Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 30, June 2013—Buch Märchen Issue)

Kate Bernheimer
The Fairy Way of Reading (and Writing)
an Introduction

Is it art or just lack of imagination when the narrator of a fairy tale lets the simple word beautiful suffice?

—Max Luthi, The Fairy Tale as Art Form

“The fairy way of writing” – I have the poet Dryden to thank for this marvelous phrase. The Fairy Way has come to define my aesthetic approach to reading and reading as a 21st century author.  For Dryden, the fairy way was a more difficult way than any other way a writer might take in his or her work. By my reading, he sought to lure artists down this radical path, this beautiful path, this difficult path.

The fairy way is a non-representational way; it is a short cut between experience and knowledge. As Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat tells confused little Alice – when she asks how to get to the Queen – “Some go this way. Some go that way. I prefer the short-cut.”

Let’s say the Queen is a fairy tale, and the short-cut is the fairy way to her.

For Dryden and a cohort to follow close on his heels, the fairy way required that the poet invent everything inside the world of the poem.  The fairy way does not represent a world.  The fairy way is a path to a world. 

From “Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie:

“If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

Many clapped.

Some didn’t.

A few beasts hissed.

If you have ever been in the audience of a dramatic production of “Peter Pan,” you know that audiences always clap really hard at this moment.  Of course Barrie intended the children to delight in this moment; who knew that adults would be so ardent about Neverland – its terrors and wonders. Of course, a few beasts always will hiss.

In his books about the art form of fairy tales, my aesthetic and ethical guru Max Luthi extolls the virtues of fairy tales through the techniques by which a dynamic universe is constellated to such a heightened degree that all things inside of the story exist on a plane so grammatically balanced – so symmetrical, so mirror-like to itself – that its contents are sublimated into a vapor of bliss.  From this sort of story no reader can escape unchanged back into the world outside of the story, which to the story – and thus to the reader – does not really exist. 

By Luthi, I was enlightened to the techniques I admired in old fairy tales – from broad techniques such as flatness, abstraction, everyday magic, and intuitive logic, to more closely hewn ones such as symmetry or a fondness for things that are metallic. As I studied the aesthetic techniques of fairy tales in old collections—on display, I quickly realized, in stories from Japan, Egypt, Korea, Germany, France, Africa, Ireland, all over the world—I realized that the hundred or so techniques described by Luthi in Fairy Tale as Art Form could be transformed to create a new template for contemporary literary fairy tales.

Working from fairy-tale techniques, I began to translate old fairy tales into the new form – the new composition, the new aesthetic – I continue to explore to this day in my novels and stories. My fiction focuss intensely on the aesthetic variables of fairy tales as identified by Luthi . . . highlights these elements and brings them into high relief. I consider fairy-tale techniques as the medium by which I transform fictional worlds into emotional planes of existence and push my aesthetic beyond what is familiar to me. As painter Mark Rothko sought in his color field paintings to avoid representation of a three dimensional world in order to reach a pure state, so too do I with fairy-tale techniques: these are the colors, this is the language, for me.

I follow from Luthi’s insight that a one dimensional, abstracted space allows the artist and reader room to experience – to invent – new ways of sensing primal and inexplicable wonder. I seek to make something clear, not to obscure. The extreme use of fairy-tale techniques defines my fictional work.

When I edit fairy-tale books and ask other authors to work with the old stories, there is no predetermination as to how they will perform this assigned task. It is up to them what techniques they will use to spin old gold into new black and white font.

My extension of Dryden is a theory and practice of the fairy way of reading combined with a theory of the fairy way of writing. I teach the fairy way to my students. They seem happy about this and their work flourishes, reveals a spectacular aesthetics and ethics that suits their own thinking. As readers, we take an art work – in a book, in a manuscript – and find Luthi’s techniques everywhere it it. Here brightly lit, there a little bit dim – the techniques are the little rocks on the path. They shine and shadow the fairy-tale affect for us. Through these, we speak toward the sublime, toward the story. Along with some graduate students I am building a database called The Fairy Way of Reading. It is my vision and has been my vision to apply the full spectrum of Luthi’s techniques to contemporary literature. By doing this I seek to reveal the embedded nature of these technical possibilities in the most obvious and non-obvious places, for they are attached to our imaginative plane and provide the supporting structure for much of good writing today. I use “good” here the fairy way: that which reflects possibility.

The practical applications of this way of reading hold, for me, poignant gifts. The fairy way of reading allows a conversation about omniscience into an undergraduate classroom care of The Hobbit, whose first few pages are exemplary – as exemplary as Tolstoy – in the technique. Yet a certain one-dimensionality – lovely and clear – also is on display in the pages, and helps writers see how many ways there are to build worlds. I have never seen a classroom so happy as when we look at The Hobbit to learn basic techniques. This is the fairy way of reading. Whether a student is writing about robots, vampires, suburban children or migrant farm workers, the fairy way bars no one from entry, education, or vital assistance.

The fairy way is not closed. And the fairy-tale teller – whether sculptor, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, poet – creates open worlds. The fairy way is the future. The fairy way creates sense. Creates logics. Creates feeling. Creates time and space. In this tradition, there is no greater or lesser reality, there is as Deleuze explains, a plane of immanence.

It goes to their grammar. In the oldest known literary version of Little Red Riding Hood called “The Story of Grandmother,” a girl heads out to see her grandmother and meets a wolf on the path. He asks her whether she’ll take the path of needles and pins. She takes the path of the needles, so he takes the path of the pins.  He kills the grandmother, bakes her into a pie, and pours her blood in a jar. When the girl arrives, a cat says she’s a slut if she eats and drinks the bloody of her granny. Eventually the girl takes off her clothes – the wolf asks her to do this and she complies – but she thinks better of it and escapes by pleading not to be made to “go” in the bed.

John Updike famously once referred to old fairy tales as “the television and pornography” of their day.

I know the fairy way when I see it.

I’m on the fairy way of writing and I teach my students the fairy way of reading.

In my story, every cross-dressing mammal is as real as a girl as a cat as a bird as a chicken-legged house as a donkey-skinned girl on the run from a lecherous father.  Each sentence leads logically one to the next through incremental narration as the technique – not subordination. Each sentence goes to the next.  The flat plane of the story – it’s the whole plane of existence.  Where is the magic? Not always overt except in the poetics. Is a name-calling cat magic? Not in my book.

From sentence to sentence, in fairy tales there is no reality that is subordinated to any other.  Just as, outside the pages there is no reality. 

Buch märchen is another term for fairy tales that are written. Book tales. Buch märchen is a non-representational form. Buch märchen do not stand in for oral folktales. My written short stories do not stand in for my other real stories. There are other stories, but my buch märchen do not represent them.

The Grimm tale “How Children Learned to Play Butcher with One Another” flows to Roahl Dahl’s “Pig” and then is transformed into the flat plane of Raymond Carver’s story “Fat.” Raymond Carver is a great fairy-tale writer. The techniques he most employs – abstraction, one dimensionality, flatness, to name a notable three among many – these are fairy-tale techniques. These techniques influenced writers growing up under the influence of fairy tales, in large part due to the worldwide popularity of the Brothers Grimm stories beginning around 200 years ago but more recently in English.

Along the fairy way of contemporary fiction, Dahl was a bigger fan of exaggeration than Carver – altering the scale in his reality so tiny flaws became quite grotesque. Dahl is more of a fabulist fairy-taler; Carver, a flat fairy-taler. Compare, say, the artwork of John Currin – Dalhesque – to that of Kiki Smith – Carveresque.

Everyday magic. The wolf has to talk – how else will the girl have this hairy companion? The magic is everyday.

Fabulism is a stop on the fairy way – it is visited by marvelous people. I think many of them are waiting for the Cat Bus from Totoro there, and I sometimes join them and wait in the rain under my tiny umbrella.

Some writers you’ve probably seen on the fairy way: Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, etc.

Like Bob in the basement of “Twin Peaks,” you may not have noticed the others there too: Cesar Aira, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Donna Tartt, Katherine Mansfield, Joyelle McSweeney, W. G. Sebald, John Updike, etc.

The fairy way is not an influence. The fairy way is a movement.

I have established The Fairy Way of Reading in my teaching as a way to understand how certain books have that incredible glimmer – also the minoritarian glint. 

For this installment of Evening Will Come, I asked the writers here gathered for a very short meditation on one of the fairy-tale affects I list below. Via my fairy way of reading, I noticed these displayed spectrally and strangely in the writers’ prose fiction. I asked that they select one of these fairy-tale affects and then write a meditation about it. Simply take a walk down the path of the affect. If you might be a fairy, and I see that you are, here are some fairy words you might want to know.

Our stops here include Flatness, Depthlessness, Everyday Magic, Abstraction, and the Sublime. Thank you for coming along for the ride.