Thursday, June 30, 2011

Publishers and Academics Today

I was reading a great article by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian: "Publishers and the internet: a changing role?" As readers of the blog will know, I'm really invested in the changing role of publishers in the industry. I like that Doctorow refers to this as "a weird and wonderful thing." I'm actually quite optimistic about the new range of 'publishers.' This is not to dismiss all publishing houses - there are many excellent editors out there who still know how to find and develop talent, but there are problems unique to today's market. Let's not kid ourselves that it's all about good storytelling and writing. Likewise, the proliferation of online 'publishers' doesn't guarantee that good work will always find its audience or that artists will be better off. Artists and authors are increasingly having to learn new tricks and trades to survive.

One of the commenters, UnpublishedWriter, noted: "I guess it also says a lot that this is in the 'Technology' Section rather than 'Books.'" Indeed. The ability to be tech savvy is becoming as important as being able to write well.

But what about English Lit. academics? Is our role changing too? Yes. Of course, academics are always debating the state of the discipline, so it's nothing new that our role is under scrutiny today. The question that really interested me after reading Doctorow's piece is whether our role as 'gatekeepers' is changing too. I've heard many colleagues talking about how we have a great range of truly wonderful literature to draw upon. Yet, universities all over the world seem to teach from the same selection of novels. I'm as culpable as anyone! What will we do as published work spreads across the online environment? As increasingly obscure works are unearthed and made accessible thanks to sites like Google Books? Will we increase the range of literature we look at now that more literature is readily available?

I'll need a few more cups of coffee before I start positing answers, but in the meantime, I thought I'd quickly share one of my own favourite artists who has taken advantage of the potential in the environment, Marian Call. Yes, it's music, but there's lyrics, and to me, that counts! Plus, there's a very cool use of a typewriter.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Cupcakes and the Academic Profile

A friend and colleague of mine pointed me in the direction of this blog post by Dr Inger Mewburn on 'The Thesis Whisperer'. I immediately passed the link on to my postgrads. I think it's important for academics to think about how we're presented in the online environment. As I've said before on the blog, part of my motivation for blogging is the ability to present a picture of myself that I can control - at least to a certain degree! I've looked up other academics in the past and it's very difficult to find any trace of them. On the other hand, I've looked up academics and discovered that they also make jewelery, write stories or bake bread. Such revelations are always a bit of a risk. There are bound to be some people who scorn such hobbies being revealed. How can you take an academic seriously who makes necklaces? My response would be 'how could you not?' It's a relief to discover that they have a life outside books. There's no need to talk about such hobbies in lectures or classes - unless relevant - but I don't see how such activities can diminish academic profiles.

And, as Dr Mewburn writes, "who wouldn’t want to hire someone who guarantees cupcakes at every staff meeting?"

Our reading group used to regularly share muffins and cakes. It's happened less often of late and I'm a little sad about that. I might have to do something about it. Although, most of my baking lately has been confined to dog biscuits...

Don't Mess with Fairies

The relation between fairies and fairy tales is fraught. Many fairy tales don't feature fairies. Many tales about fairies more aptly conform to folklore, myth, urban legend or just simply superstition, not fairy tales.

Likewise, there are two distinct, well known arcs to fairy lore. There is the older lore of terrifying, cunning, duplicitous fairies. There is, too, a sentimental lore that gives us romantic, sweet fairies. The latter largely arises from a Victorian/Edwardian sensibility. The two arcs are increasingly intermingled in contemporary tales about fairies.

I tend to distinguish between tales about fairies and fairy tales. The term, fairy tale, was coined by Marie-Catherine D'Aulnoy, who did write tales with fairies. These were largely female fairies, regal, powerful, often quick to offend, but also quick to provide aid if they so chose. They wielded greater influence than kings, significant in an era dominated by the Sun King, Louis XIV. I know D'Aulnoy was winking broadly at her audience. Since D'Aulnoy gave us fairy tale, it's worth noting that the most popular tales often do feature fairies.

What about tales with fairies, though? These are the tales that draw more explicitly on lore. I not-so-secretly really enjoy Supernatural and the other night, I was over the moon to see their take on fairy lore in "Clap Your Hands If You Believe..." I think it's become my favourite episode, if only for the scene with the microwave and Dean shouting: "Fight the fairies! You fight those fairies! Fight the fairies!" I sat afterwards, pondering as you do if you're an academic, whether it was urban legend with fairies or fairy tale. Tricky. While the brothers' story seems more urban legend with fairies, particularly since they research fairies and use lore to defeat the bad leprechaun, the core tale about the 'cobbler' rings true as fairy tale.

Sam even has a notebook, a clue to the 'lore' aspect of a tale about fairies.

It's cases like these that make you aware of how bendable genre is. Academics work to define. Storytellers don't worry about definitions - in fact, they're often actively trying to subvert, bend or break definition. In creating fairy tale, D'Aulnoy herself was subverting those tales that she'd inherited. Her version of Cinderella, 'Finette Cendron,' for instance, plays a little joke on the shoe-play in Basile's 'The Cat Cinderella.'

I've none the less come to see fairy tale as a literary genre (in which I do include comics, plays, librettos, film and television scripts). I'm not going to be too strict about this, though.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Finding Fairy Tales in Odd Places

The other night, I was looking for something fun to read. I'd been alternating between Calvino's collection of Italian fairy tales and the Grimms. Calvino's collection is stupendous. The tales are insane and playful, just as they ought to be. You can pick up threads of the stories you know from Basile, Straparola and others. You laugh out loud a lot, which can be embarrassing at the specialist's waiting room. They are glorious mash-ups with a dash of working class philosophy. The Grimms? I now have issues with the Grimms. The tales are heavier. Many people mention how 'dark' they are, but I don't find them as dark as others I've read. At least, not in the sense of being deliciously, entertainingly dark. The morality feels a bit too strained. No one seems to really enjoy being wicked.

But I thought I needed a change from fairy tales. So I was browsing the Amazon Kindle store, because I have created my own browsing method for online stores. I'd never heard of Michael Swanwick, but I liked his name. I loved the title, The Dog Said Bow-Wow. The cover is terrific. I clicked through to the first pages. I was sold.

I've still only read the first couple of stories, but they are... fairy tales. Who knew? The blurbs tell you these are stories about Faerie, dinosaurs etc, but as you read... yes, they are absolutely fairy tales. Fairy tales that exist in a world that has science fiction and steampunk. They are amazing. There's a scene in the title story that recalls D'Aulnoy's diamonds and emeralds. Surplus, the hero of the tale, is none other than our Puss in Boots, craftily reimagined as a dog.

I have, in short, found a new author! Readers know that thrill. The sense of discovery, the feeling that an author is writing tales just to entertain you. I admit it, I don't like books that I have to work at loving. I love books that feel like they were written just for me. This collection feels like it was written just for me.

And it's fairy tales! I guess, in the end, I didn't need the change - I just need to find more fairy tales.

(Note added: You might also note the profile picture for the blog has changed. I found my perfect Puss in Boots boots.)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Diary Dates

I've just finished making up a calendar for the unit I'm teaching at Prato next month, Fairy Tale in Italy. I have those moments where I panic that I've not secured hotels for the right nights or flights for the right days. The unit itself booked out very quickly and there's quite a waiting list. Unfortunately, it looks like it won't run next year, but I'm going to try for the following year - 2013. I'm not even used to it being 2011, so writing '2013' is a little alarming.

I'm hoping the experience in Prato will be something like this:

Much Ado About Nothing, 1993

Meanwhile, closer to home, a good friend and colleague, Deb Waterhouse-Watson, and I will be giving our paper "Beyond Wicked Witches and Fairy Godmothers: Ageing and Gender in Recent Children's Fantasy" at Continuum 7, 11am Monday 13th June. It will be followed by a panel elsewhere at the convention, "Crones, Witches and Marginalised Power in Fairytales," featuring Catherynne M. Valente, the guest of honour. The old women aren't so marginalised on Monday 13th, obviously!

I've never been to Continuum, so I'm looking forward to seeing what it's all about. I'm enjoying becoming involved in fan/industry conventions. It gets me out of the old ivory tower now and then. (I wish I did work in an ivory tower - the Menzies really isn't conducive to fairy tale thought and I haven't seen a single Prince try to scale its walls.)