Fairytales for Grown-Ups

This weekend, I saw “3000 Years of Longing,” which was a thoroughly enjoyable, modern, Arabian nights-style fable based on a short story by A.S. Byatt. The film alternates between scenes with the buttoned up academic Alithea (played by Tilda Swinton) and the djinn (the incredibly charismatic Idris Elba), and the flashback stories the djinn tells her of love and romance and wishes and tragedy. The scenes with just the two of them are prim, pristine, in a chic Istanbul hotel in the modern era. But the scenes in the past are candy-colored, lavish, even slightly gaudy, and they work brilliantly. All of this speaks to our human need for something that is out of the ordinary and mythic, something primal in our souls that needs to be fulfilled by a story that has magic to it.

Oscar Wilde’s short stories often have this “fairytales for grown-ups” quality to them. There are certain “stock characters”: a prince, a princess, animals that talk and guide us, evil beings. Those who dislike fairytales may say these characters (And fairytale characters in general) are two dimensional, flat, stereotyped. They are welcome to their opinion. I would argue these characters are there to serve the story, a greater message, rather than necessarily be something in and of themselves. There is a difference between archetypes and stereotypes.

Recent decades have shown the mania for fairytales as evidenced by the Harry Potter books. While certainly written for young people, countless adults have enjoyed the books as well as the films. We enjoy watching Harry develop magical powers, special effects, and watching good triumph over evil.

In literary fiction, a good deal of the work of Salman Rushdie has a fairytale-like quality to it. Think of Haroun and the Sea of Stories: even the title signals its connection to the Arabian nights and the Middle East/South Asia’s tradition of storytelling. While the novel is allegorical, it can be read on two levels: that of a child’s tale, and that of a critique of censorship.

There is of course the work of Angela Carter which draws directly on fairytales and (from what I have told, as I have not yet read her) Kelly Link. I find it refreshing that there are many authors (not listed here) who write on the edge of the fairytale/speculative fiction/magical realism and modern literary fiction; it is often a welcome change from the heavily realistic style we see so frequently, one that focuses on middle class, domestic issues, trauma, and relationships. The stories of indigenous cultures and ancient cultures, such as that of India, have never let go of the fairytale, as they are still seen as a relevant source of wisdom and entertainment.

Especially in a time like this, when we have been suffering with a pandemic for over 2 1/2 years, isn’t it nice to have something that transports us to a magical world, where princesses are beautiful, strong, and decisive, princes are handsome and brave, animals are our guides, palaces drip with opulence and jewels, and evil is something to be triumphed over?

What Makes for Good Writing (Part I?)

This post may have to be written in installments, as there are so many things to discuss about the subject. And of course, tastes will vary greatly — anyone in the arts knows that tastes are quite subjective. That said, if we look at certain elements of technique and craft, I think there are some constants or things that everybody would agree upon. Let us have a look.

-The prose. The use of language that makes us see things in a different way, or a more specific or creative way. Toni Morrison is a master of this: she phrases things uniquely, but her prose is always accessible and readable. Salman Rushdie creates his own lexicon and own language in his novels, a very florid, convoluted style to be sure, but he has such fun playing with the language that we cannot help but enjoy the ride. And then there are the Zen like, minimalist writers like Cormac McCarthy or Raymond Carver, who are able to create full pictures with a minimum of words. And let us not forget the inimitable Oscar Wilde
– the unparalleled wit masks a lot of wisdom!

-Metaphor. Consider Nabokov’s stunning line in The Gift, in describing a street where the protagonist lives, “… It rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.” Upon reading the sentence, I put the book down and shut it, simply blown away by the brilliance of the metaphor, sitting in stunned silence for a few moments. Toni Morrison’s work is rife with metaphor, as we can see many times in The Bluest Eye. Symbolism, metaphor, allegory – these larger themes enhance a work of literature, expanding it beyond what is merely on the page.

-Omniscient narration. This has largely fallen out of vogue in modern fiction, but omniscience truly gives us an understanding of the overarching picture of various things in a way that only omniscience can. Tolstoy is the first writer that comes to mind for most people, his penetrating insight into characters and the human condition and social mores is astounding. Willa Cather gives us this, as does Jane Austen. It suggests a certain wisdom on the part of the author, an understanding of human nature that, as above, expands beyond the words on the page. It can make sweeping generalizations and sum up grand truths that are part of why we need literature.

-Sort of on the flipside, intimacy. Edith Pearlman’s stories are warmly intimate; we truly feel we are with the characters. Philip Roth hilariously and disgustingly pushes the limits of intimacy in his brilliant Portnoy’s Complaint, which is a case of Too Much Information. Even the popularity of books like Bridget Jones’s Diary show the human need for confiding in a literary friend who is full of foibles and wants to share it with the reader.

-Unique subject matter. Ian McEwan’s Nutshell is brilliant: the retelling of Hamlet from the womb is unlike anything else. James Baldwin’s stories in Going to Meet the Man show a fresh perspective on Black life at a time when Blacks were still seen as the “House N—–” or The Other, only beginning to be integrated into American society. Dystopian novels like 1984 or Brave New World are still appealing because they are stories like nothing else. And even the success of the Harry Potter books shows that readers love a fantastical world where there is magic, villains, heroes, and an underdog hero. J.K. Rowling created a world of her own, and in doing so, her work developed a universal appeal.

These are but a few things that make for good writing. Perhaps this post shall be continued in the future.