Monday, 11 January 2016

Short stories, fairy tales and the Angela Carter effect

Carter-infested waters

I am up to my neck in Angela Carter at the moment, working as I am on my PhD thesis which looks at the use of folk and fairy tales in short stories. And the more I read, the more it seems that all writers of folk-fantastic fiction, especially women, are in the same predicament, lapped at all sides by the sea that is Carter’s consuming legacy.

I should declare myself a Carter fan. Marina Warner described Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber as the ‘catalyst of a million awakenings for readers (especially girls)’ and I am among their number. The waters of the Carterian sea have risen and risen since 1979, when The Bloody Chamber was published. In 1992-3, the British Academy Humanities Research Board received over forty proposals for doctorates on Carter’s work, making her one of the most fashionable thesis topics of the late twentieth century.

Outside the ivory towers, there’s no doubting the effect of Carter’s work on both readers and writers, and long may that effect last – her writing is dazzling, after all. But those rising waters seem to be drowning out other ways of talking about the fairy tale in literature, and especially in literary short stories. Most of all, with only their heads showing above the waves (excuse this uncomfortably extended metaphor), women writers of fairy tale-ish fiction are all made to look as if they resemble Carter from the neck down.

Consider this survey of blurbs and reviews for a selection of contemporary short story writers who use folk and fairy tales in their work. According to critics, Lucy Wood’s stories ‘echo the great Angela Carter’; Sara Maitland is ‘rather Angela Carter like’; Helen Oyeyemi ‘is the literary heir of the late, great Angela Carter’; Kirsty Logan ‘has picked up Carter’s mantle’.

This invoking of Carter as a lazy shorthand for fairy tale-inflected fiction only obscures the huge differences between the work of these writers, and the differences between their projects and Carter’s. Only one of the writers named above – Kirsty Logan – cites Carter as a direct influence on her work, but she is arguably following more closely in the footsteps of Emma Donoghue, who wrote her own queer subversions of fairy tales in Kissing The Witch. Lucy Wood’s stories are personal where Carter’s are political, exploring emotional experience alongside the Cornish landscape. Sara Maitland was writing in response to fairy tales at the same time as Carter, and her continued engagement with the genre has always been different, being ‘less interested in sex’, as Carter herself pointed out. Helen Oyeyemi finds no common ground with Carter, and steps much further away from the original tales than Carter did in her fiction.

‘Carter-esque’, then, can be an unhelpful label, letting us forget that every writer goes her own way with the fairy tale, even if she has paddled through Carter’s work to get there. Note I say ‘she’, for I can give no equivalent survey of blurbs and reviews of contemporary male writers. Of course, male writers’ engagement with fairy tale can be less obvious, but they regularly play with the fantastic and the ‘tale’ form, especially in short stories. Rob Shearman’s stories, for example, owe much to the fairy tale, and Shearman does count Carter as an influence, but no critic appears to notice.

Even though Carter exemplified the genre-mixing and virtuosic stylistic play that we often see in fantastic fiction by men, never is she invoked to describe their work. And it’s not only Carter missing from those blurbs. Have a look at the jackets of the books on your shelf, and see if you can find one that likens the male author’s words in its pages to a female writer who has gone before him. Good luck!