Recent Fairy-tale Projects

Since I last posted, I completed my master’s degree in English, moved house, worked on dozens of projects, and got a dog and six chickens. But today I’d like to highlight three recent-ish projects that are on the same topic: fairy tales.

Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales and Television, edited by Pauline Greenhill & Jill Terry Rudy

The first project, Channeling Wonder: Fairy Tales on Television, is a collection of scholarly essays edited by Pauline Greenhill and Jill Rudy and published by Wayne State University Press. I indexed the volume, and it was a pleasure to read (not to mention the fact that it fed into research for my master’s thesis). The topics contained in the book are broad, and the various authors bring unique concerns, interests, and perspectives to the discussion about fairy tales on television. And look at that cover! Isn’t it nice to find an academic press that takes a little pride in the designs as well as the content?

The book spawned another project I worked on: Fairy Tales on Television. I was one of many research assistants and contributors who made the searchable database and functional data visualizations possible. The database is a research tool for researchers and creators whose interests intersect with fairy tales and television. I’ve used it for research of my own, and I might be preparing an infographic summarizing my findings. (So stay tuned for that.)

PersinetteOutside of academia, I also had the opportunity to work with Laura Christensen, a French-to-English translator who translated “Persinette,” a literary French fairy tale similar to “Rapunzel.” Laura translated the tale, wrote a delightful introduction, provided some biographical information on the author, and included introductions to and public-domain translations of the Grimms’ “Rapunzel” (which was published after “Persinette”) and Giambatista Basile’s “Petrosinella” (an Italian tale published before “Persinette”). I copyedited the text (except the public-domain translations) and formatted everything for its upcoming ebook release. Laura lets you know where you can find her collection on her translation website.

Leaflet Review: Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation by Tim Manley

Cover of Alice in Tumblr-land by Tim ManleyPeter Pan finally has to grow up and get a job, or at least start paying rent. Cinderella swaps her glass slippers for Crocs. The Tortoise and the Hare Facebook stalk each other. Goldilocks goes gluten free. And Rapunzel gets a buzz cut.

Here are more than one hundred fairy tales, illustrated and reimagined for today. Instead of fairy godmothers, there’s Siri. And rather than big bad wolves, there are creepy dudes on OkCupid. In our brave new world of social networking, YouTube, and texting, fairy tales can once again lead us to “happily every after”—and have us laughing all the way.

In case my earlier discussion of using fairy tale motifs in creative writing didn’t tip you off (or the mention of my folklore-emphasizing master’s degree, etc.), I’m a bit of a fairy- and folktale nut. My most recent read in the realm of fairy-tale retelling is Tim Manley’s Alice in Tumblr-land: And Other Fairy Tales for a New Generation.

First, I should point out that the book is an outgrowth of Manley’s Tumblr blog Fairy Tales for 20-somethings. (As such you can probably guess that this isn’t for your kids—insert language and content warnings here. My warnings for the book are stronger than for the blog: the book is more explicit, includes more sex-involved storylines, etc. Take a glance around the blog, and if that pushes your boundaries, don’t pick up the book.) But the book does some things that are ill-suited to a blog-style project, and I’m going to focus on those things.

The book, like the blog, has a mix of stories with different characters from different fairy tales (with little to no carryover between fairy tales). Each “fairy tale” story ranges from a couple sentences to a few paragraphs long. (Side note: His definition of fairy tale is very broad and inclusive. If it’s a Disney movie, it probably qualifies for Manley as a fairy tale. Aesop is fair game too.) Although there are overarching narratives for several characters (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Rapunzel, etc.), no character has two consecutive fairy tales if you’re reading the book cover to cover. Technically most of the tales could be read independently, but the most “bookish” parts of the book, the ones toward the end of the volume, normally require the background knowledge of Manley’s interpretation of the characters.

It’s these sorts of tales that I’m going to focus on for this review. While the blog constantly puts out standalone tales—whether they be humorous or poignant—that sort of telling is ill-suited to a coherent book that is supposed to be read and remembered as something other than a gag book. (Gag books have their place, make no mistake. But that’s not what Manley is doing here.) In the book Manley has selected posts from the blog, rewritten some of them, and added many, many more tales to give characters overarching narratives with problems, failings, successes, and ultimately, an inner calmness and peace. While the book describes many stereotypes and tropes of the lost, confused, bewildered, or befuddling generation of today’s American twenty-somethings, it is not a book that ends on the note of being lost, confused, bewildered, or befuddled. Every recurring character finds a way to reconcile his or her questions and instability into some form of calm willingness to press on, innovate, and engage with life.

All in all, I think the book does a good job. As with the blog, there are some tales (and some arcs) I consider more successful, humorous, or emotionally impactful than others, and there are some I don’t particularly care for. In that way it is like many anthology-style books that include multiple discrete storylines: some are bound to please more than others. I would even argue that until the book fully engages with being a book—until we start getting the closure that doesn’t sit well in an ongoing blog-style context—it feels a bit weaker than the blog. But in the end, Manley pulls it off. Since each tale is so sort, it really doesn’t take that long to get to the end either, so overall it’s worth a read.

Weekly Roundup: 2/11–2/17

The Telegraph: Fairytales Too Scary for Modern Children, Say Parents

After my last post I thought it only fair to highlight that some people don’t think fairy tales are appropriate for children. I highly disagree, of course, but I am also aware that many fairy tales only became “children’s stories” when the Grimms put them in a book called Kindermärchen. It’s interesting to read the reasons why parents reject certain stories.

Publishers Weekly: Bookstore Sales Plunged in December, Slipped for Year

An interesting explanation of why bookstores can report higher sales individually, but the industry-wide surveys show decreases.

Clay Johnson: Is SEO Killing America?

This is a talk that was given at this year’s TOC. Johnson presents some interesting ideas, and it’s worth spending a few minutes to watch.

Foil Narratives & Fairy Tales

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of "Vasilisa the Beautiful"

Fairy tales and folktales get handed down, repurposed, and woven into new contexts and patterns every day. We see them in ads and single-panel cartoons, in similes, short stories, and novels. And yet when you ask Western people to tell you the story of, say, Little Red Riding Hood, they’ll probably come up with a lot of the same basic stuff. Some people wonder why stories so well known can continuously find new life; others bemoan the loss of variety folk traditions used to have before they became standardized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney.

But for writers, the fact that there’s a “standard” version of most popular fairy tales is a boon.

The Power of Foil Narratives

When you retell a fairy tale, or when you use a fairytale motif in a scene, chapter, or sentence, you draw on a shared cultural background with your reader. Whatever you say with your fairy tale contrasts with whatever they already know. Initially, that sounds a bit unappealing (if you retell “Beauty and the Beast,” your story gets thrown up next to a golden ball gown and a singing teapot, whether you like it or not). But it really is an immensely powerful tool.

You’ve heard of foil characters, yes? Two characters who share certain things and throw their differences into relief? Using foil characters is a good way to strengthen your characterization and drive interest. With fairy tales, you get an entire foil narrative. Even if your story or scene shares very little with an “original” fairy tale (original is such a messy word when speaking of folklore), if you have a character wearing a red hood, you can evoke an entire parallel plot line that can throw your narrative into relief. Each choice you make gains force and momentum because it contrasts with the story your reader already has in his or her head.

Stories That Rely on Foils

You can use fairy tales as foil narratives in all sorts of ways, and as I said before, you don’t have to write a story that is solely a retold fairy tale to do it. Permit me a few examples.

  • Disney’s Enchanted is only really funny because viewers have a background in Disney fairy tales. Without them, the humor is much weaker.
  • Ditto with Shrek, only it’s much funnier because it contrasts with an entire tradition of animal bridegroom stories (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Frog Prince,” etc.).
  • Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley embedded “Sleeping Beauty” into their novel Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. The portion of the book that is a retold tale follows the standard exactly—prince fights his way through briars, kisses the sleeping princess into wakefulness, marries her, and resolves to live happily ever after—but the frame story of a demon playing puppet master lets the standard make a statement about free will.

Using Foils in Your Stories

You can employ a foil fairytale narrative by retelling a tale or merely evoking the idea of it—your reader already has the story in his or her head, so you don’t necessarily need to lay it out explicitly for them. Whether you’re embedding an abbreviated version of a tale in a scene or chapter, retelling the whole thing, or simply setting up a pleasant metaphor, you need give only the basic motifs because the standard fairy tale can do the rest of the work for you (you can give more, of course, but it isn’t necessary).

Some more examples.

  • To evoke “Little Red Riding Hood” use motifs like a waiting wolf, a journey through the woods, a basket of goodies, a red hood, or an ugly grandmother.
  • To evoke “Cinderella” use a glass slipper, a pumpkin coach, a stroke-of-midnight time limit, or a fairy godmother.
  • To evoke “Jack and the Beanstalk” use magic beans, a giant in the sky, or a singing harp.

I’m sure you can come up with more motifs you could use to evoke a foil narrative in your writing, so share them in the comments. Also share your favorite retold tales, or even your favorite “original” versions (I’m partial to bloody animal bride/bridegroom stories, myself).

Leaflet Review: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

My Mother She Killed Me ... CoverFirst, let me apologize for my extended absence. I was in the middle of moving across several state lines, and when I got to my new home it took a certain company quite a while to get the internet up and running in my house. Because I’m not keen on composing blog posts while using the internet at Denny’s, I let the blog linger. But I’m back with a series of book reviews on what I’ve been reading for the past month. They’ll also stand in for my weekly roundup this week—no internet means I haven’t a clue about anything that’s been going on this past week or two.

To start today’s review, here’s the copy from the back cover of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an anthology edited by Kate Bernheimer:

Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Chris Adrian, Lydia Millet, and more than thirty other extraordinary writers celebrate fairy tales in this thrilling volume—the ultimate literary costume party.

Spinning houses and talking birds. Whispered secrets and borrowed hope. Here are new stories sewn from old skins, gathered from around the world by visionary editor Kate Bernheimer and inspired by everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino.

Fairy tales are our oldest literary tradition, and yet they chart the imaginative frontiers of the new twenty-first century as powerfully as they evoke our earliest encounters with literature. This exhilarating collection restores their place in the literary canon.

This collection won this years’ World Fantasy award for the anthology category.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fairy tale junkie. Base something on a fairy tale and I can hardly keep myself away from it for long. So when I heard about the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (edited by Kate Bernheimer), I had my eye out for it everywhere. It took a bit of finding, but I got myself a copy.

Overview

The collection is a gem. That isn’t to say I enjoyed every story (the charm of anthologies is that even if you don’t like every story, you’re bound to get plenty that you do like). However, each story added something to the fairy tale tradition. Some stories were retellings of fairy tales; some took a tale as a starting off point; some borrowed character or thematic arcs without matching up neatly on the details. After every story is a short snippet from the author explaining why he or she chose a particular base story and how his or her story was influenced by whichever the “original” (a dangerous word in fairy tales, but most authors pointed to a specific book they’d read as a child as their source).

The stories ran the gamut on genre: fantasy, magic realism, realism, environmentalist manifesto, daily log, and questionnaire all made an appearance. Many of the stories’ tones were dark (the anthology’s title aptly forewarns you of that), some were quaint, and a few really resonated with me.

Favorite Moments

It’s difficult to talk about an entire anthology, so I’ll talk about a few stories. My favorites were “The Color Master” by Aimee Bender (inspired by Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”), “Catskin” by Kelly Link (inspired by Joseph Jacobs’s “Catskin”), “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” by Kevin Brockmeier, and “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” by Neil LaBute (both based on “Rumpelstiltskin”).

“The Color Master” is about the tailors and cloth-dyers that created the dresses that were the color of the moon, sun, and sky for the princess in “Donkeyskin,” the princess who is trying to invent impossible pre-marital tasks for her father so she doesn’t have to marry him. Unfortunately these tailors are very good at their jobs and create the impossible dresses the princess requires. The main character is torn between her exhilaration at meeting the requirements and her mentor’s revulsion at the attempted incest of the king. The descriptions are sublime.

“Catskin” was uniquely dark and bizarre, and it veered far from the story that inspired it (to be fair, Link says it is inspired by many fairy tales). “Catskin” manages to feel like a fairy tale while telling a completely new and intriguing story.

The Rumpelstiltskin stories are both very different, and both made me think about the funny little man very differently. “With Hair of Hand-Spun Gold” is really creepy, probably creepier because it’s a realist story, but it’s done very well and had my arm-hairs standing on end almost the entire time. It’s essentially the return of the Rumpelstiltskin stand-in character: he has found the mother and her daughter after years and approaches the mother on a park bench while the daughter plays on the playground, unaware.

Final Thoughts

The anthology does what it sets out to do: it displays how fairytale narratives infuse our lives, whether we acknowledge them or not. I was impressed with how the stories stretched and expanded what it means for a story to be based on a fairy tale. Each story gains something because it has a foil narrative—whichever “original” story you as the reader have in your head—and through that foil you interact with the story in a different way than you would if it stood alone. My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me has stories that will appeal to a broad range of readers, many of whom wouldn’t believe they’d like a retold fairy tale. While I didn’t enjoy every minute of the book, I enjoyed the ride it took me on.

A few content warnings to those of you who are considering this book: some stories include rough language, explicit sex, and extreme violence. Fairy tales have a lot of psychosexual themes and many are inherently violent, and several of the anthology’s authors ran that route. If you’re squeamish (which I often am), dip your toes in a story before diving in—skip it if you want to. The charm of the anthology is that there are plenty of other stories if one of them doesn’t suit your fancy.

Weekly Roundup: 10/29–11/4

Locus Online: World Fantasy 2011 Winners

Locus Online has posted the results of the World Fantasy awards, which were awarded at the World Fantasy Convention last weekend. I haven’t read the best novel (though I’ve read or will soon have read much of the short list), or any of the shorter fiction, but I am in the middle of reading the winner for best anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, edited by Kate Bernheimer. Thus far I’ve found it excellent. My review will come out after I actually finish reading all the stories.

Nathan Bransford: Are You Participating in NaNoWriMo?

In case you writers didn’t already know, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) started earlier this week. If you’re up for the challenge, commit to writing 50,000 words in a novel this month. If you want to get in on the biggest online party the writing community has, jump on the NaNo bandwagon. If you haven’t started already though, you’re going to need a boost to make up this week’s word count. So look to Nathan Bransford’s compilation of NaNoWriMo-related advice.

Publishers Weekly: Survey Says Library Users Are Your Best Customers

This week PW put out an article describing a new research survey that illuminates the contribution libraries make to the publishing industry. Many readers report buying books of authors they have read in the library, and there are a host of other findings.

Liz Castro: Where Should an Ebook Begin?

Ebook wiz Liz Castro explains how to make your ePub file guide a reader to the first chapter of your book when a reader opens it (instead of, say, the cover). I disagree with Liz—I like to see the cover first—but I do agree that the frontmatter of ebooks can get painfully excessive. Outside of the table of contents, I’m a fan of putting what is traditionally frontmatter (like copyright pages, etc.) at the back of the file.

David Carnoy: Amazon Launches Free E-book Borrowing for Prime Members

Now as a part of Amazon’s $79.99/year prime membership, Kindle owners can borrow one ebook at a time, free of charge, with no due date. Kind of like Netflix, but for books, and the prime membership also includes Amazon’s video service. Not all books are a part of the program, as it depends on publisher consent.

Minimalist Design for Children’s Stories

Little Red Riding Hood by Christian JacksonI recently discovered a series of minimalist posters inspired by various children’s stories and designed by Christian Jackson (I didn’t find them by myself; they were in an article on Flavorwire). My favorites among them are Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin, and a toss up between The message of the one duckling that’s different is delightful, but The Pied Piper poster was, I thought, one of the most interesting interpretations of the story because there is so much focus on the death involved; for me The Pied Piper had always been about very personal loss, but not necessarily death, so that was a different take for me (not that I minded; I always love a different take on a folktale).

What interests me (perhaps) most about these posters is how well the minimalism works for the folktales (yes, many of the stories he did technically have named authors, instead of the nebulous “folk,” but they’ve become so pervasive in our culture that they pretty much even out to the same thing). Because these stories are so ingrained and so common, we don’t need much prompting to retell the stories to ourselves. We only need motifs, hints, and light touches to evoke an entire lifetime of stories and retellings. Take the Little Red Riding Hood poster, for example. All you really need to evoke the story is the red cape in the woods; adding the edges of a wolf’s paw adds a tone of menace, but isn’t necessary for you to know exactly what Jackson is getting at.

Think about that for a second: All you need, visually, is three dark fingers and you can imagine the wolf it belongs to, and all the nasty things that wolf will eventually do (depending on which version of the story is nearest and dearest to your heart, those nasty things may be more or less than what I imagine).

Folktales are powerful because they are so common, and because “everyone” knows them. You can use them to enhance, contrast with, or influence anything you’re doing and you’ll be able to strike a chord with your audience. They’re an effective tool in any creators toolbox, whether you are an artist, writer, or any sort of communicator. Stories communicate, and stories you don’t even have to tell people communicate efficiently.