Academic journal article JCT (Online)

The Trouble with Reader-Response Theory When Reading Multicultural Literature: A Critique of Dana Fox's and Kathy's Short's Stories Matter

Academic journal article JCT (Online)

The Trouble with Reader-Response Theory When Reading Multicultural Literature: A Critique of Dana Fox's and Kathy's Short's Stories Matter

Article excerpt

FOLLOWING THE interest in multiculturalism in the 1990s, writers and educators became sensitized to issues surrounding cultural poaching, the practice of Westerners writing about other cultures (Levy, 2000); outsiders writing about alien cultures risk representing cultures inaccurately and stereotyping, and educators taking up these texts in their classrooms risk reinforcing these same stereotypes. Awareness of this issue has encouraged publishers and children's literature award boards to favor authors who are cultural insiders. This trend, however, has led to a backlash among some writers who simply want to tell a good, engaging children's story about another culture. "What is so wrong with writing about another culture?" they ask.

Stories Matter: The Complexity of Cultural Authenticity in Children's Literature edited by Dana L. Fox and Kathy G. Short (National Council of Teachers of English, 2003) presents the panoply of views on what counts as multicultural children's literature. Written for practitioners, that is, educators, writers, and readers embroiled in this debate, the twenty-two essays in the collection employ testimony and storytelling, textual analyses, literature reviews and classroom observations that serve less to prove a point than to give voice to the multifarious views engaged in this heated and ongoing debate. In serving as a platform for these varied views, the collection does not appear to take a stance. However, the order and selection of the essays make clear the editors' implied message: cultural authenticity in literature is difficult to define but can be determined through judicious assessment of the accuracy of the text. This seemingly innocuous stance, which persists in discussions on multicultural literature today, assumes that with proper research, anyone can authentically represent a culture. This view privileges a reader's reception of a text over the political circumstances surrounding the creation, publication, and dissemination of a book. It defines cultural authenticity with the aesthetic considerations of reader response theory over the political considerations inherent in a cultural studies perspective.

As President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) from 20132015, Kathy Short represents an important thinker in the debate over multicultural education and her work with the English Journal and at the University of Arizona reflects her commitment to properly incorporating multicultural literature in our classrooms. Shortly after 9/11, the English Journal, the NCTE's journal for high school English teachers, for which Short served as Editor, devoted an entire issue to World Literature curriculum suggestions. Since that May 2002 issue, the English Journal has continued its commitment to World Literature running a regular column dedicated to issues in World Literature. Her website "Worlds of Words" includes a book-length manuscript of considerations to note when incorporating world literature in the classroom. Short represents a key figure in the study of multicultural literature for K-12 educators today. Her colleague Dana Fox from Georgia State University is a frequent collaborator.

The collection does not acknowledge that it concerns mainly domestic literature, in this case American literature. Although the authors in Stories Matter disagree on what counts as multicultural literature, two of the essays make reference to a definition offered by Cai and Bishop (2003, p. 214) that point out three distinct categories: 1. World literature, "said to include all literature" 2. "Cross-cultural literature" referring to works by one people about another people and crosses cultures and 3. "Parallel-cultural literature", books written by individuals of the same ethnicity described in the book (p. 144). Although five of the twenty-two authors discuss the issue of writing about foreign cultures, the authors in this collection are mainly debating children's books (grades K-8) about ethnic minority cultures, a fact the book resists acknowledging. …

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