The New Russian Lit

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Hip, young, Russian-born American fiction writers are a hot literary trendlet, one that all began with Gary Shteyngart’s 2002 novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, argues Emily Gould for Russia!.

These writers, Gould explains, offer U.S. readers an outsider’s view of America, coming from a “writer with a sellable life story.” American audiences can have their pick: “a witty, suffering exotic with Chekhov and Dostoevsky in his bloodstream, or an underdog whose very completion of a book in English represents a triumph.”  

Despite traits their works seem to share–“a wry, fatalistic humor… and characters with an unhealthy dependence on vodka”–most Russian-American authors, Shteyngart excluded, chafe at being corralled into an “ethnic literature” category. (Even though they do have a pretty good moniker–the Beet Generation–coined by author Anya Ulinich’s husband.) Most just want to be known as good writers, not as good Russian-American writers.

“I have no national allegiance when I write,” Ulinich told Gould. “It’s not my role to give my readers some kind of rounded, objective, and definitive view of Russia and Russians. I only represent my characters to my readers.” Ulnich’s 2007 novel Petropolis is about a Siberian mail-order bride from the fictional town of Asbestos 2.

Marketing novels as “Russian-American,” however, doubtlessly will continue, as long as book-buying readers are tempted by offers of insight into the Russian soul that can’t be gleaned from, as Gould puts it, “reading the front page of the newspaper” or “wading through reams of analysis.” 

Image by Darwin Bell, licensed under Creative Commons.

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