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  “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?

20 thoughts on “Interrogating the Text #1: Cat Valente & Fairyland

  1. I think I’ll like this series! I do need to read more shorts, and recommendations are always welcome. I’m off to read the story…

    Also, somewhat related, I just read a post on SF and simplicity just before reading this. Several of the thoughts resonate with what you’ve written here, even thought it is directed more at SF than F.

    • The series won’t be a “regular”, in that they won’t be on a weekly or specific schedule or anything. I’ll post new entries when I read stories from which I think something valuable can be learned.

      I’ve started looking at the linked post. I think I definitely see a bit of similarity, insofar as that post seems to be advocating for a little bit of artistic elaboration, just for the sake of being elaborately artistic. Sometimes, if the artists knows what he or she is doing, I definitely think this is a good thing. And I think that idea somewhat applies to Valente’s story here: there are a lot of elaborate artistic flourishes that aren’t strictly “utilitarian” – but they make for a beautiful style and fully-fleshed world.

  2. Hey, I didn’t know you painted! That’s cool. 🙂

    You know, before today I’d only read little samples of Valente’s work–the first chapters of a few of her novels. Haven’t gotten around to purchasing any of her novels yet, but even in the few words that I haven’t sampled I was in awe of the magical lyrical quality of her work. It’s got a quirkiness about it, too, that I can certainly relate to.

    I can easily say that reading just one paragraph of her work is stylistically more inspirational (for me personally) than an entire chapter of so many other contemporary authors today. And I have to wonder if she maintains that quaint, fanciful quality through the entire length of her novels, and if so how! I think it takes more effort to write so artistically than using a simpler, more straightforward style, though perhaps, like learning to write precisely, it gets easier to do so if you write more often in that manner.

    So I pretty much love this short story for this reason.

    Also, thanks for sharing that link, Theresa. Good food for thought.

    • I haven’t painted in a loooooooong time. I’d always meant painting and drawing to be my hobby, once writing full time was my job. But, well… it’s sort of worked out that my job is my job, and writing is my hobby. I really only have time for one solo hobby like this… so I’ll pick up a brush again, some day, if I get the chance. I do still draw some, but mostly stuff related to what I’m writing now. For instance, I’ve done a few quick little sketches, one of an animal that exists in the world of “Book of M”, and several others trying out various ideas for a particular man-made structure that appears in the same. As for Valente’s style: yes… I want to know how she does it! But I realize… well… lyrical style maybe isn’t really a matter of how at all. As writers, we could probably learn more from poets if we want to write like this… Just the same, it is very inspiring. It makes you say to yourself “I want to write like that”. Or at least, it makes me say that to myself.

      • Lol, I just realized I meant to say “have sampled,” not “haven’t.” My bad!

        I never could really grasp poetry, though. Just one of those things that seems to slip between my fingers when I do try. I guess that’s why I admire Valente so much.

        Though, I should say I do view the ability to write figuratively and the ability to write poetry as two different skill sets; I view myself as capable of the former but not necessarily of doing the latter (doing it well, I mean), oddly enough. People use metaphors and similes and such all the time without really coming across as poetic, imo, to the point that it’s just cliché.

        Yet somehow, even though I couldn’t tell you exactly how or why, it feels like Valente is able to combine the two when she writes. Though, maybe I’m just creating separation between two things where there doesn’t need to be?

      • Well, I think writing figuratively is a prerequisitie for writing poetry. It’s a subskill, I guess, or something. You can do more with it than write poetry, but you can’t really write poetry without that skill. What really makes poetry work, besides that, is an attention to the rhythm and cadence and sound of language. When we say something sounds lyrical, it’s often partly because of the figurative language, but also largely because the word flow has a certain poetic rhythm. Poetry also, but not always, is concerned with the economy of language: imparting imagery and emotion in the fewest words possible while maintaining a particular rhythm and sound. I think practicing poetry, even if it isn’t very good, can help in developing that skill. In particular, I occassionally try my hand at specific poetic forms (as opposed to free verse), so I’ll write a sonnet or a few haiku or something in iambic pentameter and so on. Forcing your writing into these forms helps you develop an ear for that lyrical quality over time – even if the poetry is never of any lasting quality. But I don’t do it nearly enough, I think, to have fully attuned my ear for it.

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  4. That makes a lot of sense, when you put it that way. 🙂

    On another note, I actually just came across one of Valente’s LiveJournal posts where she refutes people’s notions that her novels are, in fact, “poetry.” I think it’s pretty interesting and relevant to all of this.

    • That’s funny. Although, what she seems to take issue with is the comparison of her work to poetry being taken as a bad thing. I think kind of the opposite of that, i.e. that it’s a good thing. I’ll wager if her reviews were citing this as a positive of the book, she wouldn’t be snapping back at it. Regardless, having a certain facility with language – how can that be a bad thing?

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