Friday, September 30, 2005


Tolkien fans: on the edge of lit crit

A reply to Scott Nokes' comments on The One's discussion of his and Michael Drout's blogs on the state of literary academia:

"They seem to feel as if they have little right to talk about the literature they love," you conclude.

I don't think that captures the spririt of the discussions by the fans and "amateurs" at The One Ring. Remember that on that site, at least, the topic is solely the literature of Tolkien, and just try and tell a Tolkien fan he or she has no right to talk about it! Endlessly.
Furthermore, (almost) no serious academic writing on Tolkien that I've read is particularly obscure or difficult on theoretical grounds - perhaps this is not a coincidence, if Prof. Drout's Tolkienian polemics against impenetrable critical prose are typical of his field.

But if, as Drout and others repeatedly and direly assure us, Tolkien studies is a kind of straight-talking ghetto in the City of Letters, it seems we serious Tolkien fans are shut out of the conversation in any case, on some kind of mock-sociological, or more properly, ideological grounds.

The question Drout is addressing, it seems to me, and the question N.E. Brigand raised for general discussion at The One Ring, was, how does the apparent impenetrability of modern-day theory affect the readers of more mainstream English fiction? His question led off with "OT", that is, "Off Topic": it was not meant to be a purely Tolkien-oriented post. Of course, knowing his audience, he linked Tolkien to the question by asking how the Fan/Scholar relationship in Tolkien studies (a topic on which Brigand is our resident expert) correlated with the General Readership/Academy relationship in contemporary English literature.

Brigand appealed to the academics among the One Ring membership to comment on Drout's droll comments on the decline and fall of sheer cussed brilliance (like Tolkien's and Mayr's) in academe, and your replies on the pros and cons of professionalism run rampant. When last I checked, our resident academics had not weighed in, and he was still getting non-academic, and so fairly Tolkien-oriented, responses.

I think you may be right that many of the responses so far seem to reject "theory", or cling to an illusion that Drout (as an instance of a professor whose criticism is highly legible) is therefore "anti-theory", just because the theory seems so often to substitute for clear writing rather than provide a base for it.

But lit theory doesn't really enter my life (outside of my hobbyist's interest in Tolkien studies). I'm hard pressed to find time to read literary fiction, much less the criticism on it.

This immense body of critical insight, this massive deployment of all the most modern ideas about reading and understanding: who does it reach? who does it benefit? I imagine it is meant primarily for the undergraduates to march off with into a future of enlightened reading -- and, perhaps only through the mass media book reviews, for a more general, but still highly-educated, adult audience. Is that enough? Even if theory is wielded to illuminate fiction, not obscure it, as you hope, how far is that light reaching?

Hey, it's been nearly a week ... you aren't going to let this die with just one post, are you?
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