The Dredgeman’s Revelation – Karen Russell

Reading the Q&A with Karen Russell she mentions that she doesn’t much care for plot.  This point is obvious in “The Dredgeman’s Revelation” as not much happens.  Also, Russell says, the story came out of researching Florida history and the dredging of swamplands.  Her research is strong, but the prose seem more like a vehicle for a history lesson than a compelling story.

In terms of openings, it has a great first line, “The dredgeman had a name, Louis Thanksgiving Auschenbliss, but lately he preferred to think of himself as a profession.”  What follows is Louis’ simple life dredging and his constant amazement and enjoyment of his surroundings.  Adopted by a farm family in Iowa that treated him more as a pack animal than a human, Louis escapes into a new life and none of the hardships are as bad as what he previously endured.

Russell has created a vivid, concrete world with a cast of characters that have depth, but it doesn’t pass the so what test.  Why should I care?  Why should I read this?  Whatever is said about writing, one key aspect for creating, sharing, and reading stories is entertainment.  I’m sure there are those who disagree, but if a story fails to entertain (in the sense that it captures your attention) it ultimately fails.  While interesting at times, as a reader, I felt neither challenged, engaged with, nor entertained.

6 thoughts on “The Dredgeman’s Revelation – Karen Russell”

  1. >Ultimately, that's what it boils down to. There's a market for stories like this, but with so much published, a story needs to do *more* than simply be well-written. It needs to have a reason *for* being written.

  2. >Hi Aaron,Of course a story needs to be more than well-written. If it doesn't move a reader or affect them, then it's lacking a major component.Can you clarify what you mean by having a reason for being written?

  3. >As in, why tell this story? (Setting aside the author's monetary goals.) I'm basically agreeing with your statement about "the so what test" and making a larger point about the oversaturated fiction market, which now has so many outlets that it seems that pretty much anything that's decently written and logically consistent (though sometimes not) can get published *somewhere*, with known authors (i.e., those published in book form or in a big-name magazine) feeding off their own reputation to continue to publish stories, regardless of their quality. Or again, to be short about it: there needs to be a reason for wanting to share this story, something deeper, sometime important, that begs to be shared.

  4. Some of the above leave me curious as to just what their idea of fine writing might be. “The Dredgeman” is one of a half-dozen New Yorker short stories I’ve saved over 60 years–exceptionally elegant prose wrapped in awesome historical detail from, astoundingly, a writer in her 20’s. Wondering what even may happen next to unsophisticted but sympathetic Louis Thanksgiving should be enough to hold discerning readers. I’m not the only one to praise this story, just the only one here, so far. #

  5. Hi Robin, thanks for your comment. I’m not criticizing this as a piece of writing, but as a short story. In the two years since this was published, I’ve realized it’s an excerpt, and I’ve since read the novel Swamplandia. As a short story, I don’t think it works well. But that doesn’t matter, because it’s an excerpt; it is not trying to function within the constraints of short fiction.

    As an excerpt from Swamplandia, it’s the strongest part of that novel.

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