Fairy Tale Review: The Violet Issue

Kate Bernheimer, The Fairy Tale Review: The Violet Issue (The University of Alabama Press, 2007)

The fairy tale is not dead.

This has been proven by many authors across several genres, especially the mythic art movement until lately spearheaded by the Endicott Studio. And here, once more, the fairy tale is shown to be still a vital and formative part of many people’s lives, thanks to Kate Bernheimer (well-known for Mirror Mirror on the Wall, wherein women writers explore their favorite fairy tales in essay form).

Bernheimer, with the assistance of the University of Alabama (where she currently resides, professionally), has initiated a new venue for the exploration of fairy tales old and new. She has founded The Fairy Tale Review, an annual journal currently in its third revolution, forging the way for a new crop of literary fairy tale writers.

Each edition of the Review is named for a color, evoking the Andrew Lang Fairy Books of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the third edition is The Violet Issue, the cover is understandably a violet shade. Each edition also sports the same illustration of Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother standing upon the gutted body of the wolf, an image entitled “Born,” by Kiki Smith.

When you first open the cover, you are introduced to a charming convention: the first page is emblazoned with the line “This Book Belongs To:” and a space for the owner to write his or her name. This is quite appropriate in a book full of fairy tales, for all that the contents are not directed at children. This convention can appeal to the child in each of us.

The slim volume begins with an annotated table of contents, which serves more to clutter the layout than to whet the reader’s appetite. The volume is compact enough at 129 pages, only 102 of which are actual stories, that a reader doesn’t need an illustrated guide to the contents.

As a complaint, that’s pretty mild; the one other complaint I have is only slightly more severe. Although obviously not a university literary magazine, the publication sometimes read like it was. A few of the poems and stories try too hard with a little too much affectation to be truly good or compulsively readable.

“The Tower” by Don Mee Choi, a poem of marriage and isolation, falls into that category, as do three poems by Lee Upton which bear no unifying theme yet are lumped together. (One or two even feel incomplete.) Two stories also fall into literary mag-land: “A Woman with a Gardener” by Lucy Corin and “Small Animal” by Aurelie Sheehan, which dabble in inverted fairy tale tropes and the intrigue of the quietly vulnerable, respectively. The last in this category is an experimental story by Julie Marie Wade entitled “Maidenhead.” It tries so hard to be clever, but falls just short of its potential. It examines the mentalities of several different fairy tale heroines (Red Riding Hood, Dorothy, Sleeping Beauty, etc.), relying heavily on unique formatting and trying to do too much in too limited a space.

The rest of the collection, however, is solid silver, paving the way for those new voices in fairy tale literature to transform into gold. Although, before I abandon this metaphor, there’s one tale included that’s glittering already.

Chapters 11-20 of Lily Hoang’s Changing: A Novella are amazing. The story relies on its formatting, but the structure is not a forced conceit. The story is told in hexagrams, an interpretation of the Chinese I Ching, and tells the tale of a girl growing up. These chapters are compelling, puzzling, beautiful, and ultimately satisfying. I look forward to the rest of the novella forthcoming from the associated Fairy Tale Review Press in 2008 (according to the contributor’s notes).

Some of the other fascinating and excellent stories include Kim Addonizio’s poem, “Snow White: The Huntsman’s Story,” which is a sobering, pitying look at that poor Huntsman’s story. Tracy Daugherty’s “The Sailor Who Drowned in the Desert” is a short piece of magical realism, examining a certain line from the Bible as folktale. Anna Maria Hong’s “Cin City” is an engaging Cinderella interpretation as well as a fine blank sonnet. Lisa Olstein’s four prose poems invoke Joy Harjo, so tied to the earth and full of myth. Kieran Suckling’s paper, “Frogs.” is a fascinating look at the intersection between fairy tale and real life, as seen through the questionable practice of frog-licking. Let’s stop there, and leave several other surprises in store for you.

The Fairy Tale Review is perhaps best seen as that responsive mirror which gifts us with the knowledge of emerging voices and patterns in modern fairy tale writing. In other words, it’s definitely a worthy endeavor deserving of support and certainly necessary to the shelf of any contemporary fairy tale scholar.

The Fairy Tale Review has a Web site, where you can even read sample storie from The Violet Issue. (I recommend Natania Rosenfeld’s “The Minder,” which is simple and affecting.)

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on July 27th, 2008.