The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

(This is today’s post – a long read touching on criticism, the internet, and also distant reading. There’s a bit of theory, but I hope it’s worth the effort. If you’d like to read other longer posts in this series, here’s the archive of long reads.)

I have a friend who’s researching narrative autobiography, and every now and then, when we’re out, it’s fun to talk about the great self-questioning nature of her research. Of course all postgraduate research is self-questioning and often far too much so. The question of one’s mental health during research is something I’ve covered elsewhere, but I want to talk here about the legitimacy of critique. Or, to be more specific, the legitimacy of critics.

I’m reaching the end point of my research and am working on making it a springboard into something else. This requires talking to a lot of people, and pitching a lot of ideas, but I’m doing it with the realisation that I am a new person now. Research – this period of frantic question, determined typing, and ferocious passion – has changed me. It’s made me more confident (more argumentative, as my family will point out) and it’s led me towards questioning everything in my sector of children’s literature. I am moving into better and greater things but I will do that reflexively. I don’t leave readers behind. You, and the people I work with, the people I share texts with, all of you will come with me for the ride because literacy – power – doesn’t work when it’s in the singular. This is a collective effort, a collective strength, and the ability to question – to realise – to challenge – and to understand – is vital.

This has never been a blog for me, and my children’s books, it’s a blog for us.

Whether you’re a mum, a grandfather, an uncle, a librarian, a teacher, or anything, if you work with children’s literature then I think that process of self-questioning is so important. So furiously, viciously relevant to a world where, as I write, one man with power threatens another man with power with ‘fire and fury’ and the spectre of something hideous looms upon the horizon. What’s the relevance of a bedtime book to that space? Why question what you read – what you do – when the world seems so distant?

Children’s literature is a political space. Always has been, always will be. Whether it’s Sally Nicholls’ Things A Bright Girl Can Do or Noughts and Crosses by Malorie BlackmanNoughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, children’s literature refracts and reflects. I like to turn to Franco Moretti at this point, and his idea of distant reading. Distant reading is a delightfully provocative act,  where instead of obeying the

“theological exercise”

of close reading, you instead apply a computational analysis towards hundreds – thousands of texts. Forgive me another quote so soon, but I do enjoy Moretti. He writes:

“what we really need is a little pact with the devil : we know how to read texts, now let’s learn how not to read them.”

I suspect I’d have to have an argument with him, should I ever meet him, I’d rather love to have that argument. But I’m sliding away from my point and my point is this: if a computer can analyse as well as – if not better – than a human, carrying out close critique, then who am I? Who are you?

The internet legitimizes critique. It is undoubtedly a broad field of critique. Yet the writing of something – the sending of it online – whether that’s through Twitter or through blogging or comments on Facebook, has given a democratization towards that critique. You don’t have to be a participant in old systems, nor possess the privilege to participate in those systems, to partake in criticism. And that is a good thing, the principle of that, because the democratization of voice – of participating in the discourse of us – is something that I will always support. Literary criticism is not – nor should it be – a church.

So let’s turn towards that idea of value. What does it mean when I tell you that a book is good or not? Is it different than Mr Smith down the road telling you about a book, or is it any different than a critic in a newspaper telling you about a book?  How about a sixteen year old? The swiftest answer is yes; I’m no child, nor do I have children. I read books in a different way than a sixteen year old, or Mr Smith or the newspaper critic. But that’s not to say that another other reading is more valid – nor more problematic – but that it is another reading to be considered on its own merits – whether they challenge, perpetuate or deny the wider sense of a movement.

I wonder sometimes if we need to be looking towards librarians at this point and ideas of information literacy. (Naturally we should be looking towards librarians at every point in our lives). Criticism from a sixteen year old is valid, vividly so, as is Mr Smith’s, and the newspaper critic’s and mine, and they are different. They should not be denied. And that’s where the idea of information literacy comes into play; rather than simply telling you that Twitter is a public forum and to think of what a future employer may think, let’s discuss the important of public speech. Let’s discuss copyright implications, let’s discuss ideas of fair use, of legitimate critique, and let’s discuss the importance of the speaker as much as the subject.

I don’t want to teach you how to use Twitter; I want to help you mediate Twitter.

I’m coming towards the end of my research and navigating and negotiating a movement into an area that I never even remotely saw as possible, back when I was doing my A-Levels. Publishing wasn’t an option. It was as distant as the moon, this thing that happened ‘down South’, and it wasn’t anything that I even considered. You don’t try to fly a rocket when you barely know what one looks like. But the internet gave me a voice, and it gives others a voice, and the criticism that that brings is valid. Needed.

Who am I? I’m you; I’m us, and if I can use my voice to share something in the world of children’s literature that deserves being shared, then I will.  So here’s my promise: if you have a book recommendation for me, or a topic that you want covered, then please get in touch. I can’t guarantee a reply to everything received, but I can guarantee that I’ll look at each and every thing that comes through. My mailbox is open. I want to hear your voice.


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