Brian Alderson reviews two books by university teachers ostensibly about children’s books and their publishing.
Review also includes:
The Making of Modern Children’s Literature in Britain Publishing and Criticism in the 1960s and 1970s
Lucy Pearson, Ashgate, 220pp, 978-1409443414, £60.00 hbk
Professor Rudd of the University of Bolton has a penchant for clever puns. Indeed, as he carefully explains to less clever readers, the ‘heresy’ in his sub-title derives from a pun on three French letters [stop giggling you girls at the back – this is serious stuff]. The letters in question are R, S, and I which are frenchified as ‘air-ess-ee’ [geddit?] and those initials in reverse order stand for nothing less than the three stages of human existence as posited by the French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real.
Now this chap Lacan has got Professor Rudd under some sort of hypnosis. If any BfK readers have had cause to refer to his editing of the Routledge Companion to Children’s Literature (2010) they will have found that Lacan is just about the most frequently indexed name in the book (Don’t try looking for such nonentities as Quentin Blake, or Helen Oxenbury, or Beatrix Potter). Priority given to his theories in that book is carried over to Reading the Child whose tri-partite structure is governed by these Lacanian orders. (Which child Rudd has in mind is never stated.)
If your grasp of these orders is as insecure as mine then their relevance to children’s literature may prove elusive (or even – pun – illusive) and Professor Rudd’s ‘heresy’ may consist simply in believing that they are. The fact, which he occasionally almost acknowledges, that literature is a house with many mansions, surely requires him to tell us not so much how we may ‘read the child’ as read this multiplicity of texts under the rigidities of the Lacanian grid. All we get though are three sections following the I, S, R sequence whose contents are so divorced from each other that they amount to a Whole whose sum is less than its Parts. (We will say nothing of an excursion into the Imaginative Phallus about which I must consult my sister, for although the professor is an adherent of feminism he seems to have written what is very much Lacan’s Big Book for Boys.)
Rudd’s rejoicing in his psychotechnology implies a readership more interested in ‘sweet analytics’ than children’s books to which, on the one hand, the littering of his pages with obscure references bears witness, and on the other to his focus on a few titles beloved of Theorists for the instant rewards they yield: Peter Pan, Alice, Where the Wild Things Are, along with one of Anthony Browne’s clever picture books. Furthermore discussion tends to be addressed to work by a few fellow Theorists: the inevitable Jacqueline Rose, the Canadian-American Perry Nodelman, with guest appearances passim by Uncle Sigmund.
It may well be that Professor Rudd sees his discourse as justifying the elevation of Children’s Literature to that status in academia as was found in old Boston where ‘the Cabots speak only to Lowells, and the Lowells speak only to God’. If that be the case then he may feel that Lucy Pearson is rather letting the side down*. Her Making of Modern Children’s Literature will present readers with no intellectual high jinks and, in its two central concerns, it documents a couple of publishing events of interest to a much wider readership.
The first of these – a subject on which Pearson based her doctoral thesis – is Kaye Webb, the great Puffineer, much of whose archive is at Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books, at Newcastle. The second is Aidan Chambers (whose archive is at Aberystwyth) who negotiated the paperback imprint, within Macmillan Education, of ‘Topliners’ and edited it during the latter period of Webb’s rule at Puffin and beyond. In both cases the use of documentary source material is of importance, enhanced in the case of Chambers through the transcript of an interview with Pearson given as an Appendix.
The leg-work involved in this kind of research strikes me as being more illuminating of the relation between book-makers and book-readers than the parading of critical theories that are inherently ephemeral. Where Pearson fails us is not in what Rudd might see as the familiarity of her discourse but in the misleading promise of her title – the label ain’t what’s in the can. Helpful as her studies of two significant editors are, they have nothing to do with ‘the making of modern children’s literature in Britain’ for the very good reason that Kaye Webb was not ‘making’ it in any creative sense. She was a brilliant exploiter of work that was initiated and brought to first fruition by other publishers, while Chambers was not dealing in children’s literature at all. ‘Topliners are not children’s books,’ he is quoted as saying, ‘they are for adolescents who find the run-of-the-mill older children’s books uninspiring, ‘bookish’ or even dull’.
In offering therefore her ground-laying first section on the character of the ‘golden age’ (a tired formula) of the 1960s and 70s, Pearson reveals a lack of the nicety of research that distinguishes her individual studies. What is required to give an authoritative account of ‘publishing and criticism in the 1960s and 1970s’ can hardly be achieved in 71 pages, especially when they rely, as here, on unreliable secondary sources. As with Rudd, the quantity and diversity of material produced in twenty years of publishing is barely hinted at. The role of directors, editors, designers, publicists, salesmen etc in publishing offices is not differentiated. A feminist notion that the whole operation was run by underpaid women neglects the influence of John Bell, the founder of the feast, and the activities of David Gadsby, Robin Hyman, Douglas Keen, Ewart Wharmby and others, while among ladies there is the surprising omission of Julia MacRae, one of the most important of all the editors. Many of these participants (and their accompanying critics and commentators) could still give rewarding first-hand information which could be knitted into some of the immense archival material already present at Seven Stories. It may well be that 71 volumes are more appropriate for the job than 71 pages.
*Ms Pearson is a lecturer in the subject at Newcastle where – says I, declaring an interest – she is generous host to a short lecture series that I give there.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times.