We're Doomed - Issue #33

Allegories communicate by way of symbols. If we knew how to read them, we'd know we're in big trouble.

As we head into Memorial Day weekend, the news seems cheery. Even the newscasters on NPR seemed optimistic this morning. Tomorrow, in Massachusetts, most Covid-related restrictions will be lifted. Masks are the past!

This is all good, of course. We’re beginning to put Covid in the rearview mirror. Still, and maybe it’s just my nature, I woke up today with a sense of foreboding. A distinct feeling that, to put it bluntly, we’re doomed. I’ll explain…

Three things that, at first gloss will seem random and unrelated to our impending doom, but are, to my mind, pertinent: 1) it’s difficult to get students to see the need to cite scholarly sources as anything more than a hoop to jump through; 2) the art of literary criticism for general audiences is dying or dead; 3) everyone should read A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet.

Let’s start with A Children’s Bible. It’s really good. You should read it. It’s a novel and an allegory and a kind of magical realist pre-apocalyptic story. You know, all the good things. It starts at a vacation home somewhere on the East Coast, where a bunch of parents—friends from college—have rented the place for the summer and dragged their kids along. But it’s the kids’ story. The narrator is Evie and she speaks for the children who range in age from tween to teen. For a while—several chapters—it’s a fun ride; the kids hide from their parents—who are mostly drunk and embarrassing anyways—and have adventures. But then a storm hits, damages the house, floods the lawn, and essentially brings on the apocalypse. The kids flee for a different house that has been mostly spared and begin a new life apart from the world that is falling apart around them, until, of course, the crumbling world comes for them.

The book’s title alludes to an illustrated children’s Bible (I imagined this one, which we own…thanks, Seth), which is given to Evie’s little brother Jack by one of the parents. Evie and Jack aren’t religious—at one point Evie recalls Jack asking his parents what all the long plus signs on the top of churches mean—but Jack is really taken by the Bible, and he thinks he has it all figured out. When the kids are discussing what is afflicting the outside world, someone suggests “plague.” To this, Jack says, “There are plagues in my book.” Sukey, one of the other kids tells him, “The only people who take the Bible literally are Alabama inbreds. And wife-beaters in Tennesee.” Another kid, Jen, adds, “Your family’s not even Christian…And your storybook’s not a user’s manual.”

And this is where Jack educates them: “They say God in the book…God’s a code word…They say God but mean nature…And we believe in nature.” How has Jack figured this all out? Well, he knows something about stories; “Things are symbols,” he says. Jack is right, of course, about his children’s Bible and the novel A Children’s Bible. Things are symbols, but can readers interpret them?

And this leads to my second point, working backward. I recently read this article, titled “What We Lose When Literary Criticism Ends,” in The Walrus, which is a Canada-based publication. The author, Steven Beattie, effectively illustrates what is abundantly clear if you’re paying attention: the art of literary criticism is damn near dead, replaced by Amazon reviews and stars on Goodreads. This is a problem, he writes, because “serious works of literature require a response that is more nuanced, calculated, and considered than the rapid-fire rating system offered on user-generated sites such as Goodreads.” Beattie is particularly concerned with the way that the death of criticism also portends the death of attention to literary technique, which is something that I’m less concerned with I suppose, but to the extent that one needs to pay attention to a writer’s technique in order to interpret the work—to see that things are symbols—I find this trend troubling. 

What can really be accomplished in an Amazon review or a short blurb on Goodreads? Well, here’s an example of an Amazon review of A Children’s Bible that 68 people found helpful, apparently. It’s a two-star review titled “I did not care for it” and here’s a sample: “The book seemed simple, the characters very simple and the narrative rather disjointed to me. And I felt it moved toward being a bit silly in the final 3rd.” The review’s author concludes, “I wish I'd spent my money on something else.” 

Okay, what about a positive review? The next most “helpful” review, according to Amazon is a five-star review indicating the author believed the story an “Engaging Allegory.” Though the review is mostly favorable, there’s also this: “In many ways, this extended allegory is very heavy-handed. It reminded me of the film ‘Mother’ which beats you over the head with its message. But for the most part the novel works…if you’re looking for a fast, engaging, quirky read, I highly recommend this novel.”

I’m not going to go on dumping on Amazon reviews, though the five-star review titled “A good read” with the body text that also says, “A good read,” kind of makes the point. This is not literary criticism, of course. It’s the same kind of review that people leave on toasters and socks.

While a few of the reviews provide a summary, I only found one that actually quotes the text. To be sure, more thorough reviews can be found elsewhere, like in one of the few remaining publications dedicated to literary criticism, The New York Times Book Review, and in smaller, less mainstream publications, but you get the idea.

And this brings me to the final point, which was also my first point: the thing about students and scholarly sources and hoop-jumping. I’ve been teaching college writing for over 15 years (!!!), but I think this year I finally figured out what is going on here. I used to use what I thought of as fun and helpful metaphors as I taught students about the importance of citing existing scholarship in their work. I’d say, it’s like the use of vocal samples in rap songs—you know when the DJ scratches in a word or phrase from another song. That’s like the rapper saying 1) I know my history and 2) this artist that I’m sampling confirms my point. Maybe that’s asking a lot of a rap song, but then, I’ve been asking a lot of rap songs for decades and I don’t intend to stop now.

But here’s the thing about sampling: it can be, but is not necessarily, a reflection of previous listening—rap producers used to call this “digging in the crates.” That is, they’d go to record stores or their own extensive collections and listen, combing through the albums for sounds or vocal clips that fit into their new composition. That’s one way to do it. Another would be to simply select a record at random and use it. Or, now that music and lyrics are all digitized and online, presumably one could just search for something to use. That is to say, my presumption that sampling reflects a kind of study in music is not necessarily true. Sure, some of hip-hop’s best producers and artists are known to have an encyclopedic knowledge of music—think DJ Premier or Questlove—but this is probably becoming less common (if my curmudgeonly, elder millennial view on the ahistorical state of rap is true, of course).

Back to student writing: I find that, unless I actively work against this, there is a notion that citing sources is not necessary to the paper except to the extent that it’s a line item in the rubric. And, if that’s the attitude toward citation, then you get a kind of random selection sampling as opposed to the “know your history” kind. In this version, other scholars’ words are useful to the extent that they are at least kind of related to the point you’re making, and bonus if they affirm your argument.

To summarize: in stories, things are symbols. Interpreting symbols takes time and reading skills, which have largely been replaced by quick takes and shallow sampling. 

So what? We’re doomed.

Doomed to repeat mistakes of the past, to increasingly shorter attention spans, to live lives enslaved to entertainment and convenience. There isn’t really a solution. That’s not where this is heading. Lydia Millet illustrates these same problems allegorically (plus, climate change!) in A Children’s Bible and she ends up at just about the same place. And that’s actually the best thing about the novel; allegory often tries to tie things up nicely, but Millet seems to say, and I agree, that this story is not heading toward a happy ending. There will be no neat bow here. No deus ex machina. No nothing.

Well then, all of that said, happy holiday weekend!