What Fiction Means


There isn’t much that will make you more aware of a book’s message, and leerier of it, than reading it aloud to a child. Maybe this explains why I seem to have discovered books with such inordinately terrible messages during the three-plus years I’ve been reading to my daughter. There’s the book about the witless-looking big-eyed bunny that peeks suggestively over its plump bottom. There’s the ubiquitous book (we somehow have two copies) about the beautiful fish with rainbow-colored scales, which purports to have a “message about sharing,” and traces the decision of this fish to give away his uniquely beautiful scales, one by one, so that the other fish will like him. And the terrifying, now out of print book from the 80s, Your Turn, Doctor, that we discovered in some forgotten trove. Ostensibly meant to help children overcome their fears of doctor visits, this one, I truly think, must actually have been written to mess with us. Little Gloria is dreading her checkup and fantasizes about giving the doctor a checkup instead; in the daydream that then unfolds, she chases the doctor in all his almost-naked, middle-aged, pudgy glory around the examining room, saying truly unbelievable things. “You don’t have to be shy with me.” “Wider, Doctor, wider. I want to see everything.”

My daughter wants to finish most books we start. I can shift pretty fast into invention-and-skipping mode, though she seems to suspect something’s up.

Message is tricky in longer fiction, too. As readers and as writers, I think we’re taught to be wary of it, of turning characters and story into vehicles for a position. Maybe because characters and story are supposed to be more complicated than most positions are. The sense is that slogans constrain, and expansiveness—empathy, engagement, unexpected connection and reach—is one of fiction’s best gifts. Books like Animal Farm, The Jungle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Pilgrim’s Progress, Brave New World are considered allegory, a slightly different category of thing from deep, rich literature. Their worth is determined by the legacy of the ideas they embody, and discussions of their fictional elements quickly morph into discussions of those ideas.Continue Reading

Writer-In-Chief: As a Man of Letters, Obama Will Be Missed

obama_man of letters

In the era of the 24-hour news cycle and ubiquitous WiFi, being a good writer would not seem to be much of an asset to a politician. A commanding TV presence and social media savvy are at least as important. It wasn’t always this way, of course. Until the arrival of the electronic age, the written word was the primary means by which Americans heard from their president, unless they had the rare opportunity to hear him speak in person. Whether they wanted to be or not, for a long time, presidents had to be writers of one stripe or another. That changed with a series of breakthroughs in communications technology.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was historic primarily because he broke the most impenetrable racial barrier of them all. But Obama’s victory was also heralded in the literary community as a return to the days of yore, when the occupant of the Oval Office was a man of letters.

Before Obama was a politician he was a writer. He first entered the public arena when he was named the first African-American to lead the Harvard Law Review. The subsequent notoriety led to the publication of his memoir Dreams of My Father in 1995. The book received mostly favorable reviews but its sales, according to the author, were “underwhelming.”

However, after Obama’s stirring speech at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2004, the book was republished and it rocketed to the top of bestseller lists. Much like John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage forty years earlier, the success of Dreams of My Father prompted insinuations that a ghostwriter helped or possibly even supplanted Obama, accusations which have largely been dispelled.Continue Reading

The Collective Action of Swan Maidens

Photo by Peter Gerstbach

Photo by Peter Gerstbach

Last month I sat through five productions of Swan Lake, five days in a row. Despite a lifetime of ballet—and having danced the role of a swan in the ballet’s second act—I was hazy on the story’s ending. As perhaps I should be, as I’ve found evidence of nine different endings to the ballet. While my bones still held the choreography, I couldn’t recall the fate of the swans. So I sat through the ballet a tabula rasa and discovered a wildly feminist tale.

Most narrative ballets originated in the 19th century, drawing from fairy tales charted along traditional gender roles and boundaries. Men saving women, women serving men. The history of ballet is a history of men creating on and creating for the bodies of women; the tales’ narrative sexism received no reprieve as the stories were translated into ballets.

The origins of Swan Lake’s plot are unclear, but both a German story, “The Stolen Veil” by Johann Karl August Musäus, and a Russian folktale, “The White Duck” are said to have given life to Tchaikovsky’s tale. On stage, we meet Prince Siegfriend, whose mother demands that he find a bride. Uneasy about the idea of settling down, the Prince heads out for a swan hunt, where he meets the love of his life, Odette. Yes, a swan. Or rather, a woman cursed to swan-hood during daytimes, a captive of Von Rothbart. Odette is one of twenty-four women imprisoned by Von Rothbart, part-owl, part-sorcerer, a man of unclear motives.

Eight terms of venery—collective nouns which emerged for hunting purposes—exist for swans: bank, bevy, drift, eyrar, flight, game, herd, lamentation, sownder, team, wedge, and whiting. The second act of Swan Lake showcases this collective. While Odette and Prince Siegfried perform their pas de deux, the swans stand sentry, a line flanking each side of the stage, forming a barrier to protect the lovers from Von Rothbart’s gaze.Continue Reading

Round-Up: Roots, Jack Keruac, and the O. Henry Prize Winners


From the auctioning off of Jack Keruac’s famous letter to the next book in the Millennium series, here are the latest literary headlines:

  • The letter that is largely credited as the inspiration for Jack Keruac’s On the Road is going to auction on June 16. Addressed to Keruac and written by Neal Cassady, the “Joan Anderson letter” was presumed lost until it turned up in the files of an old publishing house. The letter was first listed for sale in 2014, but was pulled when both Keruac’s estate and Cassady’s family claimed ownership. Following an extensive legal battle, the letter is ready to be auctioned off. The letter will be available for public viewing starting on May 31.
  • Roots, the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alex Haley, is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. A remake of the 1977 miniseries based on the book will air over Memorial Day weekend on the History, Lifetime, and A&E channels. The new cast will involve actors Laurence Fishburne, Forest Whitaker, and English newcomer Malachi Kirby as the main character, Kunta Kinte. 
  • Last week, the twenty O. Henry Prize stories were announced. The list of winners includes previous Ploughshares contributors Elizabeth Tallent (Fall 1993), Wendell Berry (Summer/Fall 1982, Fall 2002) and Ron Carlson (Spring 1992, Fall 2002, Fall 2004, Winter 2005-2006, Spring 2008). Ron Carlson also served as guest editor for our Fall 2006 issue. The stories, edited by Laura Furman and published by Anchor, will be released in a collection this September. 
  • The fifth book in the Millennium series will be released in the UK in 2017, as announced by Quercus, Stieg Larsson’s British publisher. The release in the states will be handled by Knopf, the US publisher. The novel, which doesn’t yet have a name, goes by the codename “Millennium V.” It will be written by David Lagercrantz, who wrote the previous Millennium novel “The Girl in the Spider’s Web.”


Inferno: Reading Eileen Myles in Las Vegas


Photo of Tropicana by Matthäus Wander (


I have a few hours to kill in Las Vegas and I’m looking for a quiet place to finish Eileen Myles’s Inferno. Reading here feels like a radical act; it doesn’t make anybody any money or provide a sense of spectacle. The Vegas Strip seems to discourage it. I finally find a relatively quiet place in the Tropicana: a long hallway just outside the convention center, windows on both sides, Sinatra on the PA, an occasional half-naked drunk person stumbling in from the pool. I sit in a red leather chair and open Inferno.


Some Mexican scout named Las Vegas “Las Vegas” when his trading party stopped here for water and rest on the way to Los Angeles. No casinos, no roads, no roller coasters, just artesian wells and patches of green in the scrub. It still feels like an oasis—the border between city and desert is very clear. My brother lives here, in the suburbs. Look out from his condo complex and you see empty office parks, built before the Great Recession and empty ever since. Past that, a fence. Past that, just dirt and rocks. The edge of the city.


My brother, who is also a writer, hates Las Vegas. He says there’s no culture here, no museums, no bookstores, no intellectual life outside of UNLV.  It took him years, but eventually he found a group of like-minded writers, started a workshop group. I like the symmetry: Vegas is an oasis in a desert, a writing group is an oasis in life. My brother in an oasis in an oasis. Continue Reading

Han Kang’s THE VEGETARIAN Wins Man Booker International Prize

han kang_the vegetarianLast week, the winner of the newly refocused Man Booker International Prize was announced to be The Vegetarian, a novel by the Korean writer Han Kang, translated into English by Deborah Smith. Originally published as three novellas, the book is the surreal story of Yeong-hye, a young Korean woman who stops eating meat as a result of a nightmare. This puts her at odds with the society and the people around her, transforming her into a character who echoes Melville’s Bartleby. As the plot escalates, the story comments on the cultural controls placed on women through tradition, peer pressure, and even violence; the agency we have over our bodies; and the roles those closest to us play in our destruction or redemption.

Han Kang beat out the ubiquitous Elena Ferrante to win the prize. The Vegetarian was originally published in Korea and 2007 and is her first work to be translated into English, though her career spans more than two decades. Another of her novels, Human Acts, has since been translated and published in England. Human Acts is a historical fiction book about the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 Korea.

The £50,000 prize is split between Kang and her translator, Deborah Smith. This departs from past Man Booker International Prizes. For the first time, this year the prize was changed to focus on a single book instead of an author’s body of work, and it was a requirement that the book be in translation—as opposed to four of the previous six winners, who wrote in English.Continue Reading

On Failure: Being a Writer Who Translates and a Translator Who Writes

hands-woman-apple-deskI spent a large part of last spring working in coffee shops all around the Finger Lakes region with a group of writers. One of them had published several novels; another had just signed with an agent and was making revisions to her novel-in-progress; the others were working on the early stages of different projects.

I was in an in-between position. I had finished writing a novel a while earlier and was having trouble deciding whether or not I wanted to continue revising it and send it to more agents, or whether the many rejections I’d already received were reason enough to shelve it for the time being.

This dilemma shouldn’t have stopped me from writing anything else, but to a great extent, it did. It was hard to think about any other piece of writing when this one was still on the operating room table, its fate unclear. I was stuck.

On the other hand, translation projects were coming in steadily, some of them slated for publication, all of them involving payment. While my friends were working on their fiction, more often than not I was translating or editing translations. When they lamented every moment they had to spend working on other projects, I concealed behind my shame at not writing an immense relief that I had translation projects that were due soon and provided me with the perfect excuse. Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “I’ll Be Your Fever” by Panio Gianopoulos


In the English language, we use the same word to describe how we feel about of our favorite dessert as we do for our significant other: love. In “I’ll Be Your Fever” (Big Fiction), Panio Gianopoulos explores the various definitions of love through his protagonist Ted, who’s navigating the difficulties of parenthood and romantic relationships.

When we first meet Ted, a single father whose ex-wife has passed away, he’s trying to leave for work as a wedding photographer without bringing along his daughter, Stella, who typically accompanies him. As he pulls from the driveway, notice how he describes their relationship dynamics.

Fighting back his guilt, he switched on the ignition, pressed his foot to the accelerator, and sped away. In the rear view mirror, he saw Stella’s head pop up. She held a hand to her eyes and squinted across the lawn of the apartment complex and out toward the road, searching for him, her darling, her beloved, her captive, her father.

Continue Reading

Fleecing the Shears

sheep-336474_960_720As a two-year-old child, British author Evie Wyld went into a coma that lasted half a day. The reason: viral encephalitis. The disease took two weeks to work its way through her nervous system. As a result of her brain being “cooked”—her word choice—slower brain waves mandated seizure medicine through her adolescence.

Curiously enough, it just so happens that lower frequency brain waves are associated with relaxation and a daydream state. I found Wyld’s second novel, All The Birds Singing (Vintage Books, 2013), has a dream-like quality that parallels this condition. “Australia is the place that I write from. For me it’s the first place that I go to when I’m thinking creatively,” she told The Guardian in 2014. Not surprisingly then, this novel is based in rural Australia, orbiting around the area’s rich shepherding tradition.

Jake Whyte, a female sheep shearer, is on the run, and from what, we don’t know until halfway through the novel. It’s a narrative written in two different times, splitting the past into fragmented stories that suggest how Jake has wound up in her present position, with a weakness for whiskey, a suspicion of people in general, and a growing concern for her own flock of sheep, who are getting brutally attacked by an unknown predator.Continue Reading

Review: Y. T. by Alexei Nikitin

Alexei Nikitin, translated by Anne Marie Jackson
Melville House Press, April 2016
144 pp; $15.95

Buy: paperback | eBook

Y.T., translated by Anne Marie Jackson, is the story of Alexander Davidov, a corporate pusher of “American fizzy drinks” who in middle age in 2004 opened up his email address to find an ultimatum for a game he and his college classmates had played in the mid-80s at University, a game which “quantitatively simulated the partition of the Soviet Union” and which got Alexander expelled, arrested, and harassed by the KGB. Chapters alternate from the early eighties to the fictive present in 2004 until events come full circle, and Davidov finally discovers who sent the secret ultimatum, and why.

Immediately Y.T.—“Your Turn”—promises to be something like other “game” novels, such as Bolano’s The Third Reich, where the outcome of an innocent game comes to have life-or-death consequences. This kind of novel typically deploys sizable chunks of description to impart to the reader the stakes of the game itself. Y.T., however, does not do this; after introducing the mysterious ultimatum and providing a lengthy fictional history of Davidov’s alter-ego in the game—“Istemi…the last sovereign ruler of the Khanate of Zaporozhye”—Y.T. never goes into the strict details of game play. Only glimpses are offered, and the novel instead centers around the postgame: who Davidov and his old school friends were, why they played, who they became after their run-in with the KGB and expulsion from university. Continue Reading