Ploughshares is one of the most prominent literary journals on the market because of its long tradition of quality and ability to publish and discover leading writers. The journal is also notable for its practice of working with guest editors for each issue. Alice Hoffman, the editor, has taken the reins of this issue and presents work unified by a simple but powerful theme: the glorification of the storyteller present inside each of us.
Hoffman begins her issue with an introduction in which she rejects the common adage that a writer must chronicle what he or she knows. Those who put pen to paper “take the world we know and we reshape it. In doing so we see behind veils, beneath doors, through the dark glass of the past. What we are left with is a circle of shining light, a creation that is both the miracle and the charm, something one must share to give it any worth at all, a story.”
When he is not chasing Spider-man around New York City or adding some gusto to the daytime soap opera, James Franco puts his extensive education in literature and creative writing to good use. The first-person narrator of “The Deer” employs appropriately simple sentences to tell a story upon which he, as a young man, may not be able to deeply reflect. (A level of self-understanding common to most teenagers, as I recall.) In third-period biology, he dissects a piglet:
It was sick. My partner was Meena Cohen. She screeched when I cut open the piglet. I cut off the pig’s head, even though I wasn’t supposed to, and she screeched a whole bunch more. There were a lot of screeches all over the room, so Meena wasn’t alone.
The resolution of the story seems to indicate that Franco is considering the timeless relationship between young men and the violence their maturing bodies are able to visit upon the world.
Philip Schultz’s poem “Hitting and Getting Hit” explores a similar theme: man’s unbroken cycle of violence and his inhumanity to those around him. The narrator, a Jewish man looking back on his childhood, describes the trouble he had with bullies, anti-Semitic and otherwise. At various times, his peers made fun of his stutter, hung him from trees, and scrawled an epithet on his forehead in black lipstick. His father, a man who struck back against religious persecution, gave good advice: “Know who to be afraid of, son.” Schultz manipulates his lines in a powerful way; they begin short and somewhat calm, building in intensity, emotion, and length until he depicts his narrator at the breaking point.
Alexandra Marshall’s thoughtful profile of Alice Hoffman isolates some of the themes that motivate the author’s work. In addition to investing herself deeply in her characters, Hoffman “is concerned with the urgent need of women and girls to become independent” and “is about resisting a set of fixed limitations.” Through her characters, Hoffman considers escape from dire external threats as well as counterproductive internal motivations.
These themes can also be found in much of the work Hoffman chose; Ruth Blank’s “Tomato Season” tells the story of a recent widow who struggles to reassert control after she moves in with her married daughter. In “Girl Skipping Rope,” Wally Lamb presents the brief but potent autobiography of a man who dreamt of being an artist in spite of his humble immigrant upbringing.
This issue of Ploughshares concludes with material that is quite valuable to our writing community: a reprint and restoration of George Starbuck’s late-1970s interview with Elizabeth Bishop and reviews of several books, including the latest efforts from Susan Conley and Denis Johnson. Ploughshares seems to recognize and accept its place in the writing community. In addition to presenting new works and new authors, the journal also takes the time (and devotes page space) to putting contemporary literature into its proper context.