Tuesday, March 1, 2016

On nixing the phrase "slush pile"

Sometimes certain words don’t bother you … until you think about them and they do.

The publishing world is full of terms that are rich with history that is no longer relevant to computerized production. Take “leading,” the space between lines—once measured out on the publishing plate with actual strips of lead.

Or we have widows and orphans—those lines of text stranded alone, without the rest of their paragraph, at the tops or bottoms of a page. People quarrel about which is a widow and which is an orphan, but the way I learned it is that a single stranded line at the bottom of the page (the first line of a new paragraph, isolated) is an orphan and a similarly stranded line at the top of a page (the last line of a paragraph, all alone) is a widow. The mnemonic we used in the newspaper world was that a widow has no future; an orphan has no past.

It’s a pretty shitty way to regard real widows and orphans, and at any rate, no one seems to care about their appearance on the page anymore anyway. For those who do, the odd descriptors are atrophied in the language.

We also have galley proofs—a galley being the print tray into which type was set, and also the initial prints made from them to proofread before a print run.

I like these terms—it’s cool that we still get galleys, even when no one has set the type by hand, and using a term that recalls the history of printing makes me feel as though I am part of that tradition—a grand one, to be sure.

But I’ve fallen out of love with the term “slush pile,” a way of referring to the unsolicited manuscripts that journals receive. It strikes me as disrespectful. Of all of the definitions of the word “slush,” and there are surprisingly many, almost all are negative (7-Eleven’s frozen Slushees notwithstanding).

There is some uncertainty about the origin of this term, too, but I think it carries the connotation of tromped- or driven-through snow that takes some effort to move through. A related term that is clearly outdated is “over the transom”—an adjective that we use to describe unsolicited work from writers. The old habit was to go to closed publishing houses and throw bundled manuscripts through the open window above the door. (Old buildings stayed cool in the summer with judicious use of windows and transoms to promote airflow.) When some editor arrived at the office the next day, he or she would have to wade through the manuscripts that were left in the night—like the heavy slush that might have been outside on the street.

But I’ve mentioned it before in this blog. The relationship between authors and editors is strained. Editors act disrespectfully with writers’ work, not deciding in a timely manner, not responding to queries, charging fees in an attempt to eliminate undesirable work, soliciting famous names while ignoring writers who sent in good faith.

I’ve heard editors mock work—prisoner poetry, another cancer story, eyeroll, eyeroll, eyeroll—even as they try to profit from the submitters, whether by charging fees or by promoting contests, selling mailing lists, or hitting them up with subscription drives. Promotions are fair game, of course, when we operate in good faith and an atmosphere of respect, but when editors actively denigrate writers while digging in their pockets, I have a big problem.

So I’m eliminating “slush pile” from my vocabulary, for the most part, and if I do use the term, expect to see it in quotation marks, as I parse the vocabulary of disrespect—an enduring theme.

It’s funny how our grand tradition of handcrafted page work has given way to a new tradition of disrespect, mockery, and exploitation. And then I hear the privileged classes using words that have depth and meaning beyond their ken—words that are artifacts of a time when publishing was a calling and an art form.

Publishing a magazine doesn’t automatically grant someone the right to claim ownership of a grand legacy. I’m starting to believe there are words some editors have no right to say.

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