Literary Theory and the problems with defining a genre


There is difficulty in reconciling literary theory to Children’s literature which becomes evident when considering the peculiarities children’s literature possesses as a genre. Unlike other genres that are constrained within fairly narrow confines the definition of children’s literature is dependant on the audience and in particular the reader response.  The subject matter is of much less importance and is in fact part of the difficulty in assigning meaning or an easily recognized definition. Other literary genres are defined by their subject matter and considerations such as plot, characters, atmosphere and other integral attributes of the story as well as the actual date of creation. For example “The castle of Otronto” is “gothic” because it was written during a specific time period (late 18th century) during which the gothic tradition flourished and because it featured a certain atmosphere and specific character types all centered within the confines of a decaying mansion. These are as much the trappings of the gothic novel as passionate embraces in exotic locations are of Romance novels. The same type of story written in the 1950’s would not have been gothic (being written out of the properly assigned era) However it would have been within the gothic tradition.

   Children’s literature often has many of these same attributes but cannot truly be considered as belonging to the gothic tradition, not on account of its lacking the specific attributes but because of the audience to which the story is intended and the response the reader that has to it. This is further complicated when we consider that if children, or parents on behalf of children adopted “the Castle of Otronto” then it too would have become children’s literature while also remaining gothic. Pilgrims Progress is a classic example of the fluid and often pilfering nature of the genre. John Bunyan wrote Pilgrims progress with adults in mind yet it was embraced by children almost immediately.

   The story is a complex Christian morality story but accounting to its exciting narrative and sense of travel adventure that coincided with the English emergence into New World Exploration made it widely popular amongst literate children. Pilgrims Progress being Puritan in nature found a large audience of literate youth (the importance on literature amongst puritan children and how it influenced children’s literature has been discussed elsewhere) so much so that today the book is often considered to be a children’s classic.

   The Russian critic Mikhail Michailovich Bakhtin argued that literary theory was utterly inadequate when dealing with the novel. He felt the novel was a genre still in development unlike other genres that were more stabilized. Bakhtin did not have children’s literature in mind when he turned his attention to the role of literary theory as a method of interpretation but none the less it holds especially true. By its very nature children’s literature is constantly developing, much more so that Science Fiction or Fantasy or Biography. It is fluid, shifting with the trends, social mores and public taste much more readily that literature for adults.

   When attempting to use literary theory or its many constituent methods of interpretation the astute scholar will quickly discover the inherent difficulties, if not outright impossibilities of assigning concrete definitions to the genre of children’s literature. Such attempts will always be subjective to the scholar and mirror the current trends in interpretation. Because of this subjectivity the definition becomes meaningless.

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This entry was posted in Education, History of Children's Literature, Literary Theory. Bookmark the permalink.

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