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.


In response to yesterday’s blog post about Christopher Hitchens’ polemic, God Is Not Great, in which I spoke about atheism “beginning” with Socrates, I was informed that in fact, Socrates was not an atheist after all. Oh dear, perhaps I should have taken philosophy class after all. How could I get such an important detail so utterly wrong?!

Well, I didn’t of course. I never once said Socrates was an atheist, and whether he was or not is manifestly not the point. To quote Hitchens again: “Even though he was not in fact an atheist, he was quite correctly considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted enquiry, and his refusal to give assent to any dogma.” That was my essential point. Socrates’ methods championed free enquiry, preferred naturalistic explanations for weather and other events, and never once submitted to unverifiable “truths”. Socrates’ primary weapon was the “gentle but relentless” process of questioning and questioning again; it is this process even today that forms a methodological basis for scientific enquiry and all nonreligious thinking about the natural world. In any event, Socrates had no particular reason to believe in the gods with any certainty; it is a matter he left unresolved and was happy to. It was an irrelevant question for him. As Hitchens writes: “For one thing, why would “they” bother with the tedium of human existance…all attempts to read the gods’ intentions, such as studying the entrails of animals, are an absurd waste of time.” What mattered for Socrates was truth seeking, not truth knowing, and there are only so many ways by which one can come to know the truth. Studying entrails is manifestly not one of them. As Hitchens asserts, Socrates was not interested in any dogmas or certainties; his whole philosophical scaffold was centred upon the notion of ignorance and contingency.

On this basis we can postulate that atheism begins with Socrates. Although Socrates never came out and said “I do not believe in the gods”, his methods severely questioned and undermined all Athenian orthodoxies. All this he accomplished without modern science, which goes to show that the basis of atheistic thought lies not in the nuts and bolts of physics, but in common standards of rationality and reasonableness. Even without a knowledge of the Big Bang, Socrates was able to demonstrate that a dogmatic and certain view of the universe and its origins was an unsound preposition. Today, with our vast (although by no means complete) understanding of the Universe and its workings, modern atheists are able to go one step further and point to natural explanations that do not require us to invoke any sort of divine creator at all. The natural world can be explained and understood satisfactorily without recourse to the gods. Although this does not “prove” that God is non existent (that is a moot point) it demonstrates that the probability of God’s existence is pretty small, and that invoking him in any way as an explanation is redundant. And that’s just “god”; and undefined “prime mover”. How religious people claim to know him mind is a whole nother matter, one Socrates would have scoffed at.