GOODNIGHT NOBODY: Children’s Literature & The *New* Fantastic

What follows: the rough draft of an abstract for a paper for a panel entitled “Keep Children’s Literature Weird:”*

In 1973 Tzvetan Todorov defined the fantastic as occupying “the duration of the uncertainty” produced by those fictive situations in which a crucial question must be answered: do the physics of the diegetic world presented in a text contain the demand for a “natural” explanation, or something extra, other than, “supernatural?” More than fifty years earlier, Freud had identified the same conceptual binary in his consideration of “the uncanny,” wherein the “distinction between imagination and reality is effaced.” Inasmuch as they both comprise the historical and conceptual foundation for our understanding of fantastic fiction, they have also engendered their own limitations – as well as the demand to exceed said limitations.

One limitation of the fantastic, or fantastic literature, understood as such, is located precisely in the somewhat circular practice of providing a schema of understanding what is understood to be a genre to the end of defining it as a genre. It is this sense of tautology that leads to a particular crisis for both Todorov and Freud: what – other than being able to say this is that, or that is this – is at stake? In the endeavor to establish the uncanny and/ or the fantastic, what – other than being able to insert a text into its correct category – is the point? Todorov begins his book not with the definition of the fantastic, but with an exposition of genre; and inasmuch as Freud seeks to pay lip service to the sort of problematized subject-position his inquiry assumes, in the end it is the articulation of a particular category. The limits of the fantastic, then, are the borders created by and inherent in genre itself, and the irony is that the fantastic is precisely that which seeks to puncture or surpass, by its very nature, all limits and borders. Fantastic criticism, then, in an age when we’re not sure how to know the fantastic when we see it, should commit the selfsame act of transgression, and seek not to name the fantastic in the world, but to inquire into the fantasticity of the world- or at least, in our case, of literature.

The *New* Fantastic, then, is equipment for inquiry into this fantasticity. A concept-tool adopted from Paul Rabinow’s Anthropological Research on the Contemporary, equipment is “a set of truth claims, affects, and ethical orientations, designed and composed into a practice.” When applied practically in the reading of texts, it takes the form of a question:

In what way does what deviate from what normativity?

It therefore retains the conceptual foundation of both Freud’s “uncanny” and Todorov’s “Fantastic,” while modifying it significantly: it is neither a theoretical foundation, nor  is it concerned with the establishment of a proper object of study: its function is to “enable[] practical responses to changing conditions brought about by specific problems.”

This paper argues that Children’s Literature is fantastic literature- except for the fact that it also claims that there is no longer any such thing as fantastic literature – and it does so by taking up the case of Margaret Wise Brown’s legendary Goodnight Moon, as an example (of sorts) of the multiple vectors along which various modes of fantasticity, both inside and outside the text, are wont to slide. These vectors will include, but are not limited to: reading and writing practices, sign-play, diegesis, literariness or canonicity, aesthetics and its historical moment.

By providing an initial register of these metrics – by asking, of each, the question: in what way is what deviating from what normativity? – it hopes to articulate the contours of the work’s heretofore difficult to apprehend fantasticity, and to suggest an extension of the same to that group of texts within which we have always apprehended it: children’s literature.

 

 

*Sans citations because it’s a rough draft.

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