Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Productivity Record for Aug. 2015 to Aug. 2016

This hasn't quite been a Keatsian annus mirabilis, but the last 12 months have nonetheless been extremely good for me. (I mean, outside of getting married, of course!.) Last July, I came back from London after the fantastic Tolkien Seminar in Leeds, and I almost immediately began writing out the paper I had presented at the seminar -- and my presentation, for the mildly curious, is available on youtube, along with the presentations of numerous others. I ended up scrapping the Strauss part because, quite frankly, it was a half-rate idea. Instead, I concentrate on fleshing out my argument for the essential "unity" of the whole 1977 Silmarillion. (The textual history of the book doesn't bear that thesis out, but, thematically, I think I have a very compelling case.) So, classic case of a conference presentation directly leading to a later peer-reviewed article.

So, anyway, my productivity:

  • Essay on the issue of narration in The Silmarillion (forthcoming in Tolkien Studies) -- 10,000 words.
  • Essay on Verlyn Flieger's two novels (forthcoming in the festschrift edited by John Rateliff) -- 7,000 words.
  • "The Aztecs in Historical Fiction: Liberalism, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Human Sacrifice"  (in circulation) -- 9,000 words.
  • Essay on The Hobbit and Jackson's film adaptation -- 9,000 words, under review for an edited volume.
    • Doubles as chapter 2 of my dissertation
  • Chapter 1 of my dissertation (11,000 words)
  • Essay on Saruman, Plato, and rhetoric (published in Journal of Tolkien Research) -- 16,000 words. 
    • Doubles as chapter 3 of my dissertation
  • one book review
    • one on Christopher Bell (ed), essays on identity in Harry Potter -- 2,600 words.

So, all in all, two finished publications, one upcoming publication, two essays under review, a dissertation chapter, and two book reviews. All in all, around 63k total words, just over 52,000 words of published writing. That doesn't seem too bad for academic writing which includes tons of research.

And that was with teaching two classes as part of my assistantship. With my upcoming Writing Fellowship, I might be able to beat that record by a good margin. We'll see.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Burroughs's Rules for Writing Success (Allegedly)

Reading L. Sprague de Camp's Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerors. Trying to explain Edgar Rice Burroughs, de de Camp writes that he "offered a cynical formula for success as a popular writer" (22):

1. Be a disappointed man.
2. Achieve no success at anything you touch.
3. Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life.
4. Hate civilization.
5. Learn no grammar.
6. Read little.
7. Write nothing.
8. Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes approximating those of the great reading public.
9. Avoid subjects that you know anything about.

This would have been a fantastic list . . . if Burroughs had ever actually said any of that. Thanks to the glories of the internet, I managed to track down the original source as an article for the Saturday Evening Post by a journalist named Alva Johnston, which can be found here. The list pretty clearly belongs to Johnston. Ah well. I hadn't had much hopes of de Camp's book as being all that accurate, anyway.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Say WHAT, Lin Carter??????

So, just reading Lin Carter's book Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy, apparently the first work ever written on fantasy as a genre in its own right. (Todorov's book came out that same year in 1973, though.) I got interested in Carter recently because of his role in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, which basically did everything to create fantasy as a publishing genre -- and Carter pretty much codified all the canonical "pre-genre" fantasy works.

And given how much the old-school academics hated Tolkien, I'm shocked to realize that Lin Carter basically has the same opinions. Just check this out:

  • The Lord of the Rings breaks down into certain favorite scenes and belovec characters, rather than lingering in the memory as a coherent work every part of which is equal to the whole” (117).
Okay, fine. You remember certain scenes and characters better than the book itself. I'm cool with that. Except. . . . 
  •  "Part of the trouble with Tolkien’s book may lie in what seems to me its essential shallowness. The lack of real philosophical or psychological depth in The Lord of the Rings show up most seriously, I think, in Tolkien’s failure to explore the nature of evil” (117). 

Sweet Jeebus, Carter. What a horribly bad mis-reading. And Carter also quotes a letter from Fritz Leiber apparently saying much the same thing.

What's even more shocking is that . . . well, Carter's basic tastes seem to run to pure adventure-story style plot. (That's why he likes The Worm Ouroborus way more than Eddison's other work.) And he has the gall to criticize a book for shallowness? Part of me wonders if he's not just reaching for the easiest possible explanation, no matter how wrong-headed, for why he isn't the Tolkien-maniac others of his time were. I wonder if there's not a bit of elitism here: I've been reading fantasy for decades, so I'm too cool to leap on your bandwagon.

It's like what "true" hockey or soccer fans like to say to casual or bandwagon fans.

Anyway, what also surprises me is that I've never seen this quote of Carter's in the secondary literature on Tolkien. I know that his actual book on Tolkien is thoroughly outdated, and the secondary literature does say so upon occasion, but I can't recall anyone ever mentioning Carter's opinion. They also prefer Edmund Wilson and that lot.

Incidentally, I did read one of Carter's 1960s dime sword & sorcery novels** back in the day. Pretty much the awfullest piece of crap I ever encountered. I remember reading one of his sentences to my freshman comp course at Ohio State and saying, "If anyone in this class ever dares write a sentence this bad . . . "

** Oh, apparently that book was The Tower at the Edge of Time. Thanks, wikipedia bibliography for Carter!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Moi the Bully

Apparently I inadvertently bullied a small child yesterday.

The Rec has been filled with hoards of screaming children lately, and their trainers (keepers? Human-shaped collie dogs?) like to line them up against the wall outside the weight room. Seems like some water from my water bottle flew out and splashed one of the munchkins.

How do I know this?

As I was leaving the weight room today, I heard this small voice pipe up: "Sir, you splashed me with water yesterday."

I stopped. I took one look at the kid, saw his wide quivering eyes, and very nearly turned myself in to the principal's office.

So I apologized and offered to let him splash me with some water (as I had my water bottle right there). But he said, "That's all right, sir!" Thanks, kid. Conscience eased.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Word Counts of Major Fantasy Novels

So I just encountered this website, which purports to list the word counts of several major fantasy books. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the site, since the blogger seems to assume that a typical page equals 400 words, and there's no telling if they are using the hardcover or paperback versions of these fantasy novels, which makes a huge difference.  Still, the list is interesting.

Ole' Tollers comes in at a modest 500,000 words, making The Lord of the Rings the short story of the bunch. The first two Covenant trilogies by Stephen R. Donaldson also come it around this figure.

George R. R. Martin's The Song of Ice and Fire is a "mere" 1,740,000 words -- and I say "mere" because several series have word counts that extend to the millions. Janny Wurt's The Wars of Light and Shadow isjust a tick over 2 million words, and Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond + Niccolò just a tick under. (Never heard of either writer, btw). All ten of Donaldson's Covenant books are about 2,062,000 words. The doorstoppers properly begin with Stephen Erickson's Malazan books (I hated the first two) at 3,274,000 words and Diana Gabaldon's Outlander 3,227,000 words.

But the grand prize would probably have to go to Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series. That's at 3,263,000 words technically less than Erickson, but I feel that we should add another 1,000,000 words for the three continuation books by Brandon Sanderson. So, about 4.26 million words total for the whole series.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Good Week For Publication

So, wow. The Journal of Tolkien Research has just published my article, "Harken Not to Wild Beasts: Between Rage and Eloquence in Saruman and Thrasymachus." What astounds me is that I finished the piece only two weeks ago and already got back the peer reviews. Of course, no real reason WHY the review process has to take months, but it just usually does. Kudos to the anonymous reviewers, great praise upon them, for working so quickly. I might even more appreciative of their promptness than of their kind remarks; I barely had to do any revisions to the article. The process went so fast, in fact, that the publication barely feels real.

One of the great advantages of an online open-access journal, too, is instantaneous publication. As I'm learning with the several other articles I have in circulation, the publication process generally takes even longer than the review process.

Anyway, this has been a good week. I finished my review of Harry Potter essays, and the editor liked it. That should be appearing in the next issue of Mythlore sometime in October or November, I think.

Melania Trump and Plagarism

MSN has a very good piece outlining exactly what happened with Ms. Trump's plagiarism of Michelle Obama's convention speech from 2008. This fiasco has completely overwhelmed the dominant narrative surrounding the Republican Convention, which is a bit of a shame. While Ms. Trump committed a clear case of plagiarism, this is not a "fail the course" kind of plagiarism. I would, in fact, have overlooked it in one of my students-- had I even noticed it. Instead, I would have simply had a talk with that student.

According to the article, Melania decided to substantially revise the speech given her by the professional speechwriters, which I think is laudable. (And remember, even though she's been in the country a long time, English is not her primary language. I'm still impressed that my wife's English is so much better than many native speakers'.) And, furthermore, it's perfectly okay for someone to browse similar speeches from the past to find a model. That's what you're supposed to do. Melania just screwed up by sticking too close to the original in some places. This is embarrassing to the Trump campaign, sure, and you can't reduce this to a "teaching moment" with someone of this prominence, but I'm as likely to crucify Melania Trump over this as I am Doris Kearns Goodwin or Slavoj Zizek, who've committed similar slips.

About the most you can say about this incident is that it shows how slipshod the Trump campaign is -- and his tendency to skip established, good political practice.

I also wonder if this plagiarism story has taken over other potential stories, because all the other objectively more awful things being said on-stage at the RNC have begun to pall through familiarity. We've heard the casual racism and birther claims before; plagiarism is something new, even if people don't realize its relative misdemeanor status.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Return of Catherine R. Stimpson

The title says it all!

Every once in a while, you accidentally find yourself in the academic equivalent of that old celebrity game, "Dead or Alive?" Just scrolling through my newsfeed this morning, someone had reposted a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by a certain Catherine R. Stimpson. The article is entitled "The Nomadic Humanities."

As dedicated Tolkienists realize, way back in 1969 Stimpson helped form the vanguard of anti-Tolkien polemics by mainstream academics, granting her (in the process) the dubious distinction of having written a very bad, bad, terrible book on Tolkien.** Approaching ole' Tollers from a Marxist and feminist perspective, she finds him lacking in pretty much every respect. Reading Tolkien, she tells us, is "not like reading real books, like Alice in Wonderland and Finnegans Wake" (43, her emphasis). He is an "incorrigible nationalist" (8) with a "lucid and conventional theory of history" (11). Stimpson hated his prose so much that, unable to find a real example bad enough to express her dislike, made up the phrase "to an eyot he came," a sentence never actually penned by Tolkien.

Worse is her armchair diagnoses of Tolkien's mental and emotional states. It's truly god-awful -- even for 1960s pyschoanalytic criticism. Though admitting that the Inklings were "verbally eloquent," they "often stammered emotionally" (6). Behind Tolkien’s moral structure is “a regressive emotional pattern” (18), and even “more suggestive of Tolkien’s subtle contempt and hostility toward women is the atavistic tale of Shelob,” where Sam’s stabbing of her “oozes a distasteful, vengeful quality as the small, but brave, male figure really gets the enormous, stenching bitch-castrator” through his phallic sword-thrust through Shelob’s womb (19). It's the sort of stuff you really have to read to believe. Her opinions aren't bad because they're so clearly wrong -- they're bad because they're so personal and vituperative, culpable from her egregious lack of sympathy for a writer on whom she, as a reviewer, has a duty to attempt to understand.. 

So, needless to say, I had no idea that Professor Stimpson was still around, especially as her Tolkien book came out 47 years ago. So imagine my shock when I saw this recent article in LARB.

"The Nomadic Humanities" isn't that bad of an article, actually -- and Stimpson is certainly a fine prose stylist. She starts off with Edward Said, quickly establishes her leftist political sympathies, and then argues that a pan-world "humanities" can help us understand meaning-making practices across cultures, including interpretation and critical evaluation. Nice and bland, though fiercely sympathetic to every group outside of the dominant within western culture. All in all, I got no major issue with that. Yet, as with her Tolkien book, the political sympathies tend to override Stimpsons’s analytical rigor. A host of relatively meaningless buzzword and phrases intermingle with the genuinely engaging prose. 

Thus, near the end, she argues that a nomadic humanities can help forge those meanings of being human which are being constantly “rewritten and reanimated” –- an insipidly positive phrase that sounds progressive without actually saying all that much. She furthermore writes that a “nomadic humanities is comfortable with diversity and change,” which is fine, but it also “recognizes and respects the tensions between the necessities of being unsettling and being settled, being decentered and upright,” which is also fine except that it also avoids saying anything. (Negotiating tensions sounds great, but it’s also reflects the emptiness of political speeches that want to seem to say something without actually saying anything.) And, of course, the nomadic humanities “can wander into a satisfying, but never self-satisfied, fissured set of purposes and values on an Earth whose denizens can also probe the cosmos.”  I have no idea what "satisfying, but never self-satisfied, fissure set of purposes and values”actually means. It seems to be simply a clear endorsement of a certain political vantage point, which again I have no problem with, but which offends my instinctive desire for clarity and rigor.

Stimpson does try to apply this idea of the nomadic humanities to various writers, but the wishy-washiness of the original concept (and she seems like one of those academics who tries to make a virtue of wishy-washiness) renders the whole shebang suspect in my eyes. It does not seem as if she's changed much from her Tolkien-writing days. Or maybe I'm just one of those "most constricted of sensibilities [who] can ignore the narratives of birds and whales. . . . ”

**Stimpson, Catherine R. J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: Columbia UP, 1969. Print.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Bad Academic Writing: A Diatribe

Here's a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Eduction, "Why Academics Will Always Be Bad Writers," made available temporarily (i.e., don't need to pay to access). The subject of bad academic writing is a near and dear one to my heart, so this particularly caught my interest. Noah Berlatsky's basic point is that, no, academics don't write badly out of willful obscurantism and disdain for the masses -- they're simply bad writers, having never been taught otherwise.

While Berlatsky's right in the sense that most academics just can't -- rather than won't -- write clearly (plus they also generally lack the incentive, although the publishing industry is gradually changing that), I think he otherwise misses the point. Many academics do write badly on purpose, and they often try to justify this by an argument along the following lines: "If I use jargon and esoteric terminology, that is only because my subject matter is difficult, and everyday language either carries unwanted connotations or associations, or just otherwise fails to articulate the precise meanings that my jargon does." Spivak is a famous one for defending a view like this. It's impossible to discuss this issue rationally with the True Believer, of course, but my counter-argument would be: no.  Just no. So-called ordinary language usually works just fine for most subjects; jargon is only necessary in the sciences and related fields. Even then, the most complex ideas can be adjusted for the understanding of the lay reader. Any field of the humanities, which should appeal to humanity at large, needs to speak in that sport of language.

When Berlatsky attempts defending obscurity and difficult prose, he presents an awful-bad-bad-terrible argument. He criticizes Stephen Pinker, a very clear writer who frequently sniffs haughtily at the jargon-filled language ofthe humanities, for a factual error he commits. Apparently, Pinker's clear writing said something misleading about 8th-century Chinese demographics. Berlatsky seems to be arguing that, if only Pinker had been obscure enough, his factual error would . . . I don't know? Go unnoticed? The argument really doesn't make any sense. Maybe if the writing is difficult, maybe the reader won't understand it in the first place, thus saving that reader from possibly believing something factually untrue about 8th-century Chinese demographics?  Who knows.

I do think there's a reason for bad writing beyond the alleged desire of academics to lord themselves over the masses. (Actually, while a few academics like that doubtlessly exist, I've never encountered any.) A more important factor in bad writing is the need to impress other academics. It's like doing backflips instead of walking when all you want to actually do is cross the street. Writing is a difficult task, whether clear writing or obscure writing, and each is difficult in different ways. Obscure writing has the advantage that many academics can't do it and maintain a rigorous, logical line of thinking. For my part, I always have to mentally translate such language, if I want to understand it, into more ordinary language -- that's how I catch the nuances and such. (Plus, you have no idea how trying to explain complex theory to general readers unveils logical shortcomings.) A lot of writers simply can't write in that crypto-jargon-filled way, and the tragedy strikes when they also can't write in a clear accessible way. The jargon-writers -- and the journals that publish them -- thereby have a special niche, a way of distinguishing "us" from "them." It's a completely pointless method of gatekeeping. . . and while I personally love the notion of gatekeeping (it gets a bad rap), the proper gate should be the clarity of rigor of our ideas, not the dubious necessity of writing prose laden with $15 dollar words.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The State of Higher Education . . .

So, about a year ago, TBR (the Tennessee Board of Regents) mandated that all schools -- including my dearly beloved university -- must give a 2% across-the-board pay increase. This, of course, is a much needed gesture, since my school chronically under-salaries its employees, at least in relation to comparable institutions. This alleged "across-the-board" pay increase, however, did not apply apply to contingent faculty, a group which includes grad students (me), adjuncts (who haven't had a pay increase since 1999), and I believe full-time temps.** So, "across-the-board" did not apply to the most heavily exploited group at the modern university -- people who are barely making minimum wage.

I bring this up because, apparently, our dearly beloved university has just finished a study comparing our faculty salaries with comparable institutions. The study discovered what we already knew: we are way behind. The e-mail announcing this news, sadly enough, also stated that, given the perpetual lack of funding by the state, there's no way we can fix the problem. (The e-mail also reference the lack of corresponding state funding meant to go along with that 2% across-the-board pay increase from a year ago.) Also, interestingly, 35 faculty were identified by the study as being so far below minimal compensation levels that their situation has to be rectified immediately.

On one hand, you have to feel for the situation our admin are in. They clearly know they're not doing right by their workers, and I really believe they'd like to do something about it -- but what is there to be done?  Student tuitions have already been raised, and the state just doesn't provide enough funding. States across the country have been cutting funding ever since the Great Recession. But it's also hard to sympathize when, thanks to some bureaucratic legerdemain, the worth of the teaching assistantships gets cut by 25%, not to mention the plight of our MA students (which is unconscionable), and the even worse plight of the adjuncts. who are the only sweatshop workers in the world with advanced degrees. (Again, thats a nation-wide trend.) And of course there's always the salary of the football coach in our completely useless sports program -- which, btw, just erected a giant statue to the old coach that completely dwarfs the teeny tiny plaque dedicated to our two Noble Prize Winners in Economics.

No real solution to these problems, of course. There is a newly developing field called Critical University Studies, which is dedicated to issues such as this, as well as the increasing neo-liberalization of the higher education market. Unless you want to try that route, though, maybe the best advice is: "Stay in school kids!"  Wait, no, that's not what I mean. What I meant to say was, "Get our of school as soon as you can. Never, ever go back for a degree in the humanities, not if any other option remains."

**They assured us, of course, that our contributions were still greatly appreciated.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Tolkien on the Webz

So, just posted an article on The Lord of the Rings, which I learned about via David Bratman's response on The Tolkien Society website. The article's not that great, and what made me roll my eyes is precisely what Bratman liked about it: it's whole-hearted admiration and approval of Tolkien. Personally, I've never liked excessively hagiographic articles on people's favorite writers -- even if you like the writer under discussion yourself, it's always a bit like someone coming on too strongly on a first date. Rally, incisive and critical pieces where I actually learn something just interest me more. This may be one of the (many) reasons I never got involved in fandom of any sort -- the constant vague encomiums annoy me. Kakaes's constant references to Tolkien's "magic" and "original grandeur" particularly gets on my nerves. These terms don't mean anything. They're just superlatives meant to indicate the writer of the article's own feelings and, as such, are rather inarticulate expressions of self.

Anyway, what I did like about the piece was Kakaes's admission of disappointment that Bilbo wasn't a more prominent character in LOTR. I tried -- and failed -- to read LOTR twice while in high school. Neither time could I read beyond the hobbits getting out of the Shire. Both times I was irritated that Bilbo wasn't the main character. (And I remember thinking, "Frodo? What king of weirdo name is that." No idea why I thought that was stranger than "Bilbo.")

Anyway, I'll give Kakaes points for that one.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

SHORT REVIEW: Brian Attebery's Stories about Stories

One of the weak areas of my dissertation, I know, has been studying Strauss and Tolkien almost exclusively during my "research phrase." Of course, even here I have only scratched the surface of the available secondary literature on either figure, but I am ambitious enough that I want -- even need -- to situate my work within wider fields. So I have been, surreptitiously, catching on up on fantasy criticism in general on the side. I've gone through most of the major works, and Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy thoroughly impressed me. And while I've heard of Brian Attebery before and may have even included him in my senior thesis on Stephen R. Donaldson way back when, I couldn't remember anything about his theories. So when I saw that he'd won the most recent Mythopoeic Award this year, I immediately ordered his book off interlibrary. I also wanted to see what beat out Michael T. Saler's As If: A Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality.

Having just finished Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth, I'd still have to give the edge to Saler, but it's close. Saler excels in his grasp of theory and has more detailed close readings. (Both writers, though, are clear and highly readable.) Atterbery's main project is basically a survey of mythopoeic that brings us up to contemporary areas in literary studies. Thus he has chapters on colonial fantasy (i.e., fantasy writers appropriating the mythologies whose believers still lay claim to it), postcolonial fantasy (the empire writes back sort of stuff), and postmodern or "situated" fantasy. All his observations are insightful and nuanced. Attebery usually never takes the daring or contentious opinion; for example, when discussing Patricia Wrightson's use of aborigine myth, he suggests a "middle ground" first employed by the folklorists, when suggests that writers can employ the myths so long as they don't claim to speak for the culture or to present the definitive word. That strikes me as a pretty fair statement of the issue.

For me, though, the most interesting issue was his discussion of religion in fantasy literature -- especially those evangelical Christians who wanted to burn Harry Potter. Attebery's main argument -- again, I agree -- is that these debates are as much about interpretative models as the books' individual content. Proponents of literalist readers of biblical content see a danger in any book that is not the Bible, and the challenge presented by religious fantasy substantially threatens that model.

Attebery's observations would work great with the theologico-poltico problem as defined by Leo Strauss (whom himself took it from Spinoza), and I think Attebery could have gone even farther on this subject. One reason that Plato disparaged the poets, for example, was because of the "lies" they told the gods. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author had to contend with teaching The Great Gatsby to students who automatically dismissed the novel because Daisy was an adulterer. And even today there's one fundamentalist movement in India where this "religious" leader has gotten extremely litigious with anyone critical of his religion, basically equating any critiques to an infringement on his freedom of religion. (I can't remember who this was; I read about it in the New York Review of Books.)

Anyway, good book. Highly recommened.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Oh, you silly radical social constructivist, you . . .

Apparently, the International Quidditch Society created “Title 9 3/4,” based off Title IX, which aims to promote gender equality in the sport by mandating there's a 4-gender-max on the team's playing field. That's awesome on a number of levels.

In related news, though, currently reading this academic article about Quidditch that, though extremely intelligent and well-written, is making me shake my head at the entire “everything is a social construction” crowd.

“[M]en did claim [on various quidditch blogs] that females made the game slower, less physical, and often less competitive. Thus, to truly see equality and acceptance, both by the individual and the culture, the language of gender and sex must be challenged.”

So, the basic idea seems to be that, if ONLY the dominant discourses on gender and sex can be changed, we can forego hegemonic masculinity and come to a true equality. The difference between the average male and average female athlete has nothing to do with natural (or biological) differences, but simply discursive differences which are much more susceptible to change through critique. (A marginally stronger point could be made for cultural explanations of natural differences, but this author doesn't make it.) And this whole essay adopts that tone in the most “it’s obvious and nobody rational disagrees with this” manner. The radical social constructivist crowd does seem determined to construct themselves a Harrison Bergeron-world.

Oh, and the following polemic-ranting-masked-as-academic-writing doesn't need much more response than “shut up”:

“The original function of organized sport was for middle-class white males to display their superiority over women and over race-and-class subordinated groups of men,” following by citing a whole bunch of people who have “proved” exactly this.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

REVIEW: Corey Olsen's Exploring the Hobbit

Olsen, Corey. Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2012. Print.

Granted that my expectations were low, but Corey Olsen’s book was much better than I expected. Internally, I tend to divide books on Tolkien into two categories: REAL BOOKS (with new information for scholars, academics, and high-level fans) and FAN BOOKS (which are basically just a super-fan talking about something they love). I'm morally okay with the latter, because it's cool when people just do their own thing, but readers do need to the limitations of such books firmly in mind. Olsen’s book clearly falls into this category of FAN BOOKS. It has no secondary research and offers nothing but various observations on various plot points.  Nonetheless, it has a clear and delightful style, and he goes from point to point rather well. (It’s telling, btw, that I have to consider "clear logical progression of ideas" noteworthy a commercial book. I just read a book by another guy, someone who’s work has actually been cited in peer-reviewed journals, and his book was just embarassingly awful and meandering.) Basically, Exploring the Hobbit is a book-length close reading or meditation on Olsen’s favorite book.

The book’s value comes in two areas. First, the close reading results in some very nice observations. For example, when Bilbo imagines what an adventure is like in Chapter 1, Olsen notes “how tame this little adventure fantasy actually is” (24). Also doesn’t ignore more literary critical areas: also in Ch.1., “Part of what offends Bilbo in Gloin’s remark are the class implications of being compared to a grocer, when Bilbo is obviously not in the working class” (27). Or, “Bilbo objects to the ‘servant’ remark [by elf sentries with Arkenstone] and obviously does not like being seen as a person of such little consequence” (260). Also criticizes the Last Homely House. “If the fault of the Wood-elves was ‘distrust of strangers,’ the fault of the High Elves of Rivendell may well be too much isolation from the outside world” (292)—their song indicates that Bilbo wasted his time. The Master has a tendency to build “a new irrational fantasy on the smoldering ruins of the old one” (243), i.e., the dwarves stirred up the dragon against them deliberately. None of this is really NEW, of course, but it does display competent close reading, which not all fan readers can do.

Olsen’s also great at analyzing the songs—he pays much more attention to their thematic implications than I can force myself to do.*** That’s actually the most important part. If I, as a scholar, ever open Olsen’s book again, it’ll probably be to check out what his says about some song or another.

He has an interesting approach as well. He divides The Hobbit into three stages: the Solo Stage (1937-1951), the Revision Stage (second edition from 1951 to 1954), and the Assimilation Stage (1954-onward)—and he tries reading only from the lens of the first two stages (9).

The major weaknesses, of course, is the lack of secondary research, and the observations are interesting but not exciting. Ultimately, this is a very readable book, but a book-length meditation on a story of similar length usually just isn’t that useful. Books for “general” readers also have a problem in that Tom Shippey’s two books already aim for these readers. Olsen's book just doesn't come anywhere close to Shippey's.

Jason Fisher’s review in Tolkien Studies lambasts the book quite well (maybe even too well for a book that makes no pretensions at originality). He actually dislikes Olsen’s colloquialisms much more than I do – for example, I found passages like the following quite nice: “Bilbo is not just a bold adventurer lurking beneath a mild-mannered exterior; he is not some kind of hobbit Clark Kent in search of a very small phone booth” (24). But he also calls Exploring the Hobbit a “study guide” that also contains high levels of “tedious detail and unjustifiable length,” which is fair enough. Oh, and ouch: “Olsen’s book follows the style, arrangement, and manner of a pedagogue stubbornly repeating the same points to increasingly inattentive students, hoping they will eventually pay attention and the points will stick.”) I wouldn't quite go that far -- but, then again, I skip and skim quite a bit.

***Yes, I’m a horrible English major. When I did the poetry for my prelims, I googled a plot summary after reading nearly every poem. The “experience” of reading poetry slowly just doesn’t do anything for me.]

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Area 51 of Lit Crit: Three (!) Straussian Interpretations of Tolkien

So, way back when as I first started researching Tolkien, I thought, "Gee! I'll be the first guy ever to marry Tolkien and Leo Strauss together!" For those of you not in the know (or not interested in the history of political philosophy, rather), Strauss is a semi-well-known German-born political philosopher who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1940s. His main theme is the revival of classical political rationalism. All in all, though, he's an extremely cool writer to pair with someone like Tolkien.

Anyway, long story short,
it turns out I'm not as cutting edge as I thought. I've now uncovered three separate Strauss-influenced essays on Tolkien.

  • Brogan, Joseph V. “Tolkien On Res Publica.” Conference Papers—American Political Science Association (2003): 1-42. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
  • Smith, Thomas W. “Tolkien’s Catholic Imagination: Mediation and Tradition.” Religion & Literature 38.2 (2006): 73-100. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2014
  • Herbert, Gary B. “Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and the Platonic Ring of Gyges.” Extrapolation 26.2 (1985): 152-159. Print.

The first piece is only a published conference paper (although a keynote), and it's pretty clear his specialty is political science rather than Tolkien -- he virtually ignores the Anglo-Saxon component and tries reading LOTR as a re-writing of Plato's Republic. Still, it's cool to see a Staussian reading in action.

The second is a bit weightier but still fails drastically by reading LOTR as a clear moral allegory. The last one, the Herbert piece, I just found this morning. Pretty intriguing piece for a mid-1980s Tolkien article with no secondary research. What's especially interesting (or aggravating) is that all three articles never actually refer to Strauss. Anyone familiar with Strauss can instantly pick up the Straussian themes (we Straussians tend to use a very distinctive phraseology), but still, what's with these guys? Is this a conspiracy of silence? Esoteric writing gone amuck? How can you not be clear about your methodology, your assumptions, or your intellectual debts? 

Reminds me of another scholar, Gary Saul Morson, who does Russian comparative literature. I first encountered him from an article he wrote on liberal education that was a dead ringer for Allan Bloom's thesis in The Closing of the American Mind. Since Bloom's a Straussian and a half, I thought, "Huh!! Another Straussian!" But then I went through several of Morson's books, found tons of Strauss-like phrases and arguments, and. . . nothing. Nary a mention of Strauss in either the references or the index. 

Paul A. Cantor is the only literary critic I know of who seems ready to admit Straussian influences in print. So what is this? I know academy tends to read Strauss as a conservative (I don't, necessarily), but he does seem to be the Area 51 of literary criticism.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A Predatory Journal Wants Me. ME!!!!!

Oooooo, just got my first introduction to academic predatory publishing! Apparently, something called Journal of Literature and Art Studies wrote begging for the conference paper I presented at South Central MLA. The rank desperation raised my suspicions (as well as my curiosity), so I googled them -- and someone who clearly didn't know English very well had done their website. I mean, I know that subject/verb agreement is a tricky thing, but . . . anyway, at that point, I figured it maybe wasn't something I wanted on my C.V.