Reviews 2009

Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale

Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale. Edited by Stephen Benson. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. 209 pages. £28.95 (paperback).

Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale is a collection of seven articles compiled by Stephen Benson around the central axis of contemporaneity and the fairy tale. With a particular focus on the works of Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Robert Coover and Jeanette Winterson, the collection explores fiction published between 1969 and the present. According to Benson, studying the fairy tale’s reciprocity with twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature reveals the inherent contemporaneity of the genre, and suggests a far more complex view of the notion of influence generally associated with the fairy-tale intertext. The variety of approaches proposed, as each essay provides a distinctive method, results in a multi-faceted collection where resonances build between texts in an almost dialogical way, and the reader is given an impression of the diversity of paths taken in fairy tale studies and the creative literary production over the last decades. It is in fact the “critical-creative” (7) dialogue between writers and critics that Benson places at the heart of the collection’s concerns.

Benson has accomplished the difficult task of not only assembling a reputable line-up of scholars and critics but also fostering a strong thread of continuity throughout the collection. Sarah Gamble’s “Penetrating to the Heart of the Bloody Chamber: Angela Carter and the Fairy Tale” stands out against the vast landscape of Carter criticism, exploring generic intersections to draw forth the “voices” of “the pornographer, the libertine, and the vampire” (21) and study “the reciprocity between women” as a “fairy tale” (21) in Carter’s stories. In so doing, Gamble subtly moves beyond the oft-quoted accusation of Carter’s complicity with master narratives, particularly in relation to pornography. Andrew Teverson’s “Migrant Fictions: Salman Rushdie and the Fairy Tale” joins with Gamble’s generic concerns as it explores how Rushdie’s appropriation of the fairy tale ultimately points to the link between narrative and the fluidity of cultural identity. His study of the predominance of ambivalence in Rushdie’s treatment of the story as being intertwined with the fairy tale genre is convincing and thoroughly explored.

Elizabeth Wanning Harries’ “‘Ancient Forms’: Myth, Fairy Tale, and Narrative in A.S. Byatt’s Fiction” expands the concept of intertext to skillfully study how the fairy tale structure intersects with A.S. Byatt’s postmodern fictional aesthetics. Her nuanced textual analyses illustrate Byatt’s challenge to postmodern two-dimensionality, and thus demonstrate the fictional enactment of Byatt’s declaration that “that the tale is always stronger than the teller” (90). Sharon R. Wilson’s “Margaret Atwood and the Fairy Tale: Postmodern Revisioning in Recent Texts” provides the reader with a detailed study of Atwood’s use of the fairy tale intertext. Her overview of the tactics used by Atwood to debunk the idea of fairy tale as a “poison apple” for women in its questioning of master narratives, as well as her focused discussion of Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, provides a clear viewpoint from which readers can branch off and pursue their own reflections.

Stephen Benson’s “The Late Fairy Tales of Robert Coover” provides a clear and insightful discussion of Coover’s relationship to tradition as being characterized by “lateness.” With a strong emphasis on the theory of Theodor Adorno, Benson studies the interaction between the temporality of the fairy tale, and Coover’s appropriation of its structures and motifs, ultimately drawing convincing conclusions. Benson argues, for example, that Coover’s texts simultaneously stage and block “the materials of the genre: character, narrative, and morality” (138) and that the vibrancy of the works ultimately springs from their “lateness.” Although conceptually heavy at times, Benson’s use of theory ultimately opens up Coover’s work to a series of strikingly subtle observations. Merja Makinen’s article, “Theorizing Fairy-Tale Fiction, Reading Jeanette Winterson” offers two complementary studies. Her comprehensive survey of contemporary fairy tale scholarship and postmodern fairy-tale fiction’s gradual movement towards more ideologically fluid tendencies, what she calls “a complex and complicated meshing of parody and pastiche, of critique and redeployment” (161), not only provides a solid context for the collection as a whole, but also transitions smoothly to a second section in which she demonstrates how Jeannette Winterson’s fairy tale aesthetics echoes theoretical concerns with its representation, for example, of the “provisional, fractured nature of subjectivity” (164).

Finally, Cristina Bacchilega’s “Extrapolating from Nalo Hopkinson’s Skin Folk: Reflections on Transformation and Recent English-Language Fairy-Tale Fiction by Women” indeed performs the task described in the title. Using Angela Carter’s Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost as a starting point, Bacchilega carries the reader on a critical trajectory beyond Carter’s “pre-texts” to point to new paths, such as the concept of “creolization.” Through her incisive discussion of Nalo Hopkinkson’s stories she points to the need for a shift in the canon. Bacchilega’s experimental use of intertextual “bubbles” to simulate multivocality on the page, points to the current emphasis on hypertext in fairy tale studies, and suggests the “mental practice of pursuing associative links” (193) in Hopkinson’s fiction. This article represents an avowed movement to “shed at least some of an older skin and take a different flight” (196). In its opening up of the fairy tale tradition to new directions, Bacchilega’s work represents a strong catalytic potential.

For readers interested in the fairy-tale intertext in contemporary fiction, this collection proposes a series of insightful analyses that build and echo in relation to each other. Although some sections teeter at moments on the edge of mere description or glossing of fairy-tale intertexts, the volume offers salient, and often groundbreaking, visions at a time of general reassessment in fairy tale studies.

Michelle Ryan-Sautour
University of Angers, France