The Cultural Gutter

beyond good and bad, there is awesome

"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

All That Fairy Tale Nonsense

Chris Szego
Posted November 26, 2009

weetink.JPGOne of the many criticisms levelled at romance novels is that they’re a poor model for women when it comes to real-life relationships. All that fairy tale nonsense, detractors say, will make women want the wrong things from their partners. I could list a dozen things wrong with that assumption, but I’ll limit myself to three.

First, the blanket belief that, alone among the literate, romance readers believe everything they read is seriously insulting. Second, it demonstrates that said detractors don’t read much modern romance, or they’d know the kind of realism one can find therein. That’s annoying. Is divorce realistic, or abuse, or loss? Don’t worry: they’re covered. (Also, please consider what that means about the nature of ‘realism’). Third: fairy tales yes, but nonsense? Please. Bruno Bettleheim would open a can of Jungian whoopass on such ignorance, and rightfully so.

Fairy tales are a subset of folk tales, and folktales are the backbone of literature. They are powerful. These are the stories that outlive nations. Religions may try to bury them, and political regimes to repress them, but folktalkes just
don new clothes, get new haircuts, and keep going. As a kid I read hundreds, devouring one textbook-sized collection of international stories after another. So by the time I hit junior high I’d recognized that the same patterns appeared in stories from every part of the globe. This story might have a fairy godmother where that one had a talking fox; this beast might be a lion where that one was a snake. But the basic patterns, the archtypes, were the same, whether the story came from France or Russia, from India or China. That’s not nonsense, it’s nuclear.

neu_schwanstein.jpgSo, yes, romance novels often play off patterns found in fairy and folk
tales. Which is another way of saying they’re tied into the beating heart of the narrative impulse. They’re the stories that chronicle women’s lives and their hopes, which are at least as realistic as their miseries. Fairy tales can encompass just about any setting, problem or character. In some ways, they’re the ultimate in fan fiction: since the pattern is already established, writers need only to allude to it to establish emotional resonance. I can’t list all the archtypes here, so for the sake of symmetry,
here are the three I think are most common in modern romances.

Beauty and the Beast

This is one of my personal favourites. From Persephone onward, in this story the underlying archetype is that sacrifice is rewarded…and that men are capable of change. Though the beastly character isn’t always the hero: Taming of the Shrew is a Beauty and Beast story too. Of course nowadays beastliness isn’t a matter of looks but of behavior. So the beast in question might go from withdrawn to engaged; from rapaciously ambitious to sharing; or from reckless hedonism to committed monogamy. Don’t be fooled, though, it’s not an easy trip for anyone involved. But it’s worth it.

If you like historical romance try: Lord of Scoundrels, Loretta Chase;The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer; It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas.

If you prefer contemporary: Shoot to Thrill, Nina Bruhns; Dream Man, Linda Howard; Cold as Ice by Anne Stuart.

Cinderella

The hardworking heroine in any of this wide group of stories epitomizes successful transformation. But the trappings are the least important part of her elevation. It’s not about the slipper: it’s about the change in state. There might be a literal move from rags to riches, but more often Cinderella stories feature characters who move from paucity to abundance. Not surprisingly, this is one of the most popular archetypes. After all, if there’s one thing women know how to do, it’s work. In Cinderella stories, readers get to see drudgery and discomfort turn into acceptance and
love. Also under this rubric are the stories of disguise and secret identity.

Historical: The Runaway Princess, Christina Dodd; Scandal, Amanda Quick; Reader and Raelynx, Sharon Shinn (which is a fantasy novel, but also a romance: that the transforming character is male doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in this category).

Contemporary: First Lady, Susan Elizabeth Phillips; The Winning Hand, Nora Roberts; Nine Coaches Waiting, Mary Stewart.

Sleeping Beauty

I have a sneaking fondness for stories of awakening. Not from sleep, of course: I mean those in which a character comes into her own, ie: ‘wakes up’ to a sense of her own potential and abilities. These characters discover and revel in new skills, or redevelop old ones. They try new experiences, make new friends, and change their own lives for the better. Change isn’t alwasy easy. Sometimes it’s a detonation in their existence. And sometimes they simply learn to let go of weight and pain carried too long. However it happens, these are the stories of lives refreshed and made
wonderful.

Historical: A Summer to Remember, Mary Balogh; Paladin of Souls, Lois McMaster Bujold; Guilty Pleasures, Laura Lee Gurhke.

Contemporary: Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie; Marianna, Susannah Kearsley; Lazarus Rising, Anne Stuart.

~~~

Chris Szego isn’t a Jungian, but she still thinks Bruno Bettleheim rocks.

 

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Comments

3 Responses to “All That Fairy Tale Nonsense”

  1. HD Silversmith
    November 27th, 2009 @ 5:31 pm

    Right on, sister!
    Over the years I’ve gotten lots of flak for reading romance. As a feminist, I’m not “supposed” to and as an academic with a B.A. and M.A. in literature and a Ph.D. in film studies, I’m supposed to be “above” it.
    Oh please. ;) Get over yourselves, people, and start thinking about WHY we love genre fiction so much!
    Including people with brains.
    HD

  2. Carol Borden
    December 2nd, 2009 @ 12:42 am

    this is a great piece, chris.
    and HD, i might have poetry on the brain, but i keep thinking, “wow, the imagist poet HD wrote the gutter!”

  3. Anne
    December 10th, 2009 @ 9:05 am

    Once upon a time I used to be a lit-snob who avoided romance because it was “badly written” and was about women I could not relate to. Well Chris fixed that but good!
    Romance, like all genres, has the good, the bad and the wretched. Then there is the brilliant. “The Paladin of Souls” (mentioned above) is an extraordinary book that I have read many times.

Leave a Reply





  • Support The Gutter

  • The Book!

  • Of Note Elsewhere

    At Comics Alliance, Chris Sims talk abouts the art of lettering in comics. “Comic book lettering is up there with inking and coloring in the holy trinity of underrated comic book skills, but it’s also one of those things that, once you start paying attention to it, you’ll never be able to not notice it again. I’m not exaggerating even a little bit when I say that it’s one of those things that can absolutely ruin a comic if it’s done wrong, even if everything else is perfect. But to be honest, of those three elements, lettering is still probably the most underrated. The thing is, when it’s good, it can be absolutely gorgeous in its own right. And fortunately for us, there are a lot of people who do it very, very well.”

    ~

    Comics Alliance suggests seven Star Wars comics to read before Disney makes them disappear. (Including a comic by one of Comics Editor Carol’s favorite creative teams–Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman). “Starting in 2015, Disney’s handing the publishing of any and all new Star Wars comics over to Marvel Comics, with an all new, optimized-for-corporate-synergy canon that will spread across all their media platforms. Anything that’s not a movie (especially one of the Original Trilogy movies), or a Clone Wars cartoon, will be unceremoniously Order 66-ed out of existence, giving future filmmakers a clean-ish slate to make movies (and money) on. But what about all those Dark Horse comics? That’s where we come in with 7 Dark Horse Star Wars comics you should track down before they disappear.”

    ~

    At the New York Observer, Ashley Steves writes about Craig Ferguson’s The Late, Late Show. “No one could ever prepare you for watching an episode of Ferguson’s Late Late Show. A friend could not sit you down and explain it (“Well, it’s really meta and deconstructive and there’s a horse”). There was really no good way to recommend it. It was something you discovered and became a part of. You had to stumble upon it on your own, perhaps restless or bored or simply curious while flipping through channels when your eye quickly caught some of the madness. And that’s the best part. It was an unexpected gift. At its worst, it could still send you to bed grinning and comforted. At its best, it was art. It was silly and fun and truly not like any other late night show.”

    ~

    At Comics Alliance, Chris Sims interviews Ed Brubaker about his work on Batman, Gotham Central and Catwoman. “When I look back at [Catwoman], I’m so proud of the first 25 issues of that book, when I felt like everything was firing on all cylinders. I probably should’ve left when Cameron Stewart left instead of sticking around. That’s one of those things I look back at and think “Ah, I had a perfect run up until then!” (Incidentally, Comics Editor Carol’s first piece for the Gutter was about Brubaker’s first 25 issues of Catwoman).

    ~

    At Sequential Art, Greg Carpenter writes a lovely piece about Charles Schulz’ Peanuts. “After only two installments, Schulz had solidified the rules for his comic strip.  Random acts of cruelty would punctuate this irrational world, and Schulz’s trapped little adults would be forced to act out simulations of human behavior, using hollow gestures to try to create meaning in a universe where no other meaning was evident.  If Shakespeare’s Macbeth had been a cartoonist, the results of his daily grind, “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” might have looked somewhat similar—each character a “poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage” until he or she was heard from no more.”

    ~

    The Smithsonian Magazine has a gallery of US spy satellite launches. “Just as NASA creates specially designed patches for each mission into space, [National Reconnaissance Office] follows that tradition for its spy satellite launches. But while NASA patches tend to feature space ships and American flags, NRO prefers wizards, Vikings, teddy bears and the all-seeing eye. With these outlandish designs, a civilian would be justified in wondering if NRO is trolling.”

    ~

  • Spilling into Twitter

  • Obsessive?

    Then you might be interested in knowing you can subscribe to our RSS feed, find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter or Tumblr.

    -------

  • Weekly Notifications

  • What We’re Talking About

  • Thanks To

    No Media Kings hosts this site, and Wordpress autoconstructs it.

  • %d bloggers like this: