The Book I Will Write #66: The Slush Pile

flemingTHE BOOK I WILL WRITE by John Henry Fleming is a serial novel-in-emails about a would-be writer named John Henry Fleming who is desperate to publish a book. THE BOOK I WILL WRITE is a work in progress; readers are invited to make comments and influence the outcome. Fleming has been exchanging emails with an editorial assistant and a senior editor at Knopf, as well as with an agent. He’s been kicked out of his apartment, and is living at the library following a kidnapping episode with The Zeppelin Society. He’s recently joined a memoir group that meets in the library. Someone seems to be trying to lure Fleming out of the library to kill him, and the memoir group has agreed to confront the threat with him.


Dear John Henry,

Don’t go! Am I too late?! I have something really important to tell you about Reid Markham’s book.

Bear with me. Remember how I told you about my walking tours of the building? I kept finding more and more out-of-the-way places to take my chai breaks. I met people from other companies. Most of them actually had work to do, unlike me, and they needed to get out of the office. We sat together in elevator lobbies, in empty office suites that weren’t locked, in hallways with flickering lights. One day, a woman I’d met a few times before turned and said to me out of the blue, “You know, I keep waiting for an invitation to the Knopf Library.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh,” she said, getting up. “I thought you were different. My mistake!”

She left in a huff, and I’ve never seen her again.

The Knopf Library? I was afraid to ask around the office, so I asked another one of my break partners, a woman from an ad firm who’s been working in the building for 30 years.

“I saw it once fifteen years ago,” she said. “Since then the rumors have turned it into some kind of Shangri-La. It’s really just a storage room on the 67th floor.”

That was enough for me. Next break (thirty minutes later), I took the elevator to the 67th floor. When I got off in the dim elevator lobby, I saw a curling piece of masking tape on a glass door. “Knopf” was written on the tape. The door was unlocked.

The ad woman was right; the office suite looked like a storage unit. Rumor had it that Knopf employees enjoyed free cappuccino, biscotti, and shoulder rubs, along with after-hours cocktail parties featuring randy writers and editors bumping to live music. Why no one thought to check on this, I don’t know. Maybe the stories included armed bouncers checking employee IDs.

Inside were rooms full of boxed books. It wasn’t that different from Ms. Hollymore’s apartment, except the books were still in boxes, sometimes three or four boxes shrink-wrapped together.

The deeper into the office, the older the boxes. Some were open with books spilling out. I checked the pub dates. 2003. 1996. 1980. 1954. So many unread books turning to dust! The air had a taste, and my lungs resisted it.

I kept going. Then I came to the farthest room, a corner office with its shades drawn. No overhead lights. When I let in the light, the afternoon sun lit up the dust motes, a billion pieces of words losing their meanings. The thought made me unbearably sad. The room was alive with decay, and I felt part of it.

In this room there were only manuscripts. Stacks and stacks of yellowing, decaying manuscripts, some piled all the way to the ceiling. A city of 8 ½” x 11” skyscrapers.

The slush pile.

We don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore, but when we did, this was where they ended up. Who knows how many years’ worth of unread manuscripts—their authors never contacted, not even with a form letter. I can imagine the job fell to a single reader, an intern or a recent grad, thrown into the paper jungle and charged with finding a diamond or two. How could they keep up? The piles grew higher, hopes fading by the day, until the cause was obviously lost—and with it maybe the slush pile reader herself.

I froze for a minute, breathless. Could the reader—or her remains—be still in the room?

It took me a while to get calm. I approached a middling stack and touched one of the old, brittle rubber bands. The band popped open, and the stack shifted and slid like an icefall, spilling thousands of pages to the floor.

A partial wish fulfillment for the authors. The shackles were gone and the manuscripts freed.

I felt guilty. I wanted to read at least one of them. I had nothing else to do.

I gathered up a handful of spillage. It took me a while to put the pages in order, and even longer to find the title page. When I did, I got a shock. Written in typewriter courier, The Devil’s Good Graces by Reid Markham.”

I took the manuscript over to the window and sat against the wall. I read it all the way through.

I’m writing to tell you it’s dreck.

I’ve read some bad manuscripts, and this one is a certifiable disaster, an acid reflux of drippy clichés and unintentionally-comic, self-absorbed characters no one could possibly like. It has line breaks, too, like it wants to be poetry but instead just calls attention to the fact that it’s not. The plot, as far as I can tell, is about a guy who hangs out in hotel lobbies and thinks about the sorrowful condition of living.

It’s a major drag.

Why was the manuscript in the slush pile? I don’t know. Maybe Ms. Hollymore could answer, but she’s not willing to see me, though I hear she might be getting out soon. All I can think is that it’s an extra copy that someone overlooked. Who knows?

Anyway, my point is, the book isn’t worth the effort to find it, and it’s definitely not worth your life. I’m sorry for writing a long email. I got carried away. Have you left the library yet? Please don’t! Please write back and tell me you’re okay.

Also, I forgive you! I don’t know why I ever believed Seamus in the first place. He’s a slime bucket. He keeps calling and asking me to lunch. I bought a device that screeches into the phone. If I’m not in the office, I answer and give him a blast. It’s not working.

Write me back!