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.