Tag Archives: Ploughshares

The Wizard of Williamstown

16 Jun

Having recently championed a relative new comer to the literary sandbox—an advocacy which was validated by no less personages than Katherine Powers and Ron Charles, I am inclined to put my tenuous reputation on the line with, as the hipsters say, a “shout-out” for the Sage of Williamstown, Williams mentor Jim Shepard upon the publication of his latest short fiction collection you think that’s bad. Shepard, author of nine books of fiction (short and long) is cursed with that
the career stifling rubric ” a writer’s writer” thus you need not puzzle out his relative obscurity and this unforgivable lapse
in your literary savvy. .

His newest cornucopia of eleven short fictions perambulates from the obscure stage of a so called black world operative,to a confrere of Joan of Arc who is aroused by slaughtering children; to the inventor of Godzilla films; to a GI involved in the WWII invasion of New Guinea; to a group of Polish mountain climbers specializing in winter mountaineering.

My favorite (a term I use loosely)is “The Netherlands Lives with Water” set in not-to-far-in future Rotterdamn. Its a nifty blend of scientific speculation about impending planetary doom and love story:

We’re raised with the double message that we have to address our worst fears but that nonetheless they’ll also somehow domesticate themselves. Fifteen years ago Rotterdam Climate Proof revived “The Netherlands lives with water” as a slogan, the accompanying poster featuring a two panel cartoon in which towering wave in the first panel is breaking before its crest over a terrified little boy, and in the second it separates into immense foamy fingers she can relievedly shake its hand.

Shepard also guest edited the Fall 2010 edition of Ploughshares

Joys of Fiction

15 Feb

One of the things that I enjoy about guest-edited magazines and anthologies is the opportunity given to the guest editor to say something about short fiction. Or the process of winnowing four or five hundred pieces down to twenty. Or about the arduous task of crafting short fiction. Or something original. Anyway, it is for this reason I enjoy Ploughshares .

In any case, the selections are secondary for me as I am lucky to have access to Tin House, Open City, Glimmertrain, A Public Space and, of course the New Yorker—which I am sure is not the case for many readers and thus the utility ofBest American Short Stories which has established itself in the market place, having a long and honorable tradition (going back to 1915). This year’s edition was guest edited by Richard Russo who is not only an able and wonderful novelist (and screenwriter) but for many years was a university professor. It is from that wellspring of experience that Russo draws for his introduction to the 2010 anthology.

It seems that when Russo was teaching at the University of Southern Illinois Isaac Bashevis Singer came there as a guest lecturer. Russo writes:


..the students were awarded seats at the table, whereas their professors, chafing visibly at the arrangement, were consigned to an outer ring of folding chairs and reminded that the purpose of the session was to mallow students to enter a dialogue with the great man, that their questions got priority…

The first student question was obviously a plant. “Mr Singer,” said one of the undergraduates…”Mr Singer could you tell us please, What is the purpose of literature?”

Mr Singer smiled broadly at the question,as if this were the first time he had ever heard it and was delighted to know the answer. “The purpose of literature.” He said clearly, meeting the student’s eye, “is to entertain and to instruct.”

He let his voice fall. Next question.

The undergraduate students looked at the graduate students, who looked at the outer ring of faculty. Clearly everyone expected more. The question after all was the sort likely to generate whole classes of heated , unresolved debate but here was a Nobel Prize winner who seemed to think that ten words sufficed to put the matter to rest…

And with deft narrative skill Russo shows with this short piece the validity of Singer’s prounouncement.