Very Recent History: The "Slush Pile"

SOME SLUSHAccording to the OED, the first occurrence of “slush pile” was not in reference to what we commonly now know as unsolicited manuscripts from unheard-of (and often insane) aspiring authors. It appeared in January 1907, when the Washington Post published an article accusing J.H. Seward & Co. “of fraudulently obtaining refunds of customs on fruits imported into this country.” Apparently, when government inspected the piles of “waste fruit”-or “slush”-they found….

SPPost

Alright, so that’s not exactly the slush pile we’re familiar with today. Nonetheless, the Post‘s use of “‘slush’ pile” does play into the semiotics of the publisher’s slush pile too. Contemporary uses of the term frequently involve “sifting,” “mining,” and “panning” through mountains of poor prose for “gems” and “gold.” In all cases, searching through slush piles is a process of inspection and refining. By describing its vegetative slush as containing elements of differing consistencies, the article already points to this filtering process of “waste fruit,” soaked in water and subsequently mixed with sawdust. Just about as tempting as flipping through thousands of rotten manuscripts?

Taking a more direct line, editor and anthologist John Joseph Adams suggests that “slush pile” might have something to do with how manuscripts used to be hand-delivered and tossed over office transoms when the press was closed. When the editors returned, they would then have to wade through piles of manuscripts, just like trekking through mounds of “slushy snow.” Sounds… reasonable?

But, the OED’s earliest listing of “slush pile” in the context of would-be novelists occurs in a 1952 Berkshire Evening Eagle article regarding humor writer Mary Lasswell. The piece quotes Lasswell saying “that when ‘Suds [in Your Eye]‘ went into the slush pile at Houghton Mifflin they wouldn’t believe it was a first novel.” Because writers, even now, often provide definitions of “slush pile,” the ease with which Laswell employs the phrase sounds a little too casual, not like a neologism at all.

Uncertain about the primacy of the OED‘s findings, I took time to sift through my own pile of documents. Although the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s entry on “Publishing” aptly describes the role of a publisher’s reader (an assistant who mines through slush piles for so-called gold) as early as 1911, they never actually use the term itself. And only in 1967, much later than the Evening Eagle, does the New York Times first mention “slush pile,” in an article on director John Dexter.

Times

Indeed, like most neologisms, “slush pile” seems to have originated in colloquial speech instead of print; even its textual debut in the Times occurs hesitantly between quotations.

And, as is also the case with many neologisms, “slush pile” maintains an organic poetry. “Slush” can also mean “Rubbishy discourse or literature…nonsense, drivel.” Mark Twain frequently employed the word in just this sense. In his semi-autobiographical Innocents Abroad, Twain’s usage of “slush” shares affinities with its modern definition as unpublished drivel.

Twain

Much like Twain’s speaker, readers of slush piles are far from sympathetic critics. Likewise, a 1896 Daily News piece cites an American editor dismissing “Two stout volumes of…‘delirious slush.'” In his 1919 book Score by Innings, sports writer Charles E. Van Loan describes “A woman reporter [who] came to the hotel in Chicago, took one peek at Conley-I’ll swear the kid never said ten words to her-and tore off a whole page of slush.” Returning to its textual inception in the Post, slush here also contains connotations of prevarication and amorality. For Van Loan’s “reporter,” slush equals haphazardly whipped-up fiction. Sound familiar?

At this point, I was feeling like a floundering wordwatcher out of Steven Pinker book, so I turned for help to linguist Charles Boberg. Boberg suggested that “slush pile” developed by analogy with “slush fund,” since both pertain to reserves of otherwise unassigned and (temporarily) unneeded resources. Of course, such repositories may hold future value: one can dip into a slush fund just as an editor might resort to slush piles. Further, “slush fund” derives from (yet another!) meaning of “slush”: the leftover oil and fat from the cooking that went onto ship galleys. Apparently, the slush fund was the money collected from the sale of the ship’s greasy slush, which was distributed among the officers as a “bonus” (the reason and purpose of this is still unclear… perhaps a topic for later!).

Boberg suggests that from this comes “the slightly corrupt connotation of modern ‘slush funds': not only money held in reserve, but money that can be used for unbudgeted expenses, including, possibly the bribing of officials.”

Talk about earning a bad name for yourself. “Slush pile” is loaded with numerous shady insinuations. From the Post‘s first deployment of “slush pile” to Van Loan’s unethical reporter and ship slush emerges the foul and mercenary undertones that resonate into our modern use of “slush pile.” One does often associate slush piles with the trash bin. Is that where J.H. Seward & Co.’s rotten sawdust fruit should have gone? How about leftover cooking fat? Or irresponsible journalism? Apparently not. Just ask fans of John Ashbery, Philip Roth, Harry Potter and Twilight, slush pile rescuees all.



Jane Hu is an Awl summer intern whose beat is hanging out in libraries.

Photo, of the slush pile at Tor books, by Martin Sutherland from Flickr.