Beyond the Woods: a new anthology
July 8, 2016 § 1 Comment
This week a new anthology of fairy tales for grown-ups hit the shelves. Beyond the Woods, compiled by Stoker- and World Fantasy Award-winning editor Paula Guran, is 500+ pages of fairy tale retellings from the past three decades, from writers such as Jeff VanderMeer, Kelly Link, Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Theodora Goss, and Tanith Lee.
In her introduction to the hefty volume, Guran takes pains to inform the reader that fairy tale retellings for adult readers are thriving. I’m not sure that her insistence is really necessary, since it seems we’re living in an undeniable second age for fairy tales of all types. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to have such a substantial reminder. What Beyond the Woods brings to the conversation is a primer in the contemporary fairy tale fiction that’s happening just left of the high literary sphere. The contributors of Kate Bernheimer’s excellent 2010 collection My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales are for the most part members of that literary tradition, the authors who’ve taught craft workshops at Tin House and whose stories are given to eager MFAs who want to learn to break the rules. And they’re wonderful, a constellation of contemporary kings and queens of the form–Aimee Bender, Joy Williams, Kevin Brockmeier, Brian Evenson, Rikki Ducornet. There are also established giants whose names need no context: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike. What readers will find instead in Beyond the Woods is a fairy tale landscape beyond the literary craft workshop or the pages of the New Yorker. Each collection boasts a Kelly Link and a Neil Gaiman, yes, because how could they not, but where Beyond the Woods does not overlap, it skews heavily fantasy/sci-fi. The list of publications in which the contributed stories appeared includes venues such as Weird Tales, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and Strange Horizons.
Now, I’ll just go ahead and say it: I hate the genre debate. I don’t enjoy holding up certain “rules” such as structured plot and saying see, here, this is what makes this one genre and this one literary. But the divide does exist, even if the characteristics that define it grow more ineffable (and largely marketing-related) by the second. That said, the stories in Beyond the Woods do skew towards genre, even if we’re basing that fact on nothing but where librarians shelve the contributing authors’ books. That’s not a bad thing. Because with collections like My Mother She Killed Me paving the way, it’s about time that so-called “genre writers” claim their rightful place around the fairy tale fire. After all, fantasy and sci-fi owe much to the wonder of the fairy tale, and the lines that define genre are becoming more fractured all the time.
Short fiction in particular (a form one could argue began with the fairy and folk tale itself) is where genre lines are most able to bend. As more writers ‘break the rules,’ the traits that once defined genre become harder to recognize. And when the only sacred rule is to take the familiar and make it strange–in this case, taking familiar tales and making them new–a story can come from any camp, and yet belong to a tribe all its own.
That tribe continues to grow; The Starlit Wood, another collection of contemporary “cross-genre” fairy tale retellings, is due out this fall.