November 13, 2013

Part One of NFT Editors Interview

Editor's note: John Patrick Pazdziora and Defne Cizakca are the editors of the wonderful new fairy-tale-focused anthology New Fairy Tales. Both are also part of the editorial team of Unsettling Wonder, which you really should visit.

The EC interview about NFT will be in two parts, with today's the first. I hope reading it will inspire you to buy the book. Also, if you are in the US and would like to promote the book and enter to win a copy of the book, please follow this link.

EC: Fairy tale retelling has a robust tradition, including virtually all forms of communication. Why this new collection? Why now?
John: In the past twenty years or so, we’ve really seen an upsurge in study of literary fairy tales in the English speaking world. Of course there’s a long and distinguished tradition of folkloristics, and there’s been the German study, but looking at literary fairy tales both as a distinct genre and as a subgenre of children’s literature—and like it or not, it’s both those things—that’s fairly new, at least in the form it’s taking now.

So with the new collection, we’re trying to do two things. On the one hand, we want to continue to making literary criticism accessible to non-professionals, to casual readers as well as formal critics. There’s long been this impetus in fairy tale studies, right back to the Grimms at least. So as two young gun fairy tale critics, we’re taking our place in this literary critical tradition.
On the other hand, we’re hoping to point out a new channel in fairy tale studies. Speaking for myself, I know a lot of my critical work on fairy tales has been in this vein—I tend to work in less charted waters. That’s really where all the interesting things are, really. And that’s hyperbole, of course—there’s lots of fun things that have been studied a lot—but I do think that’s where academics should be working, I think.  It’s where I prefer to work.

Really, we’ve drawn inspiration from Claire Massey, who edited the journal New Fairy Tales for a number of years. She’d found this curious emphasis on not just fairy tale retelling—“the old, old tales in a new dress,” as Andrew Lang put it—but in this idea of an entirely new, literary fairy tale. So the works of Hans Andersen, Oscar Wilde, George MacDonald, that sort of thing. As the journal started drawing to its close, Claire and I started dialoguing about the possibility of an anthology devoted to the concept—one thing Claire found in her work with New Fairy Tales is that a lot of enthusiastic readers and writers don’t actually know what a fairy tale is, or how it works. So—and this is going back to what I said about popularizing—we wanted to approach this idea, discuss it and put it forward, in a way that not only contributes to academic discourse but readers’ understanding. And Claire contributed the opening chapter to the volume. She’s the anthology’s fairy godmother.
So this is the what and the why of the collection. The how was John Granger at Unlocking Press, who supported a project a lot of other people might have said was madness, just given the sheer chutzpah of the thing, and then Defne came on board and turned this mad idea into a really beautiful anthology.

Defne: While both fairy tales and academic work on fairy tales have a long tradition, there was no title to date which combined the two in one book. And yet, as aspiring academics and writers ourselves, we didn’t see the symbiosis of criticism and art as a strange thing. Just the opposite; we are inspired by both every day.
So our aim with NFT was to give fairy tale enthusiasts what we loved: the interplay between the critical and the creative. We hoped our readers would be inspired by the mix as well.
EC: The slippery nature of recasting and creating fairy tales is clearly a focal point of New Fairy Tales. Paradoxically, we think we know how fairy tales are supposed to be. What aspects of the difficulty of both acknowledging and pulling away from traditional tales ended up influencing works in NFT the most? Can that be answered? Why? Why not?

John: Yes, I can answer that—I think! We draw partly on T. S. Eliot’s concept of “tradition” as “a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.” Eliot says this tradition “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order” in which the poet writes, and that’s true of the teller of new fairy tales, as well. If you look at, for instance, Wilde’s Selfish Giant—Wilde was well aware of all the old tales of giants, and he’s aware of that tradition, entering it to it, but at the same time changing it for his own ends. Colin Cavendish-Jones points out in his chapter on Wilde that the Selfish Giant doesn’t threaten to grind the children’s bones to make his bread, he just tells them to get off his damn lawn! And there’s a very particular reason Wilde used his giant like that, a narrative reason and of course an aesthetic reason.

"The Selfish Giant," by Walter Crane

So, when we’re telling new fairy tales—really, the fairy tale tradition exists in the present, in its entirety. These aren’t the stories our grandparents read, they’re the stories we’re reading. The whole of the tradition belongs to us in the moment we read, and by writing new fairy tales we participate in it in the present. And yet once our tale is written, if it succeeds it becomes part of that history—it belongs to past. And it’s not the story we wrote, it’s the story our children will read. So pulling away, acknowledging—inevitably, that’s the same movement. And what a new tale-teller brings to it is their own ability and their own imagination—or not, as the case may be. In Eliot’s words, it’s “a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together [that] makes a writer traditional.”
Defne: That is a hard question to answer Kate. In a way the dynamics of recasting and creating from scratch, or the movement of acknowledging and pulling away at once, is present in all literature, and not just in fairy tales. It is just that we love repeating fairy tales more than we love repeating novels or short stories!
I think retelling is a form of devotion and of submission; we surrender, we trust fairy tales will enchant no matter how we retell them. Since we retell so often, creating new fairy tales seems like a novelty. But the same play between the old and the new is present in all literature. I think writing (and reading) are made up of this mix: recasting what we have read (and seen and loved and lived), and the flippancy of a full-blown imagination.
That being said, as lovers of the form, we wanted to hear new fairy tales. We wanted to publish tales that would later be retold in their own ways. So the emphasis in NFT was on discovering the new, on adding a new chapter to an ongoing book.


  1. I didn't realize Claire Massey was involved with this! That alone makes me want to check it out. I loved her New Fairy Tales magazine and was sad when her path took her away from being able to continue that.
    I have a lot of mixed feelings on the subject of popular reading and study of fairy tales versus academic criticism. It's a delicate subject but the very fact that it IS delicate seems to makes new work collections come across as self-conscious, which is partly why these new tales don't tend to enter the mainstream consciousness easily.
    Claire had/has a gift for seeing through to the heart of all the eggshell territory while still keeping her pro hat on. It's one of the reasons I admire her so much. If you've followed her lead then you've definitely caught my interest.

  2. I whole heartedly agree with John's comment about Eliot's concept of tradition - is there a more universally known example of this than fairy tales? We not only bring the entire tradition to the present, but we influence how we view it in the past. And this is why I feel it is so important we don't ever assume we 'know' them and stop asking the questions or stop being critics; we are in a constant dialogue with the past from our earliest years, the tales inform, inspire and enchant us and will do the next generation. They change us as we change them, so we need to keep the dialogue open. So thank you John and Defne for starting the next conversation :)