Stephen Benson, ed. Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pp. 209, index.
Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale is a timely contribution to the growing body of scholarship on contemporary fairy tales. The seven essays in the book focus on contemporary fiction authors who utilize the tropes, structures, and intertexts of fairy tales in their writing. Time itself is also one of the topics of discussion, from the artistic “lateness” in Robert Coover’s writing to the non-linear narratives found in A. S. Byatt’s tales. The theoretical and cultural contexts of this book range from postmodernism to postcolonialism, second-wave feminism to post-feminism—all of which are situated in time and space, occurring after or continuing beyond their originary impulses. The aims of this book, described by Benson in his introduction, are to explore the works of the “fairy-tale generation” of writers (including Robert Coover, Margaret Atwood, A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, and others), to probe the contemporaneity of fairy tales despite their archaic origins, and ultimately to “account for the considerable time spent by contemporary fiction in the company of the fairy tale” (15). Time is thus a major structuring element of this book, and each chapter contributes to a nuanced understanding of the creative intermingling of fairy tales, fiction, and values.
The first five chapters explore the canonical fairy-tale fiction authors mentioned above. Sarah Gamble explores two important themes in Angela Carter’s use of fairy tales, intertextuality and sexuality, the former controversial because Carter never drew solely on intertexts from the folktale genre, and the latter controversial due to Carter’s interest in moral pornography, an idea articulated in her nonfiction book The Sadeian Woman (which was published in 1979, the same year as The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s best-known collection of fairy tale fiction). Refusing to assign Carter’s writing to the simple categories of sex-positive feminist revisions of fairy tale or complicit collusions with sexual violence, Gamble gracefully navigates Carter’s multifaceted engagement with fairy tales.
Andrew Teverson discusses Salman Rushdie’s hybridizing agenda, expressed in Rushdie’s fiction that transcends cultural, geographical, and structural boundaries. Teverson names the Arabian Nights the “single most important folkloric influence on Rushdie’s work” (61), concluding that Rushdie relies on the work so heavily and cyclically because “it is a narrative body that has survived and achieved its current form at the interstices of cross-cultural exchanges between ‘East’ and ‘West'” (65), thereby underlining the fascination with cultural inheritances, aesthetics, and migrations that characterizes Rushdie’s interaction with fairy tales.
Elizabeth Wanning Harries delineates how A. S. Byatt’s conception of narrative and fictional strategies have been shaped by fairy tales and the fantastic more generally, utilizing strategies such as juxtaposition and framing. Sharon Wilson’s essay on Margaret Atwood focuses on the fairy-tale intertexts in her fiction, ranging from allusions to her use of “symbols, irony, parody, gender reversal, self-conscious and developing narrators, bent and blended tone and genres, lack of resolution, and defamiliarization to depict characters and personas who experience greater awareness, usually fairy-tale transformation” (115).
Stephen Benson analyzes Robert Coover’s surprisingly consistent style in his decades-long affair with fairy tales, contrasting Coover’s fictions with the classic fairy tale modes of character, narrative, and message. Benson concludes that in Coover’s texts “fairy-tale conventions of meaning and morality meet post-fairy-tale requirements of complexity and complication, without synthesis or resolution” (138). This statement, while particularly apt for Coover’s work, applies to all of the fiction analyzed in the book, which accounts for some of the enduring popularity and complexity of these fairy-tale writers.
The last two essays in the book focus less on specific authors than on the cultural conditions shaping contemporary fairy-tale fiction. Merja Makinen provides a useful summary of some of the theoretical issues surrounding the connections between postmodernism, fairy tales, and intertextuality. She outlines the extent of postmodernism’s impact on our understandings of fairy tales, touching on issues such as the difference between duplication and revision. Focusing on the pliability and cultural currency of fairy tales, Makinen applies these concepts to the fairy-tale fiction of Jeanette Winterson. Makinen eschews monologic readings of fairy tales in favor of placing Winterson’s fairy tales “within their textual context, as postmodern mélanges of competing discourses” (173). Cristina Bacchilega discusses recent English-language fairy-tale fiction by women that transformatively extends the energy of Angela Carter and her generation, continuing to explore the multivalence and multiplicity of fairy tales while moving in new directions. Utilizing the fairy-tale short story collection Skin Folk by Caribbean-Canadian author Nalo Hopkinson as her primary textual example, Bacchilega considers creolization and the representation of orality, among other issues. Bacchilega employs an innovative format in that she includes hypertextual blocks of text that intrude into paragraphs and encourage the reader to consider the intertextual links between story and scholarship; it is a little jarring at first, but ultimately thought-provoking and hence a worthy component of this project.
This is a book I would recommend to anyone studying contemporary permutations of fairy tales. Benson’s introduction is especially articulate and describes many of the cultural trends that have influenced the intertwining of fiction and fairy tale, including the synchronicity of fairy-tale scholarship’s increasing activity and visibility relative to the contemporaneity of the fairy tale as a fiction form. This contextualizing discussion alone is useful for the fairy-tale scholar, but the added insights of each of the essays (and their bibliographies) are indisputably significant for those of us who study the fairy tale’s transformations and transdisciplinary resonances today.