My first thought in editing this issue of
Ploughshares was to put together a collection of autobiographical and fictional writings that tested the border between those preposterously rough groupings. And the very first piece that crossed my desk, Susan Bergman's "Imago," confirmed me in this intention. "Imago" is a brilliant family portrait whose narrator claims the authority of history even as she helps herself to the dramatic devices of the fiction writer. Hitler makes an appearance. There's even a ghost, or spirit, that abides in a painting. I put it aside and waited for more.
But that was the last of its kind. Over the next nine months almost every piece that came to me was either straightforward reportage or imaginative writing that chose not to concern itself with self-conscious questions about its own nature and relationship to other kinds of writing. And so I was forced to surrender the principle by which I'd hoped to organize the issue, and look for another. The New Fiction -- something like that. I thought I might be able to find a signature tone or ethos, especially among younger writers, that would set them off from the rest of us. Here, too, I was frustrated. I could find no subject or perspective common to the best of the work I was reading. I couldn't classify it.
And that, of course, is as it should be. Good writing resists classification, breaks it down. The closer we look at any literary category -- Modernism, Minimalism. Post-Modernism, Neo-Realism -- the more meaningless it becomes. Are Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald really doing the same thing? John Barth and Donald Barthelme? Do they share the same aesthetic or political ideology, express the same vision of the world and our place in it? In a pig's eye. These are terms of convenience for academics and pedants-at-large, to give them a sense of mastery over what is too varied and complex for their patience or understanding.
Then why did I choose the works I chose? In the end, because they interested me as stories. I wanted to know what happened, how things ended up. This appetite was in some cases stimulated by curiosity about the lives of others, which can be as voracious concerning avowedly fictional characters as for those dreamed up by the newspapers and called "Di" or "Leona" or "Trump," and illustrated by photographs to extend the illusion of actuality. I wanted to know more about the dying woman in Susan Power's masterful "Moonwalk," the numbly grieving, guilt-crippled boy in Dan Chaon's "Fraternity. And there were other elements that took my interest by force; the peculiar premise and atmosphere of Stuart Dybek's A Confluence of Doors," the puzzled, digressive, deceptively naïve voice of the narrator of Robert Olmstead's "Kennedy's Head." Every piece here had, for me, some quality of tone or narrative virtuosity or moral power, some piece
of previously suppressed evidence in the human case, that I was unable to ignore.
It goes without saying that another editor would have put together, from the same available manuscripts, a different issue. I can only hope, Dear Reader (Perfect Judge, Angel of Mercy, Shadow of Death), that your excitements coincide sufficiently with mine to allow you some of the pleasure and wonder I have felt, reading the pages to come.