The Work of Fiction and the Fiction of Work


A life is divided into three parts: the time before you’re able to work, the time after you’re able to work, and the monstrous bulk of time between. After obedience to the law and some basic moral code, work is one of the great demands placed upon the able. It’s inherently traumatic, a sacrifice of one’s own desires to a larger set of aggregate social desires. Fiction gives us a way to cope with this arrangement, or at the very least a way to understand it.

In Sloane Crosley’s debut novel, The Clasp, three formerly close friends in their late twenties try to negotiate their first disillusionment with the world of work. Their jobs in tech, fashion, and television are a representative holy trinity of cool jobs. But even in these dream jobs young people deal with the same nonsense as anywhere else: long hours, pointless meetings, aggravating coworkers, and bosses with more money than sense. Most work is not fulfilling, and by the time we finally realize it all the friends we’d like to turn to for support have been scattered across the globe in pursuit of fulfilling work. This is something we can only discover after college when we’re saddled with enough debt to last us a decade or two. Crosley sends her main characters on a vacation together to give them a little perspective on their dwindling friendship and their respective vocational ruts. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether they make any significant progress on either front, but the question lingers even after the novel ends: once lost, is there any amount of perspective that can restore our love for work?Continue Reading

Review: SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

sweet caress_william boyd

Sweet Caress
William Boyd
Bloomsbury, September 15, 2015
449 pp, $28
Buy here

Sweet Caress is the newest novel from the acclaimed William Boyd, author of notable works such as Any Human Heart and A Good Man in Africa.

The novel centers on Amory Clay, one of the first women to be a war photographer in the 1900s. We follow her from childhood to the beginnings of her career as a society photographer, through to her first assignment on the ground in World War II, and finally to her late-in-life journey to Vietnam.

The scope of the book is enormous, spanning nearly the entire twentieth century. Interestingly, it reads in many places like a memoir or an autobiography. The writing is tight, the use of language perfectly suited to the time period, and the structure carries the reader through seamlessly. While the majority takes place in chronological order from the beginning of Amory’s life to the end, there are sections within each chapter titled “The Barrandale Journal 1977,” which are in Amory’s present day.Continue Reading

“It’s A Bit Mysterious, and I Like That”: An Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

2381600190_347912351c_zFrank X. Gaspar writes poems that are lyrical, powered by swift associations, and full of surprising images and leaps in thought that in retrospect make perfect sense. He is the author of five collections of poems, including Late Rapturous and The Holyoke, as well as two novels, most recently Stealing Fatima. Frank was born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. We recently caught up via email to talk about Late Rapturous, the strange ways in which a poem can start, and the differences between writing poetry and fiction. 

Matthew Thorburn: Late Rapturous is composed of prose poems as well as poems in long lines that sometimes seem on the verge of becoming prose poems. Would you talk about how it feels to you writing prose poems versus lineated poems? Do the two offer different possibilities or challenges?

Frank X. Gaspar: Interesting that you ask that. I don’t feel any difference in the process; it seems more a matter of how my mind is working at the time. I pay as much attention to sound in the long-lined poems as I do with poems having more traditional line breaks—a lot of attention, actually—but without the line breaks to perhaps reinforce the sound with the eye, the prose poems might not announce their accentual nature.Continue Reading

On Context & Omission: Alain de Botton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John McPhee, and Claudia Rankine

imageCraft talks regarding omission lean heavily on Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, what John McPhee recently called, “or, how to fashion critical theory from one of the world’s most venerable clichés.” Aside from the obvious trimming of superfluous language or gratuitous scenes, it could be argued that omission, in one extreme, is the antithesis of context. Nonfiction writers debate the ethics, merits, and necessity of omission—in order to construct a concise narrative, omission is needed, but does the removal of certain elements make a story less true? Is context even necessary? What happens when whole passages or chunks of backstory are removed, in fiction and nonfiction?

Claudia Rankine recounts attending Serena Williams’s 2012 semifinal match at the U.S. Open in a recent article for The New York Times Magazine. A similar version was told to Paula Cocozza for The Guardian, where Rankine mentions watching the match with her daughter, nine years of age at the time. Rankine asked the white American man beside her why he was cheering for the opposing player from Belarus, a blonde woman, and when the man vacates his seat after further questioning, Rankine’s daughter “cringe[s] with embarrassment.”

The instance is not included in Citizen: An American Lyric, though there are lengthy sections regarding the racism and aggression Serena Williams has encountered and responded to over the years. Written largely in second-person, Citizen is not about Rankine’s experience but about a collective of voices. In the magazine article, “Her Excellence,” Rankine elaborates on this experience using first-person:

Two years ago, recovering from cancer and to celebrate my 50th birthday, I flew from LAX to J.F.K. during Serena’s semifinal match at the U.S. Open with the hope of seeing her play in the final. I had just passed through a year when so much was out of my control, and Serena epitomized not so much winning as the pure drive to win. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling (I still can’t quite shake it) that my body’s frailty, not the cancer but the depth of my exhaustion, had been brought on in part by the constant onslaught of racism, whether something as terrible as the killing of Trayvon Martin or something as mundane as the guy who let the door slam in my face. The daily grind of being rendered invisible, or being attacked, whether physically or verbally, for being visible, wears a body down. Serena’s strength and focus in the face of the realities we shared oddly consoled me.

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Do-Overs: Summer Odyssey

Odysseus_from_Schwab_book_1Each June, my thoughts turn toward home. Toward my kids, bare feet, homemade dinners, and naps. Toward real life. I’ve taught high school for 13 years, I’ve learned to ride the waves of feeling that come during each season of the school year. June means home, and as my attention changes, I tend to search out comfort in familiar stories—stories of homecoming.

Why is the homeward journey archetype so easy to love? Think of Forrest Gump or the Wizard of Oz, or even Toy Story—a character’s return to home is a return to safety and comfort. Familiarity. The known world. This return isn’t without complication—generally, the hero returns changed. (Paging Carl Jung!) But he returns. When it’s the end of a term and my world is about to shrink to only my nuclear family, I long to steep in these homecoming narratives. Ideals of hearth and acceptance, calling to the embattled hero. These stories where characters fight to return home are endearing because they call upon such familiar feelings. They align with our sense of stability—or our desire to get to a peaceful place, to do what it takes to return.Continue Reading

The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

The 2015 Emerging Writer’s Contest is Now Open

EWCbannerThe 2015 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Contest is now open!

Our Emerging Writer’s Contest recognizes work by an emerging writer in each of three genres: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. One winner in each genre will receive $1,000 and publication in Ploughshares.  We consider you “emerging” if you haven’t published or self-published a book.

For more information and to submit, visit our website.

Over the years, Ploughshares has helped launch the careers of great writers like Edward P. Jones, Sue Miller, Mona Simpson, Tim O’Brien, and others.  We were thrilled to publish last year’s winners.  You can read their winning entries on our website:

The contest is open until May 15. But don’t wait! Submit today!

Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion


Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?

There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.

Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.

The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Optimism” by Angie Kim


In Richard Bausch’s classic short story, “What Feels Like the World,” the looming grief over a mother’s death is conveyed through an impending vault at an elementary school gymnastics demonstration. In Amy Hempel’s classic, “When It’s Human Instead of When It’s Dog,” the tragic death of a spouse is portrayed through a carpet stain that refuses to be cleaned. Similarly, in Angie Kim’s “Optimism”—from this winter’s Sycamore Review (Volume 26, Issue 1)—when the protagonist suffers a terrible loss, the trauma is shown masterfully through the concrete and mundane elements of day-to-day life. What’s created is a rich, devastating subtext.

The protagonist Laura loses her toddler Jimmy to a terrible accident. Soon after, she purchases a “computerized doll that looked and cried like her two-year-old son” and begins to re-enact the events that lead up to and followed the tragedy. She repeats these actions, with slight variations, again and again.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Third World Kroger” by Greg Schreur

gregSome stories only get better—the more you read, the more you see. Greg Schreur’s opening lines in “Third World Kroger” set catastrophe front and center: “My wife needs more flour for another cake. Since our son Michael was taken and killed about six months ago, she bakes a lot of them.”

That matter-of-fact narrative voice and the jarring connection, somehow, between baking cakes and a murdered child signal a world gone so deeply wrong it is incomprehensible. Yet it is one of Schreur’s gifts that he can, in just these lines and the few that follow, make his characters so appealing we want to know more. Yes, they are deranged: she’s baking cakes and he’s usually in the basement watching reruns of “Charlie’s Angels” and fixating on germs. But I’d be crazy too if one of my kids was murdered. By starting with inconsolable loss flatly stated, Schreur’s story balances—like a luminous, fragile egg on days of equinox—grief and absurdity, obsession and sense, madness and love, and moments of qualified, uncertain survival (but what kind, on what terms?)

In terms of plot, Schreur deftly offers up not one but two stories that, only at the end, fold together. The first, in the present tense, recounts the errand to buy flour. The second, in the past tense, is about what happened to Michael. Driven by memories that crowd and fill every pause and turn of the narrator’s thoughts, the second story dominates, taking up all the air. When the narrator steps into the grocery’s men’s room, he remembers Michael at two, in this same place with his dad and not knowing what pink urinal cakes were. Remembering the flour, he thinks of his wife’s grief and then Michael again, at four, so good on a trip to the mall that the narrator buys him a treat and looks away “for maybe a minute tops”—the minute Michael is snatched. “I searched everywhere, screamed his name, begged complete strangers to find him, sobbed to a police officer, and never let go of the elephant ear I still knew he would enjoy.” Meanwhile, alongside this incurable trouble, the grocery errand turns surreal in the men’s room when someone hurls human waste.Continue Reading