Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.
I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.
I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.
Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader. X writers write only to X-ians.
A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.
But is it always necessary?
Time for another budget of (mostly ebook this time) reviews, featuring ghosts and scholars, mythological creatures and occult detectives. Really, the only thematic commonality here is that I’ve read all these books (and one magazine) recently.
Almost 160 years before Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill began The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, social novelist and ghost story writer Elizabeth Gaskell wrote this atypical (for her) piece of metafiction. An Englishman journeys to France to research his Calvinist roots, and a case of mistaken identity gains him entry to to an unusual party….
Ever wonder what happens to all those fairy tale characters in their happily ever after? Now you can find out.
You can read “Curious, If True” here.
I’ve added links at strategic places in the text to the relevant fairy tales; for the French tales, usually Andrew Lang’s retelling of Charles Perrault’s version. How many of the fairy tales can you identify before clicking on the links?
Even if you do recognize all the references, I recommend that after you finish Gaskell’s story, you click through and re-read the originals anyway; you’ve probably forgotten a lot of the details. In particular, one story has an entire third act that is omitted from popular renditions; I’m not sure I’d ever read it before, myself.
Some additional notes, hopefully not too spoilerish:
- The English fairy tale Tom Thumb is not the same as the French tale Le Petit Poucet, although Andrew Lang translated Perrault’s title in a misleading way. According to Wikipedia, Perrault’s story is often known in English as Hop o’my Thumb.
- “Gilles de Retz,” aka Gilles de Rais, was a historical person. Some believe he is the inspiration for a famous fairy tale. You can read a little bit about that here.
[EDIT September 3, 2020: Thanks to Cosenza Marie Hendrickson of the Victorian Short Fiction Project for alerting me to some dead links in this post. I have updated them.]
Image: The Chateau of Neuchatel at dusk, with Jura mountains beyond by John Ruskin (1866). Source: WikiArt
I thought that “The Light Princess” was quite a realistic fairy tale.
I know that’s an odd thing to say about a story of wicked-witch aunts, floating princesses, and a White Snake of Darkness, but it’s true. George MacDonald wrote odd and charming fairy tales, admired by the likes of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit; like most great children’s storytellers, he really wrote for adults as much as for children. I suspect that there might be more in “The Light Princess” for the grown-ups than for the little ones.