To the Longlist – a whittling challenge, by Tamara Pollock
This is the second in a series of behind-the-scenes glimpses into the production of The Mechanics’ Institute Review Issue 14. Over the next few months, you’ll hear first-hand accounts from some of the people involved in the process, describing the stage in which they’re taking part, and their personal experience of it. Our aim is to provide an insight into what publishing an issue of MIR entails, which we hope will be of interest to writers, readers and would-be editors alike.
The second post is by Tamara Pollock, a member of the editorial team (a returning member – this is her third time on the team) and leader of one of the four groups who between them read the initial set of over 240 submissions and drew up the longlist. Each group was allocated between 65 and 71 submissions, from which they were asked to select around 17 to 20 to go forward to the next stage. The groups’ selections were then combined to make the overall longlist. It was Tamara’s job, as group leader, to manage the process by which her group agreed their selection.
To the Longlist – a whittling challenge
On Thursday 16th March, the five members of our selection team met at Gordon Square – in Birkbeck’s School of Arts building, former home of Virginia Woolf, so an auspicious venue – to whittle the seventy-one stories on our list down to fifteen or twenty. Our first task was to identify those that had earned a resounding “yes” or “no” and put them aside. The bulk of our three-hour session we kept for discussing the “maybes”. As we tallied our verdicts, I was excited that the stories I’d been gearing up to argue for were, on the whole, the stories we all loved.
Next came those submissions about which we were mostly in agreement – where the enthusiasm of one team member was sufficient to turn all our “maybes” into a “yes”. These too were despatched to the longlist. Then came the trickier ones, whose premise, for example, might be fresh and appealing but which were otherwise unwieldy, or tended to skim the surface of the narrative rather than immerse us in their world. Others we eliminated because, though structurally sound, the story didn’t take us with it, or we saw the characters through the wrong end of a telescope so that nothing they did seemed to matter that much. Some could have been longer; some were not at all small like a bullet. In several cases, we felt the story fulfilled our brief of originality, diversity, giving voice to the silenced, that it was pointed and relevant and topical and, despite some flaws, could be turned into something that glowed, and these also made the longlist.
Meanwhile we were running out of time. We had allotted five minutes for discussion of each story but some debates took longer than others. At eight fifteen, we had a longlist that wasn’t long enough. Had we been too rigid, too unforgiving? We decided to revisit the list and that each person would speak on behalf of a story that she felt strongly about but that hadn’t made it. This was where our divergence of opinion was most evident. How hugely differently people read! What conflicting elements we value in fiction. Just because I favour stories that make me laugh doesn’t mean my team-mates should, and just because a story ticks every box on our vision statement, but lacks soul, doesn’t mean it should make it either. So we all had to give ground – quite a lot of it at that stage. But I think and hope each of us got a crack at unearthing the best possible selection from the stories we had been allotted. We wanted, above all, to be proud of it. As we cleared away the crisp packets at two minutes to nine, one of our team summed up our experience. “I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I know we have a really strong list, so I’m happy.” And so were we all. And a bit knackered.
No matter how often I go through this process, it’s always a surprise, always an intense learning experience, entirely worth the time and effort – which is just as well, since now we have our overall longlist it’s time to start reading again, to select the shortlist.