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  • The Theory Wars Revisited:Rose and the Reading Critics vs. the Liberal Humanists
  • David Rudd (bio)

in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

(The Third Man, 1949)

I have begun this article with the renowned Third Man quotation because, during the famous "theory wars," which were fought most fiercely by the big powers at a time when poststructuralism was in the ascendant (1970s–80s), children's literature studies was often seen to be in the position of Switzerland: a cozy and pacific enclave. However, although often forgotten about today, the discipline did have its own, lesser engagement in these skirmishes, which can be traced back to Jacqueline Rose's first monograph, The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children's Fiction (1984). The military metaphors were certainly in place shortly thereafter, with Brian Alderson, in an early review of Rose's work, terming it "a fairly good example of the fairly recent incursion of the troops of Academe among the humble tents of children's literature. The invaders have undertaken their most frequent manoeuvres upon the campuses of North American universities …" (296). Strangely, this representative of the liberal humanist position doesn't point out that the invader was an English Rose, with more of British Academe to follow.

It seems apposite to revisit this period in the development of children's literature studies for several reasons. First, because, as noted above, the disagreements have largely been superseded, the last salvoes probably occurring with the publication of Marah Gubar's Artful Dodgers and Perry [End Page 89] Nodelman's The Hidden Adult (both 2008), followed, in 2010, by a special issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly's marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rose's work. Jerry Griswold's contemporaneous blog, entitled "Marah Gubar Vs. [sic] the Jacqueline Rose Cult (and Coda)," certainly has the finality of an epitaph.

A second reason for revisiting this feud is that, at the time, the substantive issues often went untouched, their place being taken by intemperate invective. Griswold's talk of "Rose and her righteous acolytes," who "spawned a Cult of Neo-Puritans," is indicative. It is a key aim of this article to spell out the theoretical grounds of difference and, in particular, to show that Rose and those who became known as the "Reading critics," led by Karín Lesnik-Oberstein, were not as concordant as is often claimed. And, finally, mention of this critic also brings to mind the fact that it is now twenty-five years since the publication of her own seminal monograph, Children's Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child (1984).

Before becoming embroiled in this territorial altercation, though, it is important to establish the terrain over which these wars have been fought, and, indeed, what we even mean by terms like "theory" and "war," especially when they become bedfellows.

Theorizing—Let Me Count the Ways

First, then, what is theory? One could say that to ask this question is already to be engaged in theory, for the word derives from the Greek for "seeing," and hovers between that initial visual experience and a more metaphorical reflection ("I see"). It is a recognition that is captured in the customary words of Rashid from Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories: that there is often "more … than meets the blinking eye" to things (19). Notably, the word "theory" is linked to "theatre," which involves framing some aspect of the world (including human behavior) in order to reflect upon it. In staging something, then, one takes it out of context, allows it to stand apart, spot-lit—or, as I've done above, placed it in scare quotes (Rudd, "Theory").

The etymological roots of the word "war" are also instructive, being linked to terms like "confusion," "quarrel" and, indeed, with "turning" (Latin versus or "vs."). Once again, there is the notion of reexamining something written or said, returning and reframing it in order to...


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