Big Fish Little Fish

Bruce is an activist and public intellectual who believes fish are not people, but friends. While his work has primarily focused on interpiscis kinship and ethical comestion, he has also been engaged with the field of children’s literature, media and culture for well over a decade. In an environment increasingly characterised by precarity, he has decided to share his thoughts on academic etiquette and the health of our ecosystem.  

I am worried about the pond of children’s literature research. Not perhaps in the way I worry about Brexit, or rising sea levels, but worried nevertheless. I have an overwhelming memory of when I first entered the pond and was told – on many occasions – what a uniquely friendly discipline it was. I found such assurances particularly comforting – we might all do well to reflect on what it is like to start out in the river of academia and how reassuring it is to believe that the waters are hospitable. And indeed, I met many generous, astute, supportive, judicious and empathetic big fish in my tadpole days, each of whom has been instrumental in teaching me how to swim, and to whom I couldn’t be more grateful. Yet it would be inaccurate to suggest that our pond is comprised only of the well meaning and courteous, when anyone familiar with the water has encountered various creatures of the deep – more fang than fish – lurking in its murkier regions. There are, whatever the pond might like us to believe, piranhas about in this apparently tranquil watering hole. And I fear they may be breeding.

It doesn’t take a great deal of critical reflection to determine why there might be something bubbling in the sludge. It is tricky for a pond that seriously engages with bears called Paddington and Tigers who come to tea to also position itself as aloof and acerbic. Like an inverse oxbow lake – not so much cut off from the free flowing river of academic elitism but instead trying to work up the energies required to burst the banks and join it – children’s literature research both seeks its own route (claiming a space as the friendliest, most inclusive discipline) while attempting (at its margins) to turn to some of the more churlish and uncomfortable traditions of the wider academy in a quest for inclusion. ‘Honestly, we are clever grown-up fish, too!’, the field cries, without a trace of irony. In my experience, the result is that the pond of children’s literature research – whilst filled with many delightful, helpful and highly knowledgeable fish – also engages in more unpleasant, snide backbiting and personal, uncritical reviews from the margins than many of the other, more ‘established’, disciplines that I also have a fin in.

The stonefish is one of the most dangerously venomous and is also one of the very best at camouflage – you can’t always see it until it is too late. As children’s literature scholars we might be more familiar with the wolf in grandmother’s clothes, but the point is the same: it is possible to be taken by surprise by this strange doubleness. Which brings me to a recent blog post on this site by Perry Nodelman (a very distinguished big fish, of course) and some thoughts on academic etiquette and memory. (I realise that fish are thought to have short memories, but that theory has been largely debunked.)

Nodelman’s post is a mostly negative critique of a conference hosted at the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge. I should note here an obvious but nevertheless essential point: I am all for rigorous criticism. The ability to critique and question, in an informed, constructive and applied manner, is the foundation of all that we do as scholars. But Nodelman’s post instead partakes in exactly the sort of doubleness I’m referring to. There is plenty of overt friendliness to it, but overall it is a parting tail swipe to the event, delivered in a manner that has little to do with constructive debate or helping little fish (surely the dual purpose of a conference?). Here is a big fish – a keynote fish, no less – telling lots of other fish that they haven’t yet learnt to swim as well. And while this particular conference-shaped pond certainly contained plenty of other seasoned big fish used to shaking off such patriarchal ‘my scales are bigger and shinier than your scales’ pufferfishing as – to use Nodelman’s own terms – ‘same old, same old’, this event was also a forum for more junior fish to try out their ideas in this famously friendly pond, many of whom were left wondering what they did wrong after reading this post. Let us also not forget another well known point about conferences – they might be hosted by the big fish and include keynotes from big fish, but it is the small, graduate fish who do much of the necessary swimming to make them happen.

While Nodelman is graciously able to find some elements of the conference mildly thought-provoking, everything from the call for papers through to the imbalanced use of academic jargon (too much materiality, not enough multimodality, it seems) is criticised. Overall, his primary objection is that the event failed to surprise him, or rather surprised him only in that it failed to do so. If we are willing to ignore the potential etiquette issues around bottling a note for your hosts telling them you disliked their pool only after having a good swim, such an observation could actually make for a very useful space from which to open up interesting debates. But the place for that, of course, was the conference itself. Surely the role of the keynote – the platform for the big fish – is to set the agenda, to bring the debates to the table, to speak to the developments, challenges, transformations, problems and excitements of the pool in which one has been making waves for thirty years? This, I would venture, is what we need, want, and deserve from our big fish – not rebukes from the golden sands that fail to address the responsibilities as well as the rewards of no longer being a minnow. As keynote, Nodelman had the perfect space to interrogate why the field of picturebook research matters now, but instead he used the platform to dive into … well … fish. Fish ostensibly (and I use that word deliberately) as seen through the lens of posthumanism. (I can understand the desire to put a toe in those waters – I know of at least one book on children’s literature and the posthuman that uses the word fish seventeen times in the first five pages). Surprising though that topic might be – and the organising committee were surprised given the focus of the conference – I’m not sure it provided the antidote to what Nodelman found lacking elsewhere in the event. What is more, one cannot fail to take exception to claims that the conference was beleaguered by ‘quite a lot of the same old same old’, when the keynote paper had itself already been delivered, also as a keynote, at another event a week earlier. No fish seeking clear waters can be let off the hook for that: I can see the temptation to recycle (and we all know that recycling helps save oceans), but not while criticising a conference for its lack of surprise and reliance on same old same old.

There is a picturebook by Alan Durant and Ant Parker called Big Fish Little Fish, which no doubt Perry Nodelman knows well. I’m not especially fond of didactic stories of this type, but it might usefully remind us about ponds, streams, rivers and oceans. I respect the work of our big fish, especially Nodelman’s, and do agree with one point from his post – this pond does encourage timidity and conservatism. We are not in a small pond anymore – it is a sizable river full of talented, sharp-minded, capable and – hopefully – respectful smaller fish. I personally very much look forward to seeing what they can do in open water.


Signed, Bruce


Wondering what Bruce is referring to? Check out Perry Nodelman’s earlier post on our blog here

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