- A Reply to Perry Nodelman, in the Form of a Letter
Although they have caused me more than a bit of annoyance, I want to thank you for taking the time and effort to make such detailed comments on my short article; but I cannot avoid having some doubts about your motives. And as your comments constitute another article of the same length or longer, I shall limit this rejoinder to a few typed pages.
In the note to me accompanying your comments, you first ask that I take your comments as "a serious engagement with serious ideas," but then below write that you have made use of "every sneaky rhetorical trick [you] could think of to make [me] look bad." There seems to be drastic contradiction here which becomes more apparent in your comments. And it puts me in a very difficult position: if I ignore the many "straw men" (or "straw Michaels") whom I find in your comments, I implicitly accede to those aspects of your version of my argument that I think are unfairly or incorrectly summarized. But even if I try to limit myself to the most egregious ones, my response will inevitably take the form of self-defense-which I take to be something quite different from "a serious engagement with serious ideas." I might point out that the statements in my article about children's literature as a category are essentially intended as questions, not assertions—hence the word "reflections" in my title. Clearly you did not take them that way, and I cannot claim that my style is not partly at fault—as is your own generally admirable volubility and seriousness about the field in which you specialize, and in which I do not.
What I've decided to do is to suggest the points at which you misrepresent my motives, my methods, or my argument, interspersing these with what I see as the interesting points that you make. To begin, no, I am not proposing that we stop teaching children's literature as a separate subject and incorporate it into other categories; if anything, I am proposing that we broaden what we include under that particular rubric, as a way of shaking up and reconsidering the problem of definition. As for your repeated labelling of my approach as "anti-theoretical," I can easily grant that my article is inadequately theoretical about children's literature, in that it neither begins with a definite theory about the genre nor develops one. But the theoretical basis of my reflections should be perfectly clear: the subjectivist reader—response assumption that all interpretations and all categories—in the study of literature and elsewhere in our lives—are constructed, and that few if any can claim to be "correct." This is not to say that either interpretations or categories are useless; indeed they are impossible to do without.
In the remark that I want to dismiss what I call the "constructed category" of "children's literature," you are summarizing my argument as far more extreme than it is. What I really do, on the basis of the eclecticism of that bibliography and what I see as the arbitrary division of one writer's novels into "young adult" (which in my local library are kept right next to the "children's" books) and "adult" designations (even if sexual detail is the distinguishing feature), is only to suggest why there is some doubt in my own mind about the possibility of a useful, usable definition of children's literature. Yet I have to grant that you are probably right that there are three angles from which to approach a definition, and that we cannot do without any of them.
My article is of course a personal one, inspired as it was in the first place by my learning of Norma Klein's early death and my connecting the shock of that revelation with recent deaths of persons close to me, as well as the resulting vividness of my sense of my own mortality (I write this two days after my fifty-seventh birthday—only eight years from what will be my mandatory promotion to Professor Emeritus...