Invisible Genres

This week’s blog is brought to us by MPhil student Maartje Geussens, who has been teaching English for five years, and as a Children’s Literature researcher her interests lie with themes of agency, moral development and participatory readership.

There are two things people say when you tell them about your MPhil in Children’s Literature. The first one is, ‘What age range is that?’ and although they usually mean, does it include young adult literature, you can say, Aha, yes, well, that is the big question! What is a child! When does childhood end! Is a young adult a child or not! Is having been a child enough of a qualification to allow me to make such decisions! And everyone can have a great time discussing these existential questions.

The other remark is ‘Oh. I didn’t know that was a degree,’ which often implies the question, ‘Why on earth is that a degree?’ And on my best days of this MPhil, I’ve had the same feeling. I get to sit around discussing the film adaptation of The Hunger Games with some of the most lovely and intelligent people I’ve met – and it’s work? I share a house with three scientists, one of whom is literally curing cancer, and I get to write 6,000 words about the time I met a five-year-old and she read me a story? At times I could break out into ‘Something Good’ from The Sound of Music, because (appropriately) somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something to earn this indulgence.

But then I think it is also necessary work, precisely because it doesn’t seem so. Playground rhymes, teen romances, picturebooks, fairy tales: they could be a list of things the wider world considers worse than frivolous. At least when something’s frivolous, you can get angry and write a lengthy article about why other people shouldn’t spend their money on it. But playground rhymes don’t generate money. Small children need to read something until they move on to War and Peace, and you can use pictures to trick them into it, so there’s not much you can say about that. It’s necessary; it’s harmless. These genres become sort of invisible, and we have to wait until they intersect with something that isn’t frivolous: when a picturebook is racist, or a teen romance is misogynist. Then, finally, there are newspaper thinkpieces, and energetic exchanges on Facebook comments. Those are valid discussions, and we should have them, but they restrict an entire field of exploration to its worst case scenarios.

To me, allowing these invisible genres to stand on their own, as artistic achievements, is the wardrobe to Narnia. If you can study picturebooks, then what can’t you discuss with the thoughtfulness, rigor and close analysis of a scholar? The craft a parent puts into creating reading materials for their children, centuries ago. The Twitter marketing of a brand-new young adult fantasy. The clothes children wear, and who makes them, and how they feel about them. Other people have outlined why the field of children’s literature is important and relevant, much better than I could in a blog post, but to me personally, its greatest delight is that it allows you – requires you – to think about anything and everything, especially if other fields don’t think is important.

So, for my Master’s thesis, I’m studying literary representations of – well, among other things, but mainly – fanfiction, which is a phenomenon that even in our class discussions we have had to put aside because it so entirely changes everything we have come to accept as true in the field. Kimberley Reynolds says it almost ominously, in Radical Children’s Literature: ‘‘Children’s literature’ may indeed come to refer to writing by the young for the young, meaning that the work produced for adults by children will have to be relabeled’ (2007, p.180). Moreover, it’s another one of those invisible genres. You never notice anyone read it, because it’s not printed and it has no cover. It doesn’t make any money, although producers and developers are trying their hardest. It doesn’t win any literary prizes. It doesn’t influence what happens in an actual book or tv show. And it all takes place in the margins: between the book releases, after school, in the imagination, in the subtext, in secret, between friends – and then it’s put out there, on the internet, for everyone to see. The invisible is always becoming visible.

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