Book Review: The Queer Child by Kathryn Bond Stockton

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Liz and I decided it would be a good idea to try and finish our book review in time for class, in the hopes that - since the book we're reviewing is The Queer Child, or, Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century by Kathryn Bond Stockton - our review will help round out everyone's reading of the introduction and provoke some interesting discussions in class on Wednesday. So, without further ado, our review!

Liz:
Alright, let's talk about Kathryn Bond Stockton's book, The Queer Child or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Stockton's main idea is that childhood is a societal construct; society has decided that human beings under a certain age are children, and meanings and laws are assigned to this term without regard to the individual. So, for example, nobody can have sex with a ten-year old, and all seven-year-olds are too innocent to be labeled murderers. Stockton suggests that, because society won't let children grow "up" until a certain point, they grow "sideways," exploring gender, sexuality, and personality, among other things, and she explores ways in which children are queered by factors such as money or race.

I have a problem with the way she tries to prove her case. She starts off with an introduction that is very lengthy and quite abstract, and then the body of the text draws on literature and film to prove her point. I don't know about you, Sophie, but this caught me off guard, because in the introduction it seems like she's talking about real-life children in universal terms, and then she switches to very specific fictional characters, but never explores the relationship between fiction and reality. An example: she writes about the two female leads in the film Heavenly Creatures (in the 1994 film, two girls have a close relationship; their parents grow concerned and separate the girls, who take revenge by murdering the mother of one of the girls) in an exploration of motive and intent, particularly challenging the idea that children are too innocent to have the motive and intention to commit crimes such as murder. My problem is that Stockton never makes it clear whether she is suggesting that these two characters are representative of real children. Is this film a portrayal of how children are? Could be? Should be?

The whole book is like this, and it leaves me very confused about what she means. Does art imitate life? Does life imitate art? Are we meant to see a relationship? Was this a problem for you, too, Sophie? And what did you think about the films and stories she chose to use?


Sophie:
I had the same problem with the book that you did, Liz, and I think you put it really well in wondering whether life imitates art: in discussing the imagined queer child in literature and film, Stockton never specifically states whether she believes that actual real-life children have the types of relationships that she finds in art. For me, coming from my child-psychiatrist mama, what it boils down to is which fields the points Stockton's work has relevance for. Is this a book for scholars of literature/film? For queer theorists? For psychologists? Or a combination of these?

Although it was long and theoretical, I thought the introduction was incredibly interesting and potentially salient to all three of the above disciplines. She starts with the idea of delay, coming from but not limited to Derrida. As I understand it, we have modeled childhood development around a gradual growth toward maturity ("growing up"), whereas actual children use metaphor to develop in non-"upwards" ways (hence "sideways"). It is this delay which queers the child - not (always) in the literal sense of "turning them gay," but in the sense of creating an entity which is incomprehensible to the adults around them, which doesn't fit into the standard developmental narrative. She talks about four different types of queer children (the ghostly gay child, the grown homosexual, Freud's precocious child, and the child queered by innocence or color), but because these types braid together in her analyses, I wasn't sure how useful this classification was. What do you think, Liz? Did this categorization help?

Stockton is ultimately clear that her book is staying in the domain of fiction:

"With fiction as my witness, read with my fantasies fully engaged, I could say the I believe the century of the child is the century of the fictions of the ghostly gay child and its queer companions, among whom I include the 'normative' child - all growing sideways more than up" (37).
This seems to answer our question about Stockton's disciplinary intentions; however, I'd like to call her bluff for two reasons. First, one of her main interventions has to do with the way we view childhood "innocence," a concept which, along with its artistic consequences, has huge legal and psychological implications. Second, to be honest, I find her perspective too interesting for it not to be in some way applicable to "real life." What would it mean if we acknowledged and celebrated children's delay and sideways growth, and how would it change paradigms of child psychology?

Of course, Stockton doesn't address this question directly. So, maybe this would be a good point to start talking about case studies. I'm turning your question back to you, Liz: what did you think of them?


Liz:
First of all, I did not find the four categories of queer children useful because, as you pointed out, they braid together in her analyses. They might be useful as a shorthand for describing aspects of queerness, but not as types of children.

The case studies I found fascinating on their own, but I was constantly wondering if she was presenting the characters she studied as "typical" children or not. Hm, are you getting the impression that I didn't love this book? Honestly, I found Stockton's main idea very intriguing, and her case studies were fascinating, but I didn't like the way it was all put together. But I'm getting sidetracked...

In chapter 2, she talks about girls and dogs in three novels (Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, and Djuna Barnes' Nightwood), and suggests that the dogs in these stories represent the girls' sideways growth. My first thought was: 'Wait, GIRLS and their dogs? I spent most of junior high English class reading about BOYS and their dogs.' I want to know why she chose girls. And why dogs as opposed to other pets? This case study was, I felt, the oddest of the bunch. Studying Lolita as a way to think about children's agency, or Heavenly Creatures to contemplate children's motives and intentions, sure. But this idea of girls and dogs struck me as odd, both because it doesn't seem as common a relationship (assuming the case studies represent common situations for children), at least in literature, and because I thought the idea itself was a bit of a stretch. An interesting reading, to be sure, but a stretch. Sophie, what did you think of the girls-and-dogs chapter? Or the other case studies?


Sophie:
I completely agree about chapter 2. I think it would've been a really interesting stand-alone paper, but it doesn't really work as evidence of anything more general. And you know, I think all of the case studies were odd, and I want to highlight two other moments. First, chapter 1 is entitled The Smart Child is the Masochistic Child - a title which I was really intrigued by, having been a smart child. The direction Stockton's analysis went, though, seemed to highlight both the masochism of the child and the tutor, suggesting that all intellectual discussion is a sort of masochism. I wouldn't necessarily disagree! (Ha, ha.) But that takes the area of inquiry out of the realm of childhood and away from a potentially interesting meditation on the effects of precocious children's "premature" intellectual/sexual knowledge.

A second oddity is in chapter 5, Oedipus Raced. I love the idea of looking at race as a form of queering, and using racial difference as a mirror to supposedly liberal parental ideals, so I don't want to fault Stockton too much. It was strange to me, though, that the children in two of her examples were more like young adults, and the racial discourses there have to do with marriage (a generally "adult" ceremony). Even in her discussion of children in Blood Diamond, Stockton focuses more on the journalist-smuggler-father "love triangle" - again, interesting, but not directly to do with children!

In general, my quarrel with Stockton is that while her arguments reveal queer subtexts in a thorough and rigorous way, it often feels - especially in chapter 4's analysis of the works based on real-life child murderers - like a glaring omission not to connect the literary analysis back to the real children in question.

That said, for our last exchange, I have two questions: one, can we talk about the conclusion - is "Bataille for Kids" conceptually deep enough to tie up her case studies? And, two: although I don't think all scholarship needs to justify itself in terms of immediate "use value," can we challenge ourselves to frame this book's usefulness both to its intended audience (scholars of literature and queer studies) and, potentially, to psychological or legal interpretations of childhood?


Liz:
Ah, yes, "Bataille for Kids." Stockton reviews Bataille's ideas from "The Notion of Expenditure" and suggests that Bataille affirms "the wish to create as to destroy - and to lose anyone who would lose loss." (228) Then she asks if this applies to children: do children, while stuck in their labour-free, sideways-growing delay, dream of destruction and waste because they are not yet allowed to do these things? I was frustrated that she asks this question less than 20 pages from the end of the book, and never really answers it; in her last pages she looks at the films Hoop Dreams and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and uses them to suggest that yes, Bataille's ideas transfer to kids. However, it feels like too little proof to back up a theory raised so late in the book.

To get back to your question, Sophie, no, I don't think that her conclusion is conceptually deep enough to tie things up. I think she took some complex ideas from Bataille, boiled them down, and did too hasty a job applying them to her situation. I am wondering, though: do you think that this concept may have worked better if she had introduced Bataille's ideas in the introduction and tied them to her case studies as she went along? Or maybe if she had skipped Bataille altogether and spent her conclusion thinking about the implications of sideways growth?

As for your other question, I agree with you that not all scholarship needs to be immediately practical, but this book definitely straddles a line between purely theoretical, scholarly work and practical, real-world ideas. "Bataille for Kids" comes across as purely theoretical, for example. On the other hand, a lot of her case studies make the suggestion that imposing this "delay" on all children to protect them is not always helpful, which addresses very real issues such as laws on age of consent and crimes committed by minors.

I found this an interesting mix, but ultimately felt that, in trying to use both theoretical and practical approaches, Stockton fails to do either complete justice. So my conclusion on this book in a single sentence would be: Fascinating ideas that need to have a clearer trajectory and conclusion. What about you, Sophie? Since I know you want to wrap up in your next section, I won't lob any new questions at you, but I'd love to hear your perspective on "Bataille for Kids" and thoughts about the theory/reality issue.


Sophie:
I absolutely agree about "Bataille for Kids." It's obvious, just from observation, that kids like to destroy things. It is less obvious whether Bataille's theories explain that urge to destroy, or whether there are other theories in psychology that might provide other alternatives. Ultimately, though, the destructive impulse in and of itself could potentially be enough to argue for a "queered" child - queer in the sense that Stockton cites in her note to the introduction, meaning, firstly, "deviating from the expected or normal" (245). If, as you suggest, she'd started with Bataille and discussed the queer, "sideways" child as the destructive child, that would give us a whole new lens through which to understand her examples of masochism, identification with animals, sexuality, and violence. This is a perspective she suggests we could take, but never follows through on, and I think that is a major shortcoming of her conclusion.

But to wrap up, I do always want to find the positives. I think I enjoyed reading the book more than you did, so my summative statement is that Stockton does a really excellent job with the specifics of each case, without necessarily satisfying our desire to bridge the gap to the general. This might be the distinction I'd make, rather than theory vs. reality, since even in theory (as with Bataille) she doesn't always tie up the loose ends. However, there is something to be said for her having written a book that provides a springboard for so many interesting conversations and that opens up so many avenues for further analysis. To conclude: even with all the questions Stockton leaves unanswered, I'd recommend the book for anyone interested in what questions (literary, psychological, legal, etc.) we can continue to ask about what it means to be a child.

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Thanks for your review of this book. I like the creative format that you chose here. Did you find this format useful/productive/inspiring as you critically analyzed the book? I am always interested in experimenting with different formats for blog entries and this format seems like it might work well for getting students to engage with each other. What are the benefits of this approach? Any limitations?

In terms of your review of the book, I really like one of your central questions concerning the differences between real and fictional children. Liz, you ask: Does art imitate life? Does life imitate art? And Sophie, you write: “in discussing the imagined queer child in literature and film, Stockton never specifically states whether she believes that actual real-life children have the types of relationships that she finds in art.”

I think these are great questions/comments about this project (and about the larger project of determining the relationship between discourses about ideas/subjects and the subjects themselves). In the case of your questions: What is the Child? And how do we understand the idea of the Child in relation to the actual lives of children? Why does Stockton devote her attention only to the fictional lives of children? How does fiction work here for Stockton?

Consider these two passages:

We should start again, with the problem of the child as a general idea. The child is precisely who we are not and, in fact, never were. It is the act of adults looking back (5).

And

So what am I doing when, through my reading of fictional texts, attentive to form, I am producing claims about children. Some of whom don’t appear in History at all? Am I only crafting a history of the present as a kind of fantasy history of the past, finding what I am determined to see? Now exactly. To put it precisely—and, I think, differently from this question—I present the history of these queer children as a matter of fiction, since this history has not taken shape in public ways outside of fiction. Literally, these children—the ones I know from life and the ones I know from reading—lead fictional lives. I can think only beside the terms of history (9).

Now, I haven’t read anything beyond her introduction, so I don’t know what she does with this throughout the main chapters. However, these two passages seem (at least to me) to complicate an easy distinction between: a. the Idea of the Child and children and b. between truth and fiction. (How) does the idea of the Child—an idea that is so entrenched in dominant discourses (especially historical accounts that talk about the “century of the child”)—render any other understandings/lived experiences of children unintelligible? How does the idea of the Child and its emphasis on delay/regulated progress render understandings/lived experiences of growing sideways (as children or adults) unintelligible and impossible within historical (read: truthful) accounts?


I just saw this. I really enjoyed this format for the book review, too. Like Sophie, I appreciated that we had more room to talk about it -- we could cover more ideas in 2000 words than 1000, obviously. I also liked that I could get another perspective, and Sophie pointed out things I hadn't even considered, so to me it felt more like an exploration of the text than me just giving my own opinion.

As Sophie mentioned, it definitely requires good communication -- not just in terms of getting things done, but in terms of discussing where we wanted to take it. The only drawback I can see in this sort of format is that it's hard to map it out beforehand. I mean, we did a rough outline together, talking about which questions to address, but it's harder to envision the overall review beforehand if what you say is going to rely on what the other person says. Even then, I'm not sure this is a drawback; it forced me to adjust my own parts of the review as we went. It kept me on my toes, so to speak.

I definitely think this format has merit, and pushed me to think more about the book than I might have if I were doing it on my own. I would definitely recommend this kind of review, and I would love to do this kind of thing again.

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