The Urban Sherpa - a blog by Christopher DeWan

(no man is an isthmus...)

Read Work and Other Essays, a collection of nonfiction by Christopher DeWan.

The Communist Fairy Tale Manifesto, pt. 1 rating=2

Or, What I Like: Thoughts Toward an Essay

Little Red Riding Hood (WPA)

A year ago, in an effort to help cultivate more of the writing that I myself like to read, I sent out a call for fiction, and attached the following statements as a short manifesto:

  1. We believe there are many ways of looking at the world, and you can see a lot by sometimes closing your eyes.
  2. We believe the best ideas come out in unexpected ways.
  3. We believe fairy tales are for grown-ups, who might not always be able to puzzle out the moral.
  4. We believe the medium is a message, and we like the digital medium.
  5. We believe in concision and negative space.
  6. We believe a lot can be built with shoestrings.
  7. And we believe that stories—even short ones—especially short ones—should leave us feeling transformed.

People did send stories. (Thanks!) But I also received one short, unexpected, hateful email from a stranger: four sentences of unsolicited vitriol which can be politely summed up by its final line, "Get a job!" I had a job, but apparently something in my bullet list struck a nerve, and made this man understand me to be lazy, wasteful, and anti-capitalist. Whether those things are true or not is beside the point. (They probably are true.) The point is, with precious few clues as to what set him off, I'd like to guess that he was lashing out at the term "fairy tale."

Nothing evokes childhood and its spendthrift squandering of time—time, the most precious of all adult commodities!—quite so quickly as the fairy tale. These are stories set in faraway times and places, starring princes and frogs and whole casts of characters whom we can never hope to be. These royals and freaks struggle in worlds that don't even share our own laws of physics: wolves speak, at least one parent is always deceased, and the prick of a needle might put you to sleep for years. The world is warped, causality is surreal, and a practical person could reasonably conclude that the morals of these stories must certainly be useless to us. The fairy tale is the most extravagant example of the uselessness of all fiction, and the uselessness of the time that we give to it.

Yet this talk of "use" and "commodities" speaks exactly to the fairy tale's real value. This, then, is a "Communist Fairy Tale Manifesto," because it proclaims that one function of these stories is to liberate you from the belief that your time must be well spent. When you read a fairy tale, your time is getting wasted, and you, the worker/shopper disappear; as a reader, you are transported, however briefly, into a place where the concerns of your job cease to exist, where nothing is being bought or sold, where shopping won't solve any problems, and where things are, in general, much too weird ever to be commodified.

Thus, the act of valuing a fairy tale is a radical act, because it expresses your independence from a capitalist dialectic (working/shopping) that defines so much of our everyday ("workaday") existence. Every time that I decide I "don't have time" for fiction, what I'm actually deciding is that it has too little "value," in the sense that it doesn't help me to get any of "my work" done (though "my work" is, in these cases, usually actually someone else's work). This habit strengthens the value of capitalism in my mind and on my time, and it weakens and devalues imagination—the one place we are most free.

The point of a fairy tale is to enable you and to train you to think fantastically, and expansively. It enables your humanity, and makes you a bigger, richer human being—arguably, I think, even more so than "getting a job."1


1. I don't at all mean to limit the discussion of "fairy tales" to the Hans Christen Anderson and the Grimm Brothers: these stories are so entrenched and well-known that they may make it harder to think expansively: they are too canonical. But I do mean to include Garcia-Marquez, Isabel Allende, etc.; Milan Kundera; Angela Carter, Jeanette Winterson, etc.; Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, many of the writers associated with "slipstream", etc. etc. etc.... in short, I mean nearly all of the writers I read and like.2, 3

2. The occasion for writing this not-quite-essay was a recent conversation with a friend regarding a playwright I much admire, Sarah Ruhl, and the common criticism that her work can be "twee." I disagree both that her work is "twee" and also that "twee" is, in itself, a criticism. Since none of my feelings on this particular subject made it into the above passage, I'd like to hope there will be a "Part Two"....

3. See also, "Mythic Proportions."