Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sometimes a Goat is Just a Goat

by Mike Knowles

I finished The Road by Cormac McCarthy this week and when I put it down I said to myself, “Wow.” I wasn’t impressed with the depth of the book, the beauty of the language, or the Pulitzer winning genius of the author. I was amazed that such a good story could be muddled down and diluted by a bunch of navel gazing on the nature of man. It was pretty much the same reaction I had to No Country For Old Men. That book was a crime novel with most of the sharp edges sanded off. The movie tried to push the pace a little faster and even then I thought it could have been a better movie if they just had some more scenes where something actually happened.

Like most writers, I have an English degree. All the degree really means is that I was fed a steady diet of classics from around the world for four years. I must admit that most nights I wasn’t giving Jane Austen my full attention. Most of the time in University I was discovering Elmore Leonard or rediscovering Richard Stark. I tried, I really did. I bought every book on the syllabus and sat down to read with a highlighter in my hand. I finished every book but one. The only mess I couldn’t get through was Shamela (don’t look it up or buy it, you’ll just end up resenting me). The high brow stuff was never for me. I hated the way the professors talked about it in class. I hated the way the writers took forever to say one thing. I hated the themes that people swore they saw in the pages like other people swore they saw Jesus burned into their grilled cheese.

What I hated the most about the high brow stuff the University forced down my medulla oblongata, was the professors insistence that every page was brimming with symbolism. I would sit there and listen to how a chair was not a chair but rather a symbol of the uncomfortable oppression that women had to endure in the kitchens they were tethered to and I would think there is no way anyone thought that much about a chair. I knew there were obvious symbols that writers threw in. The kind that jump off the page at anyone who reads the books, but the professors spent days digging deeper into the pages finding clues that they thought led to a holy grail of deeper meaning and wisdom.

I called bullshit a number of times and was harshly rebuked and then stared at by the rest of the class like I was the village idiot. I was the meathead who must have signed up for the wrong class. That was until the day a contemporary playwright showed up in my third year English class. Before this guy walked in the door, we spent weeks dissecting his crappy play. The professor spent a full day on the symbolism of a goat mentioned in about three lines of one scene. A whole day for three lines in a single scene. The goat was a symbol of evil, of the land, of repression. The only thing I ever learned from that lesson is that you can blame almost anything on a goat and people will buy it. I kept my mouth shut and doodled while the goat got labelled an anti-Semite for seventy five minutes. But when the author of the play came in, I was waiting with my pen down.

“The goat is a heavy influence in your work. Why a goat?” I said.

“Goat?” The playwright said. “What goat?”

“In act two scene three.”

No response from the playwright.

“On the farm.”

Nothing from the playwright. Not a peep.

“He was eating garbage.”

“Oh, yeah, there’s a goat there. I had a goat on the farm I grew up on. He was sort of a family pet for me. I just can’t see a farm without a goat.”

I nodded my head, shut my mouth, and spent the rest of my time in class trying to make the professor meet my eye. He wouldn’t look at me because he knew what I knew. The goat meant nothing. The goat was a goat. That kind of stuff ruined a lot of the classics for me. It made them no fun. It was like playing sports with your dad — you just wanted to play and instead you had to sit through discussions about every rule and nuance of the game.

Every now and again I read something like The Road just to make sure my tastes haven’t changed — they haven’t. The books I like are the ones I have always liked. Everything a character says means something, things happen, descriptions are limited to half a page at most. I’m not high brow. I don’t want to decode my books, I want them to speak to me. I want the places in books to appear in my head and I want the characters to become as familiar as old friends. Hardy was never my homeboy — he drinks tea with his pinky pointing out. I’m more comfortable in the streets with Stark.


sandra seamans said...

Just, Thank You! I was beginning to think I was the village idiot because I didn't see hidden meanings in every book I read. A story is just a story after all.

John McFetridge said...

Yes, thank you. I'm sure many of us sat through those classes with the same feelings you had - well, those of us that actually love stories for the stories.

I remember bein forced to take some poetry class as degree requirement and the professor assigning book called "Poetry as Discourse." It talked briefly (it's a short book) about the "signifier" and the "signified."

The prof said, yeah, it means unless something is actually identified as a symbol of something, it isn't. Wow, what a breakthrough, what an eye-opener.

I watch the TV show Mad Men and it's okay. Then I read what people bring to it and I'm shocked. Really, you see a precursor to the Kennedy assasination in Joan's dress splattered with blood in the office? Really?

Good writing isn't a secret code you have to figure out. Well, okay, yes, there's joy in coming to an overall emotional reaction without seeing each of the smaller things that led to it. But you still have to feel it.

Oh yeah, I was also pretty shocked by what passed for insight in English Lit. I often felt, at the end of those endless discussions about a classic, "that's it?" Six hundred pages for that?

That's why Alice Munro is one of the greatest writrs of all time. Short stories. She gets to the point.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Hate to quote Freud here but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
I had an even bigger problem with dissecting poetry, too. Damn those people who can get so much out of a single word.
The blood on Joan's dress is supposedly a precursor to the Vietnam War, too.
Alice Munro, yes!

Chris said...

I just went through a summer of writing workshops with some folks I would love to send this piece to, Mike. Great stuff.

Jm Diaz said...

Awesome. ow right you are... I hate it when folks try to find the hidden meaning in the most insignificant details. It makes me feel much better that I am not alone in this sentiment, and in my preference of books. Thank you!

Jay Stringer said...

I had many of the same problems when i was a film student, it was that endless pointless analysis that contributed to me walking away, because i wasn't willing to play that game.

Sometimes a film is in black and white simply because the stock was cheaper. Sometimes a camera is placed in a certain way just because it looked good, or it was the only place to put it. Sometimes a staircase is just a staircase and not a reference to the Odessa steps.

And to follow on from John, we had the same lectures on "signifiers" I think the moment i knew i was in the wrong place was when the lecturer asked what we thought the shark signified in JAWS.

I'm a huge McCarthy fan though, so we have different reactions to that material. In fact i found both those books to be examples of simply telling the story without throwing in a load of fake bits.And BLOOD MERIDIAN...oooooooh.

But the rest of your piece? Hell yeah.

Karel said...

Once you have something that is tremendously entertaining, some people will want to re-read (re-watch, re-listen) and - hell yes - discover some hidden layers.

If it's not entertainment, it's work. So you should get paid to endure it.

Travener said...

Oh, yeah, I know the feeling so well. We obviously had the same English professors. What I do now is throw a lot of useless, meaningless symbols in my writing. Not that I expect to ever get disected in Lit 101, but just in case, I can be laughing from the grave..........

j purdie said...

Twas ever thus. English teachers going on about 'What the author is trying to say is ...' put me off John Wyndham for years. I'm sure lots of authors have lost readers because of this kind of attitude.

Perplexio said...

The kind of professor you describe is exactly the kind of professor that led to me changing my major from English to History.

Martha Ann said...

Yes. Blame a goat for nearly everything. We really enjoyed your observations and linked to them at

Anonymous said...

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Joan Stepsen
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