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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