(7/25/02 8:38:09 pm)
| Old topic revisited|
I stumbled on a book the other day that reminded me of something Terri once said here (I had it in my notes): "What *I'd* like to see is an academic paper on how writers like the women above are the heirs to the French salon tradition -- which was also dominated by women (along with sympathetic men who also felt constrained by the gender roles of the day), also used magical tales in proto-feminist ways to talk about the realities of contemporary women's lives...and also got no respect from the literary establishment, just like modern genre writers."
This book I mentioned is _Twice upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale_, by Elizabeth Wanning Harries (2001, $32.50, ISBN: 0-691-07444-5, 224 pp., 14 halftones, 5 line illus. Recommended by Zipes & Tatar). I don't know how much it deals with modern genre authors, but it addresses the French salon folks in depth. I would imagine several of you know this book, and I'm keen to hear your opinions of it. I don't recall it being discussed, but perhaps I've just forgotten.
A taste, if you're curious: "The short, subtly didactic fairy tales of Charles Perrault and the Grimms have determined our notions about what fairy tales should be like. Harries argues that alongside these ''compact'' tales there exists another, ''complex'' tradition: tales written in France by the conteuses (storytelling women) in the 1690s and the late-twentieth-century tales by women writers that derive in part from this centuries-old tradition.
"Grounded firmly in social history and set in lucid prose, Twice upon a Time refocuses the lens through which we look at fairy tales. The conteuses saw their tales as amusements for sophisticated adults in the salon, not for children. Self-referential, frequently parodic, and set in elaborate frames, their works often criticize the social expectations that determined the lives of women at the court of Louis XIV.
"After examining the evolution of the ''Anglo-American'' fairy tale and its place in this variegated history, Harries devotes the rest of her book to recent women writers--A. S. Byatt, Anne Sexton, Angela Carter, and Emma Donoghue among them--who have returned to fairy-tale motifs so as to challenge modern-day gender expectations. Late-twentieth-century tales, like the conteuses', force us to rethink our conception of fairy tales and of their history."
Elizabeth Wanning Harries is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Smith College. She is the author of The Unfinished Manner: Essays on the Fragment in the Later Eighteenth Century.
This might be a great bridge work to respond to. In other words, if she *does* ignore the group represented on this board and its circles, then perhaps this is a call to arms. Has anyone here read enough of it to confirm the alleged neglect?
(7/25/02 9:41:18 pm)
Harries doesn't mention the board folks, which may seem strange especially since I have lectured in her folklore class at Smith every spring semester for the past five years. So she is certainly aware of us (well--me!) But she is really dealing with the past in her book. She may be working on a new book now. But she is a very slow writer.
(7/26/02 12:16:32 am)
| Re: Harries|
Unless I'm remembering incorrectly, we did discuss this book on the board when it first came out. I found it it informative and interesting, particularly when she was discussing the French salon writers. However, I'm not at all convinced by her argument that modern folklorists are wrong to assert that women played a large part in transmitting oral tales, and I was extremely disappointed that her examination of contemporary women fairy tale writers was indeed limited to the usual mainstream names: Byatt, Atwood, etc., with nary a mention of the explosion of adult fairy tale literature by American and British women that has been published as genre fiction in the last twenty years. Those reservations aside, it *is* a good book, *well* worth reading -- and I recommend it highly despite the usual genre-writers-don't-count problem.
It almost...amuses...me when the very scholars pointing out that the women fairy tale writers of the French salons have been unjustly ignored by history (despite their literary skills, deliciously subversive ideas, and the huge readerships they enjoyed in their day) are the same scholars now ignoring the women fairy tale writers whose works are published as Fantasy (despite their literary skills, deliciously subversive ideas, and the huge readerships they enjoy in their day.) In my view, that makes genre writers like, oh, Delia Sherman and Tanith Lee, for instance, direct heirs to D'Aulnoy, L'Heritier, or de Murat, while Margaret Atwood or Byatt are more comparable to Charles Perrault: that is, they are writers who are already well respected by the literary establishment, and thus are "allowed" to draw on fantasy material ((and credited with great innovation when they do so), whereas writers who make a career of working with fantastical and fairy tale themes but happen to publish under the wrong label aren't deemed worthy of discussion in books like the one above.
Mind you, in that analogy, I'm not sure where to put Angela Carter, Queen of Modern Adult Fairy Tales, since she seemed for many years to have one foot in the camp of literary respectability and one foot firmly outside it -- though since her death, of course, she's been taken far more seriously. Not that she's ever been considered as (or dismissed as) a genre writer...but certainly the fact that she gleefully ignored all genre boundaries and classifications altogether and wrote whatever the hell she wanted made mainstream critics wary of her for many years. (At that same time that it made her my hero.) Now that she's (sadly) safely departed and can't tweak any more noses, she's been getting a lot more respect.
Helen said at one point that she intented to write a paper about this (the connection between the salon writers and modern women fairy tale writers) one day...and I look forward to it!
Edited by: Terri at: 7/26/02 1:03:54 am
(7/26/02 5:24:57 am)
| Oh, yes ...|
I liked Harries for making the important point that *all* of the folkloric material that we possess is a part of the written tradition, and that there's no way to prove greater links between more "folksy" writers and the oral tradition than with more "literary writers" and the oral tradition. It's a book that's well worth buying, but the chapter on modern fantasy is considerably shorter than one could hope. As for the paper - Terri, thanks for the reminder! I had that niggling feeling at the back of my neck that I was forgetting something ... this year has been so hectic, this summer perhaps most of all, though in a wonderful way. I've written and sent out a review of Kate's _The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold_ to Marvels & Tales, sent out a revised article/version of my MA thesis to the same, started on two glorious, glorious books to review for the New York Review of Science Fiction (oh, this advance copy thing is a wonderful development), started a paper on the liminal nature of the Goblin Market (basically, our panel at WisCon/ talking to Charles started me off on this; I started thinking about transgressive elements in _Stardust_, trying to pick out the best single image, and it hit me that the Goblim Market is a perfect metaphor for the transgressive nature of interactions between the fantastic and the mundane ... ) and begun on the overview of Russian fairy tales. Not to mention the Donkeyskin casebook. But I kept feeling as though something had slipped my mind ... I think that the connections are wonderfully clear, and, well, frankly, unmistakable; actually, I think that I know where at least some of these ponderings are going to go - one of the books that I'm to review is that of a writer who definitely belongs to this circle, and there are no *real* length limitations, as far as I can tell ...Joy! [toddles off to work with the happy sense of having managed to amalgamate two tasks into one]
(7/26/02 8:29:08 am)
| Re: Harries|
Angela Carter's reception is a really interesting topic. I don't know whether or why some "mainstream critics" might have been reluctant to acknowledge the works of Angela Carter, but in the case of fairy-tale scholarship it didn't have anthing to do with fear of getting one's nose tweaked. In fact, in the case of fairy-tale scholarship it's simply not true at all. The scholars and scholarship I'm aware of were soon on to Carter at the very beginnings of the extraordinary revival in fairy-tale criticism that began in the late '70s and the 80s, when serious attention was finally being given to contemporary adaptations. "The Bloody Chamber" appeared as a book in 1979, the same year that the revival took off in a serious way with Zipes's "Breaking the Magic Spell." By 1983 Zipes had included "The Company of Wolves" in "The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood," and in 1986 he reprinted "The Donkey Prince" in "Don't Bet on the Prince" (along with works by Jane Yolen, Tanith Lee, and the way-out-of-the-mainstream Merseyside Fairy Story collective, who created spectacular tales). Within five years of the appearance of "The Bloody Chamber," Carter's fairy tales were on the syllabi for undergraduate and graduate fairy-tale courses and seminars, in the US at any rate. By 1987 Jacques Barchilon, the founder of "Marvels & Tales," had published her work in the journal's first volume, and a year later invited her to join the editorial board. For fairy-tale scholars it wasn't only after her death in 1992 that she earned respect.
In the context of fairy-tale studies, her early and fairly rapid reception seems to me all the more remarkable not only because it came virtually at the onset of the renaissance in fairy-tale studies, but also because in those "early" years it occurred largely via scholars who were--at least in terms of insitutional affiliation--specialists in other national literatures (e.g., German and French). In thinking about the critical reception of contemporary writers by "the literary establishment," I think it's useful to keep in mind not only the possible biases of critics, but also the disciplinary focus that may or may not limit what comes quickly into view, especially in a field and at a time where so much is being produced.
Beyond that, there may be other reasons for the perhaps myopic focus on certain writers who have become virtually canonical. I think this does, in part, have something to do with the remarkably innovative work they've done, as Terri notes. But based on what I know of the people writing the scholarship and the scholarship itself, I honestly can't see that it has anything at all to do with "allowing" or "disallowing" certain writers to work in the fantastic. And I don't see how it's a gender issue either. Are there no male writers/illustrators whose work is not significantly covered by fairy-tale scholarship (e.g., Peter Straub)? It certainly is an interesting and worthwhile question: Why are some writers of fairy-tale works who have a large popular reception not so frequently cited and discussed in contemporary fairy-tale scholarship? As the tide of fairy-tale scholarship shifts, as it is at the moment, to cross-cultural contexts, recovering writers and texts from the past, and rethinking the historical role of literacy and print in the social history of the fairy tale, the competition for space and attention will only increase. At the same time, I've seen some indications that the genres this board thinks deserve more attention from fairy-tale scholarship may gradually be getting it. Time will tell.
Edited by: Don at: 7/26/02 8:35:24 am
(7/27/02 3:24:42 am)
| Re: Harries|
Don, thanks for that interesting and informative response. And my apologies, I didn't mean to imply that fairy tale scholars didn't take Carter seriously from the get-go -- you're right to point out that they did. (Marvels and Tales, in particular, has published *wonderful* articles on Carter -- one of the many reasons I adore the journal.) My post above was a little muddled, sorry! What I actually meant was that literary critics and reviewers (particularly in the U.K., and even including feminist book reviewers) seemed somewhat ambivalent about Carter in her early years. I remember reading a number of reviews and articles that basically said: "It's interesting, even dazzling, but is it really literature?" Carter seemed to enjoy tweaking the noses of such critics by taking subversive stances in both her fiction and nonfiction.
I also didn't mean to imply that there haven't been important contemporary male writers of fairy tale literature, both in the mainstream (Robert Coover, Greg Maguire, etc.) and in genre (Peter Straub, John Crowley, etc). I was focusing on women writers because the thoughts in my post grew out of my feelings about Harries's book on fairy tales and women writers.
I do, however, continue to think that writers working with fairy tales who publish under a genre label _have_ been ignored by certain scholars and critics (Jack Zipes, as you point out, is not among them*), and that books like the one discussed above _do_ have a bias toward mainstream authors. How else do you explain that none of the contemporary women fairy tale writers whose works are published as Fantasy are even mentioned in passing in Harries's book, let along discussed? Particularly when there are so many writers in the Fantasy field who are specifically devoted to the fairy tale form and have been working hard over the last twenty years to deliberately promote this kind of literature? You could argue that the works of the best genre writers aren't as good as those of the writers Harries does discuss, I suppose, and therefore aren't worthy of mention -- but I'd contest that!
The point I was trying to make in my post above is that it interests me that Fantasy genre fairy tale writers today (both male and female) work on the margins of literary respectability, just as the female fairy tale writers of the 17th century salons worked on the margins of literary respectability. Like the salon writers, Fantasy genre fairy tale writers tend to know each other, discuss their work with each other, influence each other in large and small ways -- meeting at conventions and conferences and over the internet, rather than in elegant Parisian salons, I grant you, but nonetheless carrying on a tradition that, in my opinion, goes back at least as far as D'Aulnoy and her circle. Fairy tale writers who publish in the "mainsteam" (for lack of a better word), on the other hand, whether they are as well known at Byatt and Atwood or lesser known like Emma Donoghue and Sara Maitland, cannot be described as writers on the margins of literary respectability -- they enjoy the kind of serious attention from book reviewers and critics that genre-identified writers have yet to only dream of.
I admit, however, that my whole "genre writers don't get enough respect" soap box (which I seem to trot out at the least provocation -- sorry!) might simply mean that I'm walking around with a giant chip on my shoulder. It's kind of hard to remain entirely chipless in our field when we're constantly fighting to get reviewed somewhere other than the "science fiction" pages. However, it's not for myself or my own work that I feel so impassioned when the subject comes up -- but for all the splendid genre-identified writers whose work deserves every bit as much attention as, say, Emma Donoghue's. (Would Harries have included Donghue if Skinning the Witch had been published under a Fantasy label, as it easily could have been? That's not meant to be a snotty question; I'd genuinely like to know.) Writers like Patricia Mckillip, for instance, whose adult fairy tale short stories are every bit as exquisite as Donoghue's. Or Delia Sherman's short stories and her novel The Porcelain Dove; or the works by writers on this board. (Sorry to keep harping on Harries, since the problem as I perceive it is far wider than this one book. And I do admire other aspects of the Harries book very, very much -- in fact, it's currently sitting on my "Favorite Folklore Books" shelf.)
[ On the other hand (and now I'm playing Devil's Advocate to my own post), there are also good things about life on the margin. There's a vitality to the best genre fiction, and a sense of community among its writers, that comes specifically from the rebellious nature of chosing to work in a literary area that others dismiss. We may be segregated from "real books" into the Fantasy fiction ghetto, but the ghetto is often where innovative, subversive art springs from.]
I do think Don's right that the lack-of-attention for genre-identified writers among fairy tale scholars (if not mainstream book reviewers) is slowly changing, however. Young genre writers like Kelly Link are helping to blur the genre/mainstream divide, young scholars like Helen are championing writers from the fantasy and Y.A. fields, etc. etc.
And having a board like this where all of us from various areas of the fairy tale field can meet up and discuss such topics is a good thing indeed.
[* Jack Zipes has been terrific in that he has always taken genre writers such as Jane, and Tanith Lee, quite seriously -- as Don points out. On the other hand, his knowledge of fairy tale literature published under genre labels is somewhat limited -- as even he, I think, would admit. The list of genre writers he chose to include in The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales is very eccentric, and seemed to me to be compiled by someone who didn't know the genre well. There were writers on it whose connection to fairy tales was extremely tenuous at best, and writers omitted who have spent their working lives devoted to the fairy toale form. And the overall entry on Fairy Tales in Fantasy is written by someone who doesn't seem to know much about Fantasy literature published post Tolkien. Considering that the big movement for fairy tale based fiction in Fantasy didn't happen until the '80s and '90s, that's a serious omission. Mind you, The Oxford Companion to fairy tales is a fabulous book in other respects, and I'm grateful to Jack that he _did_ include some of the important genre writers at least.]
Edited by: Terri at: 7/27/02 6:43:43 am
(7/27/02 12:12:31 pm)
Terri--I know Harries and Zipes and Susan Sellers and often remind them of genre stuff and . . .it doesn't quite seem to take! Which I think underlines your concerns.
But I also think that we within the genre are sometimes as narrow in the other direction. I remember getting the Donohue "Kissing the Witch" collection here in Scotland and practically forcing it on genre friends who had never heard of it and resisted it until I beat it over their heads. (Terri, I remember giving it to you, and you were most welcoming to the idea and then overwhelmed by it, but you are always the exception rather than the rule! Not sure how many of the
English genre writers have opened their arms to Donohue yet.)
(7/28/02 1:04:03 am)
| Re: Agree|
You're absolutely right Jane, alas. I run into this all the time editing the fantasy half of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. For every reader or reviewer who is delighted that I include mainstream-published fantasy (such as Atwood, Byatt, Donoghue) in the volume, there are others that hate, hate, hate it and think I'm "polluting" the fantasy genre. Now Dave Hartwell has started a whole 'nother Year's Best Fantasy annual volume specifically to stick within the genre and make sure those boundary lines stay firmly drawn!
To me, stories are stories are stories, no matter what it says on the darn label.
As Ellen Kushner once said: If Jane Austen were published today, she'd be buried on the Romance shelves.
Edited by: Terri at: 7/28/02 1:05:02 am
(7/28/02 10:36:10 am)
| Yeesh ...|
I'm trying to wrap my mind around the idea of recategorizing acknowledged "great" works into the sneered-at genre groupings; aside from Austen as Romance, we'd have Poe and the entire Gothic contingent under Horror, and possibly quite a lot of Dickens under YA! It seems almost unthinkable.... and then it makes me wonder at my own reaction. It demonstrates how silly these groupings are - great writing is great writing, period, and it makes me wonder ... if they had been subject to these pigeonholes, would they ever have been recognized as being great in the first place?
I'm torn on the question of categorization. On the one hand, it seems rather useful to be able to direct readers towards topics that are of general interest to them; on the other hand, it seems almost impossible to garner respect for the authors working in genre fiction who, regardless of personal skill and talent, are tarred with the brush of the lowest common denominator perception of their field.
I see this from the other side of the looking glass, in a way; academics who admit to fascination with unpopular (or, outside the Ivory Tower, overly popular) topics are frequently dismissed as being less than serious scholars, when, in fact, many of them are pioneers of a sort. One would think that the fallacy of this position would be clear to anyone who'd taken a survey course in Shakespeare, and mourned the dearth of useful contemporary criticism from his peers, which would have undoubtably lent modern scholars new insights into the culture that he was writing for. Instead, we have the scurrilous, small-minded mutterings of lesser men, most of which don't even concern the writing - instead, we find mostly personal attacks.
I haven't seen too much of this from a personal standpoint, myself, probably because I'm small-fry enough that no-one much cares, and from superiors, I've received nothing but encouragement in the pursuit of my interests. I will admit that a number of the more cautious ones have given me advice along the lines of "Follow your passions, but spin them properly." Fellow graduate students have been, oddly, more conservative and less receptive; during a session meant to be treated as a forum to discuss the markets that we wanted to send our work out to, one or two of my choices were met with rather dismissive sniffs. Sadly, the consensus among *some* academics hearkens back to the bishop's commentary on the popularity of the contes des fees - that if they were any good, obviously, the Great Unwashed wouldn't like them so much.
I hasten to emphasize, only some academics, as young whippersnappers like myself do have an excellent network of fairy tale scholars to fall back on. The entire editorial board of M&T comes to mind - when I look at the letterhead, I find myself thinking, "One hundred years from now, people will be writing *tomes* about these groups - the Marvels & Tales crowd, the Endicott Circle, the Mythic Arts movement," and then I quiver with glee, and hope that I live that long. And maybe become a good enough writer to try tackling it myself.
I have to admit, I'm feeling more optimistic about this than I would have if this topic had come up a month ago - I'm interning at Tor now, and loving it. It's like a great big giant fun convention! There's always someone to babble at about, oh, the nature of magic, or what Jonathon Carroll is *really* getting at, or whether the University novel is at a point when it deserves its own subheading in fiction. The only other time that I can recall feeling this immediately at home is when I first stumbled on across this board.
Basically, I feel as though the process for recognition and acceptance of the field is well underway, in large part (hell, entirely) because of what all of *you* have done, and are doing. Simply - thanks.
(8/2/02 4:16:55 am)
| La conteuse?|
Sort of on topic, sort of not. In the book, Harries often uses the term "conteuse." I forget what the translation was, but I seem to remember thinking it was "storyteller" but maybe it was more of a title. Anyone have a direct translation of "la conteuse"?
(8/2/02 6:12:26 am)
| Re: Agree|
You know, the same thing is true across the genres, and not just among the fantasy/board members we know. Not just in fairy tale terms.
The "mainstream" writers of science fiction are frequently credited by mainstream reviewers with brilliant, even revolutionary, writings that readers and writers who live both in and out of genre know to be nonsense. Marge Piercy's novel "He, She, and It" is, to me, a good example. It's a book that's split between a historical depiction of the Golem of Prague story and a "mirror-image" futuristic tale of an artificial man and a Jewish woman's love affair with him. The Prague sections are indeed quite fine; but Piercy's future is a 1950s pulp-era cardboard construct. She, like the much more awful Lawrence Sanders before her (see "The Tomorrow File" but be sure to pack an airsickness bag), seems to mistake the physical trappings of science fiction for the genre itself. Of course, so does all of Hollywood, but let's not even get me ramped up on that topic.
The best critical takes on Piercy's book have come from John Clute, precisely because he IS well-versed both in and out of genre. The sf-ignorant mainstream press hailed it as some sort of revolutionary science fiction novel. How fresh, how original, how bad.
Similarly, Walter Mosley's "Futureland" has been hailed as great science fiction from this good mystery writer, but in fact it's a dated work, and I just get tired reading it. It's "Neuromancer"-era cyberpunk that brings nothing new or remarkable to the table, and I suspect it had been lying around in some form on Mosley's computer for years before seeing print.
Mainstream writers who go slumming in the fantasy and horror genres are often given undue credit for ideas cribbed from a literature that is off the radar of most fiction readers, who therefore think the writer has done something amazing, while those of us down here in the hole all know better and just end up with our noses further out of joint because we seem unable to get this message to anyone.
That isn't to say that there aren't Angela Carters and Louise Erdriches out there, doing extraordinary work. But is Kelly Link any lesser a talent than Carter was? Yet she's unknown outside the genre because she's a mere fantasy writer, and her merits remain invisible to an audience that might celebrate her if it knew of her. (Grumble, gnash, fume)
Okay, I'm done. You can have your soapbox back now. Although you now have me thinking about "Jane Austen, that incomparable writer of hard boiled detective fiction." Yeah, I want to see that. Maybe I want to do that...
(8/2/02 8:35:15 am)
| Us vs Them|
I often feel that writers like Kelly Link and Andy Duncan and William Eakin have a tough row to hoe, as they say. Perspectives and approaches that don't fit neatly within the sf/f genre as it currently exists, yet not really fitting into the "mainstream" either. I just tend to think our little ghetto is more expansive and flexible than some of the more vocal critics of such inclusions realize, and always has been. When room is needed, room is made.