In our children’s literature PhD seminar this week, we found ourselves revisiting the awkward question of what to do with the author. Not that shadowy but respectable figure, the implied author, but the real, flesh-and-blood author.
Author – left for dead
As you may know if you’ve had any dealings in the world of poststructuralist, postmodern and indeed posthumous literary criticism, since Barthes’ resounding declaration the author has been generally regarded as missing, presumed dead. Or at any rate, so far away from their work that anything he or she might have to say about it or any potentially enlightening biographical details are seen as an entertaining diversion at best. At the extreme, ‘the text’ is removed from context, analysed and codified: cells under the microscope, words on a screen. The only author is the one the text apparently implies and the only reader is the one it constructs. The matter has special salience for children’s literature because the attendant questions of intentions and authenticity are forced to the surface whenever an adult author writes for a child audience. In short, the implications are more obvious.
The inescapable irony of all this is that nowhere is the cult of celebrity author thriving quite as it does in the world of children’s books. This is not to say, however, that in the academic field of children’s literature we are not on speaking terms with children’s authors. In this particular corner of it, at least, we regularly engage very productively in various ways with children’s authors and illustrators. Yet, it seems to me that something isn’t quite joined up. We really enjoy and benefit from this relationship and we enjoy our theorising about children’s literature – but I don’t think we’ve really found a way to articulate a possible relationship between the two.
This problem of how to view the author is also a live question for me in my research on children’s poetry because, within the world of poetry criticism, the poet appears to have a subtly different status in relationship to their writing. There is a clear sense in which the poem is seen as more closely and unproblematically linked with the mind of the flesh-and-blood poet. So how to reconcile this with the received views within children’s literature generally?
With these questions in mind, I’ve been casting about for some fresh perspectives.
Text – the right to live
Ok, just suppose … Suppose the real issue is not the death of the author, but the death of the text. Just suppose that the text, like the author, is actually a living entity.
You might well be thinking that this is beginning to sound a bit twee. Or, if you’re feeling generous, that it’s a rather Romanticised view. Or you might just be thinking, are you in your right mind? Well, yes, as it turns out, that’s precisely where I am on this particular point.
In The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist argues that the right and left hemispheres of the brain each have a fundamentally different disposition that affects our view of the whole world, including ourselves. The right hemisphere is more connected to the world out there, more empathic, more intuitive and able to deal with complexity and ambiguity; the left is able to deal with categories and concepts, but at the same time is more detached and impersonal. The argument is fantastically wide-ranging, complex, full of subtlety and even paradox – and one that I cannot begin to unpack here. In fact I’m not sure it isn’t overambitious even to try and bring it in. Obviously it would be ideal if at this point if you were you to go away, read the book and then come back again. But it’s a thick book and you may be short of time, so I hope this 12-minute overview  from the RSA’s animate series might help.
So then, the research suggests that, neurologically speaking, we a experience work of art – painting, music, literature – in the same way as we experience a real, living person. Specifically, that means predominantly (though not exclusively) through the right hemisphere, which ‘codes’ the data as it does for another person – in other words, it is experienced empathically and relationally, and as having similar complex qualities that can be known only in an intuitive, non-verbal way. The work is really is more than the sum of its parts. This stands in stark contrast to what happens when we encounter a machine, which is sorted and coded predominantly by the left hemisphere and seen as no more than the sum of its parts. So, the important thing here is that a work of literature can only be understood if it is seen as more like a person than like an inanimate object.
When we encounter a work of literature, the left hemisphere is vaguely and detachedly aware that something more is going on – and in fact tries to impose a structure, to decode using its own mechanisms – exactly what we find in structuralist and poststructuralist approaches. And whilst abstraction and analysis are are a necessary part of analysis, on its own it it will ultimately fail because a work of art simply cannot be reduced to the sum of the things that are described. As McGilchrist says, it is always a ‘how’ that cannot be reduced to a ‘what’. I wonder, is this sometimes the reason why we find ourselves responding to books in ways that our inner critic finds perverse? How many times in our children’s literature reading group has someone said, ‘This book is not at all well written, or original or my preferred genre, but – oh I don’t know why – I was strangely gripped’?
Reader – innocence and experience
The implications for children’s literature scholarship are much as for any other form of literary or artistic field, but with a further twist. A children’s book is written for an audience that is less troubled by the excesses of the left-hemisphere. Until the fourth year of life, children rely heavily on the right hemisphere, so that experience is unhampered by abstraction and conceptualisation.The world is in a very real sense more alive: one reason, perhaps, why children ascribe consciousness to teddies and tractors – something the adult left-hemisphere duly files under ‘pathetic fallacy’. Innocence may in fact be the experience of living life without the interference of the conceptualising, detaching, controlling left hemisphere. Of course, part of growing up is working out what thinks and feels and what doesn’t, as well as learning to read and to reason – for which we need the services of the left hemisphere. But if McGilchrist is to be believed, the left hemisphere has at various times and places been allowed undue influence, imposing a mechanical model on the whole world – including our selves and the workings of our own minds. This isn’t to say that we need to go and make up with our teddy, but, perhaps, to question our unconsciously adopted mechanistic ways of seeing the world. The right hemisphere always sees the whole and sees in context. It is the left that will cheerfully ‘murder to dissect’. The right can know and understand contexts and right relationships – including that of the text, the author and the world.
I’m still pondering the whole thing, but feel intuitively that we do not have to resign ourselves either to a detached view of text nor revert to a simplistic view where it unproblematically reflects the thoughts and intentions of the author. There is, I feel, a more integrated way of being with the whole.
1. If your alarm bells are ringing because of the left-brain – right-brain pop psychology travesty, that’s understandable. So were mine when I started to read the book. But it’s OK; you can safely switch them off.
Labels: book group, children's literature, implied author, real author