Tolkien, Ishiguro and Genre

I promise, this blog is not devoted to bashing Corey Olsen and his band of fanboys and fangirls. Nevertheless I feel that he deserves a great deal of criticism so if he occasionally appears on this blog I will not be apologizing for that.

But onto other matters. I’ve recently read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, The Buried Giant. Not only did I enjoy it immensely, I also found myself reading the most Tolkienian novel I’ve come across since, well, Tolkien. No “fantasy” work has ever produced this feeling in me, let alone a piece of supposedly ‘literary’ fiction. Indeed, the whole press fracas about whether or not Ishiguro’s novel can be classed as a work of fantasy really underscores for me the blindness ‘literary’ people have when confronted with literature that does not do realism.

I want to say more about Tolkien and Ishiguro specifically in another post, but I briefly want to dwell on the strange phenomenon of modern literary publishing whereby genre has come to be seen as all encompassing. To read some highbrow review of Ishiguro’s novel, one would have though the beleaguered author had committed high treason. For other reviewers, denial was the preferred strategy. To overcome the cognitive dissonance of actually enjoying a “fantasy” novel, some reviewers were compelled to argue that it is an essentially literary work masquerading as fantasy, and should therefore be understood to be of a piece with Ishiguro’s other literary works. But for some reviewers, it just isn’t good enough as literary fiction.

The problem for some reviewers, for example in the New Yorker review linked above, seems to be that the ‘literary’ quality resides in a certain class of qualities that the reviewer finds appealing. For reviewer James Wood, these are especially qualities which arise out of the Flaubert tradition of realism and the Modernist tradition of ‘depicting’ the inner lives of characters. To read James Wood is to understand that these two poles, the real and the inner life, are his literary obsessions. The sometimes strained dialogue between the desire to ‘show forth’ the soul while accounting for the real world forms the basis for Wood’s critical thinking about literature. No wonder fantasy doesn’t rate. It depicts completely unreal worlds through characters who often, for one reason or another, lack a complete or knowable ‘inner life’. In Wood’s book, How Fiction Works, for example, the history of literature is narrated as a progression from the obliqueness and opaqueness of Achilles to the glorious inner lives of characters in 19th and 20th Century literary fiction. As Michael Drout pointed out in his review of The Children of Hurin on his blog, literary theorists seem to have a doctrine of relative literary progress: literature in the past might be suited to its era, but were say the Iliad produced now, it would not count as ‘good writing’ because it fails to engage the great literary styles, tropes and obsessions of the current day. As Drout asks rhetorically, if we suddenly discovered that Beowulf is a Tudor forgery, would that discount its artistry? According to the implicit theorizing of modern critics, apparently it would.

This is precisely the reason, in fact, that Tolkien is still not taken seriously by some in academia, and why writers like Ishiguro are denounced when they produce fantasy. It is seen as a retrograde genre, admitting not only of unreal elements but of styles and depictions of character unsuited to the modern world. This despite the fact that the fantasy of Tolkien, and now Ishiguro, up to something very profound. More in the following post.

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Picked up by Parmar-kenta

It is lovely to see that my blog posts about Corey Olsen’s ideas have been picked up on Troels Forchhammer’s blog, Parmar-kenta. I regularly peruse the wonderful Tolkien Transactions and find them an indispensable resource.

With each entry Troels usually provides a little commentary, and this was also the case with his precis of my blog post, ‘The Children of Hurin, God and Pride’. Troels seems to acknowledge that Olsen’s views tend toward the simplistic but also chastises me for failing to expand my own analysis. Troels, I intend to do this at some stage, but those posts really were about responding to Olsen’s views.

Troels then makes a good point about the notion that death is a kind of “gift” in Tolkien’s fiction. He says that we should remember that the gift is one of “freedom” from determinism (exemplified by the Music of the Ainur). Once again I think this is reading Tolkien a little too programmatically, as though he were a philosopher. I still think that the Children of Hurin cannot really be reconciled to the idea that death is a gift in any way, shape or form, but of course I am open to debate.

Lastly I want to say something about my previous post. I want to make it clear that I don’t have some kind of personal dislike of Dr. Olsen – I’m sure he’s a lovely guy. The exasperation that is evident in that post (for which I make no apology) comes from a place of irritation.

Primarily, it is that Olsen’s ideas and perspectives are so rarely criticized. Being an archaeologist, I come from a field where people with clashing points of view are not afraid to voice disagreement, and it frustrates me that Tolkien scholars are just a little too nice sometimes. Good scholars like Nagy and Drout (and I agree with Troels that a great deal of good scholarship has been done on the Turin material) are starting to change the culture, but it is a long time coming. Criticism and conjecture are the essential ingredients of a flowering academic field, whether that field abide in the humanities or science departments.

I also want to make it clear that I’m not going to be talking about Dr. Olsen in every post, his lectures have just been on my mind recently and I felt compelled to air my thoughts.

But yes, I intend to take Troels up on his criticism (which I welcome) and offer my own thoughts of CoH.

Why Corey Olsen harms Tolkien Studies

For some time now, a literature professor called Corey Olsen, who styles himself the “Tolkien Professor” (as though he were the only one deserving of the appellation) has been releasing podcasts and other material related to his work on author JRR Tolkien. Olsen appears to have quite a following these days. He has developed a new online “university” aimed at providing humanities content to fee-paying students, and more recently he has produced the “Riddles in the Dark” podcasts, which examine the Jackson Hobbit films. I was, at first, an admirer of Olsen, but over the last three or so years I have gradually changed my mind.

In the last two posts I examined Olsen’s treatment of the Turin story, and argued that his appreciation thereof is limited by his incessant need to Christianize Tolkien’s work, even in places where Tolkien’s ambiguous moral outlook is most apparent. He omits evidence and seems unaware of the scholarly opinions of others which might be pertinent to the issues he discusses. However, Olsen’s treatment of the Turin tale is merely symptomatic of a wider set of unfortunate trends which should disabuse his listeners of the notion that Olsen is in any way a proper Tolkien ‘scholar’. In this post, I will list several of these trends and discuss each in turn. I argue that Olsen’s sub-scholarly standards give a bad name to Tolkien studies and perpetuate stereotypes about it which are unhelpful. In the meantime, Olsen distracts from the great scholarship that is actually being done by luminaries like Michael Drout and Dimitra Fimi.

1. Failure to cite or discuss other scholarship.

Although Olsen has occasionally hosted podcast discussion with other Tolkien scholars (the aforementioned Mike Drout) his own work shows no signs of critical dialogue with the field. We might forgive this in his early, well produced Hobbit lecture series, but his teaching at Mythgard (I have taken a couple of his classes) leaves much to be desired. He seems stuck in a kind of New Criticism rut, wherein only ‘close reading’ counts as real scholarship. Never in my experience has he cited or discussed the works of other scholars in any detail. He has occasionally mentioned Doug Anderson and the History of the Hobbit by John Rateliff, but these authors are never engaged with seriously in his teaching or scholarly work.

However, Olsen’s greatest sin in this regard was to publish an introductory ‘close reading’ of the Hobbit without ever citing Hobbit scholarship in the text itself, despite it being a very fruitful area of Tolkien studies. Jason Fisher pointed this out in his review of the book in the journal Tolkien Studies, but Olsen was predictably silent on the criticism. When I posted on Fisher’s blog about this, several of Olsen’s fans (for that is what they are) decided to chime in and defend Olsen on the basis of the work’s popular appeal. But no scholarly work, however much it is aimed at the popular audience, should ever ignore the scholars who have come before. The very basis of scholarship is the critical back and forth, debate, discussion, and conversation. But Olsen refuses to have a debate or a discussion in his book.

Why is this important? Because literary scholarship is a part of the liberal arts, which seek to inquire into human art and production, human being and value. The very basis for the liberal arts consist in embracing the critical eye, of turning the scholarly apparatus toward the work in question and the interpretations of others. Olsen presents his own vision as though it were definitive, and seems to believe that the superior scholarship that has come before may be laid aside.

2. Olsen surrounds himself with yes-men

This critique is especially true of the Riddles in the Dark podcast, where his co-hosts, Dave and Trish, regularly defer to Olsen’s frequent monologues. Although the heinous quality of the last Hobbit film finally extracted some criticism from Olsen, the whole philosophical edifice which he sets up in the podcast remains unquestioned. By and large, this consists in his aversion to “crit-fic”. For Olsen, crit-fic involves the manufacture of spurious theories about film making or financial motivations on the part of the script writers or (say) the studios in order to explain some defect in the film. So, for example, Olsen accuses “purists” (he always uses this time in a derogatory manner) of missing the point when they argue that a two film treatment of the Hobbit movies might have been tighter and more focused than the bloated three film monstrosity it became. Instead, says Olsen, we should only look at the films as they are, and use what he calls “analysis” to understand them. In what does this “analysis” consist? Well, close-reading. As in his approach to written text, Olsen’s approach to the films completely omits context and assumes that all speculations based on the film-making choices of the script-writers/directors etc. are founded in ignorance. This is obviously absurd. Films are not produced in vacuums, and not every script-writing decision is based in some sort of careful story consideration. Film making involves a tension between artistic endeavor and other kinds of considerations, all of which are rather well understood by film scholars. It is Olsen who displays ignorance is assuming that this context fails to have any bearing on the outcome of the film.

However, a more sinister and reprehensible motivation appears hide behind “crit-fic”. Frequently in the podcast (see the final episode as an example) the co-hosts will obsequiously apologize for “doing crit-fic” as though Olsen’s word were the last on the topic, and completely unassailable. This is just nonsense. For Olsen, crit-fic is a means of making his own arbitrary interpretive philosophy the only game in town, and thereby to shut down critics and even his co-hosts.

Although I would not accuse Olsen of deliberately fostering an environment of critical complacency, it is clear that, at Mythgard and elsewhere, Olsen has done very little to actually change this culture and introduce voices critical of his own ideas. The whole enterprise rests on the mighty ego of Olsen himself.

3. Fanboyism

It is great to be a fan of franchises or books that are enjoyable and produce satisfaction. However, the ingratiating attitude of fandom is not always the best when approaching a literary work as a scholar. This is not to argue that scholars should always maintain some kind of emotional numbness toward the works that they find pleasure in (look at the the Jane Austen scholarship these days, I bet most of the literature professors studying her loved her work growing up) but rather that the saccharine, shallow attitude fans all too often bring to a ‘legendarium’ should be avoided.

This isn’t as true of Tolkien fandom as it is for other franchises, although even Tolkien scholars have occasionally been infected by the compulsion to ‘raise a glass’ to the Professor and treat him as an unassailable icon of literary brilliance. Unfortunately, this tendency has crept into Olsen’s podcasting and his teaching.

However, the worst of this trend is not directed toward Tolkien, but toward Olsen himself. Just as Olsen is surrounded by yes-men, the culture is made worse by the grovelling fandom that has developed around the podcast and now, Signum “university”. Far from this enterprise being an endeavor in providing quality education to the masses, it is a platform for Olsen to spout his ideas to fawning fans who are predisposed to agree with everything he says. This is not a new open university, a new Coursera, a new venue for critical thinking. Olsen’s online educational endeavours are produced by and for his fans. Once again, Olsen himself is the ego at the centre of everything.

Why this hurts Tolkien Studies

As a young field of scholarship, Tolkien studies is only now beginning to find its feet. The fantastic journal Tolkien Studies regularly produces great scholarship, and more scholars than ever are producing quality monographs engaging with various hard problems in Tolkien’s fiction. Meanwhile, anthologies and reference works have started to appear. This is all great stuff, but Olsen puts the reputation of the whole project in jeopardy by promulgating his oversimplified, fawning, fanboy-wridden version of Tolkien scholarship. At the beginning, during the 60s and 70s Tolkien studies did consist in fan produced “scholarship”, often appearing in zines or other magazines. Now that it has grown into a respectable discipline, it would be unfortunate if the progress that has been achieved in universities and in publishing were hurt by Olsen’s anti-intellectualism.

Although the field has (by and large) embraced Olsen, I think many top scholars like Drout, Shippey and others need to reconsider their support for Olsen’s project. The sycophantic cult that has grown up around the podcast and the Mythgard academy/university system is ugly to behold.  I urge these great scholars to disassociate themselves from Mythgard and continue their great work elsewhere.