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?

The Writer as Truth-Teller

We have seen the tragic event of the past week and events of the recent past and this only emphasizes the importance of the writer as a social figure. It is also crucial that we allow democracy to filter into the classroom, allowing a variety of viewpoints to be read in various texts.

There are a variety of ways in which writers tell the truth. Sometimes, they overtly criticize a political regime or administration. This act seems to be what is most often chastised and severely punished, even by imprisonment or death. At other times writers use satire, a phenomenon which, when done carefully, evades censors and thus the readers (or viewers of theater) are quick to pick up on institution that is being critiqued. Humor can be a tool in doing this: what we know of as, for example, “dark Slavic humor” masks a sarcastic commentary. The twin sister of satire is allegory, in which a fable-like quality is given to the lead characters and narrative, allowing it to be read on one level as simple story (that retells a classic we know), while a more profound subtext is below what we read on the surface.

Politics, religion, social institutions, -isms of various sorts (such as sexism) are all topics that brave writers address through literature whose goal is social commentary. Sometimes, fiction is the best way to make sense of our world and engaging people: think of how many people tune out and stop watching the evening news or reading the (online) newspaper when they are faced with the literal facts and information about what is going on in the world. Fiction allows for a deeper analysis of our current situations, end it often does so in a much more poetic or palatable way.

There are those who will say a writer should write with the philosophy of “art for art’s sake,” such as Oscar Wilde did. However, Oscar Wilde himself did comment on society in many of his works, albeit in a highly aesthetic way. Even his own life, as a gay aesthete writer, was an act of rebellion for which he heavily paid the price. The takeaway should be that enjoyable, appealing prose and social commentary are not mutually exclusive.

Understanding How We Deepen Fiction

Being a writer is quite an arduous process and a fascinating endeavor, nonetheless. Once we discover the impulse to put something down on the page, we find that there are layers and layers of work. Perhaps the most gifted of writers have little struggle, but for the rest of us mortals, it takes much trial and error to understand the complexity of our task.

Over the years, I have enjoyed editing others’ work in workshops, conferences, and even privately. In the early days, my feedback was largely line edits, as that’s what I understood fiction editing to be. Over time, I started to think about plot and motivation: was there a clear cause-and-effect? Were the characters’ reasons for doing things legit, based on what was on the page? And naturally, this tied into scene and scene length. Where did I feel there was a bit missing, where something needed to be expanded? What darlings need to be killed? (A lot of writers err on the side of putting in too many details, and often they do not serve the plot or the main thrust of the story.) Was the writer setting us up properly at the beginning of the story or piece of fiction for things to unfold in the way they did throughout the work?

And in my own writing, I came to understand importance of the quality of prose. A good friend of mine from my MFA program spent hours laboring over her sentences. We would send each other a sample of our work weekly, and I understood from her that it wasn’t enough to simply tell the story from the images in my head: variation in my sentences and what I put on the page was extremely important. Due to my earlier training in the social sciences and academia, I was used to observing and writing down what I saw. This had its advantages, in that my characters were never flat, and I always received positive comments on the their complexity and on the realism of my stories. However, the cost was I had to think about the nature of my prose, which sometimes seemed simplistic and flat. Who were the master stylists among writers? Who had a great command of the language and used diction to their full advantage? Toni Morrison is one author who immediately comes to mind, as well as Oscar Wilde.

Dialogue was another part of craft that I picked up on by analyzing the masters in addition to my social science training and powers of observation. Robert Boswell, one of my MFA advisors, had me write craft essays (called “annotations” at Warren Wilson) on this, and I learned that what mattered was not only realistic-sounding dialogue, but also the structural purpose it held. For example, in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” dialogue was deception; the characters were constructed through dialogue that was very much at odds with their personalities. Good dialogue in a piece of writing makes it feel real. The characters come to life, we can relate, and the reader is engaged. Playwrights must have a strong sense of this, for their works are based entirely on dialogue. Same for opera: everything is told through the libretto.

As my understanding of writing became more sophisticated, I started to understand more about that elusive concept called “emotional resonance.” Earlier in my writing career, it sounded like a slippery, ambiguous, subjective term (which one could argue still is). But I got a better sense of this intangible thing over time and especially when working with my final Warren Wilson advisor, the renowned Joan Silber. When the reader grasps the themes and characters from the beginning, they anticipate certain feelings and emotions to be evoked. Then they ask, “What feels real or true to this character or situation? Would the character really do X? Or shouldn’t there be more expansion here, so we see how the character reacts to Y?” In my own work, a novel retelling of a classic, I changed a significant element of the plot with one character, putting her pregnancy before marriage, because it affected what was going to happen through the whole novel. I jokingly told my advisor that my realization of this was a WWJD–”What Would Joan Do?”–moment, that she would have made such a suggestion while I was writing. Even outside the scope of retellings, this is an important yet subtle technique, for the best writing incorporates this without the reader ever knowing. Consider two examples (spoiler alert!): The Story of a New Name, where Lenù sleeping with the father of the boy she is in love with is shocking but fitting, or Jane Eyre’s flight from Mr. Rochester after she finds out he is married. They feel right with the tone of the novel and the character.

I could go on and on about what makes fiction deeper, as I feel this post is superficial and doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want to say. Besides, numerous books and articles have been written on this subject. But I choose to write from my own experience because it has been a surprising, sometimes frustrating, yet always- fascinating journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

The “Booster Shots”: The People Who Encourage You

If we borrow the metaphor from current pandemic, we can see that a booster is something that enhances and fortifies a positive quantity that has been given to us earlier. A booster shot strengthens the primary vaccine we have already taken. Sometimes in life, there are individuals who boost our moral, confidence, or ambitions, and these people are invaluable, because they give us that little extra dose of what we need to go forward.

Sometimes these people are professional, in an early stage of our career. The seasoned expert who sees something in the sincerity of your dreams and ambitions, who calmly assesses the actions you’ve taken and affirms you, tells you that you are on the right path. That person is invaluable, for they believe in you when others don’t and when the field you are in is fraught with challenges.

At other times, it may be someone from left field, so to speak, someone who is in a completely different area of life, but they are so fascinated by what you do and encouraging that it feels refreshing and cheerful. This person might ask, “Why not do that?” when everyone is asking why you are doing something. They might even suggest a grand idea to try out that you had never thought of before. Or when your pursuit seems complicated, and you are being given so much advice and there is so much to read up on, somebody tells you to just dowhat you are doing, without all the fuss and information overload.

There are those who advocate for simplicity, who simply say to go for it. These people will tell you the things you need to do to accomplish your goals, rather than all the ways in which your goals are difficult. They are cheerfully pragmatic, neither depressingly grim in the name of realism nor people who build castles in the sky in the name of optimism.

Something nobody tells you about aging when you are young is mindset. One of the most important and difficult things to do as we go through life is to keep a positive outlook and tune out all the cynicism and negative people around us.

Great literature and art can serve as a source of optimism during difficult times. Listening to a Tchaikovsky ballet suite can bring a sense of old-fashioned grandeur into our day. Reading some Oscar Wilde or looking at websites for tea rooms in London can bring a bit of necessary sparkle to the humdrum routine of paying bills, work, cleaning the house. These things are not simply helpful but vital to any artist or anyone who is pursuing a big goal. 

Recently, a rather arrogant individual who had no idea about the publishing industry asked me if I needed a venture capitalist to back my novel manuscript. When I reflected on it later, I felt incensed and outraged, because I realized something–I am my own venture capital! My creative work is my most important product that I have produced and am putting out there. Every artist needs to believe this, that they are their own venture capital, that their work is absolutely worthy and, most importantly, priceless.

A Case Against Minimalism?

In perusing the recent after-Christmas sales, I noticed that there is quite a prevalent ethos in current aesthetics: a sleek, (anorexically-)thin model with her hair pulled back into a neat ponytail, her features angular no matter what her ethnicity, wearing simple-cut, unadorned clothing in a chic environment that is usually white or gray. It looks gorgeously stylish, and some of the cuts are so classic that we can see they have been in existence since the heyday of fashion icons Audrey Hepburn and Jackie Kennedy, the Givenchy designs that we still love today. But this isn’t only in the world of clothing and fashion: we can see this in the popularity of mid-century modern furniture design, industrial-chic restaurants and cafés and boutiques, and even in the trendy ethos of “clean eating.” I have always been a huge fan of Scandinavian design, have hated Midwestern furniture and its heavy, brown, complicated look, loathe over- detailed and studded handbags, and am a frugal sort who prefers to have less in terms of possessions. And dare I say, sometimes I find the gopurams (towers) of Hindu temples in my ancestral land of South India can be a bit gaudy?

But all of this has made me wonder, why is there such a dislike of the opulent, the rococo, the detailed, the maximalist? Why is there a fear of design ethic that is “too much”? Is this aesthetic doing a disservice to many people and cultures? Here are some thoughts.

-There is often a lack of emotion in minimalism. Why smile when you can pout or have a neutral expression? This seems to be the opinion of art directors everywhere. Why not have a few stray curls cascading over a shoulder that show an element of playfulness instead of every (unnaturally-straightened) hair pulled back? Why does the table have to be set with such sterile perfection in a photograph instead of people laughing and talking, a drop of wine spilled, a penne that has escaped from the pot?
I have often remarked, when in Germany and Austria, at the way that the corners of the rooms are at such perfect, sharp 90° angles that it’s almost ridiculous. In the United States, even 90° angle walls have a slight curve to them. I always read this as a fear of emotion, anything that is not perfectly straight and rigid.

-It seems to favor a “masculine” energy. Some might argue this is an essentialist argument that masculine aesthetics and energy are straight lines, hard, plain things and feminine aesthetics and energy are curves, details, anything flowing. But I think there is some truth to this argument, that anything that is feminine, rounded, and sensual does not often feature in high-fashion and high art.

-Minimalism favors a particular body type and look. 90% of the population does not look like the models in magazines and in high-fashion print. This majority, in other words, does not fit a “skinny white person” aesthetic, regardless of ethnicity. A majority of the world’s cultures outside of America, Anglophone countries, and Northwestern Europe appreciates curves, voluptuousness, and femininity.

-Minimalism dismisses folk art and traditional handicrafts and handiwork. Think of the beautiful embroidery of Eastern Europe or India, the swirling batik prints of Southeast Asia, or the multicolored stripes of Guatemalan fabric (see my last post my appreciation of textiles). Or consider Russian culture’s adoration of “bling” – if it’s opulent and gilded, Russians love it. There is something pleasing to the eye about details and ornaments.

-There is something to be said about opulence. Traditionally, more has always signified more – more money, higher status, et cetera. Only in our narrow, 21st-century secular Western societies does less equal more. In America, we can trace that back to Puritanism. There is a dislike of the lavish, the rococo is frowned upon, and being unadorned as a woman is perfectly fine. We don’t come from a culture that has magnificent palaces, jewels, historical houses of worship, or grand costumes. This is unfortunate, because I think it dims our appreciation of that which is special. Oscar Wilde adored luxury and anything opulent, and the Oscar Wilde Bar in New York City pays tribute to the famed aesthete with highly decorated settings and an aptly named “Temptation Room.” There is also an Oscar Wilde Lounge in the Hotel Café Royal in London that Wilde himself used to frequent. Decked out in red and gold, it seems perfectly suited to the writer, and one can imagine him sitting with a pot of Earl Grey, cranking out bons mots in a hand-sewn, leather-bound notebook.

What would Oscar think about the current rage for minimalism in art? Very likely, he would be quite critical of it. After all, he did say, “Let me be surrounded by luxury, I can do without the necessities!”

The Picture of Dorian Gray: Wilde’s Form over Function

In architecture and design, there is a principle that compares the form and function of a structure or object. That is, the aesthetic nature and qualities of an object versus its utility. Given that the wondrous Oscar Wilde was one of the great writers of the Aestheticism movement, it is only natural that his sole novel focuses more heavily on his ideas, luxurious prose, and numerous allusions to great works of art and literature. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a unique book—-no other author could’ve written it. There is a sense of richness, opulence, beauty, and pleasure throughout the novel, but it is also tempered by a sense of the sinister. The central theme of the book is aesthetics, and how they relate to life and death: the contrast of Beauty and Death/Evil.

The hallmarks of Wilde are certainly present throughout the book. It is full of his famous witty dialogue and aphorisms: “A man can be happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her”, “… his work was that curious mixture of bad painting and good intentions that always entitles a man to be called a representative British artist”, and (my favorite) “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.” There are long descriptive passages of sheer detail and beauty, right from the opening of the book and all throughout it: “Talking to him was like playing upon an exquisite violin. He answered to every touch and thrill of the bow…” or “Delhi muslins, finely wrought with gold-thread palmates, and stitched over with iridescent beetles’ wings; the Dacca gauzes, but from their transparency are known in the East as ‘woven air,’ ” to quote but a few passages.

While on the surface everything seems beautiful, lurking underneath are dark forces that drive Dorian to murder and madness. Once we scratch the surface of stunning beauty, we find horror underneath. We first see this in the death of Sybil Vane. In short, the love struck actress’s artistry is no longer compelling enough for Dorian to love her. Spurned, she takes her life. Her love for him is not enough; he wants her dramatic power and creativity that seduced him. He murders the artist Basil Hallward, who immortalized Dorian in paint, for the portrait has caused him great anguish in his life. Dorian Gray himself dies an aesthetic death: despite his eternally youthful looks, his undiscovered sins, and his wealth, the portrait has caused him too much misery in his life, and so he must destroy a work of art in order to free his soul. Thus we see a trajectory of murders: first for the death of artistic love, next the death of the actual artist, and finally, the death of a work of art (which is really Dorian himself). Art is the driving impulse behind Dorian’s life; art is the motive behind all of his dark actions. This is so uniquely Wilde, an idea no other author could have ever expressed. Its very existence was novel and scandalous (as were the homoerotic dynamics between Dorian and other men).

Countless allusions pepper the book, from Shakespeare to French writers to Marco Polo to Catholicism to Chopin and beyond. It is perhaps a dazzling display of Wilde’s knowledge and love of high culture. Wilde is an aesthete’s aesthete: no stone is left unturned when it comes to great works of art. A sense of voluptuousness pervades The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is reflected by the rich language. Wilde was no mere emotional lover of the beautiful; he was incredibly well read and traveled.

But Wilde, by nature, is not a novelist. He is best known as a playwright, and perhaps the novel reflects why. The pacing is often irregular, and the way in which events unfold is not always entirely smooth. Long passages are devoted to describing things that do not necessarily move the story forward. Transitions are sometimes a bit awkward and clumsy. Naturally, the dialogue is strong, given Wilde’s strengths in writing for the theater. But sometimes the dialogue runs over into extended soliloquies that sound unnatural (even if we factor out our modern linguistic sensibilities). Yes, we understand that Basil and Lord Henry wish to sing the praises of the beautiful Dorian, but the author sometimes loses the reader in endless odes to the title character. Long passages often serve as moral essays on human nature and character, and these also can become tedious to the reader from time to time. The novel does not always stay true to its purpose and its form; rather, it lapses into essays and plays.

Wilde’s descriptions of *things* are very developed, but his descriptions of characters’ inner lives or their motives are sometimes lacking. As a result, the characters can sometimes seem a bit flat. Again, I suggest that this is due to Wilde’s strengths as a playwright, as a play relies on the actors to bring the story alive and to show the audience a more rounded portrayal of what is on the page. While to an extent the reader has to use his or her imagination to conjure up the characters, Wilde expects a bit too much from him or her. There is a flatness to the novel that is a little disappointing, given Wilde’s keen understanding of human dynamics. These, perhaps, come out best in his comic lines, but in a dark, even tragic novel such as this, the reader feels that there are more layers that the author needs to explore. One could argue that Wilde lets tragedy shine best through comedy, rather than through straight-on, pure tragedy itself. The novel is sufficiently, abundantly dark in its subject matter, in the manner of a gothic tale, and yet Wilde does not manage to go deeper than the divertissement of a parlor novel.

As I mentioned above at the beginning of this essay, Wilde stresses form over function. But would we have it any other way? Would we not forgive Wilde of his sins of slightly sloppy, erratic structuring, knowing that he has taken us on an artistic ride in a way that no one else could have done? Can we not forgive him his endless descriptions of furnishings, knowing that these are the things that he holds dear? The Picture of Dorian Gray is, say, that beautiful vase we have on our table that does not quite hold the flowers properly, and yet it is so visually and emotionally appealing that we can’t bear not to display it. That beautiful vase that is one-of-a-kind, made by a potter who normally makes bowls. And would we not forgive Oscar Wilde all of his literary sins throughout the book when he gives us that (pardon the pun) picture-perfect ending where Dorian stabs the painting, and thereby stabs himself? That metaphor alone is worth the whole book.