Journal of Writing & Environment

Flyway Asks: What Makes a Fairy Tale?

Flyway’s Lydia Melby talks with Kate Bernheimer, independent editor of The Fairy Tale Review, about colored issues, communication, comics and “fabulism.” So what actually makes a fairy tale? We’re here to find out!

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LM: What is the story behind Fairy Tale Review? When and how did it come to be?

KB: I established Fairy Tale Review in 2005 after scheming it up over Bloody Marys at The Space Room in Portland, OR a few years prior to that. It had been on my mind for a very long time when I finally rented a post office box for the journal—the first thing I did officially for it.

The idea grew organically from the work I had been doing nearly my entire life, but especially since my twenties when I started my first novel based on fairy tales.  I had long noticed the profound influence of fairy tales on a great deal of contemporary books, yet as an avid reader of journals, it was impossible to ignore that overt fairy-tale work was marginalized into “special issues” dedicated to fabulism or magical realism. I knew of writers who had stories turned down because the work was deemed ‘not-literary’ or because editors had “already published a magical story this year [or in a special issue five years ago],” I had decided pretty consciously to advocate for fairy tales every way that I could, and give them a home. I did not realize at the time how many people would arrive at the scene.

In sum I established the journal as an act of resistance to the idea of dominant forms.

LM: Tell me a little bit about your new program, “Fairy Tale Book Repository”. Where did you get the idea? Can you give me a summary of the “long range plan” your website mentions, or is it a secret?

KB: I got the idea to establish a Fairy-Tale Book Repository over many years of finding discarded fairy-tale books at garage sales, thrift shops, or (along with other sad characters) in cartons on the sidewalk intended for garbage. I was frequently receiving new and used fairy-tale books in the mail from acquaintances, friends, and complete strangers who just thought I might like them. My shelves had become a sort of informal safe haven for fairy-tale books—an unofficial Island of Misfit Fairy-Tale Books.  So I decided to make it official and posted an announcement on the Fairy Tale Review website. So far The Fairy-Tale Book Repository exists in my study, my closets, my attic, and some boxes in the garage. I would love to give the books a more public home someday too, and I share these whenever I can. Anyone who knows me knows it is hard to leave my house or office without an armload of recommended fairy-tale reading.

Part of Fairy Tale Review’s mission is to “preserve” fairy tales of all kinds (more like preserving a delicious jam than some fragile artifact).  This is one of the ways.  I’m working on cataloguing the books and writing up descriptions of their contents and how they made their way to the Repository. Plans are not “secret” at all.  The Fairy-Tale Book Repository has been slow to venture from its current domestic space, but one day it will.

LM: Your website states you do not accept unsolicited submissions, but you put out a call for submissions for the Grey Issue– was this a one time event, or do you often accept unsolicited submissions, or plan to in the future?

KB: Fairy Tale Review Press, the book imprint of Fairy Tale Review, is not open to unsolicited submissions at this time.  Yet the annual journal, Fairy Tale Review, has always had, and has always relied heavily on, open reading periods.  Our next reading period is opening up at the time of the next AWP conference—the end of February 2012—and will be announced on our website, with submission guidelines available there.

In fact—and I really don’t know how common this is for other journals, perhaps many—100 percent of every single issue of Fairy Tale Review that I personally put together from 2006 to 2010 consisted of work I found exclusively through unsolicited submissions. Since then the journal has been guest edited and I don’t know the ratio of unsolicited to solicited work, but I do know the guest editors avidly and carefully read the unsolicited submissions (thousands of them) and responded personally in many cases to these.

To the open calls, of course, sometimes work has been submitted by writers whose work I know already, and this work, along with the rest, is screened anonymously by a dedicated volunteer team and then passed on to me for a final decision (I have in the past read just about every submission, though I’m now on a necessary editorial hiatus to meet other deadlines, and assigning Guest Editors to the new issues). Fairy Tale Review relies on the chance element of fairy-tale luck for what comes down our hatch.  We get many more manuscripts for each issue than we can possibly publish so decisions are hard—especially because the work we receive to consider is often lovingly, carefully sent in our direction by ardent fairy-tale fans. It’s not willy-nilly and so the whole endeavor feels very personal.

There was one exception to the open submission process: when I began Fairy Tale Review in 2005, I solicited work for the first issue, The Blue Issue (available as a free download here).  The debut issue was by and large gathered via word of mouth—I sent around an email to some writers asking them if they had anything for my new fairy-tale journal.  I didn’t know there would be such broad interest, and I started this way not to be exclusive but because I considered it a modest endeavor.  I did not establish any administrative apparatus (website, proper email account) before launching the journal. I guess I was following bread crumbs one by one as I tossed them down on the path. For all I knew, the plan would, you know, go to the birds before I put it together.  I intended the first issue to be a sort of personal revivalist announcement, a trumpet call for fairy tales, quietly putting forward the “fairy-tale feel” of the journal, its affect. I sent it around myself to readers once it was in print, and then sold out the few hundred remaining copies at AWP that year.

The Yellow Issue, the next issue we’ll be reading for (which will be the ninth annual issue, to come out in 2013) will be guest edited by Lily Hoang (Assistant Professor at New Mexico State University and author of Changing, a novel Fairy Tale Review Press published in 2008 which then won a PEN/Beyond Margins Award). She’s written a marvelous call for submissions that will go up on our website.

LM: Do you charge a reading fee for submissions? As an independent journal (not one connected to a university) where does most of your funding come from?

KB: I think it is very polite to ask about funding because people might be curious, when they send work to a journal or read it, “how” these things come to be and it’s good when things are transparent. Sometimes such information helps a reader understand a journal’s artistic vision or mission. Also it seems to me like a lot of people want to start journals, and actually need to know the range of answers to this very question.  So I’m happy to tell you about how funding works for Fairy Tale Review. In a nutshell, we have none! Before I founded the journal, for all I knew literary journals were funded by these marvelous patrons who also supplied their dedicated, bookworm editors with offices in Victorian houses with wood-burning fireplaces and bottomless pots of hot tea in flowered china. Au contraire. I had no funding when I started.  I asked for and received a gift from someone I knew to print up the first couple of issues, get my post office box, and have a website designed and hosted.

In my experience, people who edit and publish literary journals are pretty much doing it out of great love of reading and out of respect for readers and writers, paired with an inclination toward editing is an art form—not for pay.  No one I personally know who edits a journal is making any monetary profit from it—or a salary, even.  They earn income from elsewhere or editing a journal is a part of their other job—often journal editors have many jobs.  Universities that fund literary journals are actively supporting this work, and along with it, advocating for literacy—nurturing readers.  It’s great when that happens. Yet funding situations vary for many reasons and my journal does not have any funding. It’s just out of pocket and whatever comes in from sales goes toward replenishing the ever-shrinking funds available to me for it.  The journal would not exist were it not for the in-kind funding that comes via interns and volunteers (i.e. their valuable and generous time).

All human hours for Fairy Tale Review are donated.  The brilliant Tara Reesor of the Publication Unit of Indiana State University works with her talented students to design the journal and our books and get the files printer-ready.   I recently received a small grant from the Spanish Embassy to cover production costs for the recently published novel Irlanda by Espido Freire, translated by Toshiya Kamei.  Other invoices have been paid out of my own tattered pocket—these include things like the not-insignificant cost of mailing things to the distributor and reviewers and contributors; website hosting and updates;  tables at the Book Fair of AWP, etc. It takes sacrifice. But what a pleasure it is to give things up for fairy tales, and such small things, for me.

Fairy tales save people in all sorts of ways: it’s no accident Anne Frank wrote fairy tales. Historically a lot of authors say they first fell in love with reading through fairy-tale books.  The journal was established, quite simply, to give an open home to fairy tales and to preserve them for future generations of readers. It has never been about “silver coins,” though it takes some money to do this.  With a little fairy-tale luck the work will continue.

As for fees, no, Fairy Tale Review does not and never will charge a reading fee for general submissions. We will charge a fee if we establish a contest (and we’d offer something in return to those who enter).  We have had so many requests to conduct a contest over the years, so we think about it, even though contests are a little antithetical to the nonhierarchical art of fairy tales.  Still, there is a clamoring for one, so we are listening. I often toy with the idea of making the journal entirely free and online, but it’s actually less expensive to print it because getting all the back issue material up on a website would, you know, cost money itself (time, talent, technology).

LM: I’ve seen a lot of my favorite authors published in your journal, some that one wouldn’t necessarily think of when imagining a traditional fairy tale. How does your reading staff interpret the term “fairy tale” when go soliciting (or reading unsolicited) submissions?

KB: Thank you for the kind words about Fairy Tale Review’s diverse and growing list of generous writers who send work to us, from high school students to Pulitzer Prize nominees! It’s been pretty remarkable over the years to see how fairy tales provide so many readers an invisible key to the secret garden of story.  The journal has received submissions from indie darlings; bestselling authors with books prominently displayed in airports; writers who have stapled together their manifestoes; preschool teachers on behalf of their classes; and from MFA students, biology professors, nurses, janitors, chefs, psychiatrists, performance artists, sculptors, romance novelists, playwrights and, as many journals do, lonely prisoners too.

There is no singular, representative style to the work that we publish.  We have published work that falls all over the spectrum from mainstream to experimental.  From commercial to avant garde.  It’s the fairy-tale effect we look for—it’s a sensation, felt through a process of reading.  You get that special ‘once upon a time’ feeling, which can be a chill or a shudder, a glow or a pulse.   Certainly the team of readers I rely on have a certain dexterity with the aesthetics of fairy tales—an area I delight in teaching—but every new work is different and we could never say what we’re looking for except new fairy tales.  Fairy tales are possibility spaces—their borders cannot be closed. Fairy tales always are changing—that is their history, their present, their future.

Fairy tales are minoritarian: they elude definition by status quo terms. As such they survive via becoming—not by being defined. This does not mean that one cannot categorize their techniques (or style) in a given moment in history. To describe is not to identify, if those techniques themselves are seen as always evolving.

LM: Your blog on Jan. 31st states that you accept comic and illustration submissions–how often do you receive submissions of themed illustrations/art and sequential art? Do you often solicit visual art submissions?

KB: Timothy Schaffert, who guest edited The Brown Issue (now in print and available here), solicited work from an artist he admires named Peter Kuper, whose work is terrific.  For The Blue Issue, and for the journal’s cover, I solicited images from Kiki Smith; I had been invited to speak for the Museum of Modern Art about her work, and had fallen in love with it.

Recently, we were absolutely delighted to publish, as a downloadable PDF on our website, in conjunction with The Red Issue, a mini-comic by the artist Jennifer Parks, “They Met in a Dream.” Here’s an example where fairy-tale luck came into play.  A dear friend of mine, the amazing novelist and musician Willy Vlautin, had picked up a postcard in Portland, OR—I might be remembering wrong, but I think he’d picked it up from a pile of them in a coffee shop or bar, near where newspapers and ephemera like these things sometimes sit. It was a postcard advertising a gallery show for Parks’ work, and he gave it to me saying something like, “I think you’d dig this.” I promptly lost the postcard in one of the volcanic piles of paperwork on my desk and a couple of years later, after a move, the postcard showed up again. (I never lose anything—my papers are just nomads.)  I looked at Parks’ blog, where she had recently posted a few images from a Little Red Riding Hood graphic novelette and I loved them.   I asked if we could feature her work on our website and Justin Runge, whom I had taught in a graduate program, designed the PDF for the website (and for a special web edition of The Red Issue).  We also solicited a beautiful cover image from Parks for “Songs for Fairy Tales,” the CD of songs that Fairy Tale Review issued in 2010.

There is a deep connection between visual art and fairy tales. In many fairy-tale books language and image may not even be considered separate entities.  So we honor that tradition.

The journal receives many submissions of artwork but we cannot include much art with each issue, in large part because it is very expensive to reproduce artwork in color.  But I often write lectures and essays about fairy-tale art and keep images on file for those.

The National Book Foundation’s frustrating (and frankly, puzzling) exclusion of “collections and/or retellings of folk-tales, myths, and fairy-tales” is a prime example of how the “literary” field so often dismisses works involving fairy tales, myths and well-known folklore. How do you feel Fairy Tale Review is affected by this bias, and how has FTR already helped change it in it’s short life?

Harvard fairy-tale scholar and advocate Maria Tatar and I co-authored a letter to the National Book Foundation two years ago, respectfully asking that they kindly remove this little-known and, truly, not particularly actively followed, exclusion of folktales, myths, and fairy tales from their prestigious National Book Awards. When the response was very polite but not affirmative we posted our letter online on our respective websites and created a Facebook page, seeking “petition” support. Hundreds of people have signed on to the petition there, including several National Book Awards finalists, winners, and judges.  We would like to continue the conversation with the National Book Foundation; and I am trying to research the history of this exclusion, which must be a fascinating history indeed: who is the person who put this exclusion on the agenda list of a meeting? I would love to know how this person dressed and what cocktail he or she preferred.  The fear of fairy tales—fascinating, really, historically speaking. All kinds of prejudice bond up in the act.  Sadly, this literary prejudice is fairly widespread.

On a basic level, fairy tales are not considered ‘major’ art works.  Fine, by this fairy-tale author—as soon as something is by definition “major,” its ethics can reasonably be called into question.

But it is sad that fairy tales—and other underdog heroes—suffer from prejudice in many circles, among them certain literary circles, as you point out.  This trouble with fairy tales, it is a very American problem in its own way—I’m told by authors and editors in other areas of the world that the same prejudices don’t really hold—and this should be an area of research interest to someone, I think: a comparison of how fairy tales fare in contemporary “literary circles” internationally.  The prejudices, by the way, aren’t always visible to readers; a lot of people are astonished to learn fairy tales might be excluded from any prize. Fairy tales are also very popular, of course. And that too leads to an underestimation, etc.  It has to do with the fact that in order to have capital-L Literature, we must leave something out: how can you have something if it includes everything? To have a defined entity, how can the borders be open?  Fairy tales elude definition.

I cannot offer any objective assessment about whether Fairy Tale Review has helped improve the situation, but I think it may have.   I have long dedicated myself to the fairy-tale revival—to helping reverse the clichés and damages done to fairy tales (and thus to readers who need these stories so often about the weak triumphing over the strong) many years ago, and have never turned back.  I have received many letters of gratitude from readers and hear increasingly often from teachers using fairy tales in the classroom, and I see graduate students studying fairy tales and more and more writers working with a sense of awareness from them. I’m invited to talk about fairy tales at museums, universities, libraries each week—I have to turn requests down!  So from 1995, the year that marked my conscious dedication to fairy tales as an author and editor, when saying “I write fairy tales” could pretty much end a conversation with a lot of people I knew, things have changed one hundred percent.

It would be lovely to think my work at Fairy Tale Review has helped; and my own work couldn’t exist without the prior efforts of authors like Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, and current fairy-tale heroes Maria Tatar, Donald Haase, and Jack Zipes.

If you do plan to accept unsolicited submissions in the future, what advice would you give emerging writers who are interested in submitting to Fairy Tale Review?

It’s a very relevant question.  Read fairy tales—then read some more fairy tales, to paraphrase Einstein.
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Kate Bernheimer
is the author of a trilogy of novels and the story collection Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press), and editor of three anthologies including the World Fantasy Award winning My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin). Founder and Editor of Fairy Tale Review, she is an Associate Professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. Her next book, a children’s book, comes out in April: The Lonely Book with illustrations by Chris Sheban (Schwartz & Wade/Random House).

3 responses to “Flyway Asks: What Makes a Fairy Tale?”

  1. […] Click here for the Flyway interview with Kate Bernheimer. […]

  2. […] speaking of fairy tales, flyway has a terrific interview with fairy-tale writer, scholar, and advocate Kate Bernheimer. […]

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