- The Second Kind of Criticism
The literary criticism I learn from comes in two kinds. The first kind persuades me to think as it does; the second kind leads me to think for myself.
The first kind is merely breathtaking—innovative, surprising, yet so persuasive that I have no choice but to approach all the texts I come across after reading it in the new terms it's provided me with. At this point in my inflexible middle age, this paradigm-shifting kind of experience doesn't happen very often; and indeed, I'm not sure I'd like to have my mind blown so explosively much more frequently than once or twice a decade—it's liberating, but it hurts. So I'm grateful for the second kind of criticism.
The second kind is less breathtaking than productively infuriating. It persuades me of the importance of the questions it raises, but not necessarily of the soundness of the answers it provides—and so I'm forced into an extensive dialogue with it, as I look for answers that will satisfy me more.
Peter Hunt's ambitious attempt to, as he says, use "critical theory and practice to help readers to deal with children's literature, and children's literature to help readers to deal with literary theory" (5) is criticism of the second kind. What follows is a report of my dialogue with it.
Hunt examines a significant body of theory in order to explore how it might challenge commonly held assumptions about children and their reading, about literature in general, and about children's literature in particular. One such assumption is that literary texts have intrinsic value, that Shakespeare's writing is inherently better, truer, more beautiful, than Barbara Cartland's or Beatrix Potter's—an assumption that leads people to downgrade children's literature in relation to adult masterpieces, and, within children's literature, to belittle those texts that children often do enjoy most. Hunt's perceptive analysis reveals the extent to which complacent statements about the supposedly eternal, universal value of great literature are actually culture-bound: ideological expressions of the interests of a particular group in a particular place and time.
Hunt also collapses the assumption that texts communicate the same meanings to all readers, so that the themes adult readers find in literary texts are the messages those texts do actually convey to children. He marshals a body of theory, both literary and psychological, to establish that there is "a considerable difference between what a child might perceive a text to be and what an adult decides it must be" (96). The central thrust of Hunt's argument here, and of his book as a whole, is to encourage us to partake in what he calls "childist criticism": doing our best to bypass the practices and conclusions that conventional assumptions about both literature and childhood suggest to us, and "reading, as far as possible, from a child's point of view, taking into account personal, sub-cultural, experiential, and psychological differences between children and adults—in short, allowing the reader precedence over the book" (198).
It's obvious that the questions Hunt raises—what makes for value in children's literature and what we need to know about children's reading before we can determine it—are important ones. They are, I think, the important ones, the ones that ought to concern all of us who try to make sense of the phenomenon of children's literature. And Hunt's answers are good ones, both theoretically sound and eminently practical.
Nevertheless, I'm not satisfied by them. Although I want to accept them, I can't help noticing that there's a serious contradiction right at the heart of them.
Hunt's discussion of ideology includes a summary of an article by the theorist Terry Eagleton that reveals the contradiction. Eagleton argues, says Hunt, that "humans do not 'produce themselves.' They are produced by society, and in the process are given certain 'modes of subjectivity'; and the mode of subjectivity in our (western) society is one...