A Knack for Names


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.
Continue Reading

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.


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

Indy Spotlight: Hobblebush Books

hobblebushtypecaseHobblebush Books, founded in 1991 by author, editor and publisher Sidney Hall, Jr., is a small press in southern New Hampshire known best for its Granite State Poetry Series and its eclectic list of prose titles. While its poetry series only publishes authors who live in or have a strong connection to New Hampshire—most recent titles are the dark and playful Talismans by Maudelle Driskell and Falling Ashes by James Fowler, a collection primarily of haiku and haibun on “war and love and the rest”—prose offerings are slightly more wide-ranging.

For prose at Hobblebush you’ll find Poor Richard’s Lament, a fascinating novel by Tom PRL_DJFitzgerald exploring the what-if scenario of Benjamin Franklin plunked into the twenty-first century; you’ll discover Creating the Peaceable Classroom by Sandy Bothmer, a wellness guide for educators, parents and students; and finally, you can pick from an assortment of memoirs that take you anywhere from the top of Mount Washington to the ports of New Orleans and Nova Scotia to the plains of East Africa.

For the Ploughshares blog, Sidney Hall, Jr. discusses Hobblebush’s mission, acquisitions, and its increasing public presence in the region (let’s just say they have a reputation for throwing great readings).

Continue Reading

Likeable, Relatable, and Real

By zeevveez

By zzeevveez

When I was a junior in high school, we read The Great Gatsby in English class. I hadn’t read the book yet, but I knew the rest of my family hated it. (They’re Hemingway fans.) “Ugh, that Daisy,” my mom said. “Who cares?” Obviously a lot of readers care about Daisy and Gatsby, but many readers also place a priority on likeability.

On popular review sites, reviewers refer to everyone from Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley to Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester to the cast of A Visit from the Goon Squad as unlikeable. Part of this is a personal taste issue, but it also deals with what kind of people we want to surround ourselves with. A novel that’s over three-hundred pages long is a fair time commitment—it can be grating to spend that much time with a character you wouldn’t want to interact with on a daily basis. Likeability is about ease and comfort and a kind of emotional bond.Continue Reading