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The Crap Stories We Tell Our Kids

Michelle Dean, writing in the NYT, complains about the young adult genre. She says that publishing now fawns all over writers in that genre who are exceptionally young themselves. They’re producing work that will not last. What do they fail to share with writers who have produced lasting literature for young readers? Excerpt: Age is what […]

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Michelle Dean, writing in the NYT, complains about the young adult genre. She says that publishing now fawns all over writers in that genre who are exceptionally young themselves. They’re producing work that will not last. What do they fail to share with writers who have produced lasting literature for young readers? Excerpt:

Age is what the greats have in common. The long years between adolescence and middle age seem to be necessary soil for this craft. It requires roots, and no quick shoots will do. They need years to grow and tangle and set before the brilliant, unforgettable book appears. Many authors of this fare end up leading eccentric lives — check out biographies of Baum, or L’Engle — in part because their attention swivels backward, but the sacrifice seems to be worth it.

I suppose I’m admitting that those people who call young-adult readers “childish” are onto something. It’s just not the pure desire for regression they pompously diagnose. It’s a desire for stories substantial enough to withstand the ages, that are like smooth river rocks you can turn over and over again. It is an echo of the writing-for-the-ages stuff, and it’s worth preserving. Not least because it is, oddly, one of the last bulwarks of cultural appetite we have against the fast-moving vaudeville of “digital culture.” I think we’d better treasure and nurture it.

The stories we tell our children matter in all kinds of ways. Earlier today, I posted a rambling piece riffing off Ross Douthat’s observation that many Americans today are “scriptless” — that is, they don’t see their existence and their behavior as being part of a wider and deeper story. Russell Kirk once said that traditional conservatives believe that all social problems are, deep down, religious problems. Kirk wasn’t talking about whether or not people go to church, necessarily; he was talking about what people believe about the moral structure of reality, and what that requires of them. The stories we live by — the literature, of course, but also the stories we tell ourselves and our children to explain the world — have consequences both private and public. Martin Cothran elaborates on this insight in an essay about literature and the problem of evil. Excerpt:

This larger narrative framework is what Sam Gamgee seeks when, as he and Frodo are entering Mordor, he tries to put their situation into perspective:

“‘I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales. We’re in one, of course; but I mean: put into words, you know, told by the fireside, or read out of a great big book with red and black letters, years and years afterwards. And people will say: “Let’s hear about Frodo and the Ring!’”

Sam is not discouraged—or at least not as discouraged as he would be if he didn’t know that he was in a story. His and Frodo’s actions—and the evil they had and were to witness—had meaning because they had a context that gave them meaning. They were on a quest. They knew what they had to do and why they had to do it.

They knew the story they were in.

“We are willing to endure suffering,” says William Kilpatrick, “when the suffering has meaning.” This is why literature succeeds where philosophy fails. “Reason is the organ of truth,” says C. S. Lewis, “but imagination is the organ of meaning.”

In his book After Virtue, philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out that in heroic societies it was a person’s role in the community that gave his ethical bearings. The community, with its traditions and customs, provided the narrative scheme within which he played his role, and within which his actions and those of others had ethical meaning. The community provides us with setting within which the drama of life takes place.

“Act well your part,” says Alexander Pope, “there your honor lies.” Our actions can only be called good in relation to the story we are in—and they can only be judged evil in the same context.

Four years ago, I read Jonathan Franzen’s big novel Freedom, most of which I quite liked. It explores the question of what we contemporary Americans — the freest people the world has ever known — do when we can do whatever we want? We are free, but for what? The narrative follows a middle to upper-middle-class family as it navigates its way through life, scriptless. They fall to pieces, but they have the social capital, and the money, to keep it from being a shattering fall. The novel’s conclusion was a huge disappointment because, I think, Franzen himself has no script. He has said in the past that he was raised by atheist parents — his father was “militantly atheist” — who sent him to a Congregational church as a child because they thought the values were good. Last I read, he believed in God as a mysterious presence, but that’s about it. Anyway, as I recall, Freedom is terrific in showing that liberty does not make one happy. But it doesn’t really say what one should do with one’s liberty. That is, it says that to be the author of one’s own script does you no good unless you know where the story should go. The novel’s conclusion is so unsatisfying because it shows its characters as lost without a map, forever.

(I could be remembering the conclusion wrongly. I don’t have my copy of the book anymore. Please correct me if I am.)

I understand myself as part of a Christian narrative. Whatever I experience, I understand it as part of that story. My sister’s death from cancer made sense to me in a Christian way. It made sense to her in the same way, which is where she drew the hope that allowed her to bear her suffering and early death. Neither of us could make sense of it, but our faith told us that there was meaning in it, that nobody suffers in vain. This is a metaphysical conviction. In fact, it is what distinguishes hope from optimism: that even if the worst happens, it will not be absurd, but rather meaningful, even if we cannot perceive the meaning in this lifetime.

As readers of my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming know, the clash of stories caused division and heartbreak between my sister and me. Ruthie understood herself as part of a story that required staying home and staying loyal to place and family; I thought of myself as part of a different story. I did not realize until after she was gone that for Ruthie, her story could not be true if mine was also true. That is, for her story to be true, I had to be a villain in it. I don’t say that reproachfully, but rather to try to understand the power of story in giving meaning to our lives, and grounding to our commitments. Of course I think her story was too narrow and unforgiving, but it was nonetheless a very strong and noble one, and one whose gravity changed the arc of my own narrative (hence the book). For all my chafing at the tight reins our father put on his children in terms of the story he told us — that is, the script he gave us for how to live our lives — I am immeasurably grateful that he impressed so strongly upon us that life truly does have meaning, and that we have a moral duty not to transgress the bounds set for us. I did transgress the bounds he set for me, and I’m glad I did it, because those bounds were wrongly drawn. The point, however, is that never once did I truly give myself over to the idea that life was absurd, that there was no story other than the one we made up for ourselves. Certainly I was tempted by it, but not for long. One has to make the story one’s own, but that’s not the same thing as making up the story entirely.

I can see so clearly now, from the vantage point of someone who is nearly 47, the enormous advantage my father gave me in impressing upon me a script, and not just a script, but belief in The Script. My sister never questioned it; I did, strongly, but the life-giving qualities, and the basic goodness, of my father’s Script meant that my own adaptation was largely faithful to the original. The thing is, if the Script is going to work, you can’t accept it in instrumental terms. Sending your kids to church because the moral teaching they receive there is “good for them” is a waste of time. Even if people believe that the stories aren’t literally true, in order for the story to affect the moral judgment and behavior of a person or a community, there has to be a recognition that the moral embedded within the myth bears a real resemblance to ultimate truth. So many contemporary Americans believe in the myth of freedom (I say “myth” not as something that’s untrue, but a story, or set of stories, that embody ultimate truths). But as Franzen understands, freedom is necessary for happiness, but not sufficient. The great progressive myth is that emancipating oneself from the bonds of community, religion, history, family, and so forth, leads to greater happiness and a more just and perfect society. The problem with American conservatives is that we know at some level that this is untrue, but our own myths are so saturated with the concept of individual liberty that it becomes hard to articulate, even to ourselves, a strong counternarrative to the progressive myth. It drives me nuts the way so many parents who think of themselves as morally conservative allow their children unrestricted, or near-unrestricted, access to pop culture. Who do they think are telling their kids the stories that fill their heads? What values do those stories impart? Are the parents providing counternarratives to give the kids critical perspective on what TV tells them? For that matter, are the churches?

This is a far piece, perhaps, from the point Michelle Dean makes in her Times essay (for which, thank you John David Walters), but I think the two aren’t so far apart. As you know, I’ve been reading Dante’s Inferno to my two younger kids at night — this, at the request of my seven-year-old, Nora, who loves the story, and likes to illustrate each canto as I read. Above, last night’s illustration of Canto VI, which visits the circle of Hell where the Gluttons are punished (that’s three-headed Cerberus in the upper right, with Virgil throwing mud at him). I was at first reluctant to read Inferno to the kids, because the punishments are gruesome, but of course kids love this stuff (Grimm’s Fairy Tales, anyone?), and I’ve been able to explain the moral in each canto in ways they can understand. I stumbled upon telling the Divine Comedy‘s story to my little ones; Nora heard me talking about it so much to her mother, and wanted to know what the big deal was. It turns out that I had underestimated what these kids are capable of, provided that their father helped them understand the meaning of the vivid action. It was Nora’s idea that she illustrate each canto as I read it. This kid is really engaging her imagination with this story. It delights me.

Kids love stories. It’s more important than we often think to make sure they get the right ones — and by “right ones,” I don’t mean dull, moralistic tales; those can inoculate children against true virtue by making goodness seem trite and bland. In the Commedia, Dante returns to the theme of how the stories we tell ourselves shape our imaginations, either for good or for evil. They are not neutral. Developing a good character — indeed, for Dante, eternal salvation — depends on disciplining and purifying the imagination. Stories fill our imagination, and if the stories teach us to love the wrong things, or to love the right things wrongly, we will lose the straight path. In Canto XIX of Purgatorio, a Siren appears to Dante in a dream. She is a hideous hag, but as he stares at her, she transforms herself into a beautiful woman — until Virgil appears to unmask her, and shake Dante from his dream. The point here is that the imagination can easily cause us to fail to see things as they are, and can make the ugly and corrupt seem beautiful and wholesome.

These things matter. A lot.

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