Anger Management

Guest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

I’ve never worn anger well, especially the self-righteous kind. Last year I was in a park outside Raleigh, where a beautiful plot of farmland was being developed and new McMansion owners were shooing hikers away from parking on the street. I saw a white plastic Wal-Mart bag caught in the brush along the trail. Indignant, I went to grab it, muttering like a lady in need of a tin foil hat: Of course it’s a Wal-Mart bag. Of course these people don’t care about parks and trash and…

I bent down to grab the offending bag. Three thorns from a vicious plant embedded themselves in the cartilage of my left ear. I began to bleed. I could not extract myself. My dog was confused–why aren’t we moving?!–and, hunched, I had to start jumproping the leash as he darted in various directions. Moreover, the Wal-Mart bag was dirty and wet and had probably been used for pet waste. Eventually, after minutes of careful maneuvering and skin tears, I freed myself and shuffled back to my car, embarrassed.

Whenever I feel like going off, I remind myself to slow down, or risk maiming my ear. Or sounding like an idiot. Most of us aren’t at our best when we’re truly angry. (Except maybe Alanis Morrisette. Cue “You Oughta Know.”) There’s a slight blinding of judgment, a tongue-tied fury that hacks away at our eloquence, an ugly obstinance. With anger often comes a streak of unleashed hubris; our ego masquerades as intellect. It’s human nature to believe we’re right and to pursue our rectitude with single-mindedness, to arduously feed our bias and seek company in the friends who agree with us or are too afraid not to.

I don’t want my inflamed ego speaking for me in the world, even on an anonymous message board.

The problem is, there are so many things one could be angry about these days: Ke$ha, politics, toxic oil spills, cat hoarders. On the literary scene there is the almost imminent death of print, the texty teenagers who hand in formal papers with “u” in them instead of “you,” a bad review of your work. Or no review at all.

Furthermore, technology makes it so easy to share our anger. Read any message board or comments section at the bottom of a political article or cultural critique to assure yourself that anger is alive and accessible. (I was going to include examples…but the good ones are just so incendiary, and they’re prevalent enough for you to find without looking.)

People, it seems, are pissed off. And an easy array of social networking tools, blogs, and comments sections lets us spew our venom at will. Does the internet really need more angry noise?

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Yiyun Li Reads “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl”

gold-boy-200x200.jpgYiyun Li, a contributor to the Winter 2004-05 issue and a 2010 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” recently took some time to read the title story from her new collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, for The Writers’ Block at KQED.

The story “chronicles what happens when a professor introduces her middle-aged son to her favorite student.” Here’s the audio:

Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is currently available from Random House. A previous collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, includes her Ploughshares story, “The Princess of Nebraska.”

Why the Short Story Doesn’t Matter and Why You Shouldn’t Care

The Lonely Reader, Part Four

Greg Blog OK.jpg
Guest post by Greg Schutz

Three weeks ago, I began this series of posts with a simple question that’s been batted around a lot lately. To paraphrase: “Why, given the novel’s continuing viability and the increasing hustle and bustle of our society, is the short story not more popular?” As I suggested then, it’s a question with capitalist undertones–a lament for the story’s lack of commercial success.

It’s also a question that misses the point of short stories by treating them as miniature novels. The differences between these two narrative forms, however, go far beyond length–as others, most notably Frank O’Connor, have argued. Last week, I attempted to encapsulate one of the key differences between stories and novels: “a novel has as much space as it needs to achieve [its] effects, whereas any short story is in a state of constant negotiation with its own onrushing end.” Stories, in other words, must invent strategies to respond to the challenge of brevity; novels, in general, do not.

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Having suggested this, I then went a little further, very roughly sketching two strategies by which stories negotiate the inherent restrictiveness of the form: excision and compression. Neither of these strategies exists as such in the novel, which has a fundamentally different relationship with its own length.

Many great short stories are like escape artists: double-jointed contortionists, they can be locked in a chest with their hands cuffed behind their backs, and still they will find room to maneuver. Endlessly inventive, they move freely within their restraints. Alice Munro’s “Friend of My Youth” begins with its narrator’s retrospective commentary on a recurring dream and ends with a brief digression about an obscure sect of Presbyterianism. Tony Earley’s “Prophet from Jupiter” accumulates and deploys recurring narrative, imagistic, and thematic touchstones, each harmonizing with the others like voices in a choir.
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HTMLGIANT Literary Magazine Club

bookclub.jpgOur friend Roxane Gay recently founded a literary magazine club at HTMLGIANT, a literature blog headed by Blake Butler, “that isn’t always about literature.”

Members of the club will read a literary magazine every month–alternating between print and online journals–and discuss it on the blog, much like the traditional book club. In her introduction to the club, Gay writes that “literary magazines feel like a never-ending conversation between writers and readers.” And we’re pleased to announce Ploughshares will be part of that conversation: Our Fall 2010 issue, edited by Jim Shepard, will be the club’s December selection.

The club is currently reading New York Tyrant 8 and will read the November issue of The Collagist. Members of the club will be offered a discounted year’s subscription to Ploughshares.

For more information about the club–including how to get involved–see Roxane’s introduction. We hope you’ll join the conversation!

Thanks for BBF

We’d like to thank everyone who braved the blustery cold Saturday and joined us at the second annual Boston Book Festival. Though the wind was much stronger than anticipated (nearly blowing our tent in!), we had a splendid time with our booth-mates from Redivider, selling books and introducing new readers to our journal. 


We sold out of our Fiction Fill Up and Poetry packages–but they are still available for ordering. We’re thrilled these bundles have found new (literary) homes.

Our raffle was also successful: We had ninety-nine entries and chose our five winners, who will receive a year’s subscription, a gift subscription for a friend, and a Ploughshares tote bag. The guest editor suggestions were thoughtful and are much appreciated. A few even made us chuckle; we’d love to see what kind of issue Tina Fey or Keith Richards would put together!


It was wonderful to see the literary community of greater Boston come together to celebrate the passion we have in common: the love of words. And it was great to reconnect with our friends at One Story (who had little heart tattoos!) and make new friends at LIT.

It’s going to be tough to wait patiently for next year’s festival.

Staying With the Tension

Guest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

When we were in elementary school, my sister and I would always cut our viewing of The Sound of Music short because:

A) it was a seriously long movie, and
B) I couldn’t stand to watch Rolf crouch down in his jodhpurs and point his gun at the Von Trapps. It broke my heart and made me nervous.

(We’d also fast forward past the part where Julie Andrews sang about her “wicked childhood” and kissed Captain Von Trapp. Ew. We much preferred her puppet shows, making clothes from drapes, and singing on staircases with cherub-cheeked Marta.)

Even now, when my husband and I sit down to view a National Geographic or Discovery Channel wildlife program, I can’t watch when I know the lion is about to maul the gazelle, or the baby elephant is not going to make it through the dry season. I can’t watch the young wildebeest approach the dim waters where underneath a crocodile waits. At the movies, I cover my eyes during shoot-em-up scenes. When tension skyrockets on screen, I make up excuses about needing something in the kitchen, placing a phone call, or turning in early.

I have a problem staying with the tension.

And that is a serious problem if it finds its way into my fiction.

Luckily, I’m much better at reading through tension than watching it.

Tension is what gives a story an arc and keeps it from taking the shape of a deadening, flat line. Tension is narrative energy. Good writers know how to amp up tension without being cheap and tawdry, and they know how to hold us there, make us wince or choke up–all without seeming heavy-handed. Creating tension is one way authors make us feel something–they give us an experience. Whether it is man versus man, himself, or nature, readers sense the stress of a coming conflict, squirm in the midst of it, and feel release at its close–release being anything from sadness to satisfaction.
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The Lonely Reader (Part Three)

Greg Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Greg Schutz. Part one of this post appears here. Part two, here.

Elle magazine’s review of Julie Orringer’s 2003 story collection How to Breathe Underwater contains the following preposterous, but sadly typical, statement: “Each story delivers the satisfying details and emotional heft of a novel.” The implication here is that “satisfying details” and “emotional heft” tend to be features of the novel that the short story usually lacks.


This is lazy criticism, sure–a reviewer trotting out an empty comparison in order to convey a vague sense of approbation that in fact has nothing to do with the formal similarities or differences between stories and novels–but we’d be mistaken to simply label it as such, shrug our shoulders, and move on. As an instance of successful short stories being likened to novels, and even lauded as miniature versions of the longer form, it muddles our efforts to distinguish between the two. (One hardly has to guess what Frank O’Connor would think of this.)

Worse, this is far from an isolated example.

Consider these reviews of Alice Munro’s 2004 collection Runaway: “Each of her stories contains enough lived life to fill a typical novel.” “Feels like a compressed collection of novels, so rich and deep and complete are the lives Munro evokes in these pages.” “[H]er stories are so rich . . . that even a tale of less than fifty pages feels as rounded as a novel.” “[H]er stories . . . reverberate the way a good novel can.”
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Congratulations to National Book Award Poetry Finalists

lighthead-poems.jpgAll of us at Ploughshares were excited to see the nominations for the National Book Award in Poetry, as four of the five nominees are contributors to our journal–including Terrance Hayes, guest editor of our upcoming Winter issue. He was nominated for Lighthead, his fourth collection.

Hayes’s issue will be released in early December, featuring work by a wide array of poets and writers, including Tracy K. Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Denis Johnson, Major Jackson, Denise Duhamel, and Jericho Brown.

We’re also pleased to see nominations for C.D. Wright, Kathleen Graber, and James Richardson. We can’t picture a more stunning group of poets. Congratulations and good luck to all!