Saturday, March 31, 2012

Teaching the 90%

Recently, I've been thinking about two pieces I've read. One is by Steven Lloyd Wilson, "Pick Your Poison: Sturgeon's Law and Why We Love Bad Fiction." He writes:

"Like the 10% of quality? Congratulations, everyone likes the brilliant stuff. That’s the stuff that crosses all boundaries and appeals to absolutely everyone. Appreciating the ten percent is like appreciating a perfectly cooked steak. You’re not a gourmand if you do, it’s just that you’re hopeless if you don’t."

They key is really the 90% that not everyone agrees about. Universities tend to predominantly teach the 10%. Yes, because academics can all agree that these books should be taught. Thus we help perpetuate the 10%.

Even more problematic, the 10% tends to be dominated by male authors, because Wilson's argument intersects with Doug Barry's in the colourfully titled, "The Literary Canon is Still One Big Sausage Fest." While Barry argues, "Fewer women — and less new blood, as professors hold onto their posts longer and longer — in the literary academy means fewer advocates for including more women in the literary canon," it's also true that many women also work with the 90%. We often actually don't agitate for canonisation of our preferred authors and it'd be difficult (read 'nigh on impossible') to get agreement anyway (the 10% problem). The 10%, conversely, continues to be acknowledged as 'brilliant,' but includes few female authors... which, I would argue, would mean that it really can't represent the epitome of brilliance.

In part, this 'bind' is behind my growing desire to promote the great female fairy tale authors. Within fairy tale studies, the 10%/male dominated canon is readily apparent. Perrault, the Grimms, Anderson, Disney. All men. Yet a woman, d'Aulnoy, coined the term 'fairy tale' and even male authors assert female origins of the tales. It just doesn't make sense that the canon of fairy tale is nonetheless dominated by men.

What is the answer? Do we argue for inclusion of more women in the canon, thus challenging the 10%, or do we argue for more recognition and celebration of the 90%, which would naturally bring with it more female authors?

*Of course, the canon and the 10% aren't identical, but they're pretty close.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Blizzard of Snow Whites

Why is Snow White the fairy tale princess who rose to prominence in the early part of the twenty-first century? And what do we consequently collectively call our cohort of contemporary Snows?


One of the factors at play in Snow's current popularity is her reinvention as, alternatively, 'feisty' and 'bad-ass'. Often this personality change is achieved by putting a sword in her hand. Bill Willingham gives her the Vorpal Sword in Fables and ever since the new Snow Whites have added a blade to their ensemble.

Obviously, this is all an effort to re-imagine Snow White as an assertive, proactive heroine and I won't here debate the feminist implications, which are complex.

But why Snow? Why make Snow, in particular, a feisty, go-to fairy tale princess for the twenty-first century?

In the Grimms, where she properly emerges as Snow White - or Schneewittchen - she does very little about her predicament, apart from some house cleaning and knitting.* Perhaps that's it. Since she does so little - since so little is known of her life beyond her tricolour lottery win in the fairest stakes - it's easier to fill in the blanks and reconstruct her as a fairy tale princess for the twenty-first century. Plus, she comes with name-recognition and a scenery-chewing, evil stepmother. Much is made of the dark origin of fairy tale in the Grimms...

There's a problem, of course. In the popular imagination, the Grimms are still viewed as the earliest source for ancient oral tradition. Their tales of dark woods, creepy witches, and innocent maidens are seen as the core of fairy tale. Oddly, at times they are evoked in contrast to the twentieth century authority of Disney, but as Once Upon A Time illustrates, Disney was highly influenced by the Grimms and really simply updated their tradition.

The Grimms, however, came to the fairy tale stage comparatively late and in the attempt to rehabilitate their passive, innocent and boringly virtuous heroines, contemporary writers are overlooking earlier sources of smart-alecky, cunning, often violent women. I blogged last about Finette, but she's just the tip of the iceberg. Often in glittering palaces, bucolic fields and overcrowded, bustling towns, these streetwise heroines earned their livings and demanded equality in marriage. The Violas, Rosellas and Sapia from Basile, for instance, are all able to assert their worth.

As we see fairy tales again become a vogue, it's worth reminding people that we don't need to simply rehabilitate the often mawkish heroines of a Romantic yore, but that we can rediscover a host of feisty princesses and working girls who, ironically, fell out of favour precisely because of the authority given to those like the Grimms.


* Of course, knitting and housework isn't doing 'nothing.' Such labours were essential to the running of a home economy. More than a few heroines were able to turn their clever fingers, used to ply needles or spin spindles, to good use, but we don't even know what knitting Snow White does and it doesn't appear to achieve anything. This is possibly, simply, because the Grimms didn't know a great deal about it, whereas writers like Basile picked up a thing or two about the value of a spindle or the cut of cloth.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Where are the Finettes?

I've been watching Once Upon a Time and reading Fairest and Fables and I wonder...

Where are the Finettes?

The Snow Whites, the Sleeping Beauties, the Cinderellas and the Rapunzels are all with us. Even the lesser known Rose Reds. But the Finettes?



Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy (above) and Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier de Villandon (immediately above) each wrote a tale featuring a heroine named Finette. These were actually different Finettes, so my question is a little off point. Nonetheless, two of the great names of fairy tale produced a heroine whose name means 'cunning' (you can actually find the contemporaneous definition in a French dictionary from 1694 on google books... which is one of the reasons I love google books). L'Héritier, whose cousin was Perrault, went so far as to subtitle her tale "The Clever Princess" (L'adroite Princesse).

These Finettes are beautiful, yes, but they are named for their intelligence and ability to think quickly and act with great shrewdness. They can not only see through trickery, they know how to be tricky when they need to be. These are women who can use their minds to figure out how to succeed in adversity.

Yet, these are not simply intellectual women. When it's called for, they're able to physically defend themselves. D'Aulnoy's Finette can bake an ogre as easily as lopping the head off his monstrous wife. L'Héritier's Finette has a hammer and isn't afraid to use it when a villain tries to seduce her.

These are the heroines I'd love to see in the meta-fairy tale extravaganzas that are so popular today. You get the feeling that writers are trying to recast the Snow Whites and Cinderellas as Finettes, but the legacy of the Grimms, of Perrault, of Disney weighs heavily. I'd like to see writers rediscover the Finettes (yes, d'Aulnoy's Finette is actually a Cinderella, so it wouldn't be difficult) and bring them into twenty-first century popular culture.

And I'd like to look up Finette without running across my own blog posts quite so often. Here's the challenge, if you blog about fairy tale, blog about Finette!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cupcakes and Feminism are not incompatible


For a meeting of my feminist-orientated reading group, I made cupcakes. I made green velvet cupcakes, to be specific, because it's almost St Patrick's Day and half my ancestors hail from Ireland.

The reason I'm blogging this? Lately, I've been running into quite a bit of negativity around the issue of whether feminists should be quite so interested in cupcakes. A specific example? I discussed Linda Grant's recent piece in The Guardian with a friend and colleague. Grant concludes:

"And I don't care if some people think feminism is a dirty word, because without it, we'd still be back where we were, stuck forever, too scared to open our mouths in case men think we're not feminine enough. Enough of cupcakes and high heels, they have their place, but they didn't win me the right to buy them."

Well, aside from the fact that I bake my own cupcakes, I was a little baffled as to why cupcakes and high heels (after all, Louis XIV made heels fashionable - he liked the way his legs looked in them) should feature so strongly in her conclusions. I might not open my mouth while actually eating a cupcake - that's rude - but buying/making/eating cupcakes certainly doesn't stop me from speaking up. Likewise, I'm not quite so sure why 'feminine' appears to be used in a quasi-patriarchal manner here. You can be very feminine indeed - and still be an outspoken feminist.

I'm not saying every feminist should bake cupcakes and develop a fondness for shoes. Nor am I saying that every woman who bakes cupcakes and has a fondness for shoes is a feminist. It's just that they aren't actually mutually exclusive.

And there are bigger issues than cupcakes and high heels... which is in part why I'm puzzled that some feminists seem to think these are issues at all. They aren't, unless you're thinking of the implications of the rise of the domestic/maker culture. They're simply part of my life as a woman and feminist - an enjoyable part through which I can celebrate the fantastic baking skills of my grandmother and great grandmother and countless other women who were crazy creative in their kitchens, often keeping families fed and clothed in the most trying of circumstances.

Such anti-cupcake rhetoric trivialises and ridicules feminists who happen to enjoy a certain baked good, but who do believe passionately in women's rights. The thing that really disappoints me is that this ridicule comes from fellow feminists.

In any case, my reading group very much relished a range of baked goods while we hotly debated politics and literature and planned future events.

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Introverts

I'm just downloading Susan Cain's book onto my iPad after listening to her talk at TED. It was one of those amazing moments where I really learned something about myself.

I'm an introvert. I think many academics probably are. It makes sense, doesn't it? We were often the children who liked to read a book rather than play sport. Yet I always felt pushed to be an extrovert.

Cain's comments about our teaching environments really caught my attention though. I've often 'inherited' subjects that involve 'class participation' marks. These have always made me uneasy and I've often dropped this assessment from the subject when I've had the chance. While I like students to get involved in discussion and experience frustration when no one talks, I've also been perfectly happy if some students choose not to talk.

Because, the thing is, they may not talk, but that doesn't mean they aren't listening and thinking and those are equally important aspects of participation. They're aspects that can't be reliably assessed as participation, that's all.

In school, I very rarely raised a hand to answer a question. When the teacher would try to prompt a response from me, I'd go blank and look a great deal like a deer stuck in the headlights. The teacher would inevitably be confused. My grades were good. I obviously knew things - I obviously thought a lot. Why didn't I contribute? It's simple really. I was absorbed in thinking about what everyone else was saying. I was contemplating. I wasn't ready to say what I thought. So I've always had sympathy for students who don't like to talk in class.

Moreover, as the tutor or the lecturer, I myself am paying attention to the discussion - I'm listening, I'm thinking about what's said. I'm not always paying attention to who is talking and who isn't. This makes it very difficult for me to sit down afterwards and assess participation. If I'm paying attention to who is talking and who isn't, I'm frustrated, because I really want to follow what's happening in the discussion itself. I also don't want to interrupt that discussion to ask 'Betty' a question just because 'Betty' hasn't spoken in three weeks. 'Betty' might simply not have anything to say yet. That's okay by me. I hope she will have something to say at some point and I hope I can create an environment where she'll feel able to say something about what she's thinking, but I don't want to put her on the spot. I know how it feels.

This is not to say that class participation works the same way in every group, for every teacher. It's just that, for me, class participation is stressful and unnatural.

On the other side of the coin, I create reading groups. I encourage my students to make time to talk to each other. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a group of students talking over coffee (okay, I'm lying, there are other things that make me happier, but you know what I mean). The time I spend in reading groups or talking to students and colleagues is wonderful and inspiring. However, as Cain points out, introverts do like to share ideas, to talk and discuss. It's just that we need time to be alone, to contemplate too.

I usually excuse my habits of avoiding my office on my restlessness, my need to play music loudly, my inability to focus in an office. Really, it's just that I'm an introvert. I need my own space to think and write. I could shut the door and put a sign up, but I'd feel caged in. I like to walk around, play music, make a cup of tea. My biggest breakthroughs in thought have often occurred when I'm picking tomatoes or when waiting for the kettle to boil or going to collect the mail. I then have the freedom to rush back to a pen or the keyboard and jot everything down before I lose it.

So, I'd encourage people to listen to Cain's talk and really think about the positive contribution introverts make. We do live in a society that values the extrovert and tries to turn introverts into extroverts. I hope as she suggests, this might be changing.