Style, subjects give fiction collection unique coherence

The Ploughshares Reader: New Fiction for the Eighties, edited and with an introduction by Dewitt Henry. Wainscott, N.Y.: Pushcart Press. 514 pp. $24.95. This oversize collection of fiction from a literary magazine differs from other such anthologies in several ways. First, the stories are all from one magazine; second, they are united by the magazine's editorial philosophy, which is both literary and subject-oriented; and third, the stories concern subjective, rather than social, realism.

The selections have been made with utmost care, such that the writers often seem to be writing variations on a single theme, or are engaged in a dialogue about the human experience. This is remarkable, in that the inclusions are selected from 15 years of the magazine and were originally chosen by nearly 30 guest editors. But managing editor Dewitt Henry has overseen the process since the magazine's inception and the result is something uncommon among many literary collections: a group of stories that c ohere beyond some elusive definition of quality.

In his introduction, Henry writes that the stories ``seek, through their discipline of the art, in Thoreau's words, to `drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms'. . . .'' This is a fitting remark, but one also recalls Frank Norris, the American naturalist, saying that ``we don't want literature, we want life.'' The writers in this collection not only look at life in small corners but are frequently autobiographical, literary, ``meaningful ,'' and poignant as well. It is not derisive to say that these fictions read like foreign films.

Among the selections are Richard Yates's ``Compassionate Leave,'' in which a young soldier visits his mother and sister living in war-torn Britain. Tim O'Brien's ``Going After Cacciato'' is from the novel, but reads like a short story -- a self-contained piece. Also notable is Max Apple's ``The Eighth Day,'' about the birth of his children.

In these stories about birth, divorce, death, and approaching middle age, the subjects are treated with a seriousness that transforms them from soap opera to a conscious ``literary'' effort. When reading a ``Ploughshares'' story, it does not matter whether the issue's editor was Raymond Carver or Donald Hall; there is a stylistic commitment and subject similarity that create -- perhaps unintentionally -- certain parallels between selections, although the scenarios for this seriousness may draw to o blithely upon the immoralities and amoralities of these times.

Although ``Ploughshares'' fiction has included excerpts of John Irving's ``The World According to Garp,'' and Rosellen Brown's ``Civil Wars,'' those are not included here. Nevertheless, the table of contents reads like a Who's Who of American literary fiction. Considering that this is a magazine with a comparatively modest circulation (as compared with, for example, The New Yorker), its achievements are considerable. ``Ploughshares'' does something else, which Mr. Henry neglects to mention: it enc ourages literature through careful and committed editor-writer relationships. Not only does this respect the audience but, more important, it respects the writer.

The 39 stories herein may occasionally appear slight when compared with others the magazine has published, but all are governed by intelligence and a commitment to, as Mr. Henry writes, ``illuminate each other, inviting comparison in different ways.''

To subscribe to Ploughshares, write to Box 529, Cambridge, Mass. 02139. Subscriptions are $14 a year (four issues); single copies, $5.95.

Sam Cornish teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.

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