Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Golden (or Gilded?) Age in Tolkien Studies

After a year of dissertation research on ole' Tollers, I can't believe I'm just encountering Troels Forchhammer's Tolkien Transactions, a fantastic attempt to catalog on-line Tolkien commentary, news, and criticism. It's a gold mine.

So now I'm catching up on old posts, which is why I'm a few months late to the following debate.

Apparently, a November article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "Tolkien Criticism Today" by Norbert Schürer, has caused a bit of a stir among Tolkienists. He reviewed a series of seven recent books on Tolkien, noted that some were much, much better than the others, then criticized such tendencies in the weaker books as bad writing, failure to properly develop the argument, preaching to the choir, etc. But while Schürer does have some infelicitous comments ( although LOTR doesn't have "unrelenting" heroism, I like to be generous in my interpretation of such statements), what really seemed to raise people's hackles was claiming that "Tolkien studies is in a sad shape."

That, of course, is hyperbole. As a field, Tolkien Studies is actually booming, particularly among academics, but there's also a lot of truly horrendous waste-of-time crap out there. One of the benefits (flaws? okay, flaws,) of doing a dissertation on limiting funding is that one has to read a lot of work in a very short amount of time. That means I have to "gut" academic works and make almost-but-not-quite snap judgments on their quality. Some books -- a distressing number, in fact -- are quickly deemed to be utterly worthless, so I move on. (Some of these have even gotten positive academic reviews by Tolkienists.) But the crap I find tends to be crappy for precisely the reasons Schürer points out: bad writing, bad arguments, pointless digressions, relatively senseless compare/contrasts, etc.

The ubiquity of such crap is the reason I always check a book's publisher beforehand -- McFarland, for example, will publish mostly anything; whether it's good or not entirely depends upon the individual author.

Hence the following two responses to Schurer, I think, are motivated almost entirely by the claim (which can be seen as insulting) that Tolkien Studies is in a "sad" shape, rather than to Schürer's better points.

The question of Tolkien Criticism by Robin Anne Reid.
  • Reid's very good at pointing out the weak points in Schurer's argument, but I still suspect that Tolkien Studies has more than its fair share of bad work in the field. The reason, to me, seems simple: the free publicity of the films means that some publishers are willing to publish almost anything on him.
  • At the end, though, she attacks Schürer's authority for making any sweeping claims of Tolkien scholarship (i.e., he publishes in 18th-century literature, not Tolkien). While I get the motivation, I heartily dislike the strategy, since it unwittingly marginalizes all commentators on Tolkien who do not publish their opinions in the academic journals.
  • I basically agree with Forchhammer's assessment: "I agree with Reid on most counts, but I also feel that, even with the impressive lists of MLA search results, she appears very defensive, attacking the weaknesses in Schürer's critique, rather than addressing the strong points."

"Tolkien Criticism Unbound: A response to Norbert Schürer" by Luke Baugher, Tom Hillman, & Dominic J. Nardi, Jr.
  • The same from above applies here, but they deserve a special shout-out for mentioning the journal dedicated solely to Joss Whedon, Slayage -- incidentally, the journal co-founded by my dissertation advisor.  :)
  • Also, random tidbit: Nardi published a truly fantastic article on politics in Tolkien in Mythlore.

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