- The (Im)Possibility of Children's Fiction:Rose Twenty-Five Years On
"Only the impossible is worth the effort …"—(Jeanette Winterson, The Power Book).
The appearance, in 1984, of Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan, Or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction was timely, for the emerging academic study of children's literature was trying to find its theoretical feet within an area that, while often celebrating the aesthetic and literary qualities of texts, had tended toward the utilitarian. Its academic home was more likely to be in a department of librarianship or of teacher education, where the primary concern was with finding books suitable for children of different ages and backgrounds. The 1980s, however, saw a number of cultural shifts: literary studies was expanding in higher education institutions, and the literatures of previously neglected groups (women, blacks, other ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, the disabled) began to be given attention, together with the extensive hinterlands that operated alongside the capital—and capitalized—"Literature": series books, comics, films, TV, merchandizing, and children's texts, too, came within its purview. The 1980s was also the time of "high theory" and the "theory wars," when many disciplines found themselves redefined within the seemingly ubiquitous and omniscient ambit of "Cultural Studies."
Other academic writers were also pushing the boundaries of children's literature studies at this time, extending what some saw as its rather insular and outdated approach. There was Jack Zipes's Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairytales (1979) and Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (1983); Fred Inglis's The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction (1981); Zohar Shavit's Poetics of Children's Literature (1986); Juliet Dusinberre's Alice to the Lighthouse: Children's Books and Radical Experiments in Art (1987); Margaret and Michael Rustin's Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children's Fiction (1987); and Perry Nodelman's Words About Pictures: The Narrative Art of Children's Books (1988). A number of these writers had also come into the area of children's literature as "outsiders," [End Page 223] a stick that has occasionally been used to beat them.
Jacqueline Rose was no different. By bringing to the study of children's literature a psychoanalytic way of thinking (Lacanian in particular, having studied for her Mâitrise and started her doctoral research at the Sorbonne), Rose's book threw down a formidable gauntlet; lauded by some, castigated by others, and misunderstood by many, it has more than stood the test of time. Twenty-five years on, it is probably one of the most quoted works in children's literature criticism.
Although the name "Rose" consistently crops up at children's literature conferences and in the area's specialist journals, she herself has never participated in these forums. After The Case of Peter Pan, Rose moved away from children's literature, although as she herself has recognized, there is an abiding concern in her various works for the way that fantasy operates in a culture. Thus, after examining how the figure of the child works to conceal cultural anxieties around sex and identity, she moved on to look at the way that the figure of Sylvia Plath has also functioned as a cultural fantasy and, more recently and contentiously, at how Israel has been the victim of its own Zionist fantasies.
As a result of Rose (and others) rattling the cage of children's literature criticism, one could argue that there have been four main responses. The first has been to ignore her entirely; so, in a work like Peter Hollindale's Signs of Childness in Children's Books (1997), one looks in vain for any engagement with her ideas. The second approach has been to engage with her work, but from very different theoretical roots—often humanist rather than poststructuralist in origin. Thus, whereas Karín Lesnik-Oberstein credits Rose with bequeathing the discipline a "seminal book" ("Psychopathology" 222), for others it remains ephemeral (if that's possible). Peter Hunt, for example, an established scholar who first reviewed The Case...