Fairy Tale Editing: a thought or two

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by Unsettling Wonder

As production nears completion for vol. 1, issue 2 ‘Wise Fools’, and the season of your waiting draws to its end, I thought you might all like to be refreshed with this remark from the inimitable John McIntyre. Musing on an undergraduate class in editing that he teaches, McIntyre writes:

The students who twig to what I am showing them develop an appreciation of skepticism, that what is given to them in a text is not to be accepted without question, that they must look more deeply into it. They begin to see that precision in grammar and usage has an aesthetic benefit, by not distracting the reader with minor blemishes. They notice that eliminating wordiness increases the impact of expression. They begin to see how proper editing can lead to elegance: not the frou-frou and carpenter’s gothic produced when writers mistake fanciness for elegance, but the genuine elegance that rises when diction and syntax and cadence and metaphor are apt to the writer’s purpose.

The thought struck me, and I think it’s a good one, is that the ‘appreciation of skepticism’ McIntyre mentions here is the fountainhead not just of competent editing, but of the larger project of writing and making good art, if I may borrow a phrase. Whenever I’ve taught writing, I’ve tried to impress on my students that perhaps the most valuable skill they can learn is self-editing—the ability to be one’s own sharpest and shrewdest critic. Perhaps not surprisingly, McIntyre’s insistence on skepticism and elegance are even more to the vital centre.

Because the sort of skepticism addressed here isn’t that attitude of destructive hostility which too often passes for skepticism. It is, I believe, an inquisitive, empathetic mind coupled with a genuine desire to get to the bottom of things. It is not skepticism for skepticism’s sake, but rather a skepticism ready to delight in the discovery of truth or the attainment of an ambition. Not too self-aware or inflated by a sense of over-importance, but rather an enthusiastic, childish curiosity and wonder sharpened by experience and made all the more insatiable by exposure to knowledge.

This relates to a lot of areas in life generally, and a lot of areas of writing and art in particular. But this is a fairy tale blog, so let’s think about it in that context for a minute. By fluke of history, in this day and age we already have a large fairy tale tradition, which we as writers and storytellers inherit. We don’t have the luxury—few ever have—of beginning from isolation. (I don’t say solitude, because solitude is a choice and a vocation, also another blog post entirely.) So the question we have simply is how we approach that body of work—tales we’ve heard, tales written down, tales retold in books or film or visual arts, told centuries ago or being told now. In this sense, we’re all editing what we hear and read. Not editing the tradition as such—that belongs to no one, and to everyone—but our reception of it.

How we choose to approach that tradition will determine the tenor and, ultimately, the viability of our own retellings. We can approach with ham-fisted swipes at anything that looks Other or doesn’t align with our ideologies, or with fluffy nostalgia that thinks every frill on the Fairy Queen’s dress should be adored. And I’m sure you can think pretty quickly of fairy tales you’ve read that fit both categories. But I suggest that those of us who are writers and critics  should approach the folk and fairy tradition with that appreciation of skepticism, that inquisitive mind, that seeks to comprehend and elucidate the text in front of us.

Partly, of course, this involves understanding the aesthetic of fairy tales as fairy tales, and not simply importing aesthetic values from other, perhaps unrelated genres. That’s a discussion that every generation needs to have, with itself and with the generation before it. But mostly this involves a willingness first to examine and discover, and then to hack in with machete and scalpel alike, as it were, to disclose that clear and glittering centre of the tale, and of the tradition.

We appreciate fairy tales first with credulity—tales of Father Christmas and Cinderella alike. This can be seen as akin to the flush of literary inspiration, the first scribbled draft in the notebook. But then as we grow older we must learn to appreciate and convey fairy tales with that skeptical, editorial eye, the way a good writer returns to the scribbled draft to refine and hone and critique and clarify. This is not to repudiate that first starry-eyed experience of wonder, but to ensure that when we pass it on to others—our readers, our children, our students—we are feeding them neither our own rosy nostalgia for that experience, nor our jaded disillusionment with a less wondrous world. Rather, what we owe them is their own experience of wonder, without our thumbprints and affectations obscuring their view. Our goal should be to craft fairy tale retellings and new fairy tales that are, as McIntyre puts it, ‘apt to the writer’s purpose’, and our purpose should, I believe, be conveying an unmediated and unsullied state of wonder.

June 14, 2013


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Unsettling Wonder

We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

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Artwork by Laura Rae