November 29, 2003


Crooked Timber provides the valuable service of, among other things, being a sort of clearing house for all the sphere o' blogs' snobs to get together and dis whatever is the chatterati's bugbear du jour. This being that time of year, the big High Kulchah no-no is to admit that Lord of the Rings is one's favorite novel, or in one's list of favorites.

Now I am sure it is not news to my two or three readers that said book is definitely in my top ten. But you know, I can see why the litcrit brigade hates it so. It's too long. It's about imaginary places and made-up creatures, like a (shudder) fairy tale. All that monarchism -- how reactionary! There is no self-consciously beautiful language that calls attention to itself and screams "Look at me! I'm a Writer!" There is too much exposition -- for instance, the scenes between Gandalf and Saruman, which are real-time action sequences in the movie, take place in expository flashback in the book during the council of Elrond. In fact, all the rest of the scenes in the movie (both parts one and two) with Saruman are not in the book; Saruman's actions are only the subject of discussion and speculation, and there is no face-to-face meeting with him until after the Battle of Helm's deep, a scene which I assume will be in the third movie in some form or another.

But I digress. The commenters to the above-linked post mostly follow the Bloomist "Jane Austin rules, Tolkien drools" line of partisanship. There doesn't seem to be much room for the idea that one can read both authors and find them fine for different reasons. After all, they wrote in different times, about different things...

This is all part of the neverending fight over what constitutes Proper Litrachoor, as opposed to the "good reads" us hobbits grubbing around in our cottages like to curl up with. The idea on the part of the litcrit brigade seems to be "let them watch Survivor." If we won't read -- and praise! -- their idea of "the right books" then we are consigned to the caverns of the Morlocks.

The idea that "high" culture should be difficult and make one uncomfortable comes, I think, from the religious origins of academic culture. The university system, whose denizens are the de facto guardians of the culture, began as an offshoot of the church, and the religious attitude towards things High Educational remains though the term "secular" itself no longer refers to those daily things having nothing to do with scripture that are however necessary for the church to work in the temporal world, but instead now means the opposite of anything having to do with religion. This is why so many academics seem to approach their subjects like flagellants, and also why the opposite phenomenon -- Manic Fun!, i.e., Postmodernism -- has taken such a hold on academic life; this seems to be a particular disease of the Philosophy and Humanities departments of many universities. I have known many an English major who had a simple enjoyment of reading beaten out of him by course after mind-numbing course on theory and dialectics and what-have-you. I myself barely escaped with my sensibilities intact from a minor in Creative Writing. True, I got an "A" in my first course. I wrote a story, which focused almost entirely on character -- there was hardly any of that nasty plot stuff, and my hero -- well, my protagonist -- was almost entirely passive, as many modern short stories seem to call for these days. (Action implies plot, as well as sexism or some other -ism unless your protagonist is a carefully delineated Person of Color and Non-Male Gender -- then she can be a superhero with supernatural powers; you can call it "Magical Realism" and invoke the name of Borges or somebody. You think I exaggerate? Ha ha! Only slightly, I assure you.) I had it online once, maybe I'll put it back up; it wasn't bad, if I do say so myself.

But I'm one of those crass vulgarians who wants to read a story when I sit down; I am not particularly looking to be "shocked" or "made uncomfortable" or "introduced to new ideas," when doing so, though if this happens in the course of my reading I am not put out. But I don't consider that I have wasted my time if I haven't had my horizons blasted open by a breathtaking new insight (or whatever it is these people seem to be jonesing for) when I finish a book.

As it is, I recall the first time I read LOTR, I certainly felt as if I had changed somehow. For the better I hope, but that's something only time will tell. After reading Pride and Prejudice I didn't get this feeling, though I enjoyed the book. Quite frankly I consider most of Austen's work "light" reading -- but that is just my own personal classification system, not to be taken seriously by anyone else. I think that a lot of people invoke her name, though, because they identify her with everything that is "nice" high culture -- afternoon tea, lace and crumpets; people who say "Sir," "Ma'am" (and pronounce it "Mum"), and "Thank you"; men and women walking arm in arm across the Mall; in short, all those "English" things that people seem to associate civilized behavior with. (I blame Masterpiece Theater.) I like all those things too -- and I imagine that the reason I do is the same reason people seem to set up the Austen style as the opposite of Tolkien. Sure, they talk a great game about her "careful character delineation" and her "delicately nuanced language," all of which is bullshit, if I may use a term that Miss Austen would cover her ears rather than hear.

I say that Jane Austen's novels are, in this day and age, as fantastical as Tolkien's or any other fantasy writer's -- even more so, because Tolkien writes about all those gritty, downbeat things like war and violence and death, as well as about things like tea and parties and sitting by a cozy fire. The worst thing I think anyone does in an Austen novel is tell someone off. (Then again, this may seem devastating enough to people who would rather face a horde of ten thousand orcs single-handed than be cut dead at a party.) Okay, I exaggerate just a tad. But my point is....

Bilbo moment. What was my point?

Oh yeah. My point is that Tolkien dissers come off as snobs because their critiques all seem based on social approbation and being known as reading either what is "cool" or what is "civilized." Thus: Austen in, Tolkien out. Or -- (insert famous name in littrachoor) in, Harry Potter out, to link this to the wider world of "realistic" fiction versus straight "childish" fantasy. And by the way, speaking of how devoting oneself to higher culture is supposed to be "good" for one's character, I provide this anti-example: one commenter to the above-linked post snarked about wishing he could tell some hapless reader of Lord of the Rings that "Gollum dies." This pretty much seems to sum of the collective litcrit protest against the book. I left one response, but now I have thought of a couple others -- be really brave, tell someone reading Pride and Prejudice not to worry, Eliza gets to marry the lord of the manor; or, "Good. I hate that little stinker."

Updated/insert: I just wanted to mention that I am in full agreement with Gary Farber's statement that calling readers of Tolkien "witless" and "childish" and saying that all "literature" (as it is known today) is pretentious crap are not useful arguments. Even if I do believe that most modern "littrachoor" is pretentious crap. So is most of everything, some science-fiction writer said once. (Yes, I know who said it, and yes, I have tried to read Theodore Sturgeon's work. I found it to be pretentious crap.)

PS: if you want to hear some of the actual literary criticisms (as opposed to Literary criticisms) of Tolkien, as well as their demolishment by the same critics, get the extended dvd of The Two Towers. The verdict in short? Storytelling wins over perfect adherence to Rewls of Littrachoor.

PPS: if you want a laugh -- a painful one, that is -- listen to the actors' audio commentary over the movie on the same release. Of the two movies' audio commentaries, the actors' versions anyway, I prefer the ones for Fellowship. The actors, at least the principals -- yes, I mean you, Mr. Wood, Mr. Astin, Mr. Monaghan, and Mr. Boyd -- have had time to let their pretentions flower. Especially groan-worthy is to hear Astin and Wood babble on about how the book is really about "all religions" or can communicate to "all religions" and how "all religions are really all about the same thing" or something like that. (I don't feel like writing a transcript.) How can I put this delicately: I don't think that a) Tolkien would have seen it that way, and b) I don't think the actual members of most other religions think so either. It's all very sweet, this We Are All Children of the Universe mentality, but it's also the equivalent of covering your ears and singing "la la la" very loudly. Oh well, thank god for Hollywood, it's like having our own little Shire full of happy, ignorant hobbits.

PPPS: Look! Comments are open! I am curious to see what people think. For now.

Posted by Andrea Harris at November 29, 2003 10:53 AM

It's okay, Andrea. The Morlocks were the true rulers of the Earth. Let the academics think of themselves as beautiful, carefree Eloi if they want. We'll just eat them later.

And you're right: Tolkien would have shuddered at the thought that all religions are about the same thing. He considered Roman Catholicism not a choice to be made but, rather, a reality to which one had to submit. It's especially galling that all that's on there considering how much time the extras that come with the same DVD spend talking about how Tolkien despised allegory and sharply distinguished it from "applicability."

Posted by: Dodd at November 29, 2003 at 02:05 PM

I think pissants like this have ruined literature for most people, and find myself wondering if that isn't their actual goal.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at November 29, 2003 at 02:08 PM

Oh, by the way, I didn't like Lord of the Rings either. Well, not the books anyway. I found 'em a long, grueling, difficult slog, and didn't feel particularly rewarded for having forced my way through them.

But so what? Other than the fact that I get a little annoyed by people who look like kicked puppies when I tell them I didn't like the series, I don't have anything against lovers of LOTR. The book was obviously one of the great masterpieces of 20th century literature, and struck chords deep in the soul of millions of people. I ain't one of 'em, but that doesn't mean I need to be sneering at you Frodoheads. Fucking hell. Anything that encourages people to love reading is fine in my book.

By the way, I don't much care for Shakesepeare, either, so I'm a 'eathen all the way 'round.

Posted by: Dean Esmay at November 29, 2003 at 02:13 PM

I didn't particularly enjoy reading LOTR but I was amazed and entranced by the world he created. The world of Middle Earth and the story of the Fellowship are amazing. If only someone else had helped him actually write the novels...

Oh, and I hated what Jane Austen I read. Ugh. Boring.

I consider myself lucky that I can enjoy crappy books, crappy food, etc... while still being able to tell the difference. I imagine that I enjoy life a lot more than someone who can only enjoy the "good" stuff.

Bolie IV

Posted by: Bolie Williams IV at November 29, 2003 at 02:21 PM

I am tired. I don't know anymore what is considered proper Literature and what isn't and I don't care. I don't know where I got the idea but I used to think Tolkien was one of those writers the uppity intellectuals like. Then the movie comes out and suddenly it's cool to hate Tolkien. I think the uppity literary folks are just trying to re-affirm their position as "Those Who Are Much Too Sophisticated To Like Anything That Is Liked By Anyone Who Shops at Wal-mart." There's no real thought involved.

Posted by: Lynn S at November 29, 2003 at 03:04 PM

I like Austen and Tolkein. Hell, they're both good reads. When you get right down to it, Jane wrote soap operas and John wrote a miniseries.

And if that don't bring down the ire of the literati, I'm watching Reptilicus as I write this (gloriously awful) and I play D&D (a Warmain/Iron Witch giant in the Diamond Throne setting).

(You know, I think I now know where Gygax got the acidic 'breath weapon' for the black dragon in D&D. Matter of fact, Reptilicus sorta looks like an early black dragon.:))

So enjoy whatever you read, and read whatever you enjoy. If it ticks off an academic, read on assured that at least you're reading what you want to and not what others say you should be reading.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg at November 29, 2003 at 04:15 PM

The cast commentary was quite a disappointment to me on TTT. Lots of pontificating about environmental messages and how it's really anti-war not pro-war (puh-lease!) and those religion comments. The director/writer commentary is much better. And the extended edition itself - what an improvement!

BTW, love Jane Austen and have read all her novels multiple times and enjoyed the movies and mini-series productions of them.

Posted by: Kay at November 29, 2003 at 07:31 PM

I tried to count the number of times I have read/reread the LOTR. I realised I have not a clue.FOr me it a perenial read (How the helldo you spell that?)

Posted by: Phil at November 29, 2003 at 08:58 PM

For all the high-class snobbery, one single fact yet remains, which may explain the hostility toward these books. The snobs will die, while the books will endure long after the snobs are forgotten.

Posted by: Paul at November 29, 2003 at 10:30 PM

I dated an English teacher for a while. She told me that all Science Fiction was garbage. When I asked her about Fahrenheit 451 (which I knew she liked) she said 'Oh - that's not Science Fiction.'

Posted by: Ralph M at November 29, 2003 at 10:39 PM

omigawd, I was gagging too over how obsequious Astin was getting about the novels, not to mention the sly references about how it was about 'tolerance' and 'hatred of war.' yes, you put it exactly : they have had time to let their politically correct pretensions fester.

The only thing worse than that was Monaghan's claim that LOTR was ACTUALLY all about Environmetal Issues and saving the trees.


I think you can also sum up the literati crowd as simply being elitist. They exhibit the same snobbery and horror over another fav novel of mine : Dicken's "A Tale of Two Cities" which has numerous plots, some realistic, some not, but all threaded with a common and noble theme. I dont think one can easily say that about "Domby and Sons" which is what the literati crowd thinks is Dicken's highest achievement. They hate TOTC however, because of its wild popularity with the 'commoners.' The fact that it contains the populist Christian theme of sacrifice and love is an anethema to the literati, because it does not distinquish between classes or the 'Informed.' If I may venture to say so, Jane Austen's works, albeit excellent commentaries about what makes a society civil and how that is obtainable by anyone, it still contains a grain of 'noblesse oblige' which is perfect for the literati elitist character : as long as there is someone to consider less 'evolved' than they, it is a 'Good Work of Literature.'

Having said that, I like Austen too...but Pride and Prejudice have really been the only books by her that I have found to be interesting.

Posted by: Sharon at November 29, 2003 at 11:11 PM

Really good insight about the "religious" attitude (ie, pompous piety) which dominates many university environments irrespective of their apparent secular orientation.

C S Lewis wrote a great essay: "Lillies that fester smell worse than weeds" about the worship of "culture."

Posted by: David Foster at November 29, 2003 at 11:15 PM

Note to Lynn S.: Tolkien was being dissed by many mainstream critics when his work first came out in the Fifties (W. H. Auden being a notable, though scarcely singular, exception). After he became a mass phenomenon with the release of the paperback editions in the Sixties, he was truly trashed in a wide-spread, though again not at all universal, way. I'd say that her idea that "Tolkien was one of those writers the uppity intellectuals like" is incorrect, but I'm pretty unclear what an "uppity intellectual" is. Is that as opposed to an 'umble intellectual? Is it an intellectual who doesn't know his or her place?

The reason I made my balanced remarks -- and I've only just now read your comments, Andrea, for the first time, and think they're reasonably balanced as well, overall -- is that I find the sort of literally anti-intellectual attacks we inevitably see spilling out in counter-reaction to attacks on genre works as as unedifying and irritating as said attacks. Perhaps moreso, since I tend to see attacks on intellectualism, however wrongheaded the specific intellectual reasoning, as more threatening both to society and my own sense of self, than mere silly condescension. "Know-nothingism" has never been one of the more attractive streaks in American history, just as attacks on "eggheads" weren't in the Fifties, and attacks on "elitist literati" aren't now.

I also think that the only people who can ruin literature for anyone is themself, and that the quality of a work is utterly irrelevant to whether it is "high" or "low" art.

However, treating "literature" and "literati" as a unitary field is more foolish than I can say. It is precisely as foolish as dismissing "science fiction" or "fantasy" or "mysteries" or -- the horror -- "romances" as all of the same quality.

It's worth pointing out that there is, in fact, significant overlap between high and low culture, with a notable number of writers being acclaimed as writing both. (The list from Iain Banks to Ursula Le Guin to Jonathan Lethem would be long and boring.) Similarly, pop culture is hardly lacking as an academic topic of the past thirty years; Buffyology, anyone? Not to mention the vast field of Tolkien studies.

My closing snobbish declarations: a) say whatever you want about Tolkien, but please spell his name right; in general, if one wishes to rant against "literature" and "snobs," one's arguments appear more persuasive when they're not full of mis-spellings. (This isn't, of course, directed at you, Andrea; it's a general point.) Omigawd, gag me with an elitist spoon now.

(Anyone I've offended might want to skim through my blog for a sense of my general stance on skiffy, fantasy, comics, and pop culture in general, fields which have been dominant in forming my life.)

Posted by: Gary Farber at November 30, 2003 at 02:34 AM

By the way, be sure to check out this.

Posted by: Gary Farber at November 30, 2003 at 04:05 AM

Sometimes a story is just a story. Like you say, it took me several years after undergrad to be able to enjoy reading again. It's like learning to dissect a butterfly...takes a while before you can look at one and see its intrinsic beauty rather than a collection of guts & body parts.

BTW, I love the new site design. Very classy!

Posted by: rita at November 30, 2003 at 09:31 AM

Gary: the link you left doesn't seem to be working. Maybe it's just today...

Posted by: Andrea Harris at November 30, 2003 at 10:43 AM

The technical term is: "oops."

Try this. Sorry. (I'd love to know what you think.)

Posted by: Gary Farber at November 30, 2003 at 12:01 PM

Crap. Never mind what I just said. But the original URL I posted does work.

Posted by: Gary Farber at November 30, 2003 at 12:02 PM

Okay, I read it. Um. Er.

I must admit I used to like some of Alan Dean Foster's work that was not any of his novelizations but I sold the paperbacks to a used book store years ago. I haven't read anything by R.A. Salvatore because I once made the mistake of opening one of his (her?) books Border's or someplace and I had to close the book very quickly and put it down before I did something the store wouldn't like.

I think the funniest line is at the end, "they live in Minneapolis and they have cats." Cats. So that explains it.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at November 30, 2003 at 12:16 PM

I just hate elves. What can I tell you?

On the other hand, I loves me some midget porn.

Posted by: Steve H. at November 30, 2003 at 02:45 PM

Alan Dean Foster did some quite decent original work, I quite agree. Nothing wonderful or great, but some entertaining and competent stuff.

Foster might also regarded as the uber-novelization science fiction author of the modern era, given that he ghost-wrote the novelizations of both "Star Wars," which had George Lucas' name on it, and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," which had Roddenberry's name on it; in neither case did he receive any official authorial credit. He went on to write many credited novels for both publishing programs, of course.

Robert A. Salvatore is a guy.

Posted by: Gary Farber at November 30, 2003 at 02:52 PM

Anyone who has been dissed by mainstream critics is in very good company. That's not exactly what I was talking about.

I can't believe anyone does not know the meaning of the word "uppity" so I can only assume that Gary was being sarcastic. Perhaps it was not the best word to use but sometimes the language lacks any word to say precisely what we mean. I am not anti-intellectual, only anti- certain kinds of intellectuals. Maybe I should call them psuedo-intellectuals because they seem to be more concerned with looking intellectual than actual being intellectual. They simply bash anything and everything that ordinary people like and, if asked, flatly refuse to engage in intelligent conversation about the works they are bashing. In other words, they won't tell you why it's trash; it's trash just because they say so; that's all.

Posted by: Lynn S at November 30, 2003 at 03:25 PM

It's really not about the books - it's about the instinctive need for some humanities academics to use their subject matter to make wider socio/political points. As society changes, they need different touchstones to suit their new perspectives.

Authors who have had their books analysed, lionised or demonised by academics will typically shake their heads in disbelief that so much rubbish can be written about ... a story.

Posted by: ilibcc at November 30, 2003 at 09:20 PM

Never forget: Shakespeare wrote to make money, and was not above writing propaganda (the Richard and Henry plays) for the elite who could ban him from London while pleasing the people who attended his plays. It is the latter who kept his works going.

Posted by: John Anderson at December 1, 2003 at 12:45 AM

A classic pointed reference to the literary academics was made in the movie, "Back to School." In it, Rodney Dangerfield, playing a millionaire attending college, hires Kurt Vonnegut to coach him on his stories, and the ideas and meanings behind them. Rodney later berates Kurt when he receives a poor grade.

Posted by: wheels at December 1, 2003 at 11:34 AM

"I can't believe anyone does not know the meaning of the word "uppity" so I can only assume that Gary was being sarcastic."

As I said, I know the meaning of "uppity." I do not know the intended meaning of "uppity intellectuals."

"Perhaps it was not the best word to use but sometimes the language lacks any word to say precisely what we mean."

This turns out not to be the case as to what is lacking here.

Posted by: Gary Farber at December 1, 2003 at 04:20 PM

Tolkien specifically and explicitly stated that his books were NOT intended as allegorical. His book resemble book resemble religion because 1) they are written as histories, and 2) they unapologetically tackle the struggle of good versus evil.

Allegories, parables and fables are best and most effective when they are short. Novels, especially novels written in a historical style are going to be more effective and entertaining if the include allegories, parables, and fables within the context of the overall story. Tolkien does this. His purpose is to make the story more interesting and meaningful to the reader. But the morality he displays in the book is a necessary part of the story. Without it, the story would collapse. This is why he uses it.

Those who disdain morality as illegitimate are going to find his moralizing tedious. And those who elevate the morality above the story are going to be disappointed by the occasional moral incoherence. The book needs to be read for what it is - a fanciful tale of "world history" which uses morality as the foundational underpinning for a story of heroism. Thats all it is. It is all Tolkien ever claimed it to be. Read this way, I find it very enjoyable.

Posted by: Scott Harris at December 1, 2003 at 05:08 PM

I posted another response to your comment on this post, by the way, Andrea. Just so you don't miss it.

Posted by: Gary Farber at December 2, 2003 at 12:05 PM

You do such good Tolkien posts.

In regards to the audio commentary on TTT, I agree. When Billy and Dom started going on about stopping the movie and how we should all go plant trees, I realized I was not going to like this audio as much as FotR's. Goodness knows what they'll come up with for their RotK commentary.

Posted by: Ith at December 2, 2003 at 12:50 PM