Sunday, January 08, 2012

Tolkien and the Nobel Prize

Many of my friends are talking about the revelation that C.S. Lewis nominated Tolkien for the Nobel Prize for Literature and that JRRT was rejected in part because a jury member argued that The Lord of the Rings "has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality."

Many people are getting a good laugh at the "storytelling" critique, and deservedly so. Tom Shippey has long documented the ability of Tolkien's work to cause supposedly intelligent critics to make fools of themselves. There's a long list of names and examples in Author of the Century, and you can tell that Tom enjoys finding obvious contradictions between what the critics say is good writing in other contexts and how they judge Tolkien.

But although we can just laugh at close-minded, self-contradictory critics, it's also useful to try figure out where people are coming from. Although I have never agreed with the idea that Tolkien's prose is bad, I think it is important not to deny that it is different from what mainstream literary taste and scholarship thought was good in the 1950s. Here my critical approach goes in a different direction than Tom's. He is saying "here's what you said is good literature according to your theory, and Tolkien fulfills every one of those qualities on the checklist, so you should admit that it's good literature." This is rhetorically very effective, and I'm grateful that Tom has done it, but I have less faith in mainstream theories of literary greatness.  In the end, I think the contradictions do not show so much that Tolkien is great literature, but that the abstract theories of "what makes good literature" are pretty much useless.

The style of Tolkien's prose isn't bad.  It's merely discontinuous (mostly) with the stylistic conventions that were in place at the middle of the twentieth century.  Modernist were trying to make their prose seem new and different--the meta-instruction for all Modernist prose could be conceived of as: "never write a sentence that has previously existed. Try not even to use pre-existing phrases.  If you must use a pre-existing collocation, only do so ironically." Tolkien was attempting to make his prose connected to long traditions in English.  High-culture Modernists just don't understand Tolkien because he violates that fundamental convention. The irony is that Tolkien is discontinuous from Modernism in the same way that Modernism was attempting to become discontinuous from the pre-existing tradition.

Modernism wants a reader to feel that there is no tradition, no pre-existing set of conventions and cliches (though there is, as you can easily see by reading a bunch of second-tier mid-century Modernist works). Tolkien was quite deliberately linking with the traditions of English literature (particularly medieval literature), resurrecting popular poetic forms (i.e., no blank verse, almost no pentameter in his poems), and making his text appear as if it is part of a long-standing tradition. The aesthetics are completely different, and it's hard to see the Nobel committee being willing--or able--to get beyond their comfort zone in the Modernist style.

The great contribution of the "Theory Wars" was to cast doubt on the pronouncements of the literary establishment and even on the wisdom of taking that establishment very seriously.  The drawback is that political interpretations end up colonizing all analysis of texts because politics is a lowest common denominator for criticism: you don't have to analyze in much detail if all you are talking about is politics and ideology. Political analysis is easy compared to aesthetic analysis when aesthetics are divorced from "this is what my friends and I like," an ideology that is, unfortunately, quite well enough established in literary studies to maintain its hegemony over the ever-shrinking field.


bogoizbrania said...

I think the explanation for this negative assessment of Tolkien is entirely political reasons for awarding the Serb Ivo Andric. I live in Bulgaria near the Yugoslav border and I know of older people that the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin openly discussed military intervention in Yugoslavia in the late 40s. In the 50s Yugoslavia openly sided with China in political conflict with the USSR and the question of military action was again raised. In Sweden, are highly sensitive to the threat of Soviet and Yugoslav prize of the Swedish Committee contribute to the Cold War. The question of the prize in 1961 is actually highly political, not literary.

Evan said...

Recently I have been thinking of what is the value of "criticism" as opposed to opinion driven "review." This whole issue of the Novel Prize that wasn't has prompted me to try to get some of thes thoughts down.

Formal "criticism" is supposed to be in some way based on an earned ability to discern value in art. Supposedly there has been study under some rigor of academia, and there is some agreed upon meritorious system for measuring one piece of art from another. Obviously, such "popular" and "vulgar" qualities as level of readership, commercial success, and even longevity of work, don't make the cut for the real critic.

The problem, as you point out, is that it all just appears to be a sham. There is no rigor and no objectivity. It is all just a dressed up bit of balderdash. The self-anointed priesthood of literary criticism appears to just be an exclusive club of self-congratulatory snobs, who pass their opinion reviews as pronouncements on truth in valuing art.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a well written opinion review. Not everyone likes the same thing. Not everyone is ever going to like Tolkien, or everything he wrote. A well written opinion review can lay out assumptions, provide references for the reader to assess whether he or she is likely to share the reviewer's opinion, and then make a choice as to whether to be guided by the opinion or not in doing something like actually going out and buying or borrowing from the library the reviewed work (book, movie, etc.). A well written review is a valuable thing.

But, it is not what is valued in a "cultural" or academic circle. More vulgarity lacking in intellectual merit, whatever its utilitarian aspect.

No, "criticism" aspires to something "higher," which would appear to mean not useful or utilitarian, and particularly pretentious. And I say pretentious in the most condemning way, because it dares to pretend that if you do not read and understand art in the way the "critics" do, then you are small and mean and inferior in your intellectual and emotional ability to experience art. I find, at its worst, this "discipline" is all about a tyrannical hegemony of a kind of orthodoxy of taste that does not seek to learn what speaks to people and why, but rather to define what it believes should speak to people. Those who disagree are inferior, and what they like must be pedestrian, "popular" and (horrors of horrors), "genre."

According to the link you posted, Ivo Andric, an ethnic Croatian living in what was in 1961 Yugoslavia, won the Nobel Prize. He edged out Tolkien and many others with the committee. Since I have never heard of him, I could not possibly comment on the merit of his work nor of him being chosen. In the end, the fact that Tolkien's writings still find the applicability that he extolled to millions of people, is the best indication on relative merits. It is of little moment that Tolkien was passed over in 1961. Of course, he probably could have used the cash then, and it would take a better Tolkien biographer than I to know what impact that would have been. Still, this "late breaking" news from 1961 continues to highlight the divide between those who hold high and low opinions of Tolkien's prose, storytelling, oeuvre, etc., and gives, sadly, an unnatural comfort to those critics who can continue to claim that Tolkien has long been recognized as "inferior."

I would conclude that it is criticism and not Tolkien's prose or storytelling that has proven itself inferior. I appreciate that you are out there fighting the good fight and taking the entire house of cards that is literary criticism to task.

John Cowan said...


Formal "criticism" is supposed to be in some way based on an earned ability to discern value in art.

Well, no, that's a mistake, though a very common mistake. Criticism of art is the study of art, in the same sense that physics and chemistry and biology are the study of nature. Some parts of nature may be more interesting to natural scientists than others, though Richard Feynman did some of his best physics based on considering how a dinner plate wobbles when you throw it in the air. But physicists don't try to evaluate nature, calling some parts 'good' and other 'bad'.

Northrop Frye spoke of "all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock-exchange. That wealthy investor, Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish. This sort of thing cannot be part of any systematic study, for a systematic study can only progress: whatever dithers or vacillates or reacts is merely leisure-class gossip."

Evan said...


Thanks for your measured response. The last think I want to do is start a pointless flame war with some mistake I have made and make Professor Drout think better of returning to blogging.

Despite your explanation, I don’t really understand how lit crit is like physics. Your quote seems to make lit crit seem more like the stock exchange, but that seems not really like something studied through the scientific method.

Maybe you were talking about two different things, but I don’t feel closer to knowing what lit crit “is” even if you’ve clarified what it is not.

I also don’t see how lit crit can’t really be about what is “good” and “bad” when so many supposed practitioners seem to be saying exactly what is good and bad.

I’d appreciate more input, if that is not hijacking Professor Drout’s blog for my enlightenment.


Michael said...

Evan, I'm thrilled that people might have a discussion in the comments, and it will do the opposite of drive me away from blogging. I just feel bad when I don't have time/energy/intelligence to respond to everything, so when other smart people do, that's a huge help.

I agree with bogoizbrania that there is almost certainly a political dimension to Ivo Andric's getting the Nobel, but Tolkien wasn't even one of the top three, so it's not like the politics was determinative for his particular case (i.e., even if the Cold War politics hadn't been involved, it wouldn't have been Tolkien, but Graham Greene).

Michael said...

Evan, I think that the study of literature can and should be more like physics in that it should not be a matter of taste but instead of logical argument. That's why I prefer "scholarship" to "criticism." We should be trying to understand very complex, multi-dimensional human phenomena, and saying "this prose style is bad" is only marginally helpful in answering large questions. You can't get away from that kind of evaluation entirely, as at some point you have to make decisions about what to put on the syllabus and what to read, but one of the few really good things to come from the theory wars of the 80s and 90s is a radical distrust of the old evaluative hierarchies. Unfortunately the vacuum has been filled by "all politics all the time" and a rather shallow politics at that, but anything that disrupts the hegemony of people like Edmund "Bunny" Wilson or causes us to doubt pseudo-intellectuals like Michiko Kikutani is to some degree good.

Evan said...


Thanks for your responses and thoughts. I appreciate that you take your time to pose interesting questions and/or prompt lively discussion about so many interesting topics.

While I can agree that the study of literature might better be akin to physics in that it aspires to some kind of objectivity and seeks to develop falsifiable theories, I don't know that anyone is actually doing this.

"Theory" in this corner of academia doesn't seem to be much more than a school of thought about how to form and have opinions about things. If I am following the sketch of development you have laid out, it used to be about "modernism" (and what was good prose, good storytelling, and good art) and now it is more about politics (what is colonialist, sexist, oppressive, racist, etc.).

While the values students are being told to base their opinions on seem to have changed, I don't see that we have progressed any way towards physics (or any kind of scientifically derived knowledge).

I can agree, we ought to find value in studying literature and we have to have some method of choosing whether we study Andric or Tolkien or Twain or Shakespeare or Morrison or Oates or whomever. But I can't see how the project of study has any integrity to it. And more importantly, I don't know if I, or more importantly, people who actually make their bread and butter doing it, have any sense of how to do it.

In the end, all I can say is that I am reading the Lord of the Rings aloud to my children now, and hearing the words flow out sounds beautiful and the story they weave is powerful. I rarely find anything that is valued highly in literary circles, from my outsiders vantage point, that comes close to my experience of Tolkien.

And if their theories can't reasonably explain that, then they have a long, long way to go.

John Cowan said...


Boy, is my comment incoherent. It looks like I saved early or deleted something just before saving (post in haste, repent at leisure!) As you correctly assumed, the quotation from Frye was meant as an example of what literary criticism is not. Indeed, Frye and I agree on this point, as on many points.

What I should have been saying is that criticism is the systematic study, not of the supposed value of artworks, but of what they are: their relationships to one another, their meanings, and so on. Michael (and Frye) are right to say that there needs to be some way to decide what goes in the syllabus, but that's a pedagogical rather than a scholarly issue: it's not exactly obvious why high-school physics students study the behavior of cannonballs rather than satellites, either. ("East takes you out, out takes you west, west takes you in, and in takes you east" — explanations on request). Such decisions don't have to last forever, either. In any case, physics itself does not have a prescribed list of good and bad topics, much less a pseudo-theory about why the good are good and the bad are bad.

The theory wars, as Michael rightly says, killed the old evaluation hierarchy, only to replace it with a set of conflicting evaluation hierarchies, and so much the worse for scholarship. Those who can remain scholars of the humanities in academia today have all my admiration.

If you have the time, I suggest reading the Polemical Introduction to Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957). Half a century on, it still sums up the issue very clearly.

Evan said...


Thanks for circling back. I understand better where you are coming from. I will gladly read the work you have pointed out. Just a matter of making the time to do so.

Your observation about "the old evaluation hierarchy" puts me very much in mind of our modern political experience with say, Yugoslavia or Iraq. Once the old dictator is dead or overthrown, you find out that tyrrany was the only thing holding society together. The infighting, open way, ethnic cleansing, sectarian violence, and on and on, then threaten to eclipse the evil of the old regime.

Sad to think of universities hosting such madness, but certainly in my own flirtation with graduate school (and this in the social sciences) I encountered enough of the down side of the academic life to send me in a very different direction.

Still, there are lots of people who are trying to make sense of things and to share what they know with students, colleagues and the public because the pursuit and distribution of knowledge is the right thing to do.

And for that I am very grateful.

Thank you for sharing your ideas with me here.

Juan said...

Dear Mr Drout:

The following is the blurb from a book written by one of my teachers on the very topic being debated:

"When The Lord of the Rings was published in the 1950's it did not sit comfortably among any preconceived notions of literary genre. The critical responses reflected the confusion: for some, it was an unwelcome reappearance of narrative standards that modernism was supposed to have done away with, or just a bad novel. Others considered it a refreshing work in the epic and romance traditions. Ironically, much of the critical prejudice regarding the question of genre in The Lord of the Rings has been motivated by the same kind of blindness that Tolkien denounced in his famous 1936 lecture Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Like Beowulf, Tolkien's work has also failed to be properly appreciated and assessed due to a general refusal to accept the centrality of monsters, because despite its 'monstrous' originality and fantastic setting, it is very clearly, and not only chronologically, at the centre of twentieth-century literature. The Lord of the Rings and the Western Narrative Tradition is an attempt to account for the particular genre interaction that governs Tolkien's tale and put it in a meaningful relationship with the contemporary literary context. At the same time, it is a quest to track down one of the most famous and elusive literary monsters of the past century by filling out a long-neglected white space on the map of comparative literature and genre criticism."

Did you read it?