Over the Transom
Chilling tales from the literary slush pile.
Aug 9, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 44 • By JOE QUEENAN
Last year I was talking to a literary agent and friend about the dire manuscripts I am sometimes asked to read by neighbors, troubled youths, swains of hairdressers, and the man in the dark trench coat who stands at the back of the room at every book-signing, and then thrusts a grimy manuscript into your hands whose first paragraph describes the ritual dismemberment of someone on Friends. I told my friend that I had to handle situations like this about twice a year, and that it was the part of my job I most dreaded, because I never looked at a manuscript without warning the fledgling author that I would tell him exactly what I thought of it—and then, if necessary, alert the forensic pathologists at Quantico.
Photo credit: istock
This straightforward approach always, always ends badly: You are never forgiven for lording it over the hapless amateur, even though you yourself never tried to sneak into the publishing world this way when you were young and unpublished. Nor did you ever ask anyone to read a novel about a doomed interracial romance between star-crossed ghosts, or a retelling of the Iliad with Beantown mafiosi as the principals. But on the few occasions when I have deviated from my principles, and encouraged the resolutely giftless, they soon turned up with yet another abysmal manuscript. And then I had to let them have both barrels right between the eyes.
My friend had little sympathy for my plight. A big part of her job was to sift through dozens of idiotic query letters pitching books every day, seeking the proverbial needle in a very unappetizing haystack. That afternoon she began sending me the worst query letter she received each day. Eventually she simply sent me the first one she read each morning, because they were equally imbecilic, so singling one out as the very worst seemed pedantic.
The proposed books—most of them already written—were hair-raisingly bad, so bad that they twice made my computer crash. Yet often enough they bristled with a chutzpah bordering on arrogance: This is your last chance to get in on the ground floor, sister. There were how-to-be-successful books by people who did not have jobs. There were books about women from whose bosoms love had been ripped in the very spring of youth, alas. There were books about phlegmatic vampires. There were books about the spiritual side of anorexia. There were books about dissolute mermaids. There were proposals for books that had not yet been written because they required 20 percent more letters than the conventional 26-letter alphabet the rest of us use. There were books that explained how the universe worked, written by the structurally unemployed. There were lots of abuse books. Some involved vampires. There were books about how baking a pie could change the world. There were books about unforgettable dogs the public needed to get to know better. There were books about wraiths, specters, hermaphrodites, gargoyles, libertarians.
The thing the fiction proposals had in common was that they involved characters with names that do not appear in nature: Logan, Ariadne, Portia. The writers wrote badly, if at all. But the truth is that they did not really want to write; they wanted to rewrite. They had persuaded themselves that they could write as well as Stephen King, James Patterson, Danielle Steel. Their stories were variations on stories that had been written many times before: Jade teams up with Lance, Cheyenne, and Cujo to stymie the Scottish vampires laying waste to antebellum Louisiana while slimy extraterrestrials plan the big haymaker for a nation that never, ever suspects that mutant albino survivors of Chernobyl have planted viruses in the global financial network.
In short, a twice-told tale.
At first I would laugh at these things. They were jubilantly brainless. But after awhile they didn’t seem so funny: These were real people sending in these pitch letters, and no matter how moronic their plots, and no matter how stilted their language, and no matter how improbable it was that they would ever get the four-book deal they sought—nay, demanded!—these were real people with real dreams. Little by little I started to feel sorry for them. I felt even sorrier when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal reporting that Random House had last accepted an unsolicited, un-agented manuscript from the slush pile in 1991.
But quickly that sympathy gave way to a different kind of sympathy for my friend the agent, and all those like her. What was it like to have to deal with these abysmal proposals and manuscripts every single day? What was it like to have to keep saying no to people who would never, ever hear the word “yes”?
“It’s exhausting,” she said. “It’s very hard to keep managing the emotional expectations of people you have never met. You try to be as nice to them as you can, but if they’re persistent you have to stop answering their calls and emails. Sometimes they can be scary.”
I then consulted an editorial assistant at a major publishing house who reads, perhaps, 200 manuscripts or book proposals a year, mostly culled from the slush pile. Not one has ever made it into print. Not one was even in the ballpark. So how did she approach this heartrending situation on a day-to-day basis?
“If I’m already feeling depressed and nostalgic, I don’t read anything from the slush pile because it will make me feel more depressed,” she said. “The books are massively overwritten, and it’s heartbreaking to realize that people have been working on them for 10 years. They don’t understand the business. They don’t even understand that book publishing is a business. They don’t want to be read; they just want to be validated. And they expect me to validate them. They don’t even want a career. If they could, they would bypass the publishing process altogether, just so they could have readers who love them. And that is sad.”
The agent and the editorial assistant had similar stories about overbearing phone calls, copious tears, hopelessly unpublishable writers trying to sneak past security to wangle a face-to-face meeting during which they could bring the full force of their Oprah-ready personalities to bear before the cops turned up. There were also genuine concerns that some of the writers might do themselves grievous bodily harm.
“I try to be as nice to them as I can,” said the editorial assistant. “But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes they get mad. Then they get crazy. And then they get mean.”
“The first rule is: Don’t engage,” added the agent. “You send them a note saying that this is not right for us and wish them good luck and hope that they go away. But some are very persistent. And they can be scary. Men trying to write as women are the worst. They come up with some very creepy concepts.”
That afternoon, as if on cue, my agent friend sent me a proposal from a man who asked if she would rather get rich working with him, or be like everybody else and perform a sex act on a famous Hollywood producer who had stolen all of the author’s ideas, leaving him penniless.
I told my friend that if she wanted to stop forwarding the proposals, I would be okay with that.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.
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