Archive for the ‘opera’ Category

Lerer, Seth.  Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

This book, it seems, has just been named as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle 2008 awards for criticism.  According to its website, the National Book Critics Circle consists of “more than 900 active book reviewers who are interested in honoring quality writing.”  If so, they’ve made a surprising choice with this one.  Lerer’s book is, I think, quite dreadful–very bad scholarship indeed.  As someone who’s devoted some decades to taking children’s literature criticism seriously, reading it made me very, very angry.  To me, honouring it in this way can only suggest a depressing lack of knowledge of the nature and history of children’s literature on the part of these supposedly quality-minded critics.  Let me try to say why without too much ire.

Lerer describes the book as “a reader’s history of children’s literature: a study of the figurations of the reading child from antiquity to the present; but a report as well, on my own life of reading and the critical interpretations that my literary scholarship brings to the texts of childhood”  (1-2).  In other words, the reader whose history is being explored is an amalgam of a generalized “reading child” and one very specific reading scholar.  On the face of it, these readers seem unlikely to have all that much in common.  It’s not surprising that the book sometimes fluctuates erratically between them and sometimes uneasily combines them, so that it’s hard to tell where the child’s reading leaves off and Lerer’s ingenious but highly subjective theorizing begins.

Part of the problem is Lerer’s lack of clarity about just who the child reader he;s concerned with is–what he means by “the figurations of the reading child.”  He claims his book is “a history of reception” (2).  But except for Lerer himself and his own son (once or twice), this so-called history of “the reading child” offers almost no reports of how any actual child readers received or responded to the texts he discusses   Instead, Lerer focuses on describing his readings of texts themselves in terms of what they suggest to him about who their readers were or ought to have been.

Lerer claims that “the study of children’s literature is cultural studies” (9) because it draws on “literary, socio-historical, and economic methods of analysis” (9).  I think that’s true–and certainly much children’s literature criticism of the last few decades has made us all increasingly aware of just how very true it is.  But Lerer’s book offers nothing obviously economic in its methodology and little that a cultural studies scholar would recognize as socio-historical: no ideological analysis of class or race, no ethnographic information. Perhaps most significantly, Lerer never engages in the critique that features centrally in cultural studies–the effort to be aware of what texts might be, for good or more often for ill, inviting readers to take for granted.  Lerer describes how various texts confirm what I take to be gender stereotypes without any apparent awareness of them being stereotypes–as if they were true, as if all girls or all boys shared gender-specfic characteristics.  He also speaks of early Greek readers as generalized “children” without seeming to notice they are all male–indeed, never comments on the fact that the intended child readers of all the texts he discusses across thousands of years of history were exclusively male; and when books for girls do start to exist, he isolates them in the ghetto of a separate chapter, safely away from the history of books for “children.”  Furthermore, he describes ancient Greek children as in the care of slaves in a way that blots out the possibility that some children back then might actually have been slaves, or had slaves for parents.

This is not to say that Lerer avoids comment on how texts relate to their time and culture.  “Modern children’s literature remains an Edwardian phenomenon” (253), he asserts in a typical comment, and he claims that twentieth century American children’s literature is “nothing less than a literature of winners” (274).  But he offers very little in the way of historical or ethnographic evidence to support these astonishing conclusions.  He just puts them out there as and then acts from that point on as if they were true.

The book is filled with similarly vast, similarly unsupported generalizations.  “Slavery is central to the history of children’s literature,” (19) Lerer claims without evidence–and then doesn’t refer to the idea again.  Or again, “All children’s literature recalls an unrecoverable past, a lost age before adulthood.” (83-4).  All?   Every single bit of it?  And if it always does that, does it do it for child readers, too, and if so, what age earlier than childhood are they recalling?  Or again, “The job of children’s literature is to make sense of things” (107).  So much for nonsense verse.

Childhood, meanwhile, is as generalizable as its literature iis for Lerer.  It “is a time of exploration, an arena of adventure.  Every shipping box becomes a canoe or a spaceship” (150).  So third-world youngsters who actually live in shipping boxes and have never encountered a canoe in life or in books don’t count as real children?  Or again, “Nothing delights a child so much as tools.  But nothing delights a boy so much as new words for those tools” (154).  So much for boys like I once was who can take tools or, preferably, leave them, along with their high-falutin’ names.  Meanwhile, Montgomery’s character Anne of Green Gables is “a lesson in the ways a pictorial and dramatic imagination shapes the lives of female children” (236)–all female children always, apparently.  Lerer is surprisingly assured that children are unaffected by history and culture, alike in all times and places, and that boys and girls are inherently quite different from each other in ways that never change across time.

These surely incorrect assumptions seem to underlie Lerer’s decisions about what texts to discuss.  To begin with, he has a very generous sense of what counts as children’s literature.  In early chapters about Greece, Rome, and the middle ages, periods in which, as far as we now know, no literature specifically identified as being intended for children actually existed, he assumes that texts with qualities like those found after children’s literature did come into existence must be children’s literature also–an assumption necessarily based on the ongoing similarity of children and adult ideas about childhood across history.  For instance, he claims just about any didactic text as a text for children, presumably because people in need of learning things must have been young, an assumption the history I’m aware of (and indeed, the people I now know) don’t support.  He also asserts that the medieval play Mankind must have been intended for a young audience because its imagery “fills the play with what could only be an adolescent’s imagination” (67)–as if older people didn’t sometimes like testicle jokes also.

On the other hand, Lerer’s focus narrows sharply as he describes the eras when writing specifically intended for children does come onto existence.   While he claims that one of his goals “is to realign what has become a largely Anglophone focus for children’s literary study” (9), he discusses few texts in languages other than English and never discusses texts written anywhere outside of Europe or America, nor even many European texts beyond British ones. Furthermore, his children’s literature includes none of the didactic texts by writers like Edgeworth and Barbauld that figured prominently in the early nineteenth century; none of huge outpouring of religion-oriented texts in the Victorian period and after; no Nancy Drew or Hardy boys, no Babysitters Club or Goosebumps, indeed, none of the many series books that have characterized popular writing for children in our own century; no science fiction or teen romance; no comic books or Golden Books or Disney books and only a few very picture books; no books for babies or informational books for children of any age; none of the late twentieth century outpouring of books by and about African or Hispanic Americans, no books “for young adults” in general.  There is also no mention of a long list of important children’s writers, from Edgeworth through Charlotte Yonge, Mrs. Molesworth and George MacDonald to Beverley Cleary, Wanda Gag, Philippa Pearce, E.L. Konigsburg, William Mayne, Robert Cormier, Alan Garner, Virginia Hamilton, and R.L. Stine.

What Lerer actually does focus his attention on are well-known texts that might be found in the homes of literary-minded parents without much scholarly expertise in children’s literature.  While these books are certainly varied, they tend to be more like each other than like the kinds of undiscussed books I’ve listed above–and perhaps they are so because they accord in various ways with the tastes of contemporary literary-minded parents, something that might not be true of a text by Maria Edgeworth or R.L. Stine.  The focus on them seems to allow Lerer his many generalizations in a way that a wider and more accurate history wouldn’t.

That Lerer’s history of children’s literature is mostly a history of the books he and many other non-specialists already know and like would be acceptable if Lerer weren’t so intent on making such vast generalizations based on such a narrow range of texts, or so focussed on making the generalizations evidence of his own ingenuity.  At one point, he frets that it’s hard to come up with “something new” (192) to say about Carroll’s Alice books–as if engendering clever new ideas, true or not, were the point of doing literary research.  Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that while he points readers to a range of scholarly studies of children’s literature in his endnotes, he often describes them inaccurately there, and rarely if ever actually refers to them in his discussions of the relevant topics.  If he actually did read all these books, he certainly didn’t let them affect his thinking very much.  He’s alweays seems to be far more interested in his own clever insights than he is in the context of existing scholarship and research.

Towards the end of the book, Lerer refers to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit in order to announce the typically overconfident generalization that “the boys of much contemporary literature are artists of the game” (315).  Lerer goes on to enthuse about the “a vertiginous quality of bullshit, a thrill that the bullshitter gets of making up the details, forming a persona, raising expectations,” and he includes himself among the boys who indulge in it: “we can feel almost an ecstasy in our own imagination” (316).  In the light of this book’s wild theorizing woven out of a surprisingly limited number of texts and verifiable facts, I have to conclude that Lerer found putting it together to be a thrilling experience.  Readers in search of usefully accurate knowledge of children’s literature aren’t likely to share his ecstasy.

The most depressing thing for me is that the singling out of a book like this for special recognition by a reputable national American organization seems somehow unsurprising.  Contemporary readers–the ones who accept the truth of made-up memoirs because they tell them things the like to hear–might well prefer easy generalizations to a more carefully researched conclusion based in a more exact and less incomplete knowledge of the material.

I seem to be turning into a typical grumpy old codger scandalized by what the world’s coming to nowdays, with all these dumb young punks in charge.  I’d better stop right now.


Having gone to the Cineplex last Saturday to see John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic “live” from the Met, I find myself thinking about it in terms of this alternating narratives project.  What struck me was that, while much of the music is evocative and interesting, there really isn’t much else very involving going on in what we saw on screen.  Part of the problem was simply not being at the Met–not just not being there, but not being there and therefore in the hands of a camera crew with strange ideas.  Perhaps on the theory that, being on screen, it should look as much like a movie as possible, everything was shot as close up as possible, so that the audience developed an intimate knowledge of the singer’s nostrils and sweat.  That quickly ruined the illusion of authenticity, at least in terms of believing in the characters as opposed to being aware of an on-stage experience–and so it was hard to feel empathy for the characters.  The fetishistic dwelling on faces also tended to undermine the kind of experience I most enjoy opera for providing–the interactions between the performers, between the performers and the set, between the singers and the orchestra, between the words and the music, etc., etc.  It’s an experience of semiotic intermingling and undermining, an ongoing set of complex and entertainingly crosscutting interactions.  But when you’re looking down someone’s throat at their uvula wiggling, you tend to miss the relationships between the words being sung and the other actions going on onstage, the shifts in the setting, etc., etc.  It was like staring obsessively at one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle without being able to develop much sense of its part in a larger whole.

But all that might have mattered less in a different opera. Here, though, the composer John Adams and the liberettist Peter Sellars had already constructed an experience that seemed to be deliberately striving for a lack of audience involvement.  The libretto is made up of bits and pieces of other texts–some from interviews and diaries, etc., of the actual people involved in the atomic bomb project, some poems and prose passages by John Donne, Muriel Rukeyser, Baudelaire and others, and sections of the Bhagavad Gita and a traditional Tewa song.  As the singers move from one such fragment to another, one character’s thoughts or feelings to another’s expressed in terms of a different text originally written by a different person, there is little in the way of actual dialogue or interaction between the characters, then–the piece is set up as a series of alternating narratives, which is why I’m exploring my response to it here.

In a scene in the first act, Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, expresses her feeling’s about her husband’s absorption in his work by singing words a poem by Rukeyser:

Am I in your light?
No, go on reading
(the hackneyed light of evening quarrelling with the bulbs;
the book’s bent rectangle solid on your knees)
only my fingers in your hair, only, my eyes
splitting the skull to tickle your brain with love
in a slow caress blurring the mind,
kissing your mouth awake
opening the body’s mouth stopping the words.

.  As the composer Mark Adamo suggests in his blog entry on Dr. Atomic, “in this bedroom scene . . . Kitty Oppenheimer sings language from Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Three Sides of a Coin,” which describes the very scene we’re seeing: a wife trying to distract her husband as he reads.  Puzzlingly, though, the character narrates herself: she tells us what she’s doing even as she’s doing it.”  So there’s a distance created, a character explaining herself at one remove from herself; and then Oppenheimer responds in words by Baudelaire to describe his own state of mind:

If you could know all that I see!
all that I feel!
all that I hear in your hair!
My soul floats upon perfumes
as the souls of other men
float upon music.

It’s as if we know what each of these characters is thinking (albeit expressed through the filter of other people’s heightened language), but have little sense of what their actual dialogue or interaction consists of.  It’s two solitudes lightly and gingerly touching, two particles that remain in their separate spheres and barely interact if they interact at all.

That makes me wonder about the effect of alternating narratives in fiction.  I’m often aware of how they distance readers from characters.  You can’t, at the same time or in sequence, really identify equally with two different characters whose stories and thoughts cut across each other, and there’s a tendency to invite readers to stand back from both characters whose narrative alternate, to see what can be learned from one narrative about the truth of the other character’s perceptions, etc.  And as in Doctor Atomic, the sense of a conversation is apparent to the audience only: for it seems that Oppeneimer doesn’t know the Rukeyserian thoughts of Kitty, nor Kitty much of the Baudelairian thoughts of Oppenheimer.  A perception of how the fragments fit together–how a pattern emerges from all the isolated bits and people (and, I guess, atoms), is possible only for an audience observing outside the events of the story.

And yet–it seems to me that proficient storytellers are aware of that distancing quality when they make use of this sort of story construction, and work hard to combat it. They organize the alternations and their contents in a way that itself creates suspense,and invites emotional involvement, encourages understanding of the effects of each character’s actions on others even when the characters themselves are unaware ofr all that.  I sensed little of that in Doctor Atomic, which seems to want to keep all its characters isolated in their own concerns (and in terms of the set, inside their own little boxes) until the climactic explosion at the end.   (And if the bomb is the only image of mingling, then isolation and lack of involvement does somehow end up seeming superior, safer.)  Throughout, nobody actually does anything to anybody, or even says anything to anybody.  There is, in a literal sense, no plot–no series of interactions that develops into anything.  It’s a drama without drama.  So it’s effective, this opera, but its effectiveness has a kind of glacial, unmoving quality–a quality I actually sense in few of the novels with alternating narratives I’ve been exploring.

One sidenote, since I’ve been thinking so much lately about depictions of Native Americans in alternating narratives for young people, I have to record my dismay at the way Doctor Atomic engages the Tewa material it makes use of.   In a plot that works for an opposition between the organic ordering of the unviverse and the interfering meddling of scientists, the introduction of the Tewa  seems to demand an identfication of this Native American group with Mother Earth (and healing and wholeness and sanity)–and the maid who sings the Tewa song repeatedly throughout Act II has the kind of stance and subtance that inevitably imply that Mother-Earthiness.  As Adamo rightly says, “If this is characterization, what on earth is stereotype?”  Yet once more, the aborginal is what science and progress and civilization moves against or in ignorance of–and even if you want to suggest that science might be at fault, it’s still an insulting kind of unconscious identification of an actual people with what is being perceived as negatively or positively uncivilzed, less human, somehow–more “natural.”  All that gets exacerbated by a line of extras in Act II standing stolidly and solidly above the action, dressed up in horns and apparently aborginal costumes in the background of what is happening to real people below–the aboriginal made inhuman and symbolic and outside of but suposedly above things and, I have to add, very silly.  All this suggests a surprising insensitivity to issues of race and cultural appropriation in opera that goes back at least as far as Aida and Madame Butterfly and Turandot, and still seems, here, at least, surprisingly unchanged now–the exoticism of the othered still being made use of in the saqme old cheesily operatic way.  And much as it is used in so many novels for young people also.