Saturday, November 12, 2011

Book Review: Why Fairy Tales Stick by Jack Zipes

Title: Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre
Author: Jack Zipes
Usefulness rating: 6/10
Referral: I picked it for a book review required by my fairy tale films class because I'm writing a paper about how one particular tale has evolved
Source: Borrowed from the BYU library
Books I've read this year: 143

This is the review I wrote for my class:

In the early chapters of Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre, Jack Zipes seems to set up a pattern for what he’ll do in the rest of the book. In the first chapter, he lays the groundwork for how fairy tales became a genre in the first place. He shows how there needed to be a critical mass of people, reading and writing in the vernacular, before the oral folk and fairy tales which had been circulating for centuries could be written down. While we can’t see how stories changed in the oral tradition, Zipes attempts to demonstrate how the tales have changed in the years when they have become part of the print and mass-media culture. While Zipes deals primarily with the history of language in the first chapter, his focus shifts to the history of fairy tales as a whole in the second chapter. The most surprising part of these first two chapters may be Zipes’ definition of a fairy tale, which is broader than many others I’ve read. While many other fairy tale scholars keep the definition narrow because they consider all tales that are fairy tales to come from the oral tradition, Zipes includes Barrie, Wilde, Andersen, Baum, Tolkien, Salman Rushdie, and even the creators of X-Men as authors of fairy tale. Zipes says, “The institutionalization of a genre means that a certain process of production, distribution, and reception had become fully accepted within the public sphere of a society and plays a role in forming and maintaining the cultural heritage of that society. Without such institutionalization, any genre would perish” (89). It seems logical that Zipes, who argues that the fairy tale is alive and evolving in the 21st century, would keep the definition broad, because if the traditional tales fail to speak to those in the future, there will undoubtedly be other tales to take their place.

Based on these first two chapters, I expected that Zipes would continue to look at the genre as a whole, perhaps looking at the evolution of various issues or linguistic elements in Western European tales. However, Zipes seems to change the scope of his work quite dramatically as the book progresses past the first two chapters. In the next four chapters Zipes looks at various tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, and Bluebeard) and show how each tale has departed from the traditional literary versions in the retellings that have been written over the last two or three centuries. He finds trends in the patterns of retellings (Bluebeard characters after World War II seems to represent some of the anxieties and feelings of emasculation that men felt after the end of the war, Cinderellas in the late 20th century show trends toward multiculturalism) and attempts to draw some conclusions about what those patterns may say about particular periods of time. Zipes seems to feel that the Aarne-Thompson classification index is a too categorical and formulaic to be useful in the modern era, but his book works best as an extension of that index. It would be particularly useful to anyone studying a traditional tale and its many retellings, since he provides exhaustive lists of retellings as well as more in-depth summaries and analysis of particular retellings which seem to highlight a certain moment in history.

When I chose this book to review, I was surprised at just how ubiquitous Jack Zipes seems to be in the world of fairy tale studies. I wondered how he could possibly write all of the books and articles he does. In reading Why Fairy Tales Stick, I think I found some of the answer—he reuses significant portions of his material. This book is only seven chapters long, and at least one of the chapters is a condensation of previously published work (in this case, a study of Little Red Riding Hood). If other chapters function in the same way, that might explain some of Zipes’s ability to be prolific in his publishing, but I’m not sure how it reflects on his academic work as a whole. Zipes is at his least successful when he’s catty. He goes on for several paragraphs about Ruth Bottigheimer’s argument that print culture was responsible for the dissemination of the fairy tale, and the attack was so mean-spirited that it seemed to veer from the academic into the personal. Ultimately, while Zipes’s book can be useful for researchers who want to find retellings for their own research, I think that because he never announces his intentions to look at patterns individual fairy tales rather than continuing to look at evolution more broadly, those reading the book feel somewhat unsatisfied when the book takes that direction. 

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