Presently, fairy tales and fable are not just having a moment, as they tend to do from time to time, but an especially rich and deep one. For familiar tales, at least in my not-scholarly, fully-anecdotal experience, it seems like the satires and inversions of their tropes have become reintegrated into the popular conception of some stories, which is an exciting terrain where wholly fresh, subversive, and tertiary explorations crack through.
I read a fascinating and very funny interview with Daniel Ortberg at Ignotae where they discuss, in part, Ortberg’s process both retelling and combining familiar stories, and letting everything from Bible stories to popular children’s literature into the mix. And I thought, wait, the brief, bloodthirsty versions of everything from The Velveteen Rabbit to Jacob wrestling with God in Ortberg’s work is just such a different meaning of “retelling” than, say, the way Theodora Goss beautifully retells seminal Gothic literature by giving its female characters existence and agency through long-form narrative.
So here is some terminology that I absolutely just made up while thinking about this blog post:
- A retelling is a version which complicates the flatness or brevity of the original tale, in the case of fairy tales, essentially re-making the story as literary fantasy with character motivations, interiority, details, a larger world.
- A revisioning may be a new version of a known or existing tale, including a fusion of multiple tales, but in the case of fairy tales, maintains the signature formal traits of the original, such as lots of telling and psychological distance, regardless of whether it is used to sincere or satirical ends.
I have no idea if this distinction will prove useful for anyone else but there you go. A lot of very smart people have already defined the fairy tale better than I could. If you’ve never read it, Kate Bernheimer’s essay, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale” it is essential reading for any writer interested in the contemporary genre.
Then, here is a fascinating interview with Aimee Bender by Stephanie Palumbo at The Believer about developing a general ed undergraduate syllabus on fairy tales, which draws and elaborates on Bernheimer’s essay. Some highlights:
SP: I read a Kate Bernheimer essay about the four elements of fairy tales: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic. It’s interesting that writers are often told to avoid flatness, but it can be incredibly compelling.
AB: We get used to thinking there are these certain rules about fiction. But in fact, fairy tales came first. What flatness does is make the characters two-dimensional—we don’t get depth from their internal lives. But what the character goes through is different than in a realistic novel. Here you piece the story together and learn about the characters’ motivations through the action.
Flatness might mark the fairy tale apart from the psychological interiority of literary fiction in general, but I think I would add that there are formal traits that mark the fairy tale apart from the genre fantasy and science fiction. I have tried to articulate what I like about fairy tales before, and I think there is a characteristic flatness to the exterior, as well:
There are speculative stories in which it’s necessary to develop a system or an explanation, even just a suggestion of a larger world, in order to suspend disbelief. In a fairy tale, the teller and their listener decide to care very much about knowing nothing and transform flaws into features in the pursuit of a different logic with different ends.
This may be part of why it is also a flourishing time for the new fairy tale and fable, especially in the short form. A lot can be left unsaid to conclude entirely in the reader’s mind, even the tone. This approach is confrontational and challenging, yet it can also engage and extend point of view on a level more intuitive than intellectual. Kit Haggard recently wrote an awesome article in The Outline about “How a queer fabulism came to dominate contemporary women’s writing” that seems relevant to this confrontational-approach-to-extending-point-of-view thing I’m circling.
Which reminds me: it is commonly held that “empathy” in storytelling–that cumulative residue supposedly created through psychological realism and interiority–is the key to understanding differences and resolving conflict, but in many of my own experiences supposedly on the “receiving end” of empathy, I’ve found that is a sort of trap. I wonder if a lot of the other writers might feel the same way, and if fabulism and fairy tale is one way to escape the trap. Nate Brown, the editor of American Short Fiction, said something about this in a recent article about submitting short stories:
Empathy—the imaginative capacity to be sensitive to another’s experience and even to experience thoughts and feelings vicariously—may not be enough when it comes to creating round characters. Something more is demanded of artists than merely the exercise of our imaginations. Empathy requires some effort, sure, but love—complicated, fraught, enrapturing, difficult, bizarre love—requires tremendous work. Think of how hard and how necessary it is to love through hardship and pain and how critical it is to be loved and to be able to love in return. Without empathy (not receiving it and not being able to engage in it), my life would be unimaginably diminished, but without love, my life would be over.
While there is no stylistic limit to achieving the feeling of love in narrative, I wonder if part of the appeal of flatness, and thus new and revisited fable and fairy tale, is how it sets aside one kind of elaborate and exhausting work–the work of establishing being lovable on the part of the writer–and asserts something else instead, tells the reader: no I will not “show” you, this is how it is, this is how it goes, this is who and what the story is about whether you get it or don’t. A difficult or marginalized point of view extended by fairy tale form puts forward a raw truth but maintains its mystery, not easily commodified into a performance of confessed trauma or tidy inspiration. It says: who are you to ask for relatability, likability? It says: come to the place where all the usual rules break down and touch something that will ultimately slither away from you, because you need to witness it and know it but you can’t have it, and you don’t get to keep it.