The Momentum Blog

Once Upon a Time – Fairy tales for the modern world

Posted December 17, 2014 by Achala Upendran

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I’ve been reading Alan Moore’s Promethea series of graphic novels, and there’s a line in one of them that struck me as quite brilliant: ‘All myths are true, Sophie. Given that they last longer, they’re even truer than the so-called “real world”.’ In an earlier post on the Norse gods, I’d spoken about how old stories tend to linger on in the imagination, just finding newer versions of themselves spun out to fit the current scenario. The same goes for fairy tales. No matter what age you are, what your frame of mind is, or what medium you prefer your entertainment on, you’ll probably find a reworking of an old favourite to satisfy you.

 The king of modern fairy tale remixes is probably Disney, who’ve taken stories from all over the world, some based vaguely on historical records, and crafted blockbuster movies that still exert a powerful hold over en entire generation. They’re still at it, and they’re getting even better with time, if the Frozen phenomenon is any indication. Here they’ve taken the age-old story of the Snow Queen and built up an homage to sisterly love, telling a tale where princes are, if not irrelevant side plots, villainous upstarts out to defraud their so called ‘love interests’.

Elsa and Anna from  Frozen

Elsa and Anna from

Oops, maybe I should have thrown in a spoiler alert there.

Disney has sort of corralled the reworking of fairy tales on the big and small screen (their Once Upon a Time is geared towards older audiences who want to watch fairy tale characters live out their lives in a tiny town in Maine), but the retelling of the same in print is a level playing field for all. And again, the variety of retellings here is staggering. Whether it’s Bill Willingham recasting the old favourites as helpless refugees in his Fables graphic series, or Neil Gaiman adding a dark sheen to Snow White in his short story ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’, there’s something out there for every reader with a taste for new additions to old faithful, favourite recipes.

Something for everyone, yo!

Something for everyone, yo!

It’s kind of amazing that these stories, which have been around for quite a while (the Grimm collection, at least, celebrated its 200th anniversary two years ago) still haven’t lost their appeal. Kids all over the world, at least, those who grow up with a vaguely Europeanised education, are familiar with characters like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, if not the ‘original’, unsanitized versions that some of us have begun reading. You can’t very well tell kids that, in the original Sleeping Beauty, the princess wasn’t exactly woken by true love’s kiss. Far from it—she was woken by one of her children sucking the cursed splinter out of her finger, children who are themselves the result of the prince raping her as she lay deep in slumber.

Rapunzel-princess-rapunzel-from-tangled-35302500-714-958And after that she goes and gets married to him and then has to deal with his monstrous mother. Go figure.

Since many of the ‘traditional’ fairy tales that I know centre on female protagonists, like Sleeping Beauty or Red Riding Hood, it’s probably not a surprise that most of their reworking focus on the same. In fact, this is one genre where the female hero is remarkably popular, much more so than in the epic fantasy or science fiction category. In their ‘traditional’ forms, fairy tales are now seen as prescribing codes of behaviour that are now outmoded and in need of dismantling. Authors seem more than happy to take up this task, doing everything from presenting pretty princesses as hellish vampiric monsters (‘Snow, Glass, Apples’) to turning the victims into willing participants (I’m thinking of Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber).

My personal favourite among fairy tale remixes is definitely John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things. The book is different from any of those I’ve mentioned here for several reasons. One, its protagonist is a twelve year old boy growing up in Britain during World War II. book of lost thingsTwo, it doesn’t seek to rewrite fairytales so much as reaffirm the boy’s relationship with them. Connelly uses the book to explore the difficult period known as puberty, and guides his protagonist into the adult world in the best way possible: by throwing him into a strangely twisted fairytale landscape that is just familiar enough to tug at readers’ heartstrings, but terrifying enough to remind them they really know nothing of what’s going to come.

With fantasy and storytelling getting increasingly aware of its need to be diverse, and include a multitude of voices, it’s probably a great time to start looking beyond the usual Grimm-Andersen stock of fairy tales as well. Imagine, if you can create so many mindbogglingly different versions of these (relatively) few tales, how much more can we do with a whole new treasure trove? I once read an ‘Egyptian Cinderella’ when I was a kid, and I was amazed that the same story, or something very similar, could work so well in a wholly different setting. There was no magic in that particular rendition, as far as I remember, but the outline was the same: a servant (in this case, slave) girl manages to catch the eye of the Pharoah’s son, and then becomes his ‘wife’. I’m going to have to assume, in retrospect, that she actually became, if anything, an elevated and honoured concubine. I somehow doubt the Pharaoh would have let his son throw royal alliances and tradition aside so lightly for a slave girl. She wasn’t exactly Moses, you know.

All said and done, there’s nothing like the words ‘once upon a time’ to tell your readers that they’re entering a sacred, magical space, where anything can and will happen. Things can be hunky dory, dance in the woods with softhearted woodland creature-friendly (old school Disney style), they can be dark and dreary and downright terrifying (Gaiman and Connolly and Carter style) or anything in between. The stories might have magic, they might not; they might be set in fantastical worlds we can barely recognise, they might be set in the humdrum every day with characters facing and reacting to situations in achingly familiar ways. Whatever you choose to dish out, you’ve got years of tradition and a huge vault to borrow from if you’re walking the path of the fairy tale. Rules are meant to be broken here; not everyone wants, or needs to get a happily ever after.

Then again, some totally do.

Then again, some totally do.



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What has happened to all the powerful women in book publishing?

Posted July 17, 2013 by Anne

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I recently read a post on book industry site Book Machine by Felice Howden, on the recent changes in the global book publishing industry, with specific regard to gender imbalance.

With the Random House/Penguin merger there has obviously been some consolidation in management, and the venerable Gail Rebuck, who has been chairman and chief executive at Random House UK since 1991, stood down from her role running the business. In the same week the chief executive of Harper Collins, Victoria Barnsley, left after 13 years. Both women were succeeded by (eminently suitable, I might add) male replacements.

As The Guardian points out,

The suddenness of the change is startling – from 2000 to 2012 three of the big four British publishers were overseen by women. In the Guardian’s Book Power 100 list two years ago, Rebuck was ranked ninth and Barnsley fifteenth, and Rebuck took 10th place in Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour power list for 2013. Now, arguably, there are none.

While in Australia the gender power balance is quite different, what happens in the worldwide publishing scene now affects us more than ever. Most of the big 5 (going to take a little while to get used to saying that) have recently restructured in a vertical manner, so that the new arms of the business are directed from either US or UK strongholds.

Felice’s post struck a chord with me, as a female working in book publishing. I am one of the many women who have noticed that while we outnumber our male counterparts in the lower ranks of publishing, most of the top jobs are occupied by men. Obviously there are a number of reasons for this, chief among them the fact that women are required to delay their careers rather more than men if they choose to have children.

Reading Felice’s piece I thought about the number of brilliant women who have inspired me in my career (Katie Crawford, Cate Paterson, Nikki Christer, Sam Missingham to name but a few). Read an excerpt of Felice’s ‘Finding Feminism: A Woman in Publishing” and let me know what you think.

“Four years ago, I would have probably said we don’t need feminism anymore. I would have said we’re doing ok as a culture and don’t sweat the small stuff like discrepancies in wage, promotion opportunities, and people yelling ‘nice tits’ when you’re walking down the street in the middle of the day. I would have said this stuff will disappear with time, or possibly denied they even happened. Of course, this was before I knew page three existed (because, no, it’s not normal and where I grew up it wasn’t a thing), before Robin Thicke, and before last week’s news that two of the biggest jobs in publishing, previously held by women, are going to men.

I am not suggesting that men don’t deserve these jobs. Both men seem incredibly well qualified to hold their respective positions.  But every time something like this comes up, I am (and in fact most people are) reminded of how our industry is overwhelmingly female, and the top jobs are held overwhelmingly by men. I don’t know why that is. I also don’t know why there is a difference between men and women’s pay.

I found feminism partly through the fact that I noticed these problems, and partly through the incredible women I know who work in publishing. Because there are so damn many of them. The ones who stare you down; the ones that ask difficult questions; the ones with brilliant ideas; the ones working late and hard on a bottomless pit of a project;  the ones that make me laugh with how much they cut through the shit when a conversation is in danger of spiraling towards circularity. These women inspire me to be ambitious.”

Continue reading Finding Feminism: A Woman in Publishing over at Book Machine.

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Aurealis Review – Ms Cellophane’s glorious revenge

Posted July 17, 2012 by Anne

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In case you’re not subscribed to Aurealis, here’s a review from their newsletter of Gillian Polack‘s Ms Cellophane by Crisetta McLeod.

“This is such an endearing and funny book. Ever been stung to death by a queen bee boss at work? You’ll love this humorous fantasy tale which culminates in glorious revenge.

The protagonist, Liz Smith, is satisfyingly true-to-life, as a middle-aged woman with no family whose life has centred around her job. She is suddenly ‘let go’ and throughout the book ponders the meaning of her middle-aged, disconnected new self.

The magical element of the story centres around a second-hand mirror, which is prone to populating its sometimes-visible internal world with captured people. Liz is seduced by its charms at first but, along with her adopted house-mates, comes to realise just how dangerous it can be.

She experiments with a bit of romance, with cooking, with interior decorating, and with nurturing younger folk who flagrantly take advantage of her. All the time she is reinventing herself, exploring who she might become, while relishing her new-found freedom.

There are lots of Lizs about, and although they may not have magic mirrors, they will recognise themselves here, laugh a lot, and rejoice. And so will all their friends and acquaintances. Read, learn and inwardly digest­­–and giggle.”

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Writing a Feminist Novel in 1974

Posted July 16, 2012 by Anne

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“Literary theorists argue that the feminist novel centres on the concerns of, and the bonds between, women. The category “feminist novel” takes into account the plurality of womanhood, including differences of class, race, ethnicity, geography, sexuality, age and able-bodiedness (Felski, Fraser & Nicholson, Kaplan, Robbins). Challenging literary and social conventions with humour and irony, Christine Townend’s first novel and appropriately The Beginning of Everything and the End of Everything Else can be read as a feminist novel as it recounts the tale of a naïve young woman’s passage through marriage, childbirth, homemaking and leave-taking.

The protagonist Persia marries to escape a dominating mother. Settling into comfortable middle-class suburbia, Persia gives birth to a son, but realises that her life is still controlled by others. In a search for self-discovery she leaves home and goes to live in a different socio-economic situation in Redfern. The novel represents an example of the feminist protagonist who moves “outward into the public realm of social engagement and activity…” (Felski). With its novella-like form, its unusual language, its defiant plot and its parodying of social situations, the narrative fearlessly debunks literary and cultural conservatism. New writing like Townend’s opened a space for feminist fiction published in the later 1970s and 1980s.”

An extract from a paper presented by Adrienne Sallay. More info here.

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The Horror of Chocolate

Posted July 3, 2012 by Gillian Polack

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Some people can type “Hi, my name is…” and the words are seen as challenging stereotypes and bringing justice to the world. Me, it doesn’t matter what my past is or how I apply it in my fiction or in my teaching, everyone remembers me as the person who gives chocolate. Until I wrote my second novel, when people started saying “You write horror, don’t you?”

I write a novel that challenges assumptions about middle-aged women and it’s not seen as the feminist (slightly amusing) story I penned, but as horror. Humorous horror (with food and clothes), but scary. I know people who refuse to eat chocolate at my place for fear of the Mirror.

The fact that the mirror is not the same as the one in the book is irrelevant. My lovely antique mirror inspired the one in the book and therefore it might suck their souls and then where would the chocolate be?

Let me explain that mirror… no, let me not explain it. Honestly. It was meant to drive fear into the souls of innocents. So was the Beehive. They’re the sort of things that scare middle-aged females, you see (evil mirrors and bosses from hell). And it turns out that they scare other people, too.

“Horror latte,” its first editor called it, once.

I told her “It’s a feminist diatribe! And it’s funny. Very funny. Suburban fantasy. With art galleries and food. Canberra as it ought to be seen.”

She said “You can call it whatever you like: that mirror is creepy.”

“Middle-aged heroine,” I said. “Breaking stereotypes. Challenging assumptions.”

“I wouldn’t have that mirror in my lounge room,” she retorted, far too quickly. “I wouldn’t even have it in my house. I would take a blowtorch to it.”

“If the book sells a million copies as a horror, I’ll give you the mirror,” I declared.

I’m not sure she heard my declaration. She was munching on chocolate. People often do this in my presence. I reason that it’s because I’m terrifying. Short round people who carry chocolate are always terrifying.

“Because it’s not a horror. I don’t write horror novels. Or romances. I write speculative fiction. Besides, I like the mirror.”

“It ate your soul, years ago,” was her response. “That’s why you’re a feminist.”

“Why do people have such a strange concept of feminism?”

“Why do you write creepy mirrors? Have you got any more of that chocolate?”

And this is how I came to be known as a horror novelist, when the real me is an overweight historian who thinks she’s writing happy stories for the home.

Find out more about Ms Cellophane here, and about Gillian here.

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