Linguistic Rivalry

In the part of my brain devoted to languages, French and English dwell in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers.

linguistic1Well, technically French should be the only uncontested ruler, since it’s my native language…

linguistic2… but my native “academic tongue” is English, and though I don’t write perfectly in English, writing academically in French is actually much more difficult for me – the first article I wrote in French received the following reviewer’s comment:

“There are a few problems with the language, due to the fact that the author is clearly not a native French speaker”.



But then my English isn’t super strong when it comes to understanding song lyrics. And I can’t baby-talk very well in English. Anyway, French and English occasionally bicker, but they’re generally pretty reliable, and switching between the two stopped being difficult a long time ago.

In another antechamber of the language bit of my brain, however, dwell another two little linguistic daemons who are not quite so disciplined.

Meet Russian and Spanish.

These days, Spanish is happy and having loads of fun, whereas Russian is, to tell you the truth, annoyed and gloomy (and not just because of national stereotypes).

Russian, you see, has been living for almost a dozen years in the Antechamber of the Languages I Have a Basic Knowledge Of. At the beginning, it was living there with English, but English quickly upgraded to the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At, before moving to the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers along with French.

Russian was cool with that, because I’d started to learn English two years before, so English had a big head start, and also English is a ridiculously simple language to get pretty good at, compared with Russian.

But after a few years, Russian started to realise it wasn’t progressing towards the Antechamber of Languages I’m Good At. We had an awkward chat:

Russian: What’s going on? You’ve been learning me for years and all you seem to be able to do is hold a basic conversation, carefully avoiding using weird aspects and not bothering too much about declensions.
Me: Well, you’re a difficult language and I don’t really have any time to learn all the crazy aspects and declensions. But one day I’ll pick you up again.

A few years later, we had another awkward conversation.

Russian: Hey, where’s English now? Is it still in the Antechamber of Languages You’re Good At?
Me: Um, well, English has done pretty well for itself and has sort of upgraded to the uncontested rulers chamber. But one day, I’ll work on you, Russian, and you’ll move one antechamber up.

Except I didn’t. Instead, one day, I decided (half on a whim) to pick up Spanish.

Spanish: Hola ¿qué tal?

Russian: Who the hell is this.

At the beginning, Russian imposed its rule. Once, during a Spanish lesson, the teacher said something to me that I didn’t get, and I automatically replied “Я не понимаю” (“I don’t understand”).

Russian was ecstatic. Best joke ever. That’ll teach her to bring this foreigner into my antechamber, Russian said.

So for a while I would say ‘ia’ instead of ‘yo’ (for ‘I’), ‘da’ instead of ‘sí’, etc. I also kept getting some words mixed up because they sounded vaguely similar; the words ‘vez’ in Spanish and ‘raz’ (раз) (‘a time’) were particularly difficult.

But after some time, it became desperately clear to Russian that Spanish was catching up, and then winning.

Now whenever I try to make up a sentence in Russian, such as ‘I’m reading a book’, this is what happens:

Me: No, no, move aside, Spanish – come on, Russian, I’m asking you!
Russian: Oh, you care about me now, do you? I don’t know where those words are. I’m busy.
Me: come on, make an effort!

Russian: How about those words instead?
linguistic5Me: I don’t need those! I need read and book.
Russian: How about this whole sentence? linguistic6Me: … No! That doesn’t mean ‘I’m reading a book’, it means ‘Attention, the doors are closing’. It’s a sentence you heard in the St Petersburg metro in 2002. Why did you even bother remembering that sentence?

Russian: *shrugs*

Finally, grumpily, and only if the words are on top of the pile, Russian hands me what I need. (But it doesn’t happen very often. Russian is very sulky.)

Me: OK, so now, how do you conjugate and declense those?
Russian: Sorry, I’m going to bed now.

Sometimes Russian is a bit more active and revivified, for instance if I’ve been exposed to a lot of Russian recently. But then Spanish gets angsty because it thinks I’m leaving it alone, so it slyly barges in at the most unexpected moments, replacing prepositions or innocuous little words with Spanish ones. ‘But’, for instance, which, for reasons unknown, I always want to say as ‘pero’ when I try to speak Russian.

When I do, I hear echoes of Spanish’s gleeful JAJAJAJAJAJJAJAJAJJAJAJA (which is hahaha in Spanish) because it’s such a great joke right.

Though I’m no linguist, my guess is that only in the Chamber of Uncontested Rulers can languages cohabit fairly peacefully. All the other languages are Darwinistically condemned to a ruthless war, finishing each other’s sentences, layering over each other’s words, and being generally mean and petty about who gets used more and why.

It’s quite an exhausting battle. Maybe I’m atypical, but my experience seems to contradict the oft-repeated mantra that you get ‘better at learning languages’ if you already know a few. I haven’t seen much of that kind of politeness in my own cerebral antechambers.Sometimes, it’s true, English and French help me understand Spanish a bit better, but only on a lexical level, because some words are closer to English and some to French.linguistic7So yeah, poor Russian is very gloomy these days. Well, at least, to cheer itself up, it can still go for a nice little stroll across an even darker part of the linguistic corner: the silent, eerie, scary, Cemetary of Completely Dead Languages.
linguistic8RIP, Hours and hours and hours of repeating rosa, rosa, rosam, rosae, rosae, rosa.

Just kidding? The latest academic ‘hoax’ and its consequences for cultural studies

The Sociology corridor of the French ivory tower is under siege: a few weeks ago, two academics pulled a rather uncomfortable prank on the academic journal Sociétés, by managing to place in the prestigious publication a ‘fake’, or rather ‘hoax’, article.

The story is quite complex, but to sum it up: two sociologists, Manuel Quinon and Arnaud Saint-Martin, wrote an article on the Autolib’ cars, which are electric cars available to the general public for short-time rentals in Paris (think Boris bikes, but cars). They submitted the article, entitled ‘Postmodern automobilities: When Autolib’ makes sense in Paris’ under a pseudonym to Sociétés, where it was immediately accepted and published. So far, so good; except that, as Quinon and Saint-Martin explained in a long and fascinating article, their analysis is a hoax, a hollow and meaningless text, full of – they say – ‘inanities’, written by scrupulously following the methodological and epistemological line of Sociétés.

Autolib's in their natural environment (c. Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

Autolib’s in their natural environment (c. Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz)

To give you an idea of what the ‘hoax’ is like, here’s a representative sample from the introduction, translated by me (I’ve done my best to convey the academic ‘wordplay’, sometimes changing the ‘meaning’, but, as you shall see, the ‘meaning’ is pretty obscure anyway):


It is hard for the man in the street not to notice them: in Paris, the “Autolib’s” have now settled in the urban ecosystem. They do not fail to interrogate our relation to the city and to driving – a driving of/in the city. In many ways, they foretell a new paradigm. In this double movement of an electrified urban mobility and of a sharing of common vehicles, we indeed find at play a (sub?)terranean postmodernity. Although communication campaigns, political marketing and economico-industrial aspects escort the deployment of those little grey Bluecars® conceived by the Bolloré group, we can nonetheless note that they mobilise us, as much as we mobilise them: in the contemporary city, the sovereign subject gives way to the nomad, to the puer aeternus.
Because the flux of urban Lebenswelt is woven into a series of perfectly connected socio-technical webs, it is now indispensable to work towards a comprehensive, or rather “formist” sociology of (de)ambulatory contemporary sociality. […] We will detect in Autolib’ the mark of a libido mobilis, a libidinal self-centred energy, a kind of “subterranean centrality” which is literally automobilistic. All this expresses, maybe, the impulsive need to reconnect with a “je-ne-sais-quoi” which is that of the matrix, of originary, vital energy […] The Autolib’ indeed participates of the contemporary imaginal; it reshapes not just forms of sociality, whose tribal future goes without saying, but also contributes to the creation of a new “semantic pool”, for which we need to elaborate a hermeneutic sociology.


The point, of course, was to ridicule Sociétés and a certain school of French sociology; to show that there is nothing in such studies behind a façade of jargon, preconceived ideas about contemporary society, and smattering of Deleuze and Derrida. As such, the researchers followed in the footsteps of Alan Sokal, a physicist who published in 1996 a prank article in cultural studies journal Social Text in order to denounce what were, according to him, the pretences and unsoundness of much French-theory-inspired American cultural studies.

Importantly, the hoax was also an attack on a particular person. Sociétés is headed by, and federates the disciples of, a charismatic Sociology professor called Michel Maffesoli. The ‘Maffesolian’ school of sociology (I would personally call it ‘cultural sociology’ or ‘cultural studies’) has a particular appetite for French-theory-heavy descriptions of everyday objects, practices and behaviours, basing their analyses on a conception of the ‘postmodern individual’ – a fragmented, non-rational and nomadic subject.

According to the two authors of the prank (and here I can’t take sides, knowing very little about the politics of French academia) Maffesoli’s influence on French sociology and on the media is undeserved, toxic, almost guru-esque. Worshipped by his disciples, who write article after article according to the ‘Maffesolian’ formula, the professor, they say, failed to notice even in his own journal the grotesque exaggerations of his own theory and concepts. Indeed, the hoax article goes to great lengths to celebrate the works of Michel Maffesoli with energetically sycophantic sentences, using what the two authors identify as Maffesoli’s key contributions to sociology: the drama of postmodernity, the meaningfulness of the quotidian, the hedonistic subject, ‘presenteism’, etc.

To sum up, Quinon and Saint-Martin’s aims with this hoax were to bring into disrepute Sociétés, Michel Maffesoli himself, but also, through him, the kind of sociological study that he represents. That is, as far as I understand the issue:

  • Studies which emphasise everyday practices and objects, finding meaning in apparently meaningless familiarity;
  • A jargon-heavy, French-theory-heavy, pompous language, relying on ‘keywords’ (buzzwords) coined by French and German theorists and/or Maffesoli(ans);
  • Predictable conclusions, ‘confirmation bias’ for the school of thought’s vision of postmodernity;
  • A strictly non-empirical methodology. The two authors are very clear that this was, to them, a major issue. Maffesoli’s motto appears to be that ‘no fieldwork’ is needed in sociology – so, in this particular case, there is no data collected on users of Autolib’s, for instance. Instead, the ‘empirical’ part of the sociological study should lie in the researcher’s felt experience of the studied object. The hoax article conscientiously respects this dismissal of fieldwork, explaining instead that the author ‘experienced’ the Autolib’, exploring what it ‘feels like’ to the driver. Of course, neither researcher actually bothered getting into an Autolib’ car; their ‘phenomenological’ approach was entirely imaginary.
  • A sloppy peer-review process, letting through slapdash and absurd articles; it was later revealed that one reviewer had rejected the manuscript, but that the editor had gone with the positive opinion of the second reviewer.

The revelation of the hoax caused a modest but palpable stir in French academia as well as in the media, with Le Monde in particular amply covering  the story (see also here and here). Michel Maffesoli, it was announced yesterday, has resigned from his Editor position at Sociétés, acknowledging that the article should never have been published, and that he had been careless not to have read it. But he refutes  the accusations of intellectual sloppiness and academic mystification, denouncing what he felt was the ‘jealousy’ of Quinon and Saint-Martin; for Maffesoli, in short, this hoax is a spiteful attack on an eminent figure of sociological research from two frustrated younger colleagues.

Where does this leave us? Beyond the fact that the story itself is quite revealing of the legendary cliqueyness and ruthlessness of French academia, it is difficult not to feel uncomfortable when reading the hoax article and the accusations levelled at the type of sociology it represents. While there is no doubt that the article was profoundly silly, it raises an important question: to function as a hoax, was the article principally relying on 1) meaninglessness, or 2) ridicule?

Meaninglessness is easy to pinpoint. When the article states: “in the contemporary city, the sovereign subject gives way to the nomad, to the puer aeternus”, the use of the Latin expression is simply meaningless; ‘puer aeternus’ means ‘eternal child’; it makes strictly no sense in the context there; it is pure mystification.
If the article was entirely meaningless, it would be, in some way, less problematic: its publication could be put down to a tired reviewer and editorial oversight.

But it isn’t entirely meaningless. Instead, most of the article instead works as a hoax because it sounds, in some way, ‘ridiculous’. For instance, here’s the description of the use of the Autolib’ as opposed to owning a car:

No contract; just nomadism. No property; just use and reliance. No petit-bourgeois trophy, pretentiously exhibited to neighbours, parked/ parking class, sex and age identities, but a grey, floating medium, open to alterity, to différance as well as to differing views, silently and ecologically passing from a “high place” of the city to another…

There is certainly meaning in this extract. In fact, it makes a relatively interesting point: the Autolib’ allows the contemporary petit-bourgeois individual to be liberated from the cumbersome and ‘blingy’ external sign of wealth that a car represents, offering himself, instead, the luxury of a flexible and eco-friendly vehicle.

So why can it be considered ‘ridiculous’? For three main reasons, which I think can be categorised as ‘language’, ‘interpretation’ and ‘subjectivity’.

  • Firstly, language: it plays on many clichés of French theory language and rhetoric: bizarre declensions of words separated by slashes or brackets (‘parked/ parking’), conscious misspellings heavy of Derridean extraction (‘différance’), random italicising, poor wordplay (‘différance’/ ‘differing views’ (‘différends’ in the original text)) etc.
  • Secondly, interpretation, or rather overinterpretation: if the passage sounds ridiculous, it is in part because we are made to feel that the authors are overinterpreting a banal everyday object – that they are spending too much time and intellectual effort trying to decode and decrypt an object that isn’t there for that purpose. This is what many people who want to dismiss academic research call intellectual masturbation.
  • Thirdly, subjectivity: the researchers having not done asked ‘real people’ what they think, their claim that the Autolib’ users are rejecting conspicuous consumption appears spurious; there might be many other reasons for not owning a car in Paris, including cost and general needlessness in a well-connected city.

The fact that most of the hoax’s power comes not from its utter meaninglessness but from the feeling that the language is vacuous and the study (over)interpretative and unscientific asks really quite problematic questions for cultural studies or cultural sociology scholars.

Let’s take language first. I am no French theory fan at all, and I understand the frustration that comes from ploughing through lines of undecipherable words, random puns and sporadic brackets. Some writers, like Derrida, are particularly annoying, because they are both eminently incomprehensible and worshipped by all the cool kids. It’s difficult not to believe that they’re all just pretending to understand and actually part of a worldwide conspiracy, like those people who thought the dress was gold and white.
But let’s have a little faith here. There’s no reason why academic language should be directly accessible. I do use thinkers who have specific jargon and sound difficult: Bourdieu, for instance, is legendarily obscure… at first sight. Once you get into it, and understand what it’s about, and read it carefully with the help of secondary texts, it’s not obscure anymore. It makes sense. The jargon makes sense.

I’m always very wary of attacks on jargon, because jargon is only ‘difficult’ if you don’t know the field. Jargon sums up decades of research in one word or expression. Once you know and understand it, a word of ‘jargon’ becomes a neat little package for years of intellectual work. It’s actually quite a beautiful thing.

But then, of course, what Quinon and Saint-Martin denounced is the empty use of jargon – they accuse the Maffesolians of quoting the necessary keywords with no knowledge of the texts and intellectual history behind them. If it’s this easy to mystify everyone, and to use keywords to hide a lack of original thought, then yes, we do indeed have a problem with jargon.
It’s particularly tricky in cultural studies because the jargon is ‘applied’ to everyday objects – so jogging becomes a way of being-in-the-world, washing-machines are a sublime object of ideology and dog-walkers are a new type of rhizomatic subject. The suspicion is strong that the ‘big word’ becomes a way of concealing the pointlessness of the studied object, and that the researcher is solely engaging in intellectual play verging on surrealism – Quinon and Saint-Martin actually compared their own hoax article to an ‘Oulipian exercise’.

This leads us to the question of overinterpretation, which is particularly stingy for people who, like me, have studied children’s books, comics, ludicrous social phenomena like the Mozart Effect, and routinely use secondary sources from newspapers, pop culture, visual culture and educational documents. This kind of (now not so trendy, but still sexy) research is based on the notion that these different types of discourse are equally worthy of interest. But the Quinon and Saint-Martin academic hoax seems to ask: is it ridiculous to study such things?
Reading it, I was reminded of those Amazon reviews of Mr Men picturebooks by a (bored and highly entertaining) parent with more than a smattering of literary theory. These reviews are of course hilarious, but, from the perspective of a someone who has just published a book on existentialist approaches to children’s literature, they can be a little uncomfortable:

An infant’s primer in Existentialism, we find in this book a weighty treatise on the personal politics of agency and empowerment, taking ownership and authorship of one’s own life. (Mr Bounce)

And many a children’s literature article from a Marxist perspective concludes to the conservatism of much children’s literature in the very manner of the Amazon reviewer:

In a thinly-veiled reference to the oppression of the workers by the ruling class, we are told that Mr Uppity is rude to everyone, and the detail that he has no friends in Bigtown explicitly informs us that the masses are on the brink of revolution. Are we about to bear witness to class war, Hargreaves-style? To see Mr Uppity brought to account by the revolutionary power of the proletariat? Vanquished and overthrown by the party of the workers?

Not so. Mr Uppity is no Marxian analysis, no Leninist prescription for class action. As always, Hargreaves’ inherent and essential conservatism comes to bear. His critique of the bourgeoisie comes not from the proletariat but from the feudal aristocracy.

Well, to be honest… he’s right. If there was a systematic study of the Mr Men series, it would probably be along those lines. Would such a study be ridiculous?
I don’t think so. I bemoan the lack of studies of highly commercial, ‘trashy’ children’s books like the Mr Men series; given their huge success, there should be more effort to study them. But researchers in children’s literature are understandably wary of studying such texts – they (and I include myself here!) prefer to study ‘good’ picturebooks, so-called postmodern picturebooks, because they are understood to have artistic and literary content – while the Mr Men series are principally interesting as a cultural studies/ popular culture phenomenon.

So in children’s literature for instance, there is a striking lack of scholarship on humour, on seriality, on chapter books; and a huge amount on highly sophisticated texts, realistic YA, political fiction (guilty) – which are by no means the most popular nor the most influential. Even authors like Roald Dahl or Jacqueline Wilson have been shockingly underresearched (there are exceptions, of course: much has been written on Harry Potter, dystopian YA, etc).
But it’s hardly surprising, given the amount of suspicion we’re under – by ‘we’, I mean people like me who are perhaps more interested in the cultural sociology than in the literary/aesthetic aspects of popular culture – when we study ‘banal’ texts. In an already-marginalised subdiscipline, we often don’t want to further marginalise ourselves.
Yet such studies can be immensely interesting and revealing, and should absolutely be conducted, however ludicrous it might sound to do a Butlerian critique of Gossip Girl.
Hoaxes like the Quinon/Saint-Martin article are useful to denounce specific people, journals and schools of thought, but also problematic because they weaken the credibility of an array of subfields – popular culture studies, media studies, film studies, video games studies, etc – which they didn’t actually target, but which are already constantly under threat because they sound ridiculous – which shouldn’t mean they are.

I’ll end with what Quinon and Saint-Martin denounced as a ‘non-scientific’ type of sociology. According to them, sociology proper should include empirical research and be strictly field-based. Maffesoli, again, refuted these accusations, by saying that he never understood sociology to be a science. According to him, sociology is ‘a knowledge’, and sociological research can absolutely stem from the researcher’s particular sensitivity to the world and interpretation of it; it doesn’t need to be ‘objective’ nor quantitative, as it is, again, not a science.
Here we need to remember that Sociology is in France very much still considered a ‘soft’ subject – Bourdieu described sociology in the 70s as the discipline picked by lazy middle-class kids with a charismatic disposition. So it is unsurprising that some sociologists should strive to establish it as a ‘science’.

But, however little I want to side with Maffesoli [EDIT: I’ve just seen that someone has tweeted this post ‘quoting me’ as saying ‘I side with Maffesoli’, which is completely absurd: learn to read, espèce d’imbécile], I agree with him that it is pointless to argue that sociology is a ‘science’, or at the very least to base our defence of the field on that claim; and (of course I would say that, being a non-empirical researcher) I certainly reject the notion that fieldwork is the only type that should be ‘valid’ in the field. This notion relies on an extremely naïve view of what constitutes internal validity, ‘objectivity’, and ‘data’.
Sociology, since its inception, has striven to downplay the ‘scientific’ portrayal of individuals as rational decision-makers, to transcend the objective/ subjective dichotomy, and to highlight the biases of any observation – ‘scientific’ of not. Its ‘data’, from the start, has been gathered from a wide array of various sources, giving a voice to types of texts that were not considered useful before. Internal rigour has been ensured not just through testing of hypotheses and replication (though of course many sociological studies do do that), but also through academic debate, intense work on concepts, multiple methodologies, a breakdown of the quantitative/ qualitative divide, and, yes, a phenomenological or even poetic approach to the world.
A lot of the most interesting work conducted in sociology is not falsifiable, not replicable, not, in short, Popperian in the least. A lot of it, specifically in the cultural subfields of sociology, is not scientific. Nor should it be.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding around what cultural theorists do. It’s quite similar to what cultural historians do: they might study the cultural and social changes brought by the democratisation of cycling in the 19th century, and we might do an analysis of the cultural and social changes brought by the Boris bikes now. Cultural historians do not do ‘fieldwork’, and similarly cultural theorists do not have to. They could – you could tackle the topic by doing a case study of Boris bike users, but you could also not do that.
It’s also quite similar to what literary scholars do, except that what is considered ‘text’ is more elastic, encompassing objects, practices, behaviours, etc. You can ‘read’ such things much in the same way as you read literary texts, focusing on their metaphorical content, on their aesthetic aspects, on their embedded ideological assumptions, on their history, etc.
If you don’t do ‘fieldwork’, and if you do use jargon, and if you do focus on the banal and the ordinary, it doesn’t mean you’re basking in your own ability to spout out caustic Barthesian analyses of anything under the sun, and despising the man in the street.
However, it could mean that, in certain cases; and that’s why academic hoaxes such as the Sociétés one are sometimes much needed.


How I (barely) survived indexing an academic monograph

I have just spent the most wonderful week and a half of my life indexing my academic monograph. Few people, on their deathbeds, are reported as saying that they regret not spending enough time indexing their academic monographs; I feel there may be a reason for that.

The exact location of indexing as Dantesque punishment

The exact location of indexing as Dantesque punishment

Indexing, it turns out, is not only yawn-inducingly tedious; it is also much more difficult than I expected, and requires complete concentration. It is also one of these word-tasks which gradually empties all words of any meaning, to the extent that my book subtitle – Time and Power in Children’s Literature – now means stricly nothing to me, apart from the ‘and’ and ‘in’ that I didn’t have to index.

However, I must admit that indexing was also quite an interesting task in places, and taught me quite a few things about the way I write, the way I read, and the bizarre genre that academic monographs belong to. I thought I’d share a few insights about the painful process.

Firstly, just a few notes on the way it gets done (for me, at least):

  • When I got my first proofs, I was asked to give two lists of entries (proper names, and nouns) to the publisher to constitute the index. My original list had roughly 300 noun entries. Because a software was going to be used to generate concordances, I had to submit several spellings for similar terms: not just ’empathy’ but also ’empathise’, ’empathetic’, etc. (so yes, ’empathy’ is now totally devoid of meaning too).
  • Alongside the second proofs, the index came back with the page concordances. It looked a bit like this, everywhere:

désir et le temps 44, 49

desire 2–5, 7, 9–10, 19, 22, 27–28, 30–36, 39–41, 43–46, 49–51, 54–56, 58–59, 62, 69–71, 74, 77–79, 82–84, 86–95, 97–101, 104, 106, 127, 131–135, 139–140, 143, 153–154, 157, 165, 169, 172, 176, 178, 180, 186–193, 195–196, 199, 203–205, 207–209

didactic 2–4, 6–7, 9–10, 18–19, 36, 38–39, 41, 43, 46, 48–49, 53, 56–58, 63, 65, 69–75, 77–91, 93–94, 98–101, 106–109, 111, 117, 120, 122–123, 131–137, 140, 143, 147, 150, 152, 155–157, 161, 170, 176, 178, 184, 186, 188, 190–191, 194, 197–198, 203–204, 206–209

didactically 4, 156

Of course, the damn book being about children, children’s literature, and childhood, there were some particularly hellish lists of concordances for the terms in question:

childhood 5–11, 15–20, 22–25, 27, 34–35, 37, 40–41, 43, 46, 48–49, 51, 55–59, 71, 83, 85–89, 91–92, 96–97, 99, 104–109, 112, 114, 128, 130–131, 154, 166, 170, 176, 178, 180, 182, 186, 188, 192–195, 197–198, 205–206

child 2–11, 15–27, 34–36, 38–41, 43–44, 46–50, 52–65, 70–101, 103–110, 112–114, 117, 119–121, 123, 128, 130–131, 133–136, 143, 147, 150–152, 154–157, 160, 162–163, 166–188, 190–209

child reader 2–4, 7–8, 10, 40, 47–48, 58, 63, 71, 73–74, 78–82, 91–92, 94–100, 112–114, 117, 128, 130–131, 133, 135–136, 143, 147, 150–151, 154, 156–157, 160, 162, 167, 169–171, 174, 176, 179–180, 182–183, 198–203

children’s literature 2–9, 15–20, 22, 25–27, 33–34, 40–41, 43, 46–59, 62, 65, 70–72, 74–75, 77–81, 85–86, 89–91, 94–100, 105–106, 108–113, 118, 122–123, 131–135, 147–156, 161–163, 169–171, 174, 178–186, 192, 195–198, 202, 204–209

  • I sat down with much tea, for days and days on end, and went through the proofs, and slowly cut down, merged, subdivided and split those ginormous lists of page numbers, using subentries. I Ctrl+F’ed by way through the electronic proof instead of printing out a paper proof, because 1) trees are dying and 2) it’s much easier.

So what did I learn, dear readers?

  • Some concepts are just too damn large

I was primordially mystified about one thing: how do you index a term that is quite literally central to the whole book? In my case, it seemed difficult to index ‘time’, ‘power’ and ‘children’s literature’ in any other way than by saying ‘Read the whole damn book, you lazy sloth’.

I sought inspiration in academic monographs I happened to have lying around, such as Peter Stearns’ (excellent) Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing. How, I wondered, did Stearns index the term ‘anxiety’?

P1060421That’s right. Eight page numbers or ranges. I was pretty sure I’d seen the word ‘anxiety’ or ‘anxious’ something like a hundred times more throughout the book, but I was curious to see which occurrences Stearns had decided to index.

So I checked. And apart from an introductory bit (p.11) and a conclusion bit (215-216, 222) which were vaguely about definitions of anxiety, the other choices of pages were totally incomprehensible. Why pick those? I have no idea. If I had done Stearns’ index, I would have had subentries of the type: ‘health-related’, ‘about achievement’, ‘class-related’, ‘definitions of’, etc. An entry like this is of no use at all.

But at the same time, the truth is – as a reader, I didn’t care. I have a book in my hands called Anxious Parents. I read it from cover to cover, in part because it’s quite an entertaining book, and also because I needed the whole of it. I didn’t need to refer to the index to tell me where to find bits about anxiety. Still, it wasn’t a very satisfactory entry.

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble has a nice, very detailed entry for ‘gender’, but then random entried here and there: for instance, ‘reality of gender’, and ‘construction of gender’, which are not cross-referenced under ‘gender’. I don’t know why.

I then opened Stephen J. Ball’s Class Strategies and the Education Market, and looked for, well, ‘class’:

P1060418Quite a lot more detail here. This is a pretty good entry, I thought – clear, broad enough subentries, cross-referencing with middle and working class, which sounds very logical. However, having read the whole book, I can’t help but feel that frankly, Ball’s thoughts on class would be quite simplified and decontextualised if I were to simply pick my way through it thanks to the index.

But then again, it wouldn’t have occurred to me before to use an index to look for the central concept in a book. Who does that?? And suddenly a new diabolical thought came to my mind:

  • Sometimes, you just don’t want to help the reader.

Seriously: do I want my readers to pick their way through the central concepts in my book?

Sure, I could put a subentry to ‘children’s literature’ saying, for instance, ‘definition of’. But that’s just asking the lazy reader to read just that definition and not take into account the pages and pages and pages of articulate and cogent reflection (sure) that have led to it.

By that time I was fuming, hungry, bored (and also getting dozens of hate emails per minute, but that’s another story) and ready to strike out at those virtual bad readers of the book I was imagining. I spent hours on those pages and pages of articulate and cogent reflection, you scroungers!

I suddenly felt like my index was exposing my poor little book to immoral cherry-pickers, ready to quote definitions entirely out of context. At the same time, I couldn’t quote a whole range of pages before the definition, or it would confuse the hell out of the immoral cherry-pickers and they’d close the book.

So I wanted to help some readers. Just not all readers.

Eventually, I decided to keep it broad and clear like in Ball’s book, but with subentries obscure enough that they couldn’t be relied on entirely out of context; ‘childhood’ became, for instance,

childhood temporal otherness of 6, 15-20, 22–25, 56-58, 71, 104-108, 150, 170, 194; symbolic 7-11, 40–41, 55-56, 71, 85, 88, 154, 170; as associated to hope 46-48; in the didactic discourse 85–89; and subjectivity 96–97; Beauvoirian approach to 104–108, 112, 192–195.


  • You can really have fun with some entries

This is something I wouldn’t have believed in the first few hours of the terrible task, but I realised that some entries at least offered elegant narrative possibilities. Specifically, the not-huge-but-still-quite-important-concepts. I’ll give you my favourite one here:

disempowerment of the adult 3, 7, 57-58, 65, 113, 124-131, 205; of the child 17–18; of child and adult 176-178, 190 see also power

I’m proud of this one because it’s quite clever. You see, the whole book is about how children’s literature is not as disempowering for the child as much children’s literature theory seems to think it is (see previous article for more details). In fact, in my analysis, children’s literature, more often than not, betrays an adult lack of power.

So this little entry indicates quite neatly what happens in the book: ‘disempowerment of the adult’ has far more page entries than ‘disempowerment of the child’, and the last subentry (‘disempowerment of child and adult’) indicates that we’re talking here about a phenomenon that is also common to both.

I’ve managed entries like that here and there, but not as many as I’d like; they’re my favourite, and if they were little puppies I’d pat their heads and give them treats.

  • Those horribly overlapping entries!

Inevitably, some entries are going to overlap. You can’t talk about ‘time’ without it overlapping with ‘futurity’, or ‘existence’ without it overlapping with ‘existentialism’. In a way, it could be worse: I actually discovered, doing the index, that I’m thankfully not too bad at using words rigorously enough that I don’t use different ones to mean the same thing (thank you, French education of torture and trauma).

But even so; the worst entries were ‘power’, ‘might’ and ‘authority’, because in my book’s theorisation, ‘power’ is split into two kinds : might and authority. So how do you index those and cross-reference them? And how do you make sure that people are actually going to look up ‘might’ and ‘authority’ instead of just ‘power’?

Well, I created a very inelegant subentry for ‘power’ which I called ‘dynamics of the adult-child relationship’ and which contains a lot of page numbers; and then I finished that subentry by saying ‘see also authority, might’; which I also did for ‘authority’ and ‘might’.

It feels redundant and awful; but it makes sure that a reader will look at authority and might. Since ‘power’ is a central concept in the book, I want to force the reader out of this entry through sheer boredom of all those numbers. The ‘authority’ and ‘might’ entries are much clearer and more reader-friendly, so the reader will jump on those instead.

That was, at least, my reasoning. Maybe I have a manipulative personality, or I’m good at mind games; you decide.

  • How specific should the subentries be?

From Stearns’ completely nonspecific entries to a complete avalanche of subentries, my bookshelf was full of different approaches. If you want to get an index-inferiority-complex, Education and the middle class, by Sally Power et al, is your book:


Note the final ‘university entry, 95-6’ and ‘university studies, 95-6’. That, my dears, is commitment to indexing.

But seriously, it can get a bit surreal:

P1060420‘neglected in sociology of education’? Really? Do we need this entry? Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a good idea that it’s there, but the implications are shudder-inducing. Should I have a subentry saying ‘unnecessarily guilt-tripping the child into saving the environment’, under ‘ecological books’? There seems to be no limit to where this kind of subentry can lead you – you might as well rewrite the whole book in index form.

As you can see, this week and a half in the circles of hell has triggered some half-annoyed, half-intrigued reflection on the matter. Above all, it’s made me think that I can’t imagine giving the job to anyone else: at least for an academic monograph, you really need to know the whole damn book by heart, and only one person is sad enough for that: the author.

What’s your academic diet?

Of course, we’re all vultures of a kind, mostly feeding on previous bodies of work. But academics do have very varied diets. Which is yours? Take the test and discover what kind of scholarly gourmet you are.

1. Which thinker would you never have dinner with?

a. Judith Butler

b. Martin Heidegger

c. Harold Bloom

d. Friedrich Hegel

2. Which quotation gives you the most food for thought?

a. “The safest generalisation we can make about Western philosophy is that it is a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Alfred North Whitehead)

b. “If emotion without reason is blind, then reason without emotion is impotent.” (Peter Singer)

c. “Art is anything you can get away with.” (Marshall McLuhan)

d. “Declaration of principle, pious wish and historical violence of a speech dreaming its full self-presence, living itself as its own resumption; self-proclaimed language, auto-production of a speech declared alive, capable, Socrates said, of helping itself, a logos which believes itself to be its own father, being lifted thus above written discourse, infans (speechless) and infirm at not being able to respond when one questions it and which, since its “parent[’s help] is [always] needed” (ton patris aei deitai boithon—Phaedrus 275d) must therefore be born out of a primary gap and a primary expatriation, condemning it to wandering and blindness, to mourning.” (Jacques Derrida)

3. Which of these concepts or theoretical ingredients can you really not stomach?

a. Intersectionality

b. The animal-machine

c. The Great Conversation

d. Dialectic

4. Where do you find your favourite intellectual recipes?

a. Why, in books. Where else?

b. You listen to people that no one will listen to.

c. You have an app or two. And you follow a number of specialised blogs. You especially like those that explain things in comic form #yaybubbles

d. What recipes?

5. What are you currently cooking up?

a. A long monograph for a respectable academic press.

b. An impassioned TED Talk on how the implications of your work are both humbling and world-changing.

c. An article for an edgy online journal.

d. You’re not too sure. This morning you thought about how ‘hoovering’ could become a new concept. It would be interesting. You’re currently idly drawing a network of other concepts around it, on a napkin at a café.

Bonus question:

7. How do you like your eggs in the morning?

a. Raw.

b. Can I have tofu instead?

c. You don’t, unless they’re quails’ or ostriches’ eggs. Or Easter eggs. Anything else is b-oring.

d. Very, very scrambled.

Now count up your points! And prepare for revelations about your academic diet.

You got a majority of As.

You’re on an academic paleodiet. You’re the proud caveman of the Ivory Tower, buried under piles of yellowing paper, by the warmth of a good fire. None of those new low-fat methods, highly processed theories, interdisciplinary recipes and artificially-coloured concepts: you do things the old-fashioned way. Old recipe-book-writers knew what they were doing! And who cares if they were mostly white men. But times are changing, and for the worse: you keep grumbling that few people want to take a bite of your stuff when it contains your favourite mammoth concepts.

You got a majority of Bs

You’re an academic vegan. Endowed with supernaturally stretchable empathy, you’re always looking for the next free-range theory, the next concept not tested on animals, and you strive to create environmentally friendly versions of previous models. You’re highly suspicious of some traditional ingredients: reason, in particular, which, albeit a necessary base to your own theoretical cooking, has led astray many a philosophic chef. You mean to change the world, one homemade dish at a time. You believe in outreach, in nourishing the world: everyone should get a taste of your theories.

You got a majority of Cs

You’re an academic omnivore, with a clear preference for what others consider junk food. From media studies to children’s video games, from the science of Twitter to electro-pop-music theory, you just love that industrial flavour. Of course, you know all the cool kids (at least on Facebook), and you meet up for conferences which are so buzzwordy that they make it into the Featured page on Google news. The academic paleodieters hate you, though you sometimes pretend to them that you don’t actually have a taste for those things you study; you just find them worthy of attention, that’s all…

You got a majority of Ds

Is it molecular gastronomy? Is it Thermomix addiction? Is it simply that of someone who, erm, isn’t too sure how to cook? Difficult to say. Basic ingredients become quite unrecognisable – indeed even, some would say, unpalatable – when you’re in command. You keep inventing new implements, too. You are, however, a bit of a poet; you talk a lot about your ideas in a mouth-watering fashion before revealing them. Then you lift the cloche, and the deconstructed, disintegrated, dizzy concepts, not too sure whether they’re a wave or a particle, have a tendency to dissolve. It certainly looks, smells and tastes impressive, though.


My Writing Process

Exceptionally this week, blog post on Monday rather than Wednesday. Because it’s the Rule.

Oh hurrah, a My Writing Process blog post! I have been tagged by the most ladylike Robin Stevens, whom by the way you should absolutely meet if you haven’t already, because 1) her upcoming novel is a detective-story-addict’s dream; 2) she has a lizard called Watson, and 3) she is Sesame Seade’s real-world counterpart. Also she is a lovely person and makes excellent cakes.

So the point of this My Writing Process blog tour is to answer three questions about One’s Writing Process, and then tag someone else. I don’t think there’s any curse if you break the chain (THIS DEAD CHILD SHALL VISIT YOU AT NIGHT) as everyone knows that you absolutely don’t need to scare authors into narcissistic self-reflectiveness; they will do it very willingly and respect whichever deadline you set them.

Here we go then:

1. What am I working on?

Not sure this question is inviting long explanations about my current research interests and/ or students’ essays I’m marking, so I’ll skip directly to fiction. I’m working on edits for a series with Bloomsbury, The Royal Babysitters and The Royal Wedding-Crashers, coming out October 2014 and April 2015. My other series, the Sesame Seade Mysteries, is finished – but I work a lot on promoting it by going to schools and meeting young readers.

I’m also working on my French books: a YA novel and a mid-grade adventure story, which no one cares about here you poor things, you are so missing out. But right now I’m pretty much done with everything I’ve been contracted to do. I’m therefore in the difficult situation of Looking For Another Contract.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The Sesame Seade Mysteries are funny and mysterious detective stories, but I’m quite proud of the fact that they don’t kill off the parents or make them inexplicably uninterested in their daughter’s whereabouts. The language also makes the series quite different from other books of the same kind that I’ve read, I think. A lot of the humour depends on the language.

God, is there any way of answering this question without sounding hugely pretentious and/or making sound like your colleagues are writing utter rubbish?

The Royal Babysitters and The Royal Wedding-Crashers are, I think, wackier than your usual funny/ adventure story for early readers. They were written to sound like I was constantly high on some kind of magical herb, but I promise I wasn’t. I’m even down to one coffee a day.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Because I’ve found a more or less happy middle between what I want to write and what publishers are willing to publish. This happy middle in France is very different to what it is in Britain. I like many things when I write fiction: I like humour, I like language, I like sarcasm, I like adventure, I like a bit of cruelty, I like political commitment. The two countries allow me to express those different likings to different degrees.

4. What’s my writing process like?

Completely erratic. I make time for it; time is never already there. Writing fiction is not my full-time job, so it comes after doing research, writing papers, marking students’ essays, supervising students, etc. And part of fiction-writing-time must be devoted to promoting books that already exist, doing school visits, replying to emails, blogging, etc. I end up writing very little.

Fiction-writing time is clearly separated from Actual Work Time by my moving to the sofa with the laptop as opposed to sitting at my desk.

I’m a planner. I make relatively strict synopses to which I generally stick. I abandon many book projects after just a few pages or chapters. I start a lot of things.

I hate editing and revising; it’s a big problem, because I also hate it in my academic work. As a result, my first drafts are often quite polished, because Writing-Me does everything she can to diminish Editing-Me’s future wrath.

I write quite fast once I get going, and I don’t get hugely attached to characters and stories any more. I’m always thinking of the next project. I’m more anxious about writing than I used to be.

Somebody or other said that there are two types of writers: those who like writing, and those who like having written. Sadly, I think I am in the latter camp. It’s not that I don’t like writing, but there’s nothing like the joy of a finished manuscript.

Julian Sedgwick, it’s your turn!

10 Writer Quotes That Really Resonate With Me

I wanted to share with you some quotations about writing that really make my heart beat faster and my eyes fill up with tears because when I read them I think, ‘That’s it! That’s the truth! So I’m not the only one feeling all the pain of this writerly calling that I have, this passion for words that is so full of pain. At long last I feel understood.’

Here they are.

writing quote 3That is so true. Sometimes when no one else will listen (for instance when I’ve been talking about how much I love quotations that are written in wobbly blurry black writing) I bend over my piece of paper and I whisper things into its tiny little ears.

writerquote1I was saying this the other day to Wilbur (Wilbur is my butler), I was saying Wilbur, you are so lucky to be able to just go on holiday two days a year and forget about all the rest. I just can’t. I can’t. Not. Work. It’s all work work work work and no play ever. It’s hell. And all these thoughts almost always involve thinking of a sepia picture of a typewriter. writingquote8NO other way to survive. Absolutely NO WAY. Like even if I eat healthy good food all day and take walks and am rich and have no disease, there’s NO WAY NO WAY to survive if I don’t write. I just DIE for goodness’ sake, I DIE every single FLIPPING TIME. I’m so happy someone’s finally voicing this survival impossibility thing.

writingquote7OH GOD don’t you hate it when you’re writing in your dreams and someone removes the pen you’re holding in reality which is the pen you’re writing with in your dreams? It completely ruins everything you’re writing in your dreams and your dream book doesn’t get written. Then you’re late on your dream deadline and your dream editor gets so furious! I had to pay back a whole dream advance like that last time because the boyfriend had removed my pen from my hand (‘It was going to stain your pyjamas’ SURE). Such a shame you don’t ever get a dream pen and all this dream writing is conditional on your holding a real pen THANK YOU UNCONSCIOUS.

writing quote 4I think he doesn’t mean really bleeding, I think it’s a metaphor of some kind, but it’s so true because when you write it hurts so much it really feels exactly like someone’s cut your veins open and all the blood is gushing out. It really hurts physically like that. It does. But it’s nothing at the same time, nothing. We endure it, we have to.  Seriously, it’s nothing. Don’t worry. It’s nothing. Ouch… o the pain.

writing quote 5That really strikes a chord with me. I know people who are not writers and it must be strange not to feel desperate all the time. It’s funny to think that we’re the ones who have this burden, this calling, this thing in us that makes us so desperate… Why us? I hope it stops one day because there’s so much despair, but at the same time I don’t want it to stop because I wouldn’t be a writer anymore… Oh I just don’t know.

writing-quote2I like the definition of courage that’s implied in there, because some people would say that courage is, like, jumping into a house on fire, or facing up to someone who’s a horrible racist and misogynist, or finally breaking up with a partner who emotionally manipulates you, but no one ever, ever mentions the courage that you need in those moments when you have to write in a way that scares you a little.

writingquote10YESSS!!! I mean, YESSSS!!! The sheer number of people I meet who will just tell you offhandedly, ‘Writers’ idea notebooks aren’t important to them’. It’s extraordinary, it’s like you can’t have a normal conversation with anyone without them bringing up that topic. And the effort it takes to convince them otherwise! Next time I’ll just give them this picture and they’ll understand with the broken glass and fishnet wire that we mean it.

writingquote9I hate those simultaneous yet contradictory delusions. They happen all the time, for instance if I’m tweeting ‘Difficult day with characterisation #amwriting’ and no one retweets or replies, and I think ‘Is that because 1) they don’t care 2) they haven’t seen the tweet 3) they never have this problem with characterisation 4) they’re scared of admitting they have the same problem 5)…’ At least this quote reminds me I’m not alone.

writing-quote6This one is my top number one favourite of all. I couldn’t agree more. Break-ups, deaths, illnesses, genocides, sun death – there are things out there that sound like they could cause agony of a kind or another. But to me, nothing, nothing can ever be equally agonising as the knowledge that I have a story in me that isn’t told. It’s the Platonic idea of agony; everything else is a replica.

I hope you’ve felt inspired too. I’m glad we’re all suffering together, though I still think I suffer a little more.

Book Giveaway Results, and other news

Yes, yes, I know, I’m one day late for the results of the Book Giveaway for Scam on the Cam! sorrysorry. I’ve been really busy with revisions to an article. And the Cambridge Literary Festival, which was this weekend and was aweeeesome. Awesome like this (thank you Sabine and Caitlin for the pictures!):

Learning to draw Claude with Alex T. Smith!

I'll replace Alex T. Smith one day clearly

I’ll replace Alex T. Smith one day clearly

And giving a (sold-out!) talk to lots of children and their parents about Sesame! (let me reassure you, the parents were very well-behaved). The children were completely made of amazingness. Quite a few of them had read the first one or two Sesame books and were asking for more, which is probably a good sign. They invented a brilliant Boat Race mystery involving tying an umbrella to a boat to slow it down, and poisoning rowers with potatoes. Maybe they then put it into practice and that’s why Cambridge lost that same afternoon. Hmm…

Pied Piper Sunday

Pied Piper Sunday

And meeting many other cool authors, including The Dark Lord himself, Jamie Thompson. Here we are posing with our name cakes. I’ve changed, I know. And he looks a lot like me.

BkinTXnIMAA8J2E.jpg largeAnyway, it was a lot of fun and it was also extremely exhausting.

The good news is, too, that Scam on the Cam is beginning to be reviewed here and there and also there and readers generally seem to agree that the book isn’t completely toxic and may help facial gymnastics in the sense of lifting the zygomatic bones (the zygomatic bones are the bits of cheek that go up when you laugh, or something like that, I’m not a doctor, I mean I am, but not one that knows about bodies.)

So you see, happy winner of the BOOK GIVEAWAY whose name I shall give below, you’re a really lucky sort of person today!

Let’s see. I wrote down all the names of the sports-events-crashers:

P1050859Then I put them inside the book at a strategic place (if you read it you’ll know why)

P1050860And I shook the book!



(dearly hoping only one paper would fall out first)

Well two did.

P1050861So I guess I could have been mean and picked one of the two, but you know what? I’m feeling generous today. Irene and Claire, you’ve both won a copy of Scam on the Cam! I hope this fills you with intense joy. Email me your addresses at clementinemel at hotmail dot com and it will be in the post soon!

But for the unlucky of you who didn’t get picked: the great Jim at YA Yeah Yeah is running a giveaway for the THREE Sesame books! All the details are to be found there.

Happy reading everyone!

Clem x

Committed children’s literature (2/2)

The first part of this blog duology (right there) mostly revolved around the publishing and writing of politically committed children’s literature. But what I was most interested in in my thesis were theoretical conclusions to the analysis of such texts. Here are a few of them (necessarily abbreviated and simplified):

What is the implied child reader of committed children’s literature like?

The child reader addressed by politically committed children’s texts (the ‘implied reader’ in Wolfgang Iser’s vocabulary) is primordially someone who would be receptive to the text and its implications – and who would consequently be both willing and able to act to improve the world following his or her reading. This ideal reader would thus be so struck by his/her reading that s/he would attempt to convert these ‘intangible’ encounters with sociopolitical change into ‘real’ actions.

To put it in Sartrian jargon, such texts ‘call’ for a reader who, ideally, would take up the difficult task of accepting responsibility for the world, and contributing to change it. This task is shared between author and reader.

OK, so basically, it’s an implied child reader who would do exactly what the author asks?

Well, actually… no. At least, never straightforwardly, and especially not in the most complex examples of committed children’s literature, where extremely interesting things can happen.

Let’s take for instance the example of The Tooth, a seemingly simple, but actually beautifully profound picturebook by Avi Slodovnick and Manon Gauthier. This is the story of Marissa, a little girl who has to have a tooth extracted. Her mum tells her she can put the tooth under her pillow, and she will get a coin in exchange for it. Instead, though, the little girl decides to give her tooth to a homeless man – quite logically thinking that he needs a coin more than she does. The man smiles, but the narrator closes the story by saying: “Now all he needed was… a pillow.’

The implied child reader in this picturebook is, as said previously, someone who would actualise the values in the text. But it doesn’t mean that the reader is invited to follow Marissa’s actions. In fact, the text is softly but seriously critical of Marissa’s behaviour. By giving her tooth to the homeless man, she didn’t change anything to his material situation. Of course, she’s not a bad person: symbolically, she did good, and the man thanks her with a smile. And she did notice that this man needed money.

However, her action is hollow. Marissa is at the centre of a web of adult-woven fictions. She believes that the Tooth Fairy exists and gives money in exchange for teeth. She also tacitly believes that everyone, including homeless people, have pillows. She is wrong, and the picturebook is explicit as to the latter belief at the very least: the last page in the picturebook shows an empty bed – a bed in which the homeless man will not sleep tonight.

The young reader is forced by the iconotext to detach him/herself from Marissa and is thereby confronted to a vertiginous wealth of new questions. If giving her tooth was ‘useless’, what should we do? If it’s not enough to notice that there is poverty in the world, how should we act? The picturebook remains silent as to those matters. The young reader is ‘dropped’ there, exactly at the moment when s/he would need an adult ‘guide’, some kind of prescription, some kind of answer… but there is no answer.

From those silences, the ideal young reader of politically committed children’s literature is asked to become, more fully, an actor of his or her nascent political commitment.

But does the adult know what to do?

In my view, no – the adult doesn’t know. The ‘hidden adult’ * of committed children’s literature is above all an anguished, unsure adult, dispossessed of any means to act. Those texts testify to the adult’s disempowerment.This disempowerment is such that it leads to a subservience to another authority, an authority-in-becoming, that of the child.

But of course, no one likes to feel that one’s authority is being threatened. The ‘hidden adult’ of committed children’s literature is no exception (I hope it’s clear that I’m personifying an entity that isn’t ‘really’ a person here). As a result, those texts are also in places extremely prescriptive and authoritarian.

So we end up with a double discourse of the adult in politically committed children’s literature: on the one hand, a discourse of hope and adult disempowerment, on the other hand, a discourse of authority and prescription. This double discourse, it seems to me, can never be simplified into one or the other, though some books tend towards one rather than the other.

*I don’t have the space here to explain Perry Nodelman’s complex concept of ‘the hidden adult’ in children’s literature. Very briefly: it is the adult authority ‘in’ the text, not necessarily coinciding with any adult character, narrator or author; it is the synthetic figure of adulthood extractible from teh text.

So is committed children’s literature by nature utopian and unrealistic?

Yes, but only more explicitly so than other types of children’s literature. Children’s literature addresses children, and children are, for adults, fundamentally beings-in-becoming and therefore future-bound and hopeful (this is, again, the perspective I adhere to, shared by some children’s literature scholars but not all).

They are therefore fundamentally unpredictable. Since they are unpredictable, they are beings who could still be anything. The adult authority therefore seeks to make them adhere to certain positions, and to let them create their own positions.

However, politically committed children’s literature exacerbates this utopianism which is present in all discourses addressed to children. This is, firstly, because of the themes it frequently tackles: it is a literature which talks a lot about the future, about the impact of human actions, about hope, and about children’s ability to do better than adults. Secondly, it is also due to the fact that such literature often focuses on adult imperfections: the shortcomings of the adult world, of adult sociopolitical systems. As a result, the motif of the child and its logical counterpart – the adult-in-becoming – are glorified.

Such a literature is utopian, unrealistic, or at least idealistic, because it explicly ‘counts on’ the child reader: it depends on the child reader. But, I think, in all discourses addressed to children there is a similar request from the adult – a similar desire, a similar anguish to be listened to.

Any discourse targeting children is always in part an acknowledgement of failure by the adult. This acknowledgement is accompanied by a demand, a prayer. Committed children’s literature is a corpus of texts which makes those acknowledgements, demandes, prayers more visible perhaps than other types of children’s literature.

I’ll stop here!


Committed children’s literature (1/2)

I thought I’d write a little bit about my PhD thesis, which I defended last year, as I’ve never actually said much about it on this blog or elsewhere. So I’m going to write two blog posts on the matter, for those of you dear readers who might be interested in the relatively unfashionable topic of politically committed children’s literature.

rainbow thesis

rainbow thesis

In brief: my thesis was principally concerned with children’s literature theory. My starting-point was the currently quite strong theoretical strand of children’s literature which supports the idea that the adult authority, in such texts, is presented as the norm, and/or as more powerful, and the child as other, and/or as less powerful (see list of works at the bottom of this blog post!). My PhD focused on politically committed children’s picturebooks to attempt to nuance this theorisation.

In this first post, a few observations on what politically committed children’s literature looks like today.

Who writes and publishes committed children’s literature these days?

Not a huge amount of people. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, France is currently in prey to a pathetic wave of paranoia about committed (feminist/ queer) children’s literature, but in fact most children’s literature internationally remains – in the words of Sartre – ’embarquée’ rather than ‘engagée’, namely ‘carried along’ passively by its values rather than actively ‘committed’. Children’s literature that explicitly either attacks or defends an ideological position is rare.

La composición.ampliadaPlus, some countries are keener than others to publish and to value politically committed books for children. Some, including France, the US, Scandinavia, and some Central and South American countries seem to have a strong tradition of and love for committed children’s literature. They also have a number of small or independent publishers for whom political commitment is an editorial line and commercial strategy. It’s not currently the case in the UK.

Aren’t politically committed books just politically correct?

No. Of course, ‘political correctness’ doesn’t have a fixed definition, but it is extremely unfair and reductive to claim that politically committed works for children are just saccharine, bohemian-bourgeois texts attempting to show that everyone can be happy together if we would only stop noticing that he’s Black and she’s a lesbian (and all save the Earth by turning off the tap when we brush our teeth).

Many politically committed books say very disturbing things about, precisely, our ability to live together peacefully. They don’t say it’s easy, they sometimes doubt it’s possible. This is the case for The Island, by Armin Greder, for instance – a picturebook in which an immigrant is treated atrociously, and then thrown back into the sea, by an insulat community. Or Le Peintre des drapeaux, by Alice Brière-Haquet (The Flag Painter), which ends with the death of the main character who’d been painting flags for war-torn countries…

peintredrapeauxGoing back to Sartre: such books can truly stage the extreme difficulty of living among others; the fact that we’re thrown against one another, with so little explanation, so few reasons to get on, that we’re always at risk of making terrible decisions.

But yes, of course, there are also many politically committed books that promote tolerance, friendship, diversity, in naïve and utopian ways. Such books are another facet of the same phenomenon: they try to solve the same anguish. But they do so by giving simple answers rather than asking tricky questions.

And there isn’t one ‘good’ category and one ‘bad’ category, but a spectrum of different books which are all (at least, so I theorised) ideologically ambiguous, even the most ‘simplistic’ ones. It’s this ideological ambiguity that intrigued me.

Does political commitment sell books?

Not to a very wide audience. Politically committed children’s books target very specific groups of people and committed publishers have precise strategies as to which customers they should be approaching. They rely a lot on mediators. They lean on communities of committed reviewers, booksellers, parents and teachers, and on blogs and websites rather than the general media.

corettaNonetheless, they are overrepresented in major book awards, some of which explicitly value books which lead child readers to think about social and political questions.

Is political commitment the sign of a bad book?

‘Quality’ is a hugely tricky topic, but it’s not justified to state categorically that books which have a ‘message’ are by definition bad books. Publishing houses which focus on such works are in fact generally very keen to focus on aesthetic quality of text and pictures, partly because they know that the books will not sell to a wide audience and that, as a result, the books must seduce mediators and win awards.

Yeah right, but the text and pictures might be beautiful, and the book extremely didactic! No?

Yes, of course. And those texts are clearly prescriptive and pedagogical. They attempt not just to entertain, but also to interpelate the young reader as to the state of the world. This pedagogical function is there by definition.

But before shouting that they’re therefore rubbish since art should be for its own sake, it’s good to think about two things:

1) Supporting politically committed literature isn’t a stupid ideological position. It might sound weird, but it bears repeating. It’s a literary and ideological position which has had quite eminent defenders, from Voltaire to Sartre. Many Nobel Prize winners are ferociously politically committed writers. The opposite trend – ‘art for art’s sake’ – appears in favour these days, at least in ‘adult’ literature. But already in 1963, Roland Barthes was lamenting the ‘exhausting’ alternation of ‘political realism and art for art’s sake, between an ethics of commitment and aesthetic purism’. The seemingly ‘natural’ reaction these days (‘books with a “message” are bad’) is reductive. Political commitment in literature is an amply theorised position which can (and indeed should) be analysed coolly and reasonably (of course I’m saying that because… that’s what I tried to do.)

2) Children’s literature is always-already didactic. Not everyone agrees about this, and many people (especially authors) hate being told that, but for many children’s literature scholars and sociologists of childhood, it’s inescapable. Adults and children are not in an equal relationship with one another. The adult’s ‘mission’ is to socialise the child, whether s/he likes it or not. It’s not a ‘problem’, it’s not a ‘scandal’, it’s not necessarily ‘bad’. Children’s literature is by definition a socialising and acculturating literature, a literature that educates into a society and its values.

It doesn't necessarily make all adults horrible child-eating monsters

It doesn’t necessarily make all adults horrible child-eating monsters

Politically committed children’s literature is a highly prescriptive type of text which reclaims its socialising ‘mission‘ and puts forwards social, political and cultural values in the hope that they will influence the child reader in his or her future life.

Does that mean that politically committed children’s literature manipulates the child reader?

The words ‘manipulation’, ‘indoctrination’, ‘propaganda’, etc. recur among detractors of committed children’s literature. Again, I think it’s a simplistic reaction. ‘Manipulation’ can occur implicitly or explicitly, actively or passively. Feminist critics of (not-committed) children’s books might reproach them with ‘manipulating’ the child reader into associating the presence of one or the other type of genitalia with specific modes of behaviour or types of personality.

Of course, very many politically committed books for children are equally guilty of presenting particular opinions or values as objective and fixed when they are, in fact, debatable and variable.

I’ll stop now, and next time, I’ll share thoughts that are more related to children’s literature theory and the adult-child relationship.


Some key works in the area:

On children’s literature theory and the adult-child imbalance

  • Gubar, M. (2013). Risky Business: Talking about Children in Children’s Literature Criticism. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 38(4): 450-457.
  • Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (1994). Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (1998). Childhood and Textuality: Culture, History, Literature. In K. Lesnik-Oberstein (Ed.), Children in Culture: Approaches to Childhood (pp.1-28). London: Macmillan.
  • Nikolajeva, M. (2009). Theory, post-theory, and aetonormative theory. Neohelicon, 36(1), 13-24.
  • Nikolajeva, M. (2010). Power, Voice and Subjectivity in Literature for Young Readers. New York: Routledge.
  • Nodelman, P. (1992). The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 17(1), 29-35.
  • Nodelman, P. (2008). The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
  • Rose, J. (1984). The Case of Peter Pan: Or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. London: Macmillan.

On politically committed, or ‘radical’, or ‘subversive’ children’s literature

  • Abate, M.A. (2010). Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Mickenberg, J. (2006). Learning From the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Mickenberg, J. & Nel, P. (2008). Tales For Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature. New York: New York University Press.
  • Reynolds, K. (2007). Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction. London: Macmillan.