Friday, April 8, 2011

Can't Decide How Much I Like Karen Russell's Short Stories

It is true, apparently, that Karen Russell's first novel, "Swamplandia!" was recently released. This title is befitting her previous collection of short stories, "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," which I've now read. I'm not sure about "Swamplandia!" (so you can search elsewhere for reviews on that). Let me start by saying I really enjoyed Karen Russell's short story featured in The New Yorker, as a result of her being one of the recepients of their "Top 20 Under 40" honors last summer.

Karen Russell is a good author, but is she better than that? Is she better than other young authors whom I enjoy? I like the sprightly quality of many of her stories. That much is true. I think by my natural temperament I swing toward the more negative side of positive opinion. This is not good, I think. I'd prefer to be sanguine and carefree. (Not carefree in a delusional way, if it's possible to be carefree any other way.)

But see there, in my parenthetical aside? See that I've said being carefree seems delusional, that it is implicit to the idea of being carefree? That's negative. And so too is the title of this post -- more or less -- implicitly as well. Too negative. Certainly some of Russell's stories speak to me more than others. Her collection "St Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves" is thus more uneven (take that, Mark Athitakis) than other collections I've read of late. But enough with soft praise and let me get to actual, considered criticism.

My biggest overarching negative criticism of Karen Russell is that she seems to be a writer without a fully realized ethos. I've wrestled with whether this is a fair assessment for a long time (I can't remember when I first started reading "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves," much less began writing this review). The point is, there are many interesting stylistic qualities to Russell's work but I constantly felt let down by their weight, i.e. I kept feeling there was something more to her stories that she wasn't saying, or that there was something more that could be said. This, as criticism goes, is more on me, as a reader, but I guess as contemplative aspects to her storytelling go, I was left very underwhelmed.

I do like that whimsy abounds in the world of Karen Russell's fiction. I feel like Terry Gilliam, on his less morose days, could direct the hell out of one of her tales. That's another thing, Russell's stories feel like they should more appropriately be referred to as tales. I see in her writing some of the same things I've liked about the writing of authors like Stephen O'Connor, under whom Russell apparently has studied. But like O'Connor, she writes stories that don't always fully commit to their subject matter. Her whimsy feels only halfheartedly implemented, like an author who'd prefer to be writing fiction of a more realist bent but who likewise feels as though (s)he is not making enough of his/her creative abilities by doing so. Had George Saunders never existed, I feel like Karen Russell would be a very different kind of writer, as would many who appear in publications such as The New Yorker.

Allow me to further explain. Irreverent settings in Russell's stories strike me as having little point or no point OR have a hyper-telegraphed point (e.g. "Out to Sea" in which a retirement community has been built of old boats and so forth, and its denizens are literally isolated from society by this means, which it doesn't take a master of metaphysics to make the connection between this and an elderly inhabitant's emotional isolation, also). It's fine that the settings don't immediately or necessarily relate to the plot, in the former and alternative case listed above, but then why have the plot be something as vanilla as coming-of-age in an ice rink or giant conch shells? The concerns of the characters, most of which are children, are so ordinary and everyday that the whole collection begins to feel like it's on repeat, just with required changes in costume and scenary. (This would also explain why I think I liked "St. Lucy's" earliest-appearing stories the most*.)

I hate to just heap the negative criticism on a work like this, especially knowing that A.) Karen Russell is a skilled writer whom I can absolutely understand people liking and 2.) you could easily argue my position is one of a different school of thought. But like Stephen O'Connor, Russell shows a lot of creative agility and I'm disappointed by writers I feel could be doing far better than their body of work. With luck, that's what "Swamplandia!" is for Russell -- especially considering how I felt about her "20 Under 40" New Yorker story. It was far superior to anything I've read in "St. Lucy's." I'm not sure when I'll be willing to give Russell a try again, though. She frustrated the hell out of me.

*My favorites of this collection were "Ava Wrestles the Alligator" and "Z.Z's Sleep-Away Camp For Disordered Dreamers."


  1. I haven't read Russell yet, though she's been on my list for a while. I've got "Swamplandia!" rather than "St. Lucy's" and I'm curious to see how my thoughts on her line up with hers. I think I've read this criticism of Russell elsewhere, and I think it's something that can be extended to a fair number of youngish contemporary authors...that there's a skill in the writing but not a whole lot underneath it.

    -- ellen

  2. Yeah, I tend to think this might be a problem of a writer's early work not being demonstrative of what he or she is capable of, with definite improvement with age and practice. My guess is "Swamplandia!" is a more developed version of the kinds of stories in this collection. I've read a lot of contemporary fiction lately that feels much richer than Russell, much more meaningful to me, at least. (See writers like Alissa Nutting, Amelia Gray and Lindsay Hunter. I can't emphasize their talents enough.)

  3. I have her short in the New Yorker booked marked to read soon-I admit I love the title of her collection!-I enjoyed your post a lot

  4. I do agree about her titles. I mean "St. Lucy's Home For Girls Raised By Wolves" is just fantastic. And thanks for the kind words, mel!