Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Going Slow

Going Slow

I am swamped with work and have a couple of deadlines looming. At the moment I even have deadlines to read certain books.

The next post to this blog will be Tuesday 15th November.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Science fiction and transgender reading protocols

: delivered at St. Francis Xavier College, Antigonish, March 2005

please bear in mind the title was a wild and misleading thought and don't get over excited ) The essay has been tidied it up only minimally. It's still raw thought and bits of it don't link, don't make sense or don't really work at all. But here you go.

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Science fiction is for boys.
A third of the readers are girls.
Boys don’t read.

One of the things that is beginning to intrigue me about the research I’ve been doing is the degree to which research into children’s literature and children’s reading development seems to be shaped by truisms. Above I’ve placed two truisisms and one qualifier. Buried in there is some pointers to developments in sf written for children. What I want to add in this triangulation is Jacqueline Rose’s argument about The Impossibility of Children’s Literature.

Rose’s argument is that there cannot be any such thing as children’s lit because children are neither the producers nor the market.

The second part of this point I find very dubious: all the evidence I’m collecting suggests that pre-teen children are just as much an independent market as are adults. Like adults their choices are constrained by those who select books for stock, and these are more likely to be librarians than book sellers, but if we avoid norming to the 1970s, then most readers of any age before 1970 in the UK would have had their choices constrained by librarians and the limited choices of WH Smith, a book retailer which had not yet shed it’s sense of public responsibility from its days as a private circulating library.

The first point is something I want to take more seriously: children don’t write children’s literature, children’s literature is clearly written to reflect the culturally specific ideas of the child. I don’t wholly buy the hard line on this—most people don’t write, most authors write according to culturally specific ideas of what people want, an you can find extreme manifestations of this in genres such as romance—but there is some very real relevance to some of the outline arguments I’m making in my research. These outline arguments are as follows:

1) Science fiction written for children does not use/reflect/build on what we know of the cognitive capabilities of children.
2) Science fiction written for children rarely seems to encompass the diversity of forms and cognitive demands demonstrated in the adult genre.
3) Science fiction written for children seems to be driven, above and beyond everything, by the cultural arguments around issues such as education/pedagogy, citizenship and socialisation.

From here I’m going to start moving into a discussion of what I am tentatively calling the transgender reading protocols of science fiction. So let’s begin by considering what I mean by this. At all times, please bear in mind that I am at the very start of the research. I’m not yet sure what of anything I say I have the evidence for or agree with.

1) Science fiction written for children does not use/reflect/build on what we know of the cognitive capabilities of children.
I’ve written elsewhere that if we look at how small children process the world, we see something that looks very like the recognised reading protocols of small children—syntactic boots trapping—the ability to make sense of strangeness by linking it to things that aren’t strange, to use context to decipher the unfamiliar. What I’ve made much less of is that the cognitive development literature divides early into what we might call factual processing and emotional processing. The divide is not terribly strong, not as strong as I’m going to—inadvertently but unavoidably—suggest here, but I think it matters not so much for what is written for young children, but in terms of later issues of socialisation.

When I discuss cognitive development and sf I tend to focus on Piaget’s comments about children’s development of abstract reasoning around the age of 12. This is the point at which Heinlein said children could manage higher maths and not coincidentally the entry age for most sf readers. As very little of the sf written for children seems to demand abstract reasoning, it may explain why most children skip this material and go straight to the adult genre.

The reason however I am unhappy with this simple explanation is what happens if we look at the development not of factual processing, but emotional processing. Here, abstract thought seems to happen earlier, particularly if you include as part of abstract thought the idea of consequence which links things that are not touching each other. The standard model is the terrible twos: to over-generalise wildly…

At the age of 18 months and child will look thoughtfully at the cable on a lamp, tug it, and watch the lamp tumble. At the age of two, the child will look thoughtfully at the cable on a lamp, tug it, and watch you to see how you will react.

I’ve used this example before in the way it is usually used, to indicate the child turning outwards from themselves as the universe they want to explore, to a larger universe which links themselves to others. But the truth is, that it is also a piece of abstract experimentalism. The first test is clearly part of Piaget’s notion of concrete operation, but the second, which requires a triangulation (I do this, this happens, and then something apparently unlinked also happens) strikes me as much more to do with abstraction. There is an implication, therefore, that emotional abstract operation develops faster than factual abstract operation.

I’m getting back to the transgender, honest, just bear with me.

The problem with all of the above tests is that they mostly took place at a time when cultural pressures made it problematic to separate boys and girls. In the past ten years, as brain imaging has given us the possibility to forget crude measurements of size, enough differences between boys and girls have started showing up to make me wonder about these experiments and what they show, and how they have affected our idea of childhood, because if you accept those test results, they help to explain how, from about 1980 onwards, books for children have been driven by an interest in developing social maturity. These test results imply that you can work on abstract emotional reasoning many years before you can work on abstract factual reasoning.

The snag is that there has always been evidence that there are gender differences: anecdotally, educators have been moaning about boys’ emotional immaturity for several centuries, their inability to reason abstractly at the level of emotional consequences for their actions. Recent studies of mathematical ability (see last week’s issue of Time) suggests that boys are better at maths than girls, but only temporarily (and it helps if there are cultural incentives for them to do well). Girls acquire the same abilities later on, but often after people have given up trying to teach them. One strongly suspects that the same is true for boys for linguistic and empathic abilities—it isn’t that they can’t acquire them, but we expect them to be acquired at the same time as girls do, and then assume they can’t be added later.

The one point that is not discussed in the latest report is whether the differences are on a curve ie are the differences between girls and boys absolute, or are we seeing a spread in which boys cluster at one end and girls at the other.

Now to get us back to science fiction:

3) Science fiction written for children seems to be driven, above and beyond everything, by the cultural arguments around issues such as education/pedgagogy, citizenship and socialisation.

If we consider the sf written specifically for children before 1980 what it has in common is a concentration on factual reasoning or reasoning with information and objects rather than emotions. Most of the fiction is written by men, most of it (if we assume the sex of the main character to be indicative) is written for boys. The most important exception to this is of course Andre Norton, but I think her exceptionalism here supports, rather than undermines my thoughts, because her most successful books had male protagonists. As a child I was never very convinced by her girls (and was utterly shocked to discover the author’s own sex, when I was 18).

The sf written for children before 1980 is not necessarily good—this isn’t an argument about literary quality. To begin with, it seems limited by a relatively small number of plots. Mostly these books can be summarised as: travel to a new planet/world and prevent sabotage; travel to a new world and help it; repel alien invaders; invent something new (although these are relatively rare after the decline of the Edisonades in the 1920s).

Sf for children seems to appear in clusters (I have lots of work to do finding out who the editors of various publishing houses were) but one obvious one is the ‘40s and 50s. What these books have in common is that they almost all, without exception, view the process of growing up as one of socialising children (boys) into the work environment. Heinlein is the obvious place to start: even such a deviant book as Citizen of the Galaxy in which a boy is rescued from slavery, is essentially about how to train a citizen in a globalized economy. Andre Norton’s Catseye ( check date) can be read as “what happens to a boy who is denied the usual routes into the work place and hence adulthood”. Maturity here is not defined by emotional response to an inward world, but by ability to deal with the world outside in practical and pragmatic terms. In both of these books, emotions are luxuries to be dealt with later. In lesser examples of the same period, emotions other than excitement or worry aren’t even recognised.

From 1960 to 1980 the commonest new plot—rejection of myth and parental beliefs--is quite clearly a product of the counter-culture. Whether we are thinking of Syvlia Engdahl’s Heritage of the Stars, Ben Bova’s The Exiles and its sequels, Suzanne Martel’s The City Underground or pretty much any book by John Christopher, the trajectory of the plot is identical: in a ruined society the children discover that what their parents have told them is a myth (either deliberate or a consequence of the Fall of Civilisation) and it is the children who will reject the old and build the Truth Anew.

Running through the books published in this twenty year period is a fascination with pedagogy, how to teach independence, how to teach children to think. Alexei Panshin’s Rites of Passage may be the epitome of this although it was not actually written for children.

From 1980 a number of things happen.

First, there is a very real decline in an interest in pedagogy. Second, if the 1960s demonstrated a rejection of the parent, it still oriented the child out and away.

From 1980 onwards the emphasis shifts away from parental rejectionism to what I can only call “and parent came too” in which parental input is redeemed. An interesting link text is Bev Spencer’s Guardian of the Dark(1993) in which although the protagonists reject the myth that there is nothing outside the cavern in which they live, and go forth to find a better world, we discover in the penultimate chapter that the young people’s rebellion has been coached and coaxed by the Patriarch.

An aside:
One of the ways in which we can tell an idea has fallen out of favour with society is that the age group at which it is directed drops (this works for anything from mutant ninja turtles, through slang, even through hobbies—building models is no longer something well adjusted fifteen year olds do publicly.) I mention this because there are two recent examples of this rejection of the parental line, and both—William Nicholson’s The Windsinger and Jeanne du Prau’s City of Ember—seem to aimed at the pre-teen, early teen age group.

In the 1980s, much of the science fiction that is published for children concentrate s on the inner landscape, and seems to see as its mission the socialisation of children less for the factual world, than for the emotional world. The message learned at the end of these stories is frequently to rely on adults: it is instructive to compare Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel which ends up with the children defending planet Earth and Bruce Coville’s An Alien Flunked My Planet in which the alien speaks up for the children to get the planet a second chance. Even where there is a political issue, it is interesting to see what issues are acceptable—environmentalism, which emphasises sharing and caring, is common. The consequences of massive economic change caused by new technology cropped up in only one of my sample texts (Monica Hughes, Invitation to the Game) and Hughes avoided all the really interesting hard core, “how do we deal with this” by placing the emphasis on social bonding.

This is where we come back to transgender reading protocols. Much (not all) of the sf written for children from the 1980s to say 2000 has two things in common: it is written by women and it is written by people who don’t write in the adult genre (sometimes both). Part of what I’ve been arguing generally is that sf written for children– particularly from the 1980s onwards—doesn’t share the social ideals of sf written for adults. Some of this is clearly because the writers are ignorant of the genre. But some of it I think is about literary protocols imported from “feminine” ideas of child development.

I both do and don’t believe in gender essentialism. I think men and women are different, but I believe it is on an arc, with the genders spread along various behavioural graphs and extremes at both ends. Using this model, I’ll be using the term “feminine” to consider a mode of thought, not to say “women think like x”.

A feminine mode of thought emphasises people skills and protectiveness. A masculine mode of thought emphasises information skills and risky behaviour (this doesn’t have to be physical).

Indices of maturity have shifted from the early nineteenth century to the present day to emphasise feminine qualities over masculine qualities. I’m not interested here in whether it is desirable or not—this is just an observation. Alongside this I want to add another idea about maturity, which comes from the animal behaviourists: maturity is reached when animals lose their curiousity and hence their risk taking behaviour diminishes.

So, to go back to my original contention (sorry about the spiralling thoughts here).

One of the big issues in persuading children to read is this truism “boys don’t read”. Alongside this, we know that there are many boys—even if they are small proportion of the whole—who read science fiction (and precursor material to sf, myths, legends, history, science, anthropology) . The questionnaires I’ve been spreading have come back with some results which might offer some insight into some of these choices—mostly “emotional development” is not something which either the male or the female respondents are reporting as of interest to them in their reading as children. Neither is what we might call “social issues” or “relevance’ (both hallmarks of 1980s and 1990s children’s fiction of all kinds).

All of this is problematic in a climate in which one of the reasons we encourage children to read fiction is to develop their emotional maturity.

It helps to understand this if you remember that until say 1930, the reading of fiction was regarded as a little dubious. Whereas now, to have read the latest Booker winner is the mark of education and erudition, Henry James’s battle to elevate the novel of manners was in part a battle to elevate fiction generally—it’s ironic for this argument that he did this in part by arguing that emotions were the centre of the literary endeavour while simultaneously insisting on Great Literature as an essentially masculine achievement. Before 1930 reading too much fiction was a marker of immaturity (I used to get lectured by my grandparents in this way).

So, we have a situation in which we want children to read not just because it is practical but because we think it improves their emotional maturity.

So we select as “good” books which emphasise emotional interests and emotional problems whose solutions are essentially about changing one’s internal orientation, not about grappling with two planks of wood and a couple of nails.

We also insist that the best books are those which are relevant to children, which talk about the world they are already in, essentially books which are domestic (I don’t necessarily mean at home, but which do not take children out of their own environment).

All books that are about history, myths, science etc either get labelled as work (and the children’s historical novel disappeared in the 1980s alongside sf) or as not good literature.

So why exactly would boys admit to reading this material? Rather than gaining credit, they are told it diminishes them. Similarly, any girl who likes this material will be labelled both boyish and immature.

And then there is the issue of “book-appreciation” more generally, and what I have called reading protocols. Like a lot of bright not too feminine girls I have my stock of classroom trauma stories. The following used to be told by me to express my frustration with a particular teacher who was actually trained to teach geography and had been dumped with an English class.

He had us read the novel Walkabout which is about two children stranded in the Australian Bush who are rescued by an Aboriginal child.

He asked us a question: how do the children’s attitudes change? I answered “they reconsider what is or is not civilised”. I was told this was incorrect. The correct answer was that they changed their minds about their own nakedness.

I used to use this example to talk about my outrage that complex answers were being shut down, but I now realise that something rather different happened.

The teacher (male) asked a question designed to elicit the “emotional” response, the one that said “how do you as a child identify with what these children went through. How do you make this book relevant to you.”

I was twelve and had just moved from myths and legends to discovering that sf was the most exciting thing on the library shelves. Neither answer was wrong, but my answer was the classic sf answer—it was directed outwards, to thinking about the wider world. The answer the tutor wanted was the one which was about internal change.

The reading protocols of sf look first for this wider consequence. We tend to call it the sense of wonder, the marvelling at the world. (And what is scary is that studies of both primates and cross-cultural anthroplogy keep telling us that while the specific of gender differentiation in social organisation change from culture to culture, one way to predict what will be women’s work and what will be men’s work is to consider where that work takes place and whether it requires risk taking or nurturing.)

So we have a genre which in its adult form is promoting a way of writing that downplays not only what is considered literary, but more fundamentally what it is thought literature is for. There are exceptions of course but they themselves are revealing: the leading lights of the New Wave called for a more mature literature and mostly ended up with lots of sex (and I am afraid I am not convinced that this was, ipso facto, more mature than the prudishness of the 1950s). Feminist writers of the 1970s argued for more character and more emotion, but if you look at what they actually wrote it isn’t that different from male science fiction in its emphasis on informational density rather than interior examination, it’s just that the feminist writers were and are interested in different information (be careful of mistaking the change in subject matter for a fundamental difference of approach).

At this point though I’m beginning to go around in circles. My basic point remains the same: children’s sf between 1960 and 1980 suffered from—among other problems—a “femininisation” of the metaphoric drive, one which alienates sf readers who, whether male or female, are far less oriented to interiority.