Friday, December 05, 2003

English Professors, Tolkien and Genres

(or, why do so many people think English professors are full of crap, part II)

Here is Part I

At the end of the previous post I put the suggestion that simply rejecting PoMo theory folks as being full of it was possibly not the most productive intellectual stance one can take. As Gary Farber notes, it's really easy to take a quick step from thinking that the disparagement of Tolkien by "high culture" literary people is stupid to arguing that the only good writing is genre fiction or that all literary judgments are just bogus snobbery. I don't think that's right.

First, I categorically reject the idea that genre fiction can't be good literature. Such a stance is akin to saying that sestinas can't be good poetry because that form is inferior/dated/impossible. Almost any chosen form, I think, could produce great literature and it would be great in part because of the ways that it interacted with the conventions of the genre (and there are just as many conventions -- and those just as unreal -- in 'standard' literature as there are in fantasy).

So the real question is, how does one go about recognizing good literature in fantasy? You can go with the gut instinct approach, or you can develop detailed sets of rules and definitions and see if a work fits them, or you can say "who are you to judge?" But whatever approach you take, you will be judging the literature, if only in the sense that you'll choose to ration some of your 2 billion seconds of life to reading the work.

The approach taken by mainstream critics could be summed up as: 'the best fantasy literature is that which is closest to mainstream literature in as many particulars as possible,' and this would explain the favorable treatment given to 'magical realism' of Borges, Garcia-Marquez, Llosa, Calvino, Rushdie, etc.

Another approach might be to try to determine which works within the genre create the most powerful aesthetic effects. One can do this simply by solipsistic reporting (it gave me goosebumps) or by sociological survey (x number of people felt this way -- often oversimplifed as x number of people bought this book). Or you can take some kind of aesthetic theory and figure out how the book fits with it.

Finally, you could determine how closely the book fits in with other books in the genre and how influential it has been on other authors.

Tolkien enthusiasts who've stuck with me this far will see that each of the approaches has been applied to Tolkien. He's like a bunch of mid-century authors (Golding, T.H. White) who used fantasy to argue big issues of good and evil; he makes medievalists get goosebumps when he tackles cruces from Beowulf; many nerdy people like me and other super smart folks love/buy Tolkien, therefore he's great; a work of fantasy should say X, and Tolkien says X....

I think in fact just about everyone who is a good critic ends up going with the gut feeling and then constructing an ex post facto explanation for it along the other lines. Only really tedious, programmatic people approach the texts with the theory in hand, waiting to see how it fits (the theory might be unconscious in everyone, but when it's right out there, you're setting up for a boring article).

If English professors better explained that many of us are trying desperately to give some kind of logical, rational, and perhaps even scientific explanation for our gut instincts and prejudices, I think we'd get more sympathy from normal readers who haven't had their brains damaged by grad school. But, sadly, the approaches that I've been reading toward Tolkien by non-Tolkienists (who have every right and responsibility to comment) have tended to sound like pronouncements on high from the Gods of Good Literature. Those Gods are dead. In the age of the internet, I think you have to convince people rather than trying to bully them into doing what you think is right (that's the purpose of syllabi, captive audience classes, and students who desperately need your class to graduate... heh heh heh).

Follow up post will try to get to some specifics of Tolkien's work that, IMHO, substantiate the idea that LotR is great literature.

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