Do-Overs: A Little Leary

Empire

Fox’s Empire really wants you to know it’s so King Lear. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon—music mogul, owner of Empire Entertainment and father to three sons—gathers his kids in the board room to talk about how he won’t be able to run things forever. “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” his son Jamal asks, obtusely. Empire equals Lear, or so we are told. But how Lear is it?

Lear works well as a framework for a contemporary story. It’s territory that’s been covered successfully before, notably in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley sets her novel on an Iowa farm, opening with a powerful father divvying up his land between three daughters. As with Empire, the tenets of Lear are obvious immediately: the overbearing patriarch, the refusal of one of the king’s heirs to play a game of sycophancy, the misinterpretation of actions and whispering about intentions, and the spiraling downfall of the family. The richness of Smiley’s novel is in how she plays against readers’ expectations about plot and perspective. Smiley uses Shakespeare’s five-act structure as a platform, not a hard-and-fast rule.

It isn’t totally clear yet if (or how) Empire will follow suit. What is clear is that it’s a compelling soap-opera of magnanimous, megalomaniac characters. Everyone is plotting, everyone has something to lose. The magnetism that we saw between Taraji P. Henderson and Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow is alive and well. Is Empire kind of Lear? Learish? Sure. Its classification as such lent Empire some gravitas before the premier. And the soapy-ness of it all isn’t out of line: Shakespeare wasn’t above the draw of baser scenes and jokes to fill seats—or more accurately, to fill the standing area for groundlings whose excitement would rouse the elites staring down from the balconies. Each time Empire pushes sex, innuendo, violence or scandal, it’s right in line with the Bard.Continue Reading

Social Media and Literature

live_the_life_you_have_imagined_henry_david_thoreau_quote_posterI seem a little less in love with literature because of social media. My apologies to the Ploughshares staff who have to Tweet about this post, but it’s true.

For a few months I was an intern for an online literary magazine, helping with their social media. I’d done some marketing via Twitter and Facebook before, but nothing on this scale or with the guidance of people who really know what they’re doing. It was an exciting opportunity. But as I got more involved and learned the tricks of the trade, I became disillusioned.

You learn quickly that all most people want on Twitter and Facebook is an image. It doesn’t matter who or what you’re trying to promote: all the retweets and shares go to whoever has the most striking picture to share. It helps even more if it’s a picture of an already famous author, preferably one who’s dead. James Joyce playing the guitar is social media gold. (Note-to-self: ask Ploughshares editors if I can use that James Joyce pic.) The form is far more important than the content. They don’t even really have to match. If you’re talking about an author people are a little less familiar with, you’ll want some black-and-white landscape photography or a 19th century painting, something that screams “CULTURE!” and that you don’t have to think too hard about to enjoy.

Whatever it takes to share the literature, right?

Maybe, except that the literature doesn’t really seem to get shared. The magazine I worked for publishes literature and criticism of what I consider the highest quality, but the data reveals that very few people will follow links to read even the most retweeted articles. Even fewer will stay on an article long enough to read beyond the first couple sentences. You’re now roughly 300 words into this blog post. If you’re reading this sentence, you’re one of a proud few.Continue Reading

A Knack for Names

David_Foster_Wallace

I once read (though the source is now lost to me) that the names of the characters in a novel do the work of telling the reader what world he’s in. Musicality, characterization, hints at a character’s gender, ethnicity, and social status—all of these are important in a name. But at the most basic level, a name’s realism, surrealism, or undisguised silliness helps ground us in the universe we’ve entered. In this way, names are something of an expedient, a key to reading a book as comic or tragic, both or neither.

Firmly situated in this tradition is the comic name, which goes back as far as literature itself. Don’t forget that along with his Lear and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare had a character named Bottom. An even earlier example: the name of the title character in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata means, roughly, army-disbander, a joke for the Ancient Greek audience watching a play about a woman scheming to end a war.

Such monikers are called “cratylic,” from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names. Cratylic names, per the Guardian, “advertise a property that is fixed, whether terrible or ludicrous. A character thus named must act out a characteristic, which is his inescapable identity.”

Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Dickens’ broad morality tales. There is tattered spinster Miss Havisham, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, vengeful Madame Defarge, and obsequious snake Uriah Heep. We can glean from these names not only that we’re reading satire, but the general trajectory of each character.
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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

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

Literary Boroughs #57: Riverside, CA

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive. The series originally ran on our blog from May 2012 until April 2013. Please enjoy the 57th post on Riverside, California, by Sari Fordham.

—Ellen Duffer, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Riverside, CaliforniaOn the busy corner of Magnolia and Arlington Ave. grows a Washington navel orange tree. It would look like any other citrus tree if it weren’t surrounded by a wrought iron fence and marked with a historical placard. The tree, you learn from reading the placard, was planted in 1873 and is one of two Washington navel trees that began California’s orange industry.

Riverside, an offbeat literary community, started as a citrus town and is now home to University of California, Riverside (UCR); La Sierra University; California Baptist University; Riverside City College; and Riverside Community College. In the winter, you can bike along the Santa Ana River trail in your shorts and t-shirt, gazing up at the snowcapped San Bernardino Mountains. The city is famously one hour away from the beach, desert, and ski slopes and boasts 277 sunny days a year. Despite all this beautiful weather, you’ll find a largely working-class community committed to both writing and reading.Continue Reading

Writers and Their Pets: Melissa Scholes Young

The “Writers and Their Pets” series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Melissa Scholes Young.

Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief

Melissa and Huck -1I blame Santa Claus. After Christmas, my youngest daughter begged us to tell her the truth. She clung to the stuffed black dog she’d been sleeping with for five years, her brown eyes ready to spill over, and said, “But. But. I was going to ask Santa to make Junie real.” I scheduled our appointment with Lucky Dog Rescue the next day.

Huck a.k.a Huckleberry Nacho Finn Scholes Young was not the dog we were supposed to bring home. We went to the shelter adoption to meet Julie, a smaller female lab mix. She had the perky ears of my childhood German Shepherds. She was small enough for the kids to walk. She was a few years old and wouldn’t have puppy behaviors. But Julie wasn’t interested in us. She barely sniffed my hand before lunging happily at the other dogs. Julie was a dog’s dog. Huck ignored Julie and trailed me. I patted his head and he leaned in. If you’ve had a dog lean, if you’ve felt an animal claim you, you know what happened next.Continue Reading

Literary Boroughs #56: Tucson, Arizona

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive. The series originally ran on our blog from May 2012 until April 2013. Please enjoy the 56th post on Tucson, Arizona, by Adrienne Celt. —Ellen Duffer, Ploughshares Managing Editor Tucson, Arizona Only sixty miles north of the US/Mexico border, Tucson is a city of cultural intersection. This is a place where you can just as easily end up living in a luxury condo or an adobe courtyard building from the 1800s; where you can get a hand-mixed cocktail to follow your Sonorant hotdog (i.e. a hotdog wrapped in mesquite-smoked bacon, grilled, and topped with onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, jalapeños, and roasted chiles); and where you can ride a horse, attend a world-class literary festival, and visit a Spanish Catholic mission–all in the same day. Despite its size (around 525,000 people), Tucson has an undiscovered, frontier feeling, with a passel of young people starting businesses, artists filling up coffee shops and decorating streetlamps, and a popular downtown parade dedicated to the Mexican Day of the Dead. Boasting warm winters, a low cost of living, and a hypnotically strange landscape, Tucson has a lot to offer creative minds.Continue Reading

Literary Boroughs #55: Mexico City, Mexico

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive. The series originally ran on our blog from May 2012 until April 2013. Please enjoy the 55th post on Mexico City, Mexico.

bellas

Located in the Anahuac valley of Mexico, the Mexico City metropolitan area is home to about twenty-three million people or about two-thirds of the entire population of Canada. And in many ways, Mexico (as it’s commonly referred to by its residents—seldom “Mexico City”) is almost like a country all it’s own within the limits of the Distrito Federal and the rest of the country at large. Today, it makes up twenty percent of the entire Mexican economy and were it its own country, it would be ranked the fifth largest economy in Latin America. Mexico City is huge, messy, and full of incredible energy and people who keep the traditions of the former Tenochtitlan—founded by the Aztecs on lake Texcoco in 1325—alive. This despite (or, perhaps in spite of) the sacking of the city during the siege of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish in 1521 and with it, the infrastructural reminders of most everything Aztec—temples, streets, even Lake Texcoco.

Today, Mexico City is an undeniable extension of its Mestizo heritage. Its food, its street names, and its neighborhoods all preserve the ancient traditions of its Amerindian past within the context of a former colonized city. And this is mostly what gives Mexico City its panache. The commonplace, the polite, the rude, the peculiar, and the downright bizarre all coexist peacefully here. Living in the DF, you can’t help but feel you’re moving through several eras at once.  And, oh yeah—there’s incredible literature everywhere.Continue Reading

The Ploughshares Round-Down: We’re Over-Reliant on the Bucket List

bucket list doneHaving long hated the term “bucket list,” and having nevertheless thought about making one for myself (#MomentsOfWeakness), I was a complete sucker for Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker essay in which she questions its merits. In “Kicking the Bucket List,”  Mead asks whether such a list actually helps us carpe diem-ize our otherwise thoughtless lives, arguing that it can instead turn sought-after moments into mere items to check off: more things “to be got through”–so we can say “DONE” and move on.Continue Reading