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3579Re: Article on Tolkien in _Salon_

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  • Michael Martinez
    Jun 9, 2001
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      --- In mythsoc@y..., "David S. Bratman" <dbratman@s...> wrote:
      > >At 06:25 AM 6/9/2001 +0000, Michael Martinez wrote:
      > >Well, people seek me out to ask questions about Tolkien or Middle-
      > >earth all the time. But usually when the media contact me, the
      > >reporter(s) has(have) an agenda of some sort.
      > I've been interviewed more than once myself. But usually the
      > author's agenda is to write about Tolkien. Even when they're
      > biased, that's the agenda.

      Your credentials are different from mine. I founded a popular
      science fiction and fantasy fan site. Of course, my pointing that
      out may only underscore your point for you. Why would the media seek
      me out to talk about Tolkien fandom if I wasn't perceived as an
      online leader of or representative of Tolkien fandom, the "cult" I
      say doesn't exist.

      But Xenite.Org hardly fosters any sort of Tolkien fandom like our
      Xena fandom. We sponsor a Webmasters association for Hercules and
      Xena, and have the Web's largest directory of Hercules and Xena
      links. We also have other Herc/Xena content, and several forums
      devoted to those shows and related shows.

      But I also write a regular Tolkien column (which is late this week).
      And each time I am mentioned in the press, I get a little more
      attention. So, you and I are walking different paths, and I'm not
      surprised to see that we are approached by the media for different

      Nonetheless, with all my fan contacts, I've yet to find anything
      among Tolkien fans which resembles the fan groups devoted to other

      > >If I get more than a sentence in the final article, I'll be
      > >pleased. Heck, I'll be pleased if Eric mentions me at all. Will
      > >I be misquoted? Possibly. But if that happens, it may not be the
      > >reporter's fault. Sometimes the editor has to make a story fit.
      > >I suppose you may have run into similar issues in your own
      > >editing. In college, I sometimes had to trim a story to get it
      > >into our college paper.
      > I've done a lot of editing. I do not believe I've ever misquoted
      > anybody as a result. Mooney defended what he'd done. He admitted
      > to no errors except misspelling "Mythprint". So it wasn't his
      > editor's fault, or he didn't believe the editor had done anything
      > wrong.

      Point taken.

      > >Sales always equal quality in any entertainment medium, and there
      > >is nothing cultish about the standard. The publishing, film, and
      > >other entertainment industries have been using sales to measure
      > >quality for decades.
      > >
      > >Literary quality is just another, alternative arbitrary standard
      > >by which to measure quality. It is no better or worse than sales.
      > Eliminate the adjective "literary", and you're saying that quality
      > is only one method of measuring quality.

      But I included "literary" deliberately, because by itself "quality"
      means nothing. Quality is part of a standard, and all standards are
      arbitrary. You can measure the same thing a hundred different ways,
      and define a hundred different types of quality.

      A story is good if people enjoy it. Sales therefore measure
      quality. A story may also be good if it includes elements which only
      a select group (even a self-appointed group) of people can identify
      and appreciate.

      Quality is not the purview of any one group or standard. It is
      simply a designation, a rating (something may be of "poor" quality
      or "good" quality, obviously). We measure quality in different ways,
      and measuring quality by sales is equally valid with measuring it by,
      say, the innovativeness of the author's ideas, or by measuring the
      faithfulness of the author's style to a specific format.

      A poem may be of poor quality if it is written to emulate the great
      poems which were written in iambic pentameter, and it fails to use
      iambic pentameter. But if 1,000,000 people read the poem, know
      nothing of its author's intent, and love it, then it's a high quality

      If the work moves its audience and evokes a reaction, it achieves a
      success. If it sells 1,000,000 copies, it achieves a success. If it
      makes a point that every reader immediately sees, it achieves a
      success. If it does none of these things, it fails in many ways.

      > >If an author like Tolkien sets out to entertain people (and that
      > >was his goal with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings), then
      > >sales are an important indication of quality.
      > They are not. They are a sign that an investigation into quality
      > should be made.

      No. Sales are always a valid measure of quality, except in cases
      where the sales are propagated through misleading advertising. In
      such circumstances, long-term sales, or sales less returns, are an
      indication of quality.

      As I pointed out, they are simply ONE measure of quality.

      Quality is always defined arbitrarily. The old adage, "one man's
      junk is another man's treasure", is an indication of how quality is
      measured differently. Quality is, in fact, a subjective measurement,
      even if the measurement can be achieved objectively (as through

      The Sword of Shanarra may be a poorly written book, but it's a
      bestseller, and therefore is a high quality book. It's just not the
      kind of book which will inspire people to write reams of literary

      > >> I don't follow this reasoning. Shakespeare's defenders aren't
      > >> defending him on the grounds that he's popular.
      > >
      > >Whatever grounds they have for defending him, or whatever it is
      > >against which they are defending him, doesn't serve to make them
      > >seem any less cultish than Tolkien's readers.
      > I don't follow this at all, any more than I did the first time.

      That people defend Tolkien doesn't make Tolkien's readers a "cult".
      By that definition, any author or playwrite's readers would be
      a "cult".

      That is the point. Shakespeareans are a cult if Tolkienists are a
      cult. There can be no exceptions to such a generalization.

      > >I always say Tolkien doesn't need defense. I merely point out
      > >that Tolkien has had a greater literary impact in the last
      > >century than Shakespeare (who has had a greater cinematic impact
      > >than Tolkien). Usually, these discussions of Tolkien defenses
      > >only occur with his defenders.
      > >
      > >Tolkien DOESN'T need defense or justification. But if people are
      > >going to insist on defending or justifying him, they shouldn't be
      > >surprised to see that they have helped to carve out a perspective
      > >that may not appeal to them.
      > Anything that's good that's attacked needs defense. Anything that
      > can be misunderstood needs justification. See below.

      Attacks on Tolkien are few, far between, and extremely minor.
      Millions of people are hyped up about the movies. When I bring up
      Tolkien in discussion with strangers, they don't dismiss him with

      There is simply no need to defend Tolkien because the attacks achieve
      nothing. It's like a few pea shooters are being used against a tank.

      If the battle which seems to demand a defense of Tolkien is taking
      place in academia, well, that's just academia. They are always
      arguing about something, and today's academia has a generation of
      Tolkien fans who express their appreciation through dissertations,
      theses, and classes. I've been contacted by teachers, professors,
      librarians, and graduate students around the world for years who want
      to use some of my material. Tolkien is a juggernaut in the popular
      imagination, but he is hardly weak and ineffectual in academia.

      > >On the other hand, who am I to say that people shouldn't enjoy
      > >defending Tolkien. There are people who enjoy defending
      > >Shakespeare. There ARE people who argue that there was no
      > >Shakespeare, or that he plagiarized other writers.
      > I know of nobody who argues that there was no Shakespeare. I do
      > know of people who claim that the name was a pseudonym,....

      Pretty much the same thing. Either there was a William Shakespeare
      or there wasn't. Either one man wrote the plays or more than one
      author wrote them.

      > But many people nowadays think Shakespeare is boring. (See, for
      > example, the prologue section of Al Pacino's film "Looking for
      > Richard", in which he shows people saying just this, and thereby
      > packages his film as a defense of Shakespeare.) So what's happened
      > to the groundlings?

      Technically, the people Shakespeare wrote for are all dead. That
      anyone beyond that generation appreciated the Bard's work is a
      testimony to his skill and general appeal. It's not a fault of
      today's generation if they don't like their parents' music, any more
      than it's a fault if they find Shakespeare to be boring.

      > >> >For better or worse, I believe the popular conception of
      > >> >Tolkien fandom (if there has been one) will soon change
      > >> >radically.
      > >>
      > >> There will be more of a popular conception, but I don't see that
      > >> conception changing much at all.
      > >
      > >I think you're in for a great surprise, then. Or perhaps a
      > >disappointment.
      > I think you have no idea what I consider the popular conception of
      > Tolkien to be. See below.

      And perhaps you have no idea of what *I* consider to be the popular
      conception of Tolkien. See above and elsewhere.

      > >Most people don't think of Tolkien as anything other than a good
      > >or great or popular author. And I only ran into this "Tolkien
      > >cult" perspective in the last few years, even though I've been
      > >happily discussing Tolkien and reading Tolkien literature for
      > >more than 20 years.

      Restoring the snipped portion:

      The American campus phenomenon of the 1960s is not a definitive
      representation of the general appreciation of Tolkien.

      > And I've been running into the "Tolkien cult" perspective
      > constantly throughout my experience. I apologize for waving my
      > Tolkien credentials, but I've been happily discussing Tolkien and
      > reading Tolkien literature for more than 30 years. I came in at
      > the end of the 60s Tolkien boom. Perhaps you don't remember that,
      > but I do (barely). At that time, Tolkien was generally perceived
      > as just another campus cult author in a long line of
      > campus cult authors, accompanied and/or preceded by Vonnegut,
      > Hesse, Golding, and Salinger, in approximate reverse chronological
      > order.

      That WAS the 1960s. The "cult" was replaced by a wider audience in
      the late 1960s and 1970s. The "cult" was just a passing phenomenon.
      When The Silmarillion was published, it sold 750,000 copies from the
      first printing in the United States alone. That is NOT a cult
      phenomenon. And Unfinished Tales also became a bestseller. Many
      people enjoyed both books immensely.

      And there are now archives available on the Web for many news
      organizations, some of which go back to the 1950s or beyond. The New
      York Times, for example, created a special Tolkien section which
      collected all its Tolkien articles. The "cult perception" is lacking
      in their articles.

      > What I cite are mostly media views, and you write of "most people,"
      > so you may be thinking of man-in-the-street types.

      I HAVE been careful to distinguish between the two. The media, in
      general, don't know much about Tolkien's readers. They don't take
      the time to research Tolkien or his readers. Their perceptions,
      however, are not consistent.

      > >So, if a few misguided souls like Mooney view Tolkien's readers as
      > >a "cult", even if only because they know of a few occasions where
      > >people dress up as hobbits, they are not going to amount to a
      hill of
      > >beans in the big picture.
      > >
      > >But the movies will undoubtedly inspire the "cult" which doesn't
      > >yet exist.
      > Actually, the Tolkien cult does exist.

      I've yet to see any documentation of such a cult. There is certainly
      no mention of them among the fan groups I'm associated with. The
      examples you list below are not clearly associated with one another.

      > But I'm talking about cults in a more limited sense. Students who
      > read LOTR in the 60s because it was fashionable and for no other
      > reason - they were cultists in the sense of being mindless
      > followers of what is generally referred to as a "campus cult
      > author." Middle-earth communes have existed. I have actually met
      > people who didn't just wear Tolkien costumes, or even just took
      > Tolkien characters' names as eponyms, but insisted they
      > were those characters. (I don't think they were deluded: I think
      > they were role-playing beyond the call of duty.) Fantasy gaming
      > is, in a sense, nothing but one big extended Tolkien cult...

      The difference between a cult and a fad, however, is persistence.
      And fantasy gaming owes a great deal to other authors, not just

      We aren't exclusive, so cultism has to be determined by the
      obsessiveness of the fans. The early obsessions did not take hold.

      >...And if that seems excessive, consider the strong popularity in
      > Russia of live-action Tolkien war games.

      That's twice you've mentioned Russia. The Russians deserve
      consideration, but even live-action Tolkien war games in Russia don't
      define the cult that the media is looking for. How many of those
      games are even mentioned in the West's news media?

      But people are not mindless because they watch movies. By that
      definition, anyone who watched a Greek play in ancient Athens would
      have been mindless.
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