14 October 2013

A Critical Judgment of Popular Writing

Edmund Wilson writes, in a review of Tolkien's Fellowship for the Nation magazine in 1956:
Now, how is it that these long-winded volumes of what looks to this reviewer like balderdash have elicited such tributes as those above? The answer is, I believe, that certain people - especially, perhaps, in Britain - have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash. They would not accept adult trash, but, confronted with the pre-teen-age article, they revert to the mental phase which delighted in Elsie Dinsmore and Little Lord Fauntleroy and which seems to have made of Billy Bunter, in England, almost a national figure. You can see it in the tone they fall into when they talk about Tolkien in print: they bubble, they squeal, they coo; they go on about Malory and Spenser - both of whom have a charm and a distinction that Tolkien has never touched. 
As for me, if we must read about imaginary kingdoms, give me James Branch Cabell's Poictesme. He at least writes for grown-up people, and he does not present the drama of life as a showdown between Good People and Goblins. He can cover more ground in an episode that lasts only three pages than Tolkien is able to in one of this twenty-page chapters, and he can create a more disquieting impression by a reference to something that is never described than Tolkien through his whole demonology.
Shall we apply this to the love of Rowling's "Potter" and whosit's Twilight books?  Quite possibly to any or all of the best sellers--to all of our writing generally, and hence a revealing expression of our very "selves"?

Perhaps the lament for the demise of reading in a culture where hundreds of thousands of books are published and so many thousands of acres of trees are felled (this is, generously, waste product) to accommodate this (please use an e-reader for your fictions and your faux-political-populist propaganda) is, really, a lament for the demise of the grown-up.

America, land of the immature.  Perhaps Lawrence was most prescient in his acknowledgment of what might be the prescience of Fenimore Cooper:
What did Cooper dream beyond democracy? Why, in his immortal friendship of Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo he dreamed the nucleus of a new society. That is, he dreamed a new human relationship. A stark, stripped human relationship of two men, deeper than the deeps of sex. Deeper than property, deeper than fatherhood, deeper than marriage, deeper than love. So deep that it is loveless. The stark, loveless, wordless unison of two men who have come to the bottom of themselves This is the new nucleus of a new society, the clue to a new world-epoch. It asks for a great and cruel sloughing first of all. Then it finds a great release into a new world, a new moral, a new landscape. 
Natty and the Great Serpent are neither equals nor un-equals. Each obeys the other when the moment arrives. And each is stark and dumb in the other's presence, starkly himself without illusion created. Each is just the crude pillar of a man, the crude living column of his own manhood. And each knows the godhead of this crude column of manhood. A new relationship. 
The Leatherstocking novels create the myth of this new relation. And they go backwards, from old age to golden youth. That is the true myth of America. She starts old, old, wrinkled and writhing in an old skin. And there is a gradual sloughing of the old skin, towards a new youth. It is the myth of America.
Which is as much to say that this is a land of erasure and our social and cultural work has been in the service of this returning to the blank state of emptiness.

These books for the immature--these are not for children; rather they are the balm for the wound inflicted upon us by modern industrial society.  The phases of your life are entirely in the service of a social "master" and you have no opportunity to become fully a man or a woman, a fully mature human.  Our popular literature reflects that situation perfectly.

Your thrills and excitements are childish; but the worst of this is that your childishness is not childlike--rather you are warped by the too-long viewing of "adult" secrets.  In this you are become the stunted version of the human, de Sadian in your pleasures and pains.  So much is de Sade's vision our common ground that it seems to me now no longer even worth asserting...are you a sadist?  No, you are the 21st century human locked into the new normalcy of a grotesquerie.

Perhaps the catastrophe to come will strip this bare and, as noted by Lawrence and illustrated by Cooper, those of you left will be able to stand as though newly born at the beginning of the world; and so to inhabit this desolate, infertile Eden.


  1. While I don't disagree with the conclusions of this piece, I will complain about the Tolkien drive-by that opens it.

    Criticizing Tolkien on a literary level is like shooting fish in a barrel; by background, he was a linguist and a mythographer, not an novelist. Of course he did write novels (sort of), and it's reasonable to critique The Lord of the Rings as such, but by doing so, and stopping there, the value of what Tolkien did is overlooked. One could read the Prose Edda and write a very similarly dismissive novel review, but that would certainly be missing the point.

  2. One can "make points" in a barrel too--especially with the large baggy barrel of the Tolkien mythography.

    This is the difficulty with fiction as a vehicle for "points" or truths, right?

    So, Middlemarch (all of George Eliot) uses the form with exactly this intent...the novel of moral instruction. Is this Tolkien's intention as well?

    Take two Utopias/Dystopias: Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a didactic propaganda and it cannot be misunderstood. You can argue with it, sure, but the argument against is of a piece with the argument for. It is a "managerial" approach to a progressive betterment of the world (what the Pinker faction will call a US Hegemony--it's probably not lost on folks re: the uneasy father/son relationship of Chomsky/Pinker that his Better Angels is a shot across the bow of Chomsky's view of America).

    Brave New World comes closer to art in its literariness--in its struggle with literature and science and social "science." In fact, we can argue till the end of time about the final "message" of the book (and probably every scene). Mustapha Mond makes the best arguments in the book...but are we to believe the shakespeare-minded Savage is the truer of the two? Or is Helmholtz or ideal paradigm sent to live a truer (true to his burgeoning humanity and genius) life on the Falklands? Surely Bernard Marx is pathetic but this is a state of mind due to his "outcast" nature--smaller stature than most Alphas...

    What does Tolkien offer us and what have the legions learned?

  3. Does all writing have to be for grandiose purposes, to further society? Your comments are harsh and dismiss the value of the human need to dream. Is that so awful? Not in defense of Rowling or Meyer, but there's room enough for all kinds of books, I think. And the cream will rise.

  4. I suppose it all depends on one's take on being human in the world. I can as readily as the next person enjoy a movie or a book without concern for the "social." But that for me is a kind of forgetting and relaxing, and possibly not unnecessary (but as easily achieved in many other ways). And sure, I suppose someone has to write those, but at the same time, they've been written over and over again.

    That is to say, who has read even the books of 3 years ago if not 5, 10, 100, 1000, 3000 years ago? What has not already been written that as readily speaks to our age? Yes, we can write our own books (and I itch to do this), but they must be for us first--as discovery, as a deepening--and not for the vicissitudes of a rapacious "culture" greedy of another entertainment to distract us.

    I suppose at this point in my life I'm arguing against time's cruelty. Where once it was a blunt instrument it has taken on an edge.

  5. I suppose you should do as Asimov said he would when presented with his death: write like hell (my paraphrase). He also said this, too: “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

  6. I think you just confirmed my perspective, right?

  7. maybe, but you should still write like hell. and enjoy it. whatever comes out, like musketeer dribble.

  8. What does Tolkien offer us and what have the legions learned?

    That's an interesting question. I'll start my answer with another question (please overlook the impropriety):

    Who is "us?"

    If "us" refers to the "legions," my answer is very little, other than a pretty uninspiring 12+ (currently) hours of very melodramatic and conventional cinema. I suppose "uninspiring" is a matter of perspective; those 12+ hours have led to whole lines of plastic action figures sold at discount toy stores everywhere.

    But really, what does any (L)iterature offer to the legions? If it offered something to them, it wouldn't be (L)iterature, would it? Or the "us" wouldn't be legion. Frankly, I can only imagine a very select few of our existing legion successfully slogging through the 1,200 or so pages (minus the appendices) of The Lord of the Rings. Can you imagine them trying to read The Silmarillion, or more comically, The Lays of Beleriand?

    I read The Lord of the Rings when I was 12. I liked the maps. I liked the invented languages (I read the appendices). I liked the songs. I was curious as to whether or not orcs had free will. I found the sorrowful nature of the immortals (elves) deeply challenging. I enjoyed remembering all the names and places and relationships. I think my reading of Tolkien made Homer and Thucydides easier.

    But we're not talking about Tolkien as children's literature.

    In fact, I re-read The Lord of the Rings probably five times or more until I was about 25. Tolkien certainly inspired my interests in Anglo Saxon and Finnish when I was in college. He was also the inspiration for taking courses in European folktale and Scandinavian mythology, and I could probably even say that he was my inspiration for learning Chinese. I likely would not have study linguistics without Tolkien, and that was my avenue for discovering Noam Chomsky.

    So for me, even as an adult, Tolkien offered quite a lot.

    I don't really read Tolkien anymore, although I did read The Children of Húrin a couple of years ago. I thought it was quite good - very tragic. The simple good vs. evil structure of Tolkien will likely always be easily accessible to the legions - for God's sakes, even Led Zeppelin incorporated Tolkien in their lyrics. Perhaps there's a seed of questioning in there too; should I adopt the tactics of my foes to defeat them? Maybe that question could lead some of the legion off to read Nietzsche.

    He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

  9. Jennifer, yes, of course you can write joyfully in whatever mode and on whatever subject you like! Seeking to make words walk and talk seems valuable to me as an aspect of conscientious making.

    Bobby V., you are right to point out the ways in which children's literature can lead one into deeper bodies of water. (It was a point of Lawrence's re: our classics that we classify them as children's literature, or "boy's lit.")

    I suppose this is part of Wilson's point--and the point I borrow for Rowling et al.--there are books that fire the heart for flights of adventure, but to move inland, we must hunker down. Did you know Thoreau was a great reader of travel books and stories of exploration--as well as sharing a love of Walter Scott with all his contemporaries (he has a bio essay on Scott).

    Borges too was a great reader of Nordic mythology and languages. Beats me what this has to do with anything here though.

    I suppose seeking outside the consumption engine one wishes that we were less "legion" and more singular and that perhaps the machine would leave us to discover our own tastes. One imagines that Tolkien still has a fairly narrow fan-base as literature, but this is not true of Potter.

    But again, I am only speaking out of a kind of awakening. I had never loved Melville so much until I heard him read to me. And though Salinger led me to seek out esoteric books along with Dostoyevski and Kierkegaard I did little actual reading of these and even less study.

    I think this is the point I'm finally getting around to making: we really ought to study more than read.

    Perhaps that's all I'm saying.

  10. Borges too was a great reader of Nordic mythology and languages. Beats me what this has to do with anything here though.

    Because Tolkien is Nordic/Germanic/Uralic mythology and language with training wheels.

    Some people just get on a bike and ride. Some don't.

    There's an old guy (older than me) on my street who rides a big 3 wheeled motorcycle. I chuckle when he zooms past. I probably shouldn't. My big bad Triumph just sits in the garage, and I toodle along on a bicycle.

  11. I agree with Jennifer--not all reading needs to be for some higher purpose. Some reading is simply meant to entertain, to make one think or to make one experience emotions. Or to provide a wider world view. What have you. Tolkien may not have been a novelist but he was a most creative person--LOTR is rich in history, language and the ever present battle of good and evil. There are many out there (myself included)who have read all 1200 some pages. And gone back to reread them time and time again. Yes I read it when I was 11--appendices and all. Maybe it takes me back to a simpler time in my life--i think there is nothing wrong with that. My 11year old daughter has read it through twice this year--she loves trying to figure out the Elvish language, seeing how the history comes together, imagines back stories for the characters. It's a world in which she can immerse herself and be creative with her imagination. I think the twilight books are pedestrian but I do appreciate the creativity of Tolkien (and Rowling too, to an extent.) Allegorical literature serves a purpose too. I know you and I disagree on the merits of Tolkien and his contemporary CS Lewis. They are misconstrued as children's literature by some but the allegories in them are farther reaching than that. Think your two other commentators have stated it better than I can.

  12. I don't know quite know how to disagree. I think maybe, Focus, you hit on one feature Wilson is pointing to that is disagreeable, the simplicity of the good/evil construct actually creates what may be a harmful dichotomy especially when "encoded" at 11 or 12. Power corrupts and is truly evil even in the hands of the best of us; but the simplicity of the Orc aspect is likely confusing as "allegory"--and people, real people, are not "allegorical." We have our own Tolkienesque "other world," I suppose, in the Star Wars movies.

    Luke is good, no matter what; Vader is corrupted. But the Emperor?

    Again, reading with an open and agile response to any literature is different that "just reading," it is a critical stance that argues with the teller and the tale.

    But, I have to come to this point--what gives, you who will read 1200 pages of that prose and will not read Moby Dick?

  13. So does Focus also stamp his/her foot at reading Moby Dick? I stand not alone, but now that I know you, Doug, "heard" it first, this gives me hope. Not that reading the first 200 pages was torture, but it was a good stand-in for Ambien.

  14. For me the best time to read or write is upon waking...as chanticleer in the morning.

    "The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air—to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light."

  15. Doug--I have read Moby Dick in its entirety. I was 17 and a senior in high school at the time. I have not been able to successfully get through it again as an adult. I've made attempts but lacking large amounts of time to sit and read have made it difficult for me. I can't read a few pages and go back 3 weeks later. I'll grab it next transatlantic flight--that's how managed to get through the Brothers Karamazov.
    And yes I can read 1200 pages of Tolkien over and over. I've also read Silmarillion, Lost Tales and Children of Hurin. Perhaps I am just lazy--they are not "work" for me to read. I can put the book down and return to it a few days later with ease. I haven't managed that with Melville.

  16. That sounds like your reading of Tolkien is like a nostalgia; and yes, some reading is work. The effort is worth it.

  17. Well it certainly wasn't nostalgia the first time around!!
    Here's a speech by Neil Gaiman. He expresses himself better than I can.

  18. it is interesting to imagine the way a female "identifies" with a Tolkien novel...How did you "live' in that world?

    And it seems to me that Gaiman gives me reason to fear SF:

    "I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

    It's simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls."

  19. To fear innovation? Too simplistic to blame it all on SF. The Chinese grasped at one small item on a list of many possibilities.

    As for a female identifying with a Tolkien novel--do you mean because there are so few female characters? Or because there is an ongoing war theme? Neither have anything at all to do with it for me. I'm a devout lover of Arthurian legend as well. Again lots of war, battles and precious few female characters. Ditto for Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and others that I loved to read as a kid. It is multifaceted as far as appeal. Language, culture, a medieval feel, knights, chivalry, good and evil, to answer you most simply. Likely why I love The Game of Thrones books by Martin and pretty much anything Guy Gavriel Kay has written. Trivia about Kay--he assisted the Tolkien estate with the publication of the Silmarillion.

  20. possibly it's simplistic to imagine that conventional fictions are the primary generation of flights of fancy or that these fictions don't just as readily instill ideologies we'd best be rid of...and as to the reading you mention beyond Tolkien, it seems of a piece with Romance "hero" literature.

    We ought to find it a necessity to move beyond these kinds of fictions and fantasies of noble warriors and saviors of humanity in the face of an evil that exists outside or our favored group.

    The Noble Imperium that is Camelot is nicely undermined by Monty Python's Holy Grail!

  21. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of my all-time favorite movies. I can quote it at will. As can my children now (except I censored the castle anthrax scene.)

  22. But also Tolkien didn't have a major hero character save all. It was a group of good people of common purpose and nor hero type folk at all--but they still managed to do it. Because they were good people who cared about their world and the people in it. And did what was necessary.

  23. I think you're reaching a bit with that one, Pho...The hobbits certainly seem lovely and an idyllic kind of "commons" creature, but there are only heros in LRoT...there may be more than one, but each "great man" serves their particular faction like no other being could.

    (do elves have gender disparities--that is, an female elf seems on par with male elves in all things, yes?--not so the others, right?)

  24. I don't think Sam and Frodo are traditional heroes. Nor merry and pippin. The hobbits in general don't fit the traditional heroic persona. You can argue about Aragorn but again he isn't quite the traditional conventional hero. Boromir yes but flawed by his need for glory, victory and power.
    And the elves are the only ones with somewhat gender equality. Still a dearth of women in the trilogy but at least two of the three main ones are strong characters. Arwen more fleshed out and strong in the film version--I am typically a purist but I was ok with that deviation from the books.