Saturday, 30 November 2013

ABC blog: H

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F  G

H is for hippo. You didn't expect it, did you? Every now and then I write about unexpected subjects, like bridges, working-class novels, esoterism, or cats. Cats are probably not entirely unexpected. But hippos are. I wrote an essay on hippos in children's literature for a festschrift, and such publications do not normally get widely known (there are some famous exceptions). Writing for a festschrift is a bit like writing a column: it can be light in tone and not overloaded with footnotes, and you have fun in a way you cannot afford in a peer-reviewed article in a high-profile journal.

I chose to write about hippos because the festschrift target has a famous collection of these, to which I had contributed. When someone you know collects frogs or egg-cups or shoes, it makes your occasional visits to hideous souvenir shops worth while.

As I started I only remembered one hippo quote: “Hippopotamuses can sometimes be very conspicuous”. I'll give you a prize if you recognise it. I hadn't read the book in thirty years, but I remembered the quote. Then I spent some time on amazon and ordered all hippo books I could find.

A lot has been written about animals in children's books and the range of functions they can have. They can appear in a nature story and perhaps be endowed with some consciousness, to make the story work. At the other end of the spectrum, there are fully anthropomorphic animals, wearing clothes and living in houses. Sometimes pigs have fried bacon for breakfast.

The most interesting stories are in between, when the animal is humanised, but retains it animal traits. For me, the question is always: is the animal form justified? Could it be a human being? Could it be a different animal? Animal disguise does amazing things. Animals can co-habit in most bizarre combinations, and gatekeepers don't ban these books as violating family values. With animals, you can circumvent age, race, gender – all those issues that children's literature grapples with. Yet you cannot have a hippo in a story without making allowances for their – conspicuousness. It is easier with a mouse or a bunny. Hippos are clumsy. Their cuteness factor is low. They are the most dangerous animals in the world, in case you didn't know.

H is of course also for heterology, heteronormativity, heterotopia, heterovocalisation and a whole bunch of hetero-s which I have already dealt with elsewhere in this blog or will deal with soon. As well as hypodiegesis, hyponarrative and other hippo-hypo-s.

H is also for Harry Potter, but I have promised myself that I will never write another word on the subject. 

Friday, 29 November 2013

ABC blog: G

To see previous entries, click A  B  D  E  F

G is for gap. I first heard about gaps in a lecture by Aidan Chambers, in the early '80s when he used to come to Sweden regularly. Chambers claims that the scope of gaps in a text is a measure of literary quality, and I am prepared to agree. He distinguishes between didactic texts that have very few or no gaps and creative texts that leave a lot of gaps for readers to fill.

I had never been particularly interested in readers, but this approach offered a way of examining texts from the readers' perspective, without going into empirical research. Nowadays, I am convinced that you cannot study children's literature without considering readers. Implied readers. The reader in the text, which is the title of Chamber's essay.

I then read Wolfgang Iser's (pronounced EE-zer, in case you didn’t know) works where he discusses how (implied) readers interact with texts during the act of reading, through anticipation and retrospection and filling of gaps. He also points out that there are various kinds of gaps in literary text. Information gaps are there for readers to fill with their previous knowledge and experience, both from real life and from previous reading. For instance, few texts involving human beings mention that characters have two arms and two legs. This is a gap we fill automatically, by default, unless we are told something else. Narrative gaps are deliberately left for readers to be alert while reading, filling them as the text progresses, as new facts are added, new inferences made. Some gaps are never filled and leave us curious – or frustrated. The open ending is the ultimate gap. There are cultural gaps that presuppose familiarity with socio-historical and cultural conditions. These can go unnoticed when real readers are displaced, or shifted from implied readers. Or they can be misinterpreted, which may or may not affect the overall interpretation.

Gaps is a also a concept I have used extensively in my work on picturebooks, where, I insist, words and images collaborate, filling each other's gaps – but preferably still leaving enough for readers to fill. In fact, words and images can amplify each other's gaps, creating a BIG gap between the verbal and the visual. These are the books we find most exciting and challenging. 

G is also for genre and gender, two subjects that I have explored extensively. In articles leading to the book From Mythic to Linear, I started looking across genres, finding similarities between folktales and adventure, fantasy and young adult novel. In the book, I suggest three kinds of children's narratives: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian, depending on how time and space are organised (see chronotope) and where the ending takes the character or at least points at. In Power, Voice and Subjectivity, I added child/adult tensions to these categories. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

ABC blog: F

See previous entries A B C D  E

F is for fantaseme. I am sure you have never seen the word. Don't google it because you will get all kinds of weird stuff. When I coined it in my PhD thesis, published as The Magic Code, I hoped it would become as established as mytheme, which I modelled it on. It didn't. And yet the book has sold 2,000 copies, and still today, after twenty-five years, I get requests from people all over the world to help them get a copy.

A fantaseme is the smallest identifiable element that makes fantasy what it is. A portal between the real and the magical world is a fantaseme. A magical ring that makes you invisible is a fantaseme. The Psammead is a fantaseme. The clock that strikes thirteen in Tom's Midnight Garden is a fantaseme. I cannot imagine why it didn't stick when it is so useful.

When I wrote my thesis, fantasy was more straightforward than today, and it was easier to identify and classify fantasemes and examine how they work. Yes I think the framework would still be helpful if you are interested in the structure of texts and in the characteristics of a genre.

F is also for food, that alongside death is the most pervasive topic in children's literature. I wrote extensively about food in my book From Mythic to Linear, but few colleagues outside Sweden know that I have also co-authored a whole book on food in children's literature, looking at various genres and kinds and contemplating what food was doing there. Since then there have been many studies of food in children's books, and I am looking forward to a student writing her doctoral thesis on the subject. 

Magical food is, by the way, a fantaseme. 

Ill. Ernest Shepard

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

ABC blog: E

See previous entries A B C D

E is for empathy. This is a relatively new topic for me. When I wrote my book The Rhetoric of Character I discussed interiority as a narrative device, exploring interior monologue and Erlebte Rede (another E) and free indirect discourse, which is the same as Erlebte Rede, although some narratologists would insist that it isn't. 

Some years ago I discovered cognitive literary criticism, which was a revelation. It uses ideas from cognitive psychology to explain why we read fiction and why we care about fictional characters who are nothing but a bit ink on paper. Empathy plays an important role since it encourages us to contemplate what other people feel. In real life, empathy is an essential social skill. People who for some reason lack empathy have problems interacting with other people. We may misjudge other people, hurt them and make really fatal mistakes. By reading fiction, we can train our empathic skills without taking any risks. The character will not get hurt if we misunderstand them, and the world will not end because we could not predict someone's intentions. And we can always go back and re-read, to understand it better. The more we read the better we understand how other people feel and think. Paradoxically, books that do not portray interiority can sometimes provide even better training because we actually need to make an effort to understand how they feel rather than being told. 

Empathy does not develop fully until a relatively late stage. Young children, age three-four, can understand how other people think: it is called theory of mind and is another fascinating concept. But understanding other people's feelings does not come until late adolescence. We often hear and say that teenagers are self-centred and don't care about other people's feelings. There is a very clever explanation why this is so and should be so. Don't scold your teenager for being selfish: it is vital for their survival. 

Most children's and young adult literature shows characters who learn to interact with other people. Therefore I find that cognitive criticism is particularly relevant for children's literature studies.

When I started working on my cognitive project and claimed that reading fiction is good for your brain, people would ask: “Can you prove it?” I had to admit that I couldn't, but that I believed science would prove it very soon. And it did.

So E is also for readers' engagement, and it is for emotions as represented in fiction and as experienced vicariously by readers. E is also for evolution because it explains why storytelling was beneficial for our ancestors.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

ABC blog: D

See previous entries A B C 

D is for dubitative. I coined this term in my co-authored book How Picturebooks Work, because I needed to describe a phenomenon when the words and images use different modality. Modality is a linguistic and philosophical concept implying the contingency of truth in a proposition. In plain English: do the words – or the images – encourage you to believe that the events and situations described are really happening or is there some element that suggests hesitation? Modal verbs such as “may” and adverbs such as “perhaps” create this uncertaintly. But of course a picturebook text does not directly tell you that something is perhaps happening and perhaps not at all, that perhaps the character is dreaming or pretending or even lying. That's where images are superior because they can contain something that very clearly shows that the events are make-believe.

In my third year in university I wrote a dissertation on modal verbs because at that time I was a linguist. The modality I was particularly interested in was necessitative: verbs such as “must”, “should”, and “ought”. At least I called it necessitative, and my professor approved, although Wikipedia is of a different opinion. I quit my linguistic pursuits for non-academic reasons, but my solid foundation is still there, and when I needed to describe what happened in the tension between words and images in picturebooks, I remembered my modalities. For instance, I needed a term for wishful thinking: words say that something is happening while images clearly show that it is pure imagination, or the other way round. I found the term I needed for this: optative. But I also needed a term for the case when the tension was unresolved, when the interpretation is up to the reader or viewer. Comparative grammar suggested dubitative, and dubitative it became. 

I haven't seen the terms used by any other scholars, which surprises me because they are really helpful. Of course the modality that tells you that everything is as it seems to be is indicative.

D is also for death which, as I have stated repeatedly, is the most prominent theme in children's literature, since growing up inevitably leads to reflections on death and mortality.

D is also for dystopia, and I published my first article on dystopia in children's literature in 1997, long before the current massive trend. Some of the texts I discussed in this early article were Swedish and Norwegian. I have returned to the subject several times, but it has become so trivial that I have lost interest, except second-hand, through my students' work.

Monday, 25 November 2013

ABC blog: C

See previous entries A B

C is for crossvocalisation. Like with aetonormativity, I coined this word because I needed it. It means that a male author uses a female first-person narrator and the other way round. I used crossdressing as analogy. Crossvocalisation is a performance: what interested me was whether a female narrative voice genuinely performs as female, which of course led to a whole bunch of questions about what it means for a voice to be male or female, because narrative voice, as everything else in a narrative text is a construction and has nothing to do with the real author's gender, nor the protagonist's gender. I tested the idea at a major children's literature conference, and the editor of a major journal asked me to develop my paper into an article. The reviewers found lots of petty faults with the article, but failed to notice my revolutionary approach to narrative, and the article was rejected. I published it in Swedish, and then I reworked it into a chapter in Power, Voice and Subjectivity. If you google it, there are 1,500 hits, most of them to my book, and some to course syllabi where the book is used. I haven't seen it employed in further scholarship, so here is your chance.

When I wrote that first article and even in my book I found very few examples of successful male-female crossvocalisation, while there were scores of female writers who used male voices. I also noticed that when male authors did use female voices, gender was often blurred by other, more prominent features, such as ethnicity or genre. I jumped to conclusions, but since then I have read some superb crossvocalised novels, such as The Fault in Our Stars and She is Not Invisible, so apparently male YA authors have recently become bolder in their choices of narrative perspective. Which makes me glad, because I didn't like the idea that women should be more imaginative and empathetic than men.

C is of course also for carnival and chronotope, which I have already mentioned; and it is for cats, a subject that I have studied academically as well as empirically.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

ABC blog: B

See previous entry A

B is for Bakhtin, inescapably. The most important single theorist who has inspired all my research, from the magical chronotopes in my PhD thesis through carnival and polyphony and intertextuality and back to carnival. The trouble with Bakhtin in Western scholarship is that people tend to be familiar with only one of the cornerstones of his all-encompassing theory of the novel. Sadly, Bakhtin died before he could write up his works and fragments into a coherent whole, an ultimate theory of everything. Some people use the chronotope, correctly or incorrectly; some people have no idea that polyphony and heteroglossia are two translations of the same Russian word; some people use carnival in a very narrow sense, while it was for Bakhtin the decisive philosophical approach to all art. Intertextuality is used everywhere, but it is Julia Kristeva's translation of Bakhtin's original concept of text in dialogue. And since Bakhtin's groundbreaking works were published in the West after Booth's and Genette's, he doesn't get credit for the fundamental ideas of narrative theory: the relationships between the author, the narrator and the character. 

 Last year, some of my students asked for a crash course on Bakhtin, and we had some great sessions, but I could easily teach a whole course on Bakhtin and children's literature and never run out of topics. For a full bibliography, see my academia page. Bakhtin is omnipresent, even when he is not specifically tagged. 

You can stop reading here if you wish, but if you want a more detailed and academic mini-introduction to Bakhtin and children's literature, here is a panel proposal I recently sent to an international Bakhtin conference.

The works of Mikhail Bakhtin have been widely employed in international research on children's literature since the late 1980s when they became available outside Russia. The research community not only seized the various parts of Bakhtin's theoretical framework as fruitful tools for examining texts produced and marketed for young audience, but in the first place realised the significance of Bakhtin's theory of the novel for holistic approaches to children's literature as an art form. Firstly, children's literature is inescapably heteroglot, since it is built on the coexistence of and conflict between the adult and the child discourse. This is not merely reflected in the text through the cognitive discrepancy between the adult and child narrative subjectivities, but also in the inevitable asymmetical power positions, reminiscent of other heterological discourses, such as feminist, queer and postcolonial, where Bakhtin's ideas have similarly been creatively utilised. However, secondly, children's literature is also inherently carnivalesque, since it allows temporary empowerment of the disempowered (children), sanctioned by those in power (adults). While the social norms disrupted by carnival in children's literature are typically re-established, the carnivalesque structure has a strong subversive and transformative potential, textual as well as extratextual. Thirdly, children's literature is consciously and consistently dialogical because of its integral eclecticism, drawing on folktales, mainstream literature and popular culture, apart from its own rich intertextuality. Children's literature, more than any other kind of literature, is transnational and transgenerational. Finally, the specific chronotope of childhood, with its restricted spatiality and temporality and its focus on futurity, reflects Bakhtin's concept of incompleteness as the foremost characteristic of the polyphonic novel. 

So. Now you can sit an exam on Bakhtin. But don't forget to refer to me as your source.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

ABC blog: A

A is for aetonormativity. As the White Knight says in Through the Looking Glass, “It's my own invention”. Thoroughly my own invention. If you google it, you get 660 hits, which are mostly either by me or references to me. Google will ask whether you meant “heteronormativity”, and it shows you how clever Google is, because the concept of aetonormativity is coined in analogy with heteronormativity in queer theory where it means that heterosexuality is the norm. Aeto- refers to age, so aetonormativity means that adulthood is the norm while childhood is a deviation. If you ask me where I found the aeto-, I have no idea. Possibly on Wikipedia. I needed this term, and I invented it. I first used it in an obscure publication where it wasn't noticed, at least not by children's literature scholars, and then I developed it in my book Power, Voice and Subjectivity. It has now been picked up by some students and colleagues, and one colleague whom I don't know personally even lists it as her specialty on her university profile page. I think I can state with confidence that this has been a successful launch, and I hope that posterity gives me credit.

ABC blog

Once upon a time in the Stone Age I had a webpage. Nobody is impressed now, but in the Stone Age it was rather unusual to have a personal webpage, and I learned how to build one with simple html in a half-day course at Åbo Akademi, Finland, where I was a Visiting Professor. As a small university, Åbo Akademi thought it was worth while to teach their employees to build their own webpages. It was uploaded on the university server, and I was allowed to keep it there for a while after I had left them. Then I moved it to Stockholm University server, because it was still Stone Age and nobody in my department had webpages, but when I left Stockholm I had to find a web hotel, buy a domain and pay for service. It was rather cumbersome. Finally, when was launched, there was no point in having a private page. Academia is a great network, and it has many superb features. Except one that I had on my Stone Age webpage. I had a subject index to my work. Of course I have tags on my book and paper publications on academia, but they can never be as detailed as a subject index, and I have so many weird subjects in my work that academia does not acknowledge.

It has been a while since I did a blog marathon. In the coming weeks, I will be running a Subject Index to my work, focused on the various subjects I have written about, particularly terms and concepts I have invented. Some have become established, some haven't. It's a good way to look back on my professional career at this dark and cold time of year.

So watch this space: the ABC of children's literature research.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Unclaimed skills

During my long life I have acquired a number of professional skills that once were useful but have proved to be of no value in the long run.

For instance, I can recite Russian poetry for hours. I once recited Russian poetry for at least an hour while waiting for a delayed flight. My audience didn't understand Russian, but they were fascinated by the sound of it. I frequently recite Russian poetry for myself. Otherwise, it's a useless skill.

I can also sing bawdy Russian songs. I once impressed a younger male colleague who had compiled a collection of dirty Russian verse, but wasn't familiar with some of my repertoire. Another time, at a Slavist conference in Denmark, a friend and I entertained the participants well after midnight, until we got a round of beer on the house because the owner liked his guests to have fun.

Generally, my profound knowledge of Russian literature, bawdy or not, is of no consequence. In Stockholm, I used to teach two optional courses, on nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature. I have stopped using Russian texts in my research because reviewers complain that texts unfamiliar to readers make my research less relevant (!). So much for trying to be international.

My profound knowledge of Swedish literature is rather pointless these days. Although I have managed to smuggle Pippi Longstocking into my syllabus this year, and although I always bring Sven Nordqvist's picturebooks into class, it does not make any difference. My Bahktin-inspired studies of Selma Lagerlöf are of no interest for anyone. Generally, my engagement with literary theory is superfluous. The last course I taught in Sweden before I collapsed and went on sick leave was “Contemporary theories of the novel” where I treated Imre Kertesz' Holocaust novel Fateless as a displacement of myth, examined heteroglossia in Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K. and combined Alice in Wonderland and The Magic Mountain in the same class from a Jungian perspective.

My Alice studies are, by the way, also irrelevant. Nobody is impressed by Alice studies in the UK. I am donating my whole collection, about two hundred and fifty volumes, in various translations and with various illustrations, to the Homerton library,

Which reminds me of translations. This is what I used to do for a living. Already in Sweden, translations from Swedish into Russian were not in great demand, apart from an occasional short story or a political manifesto. Now Russian and Swedish are two useless languages which at best make me slightly exotic in my colleagues' eyes. Not to mention Norwegian and Danish.

I don't regret all these things in the past, because they have made me what I am now. But it is one of life's paradoxes that the only thing that proved decisive for my present situation is a foreign language I learned in school.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The best ever?

Earlier this week I had a class with my masters students about children's literature classics and canons, and among many other things we talked about the numerous recommendation lists of “The best books ever” or “The best books of the year” or “The best books about this and that”. I was sceptical, yet had to admit that I sometimes provide recommendations, as I have done a coupe of times in this blog. I am revising an academic book with many lists, which has made me think about my selection criteria, and they are of course highly subjective. To see them all, you must wait until the book is published, but here are some of the most stimulating children's and young adult books I have read in the past few years, in no particular order.

Gro Dahle & Svein Nyhus, Sinna man (“Angry man”)

Lane Smith, It's a Book

Lucy Christopher, Stolen
Oliver Jeffers, Lost and Found, The Heart and the Bottle

Patrick Ness, The Knife of Never Letting Go, A Monster Calls 
Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Shaun Tan, The Lost Thing, The Red Tree

Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back

John Green, The Fault in our Stars

Jacqueline Wilson, Four Children and It

David Shelton, A Boy and a Bear in a Boat
Marcus Sedgwick, Midwinterblood, She Is Not Invisible