Peter Hunt and David Rudd: A Masterclass

by Clementine

Our friends at the Roehampton University’s National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature organised this talk the other day:

unfortunately, nothing in the rest of this blogpost will be as awesome as that

David Rudd versus Peter Hunt: forget the Superbowl and the Olympics! The two scholars began by introducing their new books:

David Rudd’s Reading the Child in Children’s Literature: An Heretical Approach is a decidedly polemical, theoretically ambitious work which tries to get a fresh look at children’s literature criticism and theory. Rudd explained he was tired of works that ‘apply’ theories to children’s texts, and therefore always find what they’re looking for: ‘If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’. In his new book, Rudd turns to the ‘heresy’ of the Lacanian framework.

(By then Peter Hunt gracefully chirped in that it was a ‘fabulous book’)

Peter Hunt’s latest book, co-written with Dennis Butt, is cheerfully entitled How Did Long John Silver Lose His Leg? and explores ‘mysteries’ of children’s literature – or rather, what happens in the gaps and interstices of classic children’s texts. Would Bobbie really have managed to stop the train, or would she have been turned into puree? Hunt noted that this book was ‘on the other hand of the spectrum’ from Rudd’s.

(but Rudd, ever the gentleman, hastened to say that Hunt’s book was equally fabulous).

Then the floor was opened to questions, and since the audience was made up mostly of MAs and undergraduates in children’s literature, Rudd and Hunt were spared having to say what their favourite children’s books were. In fact, all the questions were deep, insightful and elicited sophisticated replies from the ‘two heavyweights’:

First Question: Thirty years after Jacqueline Rose, the debate is still heated: is it ‘possible’ to do children’s literature theory? 

David Rudd critiqued Rose’s view; by elevating the child to a special status within the text, she reinstated, he said, the Romantic child ‘throught the back door’. In fact, children’s literature is no more or less ‘impossible’ than any other human endeavour, because everything is textualised: there is nothing special about the child in language.

Peter Hunt nuanced Rose and Karin Lesnik-Oberstein’s views that children’s literature critics only write with specific groups of children in mind. In chidren’s literature criticism, Hunt said, most critics are in fact very aware of the difficulties which surround the concept of the child.

David Rudd added that the debate is only ‘heated’ because children’s literature criticism is such a small world; the same split exists in ‘adult’ literature criticism, but there the split also means that there are different journals, different conferences, etc – people just don’t talk to one another as much.

Peter Hunt stated, finally, that if we study chbooks we are some way towards engaging with concepts of childhood; and we absolutely have to deal with that.

Second question: There’s the constructed child, and then the constructive child; is there a place for that in David Rudd’s Lacanian framework, and beyond? 
David Rudd argued that there very much is. We don’t just belong to the realm of the symbolic – there’s always an excess (the Real), something which overflows. This is where constructiveness can take place. He critiqued the divide between fantasy and reality traditionally used in children’s literature criticism: fantasy is always another facet of reality. He also highlighted the endless constructiveness of language: malapropisms, slips of tongue allow for unexpected excesses to occur.
Peter Hunt thinks constructiveness can come from a shift from theoretical polarisation (male/female, adult/child, etc.) to a more fuzzy logic, more blurred boundaries.
Third Question: Which recent publication strike you as particularly different or innovative?
David Rudd began by saying what he didn’t think was particularly useful: cognitive theory, which attempts to ground what the child is really like. But he was very positive about children’s literature criticism breaking new boundaries – cross-disciplinarity is always useful. He also noted that ‘adult’ literature critics are increasingly turning to children’s literature studies and finding that there is some solid research being done. Finally, eighteenth century studies is also on the rise – there are texts, he says, with very interesting things to say, and which are not ‘just didactic’, and researchers are starting to recognise that.
Peter Hunt thinks that the social history of childhood and the analysis of childhood in culture is on the increase. Overall, he says, this is the ideal time to be starting a career in children’s literature criticism. The next 10 to 15 years will ‘revolutionise’ the field.
Fourth Question: How about empirical research? Where does that sit?
David Rudd was keen to assert himself as ‘an empirical researcher at heart’: for his works on Roald Dahl & Enid Blyton, he interviewed readers. He thinks empirical research is on the ‘constructive’ side of research – we need to hear the voices of children. He believes there’s still too little empirical research being done. But he warned against the other extreme: the Romantic idea that whatever the child says is the truth.
Peter Hunt agreed: it’s important to allow children to have a voice in the conversation, and it’s good for us to be confronted with the alternative, unexpected readings of the children. The fact that the child isn’t skilled in the same way as the adult doesn’t matter: it is worth hearing. He called such studies ‘refreshing’, and finished by saying that we’re lucky: a lot of literary communities don’t have that kind of research at all.
That was the end of the ‘match’, and I’m not sure a winner was actually picked – but it had been an extremely enjoyable and interesting hour, and I hope I’ve done it some justice by summarising it here.
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