Joshua S. Hill says there’s a common theme amongst the majority of literary critics — they’re living in a world that is open to their interpretation, not yours.
One of the great controversies in my life is the fact that I love George Orwell’s Animal Farm and my girlfriend hates it. In my opinion, it’s a brilliant look at a historical time and place that, for most people (though not me) is probably not overly exciting. My girlfriend, who had to read it at school, and hates it.
There’s not much more to her hatred than that, actually, and I can see where she’s coming from. I have come to dislike the majority of books that were ever foisted upon me and my classmates (with the exception of Animal Farm, and The Freedom of the City by Brian Friel) during my high school education.
It seems like a common trend that those who believe we need to understand literature will end up driving many into a hatred of the book which is supposed to broaden our senses. One need only listen to the hordes of people who have espoused their thorough hatred of To Kill a Mocking Bird or any of the many books that often find their way into high school curricula.
In defence of the literati, those who go on to study literature in a tertiary setting, or even in a personal setting, will often be the minority who love To Kill or Animal Farm or Freedom. They’ve seen the underlying beauty of the work and wanted more of it.
But this brings us to my point, and it’s an interesting point I believe.
These literati are often, as I think anecdotal evidence will suggest, in love with literature which is popularly reviled: what they view as the high pinnacle is not always represented in the sales charts. So it is no stretch of the imagination to perceive how they end up perceiving the world: if someone likes it, then it’s not any good.
That might be a callous and boorish way of putting it, but I think anecdotal evidence will again provide enough backing to the argument, that in general, the love of the masses is often viewed as common, unintelligent and of a lesser quality than, for example, Ulysses by James Joyce (my own War and Peace, I’ll have you know. I will finish it by the time I die) — because, obviously, if everyone can enjoy it, then it’s obviously not intelligent enough to be classed as “literature”.
This condition is most obviously seen in the treatment of fantasy, specifically of the genre-forming classic The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I could expound on the wonders of Mr. Tolkien’s masterpiece all day if you wanted me to, but I would only end up presenting one man’s opinion. Instead, I will quote Thomas Shippey, preeminent Tolkien scholar and once the chair of English Language and Medieval English Literature at the University of Leeds, a position Tolkien once held:
Late in 1996, Waterstone’s, the British bookshop chain, and BBC Channel Four’s programme Book Choice decided between them to commission a readers’ poll to determine ‘the five books you consider the greatest of the century’. Some 26,000 readers replied, of whom rather more than 5,000 cast their first place vote for J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Gordon Kerr, the marketing manager for Waterstone’s, said that The Lord of the Rings came consistently top in almost every branch in Britain (105 of them), and in every region except Wales, where James Joyce’s Ulysses took first place. The result was greeted with horror among professional critics and journalists, and the Daily Telegraph decided accordingly to repeat the exercise among its readers, a rather different group. Their poll produced the same result. The Folio Society then confirmed that during 1996 it had canvassed its entire membership to find out which ten books the members would most like to see in Folio Society editions, and had got 10,000 votes for The Lord of the Rings, which came first once again. 50,000 readers are said to have taken part in a July 1997 poll for the television programme Bookworm, but the result was yet again the same. In 1999 the Daily Telegraph reported that a Mori poll commissioned by the chocolate firm Nestlé had actually managed to get a different result, in which The Lord of the Rings (at last) only came second! But the top spot went to the Bible, a special case, and also ineligible for the twentieth-century competition that had begun the sequence. – J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, pp.xx-xxi
In almost every instance, and in many before and after, The Lord of the Rings has dumbfounded the self-appointed literati when it appeared at the top, or near the top, of favoured books.
Germaine Greer, an Australian writer, academic, journalist and scholar of early modern English literature, noted angrily in the Winter/Spring 1997 issue of W, the Waterstone’s Magazine, that ever since her arrival at Cambridge in 1964 “it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century.” She added that “the books that come in Tolkien’s train are more or less what you would expect; flight from reality is their dominating characteristic.”
As with Ms. Ginia Bellafante in her New York Times review of Game of Thrones (which I commented on last week), there is this underlying assumption made that isn’t a) proved or b) necessarily provable.
Bellafante’s assumption was that there were not many female fantasy fans; Greer’s was that “flight from reality” is a negative concept.
There is no need to step back into my revulsion for Ms. Bellafante, and I will save stepping into Ms. Greer’s assumptions for next week, for we will not benefit from following those trails today. Rather, I think that it is enough to recognise that those underlying assumptions which allow the literary critics their high ground are not necessarily justifiable.
If these same purveyors of all that is good and right in the world of words were to transition over to the scientific world, they would as soon be cast out for unsupported theories and hypotheses.
Literary critics are, in my opinion, the greatest examples of “pick and choosers” in this world. They pick and choose what they like, without allowing outside influences to affect their judgement, based on the theory that due to their own vaunted education and wisdom, their choice is unassailably correct.
What is interesting about this, in that it shines a light on the reality of what the literary critics are actually doing, is the list of books that regularly comes in behind The Lord of the Rings in these polls: books like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
These books represent the catch in the argument made by literary critics, that popular isn’t always good, which, if taken as gospel, allows them to explain The Lord of the Rings away as an aberration. These secondary books are regularly taught in schools, held up to the world as pinnacles of success in literature and the height of the art form to teach students.
These books are not only well respected, but they are popular as well.
In fact, if you take it further, you’ll find that there are those who will deride the importance of books such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, labelling them in the same category they do The Lord of the Rings, which seems to play against their own faction, and continues to shine a light on the real issue: personal preference.
These books are only seen as “good books” – in a literary sense – if they line up with the critics own preferences, which then serve to undermine their standing as critics. There is no problem with not liking a book; it happens to all of us: one need only talk to my girlfriend about Animal Farm and you’ll see that. But to rule out a book’s “importance” as a piece of literature simply because you do not like it, rewrites not only your standing, but what you have to say about any other book.
“Animal Farm by Geoge Orwell”
“The Lord of the Rings book spines” Filipe ’shello’ Rodrigues @ Flickr. com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.