“IT’S THE STORY YOU ENTER, NOT THE CHARACTER.”
An Interview with Aimee Bender About Her Syllabus
This is part of a series of conversations with writers who teach, where we discuss how they develop an idea for a course, generate a syllabus, and conduct a class. Read the full syllabus here.
Aimee Bender is the author of The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Her most recent short story collection, The Color Master, includes two retellings of fairy tales. Her work has been published in The Paris Review, Harper’s, and Granta, among other places. She teaches at the University of Southern California.
I. THE ECONOMY OF THE TALE
STEPHANIE PALUMBO: Tell me about the background of this class.
AIMEE BENDER: I’ve only taught this as an undergraduate class, and the people that have taken it are not necessarily English majors—they’re science, pre-med, communications. It’s changing now, but the general education program had a template of things you had to include in a class: a certain amount of writing, emphasis on critical thinking, and pages of reading per week. You got to take those factors and stir them in a pot and come up with an idea. I knew I would naturally lean toward doing something with fairy tales. They’re perfect little nuggets to talk about.
SP: So many books have been influenced by fairy tales. How did you narrow down the reading list?
AB: I split it into two halves. One part was direct influence: stories taken from a specific tale. So for “Snow White,” we’d first discuss the tale and all different kinds of Snow Whites from various countries, then look at a new telling, like Donald Barthelme’s Snow White, which is radically different but uses the story as a base. There aren’t an endless amount of these direct retellings. The other part, which is super flexible, is indirect influence. I switch those readings a lot more, because so many things can fit. For years, we read José Saramago’s Blindness, but a lot of the students would argue that they didn’t feel it had fairy tale elements, just certain craft similarities, like very little internal reflection and characters without names. What makes a fairy tale a fairy tale is pretty debatable.
SP: How would you define a fairy tale?
AB: There are various definitions, including a great one by Bruno Bettelheim. I think fairy tales are usually quite short, have archetypes, include very little internal experience of the characters, involve an element of magic, and often objects and animals participate in some way. Bettelheim says they have to have a happy ending to qualify as a viable fairy tale, but I don’t know if I agree with that, because Hans Christian Andersen writes beautiful fairy tales, and they’re extremely melancholy.
SP: I read a Kate Bernheimer essay about the four elements of fairy tales: flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic. It’s interesting that writers are often told to avoid flatness, but it can be incredibly compelling.
AB: We get used to thinking there are these certain rules about fiction. But in fact, fairy tales came first. What flatness does is make the characters two-dimensional—we don’t get depth from their internal lives. But what the character goes through is different than in a realistic novel. Here you piece the story together and learn about the characters’ motivations through the action.
SP: Plot seems to play a more significant role than in other types of writing.
AB: Plot has different meaning in a fairy tale than in realism, because everything in the world is symbolic. It’s very exciting—I respond to that abstraction. I don’t need to know what Sleeping Beauty is thinking about in order to gain something from the movement in the story. There’s this great Italo Calvino essay called “Quickness” where he talks about translating Italian folktales. He fell in love with the economy of the tale. They move so fast, a lot happens. I think it’s that quick movement where we start to get the depth. A leads to B leads to C leads to D, and what do we make of that progression?
SP: How does the use of metaphor engage the reader?
AB: I think there are two levels. One is that a fairy tale has to function just as a good story, so that first we listen to it and enjoy the images. And the images are often incredibly memorable. If you go below that initial level, then I think you’re allowed to play with the story. My favorite image is that Snow White is buried in a glass coffin. It’s simple, but it’s so evocative. Why are we seeing her in death, and what does that mean? Is it a death? What kind of death is it?
SP: How does character factor in?
AB: We don’t expect the princess or the prince to be like us, not quite. They’re so flat that we’re projecting into them. There’s a lot of talk about wanting to show female protagonists that aren’t just damsels in distress, and that’s great. But I think a fairy tale is symbolic enough that we don’t actually look at gender in the same way we would look at a three-dimensional character. If you’re a girl, you can identify with the prince because the prince is not a full, fleshed out person. It’s the story that you enter, not the character.
II. IT IS ACTUALLY COMFORTING TO GO INTO A DARK PLACE
SP: Do you think fairy tales are respected in literary culture, or is it a marginalized genre? Until recently, fairly tales were ineligible for the National Book Award.
AB: There’s something utterly absurd about that. You think of someone like Helen Oyeyemi, who’s writing under a fairy tale influence, and she should be eligible for any and all awards. So yes, it has been marginalized. I hope it’s changing. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve seen more fairy tale-influenced writing, most of it by women, and I hope that the more you see this done well, it will break apart the absurd notion that it’s not a legitimate type of literature.
SP: It’s also interesting that fairy tales weren’t originally directed toward children, so they actually began as adult literature.
AB: What’s so amazing about fairy tales is they show up in every culture. They’re unavoidable. It’s in our DNA.
SP: You included a quote on your syllabus about how characters go into the woods to gain experience, to grow up. I would imagine your undergraduate students are at a crossroads where they’re transitioning into adulthood. Do you think this has particular resonance for them?
AB: I hope so. I remember that time as a kind of terrifying shift away from being a kid, starting to discover yourself as separate from your family. It’s a time of tremendous anxiety, and also huge growth.
SP: Can fairy tales be instructive in terms of how to navigate that wilderness?
AB: Bruno Bettelheim, who’s been critiqued a lot, still has this beautiful thesis in his book The Uses of Enchantment, which is that fairy tales teach children how to live. The reason they want to hear them over and over again is that they’re learning about how to be. And fairy tales have to be dark because children have dark thoughts, and it actually is comforting to go to a dark place—that’s why he believes a happy ending is essential, because you get to come out of the dark place. You get to go to a scary spot that you kind of know is in your mind, and then you get to leave it. He says they’re really instructive, and why not extrapolate from that and say that they’re instructive throughout life, at any point of conflict. It’s like Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey, a way to organize one’s own experience, or Joan Didion’s famous quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” People use the term like, “Oh, you think it’s just a fairy tale,” as if it’s Disney-fied, which is a whole other animal. But I think if something is like a fairy tale, that means it allows space for darkness and terror and wonder and then redemption and growth.
SP: You’ve said you gravitate toward the darker and more tragic tales.
AB: Because there’s that flatness we were talking about, the darkness is not gritty realism. You’re actually seeing something that’s more dreamlike, a performance of violence that has some other meaning in the story. Like the writer Lynda Barry, whose darkness is often really painful and really funny at the same time.
SP: Her book Cruddy is on your syllabus. How do you think the fairy tale influence shows itself in that work?
AB: She uses some lilting language, a rhythm that is kind of fairy tale-like, but then it ends up being a noir-ish horror story. She goes to the dark places and stays there. I knew that she had said that fairy tales were a huge influence, and I wanted to say to the class, here’s someone who has been influenced and look at what she produced. Where are the villains in this and how can we find the fairy tale influence, but also, how is it obviously different?
SP: Barry said in an interview that if you saw the story of Hansel and Gretel on the news, it would be horrifying.
AB: Exactly. She brings a certain realism to it. It’s a dark comedy, but it also feels painfully real and squalid. I mean, just as squalid as it gets—vomit and guns and bodies and poverty and pain and cruelty. But at the same time, somehow, you’re rooting for this main character like nobody’s business. It is sort of a hero’s story, just completely told inside out.
SP: Another writer on the syllabus who explores death and darkness is Robert Coover.
AB: Coover is almost a perfect match for the class, but I switch around what I teach of his because there are many choices. He has Briar Rose and Stepmother, but the one I’ve been teaching lately is a short story of Hansel and Gretel called “The Gingerbread House.” He takes the structure of a genre and then abstracts it a bit and tells a story that allows for contemporary depth— he’s done this with Westerns and noir too. His work is dark and smart and often quite funny and raises some core question that the story has asked. With Sleeping Beauty, what does it mean to be asleep for one hundred years? What are you dreaming about, and who’s in control of whom? He’s looking at some cultural norm and starting to unravel it.
SP: Coover said in an interview that we’re living in “stories dreamt up by others” and writers can “disturb this false contentment.”
AB: Both “The Gingerbread House” and Briar Rose don’t end. You’re in this middle place. They’re stuck in the woods kind of forever, and Sleeping Beauty is asleep kind of forever, but there are dreams interwoven throughout. When I teach Briar Rose and the prince is stuck in the briars and Sleeping Beauty is asleep, the students get angry. They want that resolution so bad, and it takes a while to think that the lack of resolution may be purposeful. It’s not just him giving up on the book. He’s actually doing something, and what is he doing? But it’s like a physical discomfort. It’s the same as when composers stopped ending their compositions on a chord that comforted the audience. How unsettled do you feel if that chord does not quite resolve?
SP: Anne Sexton also disrupts the myths we accept and engage in as a society. Why do you think her collection of fairy tale poems is called Transformations? Who or what is being transformed?
AB: She retold about fifteen Grimm’s fairy tales, and she talks about them overtly being transformed. First she does almost a thesis statement about the poem, where she talks about the story in a new way, and then she retells the story through her voice. Her interpretations often seem obvious once you’ve read them, but they come as kind of a shock. In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” she talks about aging. Snow White, too, will age and eventually become the older queen who’s jealous of the young lady. Of course, at some point Snow White will not be the fairest of the land and she will lose that mantle, but until Sexton points it out, you kind of freeze the characters in your mind to always be the parts they are in the story.
SP: She’s not actually changing the story itself. She’s just changing the way we look at the story.
AB: And in fact, she’ll write little commentaries on points of the story that are very funny, like she calls Snow White a “dumb bunny” when she keeps opening the door to the queen.
SP: What traditionally accepted truths do you think she’s poking at in “Cinderella”?
AB: I think she’s talking about an American ideal of going from nothing to something, rags to riches, but often she’ll say the story has a bad ending, and the idea of everything turning out alright in the end is a mask. She has such a biting hatred of a fairy tale spin that feels false—a smiling, fake woman is her nightmare, and probably also something she felt pressured to be. The book is from 1971 and feels particular to a certain time, in terms of feminism, but it doesn’t feel dated because her psychological take on the stories still resonates. Most of the students say this is the book they love the most.
SP: Why do you think they respond so well to Sexton’s work?
AB: I think because it’s so accessible, even for students who feel like they don’t know poetry, but it’s also so shocking to think of these stories in a different light,. This is the first exposure the students have to another way to think about something that has only been shown to them through Disney.
SP: How did you decide to show the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?
AB: I felt like I should show it because it was the starter. It’s notably dated and shockingly slow, but it also has incredible sequences. We talk about the artistic risk Disney took—he basically put the whole studio on the line to try this feature-length animated film that everyone thought would be a complete failure.
SP: Is that when fairy tales began to become sanitized, with happy endings?
AB: Other than the Hans Christian Andersen stories, fairy tales did originally have happy endings—it’s more that Disney started to change motivations. What’s a little sinister about the Disney films is that when they filled in character, they made cultural choices. In the Grimm story, when Snow White looks into the house, it’s tidy. In the Disney version, the dwarfs are slobs, and she enters and tidies them up and mothers them, and there are several long cleaning sequences. A good fifteen minutes of the movie is about cleaning grubby men. So that change said a lot about roles for both the men and the women.
III. YOU CAN TAKE IT ANYWHERE
SP: You read Anne Sexton back to back with Angela Carter, who also writes about women. But where Sexton kept the tales in tact, Carter changed them quite a bit. What are the effects of her changes?
AB: Under a sweeping umbrella, we can say these women are talking about what it means to be a woman, and Carter is also asking, what is sexuality for a woman? But there’s a huge overarching theme to The Bloody Chamber that includes the men too—a kind of trap between the real, wild, sometimes uncivilized but more humane self versus the clipped, overly-civilized, false self. And those two are in conflict in every story.
SP: We’ve been talking a lot about plot and metaphor, but Carter’s writing itself is beautiful.
AB: I think of her language as entirely separate from the fairy tale, and in some ways, it’s anti-fairy tale language, because it’s lush and ornate and vivid. It’s such an incredible pleasure to read her. I’ve spent whole classes on one sentence.
SP: Do you remember which sentence?
AB: It has excrement in it. [Laughs] It’s about a leather coat that starts to fall apart into the elements that created it. It’s this indictment of a character but also a loving portrayal of characters through this item of clothing. I wrote a couple of paragraphs about the sentence for Tin House’s blog.
SP: Barthelme’s language is also distinctly his own. What effect do his experimentations with language have on the reader?
AB: I think people often teach a book that is challenging for them because the pressure of the class forces them to read it differently. Barthelme’s Snow White book was, at first, one of the most challenging books for me to teach, because I didn’t quite understand my own way through it. And now it’s one of my favorite things to teach. He has an incredible sense of rhythm and comedy. The book is so smart, and it’s also very generous. He’s the type of intellect that could’ve been biting, caustic, mean—taking down people left and right and doing it brilliantly. But he likes people, he likes all of us with our foibles and our anxieties and our tendernesses and our loves. He sees people clearly but lovingly. I’m always moved reading him, and I feel this sweetness. But it’s almost impenetrable when you read it and you don’t know his voice. If you enter this book and you’re a freshman business major—most of the students are like, what? They don’t find any humor in it at all.
SP: How do you help them through it?
AB: We read it out loud. There’s a way to play with the rhythm, and they start laughing and get a sense of the writer behind this strange prose, and some of the students say it ends up being their favorite book.
SP: Why do you think he experiments with form, like including a survey of questions for the reader?
AB: The book came out during a postmodernist time where writers were breaking down the wall between story and reader. It’s a kind of democratizing that was happening to literature, a feeling that the story isn’t tucked away and untouchable. There’s a quiz in the middle of the book where he asks things like, “How are you enjoying the book so far?” One of the questions is, “Would you like a war?” I’ve taught it ten times, and each time, the war situation is a little different, and there’s something startling about that. And for him, in the midst of Vietnam, the presence of a chaos suddenly enters his storytelling.
SP: Since fairy tales are pretty black and white, I like the ambiguity that he inserts into the work.
AB: Yes, like Coover—he’s different than Coover but I think their work talks to each other. You take that familiar structure, and it allows you to go kinda nuts within that structure because there’s enough of a familiarity for us to be like, “Who’s Snow White? Are these guys dwarves? Is there a prince?” We can use those plot points as handrails through the nuttiness of this world.
SP: I read a study where researchers found that preschool children on a playground with no fence would stay close to their teacher, but children on a playground with a fence would play freely, throughout the whole yard.
AB: That’s beautiful. In fairy tale, you create structure with a certain type of plot. When you have that firm structure inside the story, you can take it anywhere.
Illustration by Josephine Demme.
Stephanie Palumbo is a documentary film and television producer, and a former assistant editor at O, the Oprah Magazine. She lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend and cat. You can follow her @onetoughnun.