pile, she discovers.

She realizes that the world is radically fallen! She flees the Gothic piles of slush to freedom. From there, she conceives of an article revealing to the world the unbearable blistering horror and yea, even terror of her tenure in the slush. Like an Ishmael, she has escaped into a bracing air that is not permeated with flecks of pain. This calls for hoo and calloo and general uprisings of celebration!

The latest escapee from this travesty of life that is surely, surely worse than days of digging ditches or shoveling out camp latrines is Jean Hannah Edelstein. She has written The Shocking Truth About the Slush Pile. Once again, people around the planet are confronted with the dread internment of a sensitive soul. Once again, they add an amusing array of comments to the slush pile moan.

Jean Hannah, I am so glad that you are no longer suffering the prickly Boschian torments of the once-innocent! No doubt elevation will follow, as you scramble up the glittering rungs toward your goal; I wish you luck, and hope you will be an editor worth having.

Yet I have something to confess.

Many long years ago—more than five years before my first book wobbled into the world—I bought (one must buy) and read a book called Salar the Salmon, by Henry Williamson. It was a reprint from David R. Godine, Publisher, a company in Boston known for its beautiful books.

Back then, I was a poet who had stumbled into writing a novella and nine stories. In my poet’s innocence, I thought, If he loves this, he’ll like my stories. I put my manuscript in an old-fashioned brown paper envelope, added a handwritten address, and slapped on that queer, archaic thing, a stamp. I dropped the envelope in the mail, somewhere near Willett Street in Albany, New York. Perhaps I didn’t even know that term, slush pile.

Many months passed. Eugene Garber told me to call, so I called: and felt abashed. The operator knew nothing. Call back in three days, he said. Three days later I duly called, and learned that the manuscript was on David’s desk.

The night before my birthday, David Godine called to accept the manuscript. He wanted to do the novella and stories as two tiny books rather than one. The strange thing was that I had made that particular birthday the dividing line; if I could not achieve a book by then, I would quit—or so I had told myself. I knew too many poets embittered by lack of publication, and I didn’t want to be one of those.

Of course, nothing is easy. It took many years for the first book to come out, although it was a beautiful object, meticulously designed and produced. My editor, writer Sadi Ranson, made sure that reviews for the novella appeared in The New York Times and The Boston Globe and elsewhere, and that was far more than I had expected. The second book lagged, and I eventually withdrew it; by then I had published a novel with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, and I didn’t want the book of my very first stories to be reviewed as a third or fourth book.

My next book will be my seventh. Despite the fact that I am “midlist” and have never received that rare, desirable gift, “a push,” I paddle on in the stream, keeping to my own course. I have learned a great deal since the day when I put a manuscript in an envelope.

On Saturday, I stopped in at New Haven's Atticus Books and picked up a novel by Imre Kert├ęsz, plus a book by Borges that I wanted to reread. I took a quick glance to see if any of my books were on the shelf, down in the bottom right-hand corner where “Y” lives. At first, I didn’t see any at all. Then I noticed the tiny, lovely hardcover of Little Jordan, still in print after all these years.

I laughed, touched by the sight.

If I have learned anything over the years, it is that the proper stance of an artist before the blank page and before those who have gone before is humility.

I hope that I have also learned to be grateful.

***
Credit: Above is the logo of David R. Godine, Publisher.

***

37 comments:

  1. What a wonderful fairy-tale story!
    Keep on paddling, dear Marly, like Salar the Salmon, upstream when necessary.

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  2. Greetings to the writer with the golden pen in her hand,
    What a great read, Marly. It is good of you to share this with other writers. It helps us know we are not ALONE in our wait--in anything even.
    I sincerely hope that SEVEN is your most blessed number!
    Take care.

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  3. I adore Godine solely for its beautiful publications of Andre Dubus' short stories! Goodness, now I'll have to buy one of your books.

    (I found that Guardian blog post very silly, but then I find most of the posts there silly.)

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  4. lucy,

    Perhaps you inspired me, as your post made me percolate fairy thoughts--dark ones, but still...

    eileen,

    No, I'm afraid that one has the best of company in such waits! Look around; you're not alone.

    imani,

    Yes, they make beautiful books. Godine has that rare article, taste.

    Happy reading!

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  5. It was nice to have a visit from the pot boy,

    I was going to ask him about something I heard on murder she wrote.

    Jessica said that beginning writers write bibliographically. What is the difference in writing what you know and creating fiction out of life and being a beginner writing bibliographic fiction?

    That may be a stupid question, but maybe the Pot Boy with spout off.

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  6. I love to dish out the advice.

    But this isn't quite advice. I'm afraid there is no television reception in the palace, and that makes things a little more difficult...

    But hey, a pot scrubber dreams all things and hangs out in the bubbles.

    My first novel (if I fantasized such a thing) could be a story about my agonizing childhood, and how I stumbled into the palace and found joy. Down in the kitchen, I am a prince in disguise. Perhaps in my novel, I'll find my princess.

    That would be a "biographical" sort of story, because it would rely to some degree on real events--that agonizing childhood, my horrible siblings and the wicked old grandfather who brought us up. It would fall into the category of a "coming-of-age" story.

    Meanwhile, my employer here at the palace has gone a rather different root. There may be glimpses of real faces--an embedded cameo of a child, a streak of borrowed craziness, a house by the water. But she loves to make things up. To bring something out of nothing.

    Of course, in order to do that, one's mind has to be full of "somethings" to begin with--all of life and many books. The mind's a pot that holds a sort of alphabet soup of sounds and meanings, ready to be shaped in a new way.

    How's that?

    Always glad to oblige Susanna the Alabamian Maid (now Alabamian Maid, M. A., Master of History.)

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  7. cleverly dispensed advice, very nice indeed.

    thank you.THis is something I can work with in my personal musings. My training in non fiction research needs some fiction temporing I think.

    The examples really make it clear. I followed it like Helen Keller at the pump, with bubbles.

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  8. Back From Birmingham to this. Delightfull reading Marley. More to follow.

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  9. I love your story. I agree about humility and gratitude. And now I must go plant 30 helichrysa. I look forward to normal life and art and literature.

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  10. Susanna,

    I must have a word with that Pot Boy!

    Robert,

    Shall have to go see if you posted about the Birmingham show...

    Laura,

    Ten-cent prophecy: Your garden will be wonderfully weddingish, and the rain will hang out some where else--Seagrove, say.

    When one is away 29 days, the garden is stuffed with weeds! My little red wagon was heaped high yesterday.

    ***

    Why does my word verification keep containing "duh"?

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  11. That's a great story, Marly. But I liked even better the line about having humility before the blank page.

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  12. Probably the only reason to write a blog post is to get to that one right line...

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  13. sadi ranson-polizzotti8:22 AM, May 26, 2007

    hi marly - i just stumbled across this and found note of my name (and a fine mention as well, so thanks for that.

    If you want to be in touch, visit

    http://www.tantmieux.squarespace.com and use the contact editor link (rather not post email) and you can email if the spirit moves you...

    i'm glad to see and hear you are doing so well.

    For me, i'm busy working on my own books now (the latest, about Lewis Carroll which is being published by Continuum-Books, New York - London), so i'm busy as all get out with that, writing about Dylan, teaching, but mostly the Carroll and Carroll articles and i just finished another book - so eeks! - life i busy but full and good.

    I do hope you are well...

    xo, babe...

    sadi (ranson-polizzotti)

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  14. Sadi--

    That sounds fine! And fabulating Borges was right; we really do have an infinite library! I'll see you there...

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  15. It is a lovely tale. Your "if not published by my birthday" moment reminds me of what Madeleine L'Engle reports of her writing career. You probably know the story (I think she tells it in one of her three original autobiographical books, the first one--shamefully, the name of that book escapes me). In her case I think it was her 40th birthday dawning before The Wrinkle in Time finally found a home.
    And Godine is a wonderful publisher; those volumes have the weight and delight of true art. Very fitting for your own.

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  16. It's always about to be a birthday around here... I'm working on a little boy party with laser tag, golf, gem panning, and eats!

    Thank you for thinking it "fitting," jarvenpa! I'd forgotten that "Wrinkle" story. Strange how something can go unseen for so long.

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  17. Lovely story, Marly - and so glad that it happened in the nick of time - that makes it even more memorable. Your seventh book! That is such an achievement...yet more birthdays to add to all the rest.

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  18. In the increasingly-mythical "good old days," one was secure after the second book. Now one is always a cat tapdancing on a hot tin roof.

    All the same, I have a feeling that "Clare Dudman" will appear on the spine of a good many more books!

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  19. i'm so glad you are home again
    selfish little blog surfer that i am!

    Little Jordan is now on my favorites list
    it is a book i will give my best friend
    it is the only fiction i've read so far this year (because i feel i'm so far behind in learning all the hort and botanical stuff i should know) and it is one of those that helps me remember...you know, alphabet soup stuff that makes life taste good after all.

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  20. Hi there, wafting zephyr--

    Aw! That's so sweet! Thanks.

    I'm always thinking of my mind as a pot of alphabet soup, full of dissolved books.

    I just caught a tourist taking pictures of my shade garden. And showed him my Uvularia perfoliata (I know you'll know that's not naughty!) and how the stem goes right through the leaf, and zigs and zags...

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  21. oh yes...i love coming across those pretty little yellow bells!...and my shade garden is the only photogenic spot until we get some soaking rain.

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  22. I'm one of those who has little interest in the slush pile, and in fact in publication in general. Isn't it enough to do the work, and to keep trying to do it better? I'm grateful when I write a sentence which tastes right, sounds right, speaks right - a rare enough occurence.

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  23. Good to hear you again, Marly!
    Your writing is SO your own...
    Who else " percolates fairy thoughts...." in their blog?

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  24. zephyr,

    It is interesting what plants liked the aggravating winter just past--my bellwort makes a mound three times bigger than before. The monarda croaked mightily. Trillium look happy, and cohosh is already up in green towers...

    Hi lee,

    Good to see you! Yes, lee, you are one of those people remaking the idea of publication, and doing a good job at reaching an audience, too. There is a freedom in such things that I value.

    No doubt publishers are in metamorphosis, struggling to fathom the new world before them. You skip that encounter--and I know few writers who have been satisfied by their passage through big publishing.

    I think of Dave Bonta as somebody else who is up to interesting things in art via a blog--and he has all sorts of curious tentacles going out in the world.

    jan,

    Now that's a compliment to value! And coming from a storyteller (and now travel writer!) as well: what a pleasant start to Memorial Day.

    ***

    Must be off. Two of mine are marching in a couple of parades. So there is much to do, and much to remember.

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  25. "Two of mine" ( I quote you)....
    'ow ever many 'ave you got??

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  26. Jan, actually it was my husband and the youngest child. But we have three. All absolutely perfect, of course. I love stories!

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  27. Okay, so I wrote a post but blogger ate it. So a second attempt.

    I do love this story about getting published. By the way, I think you are one fo the most humble, down to earth people I know.

    Can you share the name of the new novel, or is it still too early?

    I've been out creating, see my blog for an update, but hope I'm back.

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  28. Oof.

    I guess that is a compliment... Probably I was just maimed in youth! If I were growing up today, I would be inoculated with gigantic American syringes loaded with Self Esteem.

    And yes, it is Too Early.

    See you there, queen of blogs. Heard from anybody in the seminar of late? What a pleasant group that was.

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  29. Oh Marly!...the havoc wrought by our very bizarre winter weather...so strange...what was lost and what thrives. And my bee-keeping friends say that their honey bees are coming back to the hive with greater stores of nectar and pollen than they have seen in years.

    i take the weather all too personally...my garden site needs rain regularly and i must bite my tongue 'til it bleeds whenever i hear silly fools rattle on about the "wonderful (rainless) weather we're having."

    While i do hope that Laura has glorious blue skies on her daughter's wedding day...i am the one to blame for a day full of steady, harmless, blessed rain--at least once a week.
    Too much sun, after all, makes a desert.

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  30. Hi Marly, I'll be visiting more often. I've decided on a change of scenery, and yours is a blog I've neglected for too long.

    I don't criticise anyone else for seeking publication, BTW, and never say never ...

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  31. zephyr,

    Perhaps you need to take a break from all this focus on light western breezes and spend a week as a little black rain cloud!

    Laura probably ordered up perfect weather a long time ago. She seems an organized sort of woman.

    A lot of bee hives around here fell victim to a rampaging bear in early fall. (My mother also has one who visits her mountaintop and frolics bearwise in the garden--not very good for the garden. What to do if she meets him on the winding path between house and garden?) I tend to get my honey in North Carolina, as I like the sourwood kind.

    lee,

    Welcome, then--at least until you change scenery on me! I'll try to visit back, once I get over my current small hill composed of lots of company arriving in the week (I hate the cleaning part--why can't I be one of those odd souls who rejoice in tidying?) and a big birthday party for little boys. It's a pleasant hill but needs climbing all the same.

    Oh, yes, a trickle of people start in blogs and end up in books, so one never knows, these curious days. But I think the way you have gone about things is interesting, and certainly the goal is essentially unchanged, no matter if the words are on vellum or paper or a web page.

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  32. Marly...you make me smile!!
    Yes, i am most certainly becoming one dark, pudgy cloud! i just don't know if i can draw more to join me and huddle over my little piece of ground for a few hours.

    Our NJ bears like to eat our compost...and tackle our bird feeder poles...so we bring the feeders in every night...and waste our kitchen peelings in the woods to keep him or her up there.

    Sourwood honey...i've never tried that...i may be going back to Tennesse before too long, will i find it there?

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  33. Eastern Tennessee? Definitely there. Just make sure it's the real thing, and not some karo-syrup cut clover honey. It's rather light in color.

    My mother decided to try some "hay bale" plots, and her bear seems to have been mightily interested in them.

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  34. What great a fusion of comments. I remember once when you said that your momma thought all the wonderful eccentrics wanted to be your best friends (something to that effect) and I think you have amassed a nice group!

    Were you the one who saw the magical cricket on the wall of my storm shelter pictures. I just assumed it was you, and reading the word magical so many times made me think of it.

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  35. Alas, not me, Susanna: I am scurrying about (like an electrified squirrel, hair on end) to get ready for company and finish up on the party for my youngest... I'm overbooked through Sunday night. Then I shall be better at paying visits.

    "Wonderful eccentrics" sounds so much nicer than "zanies," doesn't it? Hello, all you "wonderful eccentrics" out there!

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  36. Hey Marly,

    Sometimes Vanessa stops by the blog, but other than that, nope.

    I e-mailed everyone to let them know about my blog, but no one else showed up. I sure do miss some of them, especially Timothy.

    His holding court in the common room of the dorm was a cool thing.

    And yes, I meant that as a compliment. I just remember that you had time for us lowly teachers who were learning to write, and you were so patient and understanding. I was/am very impressed to know someone published.

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  37. Hi Donna,

    Yes, Timothy was a sport and a sprite! I often think of that week because of his raku pot--gleaming on a shelf in my living room.

    I'll be over to see what you're up to once I master company and parties and so on.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.