On Slush Reading, by Michael Matheson (Slush Reading, Part 2)
Posted April 15, 2014on:
Today I’m joined by Michael Matheson for a guest post on his experiences as a slush reader for Apex Magazine. The question I posed to him was this:
What’s your favorite part of slush reading, and why is having a slush team important to the success of a short fiction magazine such as Apex?
I’m not entirely certain I would restrict myself to one thing that I love about slush reading. Part of what I enjoy about the process is the thing that, I would think, most slush readers/submissions editors enjoy: that extraordinary rush one feels at finding something absolutely brilliant in the submissions pile of whatever magazine we work for. Being able to find a wider audience, or at least vie for the work to do so, by bringing it to an editor’s attention. That’s especially true if it’s the work of someone who’s not yet had their fiction (or poetry, or critical non-fiction, depending on venue) published, or who hasn’t managed to crack a semi-pro or pro venue yet (which is a more arbitrary goal in terms of publication, but which does bring with it a much larger audience than smaller, less visible venues—and the monetary incentive is also nice). That discovery of brilliant work that the world needs to see, right this very moment, is always worth the wait.
Now, saying that can potentially sound dismissive of the rest of the submissions pile. Which is absolutely not the case. Everything that comes through the pile is someone’s hope, or aspiration, toward having something of theirs published. Perhaps it’s a particular story they badly want to share with the world; something quite personal they need to talk about and start discussion with. Perhaps they just want to be published for the sake of being published. Some will be looking to just get that one piece published to see if they could, while others want to build a career out of the thing and this is their jumping off point, or even another step along the way. All of those stories are worth seeing. They’re all parts of someone’s journey toward wherever they’re going with their writing.
At a venue like Apex where we don’t currently offer feedback, reading submissions is more of a tacit acknowledgment of someone’s hard work, before you send them back on their way without really having a chance to speak to them when they’re being rejected. It’s not quite as involved a process as a rejection is from a market that has the time to offer feedback. Unfortunately, like most pro markets, Apex receives far too many submissions to write feedback for each. Even with more than a dozen (I believe we’re currently at fifteen, or sixteen submissions editors) people working the slush pile, there simply isn’t enough time to do so given the number of submissions we see in the course of a month. Let alone the bulk of material that comes in over a year’s time.
So, because direct feedback isn’t possible, one of the things I do is take the opportunity to use disguised or de-contextualized elements of stories from the slush as a teaching tool. I’ve known other people to do this through blogs, or through roundtables like this one. My own approach is to take non-specific, or de-personalized elements of stories from submissions (problematic issues of a wide variety, or even formatting or other basic errors) and discuss them on Facebook in an attempt to give people a sense of what works and what doesn’t in a submission, discuss how to get around plot and writing issues, or just provide non-specific examples of things that will get a slush reader to stop reading.
The process on the whole is done without malice—though my humour, being rather bleak, has occasionally been taken in respects in which it was not intended. Approached purely as an instructive tool, doing so allows for conversation around the nature of submitting itself, as well as various elements of writing. It also allows people to get a better sense of the submissions process. Which, though not necessarily concealed, could well be described as opaque.
And that leads in rather well to both the second half of your question, and somewhat demystifying the process here: any magazine that has a high volume of submissions must have a dedicated core of first readers to handle the preliminary reading of stories. With Apex receiving up to 500 submissions in a month’s time, and other pro magazines receiving vastly larger quantities, no lone editor can possibly handle that amount of slush on a regular basis and still have a life. The multiplicity of opinions and tastes also leads to a more diverse body of recommendations, all of which then gets filtered through the tastes of a magazine’s editor-in-chief. But it gives them a much broader selection of work from which to pick than they themselves would ordinarily select from the pile. And what you end up with is a selection of stories being published that are still in line with the magazine’s mandate, but that reflect a wider range of styles, intentions, and executions than even the most diligent of editors-in-chief can manage on their own.
In some ways, an editorial team at a magazine such as Apex functions rather like an ecosystem unto itself. And, obviously, all magazines, be they token, semi-pro, or pro, are all going to produce different work, but the basic principle of sharing the load and the stories being better for that diversity of opinion holds true across the industry.
There are magazines and journals that manage with a single editor helming the publication, but those are outliers. They also tend to be much more dedicated in purpose, and have a far more fixed approach to what they will publish. Not a bad thing, by any stretch of imagination, but a rather different approach, and in some ways purpose, to running a magazine. And in that case what you get is either a much more narrow selection of work (if chosen poorly) or a more refined selection of work (if chosen well).
At Apex, we’ve found the way that works best for us, and we only have two tiers of assessment. Other magazines may have far more, and in those cases there’s crossover between who reads what, and multiple round reading, and stories can be passed back and forth at length. At Apex, one slush reader reads the work, and if it’s excellent enough it goes up to Sigrid Ellis, the Editor-in-Chief of Apex. It’s a much more direct approach to assessing and recommending work. Given that, a magazine like Apex abides or falls dependent on the excellence of its slush readers. In the something over two years I’ve been with Apex, I’ve seen a lot of talented people pass through. That turnover is in fact what sustains the magazine: turnover will always be a part of any editing team’s makeup, but it’s that shifting balance, and continuous reinvigoration of new people with different tastes and different assessment techniques that keeps a magazine from stagnating, and the content from becoming overly fixed.
And a magazine like Apex is in a constant state of revinvention. Each new editor-in-chief brings something different to the mix, and the content itself is variably themed from one month to the next, based on whatever comes across the transom. The idea there being that the work coming in should dictate the theme that emerges for any given month, with occasional divergence into seeking out or soliciting stories to fit a theme the magazine editor wants to run; a mix of the two basic principles of constructing themed issues of a magazine.
So what does all that actually have to do with “why is having a slush team important to the success of a short fiction magazine such as Apex?” Because, ultimately, without a team in place sufficient to help every step of the way in the process I’ve just described, there’s no way to do that at speed. Apex functions because there’s a very large team of dedicated people, working in multiple editorial respects, to make sure that this mad endeavour of bringing people brilliant and (hopefully) challenging fiction rumbles along from one month to the next, with no measurable drop in quality or speed.
Is Apex then, as I’ve just somewhat backhandedly suggested, a locomotive? In some ways yes, yes it is, if you imagine it as a means of transporting the reader to a new and extraordinary destination on a fairly regular schedule, that brief stop each month enough to take in vistas previously unimaginable and exceptional, the method of your conveyance stopping only long enough to foment wonder, before you’re off again to the next stop on the line. And every once in a while we get to give a passing wave to all the other trains making the endless circuit, or run parallel with them for a little while, before veering off again.
It’s quite an extraordinary experience to be a part of. Hopefully for the reader, too.