Book Notes: Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa

There’s talent that even an MFA and a PhD in Creative Writing can’t spoil. And Kate Elizabeth Russell is that rate person who resisted the nefarious influence of both. In a little postscript to the novel, Russell explains how the stupid MFA tried to force her to change her novel into something crappy and generic but, thankfully, she refused.

This is her first novel, and it reads like one but there’s a lot of potential in this author. First and foremost, the writing is good. But then the story is good, too. You’d think, who can possibly write anything worthwhile about a teacher sleeping with a 15-year-old student? Especially “in the age of #MeToo” (and how I hate this phrase. Only “in these trying times” is worse). But Russell did it. She mostly avoids truism – OK, maybe she avoids it about 70% of the time – but these days it’s already a lot.

The female narrator is not boring, and there’s even a slight hint at how #MeToo was driven by cynical, nasty, clickbaiting journalists. It takes courage not to slobber over #MeToo these days, so kudos to Russell.

I’m experiencing an appearance of some very tender and possibly imaginary seedlings of hope that literature in English can escape from its current bog of preachy inanity and go back, if not to greatness, but at least to being readable.

3 thoughts on “Book Notes: Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa

  1. As a graduate from an MFA program, I read the line about how the program she went to tried to make her mediocrity with sympathy. They are virtually exclusively populated by professors who could never survive outside of the academy (ie: by writing). As a consequence, they have to come up with idiotic metrics to prove that they’re qualified to teach young writers who will never be able to land lottery ticket tenure track jobs like them. Writing as a vocation (and for readers) has to be denied – how could these same commercial failures justify their jobs if the standards for teaching writing were the same as, I don’t know, medicine, architecture, law, whatever. Just imagine someone with a history of building collapsed bridges earning 150k to teach in an architecture faculty?

    Pure madness.

    As an aside, what happened to the million plus copy selling American Dirt is a delicious example of readers choosing which books succeed, not institutions that wants to dictate what readers SHOULD like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is great insight. It’s the same problem as they have in business program. People are being taught by professors who never built a successful business and can only teach ridiculous social-justicey theory.


      1. Bingo. You can see why people don their tinfoil hat about this stuff, because those institutions produce graduates who are engineered to fail at their respective vocations, with so much debt that they are forced to serve corporate overlords in low paying jobs just to survive. And that’s compounded by the elimination of personal finance education in high schools, which would at least have empowered said students to either do a cost / benefits analysis of the debt BEFORE taking it on, or would help them manage their finances and lifestyle choices after.

        Or, you know, we could just beg President Harris to eliminate student debt.


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