In 1971, DeWitt Henry, now professor emeritus of Emerson’s Writing, Literature and Publishing Department, and Peter O’Malley, owner of The Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided through discussions over pints that what the world of letters needed was a venue for writers outside of what they considered the “literary establishment.”
From those barstool huddles grew Ploughshares, a literary magazine that this month celebrates 45 years of “tomorrow’s classics today,” in the words of Henry. The anniversary edition, out now, was co-edited by novelist Claire Messud and her husband, literary critic James Wood.
In a column for Doug Holder’s blog, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene, Henry said Ploughshares was created for the “common readers…
“[E]specially those of our own generation, who would explore the different aesthetics and passions we debated.”
Henry writes that from that first edition in 1971 to 1995, when Henry stepped back, having handed over the reins to Don Lee, Ploughshares went from a local publication to a national journal, and annual circulation grew from 1,000 to 3,000 (today it’s about 6,000, a robust number for a literary magazine). In the late 1980s, Ploughshares became affiliated with Emerson, where Henry was chair of the writing department, and where it has remained since, under the magazine’s only two subsequent editors: Lee, a 1986 MFA graduate, and current editor Ladette Randolph.
Ploughshares comes out three times per year, plus a Solo Series of longer-form stories and novellas that are published digitally nine times per year and anthologized in print annually. Two of the three journals (one prose, one poetry) are guest edited by published writers, with a third being staff edited.
The guest editing policy was sown into the magazine from the beginning and is a part of what makes the selections so vibrant and diverse, Randolph said.
“At first, the literary culture in Boston sniffed at [Ploughshares],” she said. “But…they invited fairly prominent guest editors, and some [authors] went on to rise fairly quickly [after being published].”
The magazine gets more than 10,000 submissions per year, both from established writers through their agents or from emerging writers who send in work themselves, Randolph said.
Over its 45-year history, Ploughshares has published the likes of Raymond Carver, Elizabeth Bishop, Tim O’Brien, and Joy Harjo. The anniversary edition features work from Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his first novel, The Sympathizer, and Carys Davies, winner of the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.
“I want to choose guest editors who are diverse in their style, region, maybe their interests, in their race and ethnicity, and maybe religious view,” Randolph said. “And I like to look at their age.”
Her timing’s often been pretty good.
Ploughshares chose Strout the month before she won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge. Hayes won the National Book Award the week his edition came out, and Groff’s issue came out within a month of President Obama declaring her novel, Fates and Furies, his favorite book of 2015. Nick Flynn’s edition came out just as Being Flynn, the movie based on his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, was released, she said.
Randolph claims she doesn’t have any special gift for picking “the next big thing,” nor does she chalk it up to luck.
“I admire them,” she said of the guest editors she’s invited. “I’ve kind of had my eye on them. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it means I have my finger on the zeitgeist a little bit, but I would be very hesitant to take credit for that,” she said, because that implies that the editors who don’t blow up don’t deserve the accolades. “For me, all the guest editors are great.”
She said she invited Messud and Wood to edit the 45th-anniversary edition because they’re talented, well known, and they live in the Boston area. Like all guest editors, they were asked to solicit half the stories themselves, and selected the other half from a list provided by Randolph and the Ploughshares staff, and culled from the roughly 10,000 submissions they get a year.
“This edition is really interesting, and they chose pieces that I think are challenging, they’re international, and they’re very, very distinct,” Randolph said.
She said Ploughshares has become known as a magazine that’s “commit[ted] to literary values” but isn’t afraid to use new technology and methods to reach new readers.
“We have really joined the 21st century, and we have a very vibrant web presence through very, very energetic bloggers, and we’re very, very active in social media. We have almost 60,000 social media followers and are growing rapidly,” Randolph said.
In his piece for Doug Holder, which was also submitted to the Somerville Times, DeWitt Henry reflects on the history of the literary magazine he helped found and thinks it’s mostly fulfilled its original mission.
Even if it the mass-market system of publishing still dominates, Henry wrote, Ploughshares has “led…to a world vastly more hospitable to both emerging and established writers, one in which they are served by many literary magazines, small presses, reading series, writing programs, and institutions.”
The Summer 2016 edition of Ploughshares can be purchased online at www.pshares.org or in area bookstores.