Kelly Link Is Beloved, But Still Underrated: A Primer on My Favorite Living Short Story Writer

There’s that urge in adolescence when you feel like you discovered something, maybe a song, a book, or a painting, that resonates so deeply within you, to protect it, and keep it secret and close, so that you feel like you have claim of something wondrous and all your own. And if you share the secret, or if others discover the artist, you may later state that you were listening to the music first, or reading an author first, as if your personal first spark determines the authenticity of an artist. It does not end up being an attractive trait, because we should share good art, because we shouldn’t be snobs, and because artists are responsible for their talent, not the consumers of the work. Luckily, it’s an impulse most seem to grow out of, except for in extreme cases, particularly if that person continues to fly under the radar of mainstream culture for an unexplainable amount of time.

Bear with me as I describe my own fandom of Kelly Link. I’ve been reading her since at least 1999 when I read her story “Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose,” photocopied from Fence magazine and handed out to me by a writing instructor. I was blown away. I have a first edition, first printing of her first book Stranger Things Happen, published by her and her husband’s own independent publishing company Small Beer Press, and when I discovered it on a table at a bookshop, after a couple of years hunting down her stories in obscure journals, I might have jumped up and down. I would put “Stone Animals”, from her second collection, Magic for Beginners, in my personal top three favorite short stories of all time, along with Herman Melville and Donald Barthelme. I went to many of her readings in the early aughts and might have told her nervously at a signing on at least one occasion that I’m her biggest fan. I begged McSweeney’s to do an event with her back when I was new to NYC and an intern at their first long-gone storefront on 7th Avenue in Park Slope. In 2005, I dropped a recommendation for her short story “Girl Detective” in a feature on Nancy Drew’s 75th birthday that I wrote for Bust magazine, and the following year wrote a letter to the editor of the newly launched literary magazine A Public Space to see if I might work there when I’d seen “Origin Story” by her in their first issue. And then I worked there for almost three years. I have pushed her books into countless friends hands and peddled her wares to writing students, and because of all this, I have an inkling of possession, as if her work, the rare and precious gold that it is, belongs to me.

Kelly Link author photo (c) Sharona Jacobs Photography LLC

Kelly Link. Photo by Sharona Jacobs

But of course, it doesn’t and cannot. All I want is for everyone to devour her books. Link has a core army of dedicated fans, a huge following among our best and best-selling writers, and they are just as passionate. For years her work has been quietly celebrated as spectacular but, despite the support of readers and critics in the know—including for her latest collection Get in Troubleher work has not yet had the breakout recognition that it deserves. Instead it is a steady roll up the hill for a writer with a magical pen. And, yes, I consider this to be the case even in the avalanche of incredible reviews this new collection is receiving and the good reviews she has always received. But why isn’t Link mentioned more often in the crème de la crème of our literary crop? A few things come to mind. My theories aren’t groundbreaking (those troublesome and common g words, gender and genre pop to mind), and a couple more are not worth validating in print. But it might also have something to do with her not having published a novel, but instead collections of short stories. Maybe. And maybe it has something to do with the borders and boundaries she walks in her work, and how legitimately hard they are to describe to other people—how difficult to handsell to a reader who reads realist contemporary fiction.

Be assured, serious readers, that there is no more successful writer at walking the edge of speculation and genre. She’s so good at what she does, that it makes her work nearly impossible to describe without sounding soft or even silly. No one is more gifted at dipping into a darker kind of wonder, an emotion for most readers that sadly belongs to the realm of childhood, than Link is. She bewilders the reader with wonder. The bewilderment is executed exceptionally well in her Blair-Witch-of-a-story about a babysitter’s trouble with two twin girls in “The Specialist’s Hat“:

“At nine-thirty, she tried to put them to bed. Neither Claire nor Samantha wanted to go to bed, so they began to play the Dead game. The Dead game is a let’s pretend that they have been playing every day for 274 days now, but never in front of their father or any other adult. When they are Dead, they are allowed to do anything they want to. They can even fly, by jumping off the nursery beds, and just waving their arms. Someday this will work, if they practice hard enough.”

Her work is also full of the characters—witches, faeries, superheroes, and unicorns—that are often relegated to kids or fantasy shelves as well. How does she get away with writing a short story about a crumbling marriage in a haunted house full of haunted objects while little men ride rabbits in the front yard? Only Kelly Link knows. But if the strange things that happen in her stories are the reason she’s not “famous,” (and when I say famous here, I guess I mean the limited context of the book world. I’d like to see her be big-award winning, best-selling, world renown, published in The New Yorker, or better yet, given a MacArthur Genius Award), then we are the snobs we know we are.

If you can’t be bothered to read a story about a Nancy Drew-style girl detective taking her flashlight into the underworld in search of her dead mother, or a story with a bedroom where you sleep to see your heart’s desire, or a story about a teenager who wants to trade her boyfriend in for the hot, new “ghost boyfriend” model, then I can’t do anything for you.

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