Interrogating the Text #1: Cat Valente & Fairyland
I read a short story recently, and I wanted to share it. I figured: what the heck, I’m a writer writing about writing on my blog, and especially about Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and the Greater Speculative Fiction Metropolitan Area. So I can just post a link to a short story that I think deserving of attention! Besides, it’s my blog, so nyeh!
But then I thought about it a little more. I don’t often give writing advice, per se, on my blog because I don’t know that I’m really qualified to do that. I do talk about how I do what I do – how I write. But, if there’s a story I decide I particularly like, might it not benefit me to dig a little deeper into it to try to understand why? And, if so, might that deeper exploration be of similar value to my readers?
Hey, why not? Long ago, when I was in a middle school art class, I had a teacher who encouraged us to learn art technique by trying to copy the works of more famous authors. (I attempted a rendition of Winslow Homer‘s “The Fox Hunt“, committing a terrible replica of which I am oddly still a little proud.) As it turns out, studying the techniques of more advanced, more skillful, and more worthy artists is an excellent way to improve your own technique. (I’ll never be a famous painter – probably because I’ve put more effort into learning the craft of writing than of painting, because as much as I enjoy painting I enjoy writing more – but I’m a passably fair artist with a pencil or a brush.) So today begins a new, occasional and periodic feature here at “The Undiscovered Author” that I call “Interrogating the Text” in which I do a little analysis on a story that I’ve read – and let’s see if together we can’t learn a thing or two about the craft of writing. Most – possibly all – of my example stories will be Speculative in some nature, and I’ll try to reference stories that I can link to so you guys at home can follow along.
To kick this off, I thought I’d point you all to a delightful little story called “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While” by Catherynne M. Valente. It’s available to read for free on Tor.com. “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland” is described by Valente as a prequel to her recently published novel “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making“, and as a bridge to that novel’s sequel. I have not read the novel – it was on my list, but after reading this story it may have to be bumped up the list by a few slots. This story is really quite remarkable in ways that are difficult to understand right away.
There are, purportedly, four ways to catch and maintain a reader’s interest in your writing, and you’ll need to succeed with at least 2 of them to keep a good hold: (1) compelling characters, (2) a inescapable plot, (3) exquisitely beautiful prose (or some function of style), or (4) a fascinating setting that sucks readers in and gets them lost in your world. I don’t know how true this maxim is… but it’s not hard to see that Cat Valente’s story succeeds marvelously on #3 and is insidiously successful on #4.
The beauty of Valente’s prose is quickly identified – and that’s probably the first thing that sucks you in. It’s lyrical, musical, and magical. The language is immediately evocative of the sorts of fairy tales you heard when you were a child. But even as the reader is charmed into thinking that this is something you could read to a child, you slowly and subtly begin to understand that this tale, in fact, is not for children. Not because it is offensive to children or incomprehensible to children, but because it sort of actually deconstructs whatever it is that makes childhood fairy tales what they are. Or something like that. I’d love to share a quote to show what I mean, but I’m afraid I’m not clear enough on copyright to know how much I can pull and still constitute fair use. So you’re just going to have to go read it (and you have no excuse, since it’s available for free). Besides that, it’s hard to pull a quote from this story independently. The whole thing meshes together in a very context-dependent way, and each part flows naturally from each other part. By the time you’re even a few paragraph in, you’ve reached a point where very little can be extracted from the whole without losing its meaning.
And I wonder, then, if that’s not symptomatic of eloquent and beautiful prose; that the value of the whole is so much greater than the sum of its constituent parts. A lot of the writing is more like the latter: you can pull out a phrase and it retains meaning upon examination. It’s all very straight-forward. But Valente’s work, here, revels in extended metaphor in a daring and brazen fashion. When Valente writes, for instance, “The cat does not care” how can you know without reading that what Valente is saying has nothing to do with cats. It’s not straight-forward at all.
In some way, I think it’s this heavy use of metaphor that makes it so dream-like and fairy-tale-like and child-like. Child logic is predicated heavily on “A is like B” – on metaphor and simile. Valente’s version of Fairyland is nothing but a series of metaphors – and what makes it so tantalizing is that they are metaphors for what we know not. It’s not “A is like B”. It’s just “A is“. You’ll have to figure out “B” for yourself.
Which gets me to the second thing I wanted to highlight about Valente’s story: the worldbuilding. All this metaphor, it stands for something I must suppose, it means something. But it’s also the nuts and bolts and guts of a strange and magical world.
She doesn’t have to do much to set up this world for the readers. The rules by which it operates is familiar to us, because they have been passed down to us through countless fairy tales. All she needs to say is “Fairyland has always needed saving.” And bam: you’re there, in Fairyland, because regardless of whether you’ve read Valente’s Fairyland novel, you still know you’ve been here before.
What intrigued me was how much Valente’s Fairyland positively flaunts Sanderson’s First Law of Magic. I mean, it’s like nyah nyah laws of magic can kiss my tuckus. There really isn’t any attempt made to explain the magic of Fairyland – and there really isn’t any need to. It just is. And yet, magic is invoked in the solving of every problem each step of the way through the plot. You know it’s coming. It’s deus ex machina out the wazoo. It’s only “what crazy, implausible, and delicious thing will happen next?” You buy the craziness and unpredictability and inexplicability of magic in Fairyland because that’s what Fairyland is - and for it to happen any other way wouldn’t be true to this setting.
This resonates for us not only because it’s familiar to us from the many fairy stories we read or had read to us as children. It resonates for us because that’s really how the world is. We want to believe that the world is rational and predictable and understandable. But really, it isn’t. There’s deep, dark magic running through the current of our world. Not the magic of casting spells or flicking wands or uttering incantations. It’s the magic of the mystery, of the unknown and unknowable, of confusion and chaos and incoherence. And it’s the magic of making sense of it all despite that incoherence, of applying order to chaos. That’s what childhood is: learning to tease out order from the chaos, to reach some sort of understanding about the world around us.
As you read in Valente’s fairyland, you’re thrust back into that place – that place where you can just seem to detect that surely there’s some order to this chaos, but maybe really there isn’t. Who knows?
I won’t really say much about Valente’s characters because, really, they’re stock, archetypal characters. Which, of course, fits her form perfectly. The plot is similarly-fashioned.
So, what is there I, as a writer, can learn from all this? Writing beautiful prose can’t really be taught. Style is something you have to develop, and nurture, with time. I am on occasion enamored of my style – I am fond of the pretense that my prose is at times poetic. At the very least, I have a known and incurable affection for alliteration. Perhaps the reality falls short of my perception at times, but that’s my aspiration. I guess this isn’t much of a lesson, except to say that one way to focus on improving your prose style is to steep yourself in the beautiful, eloquent words of those who are already where you want to be.
As for worldbuilding: well, Laws (especially First Laws) are meant to be broken. Or, more specifically, go for the resonant. If your story can resonate with readers, it will stick with them longer and they’ll fall all-the-more in-love with it. There’s a lot of ways you can do that. In Valente’s case, she chose to resonate with something that’s nearly universal among adults: our nostalgia for and fear of our childhoods. That’s a pretty powerful bit of resonance, there. But there are others: other nigh-universal experiences which might successfully be tapped. Things like our adolescence, our first love, rejection by one we love, striving to self-define, striving to fit in, choosing between morally ambiguous paths, and so on. I could make a long list.
But those themes have to be woven seamlessly, even transparently, into our world and plot and characters. You can’t slap a reader with “this is right and this is wrong” morality. You just have to present them this world that is so familiar to them, and let them find their own way.
Anyway, I’ve gone on quite long enough. Do go and give “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While” a read. And then let me know what you think. Any lessons you take away? Did you like or dislike it? Why?