Some Thoughts on the Fickleness of Publishing

Some Thoughts on the Fickleness of Publishing

By Carla Spataro, Editorial Director, Philadelphia Stories & PS Books

Every year I have the honor of choosing the finalists for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction. I’ve been doing this as long as we’ve been running the contest, and despite the fact that it always seems to fall during my vacation, it’s something that I always look forward to. If nothing else, it is a purposeful reminder of how capricious the publishing process is.

I usually get a lengthy list of stories to read. Sometimes it’s as few as 60, this year there were 130 semi-finalists, plus the additional 25 that I screened in the first round. What’s important for writers to remember is that in these kinds of situations, the reader is not looking to give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re looking for reasons to reject you. Nothing makes me happier than to open a story that is not formatted as required. I get to reject that piece without having to read it at all. There were 14 such stories this year. Were they any good? I don’t know. I didn’t read them.

I know there are authors out there that think these kinds of things don’t matter, that an editor, or agent, or contest judge will make an exception for them, because their work is so good. I think most of us wish we had that kind of time to be generous, but when I have two weeks to pick 10 stories, and I have 130 of them to read, I’m looking for any reason to tick them off my list. Most of the stories were rejected because they failed to engage me on the first page. Many of them felt like a story I had read before, or there were grammar mistakes, or poor punctuation. Others tried to cram too much up front, while others were thinly veiled (or at least felt like) fictionalized versions of author’s childhood, full of wistful nostalgia, but not much else.

One thing I want to make very clear. There were more than 10 stories that I could have sent to our judge, Dan Chaon. The finalist list changed several times and there were a few stories that I immediately fell in love with. Stories that are so odd, or fresh, or beautifully written, (usually all three) I’m sure the judge will choose them as winners. Then there is another, much larger group that I can’t quite make up my mind about. Then I start to look at the list as a group. This year there were a lot of stories about teenaged girls coming of age somehow—all in painfully odd, fresh, beautifully written ways. They had to be, since this is not necessarily the kind of story that I gravitate toward. Perhaps my attraction reflected the current political and social environment that we’re all slogging our way through these days. Who knows? But I asked myself, do I really want to send Dan a whole list of stories like this? What about these other stories? They’re really good too! So, I made some adjustments and included the 10 stories you see listed here. Two of those stories ended up in the winner’s column. But there’s no reason to believe the others might not have, too.

The longer I do this, from both sides, as an editor and a writer, the more I understand that what really counts is perseverance—believing in your work enough to keep sending it out. You never know when something you’ve written will strike just the right chord with an editor.

I hope that you enjoy reading this year’s winners as much as I did. One author had two stories make the cut—a first for us. And another first was a husband and wife both making the final batch. Here are few comments from our judge Dan Chaon about each of the winning stories:

  1. “Leslie” is a lovely and understated story that reminded me a bit of the great Ann Beattie.  I was struck by the intriguing dramatic premise, and impressed by the finely calibrated, vivid scenes.  There’s a tenderness in the characterization, a generosity of spirit that moved me.


  1. “Sugar Mountain” The complex, dark power struggle between two step-sisters is beautifully rendered, and the author does a wonderful job imbuing even the most quotidian scenes with a sinister tension.


  1. “Windmills, the Boys” This strange, haunting gothic piece is made particularly memorable by its unique, poetic language and quirky use of point of view.


2018 FINALISTS (No particular order)

The Hibernators 

Jaime Netzer

Austin, TX


Work On Your Personality and 

Faceless Styrofoam Heads 

Holly Pekowsky

New York, NY
The Burning of New London 

Brendan Egan

Midland, TX


Kiss Me Honey and Let’s Go to the Show 

Mojie Crigler

Cambridge, MA



Ilene Raymond Rush

Elkins Park, PA


Stick a Needle 

James Pihakis

North Adams, MA