Some Gripes About Zipes

Okay, so I just put that in the title because it rhymes. However, I do have a few minor gripes with Dr Jack Zipes, him who, as I might have mentioned a time or two (dozen), I greatly admire in many ways. He’s written far too many books, for one – I keep reading Zipes books, and every time there’s still a bunch more I haven’t got to. Sigh.

But the main thing that’s starting to get my goat a bit is his – okay, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call it intellectual snobbery. Or maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Whichever, it seems to me that whenever Zipes writes about a book or movie I like, he looks down his nose at it. Harry Potter, case in point – as far as he’s concerned, the series is a patriarchy-reinforcing product of the culture industry. On the other hand, he thinks Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials series is a great piece of work, whereas I tried to read Pullman some years ago and just couldn’t stick it. Gloomy, violent and disturbing – just not a fun read. So is this just a case of Zipes liking dark, heavy stories, and disliking lighter material? I kind of wonder. He really likes Pullman, for sure; in discussing Cinderella adaptations, he brings him in too, with I was a Rat. But as I mentioned before, when Zipes talks about a Gail Carson Levine adaptation of Cinderella, he ignores the brilliant Ella Enchanted and talks about Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, which isn’t a Cinderella story at all, but a retelling of “The Princess on the Glass Hill”, a different fairy tale entirely.

Which brings us to fairy tale adaptations, Zipes’ main forte. Okay, I’m with him to a point on Disney movies – the Someday-My-Prince-Will-Come bubbleheads of the 30s and 50s have me rolling my eyes, too. But the Disney fairy tale movies are still fun to watch, and what’s more, they’re incredibly popular. And that’s where I’m starting to wonder: does Zipes just disapprove of anything that the common rabble like? Is that evidence for him that the viewers/readers have fallen under the spell of the culture industry?

The thing is that the folktale, the original, oral tale, was just that – the folk tale, stories told by the Volk, the common people. In Why Fairy Tales Stick, Zipes complains at some point (I can’t find the page right now to give you the exact quote) that a great lot of the fairy tale books in print today are low-quality drivel. Well, yeah! I very much doubt that every fairy tale retelling by every nanny around the 16th-century nursery fire was a literary masterpiece. It just wasn’t preserved on paper for the next few centuries. Oral culture has given way to print culture (and it in turn to audio-visual culture, to an extent); of course there’s a goodly quantity of dross is either medium.

But the other thing is that I think it’s okay to have fairy tales that are just fun, and that those can have an impact just as great as the heavy, worthy, “deep” adaptations. Perhaps a greater one, because, as I said, they’re FUN, so they spread. Take Disney’s Enchanted, for example – Zipes doesn’t have anything good to say about it, from what I remember (I think he does talk about it somewhere – once again I can’t remember where – and is quite scathingly dismissive). But it’s a piece in which Disney skewers their own conventions, in a postmodern multi-layered self-ironic style that’s quite a delight to watch. However, you have to be able to enjoy a good, sweet, princessy romantic fairy tale to get some value out of it. It’s not deep, it most definitely isn’t heavy – but it’s thoroughly satisfying for what it is, and has a really great message with it, to boot.

And that’s the thing that’s rubbing me the wrong way about some bits of Zipes’ writings: does literary criticism always have to mean “criticising” in the common sense, namely “fault-finding”? Yes, I know that’s not the academic definition of it, but more often than not, it seems that’s what it comes down to. Can we no longer find simple enjoyment in simple-ish stories? Can a sweet story without violence and heart-wrenching pain not also have literary and cultural merit – even if it’s a cash cow? Don’t get me wrong – I’m no supporter of big business, Disney among them, and their money milking practises. But if the enjoyment of a story that ends in a wedding and happily-ever-after means I have common tastes, then so be it. A folktale is a tale of the people – so shouldn’t we look to what is popular, what the people like, rather than to what literary critics designate as worthy of our attention? Even if those literary critics happen to be Jack Zipes?

And speaking of literary criticism, here’s a quote I ran across yesterday in Terry Pratchett’s Guards, Guards!:

[The Librarian of the Magic University] waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism.

(London: Corgi Books, 1990, p. 257)

I’m sorry, but after all the reading I’ve been doing that struck me as inordinately funny. It probably just proves once again that I have common tastes.

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7 thoughts on “Some Gripes About Zipes

  1. Hmm, yes I see your point entirely. Well said. (Of course I really loved the Dark Materials books – dark has its place in our psyche too, as Stephen King’s success clearly shows). But there is nothing wrong with a story that is light and enjoyable – we need that stuff, literary criticism be darned. Speaking of……I discovered that The Princess Bride is a book, written by William Goldman and first published in 1973. I have it in my hands. It is one of my favourite movies and I shall now read it and compare….

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    • Yes, I know you like dark stuff – I don’t (as you know, I wouldn’t go near Stephen King with a ten-foot pole). It just ticks me off when “dark” is equated with “quality”, or rather, something that’s quality can’t be light and pleasant, or, conversely, something that’s light & pleasant can’t be quality. Baloney. Pretentious nonsense. Pseudo-grown-up snobbery!

      Hah, The Princess Bride is one of those rare cases where the movie is better than the book, IMO (Forrest Gump is another, and Shrek, except in the latter case the film is only inspired by the book, anyway). Let me know what you think of the book.

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      • I loved the “Princess Bride” movie. It gave way to so many phrases! “No more rhyming now. I mean it!! Does anybody want a peanut?” Or– “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Lol! I could just go on and on. And just such a stellar cast too. And speaking of Disney movies that are just really, really good clean fun, there is always “Aladdin” and that crazy Robin Williams as the Genie. I still love that movie, and I must shamefacedly admit to knowing all the songs by heart after singing them with my son (now 27) who also knows them by heart…a secret which I have been sworn to keep, but one I will reveal in due course as grandchildren appear. Mwahahaha!! But isn’t that the purpose of the fairy tale also, one that Mr Zipes clearly overlooks? Aren’t fairy tales a means of bonding with our children and allowing them a few precious years to wear bath towel capes and brandish their wooden spoon wands, and basically believe in the magic that disappears too soon? I remember when my son stopped believing in Santa Clause. It was a very sad day for me, because something innocent was lost to him forever. Wasn’t the world a wonderful and mystical place when we had Santa and fairies and magic in it? Mine sure was. I wanted my son to know that magic too, and I used fairy tales to do it. He LOVED Peter Pan until he discovered the Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles. Lol. You’re sooo right. Not everything about fairy tales has to be coldly academic. Sometimes it can just be fun…and should be. There is a time for everything under heaven, right?

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      • Yes. There is a time for certain types of stories. (Oh, and I like “Aladdin” too; my older kids watched it a lot “back then”. There’s lots that could be said about that movie, positive and negative – postcolonial critique would have a few things to say to that… But that’s a whole other topic, which I shall NOT go into now!)
        Zipes doesn’t actually talk much about the social function of fairy tales, i.e. the “sharing with our kids” aspect; I think that’s sort of a given. I’m just kind of tired of scholars, Zipes included, being such snobs about “fun” literature (and I include film under that heading). I think what my real gripe comes down to is the high-culture/low-culture debate, which I haven’t studied into all that much (yet!). The thing about folklore is that in its origins, it very much was low culture – folk culture = “Volkskultur”, people’s culture – the culture of the common rabble. I have a very strong hunch that what’s popular today IS our modern-day folklore, *even if it came from Disney*. And that THAT folklore fulfils much the same functions fairy tale telling around the fireside had in centuries past.

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  2. I like dark stuff! But I don’t love Philip Pullman, and I don’t think his books are particularly better than Harry Potter. He gets veeeeeeeery heavy-handed towards the end of the series with the God stuff, and although I reread Harry Potter approximately once a year, I’ve never been able to reread the His Dark Materials books. I just lose interest.

    Gripes with Zipes is awesome. You are a rhyming genius.

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    • I really tried to read Pullman, but I just hated it, so never got very far. The reason I tried was that I wanted to see what the fuss was about, which is exactly how I got into Harry Potter, with the opposite effect – With HP, I was hooked from the get-go.
      Thanks for the compliment – rhyming usually isn’t my forte at all! 🙂

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  3. Pingback: More Gripes About Zipes | quill and qwerty

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