The Challenge of Choosing a Winner

Since we launched the Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Contest in 2008, I am tasked each year with two duties. First, I must find a judge who is also willing to come to Philadelphia and deliver the keynote address at our Push to Publish conference, as well as offer a master class the day before. I start this task by reaching out to writers whom I admire. Sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t. In 2015, some might say that stalked Bonnie Jo Campbell to convince her to participate. (Well, to be fair, I did chase her down an aisle of the bookfair at an AWP conference.) Still, she agreed to be our contest judge and delivered a wonderful keynote speech and inspiring master class. In other years, I’ve approached writers I’ve had the pleasure of working with and could do a little personal arm twisting, such as Kevin McIlvoy, Michael Martone, Robin Black, and Elise Juska, just to name a few.

It has been our honor and pleasure each year to welcome these writers of national renown to be our contest judges. This year is no exception. Karen Joy Fowler is writer of tremendous versatility, writing successfully in many different genres. She is also very funny, and I’m excited to have her be a part of the Push to Publish experience. Thanks to writer Gregory Frost for the introduction.

My second task is to choose the finalists. Some years I read upwards of 200 hundred stories. This year I only had to read 60. (Thank you to all of our contest readers!) From those final stories, it’s my job to choose the final ten to send along to the judge who will pick the winners. It might strike you as funny that I get nervous about choosing these stories–after all, the judge is not commenting on my work. But I do get nervous. The stories that I choose are a reflection on the magazine, and once I get to this stage, it feels very personal. Ultimately, I pick what I like: stories that are well written, of course, but also stories that take chances with content or form, stories we may have heard before but are presented in new ways—writers who are taking risks and succeeding.

We’re only as good as the writers who submit their work to us, so thank you to all of the writers who trust us with their work each year. This is what Karen wrote in her email announcing the winners:

“I’ve judged several contests of this sort in the past and it’s always hard because one story is a wonderful example of one kind of story and another is just as wonderful, but just a different kind, etc. Still, there are almost always a few stories I don’t like as well that are easily eliminated. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here. Each story was quite incredible, nothing was easily eliminated. Each story was a pleasure and a joy to read. So, I’m impressed with everyone.”

It was no surprise that two of the finalists are highly accomplished. They’ve published stories, essays, poems, and books, but I am just as excited to announce that this will be the first time the third-place winner has ever been accepted for publication (his story will appear in our online edition of the magazine). Having both ends of the publishing spectrum represented in our contest is a real thrill for us, and, more importantly, I think it would have made Marguerite very happy. As always, many heartfelt thanks to the McGlinn and Hansma families for their continued support of the prize and the magazine.