Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale

Edited by Stephen Benson. 2008. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. 256 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8143-3254-2 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Kristiana Willsey, Indiana University

[Review length: 1362 words • Review posted on January 16, 2013]

Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale, edited by Stephen Benson, is a welcome contribution to the study of fairy tale-inflected literature, analyzing the intertextual borrowings of authors from Angela Carter to Nalo Hopkinson. Benson’s introduction names the fairy tale as one of the most powerfully influential genres on contemporary fiction, and goes on to denaturalize and critique the flexible definition of “contemporary,” which (in Michael Wood’s words) “forms a crucial part of the way that age understands itself” (3). Benson moreover situates this volume at the intersection of the rich and productive cross-pollination of fairy tales and literature: what he calls “a mutually transformative relationship of backward glances, revisionary updatings, wild anachronisms, and imaginary futures” (4). This volume is best suited to serious scholars of fairy tale-inspired fiction; the subtlety and rigor of the contributors’ analysis is not burdened by much summary of the fictions or framing of the authors being discussed.

Sarah Gamble’s contribution, “Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale,” is positioned as a second wave of Carter criticism. She complicates and expands upon the (comparatively few) critical readings of Carter as inescapably enmeshed in patriarchal narrative structures, as well as the more popular reads of Carter’s texts as emancipatory. Instead, she argues that Carter’s writing privileges the voices, not just of women operating outside of normative gender roles, but also of women who “engineer their own victimhood in order to satisfy their own nihilistic desires,” who “barter their bodies for gain,” who operate both as “murderous victim and virginal rapist”—women who, in short, steadfastly refuse to serve as good feminist role models (28, 25, 37). Teasing apart the complex relationship of sex and power in The Bloody Chamber, Gamble considers Carter’s work almost as postfeminist, noting that “gender does not necessarily confer solidarity upon those who share it” (44). The real “fairy tale” is to read Carter’s fiction as instructions on how to escape the bloody chamber, rather than as a series of reflections on the constant negotiation with those ambiguous social spaces.

Andrew Teverson’s chapter connects Salman Rushdie’s use of fairy tale themes and motifs to Herderian images of folktales as tools for nationalistic self-expression. For Rushdie, however, identity is rooted not in a homogenous ethnic identity, but in the dynamic hybridity of postcolonialism and transnationalism. For Rushdie, Teverson argues, a sense of national identity is found not in purity but in movement—through the constant uprooting, translation, relocation, and rediscovery that marks both his characters and his approach to fairy tales. Similarly, Teverson likens Rushdie to nineteenth-century comparative mythologist Max Müller, although in Rushdie’s case the notion of a common wellspring of stories is used to comment on the fluidity and availability of the fairy tale genre, not to recover a “pure” oral source. Teverson’s essay is indicative of the volume’s emphasis on how contemporary writers dialog with scholarly works.

Elizabeth Wanning Harries’ contribution to the volume, “Myth, Fairy Tale, and Narrative in A.S. Byatt’s Fiction,” takes the intertextuality of Byatt’s work as a given, which frees her to move on to the more interesting issue of how Byatt conceptualizes and reworks narrative itself. Harries notes that Byatt’s use of highly structured, artificial genres like the fairy tale ultimately comments on the “messy detail of the real” (85). Borrowing from literary canons both fantastic and realistic (and benefiting from the friction between them), Byatt sees the fairy tale as fundamental to our “narrative grammar,” something that both shapes and reflects the natural world (75). Harries is unwillingly to read Byatt’s fictions as (merely) redemptive: works that challenge the boundaries of race, class, and gender. In this she shares something with Gamble’s interpretation of Angela Carter, noting that Byatt was similarly wary of feminist gender reversals, claiming such reversals “exchange a ‘latent’ message for another, more obvious one” (89). Fairy tales have often been made to serve a didactic purpose, but what Byatt is interested in is patterns and structures—aesthetics rather than ethics.

Sharon Wilson’s consideration of Margaret Atwood centers on the transformative power of storytelling; she dips below the “smooth readerly surface [of Atwood’s fictions] beneath which hover a swarm of interlocking source texts” (10). Wilson argues that Atwood’s postmodern revisionist fairy tales break down sexist and colonialist systems through a process of “symbolic dismemberment and cannibalism to metamorphosis” (98-99). Through destabilizing and defamiliarizing traditional fairy tale texts, Atwood transforms old stories, and in doing so, models such transformation for the reader. Compared to the critical counter-reads of feminist and postmodern agendas proposed by fellow contributors Harries and Gamble, Wilson’s approach feels rather too familiar—though it also conveniently illuminates some of the key distinctions between “postmodern” and “contemporary” that Benson’s introduction strives to articulate.

Benson’s own analysis of the fiction of Robert Coover continues Harries’ investigation into aesthetics, focusing on Coover’s particular “style.” Benson applies Adorno’s concept of “late works” (as originally applied to Beethoven) to Coover’s writing, proposing that, rather than focusing on the flexible, enduring quality of fairy tales, we hypothetically position Coover’s fairy tales as “late works” in the nearly-concluded fairy tale genre. Benson’s bold dismissal of an overly comfortable “faith in narrative”—in transformation as continuity, as folklorists are apt to treat it—permits him to draw out a “poetics of lateness” in Coover’s writing style (132).

In the first five chapters, the recurring theme is the metafictional project each author being discussed is engaged in—the ways that Carter, Rushdie, Byatt, Atwood, and Coover simultaneously tell compelling narratives and use those stories to comment on the processes and practices of narrative. The final two chapters are more broadly theoretical, expanding on the positions posed in Benson’s introduction to closely consider the mutually transformative and vital relationship between fairy tales and fiction, as well as the slippery definition of “contemporary” in this context.

Merja Makinen contributes an exceptional disciplinary history—simultaneously sweeping and nuanced—of how the concepts of “postmodernism” and “intertextuality” have been defined and redefined by successive waves of scholarship. She examines how these terms have informed readings of the fairy tale according to sociohistorical, folkloristic, and psychoanalytic approaches, then distills the interpretations into two much-invoked evaluative categories: “parody radical (good), pastiche conservative (bad).” She argues that scholarly reads ultimately claim fairy tales as “pre-postmodern” texts—stories that are ‘always already’ complex, multivocal hybrids—then considers the applicability of these scholarly conclusions while analyzing the writing of Jeanette Winterson.

Bacchilega’s final chapter focuses on the fairy tales of Nalo Hopkinson, and the ways that her postcolonial fictions straddle boundaries both geographical and textual. The creolization of Hopkinson’s fairy tales, Bacchilega notes, draws out “the creolization of the fairy tale on a number of levels, from the cultural to the linguistic and the sociohistorical,” which is too often overlooked (188). Bacchilega employs an unusual layout in her chapter, incorporating quotations as speech bubbles in order to comment visually on the conversation between scholarly works and fairy tale fiction—an unconventional choice of format that, like the tales being analyzed, catches the reader off-guard and forces him/her to fully notice the multiple voices within a single text.

Bacchilega states that Hopkinson’s writing “push[es] me as a fairy-tale scholar to shed at least some of an older skin and take a different flight”—a key example of this volume’s emphasis on “the synchronicity of critical and creative work” (196, 6). For the authors in this volume, it is the sensitivity and awareness of fairy tales with which the Carter generation writes that “give[s] critical edge to aesthetic pleasure, and it is on the edge, between seduction and critique, immersion and resistance, that postmodern literature has tended to position itself” (12). Benson’s summation is perhaps telling of why these authors enjoy such critical attention/affection—scholars of the fairy tale are the ideal audience for such “works that can only ever be enjoyed knowingly”—since writers who are themselves also incidental scholars validate and make visible the work that fairy tale scholars do (12). Writers and scholars of contemporary fairy tales have another quality in common: they are the rare kind of readers for whom explaining the joke (here, deconstructing the plot) only makes it better. Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale will make readers return to favorite authors’ works with new eyes.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.