The New Yorker Rejects Itself: A Quasi-Scientific Analysis of Slush Piles
By David Cameron
It began as the kind of logical argument that seems airtight to anyone who has never studied logic.
If the New Yorker is the most desirable literary magazine in the world, and if the New Yorker can have any short story the New Yorker wants, then whatever story the New Yorker gets would—logically—be so intrinsically desirable that all lesser literary pubs (e.g., everyone) would pine for it. Just like the prettiest girl at the dance: the guy she picks is the guy chicks dig. Basic deduction 101.
After a few glasses of two-buck Chuck I was ready to test my hypothesis. I grabbed a New Yorker story off the web (no, it wasn't by Alice Munro or William Trevor), copied it into a Word document, changed only the title, created a fictitious author identity, and submitted it to a slew of literary journals, all of whom regularly grace the TOC of Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, O’Henry, etcetera and etcetera. My cover letter simply stated that I am an unpublished writer deeply appreciative of their consideration.
That was it. I sowed the seed, and waited.
As for the result, please sit down and place your Starbucks Venti on a secure surface.
Dear reader, every single one of these journals rejected my poor New Yorker story with the same boilerplate “good luck placing your work elsewhere” auto-text that has put the lid on my own sorry submissions. Not a single personal pleasantry. What’s more, the timeframes tracked perfectly. For example, if the Beavercreek Fucknut Bulletin (not a real journal, but representative) generally takes thirty days to relegate my stuff to the recycle bin, then our New Yorker story—which must have been thoroughly confused at this point—fared no better.
As the rejections rolled in, I began to feel sorry for this story in the same way you pity a one-hit wonder who ends up on infomercials: two parts schadenfreude, one part authentic compassion. This poor story, like the sly dude chosen by the dance-floor starlet, thought he had it all. Here he was convinced that he could effortlessly charm the panties off of any university-based handout with “Review” in the title. What the hell happened?
But it wasn't just the lower-tier non-A+ list who rejected this poor devil. Before I name-drop, bear with me. I’m being deliberately coy by not IDing the culprits, mainly because I don’t want to be denied any free drink tickets at the next AWP. (For what it’s worth, my editor has been fully briefed.) But trust me, dear reader, if you were to be accepted into any of the offending journals, you’d drown in your own serotonin.
However, I’ll break my silence to single out just one journal that declined this New Yorker short story: the New Yorker. Yes, in an act of inadvertent self-mortification, the New Yorker rejected itself.
I tried to console this sad, broken-hearted story, explaining to it the vagaries and randomness of the slush pile, how despite what many of these journal editors state in interviews the slush is often just a clean-up chore relegated to overwhelmed readers, and that rejections might mean nothing or might mean everything but there was no way of really knowing—but too late. He had already retreated into a boozy haze.
Still, my work wasn’t done! No scientific experiment can be taken seriously unless it is reproduced, and so I grabbed yet another story, this one by a rather celebrated youngish New Yorker author (not Zadie Smith or Karen Russell) and repeated the process. The results, as scientists so often say when describing a perfectly corroborated protocol, were “elegant.”
Thus ended my life in research.
Now comes the trickier part. Commentary.
Slush sucks. It’s as simple, and as unhelpful, as that. Keep in mind that they do in fact call it the slush pile, not the “jewel in the rough pile,” or the “we can’t wait to see what serendipity brought us today!” pile, but the slush pile, named after the very same stuff that mucks your driveway up after a dank snowfall. In some cases it would be more accurate to call it the “gotta snake my drain” pile.
A part of me really wanted to be outed, to have some vigilant editor write back and say, “Nice try. Consider yourself blacklisted.” Or even to put me in the horribly awkward position of an acceptance!* That would mean there’s hope, that open submissions weren’t just, in so many cases, empty gestures.
Yes, my ruse makes me snarky, but also sad. But not as sad as the poor New Yorker story that got so brutalized. If you see him standing next to a bar stool searching his pockets for loose change, give him a hug. He’s still trying to figure out what went wrong.
*For the record, in the event I received even a nibble I would have immediately withdrawn the story from consideration. I actually do have scruples.
David Cameron lives with his wife and children near Boston, Massachusetts, where he works in higher education, writing about science and technology. A Pushcart nominee, his fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Digital Americana. He is also the fiction editor for Talking Writing magazine.