The isolational fallacy

By Debbie

Typically, when I tell someone I’m doing a PhD, they’ll look at me with an expression of sympathetic concern and say that it must be a lonely business. Personally, I’ve found the problem to be quite the opposite. Most weeks I’m on a quest for solitude – such are the nature and number of other demands, both academic and non-academic – and the loneliness of the long-distance PhD student seems like a mythical ideal. Or the isolation fallacy.

But I can also imagine that my experience may not be typical, not least because I’m extremely privileged to be part of a busy research community here at the Cambridge Children’s Literature Centre, and because our esteemed leader, Prof. Maria Nikolajeva, makes it her mission to facilitate scholarly sociableness at every available opportunity. And I really do value this.

Last Friday, for example, we had a PhD symposium – which is a rather grand title for something that began in a relatively modest way. Having noticed that, whilst we doctoral students are all fairly familiar with each other’s work, what our supervisors actually do all day remains a bit of a mystery, Clementine came up with the idea of a day-symposium in which we would invite them to tell us a bit about their own research interests. Like one of those parties that gathers momentum and guests ad lib, the event took on a life of its own and on the day we had 15 PhD students, plus lecturers, from Cambridge, Roehampton, Newcastle and Warwick.

In the morning, the five senior members of the Cambridge Centre each gave a short talk. Our two resident Profs – Nikolajeva and Styles – both gave us a potted research biography: a fascinating insight into the origins, development and mutation of their research interests. Maria also talked about how being in the Faculty of Education at Cambridge has been a stimulating context for thinking about children’s literature in different ways, and led to her current project in which she is investigating the possibilities of cognitive poetics specifically for children’s literature. As Maria pointed out, moving into a new area like this, inevitably means a lot of time locked away reading. But the antidote to isolation anxiety was supplied by Morag, who told us about a moment of thrilling discovery in her work on the 18th-century writer, Jane Johnson, and the extraordinary texts that she produced for her own children. Louise Joy talked about her work on emotion in 18th- and 19th-century children’s texts, and offered a tantalising taster from writing in preparation on the significance of crying child and the distinctively therapeutic space in the works of E. Nesbit. Back in the 21st century, Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges talked about her research with keen secondary school readers. As she pointed out, much time has been spent investigating what happens when children can’t or won’t read, but very little on what happens when they do – and her empirical study of young people and their reading relationships provides some fascinating insights. Finally, David Whitley entertained us with some clips from Wall-E – always an enjoyable film, but even more rewarding when you know, thanks to David’s research on nature in animation, about the little robot’s possibilities as a model for the kinds of attentiveness needed for the recovery of the environment.

After lunch, the PhD students and Maria reconvened round the table for a seminar-discussion on the topic of intentionality and the status of the author in children’s literature criticism. The question of whether and how to consider the author is one that all of us embarked on any kind of literary research probably have to settle for ourselves at some point.

In children’s literature, as in the literary world in general, there’s certain disparity between the realm of criticism and the realm of the reading public where – it would appear  – news of the author’s death has clearly not arrived. There, in the proliferation of literary festivals and events, we can see a developing cult of the author. But back in academia, ever since W. K. Wimsatt and M. C. Beardsley in 1954 iconically pointed out the error of prevailing critical ways, the ‘intentional fallacy’ has become a tenet of literary criticism. (Repeat with me: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a literary work of art”) And they went on to combine this attack on the specific notion of intention with a more general embargo on any reference to the author – the ‘personal fallacy’. So, if we throw our lot in with ‘New Criticism’, we will undertake our literary studies without any reference to the person, intentions or life of the author. (Real authors, that is; while actual authors are persona non grata, implied authors are another matter and perfectly acceptable.) However, as I think we generally agreed in our discussion, although problematising the relationship between text and author was a helpful move on the part of W & B, ignoring the author completely not only cuts off some possibilities for interpretation but also throws up potential ethical difficulties – especially in relation to literature written by adults for children.

It was a very stimulating discussion, and whilst we didn’t arrive at a resolution, we did clear some ground on the basic definitions and distinctions, and identified the need for more work on this. What exactly is meant by intention, for example, is far from clear and not easy to describe. For myself, I can’t help feeling that the tendency to isolate of the work of literary art from its creator may be seen as part of a general trend in the 20th century (with roots in the enlightenment) to abstract, fragment, disembody and reduce. The person of the author is silently removed. So whilst we clearly have to exercise intelligence and awareness in the way that we construct the author–text relationship for our own critical purposes, there is also a need for some fresh perspectives on the problem – perspectives that children’s literature, with its almost unique emphasis on authors and readers, may be well placed to find.

Finally, as regular followers of this blog will know, no Cambridge Children’s Literature Centre event review can be complete without a critique of the cake. This time, Faye did us proud with a chocolate marble loaf, where contrasting dark and light elements were sustained in counterpoint throughout the length of the loaf to satisfying visual and gustatory effect; while her blueberry cake proved a purple-patched crowd pleaser.  Overall, then, a marvellous day  – and very many thanks to all friends old and new who made the journey to join us.

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