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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