Ploughshares, a literary magazine out of Cambridge, Mass., began in 1970. It publishes fiction that editor Henry describes as ""speaking of death, love, sex, coming of age, age itself, the family, justice, communication and its lack, courage, compassion, prejudice, fear of life, strength of life""--a list with the thumping earnestness of a Democratic Party platform. And there is undeniable value in such a straightforward, old-fashioned, humane approach to short-story-publishing: as this anthology makes clear, Ploughshares has no interest whatsoever in fancy literary showing-off, in hi-tech gloss, or in metafiction--all of which can be found in abundance elsewhere. Unfortunately, however, the stories here tend to be rather weak examples of this favored form of low-key realism (similar to better fiction published in The New Yorker and other magazines); a great many of them are overlong to a crippling degree; and there's a serious lack of variety--in both subject-matter and style--through this large collection. The wearied wear-and-tear of family existence (many visits to aging parents) is by far the most popular theme of Ploughshares contributors--from lesser-known writers (Susan Engberg, Eve Shelnutt, David Low, Richard Wertime) to established writers at their less-than-best: Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Yates, Gina Berriault, and Raymond Carver. Stories by T. Alan Broughton, Maxine Kumin, Jay Neugeborn, and Sandra Scofield are mong those most grievously marred by self-indulgent longwindedness. The few traces of humor, then, are unusually welcome: Max Apple's funny tale of re-circumcision, ""The Eighth Day"" (from his Free Agents collection); Marilyn Jean Conner's ""Bunco""--about a nursing home. And two genuinely distinguished stories stand out from the rest with almost embarrassing intensity: Andre Dubus' ""At St. Croix"" (from Finding a Girl in America), which goes beyond mere family portraiture to an examination of family myths and delusions; and a Bean-family tale by Carolyn Chute (The Beans of Egypt, Maine), with its remarkable, ""primitive"" lyricism, which blithely ignores most syntactical rules. These two pieces are strong examples of what realism can become when reaching for richer or deeper effects; the remainder offers, for the most part, the more bland and predictable sorts of realism--and all of the biggername entries have made other book-form appearances.