Friday, December 23, 2016

And the newest issue of Tolkien Studies is out!

My two contributor's copies arrived yesterday, and I'm just tickled pink. As my first major professional publication, I've been waiting for this quite a while -- I finished the article by August 2015, had it accepted by October 2015, and now (sixteen months later) it's finally hit the world.

This is also the first actual copy of Tolkien Studies I've ever owned. Since my library offers free printing, I've just printed out all the essays that I've needed. In fact, I didn't even realize that TS came out as a book (rather than as a journal) until about a year ago.

I haven't had time to do more than skim through things, but I'm pretty excited about a lot of the contributions. And I'm always delighted by the "Year's Work in Tolkien Studies" section, which was perhaps the single most useful thing for my dissertation that I found.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

MTSU makes the Chronicle of Higher Education

Indeed, the title says it all. The article (which is about relations between the town and the Muslim community) may be found here. When I first came to the university in 2011, someone told me about the mosque controversy, and I said, "What, that was here?!?!?" It made national headlines -- a group of locals were protesting the building of a mosque here, claiming that Islam didn't fall under the protection of the first amendment because it was an ideology rather than a religion. I remember hearing about it, but the name of the town never registered -- until I actually started living here.

As an added bonus, the article even quotes from one of my professors.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading Mr. Fritz Leiber

One of the fruits of my expedition to Grump's Book Peddlers this past semester is that I managed to get all seven books of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series for the bargain basement price of 14 bucks. These were the original 1960s Ace paperbacks, by the way, which came with its own surprises -- the 6th book, for example, has a full page ad for Newport cigarettes, which is the most Mad Men thing I can imagine in a fantasy collection.

Anyway, I was clued in to Leiber, not only because he's a pretty major figure who I knew little about, but because my work with Glen Cook this summer made me realize that I don't have a strong grasp of sword and sorcery as a genre -- and it's fair to say that, prior to Tolkien, S&S was the major single outlet for fantasy in the popular market. While I knew the basics of S&S, I hadn't consciously read much in it. What worried me slightly is that I read Jack Vance's A Dying Earth a few months ago and was appalled at how bad it was. It basically encapsulated every stereotype I had about S&S -- sexist, brainless adventure with a host of unpronounceable names and eye-roll-worthy history.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Leiber -- sure, he has all of the above and more, but he has a real skill in weaving together plot and incident, and he comes up with some cool things. I'm not sure if I"ll ever be a fan of Leiber. After all, the sexism is pretty atrocious, and I'm not a fan of picaresque plots; also, I usually like things of more psychological depth. Nonetheless, Leiber does have a fair amount of literary skill, and that impressed me. And for basically a collection of interrelated short stories, Leiber does manage to give his books a pretty fair climax.

For the record, I only read three of the seven -- #3, #5 (my favorite), and #6. Random things of interest:

  • Nehwon is just one world in a multiverse, and the heroes occasionally hang out on earth. (In Book #5, a German riding a two-headed dragon even makes an completely not-relevant-to-the-plot appearances!) That always strikes me as strange; I can't get past the feeling that the earth-world de-privileges events and characters in the other world.
  • Mouser's the clever southerner (and a Loki-figure!), Fafhrd is the brawny northern beserker barbarian (and an Odin-figure!). Keeping those tropes alive!
  • Metaphysics: Nehwon is a giant bubble floating through the ocean of eternity. Strange, captivating image, a little like Pratchett's Discworld in its implausibility, but it does contribute to the sense that you can't quite take Nehwon seriously as a world.
  • Leiber seems relatively multicultural (Fafhrd once dates a female ghoul) and relatively atheistic (certainly irreverent), but the sexism is pretty hardcore. It wouldn't bothered me at all when I was younger, and even now I can live with it, but I shudder to think what some of my less forgiving colleagues might do with it.
  • Leiber certainly populates his work with wonders and marvels -- some of the stuff is quite cool.
At any rate, out of curiosity, I looked to see what the scholarship on Leiber is like. Surprisingly, there isn't much. Perhaps that's a niche to be filled, although I don't quite know if I like Leiber enough to do it myself. Time will tell.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A look at S. T. Joshi and "Junk Fiction"

I've been seeing the name "S. T. Joshi" everywhere lately, so after doing some scholar stalking, I was impressed by just how energetic and prolific he's been, not only in speculative fiction scholarship, but in a host of other matters as well. The productivity listed on his bio page is amazing. Then I got hooked on a book of his called Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers.*** Intrigued by that theme, I tried ordering it on Amazon, but it's over $60 bucks. I didn't feel like ordering yet another book of interlibrary loan, so I just looked at Googlebooks. Sure enough, parts of it are there. And I was quickly struck by a lingering oddness in his introduction.

So, first thing. Joshi distinguishes between "good elitism" and "bad elitism" (8)**, by which he means that the former category judges books based on their quality whereas the latter category simply dismisses entire swathes of literature because of their nominal genre-affiliation. For my part, I largely agree with this distinction. I certainly bring some hard standards to bear on books, but I have little patience for those who summarily dismiss books based on pre-conceptions (and I have less patience for those who, when they do read those books, do so in light of those pre-conceptions).

But then things get a little thornier, and that brings me to my major question mark. Joshi, of course, is a huge Lovecraft fan, and he spends some time explaining why "literary" writers like Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and so forth felt compelled to publish in the pulps. (Hint: money.) All well and good. But, Joshi then explains his dislike of the paperweight bestsellers through the following:

  1. "What genre fiction, even more than popular fiction of a more 'mainstream' sort, appears to do is to enhance the reader' wish-fulfillment fantasies. . . . I think those frenzied defenders of popular culture would be better off if they ceased to deny that this effect is widely prevalent in popular writing of all sorts" (25).
Basically, when he's castigating books on the bestseller list as sub-literary, he does so on the grounds that they're wish-fulfillment. And this is what makes me pause. No one, I think, would argue that Danielle Steele or Robert Ludlow are sub-literary. Joshi's right on the mark there. But is their fault "wish fulfilment"? It seems hard for a genre admirer like Joshi (and myself) to come out against wish-fulfillment when that's precisely the claim often made against horror, science fiction, fantasy, or weird fiction. To put the matter somewhat facetiously, he's appropriating the arguments of the enemy and wielding them againt a new enemy.

Now, sadly, much of the rest of his book wasn't available on googlebooks, so I couldn't read his analysis of Stephen King, whom I quite like, and who strikes me as quite as good -- if not better -- than Joshi's own beloved Lovecraft. 

So, alas, I'll have to leave my question to the day when I have a full copy of his book on hand.

***Joshi, S. T. Junk Fiction: America's Obsession with Bestsellers. Bordo P, 2009. Web. Googlebooks.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Golden Opportunity Nearly Missed (But Nonetheless Flubbed)

So, after enjoying Stefan Ekman's monograph on fantasy maps, I did a little entirely-normal-and-not-at-all creepy "scholar stalking," Well, I found his CV and saw to my surprise that his most recent publication was in Fafnir: A Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research.

"Huh!" I thought. "That's weird -- I just published a review of Jamie Williamson's book there."

Turns out that I'd been so busy with job applications and finishing my dissertation chapter that I never had the chance to look through the issue properly. Well, I did -- and discovered that, at the end of the journal's title page, was an advertisement for a new co-editor in chief position!

Now, I'm already currently editor in chief for Scientia et Humanitas, MTSU's journal of peer reviewed student research, but I graduate this May and know I'll miss being a part of academic publishing. And working with Fafnir would not only have been good for professionalization reasons, but it would also have allowed me to employ my editorial skills for the academic field in which I actually do research in. Only problem? I saw this advertisement four days after the deadline for applications had passed.

So, keeping my fingers crossed, I e-mailed the guy, and he said that the board hadn't met yet and I could still submit. Counting my lucky stars, then, I did. Alas and alack! We got the decision two days ago and, while apparently I had been shortlisted as one of three finalists, they eventually gave the position to a talented scholar of Bengali science fiction. 

Still, it was nice to have been considered. I'll just have to keep my eye out for further opportunities.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

REVIEW: Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragons

Just finished Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragon: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Without beating around the bush, this is a truly innovative book with an insightful approach, and it took a perspective I'm not instinctively attracted to -- i.e., a non-human-centric ecocritical approach -- and managed to produce some valid insights within popular fantasy literature.***  Indeed, unlike some other recent books on popular fantasy, Ekman's insights didn't make it sound as if he hated fantasy literature -- always a positive! All in all, quite a book book.

(***As a teenager, I loved maps and songs in fantasy novels. Over the maps in particular I would study for hours -- the one I remember being most fascinated by was the map for David Eddings's Belgariad. Now, I tend to skip both the maps and the songs in fantasy songs. Older and wiser? Who's to say?)

Anyway, here's an annotation interspersed with commentary. Enjoy!

Ekman, Stefan. Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Rather than argue for a topofocal (or placed-focused) definition of fantasy, Ekman argues for topofocal readings of fantasy (2)—he’s skeptical of “the assumption that characters are more important than setting and people more important than place” (214). Basically working as an ecocritic, someone whose literary analysis focuses on the intersection between literature and the physical environment, his “object of study” here are fantasy text that falls close to LOTR in the fantasy “fuzzy” set. As an ecocritic, Ekman’s also a fan of the “stewardship” theory of LOTR.
The second chapter works with maps-- although I thought the fourth chapter about cities and the "nature-culture" sliding scale most theoretically interesting, I think most readers will find this section about maps the most useful. Ekman distinguishes between
  • maps as paratextual
  • maps as docemes,a clear part of an overall document or documenting process. 

Thinking of fantasy maps as docemes puts a stronger emphasis on the relations between text and map—like the treasure map in Treasure Island or Thror’s map. Ekman thinks “fantasy maps can be fruitfully interpreted as both paratexts and docemes” (22). 

Standard features of fantasy maps: most maps depict a secondary world or part of it, rather than a city (5%) or building or building complexes (2%). Fantasy “maps largely follow the modern convention of placing north at the top” (25) so tend not to reflect alien forms of mapmaking. Unmappable portions on maps, like a circumfluent world-ocean, are relatively uncommon. Only 1/3 of maps in the sample clearly set in northern or southern hemispheres, the former being more common. Very few have anything to say about projection. Common topographical elements include mountains, coastlines, and rivers; less common are distinctions between villages, towns, and cities. Inns and rest stops almost non-existent. Also, much fewer political maps than topographical maps. Intriguingly, the signs used for mountains and hills (hill signs) “offer a useful litmus test in relating the fictional map to maps of actual historical periods” (39); medieval and Renaissance signs tend to dominate, pursuing “a pre-Enlightenment aesthetic” (41).

“Fantasy, especially high fantasy, offers a chance to break with the conventions of the actual world and invent new rules for mapmaking (or return to previous ones), but such inventiveness is actually very rare” (42).

But what makes this section really good is that Ekman produces a pretty good reading of Tolkien's Shire based only on the map of that place -- really, I hadn't ever considered analyzing maps quite like this before. Because the Shire map does not admit the presence of anything outside of it, Ekman says it suggests “the insular mentality of the Shire hobbits” (44). It’s also both a fictional map in a fiction Red Book and an actual doceme in LOTR. Roads also dominate in the map, emphasizing the Shire’s accessibility, and that it’s also a “landscape tamed” (47)—in general, Ekman credits Tolkien for privileging tamed nature over feral nature. “The control of the landscape is particularly apparent in the division of the land into four administrative areas: the north, east, west, and south farthings” (47). Also, by cutting out elements that could be dated (like cut-down trees), “the map’s tense is not just the present, but a constant present” (49). Map features also tend to run to the modern rather than the medieval. Tolkien’s other maps offer different stories, though: “according to the larger map, Middle-earth is a wilder, older place, and the map is much more explicitly made to serve the story” (55).

The following chapters then borrow Lubomir Dole┼żel’s notion of domains, which are things “in which contrary modal conditions reign” (9). Chapter 3 does geographically-divided worlds, Chapter 4 does nature–culture divided worlds, and Chapter 5 does myth–mundanity divisions. I particularly liked the fourth chapter. Ekman looks at cities, human creations that seem to exist -- depending on the author's viewpoint -- on the slide scale between nature and culture. Tolkien emphasizes tame nature over culture as well as feral nature in Minas Tirith. Charle de Lint's Newford has little bubbles of wild nature disrupting the "hegemonic" culture of Newford, whereas China Mieville completely deconstructs the nature-culture binary.

Friday, December 2, 2016

3 1/2 Straussian readings of Tolkien!!!!

A while back I wrote that I've encountered three Leo Strauss-influenced articles on Tolkien. Well, looks like I've found another 1/2 of Strauss-influenced article. The "half" comes due to the fact that the author, Mary Keyes, isn't really a Straussian, at least not in any obvious way. She doesn't use any of the standard terminology (except the phrase "one's own") or ways of framing questions that appear frequently among Straussians, but there's a few half-clues.

  • She was a fellow presenter at the Tolkien and Political Science conference from 2003, where the keynote speaker was clearly a Straussian. (He's one of the people I mention in the link above.) So, some chance that Keyes has at least encountered Strauss.
  • She cites Allan Bloom's translation of The Republic and Harvey Mansfield's and Delba Winthrop's translation of Tocqueville; both Bloom and Mansfield are prominent Straussians.

How is Keyes's article? Well, let's just say that when political scientists delve into literary criticism, us English majors don't have to worry about finding new day jobs. That's not a slight on Keyes but simply a recognition that writing quality literary criticism is actually a pretty tough endeavor. For what it's worth, here's my (slightly edited) annotated of Keyes's article.

Keys, Mary M. “J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again: Recovering a Platonic-Aristotelian Politics of Friendship in Liberal Democracy.” Homer Simpson Ponders Politics: Popular Culture as Political Theory. Ed. Joseph J. Foy and Timothy M. Dale. Lexington, KY: U of Kentucky P, 2013. 203-232. Print.

Keys’s basic thesis is the “possibilities and problems of justice and friendship,” maybe even emphasizing the latter in the realm of politics in The Hobbit (203). Unfortunately, Keys falls short on making significant claims. The first half of the essay tries to answer why political science should concern itself with “fairy tales" (see footnote). These aren't actually real problems, imho, but she gets 10 pages out of them, and I suppose they might vaguely be of more interest to potentially skeptical political scientists than to people like me. Still, her responses to these questions overly rely on Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories," which is hardly likely to warm my heart. Tolkien's essay has a lot of virtues and it's certainly a must-read, but I've found it to be virtually useless in helping produce decent lit crit, so there's that. 

The middle section reflects "on Tolkien’s portrayal of property, justice, and friendship in The Hobbit” (204), but this simply amounts to noting where instances of these issues appear in the text—indeed, the hard question is how these broad issues could not appear in any text, given just a little ingenuity. Furthermore, she tends to simply italicize words to indicate that they have a relationship of some sort to political science.

The final section reflects on what the “recovery” of these issues could mean for liberal democracy. This is the section with the most potential -- but only lasts about 2 pages. She quotes Tocqueville to the effect that reading Greek and Latin literature, which is aristocratic in spirit, is healthy for a democracy (225). “Tocqueville likewise contrasts the tendency of aristocratic historians to focus on the roles of individual persons in shaping the course of events, on the one hand, with the common bent of democratic history to gloss over human agency and responsibility and identify the causes of particular events in mass movements, material processes, and sweeping social currents, on the other hand” (225). That's good stuff, and it's just led to me to buy Mansfield's translation of Tocqueville, but Keyes unfortunately doesn't expand on this topic any further. 

Some similarities and differences, though: “Both Tolkien and Tocqueville perceive humanity in terms of its potencies for greatness and for misery; moreover, both share in a fiery passion for human greatness” (226) but Tolkien is more apt to love common people like hobbits.

[1] I.e., it’s children’s literature, it’s about imaginary principalities, it’s a mental and emotional relaxation and escapism, and Tolkien himself seems apolitical.