Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches

 

5. Critical tradition and ideological positioning

 

Charles Sarland

 

Implied readers and real readers

 

When real readers are introduced into the equation, however, the picture becomes more complicated, and it is here that the educational discourse overlaps with the discourse about fiction per se, for it is almost always within school that evidence is gathered and intervention is proposed. The introduction of real readers has another effect, for it throws into relief some of the more determinist assumptions of the analysis offered above. The evidence comes under three headings: identification, the polysemous text, and contradictory readings.

 

Identification

The notion of identification has been a contentious issue for some time. The assumption is that readers ‘identify with’ the protagonists, and thus take on their particular value positions. Readers are thus ideologically constructed by their identification with the character. D. W. Harding (1977) offered an alternative formulation of the reader as an observer in a more detached and evaluative spectator role, and both Geoff Fox (1979) and Robert Protherough (1983) suggest that such a straightforward notion as identification does not account for the evidence that they collected from children and young people. It is clear from their evidence that readers take up a range of positions of greater or lesser involvement, and of varied localisation. The ideological initiatives of the 1970s presupposed an identification model of response, and subsequent commentators are still most fearful of what happens should a young person engage in unmediated identification with characters constructed within ideologically undesirable formulations. Such fears underlie Stephens’s analysis (1992) and the work of Christian-Smith and her co-contributors (1993a).

 

The polysemous text

Roland Barthes (1974) alerted us to the notion that texts operated through a plurality of codes that left them open to a plurality of readings, and Umberto Eco (1981) offers the most extensive analysis of that plurality. Specifically, with regard to ideology, Eco agrees that all texts carry ideological assumptions, whether overt or covert, but readers have three options: they can assume the ideology of the text and subsume it into their own reading; they can miss or ignore the ideology of the text and import their own, thus producing ‘aberrant’ readings - ‘where “aberrant” means only different from the ones envisaged by the sender’ (22); or they can question the text in order to reveal the underlying ideology. This third option is the project that ideological critique undertakes, but when real readers, other than critics, are questioned about their readings, it is clear that the second option is often taken up, and that ‘aberrant’ readings abound (Sarland 1991; Christian-Smith 1993a) though consensual readings also occur. Texts, it seems, are contradictory, and so evidently are readings.

 

Contradictory readings

Macherey (1977, 1978) and Eagleton (1976) both assume that the world is riven with ideological conflict. To expect texts to resolve that conflict is mistaken, and the ideological contradictions that inform the world will also be found to inform the fictional texts that are part of that world. Some texts, Eagleton argues, are particularly good at revealing ideological conflict, in that they sit athwart the dominant ideology of the times in which they were written. Eagleton looks to examples from the traditional adult canon to make his point.

Jack Zipes (1979) takes the argument one stage further and suggests that popular work too will be found to be contradictory. He links popular literature and film with its precursors in folk tale and romance, and suggests that it offers the hope of autonomy and self-determination, in admittedly utopian forms, while at the same time affirming dominant capitalist ideology. In other words, while the closure of popular texts almost always reinforces dominant ideology, in the unfolding narratives there are always countering moves in which it is challenged. Zipes, then, denies the implications of Eagleton’s work that only texts that sit athwart the prevailing ideology can be open to countervailing readings, and he denies too the implications of Belsey’s work that popular forms sit within the classic expressive realist tradition and as such demand readings that are congruent with the dominant ideology.

For example, in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, many of the plots are predicated on the refusal of the central female character, George, to accept her role as subservient, domesticated and non-adventurous, despite repeated exhortations to ‘behave like a girl’. She even refuses to accept her ‘real’ name, which is Georgina. Countering this is the fact that Blyton only offers her the alternative of ‘tomboy’, an alternative that is itself determined by a predominantly male discourse; and the closures of the books re-establish traditional domestic order with the sexes acting according to conventional gender stereotype. (Zipes himself later turned his attention to children’s fiction (Zipes 1983), and see also Sarland 1983.)

While this analysis is still essentially theoretical, supporting evidence emerges from studies that have been done of readers themselves. The focus has been on popular fiction and on teenagers. Popular fiction causes liberal educationalists particular concern since it appears to reinforce the more reactionary values in society, particularly so far as girls and young women are concerned. The research evidence, however, uncovers a complex picture of the young seeking ways to take control over their own lives, and using the fiction that they enjoy as one element in that negotiation of cultural meaning and value. Gemma Moss showed how teenage girls and boys were able to turn the popular forms of, respectively, the romance and the thriller to their own ends. She found unhelpful some of the more determinist ideological analysis that suggested that, by their reading of romance, girls were constructed as passive victims of a patriarchal society. The girls who liked the romances were tough, worldly wise working-class girls who were not subservient to their male counterparts. ‘Girls didn’t need to be told about male power, they were dealing with it every day of their lives’ (Moss 1989: 7). The traditional assessment of ‘teen romance’ by most teachers as stereotypical drivel was applied to the girls’ writing, too, when they chose to write in that form. However, Moss shows how the teenage girls she was working with were able to take the form into their own writing and use it to negotiate and dramatise their concerns with and experience of femininity and oppression. Romance offered them a form for this activity that was not necessarily limiting at all.

In Young People Reading: Culture and Response (Sarland 1991) I argued that young people engaged in ‘aberrant’ readings of pulp violence and horror, readings which ran against the reactionary closure of such material, and they thus were able to explore aspirations of being in control of their own lives, and I further argued that the official school literature as often as not offered them negative perspectives on those same aspirations. Christian-Smith and her colleagues (1993a) explore similar dualities and demonstrate the complexity of the problem. For instance, in her analysis of the Baby-Sitters Club books, Meredith Rogers Cherland shows how the characters are placed securely within feminine roles and functions, being prepared for domestic life and work in lowly paid ‘caring’ jobs. The eleven-year-old girls who are reading them, however,

 

saw the baby-sitters making money that they then used to achieve their own ends. They saw the baby-sitters shaping the action around them so that things worked out the way they wanted them to. They saw girls their age acting as agents in their own right.

(Cherland with Edelsky 1993: 32)

 

By contrast, horror, Cherland argues, which these girls were also beginning to read, casts women in increasingly helpless roles. In its association of sexuality with violence it seemed to offer the girls in Cherland’s study a position of increasing powerlessness, living in fear and thus denied agency.

Research into the meanings that young people actually make of the books they are reading demonstrates the plural nature of the texts we are dealing with. While it was often claimed that texts within the canon had complexity and ambiguity, it was always thought that popular texts pandered to the lowest common denominator, and offered no purchase on complex ideological formulations. The evidence does not bear that out. Popular texts too are discovered to be open to more than one reading, and the deconstruction of those texts, and the readings young people bring to them, proves be a productive tool of analysis for exploring the ideological formulations which constitute them. There is yet to be a large mainstream study of what readers make of the more traditional central canon of children’s fiction, though John Stephens and Susan Taylor’s exploration of readings of two retellings of the Seal Wife legend (Stephens and Taylor 1992) is a useful start.