Fairy Tales and the Fictionness of Fiction

Thoughts on embracing the unreality of fiction and the storyteller voice in the autofiction age.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the fictionness of fiction and the ways in which our culture seems to recoil at fiction’s essential nature. A lot of people out there seem to want to believe all stories should be in some sense nonfiction. A lot of factors contribute to this. There’s the popularity of autofiction, which many readers (mistakenly) believe means everything “really happened.” There’s a tendency to also assume all fiction is a thinly veiled autobiography, which leads to moments like the viral “Cat Person” short story being discussed as a “personal essay” and “article” by even professional journalists. Even when readers understand a work is fiction, many believe it is still a kind of essay in which everything the characters say or do is a reflection of the author’s personal beliefs.

Less perniciously, we’re in a literary moment in which “realism” in vogue whether it’s the aforementioned autofiction or SFF works that emphasize “logical” magic systems and naturalistic worldbuilding. If you’ve read this newsletter before, you know that I love all kinds of fiction. I love plenty of autofiction books and plenty of hard science fiction. But because the pendulum of literary tastes has swung so heavily in the realism direction I find myself really missing literature that has no pretense to being “true.”

I miss the voice of the tall-tale-teller. Fiction as yarn. The story as shaggy dog joke. The kind of short story that announces up front—through it’s voice, form, or content—Hey, here’s some weird fun shit I made up. Sit back and enjoy!

A nice antidote to the autofiction age, or at least a counterpoint, is the fairy tale. Fairy tales fully embrace the fictionness of fiction. They celebrate the nonsense nature of stories and embrace the artifice in exactly the ways you are told never to do in creative writing classes.

Take the openings and closings of fairy tales. “Once upon a time” and “happily ever after” signal to the reader (or listener) that they’re entering and then leaving a realm of pure fiction. Those are the watered-down American versions. The original fairy tale openings and endings were often much more elaborate and farcical:

A Hungarian opening:

Where was it, where wasn’t it? Somewhere, seven times seven lands distant and still further away, on the far side of the Operenzer Sea, behind an old stove in a crack in the wall, in the seventy-seventh fold of Auntie’s skirt, there was a white flea, and in its middle, a magnificent royal city.

A Turkish one:

In olden times, when the fly was still imam, when my mother was rocking my cradle, she tipped it over. My father reached for the firetongs; my mother grabbed the cradle and went round the four corners. When the camel was still the town crier, the donkey still the barber, and I rocked my father’s cradle, then a…

Endings could be similarly silly and surreal.

A Russian closing:

I was also there, mead and wine I drank, over my mustache it flowed, into my mouth it didn’t come.

A Greek one:

I was also there in my red trousers and ate a lentil on a spit and if that lentil fits on the spit then you also have to believe my tale.

(Note: The above come from Max Lüthi’s The Fairytale as Art Form and Portrait of Man)

I love this these kinds of openings and closings. They feel like such a refreshing antidote to the faux-realism of a lot of modern fiction. Of course, the beginnings and endings of fairy tales aren’t the only ways they embrace the fictionness of fiction. Fairy tales tend to have tremendous economy, moving swiftly and never wallowing in dull details. If it’s boring, skip it. Get to the dragon, the evil dwarf, the transforming birds. Don’t worry about “logic” or backstory or character arcs. Just keep the reader engaged and constantly surprised.

In this way, fairy tales have a lot in common with jokes. Indeed, I think fairy tales were a kind of joke in many places. Most people know that the Disneyfied fairy tales Americans grow up with bear little relation to the original tales which weren’t typically tidy morality tales for children. Fairy tales served multiple functions, of course, but I often get the impression they were akin to dirty jokes today or shaggy dog yarns. Reading many original fairy tales, I can’t help but imagine people trying to one up each other over flagons of ale or what not.

It’s not just the original tales of Grimm and similar collections are filled with shocking violence and sex. Although that’s very true. Can you imagine Disney trying to adapt “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering”? But it’s also that the original fairy tales are often just wildly insane.

Take one of my favorite Grimm tales: “The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage.” The three titular characters kept house together, and for a long time they lived in peace and prosperity, acquiring many possessions. The bird's task was to fly into the forest every day to fetch wood. The mouse carried water, made the fire, and set the table. The sausage did the cooking.

So far, so Pixar movie I suppose. But then the bird gets mocked for his unconventional living arrangement and demands everyone switch roles. Originally the sausage would “slither through the porridge or the vegetables, and thus everything was greased and salted and ready to eat.” Now, the mouse must jump into the food and “grease” it but “before she reached the middle, her hair and skin were scalded off, and she perished. The sausage meanwhile is eaten by a dog who “claimed that he had discovered forged letters on the sausage” and the bird burns the house down and dies. The end.

Or perhaps I should say, “The Aristocrats!

The embrace of ficitionness and the sense of making art from a fun/interesting/strange tale isn’t limited to fairy tales of course. It’s common in a lot of literature labeled postmodernist, surrealist, and fabulist. Certainly you see it in the fairy tale retellings of Helen Oyeyemi and Angela Carter. I think you also see it in the experimental forms of a writer like Italo Calvino, in books such as Invisible Cities or If on a winter’s night a traveler. Julio Cortázar managed to marry this mode with more philosophical questions. Postmodernists and metafiction authors like Robert Coover tend to foreground the artifice of their work, and also enjoy using the stuff of fiction—tropes, cliches, stock characters etc.—as material to remix into new story shapes. (Coover, not coincidentally, wrote many fairy tale reworkings.)

Donald Barthelme was a king of fictional fictions. His stories feel to me almost less like “narratives” and more like text sculptures: they’re strange art objects made for their aesthetic form and effects with little pretense to the realist constraints of character arcs or “worldbuilding” or anything like that. They often have a similar sense of “don’t worry about it, just try to keep up!” narrative speed and dreamlike logic of fairy tales.

(Side note: this recent The Baffler essay on Donald Barthelme is an excellent read.)

Although the writers I just listed bend to the surreal and fabulist, this storyteller mode can be accomplished in more real world settings too. Tall tales and realism aren’t opposed. Grace Paley (Barthelme’s close friend and neighbor) definitely deploys it. Roberto Bolaño has it in both his more experimental forms (like Nazi Literature in the Americas) and in his more traditional short stories. Hell I might even argue that some autofiction deploys this storytelling feeling. When I read Rachel Cusk (who I love), the feeling is less “this really happened” and more “here’s some thin tinsel of character and setting to allow me to let fictional characters tell stories, debate questions, or perform monologues.”

Barry Hannah always feels like a tall-tale-teller with his swaggering, loopy Southern sentences. Which brings me to a bit of Barry Hannah writing advice I always remember:

When you tell a story think more in terms of yarn, tale, even whopper. Then tell it subtly. DON’T think of nuance or “interior decoration.”

Yes, that’s it exactly. I want to read more yarns, tales, and whoppers. Why not embrace the fictionness of fiction? Why must we start in media res? Or focus on verisimilitude to lull people into thinking the events might have really happened? Isn’t it—at least sometimes—more fun to just let fiction be fiction without excuse?


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