How to write a fabliau.
Updated: Jun 20, 2019
1. Find a sexual theme that's bawdy, even disgusting, rather than erotic.
2. Employ a strong element of social satire.
3. Reveal the human condition - warts and all, whether the plot operates in a recognisably "everyday" scenario or instead has strong supernatural or mystical elements.
4. A strong plot that leaves the reader guessing a little, thanks to twists and turns, is to be aimed for.
5. Rough justice can add greatly to the humour and helps to round off the tale in a satisfactory way, especially if the justice meted out has elements of the absurd.
If you have a dirty mind, writing a fabliau might be right up your street. The earliest examples of this naughty genre were French and written in verse; but prose will work just as well if you want to raise eyebrows these days. However, it's worth remembering that a fabliau is more like a bawdy tale than an erotic story. Ultimately, it is offered in the service of humour and satire.
Most people will have read or heard at least one fabliau, perhaps without realising it. French poets and musicians were performing fabliaux as early as the twelfth century; but the great example in English is The Miller's Tale, by Chaucer. This story from The Canterbury Tales is certainly bawdy, full of lust, deceit and absurd situations. The satire comes from Chaucer's look at the human condition, warts and all, and he also pokes fun at the tradition of courtly love, showing that mawkish entreaties to a beloved's window have no place in the real world. Chaucer also pokes fun at scholarship and the general sense of superiority that some university students, then as now, may possess.
I realised I was writing a fabliau as soon as I put pen to paper to create Bread for Toggle, one of the tales for Bizarre Fables. The idea of a man becoming pregnant came from Heather, my wife, and I ran with this idea to create of figure of gross masculinity. This was the basis for the satire. Toggle shows what happens when masculinity is unrefined and is allowed to develop how it may, complete with belches and farts and strange appetites. To avoid a spoiler, I'll say no more about this aspect! I will say, however, that my fabliau is more grounded in the absurd than with the everyday. It is not an example of social realism but it is reality seen, perhaps, at a considerable slant. What do I mean by this? Well, in The Miller's Tale, Chaucer probably gave a fairly accurate portrait of medieval Oxford, but Toggle's world includes witches and magic. A form of rough justice, however, exists in both worlds and this too, I suggest, is a feature of a fabliau.