The Saving Thing


Mark Twain called humor “the great thing, the saving thing,” and indeed I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t like to laugh. Why, then, aren’t a greater number of humorous stories published in literary journals? Why don’t more humorous books—or films, for that matter—win prizes?

“In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity,” Lewis Lapham writes. Woody Allen puts it another way: “When you do comedy, you are not sitting at the grownups table.”

I’ve got almost no interest in writing that isn’t funny. To paraphrase Martin Amis, all the great writers are funny, and if they’re not funny, they’re not great. Hold your excoriations for a second while I define “funny.” My rubric is liberal. Anything with a shred of mirth, a whisper of levity, a toenail of wit, qualifies. The blackest of ironies and the broadest of slapstick. A joke told by a hangman and an idiot’s pants falling down. What I’m saying is, there are jokes in Tolstoy, if you start looking. They won’t make you laugh out loud on the subway or anything, but they’re there. Continue reading

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Giving, Not Taking: Expectations of Author Interactions

hal blockIn 2009, I was at the annual AWP conference in Chicago, heading into a panel session about flash fiction. Coming out of the room from the last session was Audrey Niffenegger who, even without her name tag, would have been distinguishable by her auburn hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you write The Time Traveler’s Wife?

“I did,” she said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

She thanked me for saying that, and then excused herself, saying she had to run to another meeting.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all I wanted to say.” Continue reading

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Roger Reeves Wins 2014 Zacharis Award

king meWe are thrilled to announce Roger Reeves as the winner of the twenty-fourth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for his poetry collection, King Me (Copper Canyon, 2013). The $1,500 award, named after Emerson College’s former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.

This year’s judge was Ploughshares poetry editor, John Skoyles, who wrote of the collection: “The poems in Roger Reeves’ King Me are lively, intelligent, and dramatic. They possess an astonishing range, richly populated by the things of this world. Open the book anywhere, and you will touch and be touched by a startling image, statement, or object. These poems would overflow their forms if not for Reeves’ ability to harness their power into tight and explosive lines. King Me is down to earth, tough, tuneful and wise.” Continue reading

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Round-Down: The High Sales vs. High Quality Debate

painterOne of my truly terrible habits is a reflexive desire to pour salt on a wound. Tell me your troubles, and I’m likely to say, “Oh, this is so much worse than you think.”

For example, many editors and agents have said to me over the years, “I loved this book. I can’t believe it tanked.” Without thinking, I nearly always reply, “Well, there’s no correlation between sales and quality.” I’ve yet to meet the person who welcomed this advice.

In each of these cases, I was referring to the quality of the prose. These were books that were easy to read and seemingly easy to edit, but clearly that’s not the only way to measure quality. A good book isn’t just well-written. It might be inspiring, gripping, enlightening, depressing, or a dozen other things. It might win awards or have high sales figures (though both are entirely debatable, especially since awards rarely go to the biggest bestsellers).

The debate, between advocates of sales and advocates of literary quality in determining the success of a book, had a new entrant last week in the form of Ursula K. LeGuin’s National Book Award speech, where she urged the publishing industry to remember that the point of this is art, not commerce.

I admit that as a regular purveyor of depressingly specific marketing advice, I neglect to mention this salient fact: the way to good sales starts with great art. Continue reading

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Lit GIFs: The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

It’s winter here in Iowa, which makes my Floridian self wish for seasonal time travel.

Unfortunately, the closest I’ve come to realizing this dream is watching Back to the Future and reading H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.

Continue reading

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Up-and-Coming: A Look at Emerging Authors from South Asia

friday 2Literary luminaries like Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) and Kamila Shamsie (A God in Every Stone) have dominated the South Asian writing landscape, but there are more heavyweights who merit recognition. The following authors offer a glimpse of contemporary English writing emerging in the subcontinent. Continue reading

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Why a Football Coach Reads a Tennis Instructor: On The Inner Game of Tennis

Super Bowl champion and/or spiritual guru.

Super Bowl champion and/or spiritual guru.

The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance
Timothy Gallwey
Random House, 1997
122 pages

Buy: book | ebook

Perhaps this moment feels like the second half of a joke that starts, “You know you’re in Seattle when . . . ” but it really happened: I was putting my groceries on the little conveyor belt thing, and I looked up to see Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, staring at me from the cover of Mindful Magazine.

It’s a pretty rare cover for Mindful Magazine, and not just because it featured a football coach instead of any number of the world’s more conventional health-and-wellness gurus. On most covers of Mindful Magazine, we see the subject kneeling in lotus, beaming, impossibly large, and generally just super-duper well-rested and overjoyed to be alive!! These covers just might turn off or even intimidate readers with their smarm. Carroll, meantime, is perched on a stool, quietly poised in a business suit. Perhaps, if the picture were cropped differently, one would see the Super Bowl ring on his finger. Continue reading

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New Ploughshares Solo: “The Beginning of the End of the Beginning” by Anne Elliott

Elliott-FinalWe are pleased to announce the publication of the latest in our Ploughshares Solos series, “The Beginning of the End of the Beginning” by Anne Elliott!  The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the recently released Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2. Check in every month from August to May for new reading material!

About “The Beginning of the End of the Beginning”

Meet Clay, a Brooklyn performance artist who is sick of being broke. Sporting a row of stitches from his last show, and severely in debt to both family and girlfriend, he decides to do the unthinkable: get a straight job. Clay shaves off his green hair, teaches himself to type, and gets a secretarial gig on Wall Street. But is this just another form of theater? Will his girlfriend still love him in a necktie? What about his artist friends–will they forgive him for consorting with the enemy? Is the enemy actually an enemy at all?

Starting in a hospital emergency room, meandering through corporate cubicles and cafeterias, galloping through an underground Williamsburg performance, and closing in the Twin Towers with Clay’s tortured, self-destructive boss and an unflappable goat, “The Beginning of the End of the Beginning” is a bittersweet romp through the innocence of 1999 New York City, a time when heartbreak was still heartbreak and broke was still broke, but the city itself felt unsinkable.

“The Beginning of the End of the Beginning” is available on Kindle for $2.99. Continue reading

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The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Right Way to Write

salem witchAs the year wraps up, I’ve been collecting articles that encourage writers to trust ourselves: To find our own practices for creativity, or shun the idea of practices altogether. To choose between quick first drafts or taking more time, based on what works in the moment. To define success case-by-case rather than comparing our work to someone else’s. These articles ask, “Is there a right way to write?” And the answer, of course, is no.

It’s almost strange that such reminders are necessary–that creatives are so prone to Impostor Syndrome. But despite our aptitude for invention and world-building, despite frequent, wild leaps into formless voids, we’re easily convinced that the “real world” is the one we’re not allowed to explore or map–the one in which we have no right to name or define, or to even call ourselves “writers” or “artists.” Continue reading

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On the Trail of L. Frank Baum

wizard of oz

Many people’s notions of Kansas, my home state—which once issued license plates that said “Land of Ahs”— come straight from The Wizard of Oz. A pen-pal from Ohio once told me that she envisioned Kansas as a beautiful, colorful place bisected by roads made of pure gold. I had to gently explain, with all the twelve-year-old tact I could muster, that she was confusing us with Oz, that we were the black-and-white segments, and that no, in actuality Kansas was not a black-and-white state.

I never read The Wizard of Oz, but it also turns out that author L. Frank Baum never actually lived in Kansas, either. Nor was the movie that was broadcast annually made in Kansas—it was filmed on an MGM studio lot. Continue reading

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