Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling (review)
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Relentless Progress: The Reconfiguration of Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales, and Storytelling. By Jack Zipes. New York: Routledge, 2009.

I have come to the realization that Jack Zipes is the Bob Dylan of children’s literary criticism. Both men hail from Minnesota. Zipes was not born there, but he has taught long enough at the University of Minnesota to think of it as home. Both are excellent storytellers. Both men, in their respective fields, are incredibly productive. Dylan has been in the news lately for the release of his thirty-third album, Together Through Life (2009), and it’s an excellent album. There are no big surprises on it, but if you value Dylan—and you should—you are probably going to enjoy it. It’s no Blonde on Blonde (1966), but very few albums are. As the rock critics Jim DeRogatis and Greg Knot, who host the Chicago Public Radio music program Sound Opinions, have said, any new Bob Dylan album is better than 90 percent of the other new releases. The same is true of any new book of criticism by Jack Zipes.

Relentless Progress is a collection of seven essays that expand on topics that Zipes has raised in previous books. At times, this volume feels a bit like a collection of outtakes from previous books, or Zipes revisiting earlier topics from a different perspective. It is a bit like Dylan doing classic songs with different musical arrangements, or one of those marvelous releases that are part of Dylan’s “The Bootleg Series.” These essays have a familiar feel, as they are variations of established themes that Zipes has explored throughout [End Page 304] his academic career: the social and political values found in children’s literature, the utopian aspect of fairy tales, and the value of storytelling in an increasingly digital age.

Like Dylan, who is still out there playing and singing on his endless tour, Zipes remains a highly productive scholar. While I haven’t counted the number of books that Zipes has written and edited, I am willing to bet he has surpassed Dylan’s output. Over the years, Zipes has produced a large and influential body of scholarship ranging from the groundbreaking Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (1983) and Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England (1986); to being co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature (2005) and editor-in-chief of the four-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (2006); to his recent Why Fairy Tales Stick: The Evolution and Relevance of a Genre (2006). Not one to rest on his previous accomplishments, Zipes keeps on publishing and giving presentations at international conferences, which is where many of these essays first appeared—the academic equivalent of concert touring.

The essays in Relentless Progress fit together under the broad theme of the negative ways that consumerism and globalization are transforming or re-configuring children’s literature, fairy tales, and storytelling. As was clear in Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature (2000), Zipes has an increasingly dim view of the direction that contemporary publishing of children’s literature is heading. He believes publishers treat children’s books primarily as commodities and children as little consumers. At one point, Zipes writes that he contemplated calling these essays “interventions.”

The collection clearly follows the tradition of Theodor Adorno, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean Baudrillard, and Zygmunt Bauman as a cultural critique of children’s literature as a field of production within the culture industry. Zipes feels that too many contemporary publishers value children’s books primarily for their marketability and profitability and rather than the educational and social effects that books might provide younger readers. He cites Judith Rosen in Publishers Weekly, who explained how in 1983 Random House changed it children’s division into a merchandise group, which combined books with other products, to put an increased emphasis on merchandise. Citing Laura Miller’s Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (2007) in the essay “Misreading Children and the Fate of the Book,” Zipes sees children’s literature as having been incorporated...