A MURDER OF DARLINGS

THE EDITOR, THE EXPERIENCE GAP AND CHILDREN’S AUTHORSHIP: A FICTOCRITICAL RESPONSE

http://vimeo.com/88615839

There is a sign above Art Lazaar’s door, originally fashioned in glyptic letters but now rendered virtually unreadable beneath a cake of industrial grime, announcing that he is in possession of a poetic license, a duly notarised certificate long lost to the bottom drawer of his desk, which lends him charter to delve into great mysteries. He is versed in such things as oriental mysticism, out-dated literary theories and why women read more than men — the kinds of things that help him bring resolve to those who have lost important theoretical devices.

The client introduced himself as Harry Stetman. Art shook the man’s hand and studied him as he dusted off a seat in his client lounge. He was a funny little man whose ear lobes looped down and anchored on his mandible like Paul Simon’s, and whose blue eyes were of such intensity that they seemed not so much to see Art while he listened, as to watch his mind.

They were well into discussion when the client, his voice clear and crisp, and devoid of affectation, said, ‘The problem is that without it, I find it impossible to function.’

Art jotted a note on his pad. ‘I see,’ he said without looking up. ‘And can you describe it?’

‘It is … an experience gap.’

‘Right.’ Art dragged the ‘i’ a little further into an ‘r’ than he intended. He drew a picture and continued his line of inquiry. ‘And this has been … removed?’ The other nodded. ‘What remains in its place?’

Stetman stared. ‘What remai — ? What do you expect remains when an object is taken?’

‘But it is not an object,’ Art said. ‘If anything, it is a non-object; therefore I would expect that something remains where once your experience gap appeared. If your gap had a historically real function, then I would expect that what remains is its inversion, its ideological production.’ (Foucault 1980)

The man simply looked blank.

‘Foucault,’ Art said.

‘I’m sorry, did you just tell me to fu — ’

‘No, I said Foucault — a name, a proper noun.’

‘So, you are suspecting this person … Foucault?’

‘No, what I said; it is from Foucault … he wrote about the disappearance of the author, but it seems to me that the disappearance of your gap may be the same thing.’

‘Oh. How so?’

‘He said, “A theory of the work does not exist, and the empirical task of those who naively undertake the editing of works often suffers in the absence of such a theory.” (144) And you are an editor, right?’ Stetman nodded. ‘And you edit that which is written for young readers?’ Again, he nodded. ‘This gap you speak of is a theory, is it not, of the difference in experience between your author and your reader?…’ another nod. ‘Who are the readers, these young people?’

‘That can be a challenge,’ Stetman replied, ‘in the absence of an experience gap I’m not sure how we should classify them. I’m stumped’

‘You think it is your experience gap that helps identify the reader?’

‘Yes, to some extent. The author identifies the reader by providing the experience that enables the reader to sympathise with the characters at the centre of the story and experience the transformation the story represents. That then adds to the reader’s personal level of experience, a cumulative effect.’

‘I can’t see how my helping you find your missing experience gap helps classify the reader — what if there is no experience gap? Does that mean there is no reader, as you define one?’

Stetman explained to Art that his approach as editor was first to try to understand what the story was trying to be. ‘If we consider that a story presents the reader with a single unit of understanding,’ he said, ‘then the reader leaves the story with an experience that places them in a space made up of both a cognitive and a lived understanding. This enables me to consider the reader as a child with certain experiences and aspirations to a new level of experience.’

‘What has changed?’

‘This is entirely new authorship.’

‘You think the author is somehow important in this?’

‘Well, of course, the author produces the work.’

‘Yes, and the author is creative and a genius, the reader learning and exploring, and they are brought together because of you.…’ Stetman beamed at Art’s insight. ‘You’re assuming the author’s experience is beyond your reader’s — ’

‘Well, the author is awarded — ’

‘Yes, of course. But if, as Foucault points out, the author “must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing,” (143) so why should the author matter? Particularly, as Gillian Avery has said, that “children … extract what they want from a book and no more.” (Fox 1976: 33) You can no more control the experience of your child reader than you can control the north wind. Perhaps your gap has disappeared behind the work and the reader has taken charge. But we still have no real classification of the reader as a child. Maybe that’s the real mystery here.’

Art showed Harry Stetman to the door and began sorting his facts into loose clumps. Staring down the barrel of a long night of reading, he pulled the first clump toward him; the one labelled, The Author.

The following morning, Art Lazaar met his client at a coffee shop known especially for its atmosphere of intellectual discourse. ‘Tell me,’ he asked, ‘from where do you think the experience gap theory materialised?’

‘Andrew Melrose made a point of it in Monsters under the Bed,’ Stetman replied, ‘when he said, “nowhere else are power structures as obvious as they are … in the culture adults produce for children.” (loc. 191, Kindle)’

Art was impressed. ‘But he also credits Jacqueline Rose, does he not? who raised it inThe case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. She says, “Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver) but where neither enter the space in-between.” (1984: 2) The experience gap is this space in-between that you seek. But I’m not convinced that it is necessarily a void not entered by either the writer or reader as Rose puts it.’

‘Seems pretty clear to me,’ the other said. ‘The author has the ideas, the reader receives and reinterprets them — makes sense out of them — which is why there’s a gap. That is what the reader is looking for: the experience that comes from outside.’

A dollop of coffee crema quivered on Harry Stetman’s bottom lip as he lowered his cup to its saucer.
Art dived in. ‘But so-called children’s literature does something different. The child is an outsider to it, neither party to its making or choosing, but is somehow taken in and framed within the work. In any case, it has to be said that the author is of little consequence.’

‘Of little consequence? That is ridiculous — authors with whom I have worked have awards for children’s literature.’

‘I know. In fact I have a picture of one of your authors receiving one,’ Art said, flipping through images on his smart phone and holding it up for Stetman. ‘But I do not see anychildren awarding it to him. Tell me, how do we know J.K. Rowling?’

The other sipped his coffee. ‘Through Harry Potter, of course.’

‘And is Harry Potter children’s literature?’

‘I think there is no question that, as Ernie Bond has said, “Harry Potter has impacted young readers and the publishing industry in profound ways.” (2011) His discussion highlights the range of readership from children, through young-adults to adults and their connection to it.’

Art gestured with his hands cupped upward. ‘So it is only the work that matters.’ He paused to let his point sink in; then continued. ‘Can the readers of this particular work be identified by an experience gap? Because here we have an author who has raised millions of readers from children as young as eight or nine years of age into adults. Yet, as Melrose pointed out in his essay, The Hidden Adult and the Hiding Child in Writing for Children, children who read usually only do so with work written for them by adults ( 2012) — people like Rowling. What say do children have in claiming what is, or what is to be, their literature?’

Stetman shrugged. ‘None, I guess. But how could they? They don’t have the experience to know what is good reading. They only get that experience by closing experience gaps as they grow.’

Art waved the page he was holding as though it held all of the answers. ‘Or perhaps it is because their literature is written for readers who are not them.’

Harry Stetman’s confusion showed in the furrows on his brow. ‘For readers who are not them?’

‘Exactly,’ Art said, looking down at his page and reading from it. ‘According to the Association of American Publishers, Children’s-stroke-young-adult fiction was the fastest growing category in publishing last year. In its report, the Association noted the prodigious growth in popularity among adult readers.’ (Lewit 2012) He looked into his client’s blue eyes. ‘Adult readers, Harry. Jack Zipes said, in The Phenomenon of Harry Potter, or Why All the Talk?, “given the purchasing tendencies of Americans, we can assume that adults are buying the books for children and themselves.” (186)

‘My point, Harry, is that the real reader is not a child at all, but an adult who speaks for the child: initially, you as editor and the publisher for whom you work, but following from there, a parent, grandparent, teacher, librarian — those who make purchasing decisions and reading recommendations and assume there is an experience gap the child-reader is keen to fill. These are the first readers, and in the case of the very young, they are the mediators; the storytellers, where the adult’s voice substitutes for the author’s. Above all, they are the ones who buy your author’s book, mostly as a gift, so they have to believe in its worthiness …’ Art paused, thoughtful for a moment before continuing. ‘But to find your missing gap, we still need the ideal reader’s response because, although you are a fine editor, you can only impersonate the ideal reader.’

In a small meeting room at a local writers’ centre, Art faced a coalescence of children aged between thirteen and fifteen — teenagers. He had been asked to address them on behalf of a local writer’s group. They had come from a high school in Singapore, visiting Western Australian schools and writing centres on a creative writing tour. Twenty-eight per cent of them were boys. Andrew Melrose would consider them ‘Flying’ (2002: 110) a term he uses to define fiction readers of twelve years and older. Americans would generally class them as ‘middle grade readers’. Art learnt quickly that the teenaged reader was a far cry from just a miniature adult one.

‘Why do you read fiction?’ he asked.[1]

‘To gain knowledge,’ a bespectacled young lad replied. He had an air of curiosity that suggested an aspiration for wisdom. Art’s interest soared.

‘Really? Where do you find knowledge in fiction?’

‘Where the story takes you.’

Insightful, Art thought, immediately reminded of Norman N Holland’s argument that the more proficient readers become the more they make use of the symbols in a work to replicate themselves and the particular fantasies that are personally characteristic.

‘What knowledge do you get from fiction?’ he asked.

‘How the world works,’ one of the girls offered, ‘especially parts that are different from your own.’

The discussion unveiled important aspects of how teenage readers respond to a different world from their own. In the end, it seemed clear to Art that the story, at least in the minds of this particular audience, should take child-readers to places in which they can aspire to greater self-determination, be embedded with symbols by which they can recognise themselves, and provide the opportunity for them to be part of the solution to the problems encountered by the hero, which is what he told his client when they met, once again, the following day.

He passed over a page with a number of graphs on it.

Stetman zeroed in on one particular headline figure. ‘Only twenty-seven per cent choose a book because of the author’s name or reputation?’

‘So it seems,’ Art said. ‘Although the sample is too small to be statistically significant, it does seem to support the suggestion that your author may not be as important to the teen-reader as the cover or title.

‘It is similar to research carried out in nineteen-ninety-six by the National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature in the UK,’ (Drouillard 2009: 18) he continued. ‘But research carried out by Rosemary Hopper (20) six years later among children of a similar age to our group identified prior knowledge of the author as the main driver of choice.’

‘Could that be the Harry Potter phenomenon?’ Harry asked.

‘It could be,’ Art replied. ‘Along with Alex Rider and Lemony Snicket. Series fiction for young readers was growing rapidly and these in particular were made into movies. Global celebrity started to become the fast track to sales success.’

When Art and his client parted that afternoon, they were both feeling somewhat upbeat about their progress. Art noted the irony of his observation: that the gap of understanding between him and his client appeared to be narrowing. The feeling may have been short-lived.

The following day, Art met again with Harry Stetman at their favoured coffee shop.

‘I think childhood is in danger,’ he said, dragging his chair along the floor like a kid with a toy box.

‘You think? In what way?’

‘Hijacked, kidnapped … maybe even murdered.’

‘Murdered?’ Stetman exclaimed. ‘That is a big statement, what makes you say that?’

‘I get the impression that it is in the interests of some for children to exit childhood as soon as possible and remain in teen-hood for as long as possible. It means we get children whose experience of childhood is packaged and homogenised, sheltered and stunted, and young-adults for whom the idea of adult responsibility is impossible. The teen ages appear extended in both directions.’

‘Are you sure you are not making it up?’

Art was a little surprised at Stetman’s surly tone but, like a rock on the riverbed, he let it wash over him.

‘Let us consider a couple of theoretical positions,’ he said. ‘Frederick Jameson made the point that postmodern society seeks the commodification of culture and that late capitalism depends on the reproduction of artefacts rather than the creation and production of them. He says, “The producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles.” (1991: 17–18)

‘And second, in the Cultural Homogenization of American Children, Jack Zipes argues that certain cultural practices, reading among them, “send contradictory messages that are bound to undermine [the child’s] capacity to develop a sense of morality and ethics … their autonomy will be governed by prescribed market interests of corporations that have destroyed communities and the self-determination of communities.” (3) It seems to me that we have a dire situation in which any possible freedom associated with childhood has been summarily removed in pursuit of “transforming cultural practices into consumer addictions.” (20)’

Stetman’s furrowed brow took Art to the brink of suggesting a treatment of Botox. ‘Are you saying that the publishing industry offers child readers nothing new in terms of an experience?’

Art Lazaar leaned forward on his elbows, and stared above his glasses into the mirrored blue of Harry Stetman’s eyes.

‘Forbes reported that Winnie-the-Pooh made five-point-six billion dollars in two-thousand-and-four — the second-highest earning fictional character in that year. (2004) When A.A. Milne first published him in nineteen-twenty-six, he was a fresh voice based on tales and poems that Milne reportedly told to his own child. So unique and vivid was this character that Kenneth Slesinger put him to work selling china-ware, clothes and board games and he has not stopped since. Today, Disney creates new stories “framed in false authenticity by being wrapped up in the ever same tirelessness … of classic stories for children,” (Melrose, Monsters under the Bed, loc. 541, Kindle) doing precisely what Rose tells us: “soliciting, a chase, or even a seduction” (2) of children. Now apart from the fact that this seems to span all of childhood, is this telling you anything?’

A legacy of years spent editing financial pages had bequeathed Harry Stetman a quick mathematical mind. ‘That if every child in the world had paid for a single Winnie-the-Pooh experience that year, it would have cost that child two dollars and ninety-five cents.’ He paused before asking, as though for his own ears, ‘Where is the story experience?’

Then his finger stabbed toward Art’s chest across the table. ‘But I get the feeling that you are saying the experience the culture industry is peddling has nothing to do with a knowledge experience — which is where the experience gap should be. You seem to be saying it is more to do with an experience of homogeneity, of belonging, of being part of the same club.’

‘Exactly,’ Art said, sensing the penny drop. ‘In order to maintain its audience, the culture industry manipulates a difference between desire and denial. The more it generates a desire for its products and the more it creates temporary apparent denial of fulfilment — which is really the way series fiction works — the more control it exerts over the cultural product and its consumption. It is how they guarantee that children “buy” into their products long before their availability, and remain under their thrall beyond what might be considered their “reading” age.’

The editor raised his hand to call a pause in the discussion. ‘I need to digest some of this, Art. Can we meet again tomorrow?’

The next day, over a lunch of Fremantle prawns and Harvey salads, and a crisp Swan Valley Chardonnay, Art Lazaar listened as his client summed up his understanding.

‘It seems we have established four distinct stages in the pre-adult reader experience: at one end, very young children, what Melrose might call “walking, hopping, skipping and to some extent, running” heights (2002: 84–85) and at the other, young-adults — a troubling identity that seems to include readers who are post-adolescent in their late teens through to their early twenties. My readers are found in-between — beginning with Melrose’s “dodging, trekking and flying,” and then extending through adolescence to mid-teenage years. The experience gap for the very young is easily identified and clearly based on the notion that the child has not yet learnt to read and the author is introducing them to the idea of reading and investigating the wider world through it. The author is immaterial in this relationship except that if Mum likes Madonna, she will possibly be inclined to buy Madonna’s book and read it to her child.

‘The experience gap for the young-adult is more along the lines that the young-adult reader is becoming adult and engaging in adult-like experiences. Vanessa Harbour seems to think the young-adult moves in to occupy the in-between space. (Harbour) But the middle stages seem less obvious. Why?’

Art cracked a prawn shell and fed the tail into his mouth and swallowed. He dunked his fingers in the finger-bowl and dried them on his serviette.

‘From our conversations we have learnt that our teen reader is looking for a good read. That is, a read that gives them a knowledge experience. This they get through structure, right?’ Harry Stetman nodded. ‘But if the story lacks structure, or the structure is not apparent to them, they close the book. This comes not from the presumption of a gap in the experience but, as Judith Langer has pointed out, from a lack of commonality in knowledge.’

Art took a pen and drew on a paper napkin and held it up for Stetman to see. In one half, he had drawn two separate circles; in the other, a type of Venn diagram that showed the two circles overlapping. He continued to explain.

‘Melrose said, “if adults took more time to meet children at the cusp of their knowledge and experience, story would be all the better for it.” [2] To my way of thinking, this mirrors Marilyn Adams and Bertram Bruce’s point that “the goodness of the match between the knowledge the author has presumed of the reader and that actually possessed by the reader” is possibly the major determinant for a good read.’ (Langer and Smith-Burke 1982: 3)

Stetman nodded.

‘So I asked our young readers how they would feel about reading works written by authors who were their peers, authors of the same age, where the knowledge base is of a similar character. They told me — and they were pretty much unanimous in this — that they would welcome works written by authors of a similar age because …’ – Art fished for a page in his tattered green folder and read from it – ‘ “because it would be relating to your own experience … we would be sharing the experience at the same level.” ’ [3]

‘So the experience gap is not critical?’ Stetman asked.

‘Melrose says that “children understand more than they can articulate.” (2012) Apart from saying that I think this is true of all people, child or otherwise, it holds a valuable clue. An experience gap makes any empathetic relationship between author and reader difficult; but an experience match may offer powerful reading because it opens up empathy. If you give the child the tools to be the author, you give them creatively critical and critically creative ways to increase their powers of articulation, and opportunities for readers to have an empathetic relationship they would otherwise not have. And it has results.’

Art once again fished in his tattered green folder and drew out several slim volumes. He opened the first at what appeared to be a randomly chosen page and read.

‘ “By four in the afternoon, Cassie Milligan had skipped breakfast, failed a maths test, fallen off a balcony, and died.” (Davies 2012) That is a fourteen year-old writing,’ he said, ‘what fourteen year-old wouldn’t empathise with that view? Here is another, this time an eleven year-old:

“It was early in the morning. Neiko and LooGoo sneaked out carefully and quietly, making sure nobody heard or saw them.

“I think it’s safe now,” Neiko said. “I just don’t want my father to know that we’re going because I’m not allowed to go very far without him supervising. And I’m sure he’d screw it up.” (Khayech 2012)

‘And another, this time a thirteen year-old:

“Butch had been giving me trouble ever since I arrived at the orphanage but Damion was always there to help me. Butch was scared of him because he was younger than Damion. That and because of the time he put Butch in hospital with a nice broken nose and [an] inflamed butt from an atomic wedgie. (Ladeira 2012)

‘One more,’ Art said, ‘Just to leave you with a taste:

“There is a rule in the Christmas Handbook, written eons ago, that every one-hundred-and fifty years, the current Santa must stand down and choose a successor.” (Simmons 2012)’

Harry Stetman sat with his mouth agape. ‘Are children getting to read this work?’

‘Some,’ Art Lazaar replied. ‘I believe there are some forty to fifty school libraries with this collection. I spoke with one teacher-librarian at a well-known Catholic college who had a year-six class [^4] read this series of publications and told me that the students enjoyed the work very much, suggesting that it gave them a sense of what they could aspire to in their own writing. An English teacher who used the Romance and Fantasyvolumes from this series for genre studies with his year-nine class, said the group’s readership level was very high; he felt the class engaged readily. I was invited to witness a class of upper primary students in their silent reading time and these books were selected from the classroom shelves — apparently they often are — and the students told me afterwards that they enjoyed reading them because the stories were short and they were interesting. The librarian at a girl’s school showed me borrowing records that indicated a period throughout the year when the books were rarely on the shelf.’

‘So this is child-centred authorship,’ Harry Stetman said, ‘with no adult-child experience gap. How is it edited?’

‘At a technical level, at least,’ Art replied, ‘the work has to stand spine-to-spine with any other work these readers respond to. But, unlike a lot of stories written for the child-teen-reader in which the voice, the language, is self-consciously child-like, in these works the voice of the author rings loud and clear. It is not child-like, but of the child. So the editor, as first reader, needs to be hearing the voice of the author instead of negotiating an experience gap.’

‘But, still, the children are not self-selecting them entirely.’

‘Of course,’ Art said, ‘the network of gatekeepers between the author and the reader, all adult, all seriously invested in the experience gap, still has to be negotiated. But that is an investigation for another time.’

They parted ways at the end of the lunch after a warm handshake and a promise to keep in touch. Stetman, Art thought, of course, a man who likes to keep things just as they were. I wonder if he will find an experience gap between the authorship of my account and his reading of it. He smiled and practically skipped along the footpath, heading back to his dingy office beneath its sign of poetic license cloaked in industrial grime.

<<>>

Works cited

Bond, Ernie. “Is Harry Potter Classic Children’s Literature?” College Inc. Washington Post 2011. Web. 18 November 2013 2013.
Davies, Sally. “Breathing and Lack of Therefore.” The Importance of Fennel Silk-Webster and Other Horror & Crimes Stories. Eds. Price, Kevin and The Born Storytellers. Perth, Australia: Crotchet Quaver, 2012. Print.
Drouillard, Colette L. “Growing up with Harry Potter: What Motivated Youth to Read?”. Florida State University, 2009. Print.
Forbes. “Top-Earning Fictional Characters.” Forbes 2004. Web. 5 December, 2012 2012.
Foucault, Michel. “Textual Strategies : Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism.” Ed. Harari, Josue V. London: Methuen, 1980. Print.
Fox, Geoff. Writers, Critics, and Children : Articles from Children’s Literature in Education. New York, London: Agathon Press ; Heiemann Educational Books, 1976. Print.
Harbour, Vanesa. “Creative Judgment and the Issues of Writing Young Adult Fict.” Axon. Web. Accessed 5 December, 2012 2012.
Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Post-Contemporary Interventions. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. Print.
Khayech, Rohan. “Neiko’s Quest.” A Time Underground and Other Science Fiction Stories. Eds. Price, Kevin and The Born Storytellers. Perth, Australia: Crotchet Quaver, 2012. Print.
Ladeira, George. “The Assassin War.” Commons and Other Adventure Stories. Eds. Price, Kevin and The Born Storytellers. Perth, Australia: Crotchet Quaver, 2012. Print.
Langer, Judith A., and M. Trika Smith-Burke. Reader Meets Author/Bridging the Gap : A Psycholinguistic and Sociolinguistic Perspective. Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1982. Print.
Lewit, Meghan. “Why Do Female Authors Dominate Young-Adult Fiction?” The Atlantic 2012. Web. 14 November, 2012.
Melrose, Andrew. “The Hidden Adult and the Hiding Child in Writing for Children?”TEXT. 16.1 (2012). Web. — . Monsters under the Bed: Critically Investigating Early Years Writing. 2012. Kindle. — . Write for Children. London: Routledge Falmer, 2002. Print.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or, the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Language, Discourse, Society. London: Macmillan, 1984. Print.
Simmons, Sarah. “Santa’s Apprentice.” Soulist and Other Fantasy Stories. Eds. Price, Kevin and The Born Storytellers. Perth, Australia: Crotchet Quaver, 2012. Print.
Zipes, Jack David. Sticks and Stones : The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York ; London: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Notes

[^1]: This conversation and the responses that follow took place at the Fellowship of Australian Writers (Western Australia) 21 November 2012 when the author (Kevin Price) was contracted conduct a workshop with a visiting class of 18 students from Temasek Secondary School in Singapore aged between 13 and 15 years.

[^2]: Andrew Melrose (2012). Personal communication in email addressed to the author, 28 August, 2012.

[^3]: From conversations at FAWWA with Kevin Price and students from Temasek Secondary School, November 2012

[^4]: Western Australian schools start primary education at Year 1 in the year the child turns six before July, or the following year if the child turns six after July. A Year 6 student is in their final year of primary school and will be aged 11 or 12. Western Australian high schools start at Year 7 with middle school spanning years 7–9 and upper school years 10–12. Students leave high school after Year 12 when they will be 17 or 18 years of age. The student authors of the Born Storytellers books cited here were drawn from Years 5 – 10.

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