In Mallory Ortberg’s version of events, the Little Mermaid is a violent, multi-fanged sea creature who comes to land to sabotage the prince’s chance at happiness. Cinderella is actually a shy boy named Paul who lives in fear of his controlling stepmother. Beauty of “Beauty and the Beast” isn’t a beauty at all, but a girl whose family deems her expendable, and trades her away. The 11 stories in Ortberg’s new collection, The Merry Spinster, out March 13, are not the ones that you grew up with — though you'll recognise some of their elements.
Anyone who’s followed Ortberg’s career wouldn’t expect anything less than the blend of searing intelligence, high-brow strangeness, and wit present in each story. As co-founder of the feminist website The Toast, Ortberg was known for writing horrifying versions of classic tales, literary listicles, and the famous “Texts From” series which were turned into their own book, Texts From Jane Eyre. Currently, Ortberg is Slate’s Prudence, and fields advice questions from readers in a weekly podcast and column.
I spoke to Ortberg about the The Merry Spinster, partly because their book got me more excited than any fairy tale remix since Angela Carter has, and partly because I have been a fan of theirs for years and jumped on any opportunity to speak to them. We ended up arguing about the first story in the collection, and discussing the different social snubs of Regency England. It was a delight.
In The Merry Spinster, you’re reinventing stories that most of us know by heart. If someone said “Beauty and the Beast,” I could recite it back to you. But you make these stories idiosyncratically yours. You make them weird. How do you change something so established? What do you choose to make weird?
"I do really well with writing prompts. I take the structure of something that already exists and think of the very big picture elements. So, for 'Beauty and the Beast:' You have to stay at somebody’s house that you don’t want to stay in. You asked for something small, and that actually ended up being more inconvenient and difficult and painful to acquire than if you’d just spoken it with your chest. There’s a lot there. A hundred people could rewrite this story and focus on something entirely different each time.
"If I take the story that has to do with inheritance, transformation, the horrible fallout of trying to enter into a union with somebody else; what do I want to focus on there? Those are some big, big fucking principles. You can really play with that. They’ve been remixed so much, so everyone kind of gets it. We fuck around with fairy tales. Somebody does that every couple of years."
The ultimate person who messed around with fairy tales is Disney. Disney turned all these dark stories into more —
"I think Disney’s plenty dark, but I know what you mean."
Well, when I was reading your take on “The Little Mermaid,” it reminded me more of the Hans Christian Andersen version, which is so bloody. You restored it.
"In as much as I grew up as a young person in the United States of America, I am familiar with Disney. This not a response to anything Disney did — this is a response to Hans Christian Andersen. Not to Jodi Benson, and the Walt Disney Company. Hans is the guy I want to chat with. I want to be like, come on man, what’s up."
I like that you gave your mermaid a happy ending.
"I can’t believe you thought she got a happy ending. Oh, this is the best part of writing books — eventually, people get to be wrong! You’re wrong, we’re fighting."
But she goes back to her family, who she loves!
"Nothing about her has any respect for individual autonomy. She is the Thing from The Thing. She seeks to assimilate and destroy. She has murdered two very nice people in order to acquire more power. She is a bad person. I don’t like her. I don’t like her at all. She gives me the creeps."
I agree with you, but you do a good job of giving a context for who she is, and the world she grew up in. So when I was reading the story, I said to myself — of course she doesn’t understand humans. Of course she kills them. She’s been raised in a totally different environment, and with different principles.
"I want you to fight me on this. I love it. I don’t want us to reach an agreement. This is the fucking best.
"Hans Christian Andersen wrote the queerest stories of all time. So many of his stories begin with longing, and end in some sort of death. There’s no other way out. Even though [the mermaid] is technically a woman, and the prince is technically a guy, there’s not a version in which they get to be together, because it’s gay as hell. It has to end with her dying and achieving some sort of superior spiritual transcendence, and possibly getting to heaven.
"This is going to be ridiculous, but you know how in Regency England there were four ways to cut someone? Not physically cut them, but snub them in public? There’s like the cut direct, where you look at them, and then look away and make it clear you’re not going to recognise them in public. There’s the cut sublime, where you look at the top of the architecture. There’s the cut infernal, where you look at your shoes. And I forget the other one. I always forget the other one. I think those are ways you can relate to desire, longing, and impossibility. In the original Hans Christian Andersen story, he goes for the cut sublime. Last minute, she flinches. She throws the knife away. She looks up. And in this one, it’s the cut infernal. Last minute, she flinches. She uses the knife. She looks down. And in neither one does the desire get translated into the thing that that person wanted. Both pull their punches at the last minute, but in a totally different direction.
"I’m going to go nuts trying to think of what that last one was. You’ve gotta look that up [Ed note: It was the cut direct]."
I’m just impressed you knew three of the four.
"I spend a lot of time thinking about how i might ignore people in Regency England."
Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen and queerness — your book is doing a lot of interesting things with gender pronouns. If a person is fulfilling the role of a daughter, the person will be called a daughter, regardless of whether the person is a man or a woman.
"Right. It’s a job."
Can you talk more about the association you make between gender and “jobs” throughout the book?
"One of the things I wanted to imagine is, what are some worlds that we could inhabit, not where we have reached some utopian relationship to gender, but where we have different problems. We still feel trapped, restricted, anxious, surveilled, scrutinised, by things like gender roles. But we don’t base them in the same principles and assumptions that we do right now, right here. What would it be like to suffer differently, is the sort of question of the book.
"Often in fairy tales, how you behave is dictated not only by your gender but your relationship to your family and the world around you. There’s a different type of gender. The eldest daughter is different from the seventh son. There are ways that birth order, and whether or not you’re a child or a parent, and whether you’re a step parent or biological parent, that also affects the function you play in a story. And everything you do in a story is prescribed by that gender role. It felt like a pretty natural thing to say oh, in this world, depending on your particular skill set, you can apply for that job. If you don’t get the job, the implication is that there’s another job you would get. What are ways in which a society would still use gender roles, power imbalances, to hurt somebody? But not in the ways that we’re especially familiar with."
This leads to the strangest wedding night conversation ever in the Cinderella story, about who’s going to be the husband, and who’s going to be the wife.
"This is still a world with husbands and wives. This is not that imaginative in the sense that I’m reimagining how people might reorder their households, their family lives. It’s a tweak, not a total reimagining. This idea of, you pick one."
How did you choose which stories to reinterpret?
"In terms of era, kind of all over the place. The common threads are, what are the stories I read the most as a child? That’s the Wind in the Willows. That’s The Velveteen Rabbit. That’s the Andrew Lang’s fairy tale books, that’s Bulfinch's mythology, that’s the Christian and Hebrew testaments. So it’s just the stuff I was most familiar with. I think the common threads are the people who claim that they love you may not. The person who is telling you don’t worry it’s safe now is not right. You yourself cannot be trusted. Your own instincts are often betraying you. Sometimes when you think that you are helping yourself, you are hurting somebody else. You wouldn’t know truth if it bit you in the face. Which makes it sound unremittingly bleak, which is not the case. But that’s the kind of destabilised, absurd landscape a lot of these stories take place in."
My favorite part of the whole book is your narrator. The narrator is sensible, wise, and funny. She looks down on her stories and casts judgment in a sweet way. I connect the sensibleness of your narrator with what you do on Dear Prudence each week. How does a person become sensible as you are, and as your narrators are?
"I love that you pointed that out, because there are two forces in the book. There’s the sensible voice, and there’s the sentimental voice. Which I’m aware is already a well-known phrase from a very different book. There’s ways in which the sensible voice can be bracing and refreshing and energising after a dose of sentimentality. It that reminds you, ‘Buck up, you still have your faculties, you can make it through this. Don’t take yourself so seriously.’ And then there’s other times, when the sensible voice can be incredibly cruel and incredibly dismissive. I feel very much both of those things."
A lot of the letters you read on the show bear similarities to the warped similarities in the book. Really controlling parents, or friends who gaslight you. Did you sense any connections between the relationships in the book and things that you hear about in people’s lives?
"Certainly those are common themes that people experience. One of the things that I have in common with so many of the people that write in, and so many characters in the stories, is that there’s so many ways that we talk ourselves out of taking something bad seriously. We will take those moments of laughter, or calm, and say, ‘Things can’t really be bad, because I laughed today.’ Or they can’t really be hurting because they did something nice for me this afternoon. Because this happened between us in the past, things can’t be that bad. How do we talk ourselves out of what we know? This felt really important. We all do that. People do that in their letters. I do that to myself. Characters do that in stories. No one wants to think, especially when it's someone you love, especially when it’s someone that you feel like, if I lost this relationship I would lose part of who I am, or I would lose financial assistance or my sense of identity. It is so difficult not to talk yourself out of being hurt or angry at someone you love.
"We can all get furious when a stranger walks over and punches us in the face. When it comes at the hands of someone we love, we will find a reason not to mind. The kind of work you have to do not to do that is incredibly draining, and taxing, and it feels counterintuitive, and it goes against all the instincts of your body that wants to say, you're safe here. Relax."
What has writing life been like been like since The Toast shut down in 2016?
"Funnily enough, today I am in the process of selling my third book. That’s happening right now. Soon, hopefully, I’ll be able to announce that. I’ve been excited to write more books. I’ve been excited to write more projects that aren’t, here’s a couple thoughts about a book that already exists and move on. Not that that wasn’t an ambitious book. But things that are a bit more personal, a bit more original. Some stuff that’s taking a look at things that I’ve talked around a long time, and am now ready to talk to. I’m excited to see what comes next. I keep thinking I want to write for TV, but so far all I’ve been saying is, 'I want to write things for TV,' which I don’t think is how you get a job writing for television. I need to figure out what happens after I just say it."
I bet if you tell enough publications that, they’ll come to you.
"That would be the ideal. Just say stuff, and other people can make it happen. That’s how I always want my career to go."