- Never Going to be Persuaded:A Response to "Never Going Home"
First, a warning. What follows is about the piece in this issue by Mike Steig called "Never Going Home: Reflections on Reading, Adulthood, and the Possibility of Children's Literature." If you haven't read it yet, do it now: I promise you won't be sorry.
I first saw Mike's piece in typescript, when Gillian Adams sent it to me, in my role as a Quarterly editorial consultant, for refereeing. Even though Gillian kept the name of the author from me, in keeping with Quarterly policy, I quickly realized who it was. I'd already heard in personal letters from my friend Mike about his trip to Cape Cod and his feelings about the death of Norma Klein.
When I called Gillian to tell her that I'd blown Mike's cover, she asked what I thought of the piece anyway. I told her that I found it both emotionally resonant and intellectually stimulating—as I hope you have too. The piece makes its objectives clear and meets them just as clearly—so clearly that I found myself desperately wanting to argue with Mike about them.
Gillian said that if I put my responses to Mike in written form, she would be happy to publish them. Well, I've always felt that one of the main pleasures of engaging in literary criticism is the dialogue it allows us with others. As I always tell students in my courses, a good essay has to have a clear thesis—an argument, that is: something readers might be likely to disagree with and be tempted to engage in discussion about. But the conventions of academic publishing are such that, except for all-too-brief book reviews that try to cope with the often complex arguments of long books, we rarely have the opportunity to engage in detailed dialogue in print. Gillian was giving me an opportunity to defy that restrictive convention. Even better, she happily accepted my proviso that Mike have a chance to see and respond to my comments, and so continue the dialogue.
I offer this response to "Never Going Home" in the service of two contradictory hopes. The first, shamelessly egocentric one is that everyone who reads both Mike's comments and mine will of course immediately see how wrong Mike is and how right I am. The second hope is the more honorable one: that readers of our dialogue will have a chance to weigh the arguments and arrive at their own conclusions and their own convictions about some important issues.
My major difficulty with Mike's argument emerges almost immediately, as he raises the name of Jacqueline Rose only to insist that his aim is not to analyze her arguments. Why then, mention her at all? Because, apparently, her willingness to theorize about children's fiction implies that she can know what specific books will fit her theory—which books are indeed the children's books. Mike says that's wrong, because so many different people have different ideas about the subject. Since we can't accurately define which books belong to the category we're theorizing about, he suggests, why should we theorize about children's literature at all.
But is that a logical conclusion? Only, surely if we're prepared to deny the value or significance of theorizing altogether. For it's inherent in the nature of all theories to define what they apply to—to include some items and exclude others. In fact, that's the case with Rose's theory. She makes it quite clear that it applies only and exactly to those books which adults have written specifically for audiences of child readers. She has no intention of accounting for all the other books that somebody somewhere might identify as children's literature.
Mike, I'm assuming, would say, yes, exactly, that's just the problem. But the inability of a theory to account for some items that others might want to include in the category being theorized about doesn't mean the theory is therefore wrong. For instance, the theory that gloves each have five separate...