Thursday, 22 March 2012

Once upon a time there was a revival

Even Grown-ups like pretending
 The story ‘Five Hundred new fairy tales discovered in Germany’ has been riding high in the ‘most read’ sidebar on Guardian Books for about a week now. It’s hard to imagine this having been the case five years ago. Let’s set aside for now the bubble-bursting interjection from folklorists that firstly, very few of these five hundred are new and secondly, they are just the tip of the unstudied iceberg of fairy tales waiting for their folklorist princes to kiss them into life. What is interesting about them is the interest in them.

Until recently the thrust of any mainstream media comment on fairy tales was usually coming from the ‘PC’-obsessed camp: either those outraged-of-the-21st-century types fearing traditional tales would give their children blood-soaked nightmares, or the ‘PC gone mad’ hecklers defending children’s blatant fascination with the macabre, full-blooded nature of such stories. Many fairy tales have been re-written, either in earnest or with an ironic PC eye, for modern children. Roald Dahl’s efforts in Revolting Rhymes are famous for being funnier and possibly more violent and subversive than the originals, but there are plenty of sanitised facsimiles out there.

But the new obsession is nothing to do with provoking the little ones. It appears to be largely about replacing glittery vampires and trashy werewolves as a lore-heavy mode of telling a passionate tale ostensibly aimed at teenagers. There’s a theory afoot (not just now, but pretty much since Freud and Jung) that we can safely explore the riskier areas of the human psyche by transferring our human dilemmas of the soul into a realm other than ours: one in which things exist such as sirens (seductresses, not emergency services), or witches who can turn men into pigs, or wolves that can convincingly imitate grandmothers. Turn a romance into an unlikely one, between a girl and a supernatural being, and it becomes more appealing for its sheer impossibility, rather like the alleged real-life avoidance tactic of falling for the gay/married/World-of-Warcraft-obsessed man.

However, it is not just teenagers who are drinking down this re-branded magic potion. Just as adults unashamedly read Harry Potter on the tube, the Worlde of Fairie has moved, hot on the tail of broader fantasy fiction, from being the domain of the Glastonbury hair-braider with wings to the mainstream. I do modern fairytale a deliberate disservice with this dismissal, only to make the point that the spectrum of fairy tale writing now is as wide as for any range of fiction. Yes, there is fan-fiction fairy porn, but there are also serious, literary writers creating new folk tales in much the same way that talented, accomplished musicians such as Gillian Welch create new folk songs. You don’t have to be steeped in the tradition to do it well, nor to enjoy it, and there is now a burgeoning market for new and retold fairy tales in writing, art and film.

If you are one of the new breed who welcome a twitch in your vestigial tail bone, or a bristle of hairs at your neck-scruff, I would point you towards a grand anthology called My Mother She Killed Me,My Father He Ate Me, edited by KateBernheimer, who is a one woman effort in keeping fairy tales alive. She also edits the Fairy Tale Review, which is full of wonders. You might also like There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill her Neighbour’s Baby, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Nothing like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but all the better for it.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Reading as a Writer

Reading as a writer: seeing the wood for the trees?

I’ve noticed quite a few advertisements recently for classes in how to read as a writer. I know what they’re getting at, and it’s a useful skill. It can – rather like the critical eye an English literature graduate cannot help passing over fiction –distract you from immersion in a novel or short story, but it also makes a second reading of a book fascinating.

I was chatting to my fellow writers last night after our critique group, and one of them asked what I was reading. After trying to summarise Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox (a very difficult thing to do!) he asked what it was the author was doing in the novel. This might sound an odd question, but it is one I have held in my head throughout the book, looking for the joints, for the deliberate construction behind what can be a hallucinatory read at times. Of course, I am looking for the particular techniques that I can learn from and apply to my own writing, and so my explanation of what the author is up to was shaped by that.

Oyeyemi has taken tales such as Bluebeard, Fitcher’s Bird and Reynardine, and used them as a jumping off point to construct stories containing real (as in realistic) and imaginary (as in figments) 20th century characters in real settings (England, New York, Cairo). The fairy tales are there in themes, in patterns of human interactions, but she also seems to create new, modern fairy tales. I’m writing interconnected stories myself, and Mr Fox is ripe with interesting ways to create these threads between tales. I can’t claim to understand how Oyeyemi is doing this all of the time, and as a writer reading, I know I need a second, and probably a third, reading to learn more.

When I asked what my writer friend was reading, he said he had returned to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, having read it fifteen years ago. He too, is reading it as a writer, at least this time, and his first comment was that a lot of the text would get ripped to shreds if subjected to the kind of critique we give each other’s work in the group. The repetition was driving him mad, for a start. On the other hand, he said, Hemingway gets away with a lot of it because the opening of the book is so strong. Again, this is something we all seek to emulate as writers: the trick of drawing in a reader so firmly that you can take risks and keep them with you.

After two years of critiquing work in a weekly writers’ group, it’s difficult to switch off the critical eye when reading for learning or pleasure. Constantly I find myself asking, would this character really think in those words? Could the author have demonstrated this instead of telling me about it second hand? Is this detail doing any work in the story? Is the style supporting the content? It can be an irritating querying voice in my head when reading, but constant analysis can teach a writer a lot. The next step, though, is to be able to apply the same critique to your own writing, and that’s another learning curve altogether.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Bath Lit Fest 2012 - poetry and vintage gloves

Pigs will eat cheese but ignore poetry

Perhaps it’s a bit like the first act in a variety show. The audience need a warm-up, the big guns are being saved for later; it’s a moment for the brave new souls with ambitions to chance it. The first night of the Bath Lit Fest, for me anyway, consisted of following a performance poetry troupe on a pub crawl. It was a Friday. Bath ale pubs may not be rowdy, but they were certainly full of people who had gone out for a good chin-wag over a hearty brew and who did not want their gossip exchange interrupted with amplified phases that rhymed.

I was there with a poet, Richard Jones, who has just produced his first pamphlet, of which he is rightly proud. It is a stunning thing, full of phrases and implicit insights that silence me as I think, how did he do this? It is poetry to be read aloud, preferably in Richard’s own Swansea rhythms, but it is not ‘performance poetry.’ Performance poetry is a breed all of its own. It is not quite song, not quite hip-hop; that it is often featured in a ‘slam,’ or a kind of high-speed breathless battle of diaphragms, is telling. When it is really funny it can be brilliant, but also when it is angry polemic, or a form of rhythmic rant. We did laugh, in Bath, when we were able to catch a whole poem over the hubbub, but sometimes we also cringed. This is to be expected.

There is poetry out there that works perfectly on the page, but also lends itself to being spoken and absorbed through the ears. On the other hand, there is poetry, especially some performance poetry, that is made only for aural consumption, and is weak on paper without the accelerating engine of a charismatic speaker to bring it to life. Some poetry depends for its soul on the out-loud voice of the maker. If you’ve ever heard a Radio 4 reader reproduce a poem by Benjamin Zephaniah you’ll know what I mean. Zephaniah’s poems are still a wonder when read in the head though; they are not only for the ears. Even though he confesses himself that he cannot bear to hear them read aloud in British middle class received pronunciation, those of us who speak that way can engage with them alone, even if a performance is better.

All this rattled around my head as I listened to students in those Bath pubs lamenting relationship failures, subjecting themselves to cruel satirical scrutiny and proclaiming their multi-national roots in verse. When I didn’t get it I feared I was missing something myself, that I was out of touch with modern poetic modes. I wondered if I would still have cringed or giggled if I had been reading the same words at home in my room.

But after all, there was something – dare I say it – authentic about what those daring performance poets put out into the genteel air of Bath Spa. The next day I couldn’t face a recording of Radio 4’s The Book Show with Mariella Frostrup, or Alain de Botton pontificating about religion for atheists. Instead the poet and I wandered amongst junk at the market, trying on purple leather gloves and admiring battered leather suitcases that were far too self-consciously cool for anyone over 21. Authentic, yes, but cringe-inducing also; we left them at the market and ate a big plate of cheese instead.