Archive for ‘angela carter’

October 27, 2013

Susannah Clapp, A Card from Angela Carter

From last weekend’s column.

I spent the evening after I finished this leafing through Shaking A Leg, Carter’s collected journalism and being reminded of just how much I enjoy her voice. I’m not sure how much of a compliment to Clapp it is to say that what I liked so much about her book was another writer’s voice, but still.

This blog has been quiet lately; here’s Carter on a missed deadline:

Pieces had to be wheedled and winkled out of her during epic exchanges on the phone. “I’m sorry I’m such a lousy deadline-keeper,” she wrote from London, enclosing a delayed review. “But it’s been the end of term & I had lots & lots of term-papers and I went deaf & I trod on a rabid squirrel & All has been Hell.”

 

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It’s easier to kill some writers than others.

As a reader, I’m mostly in favour of the death of the author. Authors are all very well in their place, but no one wants then getting in the way while we’re reading; it can be distracting and it often limits the ways in which we can engage with the book. Sometimes it’s necessary to admit that an author is still alive (when, for example, they’re a horrible bigot who may use the money from their royalties to fund further horrible bigotry) but most of the time it’s convenient to pretend they don’t exist. Biographies and memoirs of authors generally do not interest me; nor do collections of their correspondence.

But then there’s Susannah Clapp’s A Card From Angela Carter, which I enjoyed far more than I expected to. Clapp was Carter’s friend for many years (and her literary executor after the author’s death in 1992); A Card From Angela Carter is a short literary memoir constructed around some of the postcards that Clapp received from Carter over the course of their friendship. Each postcard (presumably not an exhaustive set) is pictured, and used as a starting point for Clapp’s reminisces of Carter’s life, or musings upon some aspect of her work.

One reason I enjoyed it so much, perhaps, is that I first read Carter in school and some vestiges of hero-worship still remain. With adulthood has come the ability to critique, and to admit that I don’t always find her (politically or artistically) flawless, but part of me is still the teenaged fan who wished she could have known her. Then too, in her fiction as well as her non-fiction (she was a journalist and reviewer as well as a novelist) Carter is never a remote authorial presence whose existence can be forgotten. She is always unmistakably herself, and this is one of her great strengths. Clapp notes that even as a teenaged feature writer at the beginning of her career, Carter would deliberately insert herself into her work. “She began using the first person – in places that person did not usually reach – as a way of making sure she got a byline: her gambit was to use ‘I’ so often that a sub-editor couldn’t be bothered to keep taking it out”.

Due to its brevity and the way it is structured A Card from Angela Carter is scattershot, a series of interconnected impressions of the author rather than an attempt to capture all of her. This works well, and Carter’s own words shine through. I spent the evening after I read Clapp’s book skimming through Shaking a Leg, an anthology of Carter’s nonfiction, and remembering how much I enjoy her voice. As Clapp herself says, “During my twelve years on the editorial staff of the London Review of Books, hers was the copy I was keenest to read. She was the only reviewer who could deliver with equal pungency on the ANC and on Colette, and who could tell us that D. H. Lawrence was ‘a stocking man, not a leg man’.”

Occasionally Clapp’s own voice turns into something rather special as well, as when she describes events after Carter’s funeral, as security guards appeared to protect the author’s close friend Salman Rushdie. “it was as if Birnam Wood had come to Putney Vale. The surrounding trees rearranged themselves. They shifted and they sprouted feet. They marched and dispelled, shaking themselves free of foliage.”

A Card from Angela Carter ends with Carter’s memorial service. It’s tempting to say something unbearably trite about authors living on in their work, but her friends and family presumably know how far from true that is. But there’s more life and personhood in a sentence of Carter than most writers can hope to aspire to, and Clapp’s book does a wonderful job of reminding us of this.

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Favourite bits that didn’t make it into the review include a postcard in which Carter begs to be given “any Brontë stuff” that comes in for review, because no one else has written about them properly.

And this:

“Like Angela, Empson was a high-wire stylist, an atheist and an admirer of Andrew Marvell; like her, he had lived in Japan. They met later when Angela went to hear him lecturing – her with her flyaway hair, him with the slipping-down beard that he wore round his neck like a bib – but all Angela reported to me about the critical illuminator of ambiguity was that he made (not for her) a seduction drink from tinned raspberries and condensed milk.”

April 25, 2012

Angela Carter, Wise Children

No, not telling you what the sentence is. It’s mine.

From last weekend’s column.

 

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I read quite a lot, by most people’s standards. And I frequently come across bits of writing that awe me with their beauty; lush, dense things that I cannot help but read aloud. Yet only once have I ever looked at a sentence and thought “that’s perfect”. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with her work that the sentence in question was from an Angela Carter book.

Carter was a journalist, a novelist, a critic and a playwright, though she is perhaps best known for The Bloody Chamber, her collection of fairytale re-imaginings. Of her novels, the one with which most people seem to be familiar is Nights at the Circus, her fin de siècle circus fantasy. Her writing seems suited to this sort of setting – over the top, rich, anarchic.

Yet the sentence that stopped me in my tracks years ago was a quiet one, so unobtrusive that sometimes when I go back to look for it I have trouble finding it. For all her illusion of excess, her writing is ultimately controlled and precise.

Perhaps this is why of all her books my favourite is the most outwardly sober. Wise Children was her last novel, and unlike most of the others contains no element of the surreal, the supernatural or the science-fictional. In plot, if Wise Children resembles anything it’s The Bold and the Beautiful. The title comes from the saying “it’s a wise child that knows its own father”. Dora Chance, the narrator of the novel does know her father, but he refuses to acknowledge her in return. Dora and her twin sister Nora are the illegitimate children of the Shakespearean actor Sir Melchior Hazard. The main action of Wise Children takes place over a day – the twins’ seventy-fifth birthday which, coincidentally, is their father’s hundredth. Yet within this time frame we also get the entire history of the Hazards; a multigenerational family saga that begins with the twins’ grandmother Estella, herself an actress.

The novel begins with a reference to the Thames. London is “two cities divided by a river”, and the Chances are definitely from the wrong side of it. “We’ve always lived on the left-hand side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames” and Wise Children delights in the disreputability of its origins. If Melchior is a serious Shakespearian actor, the Chance twins are showgirls. Melchior might wish for a dignified old age; at seventy-five, the Chance girls wear make-up “an inch thick” and sexy underwear. The Hazard family tree has titled aristocrats; the Chances’ ‘family’ appears an agglomeration of strays and bastards. But then, among those the Chance sisters have taken in is Lady Atalanta Lynde, Sir Melchior’s first wife. In addition, Dora suggests that the eminently respectable Hazard family might also carry some suspicion of illegitimacy. And so though Wise Children might appear at first to be a contrast between high and low culture, high and low birth, the two sides of the Thames, the novel will soon unravel those differences completely. The lives of the Chances and the Hazards are completely intertwined, and any pretensions to superiority progressively reduced. Everyone’s a bit disreputable, and some are wise enough to be proud of it.

Because the wisdom in Wise Children is its favoured characters’ unflinching, amused acceptance of the truth. The truth of their birth is only the first example of this – that one thing that their father and his legitimate offspring refuse to admit.

Most of all, it is an absolute delight to read. “What a joy it is to dance and sing!” says Dora, and this exuberance fills the novel. Wise Children may not be as experimental as some of Carter’s other works but it is such a joyful, bawdy, lively thing.

 

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December 11, 2011

Jeanette Winterson, Weight

A twitter conversation with Maureen Kincaid Speller about Laika stories reminded me of Weight, which I’d read when it came out and remembered very little about. A reread confirmed that it was one one of Winterson’s lesser works, but I find the larger Canongate series of which it’s a part fascinating.

A version of this appeared in this week’s Left of Cool column for the Sunday Guardian.

 

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There’s an Angela Carter quote I keep coming back to in relation to retellings of myths or folk-tales. “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter herself is famous for the brilliant The Bloody Chamber, a collection of short stories that reimagined a number of classic fairytales. Most myths and legends don’t have a definite original form. Even those that are credited with some sort of canonical version may be retold in countless ways – as anyone familiar with A.K. Ramanujan’s  essay“300 Ramayanas” and the recent controversy around it will be aware.

The Canongate Myth series began in 2005. This project involved the rewriting of various myths from various cultures by modern authors. The series has included writing by Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, a take on The Odyssey), Philip Pullman (The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ) and A.S. Byatt (Ragnarok: The End of the Gods) among others.

Jeanette Winterson’s Weight was one of the earliest books in the series. The author takes on the myth of the Titan Atlas, who in Greek myth supports the Cosmos on his shoulders, and Heracles, the son of Zeus. In received versions of the myth these characters meet one another when Heracles is ordered (as one of his twelve labours) to fetch the golden apples of the Hesperides. The Hesperides were Atlas’ daughters, and Heracles offered to relieve Atlas of his burden for a while so that the Titan could get the apples for him. Atlas planned to abandon Heracles and leave him holding the world, but Heracles tricked him into taking his burden back.

One thing that becomes clear in Weight is how myths can be made universal – Winterson’s version of the Atlas and Heracles story has plenty of connections to Christianity as well as references to the author’s own life. In Winterson’s story, Atlas and his daughters were cast out of the garden for eating of the forbidden fruit. As in the Bible a serpent plays a role – here it is the dragon Ladon who guards the tree. The fruits are heavy because they contain “knowledge of past and future”. Atlas’ burden has a Christlike feel to it. This is clearest in what to me is the most memorable section of the book, though a short one; Atlas finds himself a companion. It is Laika, the dog sent into space by the Russian space programme in 1957. Laika was sent up alive and was expected to die; most children, hearing this story for the first time are properly horrified. So is Winterson. “She was a good dog, a faithful dog, a trusting dog, who loved her master and obeyed him when he put her inside a tiny capsule and strapped her so that she could not move.” And “Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog”. Laika’s fate is the world’s guilt, and Atlas bears it for us.

Laika and space travel might seem incongruous here, but they are not. Weight is about myths, but Winterson’s world is a very physical one. Atlas’ account of the cosmos he holds up begins with the Big Bang, and travels through the evolution of life on earth. At one point he speaks “as the dinosaurs crawl through my hair”.

Jeanette Winterson’s most frequent subject is Jeanette Winterson . Her first book was semi-autobiographical, her most recent a biography, and she usually uses the first-person voice. This is not a criticism – part of the point of rewriting stories that people know is that we already have the ‘original’ story in our heads, adding another layer to the telling. Winterson quotes herself (the phrase “empty space and points of light” in this book, for example, first appeared in her Sexing the Cherry); she compares Heracles’ relationship with his parents to her own. In doing all of this, she turns her life into a similar ur-text for those of us who know her other works.

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December 4, 2011

Erin Morganstern, The Night Circus

Did a rather rushed review of this for the Indian Express this past weekend. I really wanted to like this book a lot more than I did, but it just left me deeply frustrated. I am willing to accept a book that is basically a series of lovely images, but only if the writing itself is so special as to make all of those images seem new. And the dates at the beginning of each chapter are presumably meant to tell the reader where we are in the storyline (the book goes back and forth in time rather a lot) but they only served to remind me how weak the book’s grounding in this historical period was.

Having said all of which, when The Night Circus is made into a movie (it has already been optioned) I think I will love it.

 

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Towards the end of the nineteenth century, two rival magicians enter into a competition. Each chooses a child to be his champion; the rules of the game are not specified, but the children are bound to it for life. They are Celia Bowen, the daughter of Prospero the Enchanter, and Marco Alisdair, an orphan of unknown parentage. The venue for their contest is the Night Circus, an exhibition of wonders that comes and goes without warning and that is only open at night.

The carnivalesque setting of the circus invites inventive literature. The most immediate association is with Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, which also deals with the strange and wonderful and is also set during the fin de siècle. Carter’s is not the only modern classic that Morganstern’s book evokes. Readers familiar with these works may see elements of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But invoking the greats is dangerous, and after all this what we get is The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern.

The Night Circus is physically beautiful and stylistically quite ambitious. It leaps about in time over a period of four decades, moves between a number of perspectives, and occasionally slips into the second person and addresses the reader directly.  It has its own metatexts – quotes from writings about the circus, generated from within the plot, are used to open each of the book’s five parts.

Unfortunately, it fails to develop its plot or its main characters. We are frequently reminded that the protagonists don’t even know the rules of the game they are playing and this continues even when, late in the book, we realise how high the stakes are. The horror of the inevitable outcome is muted by the fact that we’ve been given no reason to care about the people it will affect. Because though The Night Circus is a love story, we know nothing about its main characters that would cause any emotional investment in their fate.  So although we see Celia’s father torturing her as part of her training and know that her mother thought her evil, we never see how it feels to be in this position. We’re told that Marco regards his patron as a father, but never given any insight into how this happened. Isobel, a tarot reader, keeps referring to the “deep emotions” of the characters as they appear in the cards, and the reader is obliged to simply take her word for it.

The competition (and courtship) between Marco and Celia takes place mostly in the time they spend apart, through their various feats of magic. Celia excels in altering physical objects and Marco in creating beautiful settings. Occasionally they work together to combine these skills. Without a particular focus on plot or character, then, The Night Circus becomes a series of tableaux. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the titular circus provides some gorgeous scenes. It’s easy to see this translating beautifully to film (it has already been optioned) with its almost-silent, monochromatic circus full of wonders. Sometimes Morganstern succeeds in describing these: “Where the sunlight hits him he is all but invisible. Part of a shoulder appears to be missing, the top of his head vanishes in a flutter of sun-caught dust.” “he takes a dramatic, inverted bow”. Extended descriptions of the circus clock, a carousel, a garden on ice all almost describe something breathtaking.

But it’s that “almost” that undoes the book. The Night Circus could survive its lack of some of the move conventional elements of storytelling if only Morganstern were able to adequately invoke the gorgeous imagery. At times she succeeds, and those moments are truly wonderful. But all too often she does not, and we have descriptions that are too stale or awkward. It’s to the book’s credit that even when the language isn’t up to it we still have some sense of the beauty that is being gestured towards. Yet my primary reaction to The Night Circus is frustration at its many missed opportunities.

 

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January 3, 2011

DU and Hatterr

I was trying to write a short note on G.V Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (one of the best things I read last year) and then I began to digress and talk about my university syllabus and it all got very long and turned into a post of its own. So here it is:

I wanted to talk about a particular aspect of the Delhi University undergraduate English syllabus (of which I am mostly quite a fan). Most people (and I was one of them) have read very little Indian writing when they start the course, and the university has wisely included a compulsory Indian Literature module that introduces them to some of the better 20th century Indian literature. The only problem with this that I can see is that it is introduced in first year. The first year is when we’re also given Victorian literature to read, presumably because this the sort of writing with which we’re assumed (probably correctly) to be familiar. The Indian Writing course has some pretty impressive stuff on it, for all that: almost the first thing we read was Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”. There’s Jayanta Mohapatra, there’s Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (which is marvellous even though I think we’d have appreciated it more if we’d read it a couple of years later when we were reading people like Dario Fo) and Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure (ditto but with Beckett) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadowlines which, combined with a really good professor, was the text that really taught me how much a text gives you to play with.

Still, faced with a class of undergraduates recently come from CBSE/ICSE schools, I can imagine the university would leave out a few things as possibly being too much. If it was necessary to break us in with the Victorians (for the next two years the compulsory courses all followed historical chronological order), it was equally necessary to keep the Indian literature we did accessible and recognisable. And since this is the only reason I can think of for All About H. Hatterr’s exclusion from the syllabus, I think it’s best to assume that this is why.

There’s an Angela Carter essay where she talks about the enormous importance of James Joyce both to the English language as a whole and to her personally:

Nevertheless, he carved out a once-and-future language, restoring both the
simplicity it had lost and imparting a complexity. The language of the heart and
the imagination and the daily round and the dream had been systematically
deformed by a couple of centuries of use as the rhetorical top-dressing of crude
power. Joyce Irished, he Europeanised, he decolonialised English: he tailored it
to fit this century, he drove a giant wedge between English Literature and
literature in the English language and, in doing so, he made me (forgive this
personal note) free. Free not to do as he did, but free to treat the Word not as
if it were holy but in the knowledge that it is always profane. He is in himself
the antithesis of the Great Tradition. You could also say, he detached fiction
from one particular ideological base, and his work has still not yet begun to
bear its true fruit. The centenarian still seems avant-garde.

And that is what Desani could, should be for us. We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Desani’s approach to language is so far away from the way English is taught and experienced in Indian schools that it isn’t even, as with Joyce and the Great Tradition, the antithesis to it. The two bear no relation to one another; they exist in different planes entirely. And so I’d like to see what would happen if Delhi University undergraduates were to be exposed to All About H. Hatterr. In third year, perhaps– by then there’d be a certain amount of context to help them to make sense of him. Yet if an unsuspecting class of first years were to come across H. Hatterr it might be exactly what they needed for the next few years of college.

November 14, 2010

Kate Bernheimer (ed), My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me

Yesterday’s Indian Express carried a short review of Kate Bernheimer’s anthology of fairy tales. A 500 word review was never going to be enough to discuss a collection of 40 stories (many of which could do with posts to themselves) and I’m very tempted to do a longer version sometime this week that discusses some of the individual stories in depth and goes into some of the wider themes that I was forced to leave out. For now, here’s the short version.


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There is a sense in which all fairytales are retellings. The Brothers Grimm collected their tales from a long tradition of oral storytelling. Charles Perrault adapted his for the drawing rooms of 17th Century France. My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me opens with an Angela Carter quote: “Who first invented meatballs? In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?” Carter’s own 1979 work, The Bloody Chamber, was a seminal act of fairytale retelling. Bernheimer’s collection of forty fairytales by various writers is dedicated to Carter, and her shadow looms large over many of the stories.


Many stories in this collection are entirely original works that use fairytale tropes. Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” takes the good-sister/bad-sister theme that runs through many fairy tales, but adds aliens, artificial tan and police reports. Kelly Link’s “Catskin” has links to Rapunzel and Puss-in-Boots but is an entirely original piece.

Writers like Brian Evenson, Susan Shuh-Lien Bynum, Hiromi Ito and Joyce Carol Oates base their pieces on established stories. Evenson’s “Dapplegrim”, based on a Norwegian folktale, is dark, obsessive and full of bloodshed. Ito’s “I Am Anjuhimeko” is powerful and epic in scope. Oates and Bynum tackle stories previously riffed off by Carter but take them in entirely different directions. Oates’ version of the Bluebeard myth is clever and surprising, while Bynum’s “The Erlking”, about a mother’s anxiety over her child’s education, was one of the highlights of the anthology for me.

The Grimm brothers’ “The Six Swans” forms the starting point for some of the best pieces. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Halfway People” in particular is a gorgeous, brutal story about yearning and incompleteness. Shelley Jackson’s “The Swan Brothers” is, hands down, the best thing in the book, partly story, partly a loosely connected set of observations about the fairytale. Here, for example, are the Things You Learn From Reading:

Women are trouble—if it isn’t an evil wife, it’s an evil stepmother. Or mother-in-law. Mothers are usually all right, unless they’re witches—watch out for witches. And their daughters.

You might be all right with kings, princes, and fathers, unless, as is usually the case, they’re under the influence of someone else, usually a woman. Men are weak. Sometimes they rescue you, but they always have help—from ants or birds or women. Sometimes you rescue them. This is kind of sweet.

You can trust animals. Sometimes they turn into people, but don’t hold that against them.

Children had better watch out.


To retell a story inevitably leads to thinking about how narratives work, and many of the pieces in this collection are, like Jackson’s, stories about stories. Kim Addonizio’s “Ever After” has seven dwarves reading “Snow White” as a religious text. Karen Brennan’s “The Snow Queen” and Francine Prose’s “Hansel and Gretel” both have their narrators thinking through their own relationships with fairy tales. Notes from the authors explain the genesis of each story and provide further insight into the mechanics of these narratives.

My Mother She Killed Me My Father He Ate Me is an impressive anthology, featuring some of the most exciting writers in the world at the moment. There are some real treasures in this collection, with all the menace and magic of the traditional fairy tale.


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February 2, 2010

January Reading (III)

This is the last post in this set – a lot of the books I’ve read this month are pretty short, and reasonably light to get through. I highly doubt I’ll be consuming anything like this much for the rest of this year.

Nirupama Subramanian – Keep The Change: Light and funny and very readable. Keep The Change is about a nice TamBrahm girl who gets into a rut, moves from Madras to Bombay, and deals with things like a corporate career and finding love. The cultural stereotyping-as-humour gets tiring at times (and you feel like the author never quite manages to get away from it, even when she’s trying to undermine it a bit towards the end) but it’s still a really enjoyable book.

Elsie J. Oxenham – A Dancer From the Abbey/ The Song of the Abbey: Girls’ Own literature is one of my comfort reads, and though the Abbey series (which tend to be categorised as school stories, even though most of them have nothing to do with a school) is nowhere near as good as some of the other writing within the genre, it’s a satisfyingly long series, which is obviously what one wants – I still haven’t read the whole series yet. These particular books were pretty disappointing; they are some of the last in the series, and as far as I can tell the author is in a tearing hurry to marry off any adult female characters (bar the writers, for some reason) who might still be unattached. Both books follow pretty much the same pattern: nice young man with some sort of connection to the Abbey people returns from Africa to England, meets a member of the group around the Abbey, and is engaged to her by the end of the book. The book following these two, Two Queens at the Abbey (last book in the series) apparently has the same thing happen again. In future if I do choose to reread the Abbey books I think I’ll try harder to ensure that the ones I pick aren’t functionally identical.

Angela Carter - The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History: I had only ever read sections of this book before, and it is rather good. Of more significance to me, though, is that I was reading Carter critically for what may have been the first time, as opposed to reading her with fangirlish glee. This is new, and welcome, though I will continue to fangirl her whenever I want to.

H.G Wells – The Time Machine: Read as a companion piece of sorts to the awful Jaclyn the Ripper book I mentioned here. I hadn’t read the book in years, and it was actually a lot better than I remembered it being (and I remembered it being pretty good). Even with such distractions as this.

Daisy Ashford – The Young Visiters (sic): The situation as I understand it: Nine year old Daisy Ashford writes a book; possibly quite good for a nine-year-old. In 1919, when Ashford is in her late thirties, it is published with a preface by J.M Barrie with the original typos because that’s just so cute. Except it’s mostly not cute, but annoying. Still, it does contain this lyrical tribute to bathrooms everywhere:

Then Mr Salteena got into a mouve dressing goun with yellaw tassles and siezing his soap he wandered off to the bath room which was most sumpshous. It had a lovly white shiny bath and sparkling taps and several towels arrayed in readiness by thourghtful Horace. It also had a step for climbing up the bath and other good dodges of a rich nature. Mr Salteena washed himself well and felt very much better.

For which I am willing to forgive it much.

P.G Wodehouse – The Mating Season: This is not one of my favourites, but it is a Wodehouse book and therefore deserving of my love. Bertie impersonates Gussie Fink-Nottle and Gussie impersonates Bertie (here I should say something clever about the instability of identity in Plum’s works, but it all seems meaningless when you’re talking about an author who in Piccadilly Jim has a character impersonating himself). Multiple engagements are broken and re-forged in various combinations, and there is random abuse of the constabulary and everything turns out well in the end.

Philip Reeve – Fever Crumb: This book really deserves a post to itself, and will probably get one in the next day or two. For now though – it’s really good, though not quite as visceral as I recall A Darkling Plain being(which is rather an unfair comparison), and I definitely think it’s best read after the Mortal Engines series, though it comes before them chronologically. And it’s such a beautiful object, the hardback is solid and lovely and looks like it is made of wood. Definitely worth it.

So what are you reading?

August 27, 2008

I am easily amused

From here. Click to enbiggen.
January 28, 2008

Some thoughts on Fairytales and Nursery rhymes and politicizing children’s literature

The discussion in the comments at Krish Ashok’s blog got me thinking about this. In his post he referred briefly to “politically correct” nursery rhymes, and some of the commentors expressed their opinions of the idea. A few (unconnected to each other) thoughts:

1. Baa baa rainbow sheep is a hilariously bad idea. It does not scan. It is quite odd when visualised (though I may be prejudiced in saying this – there are references to striped and spotted goats in the Bible, aren’t there? That Jacob creates through divinely inspired selective breeding?) Whoever came up with it seems to think “black” has political connotations but “rainbow” does not (either that or they have a very odd notion of normalising homosexuality). Sheep of indeterminate colour? Neutral beige? (If you got rid of the completely unnecessary “baa baa” this would sound fine).

2. Most of the time when people talk of “reworked”, “politically correct” tales/rhymes/songs disparagingly, they’re taking for granted the existence of an “original” version (the version they grew up with, of course) that fell perfectly formed from the sky but now has been profaned by this modern belief that children’s stories are, you know, politically relevant. Which is rubbish, of course, and if you’re interested enough in the history of fairytales or nursery rhymes you can trace them back, and they do change over time (I used to think modern fairytales were watered down versions of Grimm’s. Only as an adult did I learn how much watering down the Brothers Grimm had done themselves), and they changed because the world around them changed, and if that’s not political I don’t know what is.

Also, lots of fairytales have had very visible morals, and the morals are not always fluffy, context-free things like “be nice to everyone”. Witness the much sexualized Perrault “Red Riding Hood” (don’t have sex, girls! With wolves, or anyone. Don’t talk to strange men, and don’t wear bold colours.) – How on earth is that not politicized when removing the golliwogs from Enid Blyton is?

3. Earnest EngLit students (myself included) often focus too much on these aspects of children’s literature – where do they come from? What did they originally mean? And so on, and completely ignore the fact that they’re not just about indoctrinating/twisting innocent young minds (hah) but they’re part of children’s earliest encounter with language and sound and rhythm, and all those things are probably more important. (If you can see literature for children only as indoctrination, I suppose at some point you’d become one of those people who thinks the gay penguin book would cause ‘rampant’ homosexuality).

4. There’s this bizarre argument that since children aren’t aware of the potential offensiveness of what they may read that it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying this. I remember sitting through a seminar on children’s literature in my first year of college as two of my seniors clutched their pearls and asked us if we were not shocked, shocked at the idea of little children reciting rhymes about the Black Death. I was unmoved – unless you’re telling them where it came from (and there’s an interesting little area- what if you did?) I can’t see why it would matter. But this is because said children would be unlikely to meet people for whom the Black Death was an emotional issue unless some serious time travel occurred. On the other hand, it’s very possible for children to pick up certain attitudes about things like class and race and gender and sexual orientation that might later lead to great awfulness since these things continue to be real issues.

5. I remember someone on a messageboard I used to read complaining that everything nowadays was so PC that books about mothers who baked cakes were practically taboo.
I’m not sure how far this is true, since the vast majority of the books I read (for children or otherwise) stick to traditional class and gender roles.

6. Rewritings of fairytales, nursery rhymes, etc are far more interesting to adults since we can see what ideas are being adapted/reversed. The PL is currently pleasing me by reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Then there’s the marvellous “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman. And lots more.

7. I wonder if the people who dislike PC rewrites enjoyed Shrek?

8. Gak, this is a ridiculously long post.

March 8, 2006

Since we do get a special day for ourselves and all…

A quote. Angela Carter.

…although I thought [the surrealists] were wonderful, I had to give them up in the end. They were, with a few patronized exceptions, all men and they told me that I was the source of all mystery, beauty, and otherness, because I was a woman – and I knew that was not true. I knew I wanted my fair share of the imagination, too. Not an excessive amount, mind; I wasn’t greedy. Just an equal share in the right to vision.

Why did she have to die?