Curiouser and Curiouser: the 2010 Omaha Lit Fest
The sixth annual Omaha Lit Fest was held this weekend and what a treat it was for book lovers! Taking a cue from Lewis Carroll, who wrote " ‘what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation,’ " this year’s event examined the very concept of the book, right down to the shape of the words, with an emphasis on fairy tales.
The entire event was held in the KANEKO Gallery, where they are currently displaying the works of Fletcher Benton, whose folded metal sculptures added a great background. The space was more than big enough to have an area set aside for a display of books and artwork for sale, the seating area, and a reception that followed Friday’s opening panels.
The Lit Fest is one of those things that I’ve been meaning to do for years but just never got around to before. This year, in the blogosphere, there’s been a lot of buzz about Melanie Benjamin’s Alice I Have Been, a historical fiction work based on the relationship between Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) and Alice Liddell, the inspiration behind Alice In Wonderland. When I saw that Benjamin was going to be attending this year’s event, it was finally time to make the trip across town. That and the realization that if people that love to read as much as I do don’t support the Lit Fest, who will?
Sadly, it turns out that not many people will and it was almost an embarrassment to have such renowned authors come to town and have no more than perhaps 50 or so people in attendance at the different sessions. Teachers, bookstore employees, library employees—where were you?
My experience with the fest kicked off Friday evening with a panel discussion titled "A Tender Violence: The Peculiar Nature of Fairy Tales." The panel included Lit Fest organizer and author Timothy Schaffert, interdisciplinary artist Janet Davidson-Hues, and author Kate Bernheimer, who is also the editor/founder of the Fairy Tale Review. The panel discussed the history of fairy tales and their sanitization, primarily by mid-19th-century Americans. This is when we began to see “happily ever after” endings to the stories. Bernheimer said that one of the reasons that fairy tales have been passed on for so many years is because they are stories of “survival of the weak despite great brutality.” From the red edition of the Fairy Tale Review, Bernheimer read a translation of the earliest known version of “Little Red Riding Hood.” This was not the version of “Little Red Riding Hood” I knew as a child!
Davidson-Hues said that the tales have become cautionary stories now and the “princess” direction that newer versions, particularly the Disney ones, are disappointing in that the women always have to be rescued. Bernheimer said that she feels that fairy tales have been undermined in literary and publishing circles because they’re primarily geared toward women and children.
An audience member asked for a definition of “fairy tale.” Schaffert, who teaches courses on fairy tales, said it’s difficult to give a specific definition. All true fairy tales are, according to Schaffert, dark and incorporate elements of fabulism. But, he said, it’s easier to know one when you see one than to give a definition. Bernheimer said that all fairy tales have everyday magic, a poetic element, a flatness to the characters, and no real happy ending.
Happy ending or not, listening to the panel made me want to dig out my copy of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and the works of Hans Christian Anderson. I also came away with some great suggestions for references. And now I cannot wait to get my hands on a compilation of new fairy tales, edited by Bernheimer, titled My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. Is that not one of the greatest titles ever? It includes some entirely new stories and some that are a new spin on old stories. There are some big names involved here including Joyce Carol Oates and a foreword by Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked.
The night ended, as I mentioned, with a reception that included a dozen different kinds of chocolate desserts and champagne. This was a nice chance to get to meet some new people, including the panelists.Interestingly, during the two-hours of the reception, the crowd swelled to more the double the number of people that had been attending the panels. Ah, the lure of free food and drink!
(read about Lisa’s 2nd day at the Literary Festival here)