I want a book you can eat…

I’m planning the next stage of my research. It’s such an odd thought process to be having and yet, even now as I wade through a chapter and slice and dice it to smithereens, I know there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. I love this world and so, when you love something, you turn to ways to make it continue and I want to continue asking questions. I want to continue interrogating narratives and readerly experiences and the construction of a text.

I’m starting to suspect that there’s a next step in children’s literature and it will come with an active embrace of technology. Not solely in the form of e-books, per se, but rather an embrace of the divergent and transgressive potential of technology. Technology allows difference and enables the content to dictate the form. Think about it; we have been wed to the book for a long time. The shape of a book, the manuscript bound in a cover, the linear text, the beginning, the end. We recognise books, we know them.

So what happens when we don’t? There’s a phase, clearly, where we don’t know what books are or how to handle them. Much of this happens at an incredibly young age, and it’s only through developing literacies that we learn how to handle the book. To know it. To know that you don’t eat it, you don’t wear it as a hat, that it’s not something that floats (happily) in the sea…

I think it’s this phase that excites me, because even now I can see a different form of literacy evolving in the children that I know and that I work with. The literacy of video games. The literacy of interactivity. The literacy that comes with an internet of things; of action, reaction, of dialogue.And of course books have this; everything is intertextual, there’s only seven stories in the world … but they don’t. The book form is closed and open at the same time; a code that is able to read once you have the skills to read it, but if you don’t, then you’re excluded. I can read a book in English and I can read it in Latin even though I can’t read Latin in the slightest. I know the form. (Lazy, isn’t it, but that’s the code. We can cheat and understand the symbols and the structure of the code, but not the content. We can read when we don’t read and read when we can). Knowing the form and

I rather want to interrupt the form.

I want to build books that exist at intersections; that talk both to the book as object, but also the book as experience. As livable, lickable experience.

I want to build a book that you can eat. 

Manifest/ext

A treatise for the treatment of the word in a contemporary space.

  1. Text + Manifestation = Manifesto. No printed word is inescapeable of intent.
  2. To read is to engage, but the construction of meaning from that engagement, is indeterminate, multitudinous and unpredictable.
  3. Space is text and text is space, and life is reading.
  4. Books are read both of themselves but of the spaces they occupy in life. Thus, when read, a book is the sum of itself and the sum of everything around it.
  5. To read is to be free; reading shall be begun, abandoned, loathed, loved as the reader demands it.
  6. To read is to perform a version of a text; to enact it, conceptually, is to perform that version. Thus every reader is both destructive and creative in equal manner.
  7. The book shall not exist in a state of opposition to other methods of reading, but rather in a space of systematic dialogue with those other methods. The method shall be understood as a frame; the text as text.
  8. The text exists as an object with its own spatial concerns and implications; ink on the page shall be understood not solely for its own semiotic import, but also as an object within a wider cultural and critical discourse.
  9. To read is to formulate a response to a text; to formulate a response to a text is to read. The response shall be valued, understood, welcomed.
  10. The reader shall have the freedom to read, and that freedom shall be actively sought for and maintained.

Language is language is language (Cat cat cat.)

Cat

For you, the image is distinct, personal. It references the cat at your feet, that cat that yowls when you don’t feed it on time, the cat that is never going to come into your house because you can’t stand the thing. Cat. Cat with capital letters and self-importance. A fulsome cat, a rotund cat. The minister’s cat is an important cat.

cat

Lowercase. Connected. Sequentuial. Unbound by punctuation on either side, the isolation of emphasis coupled with the implication of otherness – this cat is part of something bigger. A before, an after. A yet to come and an already been. cat, though, cat that’s part of the world and leaning towards connections to be made. the cat of connections to be made to be found – and the unknowingness. The unknowing of what these will be, the conundrum that they are already there.

cat.

Feel the emphasis of that full stop, that precise ending, that definitive edge to the word. Cat. Edged by boxes, aware of frame, pushed up against unmalleable boundaries, definite, defiant space. cat. cat of tightness of darkness, of spaces where it shouldn’t be and then is but isn’t and yet, can’t be anywhere else. cat of hemmed in, cat of conscious thought, cat of final movement, cat of endings, cat of knowingness, cat of finality, cat done, cat ended, cat over, cat.

Cat

Language is language is language. It shifts, flightily, fulsomely, depending on the context of it. We fear, sometimes, the story of words and we seek to dress them up, to find conjunctions and connections, to create elaborate story and dressed up text, to find something beyond the word that we think should be there and yet, when we stop, when we pause, when we hold ourselves away from that connection, from that urge to complete and finish the pattern –

cat

language loves pattern, we seek it. Rhythm. We hear it, feel it, need it. We have routine in the world, we seek for it. The comfort of a structure that we recognise, that we know. A sentence is a sentence. A sentence is always a sentence. A always sentence is a. It myte mayke no sens or be sdfjsdfslfkj sandle thsoe but that dusnt matter becoz we no how to reed it. We find the elements we know, the elements we recognise and we cling to them. We scaffold ourselves to them and we build a world around it. We communicate. We cling. We live. These are the patterning of ourselves, the programming of the semantic systems we live in. The language, the codes. The systemic impulse to communicate, to participate, to be. Language is language is language.

cat.

On networking

I have a busy few days coming up in that odd sort of way that research does (or at least, mine does). I can work comfortably for weeks and then, suddenly, everything hits and I am skimming from lecture to appointment to meeting like a pebble flying over the surface of a pond.

A lot of these events, both within academia and the wider world, offer the opportunity for drinks and networking activities afterwards.I twitch, slightly, when I see the word networking. It makes me uneasy in that sort of ornery British way where I refuse to do anything when it’s scheduled on a timetable (“7-8pm : have fun!”) and instead skulk in a corner and watch the clock go backwards. Conscious Networking makes me uncomfortable.

Yet, even as I say that, I know that I rather love it. I love hearing about what people do (people are amazing, do you know that? you, you reading this, you’re brilliant). I suspect much of my problem with networking stems with this scheduling of it, this urge to Make Contacts, to Network With Nibbles and to do Things With Mercenary Capital Letters.

( I have not yet figured out how to handle business cards. I will stare at you with mild concern if you invite me to connect on LinkedIn and we’ve never met.)

(Sidebar: teach me the point of LinkedIn, though, and we can be best friends forever)

Connections come when you least expect them. They come when you step outside of your safety zone, when you visit somebody else’s office and say hi, or fire off an email and say can we have a chat sometime, or when somebody offers you a lift home after a winter’s talk. The #academickindness thread on Twitter is replete with such heartwarming detail and it’s these stories, I think, that defy this instinct to Network. It’s still networking, it’s still connecting with people, it’s still touching worlds other than your own, but it is done in the space of being people. Of people who are all terrified, in their own way, of the drinks reception and of being by themselves in a corner. It’s so easy to see the surface, but underneath? Ducks paddling, we’re all ducks.

And sometimes, to say hello and talk about the weather may be the smallest of things, but it is also the greatest.

Just don’t call it networking.

The Books That Made Britain : from the perfect to the egret

I caught up on  The Books That Made Britain yesterday, a series of BBC documentaries exploring the local impact of books set across the United Kingdom. There’s eleven episodes set in areas as diverse as the Cornish coast through to London, Birmingham and the North East, and they all last 30 minutes each.

An odd, interesting series this due to the differing nature of each programme within the series; some were good, some were brilliant, and some were spectacularly awful. I rail at presenters who ask their interviewer whether a book is a typical women’s book (and I will give the freedom of the land to the interviewee who responds by challenging the framing of such an outmoded sentiment). I was borderline hysterical when the Chris Packham episode, which explored the Cornish coast and seemed to embrace active conjecture in doing so, introduced us to “little egrets [which] would have been a bird that [Kenneth] Grahame would have been very, very unlikely to see.”

Gemma Cairney’s episode on Bristol was an articulate, thoughtful piece that I’d well recommend watching. It involved some nuanced thinking, both from Cairney and the contributors who included the estimable Melvin Burgess and Philippa Gregory. John Wedgewood Clarke’s look at the Yorkshire coast promised a little more than it delivered for me. I’d have welcomed this episode to have stepped away from the obvious Dracula narrative, but I did rather love the segue into the local archives for evidence of Stoker’s trip to Whitby. Evidence! So often lacking in these explorations into conjecture and circumstance! More of it please!

 

(Though some of the historical footage was a delight! I will never tire of looking at images of historic seaside towns)

 

Disrupting narrative; challenging the embedded stories of place

I heard about a really interesting project at an event I attended recently. The speaker, Steve Toase, talked about the ‘Haunt’ project which was based in Harrogate. They had worked with homeless people within Harrogate in order to develop writing and performance to challenge the stories of the town itself. Toase spoke about how Harrogate had a narrative of healing, what with its history as a spa town, and how the homeless individuals within the town were excluded from that narrative. The performance element of the Haunt project saw a tour of the town undercut by performances of ‘disruption’; the group may be listening to one individual speak, whilst in the background somebody may be being thrown out of their house or picking up their belongings off the floor. The project also involved a compiled book of writings which was deliberately designed with a historic font previously used in the town, and also as a ‘pocket sized’ publication.

I was both intrigued and moved by Haunt, and the way it attempted to disrupt the narrative of the town. This has coalesced with a lot of the thoughts I’ve been having recently with regards to my own research and the idea of ‘hotspots’ in particular. The literary equivalent of a Hellmouth if you will. The more I map and write about located literature, the more I start to realise that it’s all connected. The maps themselves feel like vocalisations of a sub-narrative of space.

Take Fitzbillies in Cambridge for example. It’s a cafe that features in two of the Cambridge set books I’ve worked with: House of Windows by Alexia Casale and Murder and Mistletoe by Robin Stevens. Books set in totally different time periods but books which engage in a dialogue of space. HoW talks to MaM. It does. It can’t not. And between the two I begin to construct an idea of the Fitzbillies space, an idea constructed near wholly by the fictional dialogue created by these novels. Cake. Buns. Sanctuary. Friends. Warmth. Totemic space. Important space. Landmark space.

This is what I mean by a sub-narrative; we construct space through our readerly interactions with novels set there, but that is a limited and removed perspective. One that we filter through the author, through the text and ourselves. And yet, it’s still there. It exists. This sub-narrative. This disruptive conceptualisation of space. This unruly imagination of ours. This transgressive, wild thought. This otherness. 

I want to write a guidebook to Other England, I think, to the known and unknown worlds that jostle and call for attention. The platform that leads to elsewhere. The train that leads to beyond.

I think I want to explore this further.

On working with popular fiction : a question of canon

It makes me protective. Defensive, sometimes. Is that a strange thing to say? Can one be protective of somebody else’s work?

I think one can. I think one can be protective of it but also resent the absence of it from critical work. Think about Enid Blyton for example. I suspect, rightly, that your impression will be coloured by several of the quite public debates that have happened over her work in the past few years. The appropriateness of her register. The quality of her work. The suitability of her work. Quite often, work around Enid Blyton often focuses on that key term around. To investigate Blyton is to investigate cultural semiotics, and the appropriation of an author. To investigate Blyton is to investigate the discourse around Blyton and ever so rarely, the texts themselves.

I’m not arguing that we discount that discourse; I am, however, asking whether there’s a space in that for the text? For research that focuses on the quality and relevance of the text at textual level, as opposed to situating it within a cultural discourse and frame of a very particular context?

I suspect, sometimes, this is a false construct to make. Can one absent the text from its paratextual elements? Is an ‘a’ always an ‘a’ wherever it is writ? Is it the same ‘a’ or different? Of course, it’s different; every letter bears the weight of context upon it, and construction when formed into words. Every mark, every line has construction and intent upon it. Meaning. Significance. Context. 

But I yearn for this distinction; I yearn to separate my texts from the discourses around them and, in the case of many, to forcefully place them within a discourse. The relevance of these writers. Their popular appeal. The fact that they were the literary equivalent to Zoella et. al. The fact that popular fiction was, is, and should be considered as important.

And yet, absence. Denial. Restriction. I work with popular fiction. I’ve just finished a chapter on A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian : one of the most perfect coming of age novels that exist within the children’s literature pantheon. My literature review for this novel? Less than forthcoming. A handful of articles, nothing more. Novels such as The Secret Garden are written about to the nth degree, but others? Breathless gasps in the wind; an absence of thought, and yet these books matter. Did, have, shall.

Perhaps it’s a question of canon; that weighty, laden, complex term. Think of the classic pieces of children’s literature you know, the ones that pop up in Important Surveys and Angry Thought Pieces About The Rubbish We Read Today. I’ll guess that they are not things like In The Fifth At Malory Towers. And yet, perhaps, they should be. We become blind sometimes, I think, to the relevance of popularity. Of the critical interest of popularity.

This isn’t a plea for every book in the world to be academically critiqued and to be parsed through a thousand theoretical frames.

It’s a plea for the awareness of those frames, of what they include, and what they exclude.

It’s a plea, perhaps, to recognise the other.

A trip to the special collections at University of York

In mid September I was privileged enough to be given a behind the scenes insight into the special collections at the University of York. Special collections always bring out the Hogwarts in me; they’re a part of the library where magic happens. The holdings are so, so precious and so important that to witness them and to be able to engage in the story of them is always a gift. And that’s the thing about literature, books, pamphlets; all of them come with story. Everything that’s ever been published has been a part of somebody’s life. They were read, they were held, they were loved. I find that fascinating and oddly moving.

dds.jpg

The Juvenile Guide to Scarborough (ca 1837)

As somebody who specialises in children’s literature and researching literary space and place, I obviously had a particular area of interest. I was fascinated to be shown a Juvenile Guide to Scarborough. It’s a delightful thing, speaking directly to the young reader and deeply evocative. It references several distinct areas with rather wonderful italics (look at how they slide into their respective sentence on the page, look how coyly they reach out to the reader , look how a pact of trust is established).

This is the sort of literary space and place that intrigues me so much. I think, perhaps, this is why I librarian. I’m fascinated in the alchemical space of the book itself and its relationship to things outside of that frame. I love teasing out the connections, whether it’s from one book to another on the shelf or whether it’s from a book to an author to a place to a food. Books are like spider webs, and the reader gets trapped in them along with a thousand other things. The enticement of otherness, of knowledge. It is a wonderful thing.

Another item which made my absolute day was a copy of The Golden Staircase. It’s a book with a distinct mythos in the Chalet School series, another series I collect, and so I fangirled slightly when I saw it. The Golden Staircase is the title of a collection of poetry published by one of the characters of the series who is a writer. You can find a list of the titles she ‘publishes’ here (and somebody, please do me a PhD on books written by fictional authors..)

I also got to see fore-edge paintings which are the nearest thing to bookish magic that I know. If you’ve not seen these in action before, this link will elaborate. There’s such skill in fore-edge painting, and it’s almost exuberant skill. This is art, really, exuberant and skillful and magical art.

My thanks to the wonderful Special Collections Librarian Sarah Griffin for showing me round and being kind enough to facilitate such a glorious visit.

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Third year reflections on studying children’s literature

It’s been two years. I’m settling down for my third year of research into children’s literature, literary space and place. Or, as I referred to it the other day, let’s write a thesis about all the books I really, really like.

I’ve shifted from doing a PhD into an MPhil. I’ve redrafted my entire thesis. Made a thousand new arguments. I’ve presented papers at Cambridge and Reading. I’ve had sleepless nights and wide-eyed afternoons. I’ve made best friends with Imposter Syndrome. I’ve had knotty arguments with my supervisor and loved every second of it.

I’ve lived, really, in a way that I never thought I could.

Studying – researching – this is a privilege. It’s one that I don’t understand, even now, but I know I love it. The rules and regulations of this world are gloriously opaque to me; it is a space full of known unknowns. And sometimes that frustrates me immensely but other times I find it exciting. It’s like walking down a road for a thousand days and seeing something new every day. Something different.

I love language. I love writing. I don’t think I’ll ever be the best at academic writing, but I think so much of it is about finding your voice and having confidence in your own voice. Advice I give, and understand in the creative context, but have found it hard to come to terms with here. But writing is writing is writing, really, always.

I long to write a guide for the mature students like me who have had jobs and existences outside of the university before returning to study. People who haven’t studied for eight or ten years straight, but rather have come back to study after doing other things. This doesn’t lessen your contribution. Rather, it enriches it. Imposter syndrome will do its best to tell you that it doesn’t, but imposter syndrome is an idiot.

I think I’m almost there.