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Reviewed by:
  • Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale
  • Armelle Parey (bio)
Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale. Edited by Stephen Benson. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. 209 pp.

Kevin Paul Smith opened his study The Postmodern Fairytale (2007) by quoting A. S. Byatt: "The novel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has always incorporated forms of myths and fairy tales" (On Histories and Stories, 2001). Smith then relevantly noted that in the last three decades the fairy tale was no longer merely an underlying structure or a handy metaphor in novels but had become "central to the work" (1). Yet, since Cristina Bacchilega's seminal Postmodern Fairy Tales in 1997, which first dealt with transformations undergone by fairy tales when adopted and adapted by postmodern culture, including literary texts, fairy tales have mostly been examined only in relation to a particular writer, text, or genre. But over the last two years, a few books purporting to embrace the large subject of fairy tales and contemporary literature have been published. Whereas Smith's study is about the fairy tale as a constituent of postmodern fiction, Stephen Benson's collection of essays in Contemporary Fiction and the Fairy Tale stems from the belief that fairy tales are not just a key influence on contemporary fiction but that the relationship they have with fiction "is vital in our understanding of the contemporaneity of the works in question" (3). The "and" in the title is granted its full coordinative value, establishing reciprocity between the two elements: the essays included in the collection are not about contemporary fairy-tale fiction but about how fiction and fairy tale interact, inform, and transform one another in the works of a homogeneous selection of writers over the past forty years. Most of the authors under [End Page 430] scrutiny form "the fairy-tale generation" (2), alternatively called the Angela Carter generation (even though Benson elects Robert Coover's 1969 Pricksongs and Descants as the first contemporary response to the fairy tale). Key writers are studied via a variety of approaches that reflect the critics' interests. The first five chapters are thus devoted individually to the work (or part of the work) of Angela Carter, Robert Coover, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and A. S. Byatt. The last two chapters involve attempts at theorizing the topic while addressing younger writers ( Jeanette Winterson and Nalo Hopkinson).

Giving Carter definite precedence, the first essay is on The Bloody Chamber (1979). Sarah Gamble, a Carter scholar, bears in mind the fact that Carter's book was highly controversial when first published and refuses to underplay "the genuinely unsettling aspects of these tales" (21). Carter's particular combination of Gothic, pornographic, and fairy-tale elements in her fiction is Gamble's point of focus: she thus offers interesting developments on Carter's attempts via the fairy tale to be what she herself defined as a "moral pornographer" (24), or stresses the link between Sheridan LeFanu's vampire figure Carmilla; Carter's Bluebeard's bride, Carmilla; and the girl narrator in "The Bloody Chamber."

Andrew Teverson, a Salman Rushdie scholar, engages with the reasons for the novelist's pervading interest in fairy tales. In this stimulating essay, Teverson shows that Rushdie is aware of the fairy tale as both a site and a vehicle for social and political thought. Teverson chooses to compare Rushdie's association between fairy tales and cultural and national identity with apparently similar views of past thinkers on the same matter (first the eighteenth-century German poet and philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder, and then the German scholar Max Müller). As hinted in the essay's title, "Migrant Fictions," "[f]airy tales are fiction's natural migrants" (54): Rushdie sees-and makes his readers see-fairy tales as the perfect embodiment of hybridization and cultural exchange.

A. S. Byatt has written texts that may be classified as fairy tales but-true to the purpose of the collection-rather than engaging directly with tales in Elementals (1998) and The Little Black Book of Stories (2003), Elizabeth Wanning Harries, the author of Twice Upon a Time (2001), concentrates on the significance of the novelist's obsession with the fairy tale for...


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pp. 430-433
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