Category Archives: Karen Russell

#fictionpulitzergate

“There’s something amiss,” fumed Michael Cunningham, one of the three members of the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury whose work was undone—or at least unsettled—by the Pulitzer board, which couldn’t pick a winner. People look to awards to either settle a discussion (This won an award, I’ll read that next) or open one up (Is that really the best thing out there?). What grates people about the Pulitzer’s non-decision is that it accomplishes neither—we’re back on our own again, lacking the benchmark for discussion that such awards are meant to provide.

In Salon, Laura Miller suggests that the matter reflects the general disinterest in fiction among the wider Pulitzer board. “Chances are good that the three novels recommended by this year’s Pulitzer jury—’Swamplandia!’ by Karen Russell, ‘Train Dreams’ by Denis Johnson, and ‘The Pale King’ by David Foster Wallace—are the only three serious new novels many of the board members read last year, apart, perhaps, from one or two others,” she writes. “In that, they truly are representative of American readers, and that bodes worse for our national literature than a year without a Pulitzer winner.” But hang on: Juries and judging panels, in my experience, don’t reach a deadlock because they’re disinterested. It happens because something was in dispute. It may be that the Pulitzer board doesn’t care much about fiction in general, but they were charged with caring about three works of it, and for the sake of literary discussion—if not sales—it would have been interesting to hear what the squabbling was about. That’s the other grating thing—a prominent group of people had some kind of disagreement about what qualifies as a good work of fiction, but we didn’t get to find out what they disagreed about.

And because board deliberations are secret, we’ll likely never know. Maybe the Pulitzer bylaws could be tweaked in some way to force the issue. In the case of a no-decision in any category, the board shall be obligated to release a statement detailing the nature of its disagreement—a fate so godawful that the board will select a winner just to avoid it.

Me, I thought The Pale King and Swamplandia! were both interesting but flawed novels, and Train Dreams remains, as it has been for a while, one of the countless novels I hope to get to soon. Like Janice Harayda, I would have liked to have seen Steven Millhauser‘s magisterial, elegant, and strange short-story omnibus, We Others, capture the Pulitzer’s attention. It would have been nice: It would have made a few people ask, “Is this really the best thing out there?” and I could’ve said, yes, it’s pretty close.

God, Money, Gators

The first story in Karen Russell‘s debut collection, 2006′s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, is “Ava Wrestles the Alligator,” a tale set in Swamplandia!, a down-on-its-heels Florida amusement park. The surface of the story is gothic—dead mom, absent father, abduction, dreams of ghostly possession—but its essence is a simple tale about sisterhood. Ava and Ossie Bigtree, 12 and 16 respectively, separate and connect over men, and much of what makes their experience so compelling is its otherworldly setting—a fairy-tale land with everything twee and magical erased. Swamplandia! feels not just like a different place but a different planet, normalized only by the unsettling sibling rivalry within it.

Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, expands the Bigtree saga, and it preserves many of the peculiar elements of the original story—the beautiful but intimidating fecundity of the Florida swamps and the tales of possession especially. But it’s also a conventional novel for all that: Swamplandia! has the familiar structure of an immigrant narrative or assimilation novel. Russell has to diminish the strangeness of Swamplandia! to make it fit that shape; the park is now feels less like a netherworld and more like a peculiar, debt-struck foreign country. And as its characters leave the park they call home, they chase the same question that frames a lot of assimilation novels: Is it better, in an new land, to chase spirituality or money?

Russell brings a lot of imagination to setting up the question. Ava’s initial spiritual journey is more eerie than churchy, in keeping with the novel’s Through the Looking-Glass epigraph: She travels deep into the swamp to find Ossie, who she believes has eloped with the ghost of Louis Thanksgiving, a young man who died during the Great Depression on a dredging ship. “This would be a different kind of voyage, I thought, and felt a little yellow slurry of excitement,” Ava writes. “Sister hunting. Ghost seeking.” As for money: Their brother, Kiwi (nonexistent in the short story), has shoved off for the mainland in an attempt to earn enough to save Swamplandia! He botches it at first, doing scutwork at the World of Darkness, a hell-themed, anti-Disney amusement park. He’s scorned by his colleagues (who nickname him Margaret Mead, as if his role as anthropologist/interloper weren’t clear enough), and he routinely proves himself inept at grasping basic social norms.

You feel for Kiwi, but for much of the novel there’s little doubt which path Russell thinks is more worth taking. Ava, who makes the most direct pleas for the reader’s sympathy, is contemptuous of any effort to become a part of the commercial mainstream. Mainlanders “lived like cutlery in drawers,” she says. When Kiwi expresses an early interest in moving to the mainland and attending high school, she thinks he “wanted to give up our whole future for—what? A sack of cafeteria fries? A school locker?” The World of Darkness is an “exotic invasive species of business.” Better to be in Swamplandia!, run-down as it is, because the place is full of charm and drama (and memories of the siblings’ late mother), not to mention feisty alligators. “THE ALLIGATOR IS AN ANACHRONISM THAT CAN EAT YOU,” says a sign appealing to tourists at the park.

Russell only takes her critique so far, though. What ensues isn’t a study of Kiwi’s defeat at the hands of capitalism, or of the consequences of succeeding within it, but a split-the-difference cop-out: Kiwi’s tale evokes a Horatio Alger story. Those books are often thought of as fables about how you succeed by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, but they don’t quite work that way; as Russell Nye writes in The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America, they’re about young men who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and climb the ladder, sure, but who ultimately succeed thanks to a chance opportunity. Alger’s notion of fiction as a moral guide doesn’t seem especially appealing to Russell (or any 21st century fiction writer), so it’s hard to figure what she wants to say when the story takes an Algerish twist and (spoiler) Kiwi saves the life of a young girl who just happens to be the daughter of the CEO of the corporation that runs the World of Darkness. Maybe it’s that success in a foreign land is too rare to bother addressing honestly, which would be fine if mainland society were the only thing in Swamplandia! getting satirized. But Kiwi becomes the butt of the joke too, and that’s odd: For all his ineptitude, Kiwi is a sympathetic character, somebody who enters mainland society because he clearly sees the decrepitude of where he’s being raised. Ultimately he feels like little more than a comic bungler, which gets problematic when Russell wants us to feel genuine disappointment as Kiwi discovers what his father has been doing on the mainland to save the family park.

Ultimately, Kiwi seems leveraged for the sake of plot mechanics, as a way to legitimize the way he winds up reconnecting with both her sisters. And as for them, the spiritual questions Russell raises (What would it mean to inhabit a life with a ghost? Where can you actually connect with them? How much of that connection is in our heads? If the siblings could bond with their mother, would that be a good or a bad thing? What do you believe in, if not the underworld?) get short shrift. Ava and Ossie become disillusioned; they are rescued; they reunite with family. That these last points are rushed through feels like a missed opportunity: Russell renders Swamplandia!, the World of Darkness, and the crises they represent so clearly in the opening that it’s frustrating to watch them dissipate in the final pages. “The show really must go on,” Ava tells us in the closing paragraph, but there’s no show left to perform; just a mainland limbo the Bigtrees are left to muddle through.

Links: Good Old Days

Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson delivers helmet hits to today’s unthinking critics, who admire any piece of pabulum before them; to the mooing rabble that’s increasingly eager for books full of simple writing and easy lessons; and to the new generation of readers who’ve lost sight of what makes for good literature because the culture wars of the 90s made “canon” a four-letter word. Edmundson’s plea for more thoughtful reading is reasonable enough, but without much evidence for his claims of our downward spiral, the piece feels born out of nostalgia for a time that never really existed. Isn’t the point of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life that it’s always been thus?

Richard Ford: “I wrote [his forthcoming novel, Canada,] for the American audience, and they are not interested in politics. This is a human interest story.”

The popularity of e-books mean we no longer get to show off what we’re reading on the train—or easily peek at what others on the train are reading.

Joyce Carol Oates on writing about widowhood in fact and fiction. “Fiction is much better for some things, definitely. The sort of thing I want to do is strike a resonant chord of universality in other people, which is best done in fiction.”

Esquire’s Benjamin Alsup channels Katie Roiphe (remember?) and wonders why our fictional characters can’t be more busily fucking. This article is shorter, at least.

Sort of related: the true story of the porn movie Norman Mailer almost made.

Do we need an American Writers Museum? (My reflex is to say yes, and if it got built I’d visit it, but efforts like this always remind me of “Rock N Roll Hall of Fame,” a song by the punk band Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments that mocked the useless, lesson-free ephemera that tends to show up in these places: “I don’t wanna see the liver of David Crosby! I don’t want to see all the drugs I couldn’t take!”)

At some point I’ll go through all the author names collected on the sidebar of this blog and see how the gender breakdown goes. I suspect I’ll do no better than what the literary organization VIDA discovered when it looked at the bylines and reviewed authors in magazines like the Atlantic, Granta, Boston Review, Tin House, and more. If so, what would it mean? Knowing the proportions doesn’t explain the causes. Slate‘s Meghan O’Rourke suggests “it may be that more men than women write what editors consider “important” books—in part (and this is speculation) because more men than women write about international affairs and politics.” (So why did I blog about Richard Ford?) In a related post on VIDA’s website, Percival Everett argues that the words we use to praise books have gender prejudices built into them: “I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic…. Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy?”

The latest entry in This Recording’s “Why and How to Write” series includes comments from Charles Baxter, Flannery O’Connor, and Joan Didion, who noted the benefits of sleeping near your manuscript: “Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it.” (via)

The National Post discovers The Abaton, a literary journal published by Des Moines University, a medical school, and ponders the number of fiction writers who’ve also been doctors.

Another report from the Jaipur Literature Festival panel on the crisis in American fiction: “Amis parried with the idea that it would be impossible for a novel like Saul Bellow’s contemplative tome Humboldt’s Gift to spend eight months on the American best seller list like it did in it’s day. McInerney brought up Franzen’s Freedom and its success, then Amis replied with: “Not a comparable novel…There is a lot going on in that Franzen novel, in Humboldt’s Gift, nothing happens at all.”

Karen Russell on how her debut novel, Swamplandia!, may or may not have been influenced by Katherine Dunn‘s Geek Love: “I’m afraid to read it now because I’m sure that she’ll take me to the People’s Court for plagiarism. I think that a billion years ago, when I first read it, it must have been the proto-proto-influence. She made it possible to have an eccentric family that exists off the grid and to use it to explore universal family themes, which just ends up highlighting how the most mundane sibling rivalry and Oedipal conflicts that any family in New Jersey can relate to … it’s that, but instead there’s Arty the flipper boy. I owe her a great debt.”