Re: The Wizard of Oz as great Fantasy, not-so-great Literature
- I can certainly understand why Mike says that _Wizard_ is not great
literature--it's badly written in a number of places and senses. On the
other hand, somehow it transcends its limitations, and in places it's
well-written. Some of the later Oz books (among Baum's, I won't
discuss the later writers') are better-written, but many are not. Few
are as powerful in several respects, however--Land, Ozma, Road and
Glinda all stand out in my mind for various reasons, but none of the
books is as well-written as _The Hobbit_, or _Charlotte's Web_ or _A
Hat Full of Sky_. The Freddy books are also truly worthwhile reading,
and constitute a sort of children's "human comedy" that is a marvelous
achievement in fantasy, but they contain long, dull passages, and lots
of examples of sloppy writing, even though I think they're overall
better-written than the Oz books. (Thurber's books are heralded
everywhere as "good writing" and I think one could make a number of
arguments for Edward Eager's style as well, so I think they're beside
the point. They certainly share with Oz and not with Neverland a
certain comic approach, and I think that may account for them being
overlooked, if they are).
The more I look at criticism of good books, though, the more I think
it's possible to criticize almost any writing as "bad" and justify the
argument with specific explication that seems pretty convincing. It's
not hard to argue that The Lord of the Rings is badly written--and I
would agree that in many places it could have been better-written (and
probably so would Tolkien, if he were here to agree or disagree), but I
would argue for its excellence as writing, nevertheless. But I am
interested in how such texts as _Wizard_ or perhaps non-fantasies like
_Gone With the Wind_, may transcend what seems bad writing. (I mention
the latter text, which I think is generally considered rather beneath
discussion in English departments, because I attended a paper reading
on the subject which almost convinced me of its artistic coherence).
J.M. Barrie is an interesting writer who writes much more smoothly than
Baum, but whose works do have a number of problems, nevertheless. I'm
pretty sure that you could argue that Dickens is a bad writer on a
whole host of grounds, some of which are the same grounds on which he's
often held up to be one of the two best novelists in English. I haven't
tried to do so, and I haven't tried to look at Austen to see how much
she might be criticized as a "bad writer," but I do have an odd feeling
that she might be a little more immune to such critique.
A few years ago, in reading _The Seed and the Vision_ by Eleanor
Cameron, I was struck by her insistence on attention to every word in a
sentence in writing and reading. She insisted on originality in
metaphor and in avoiding slang and jargon and tired figures of speech.
She was able to illuminate how some truly fine works are fine partly as
a result of fine writing on this level. I'm sure that some of her own
finely-written books are similarly careful on the level of diction and
sentence: books like _The Court of the Stone Children_. But this
argument led her to conclude that _The Owl Service_ was badly-written.
Perhaps the book would have been more accessible to a wider audience,
but I don't think I can accept this conclusion about a book which I
think is one of the best-written and finest fantasies I've ever read.
But, on the other hand, despite its smoother style and "better
writing," I suspect that _Peter and Wendy_ is a lesser book than _The
Wizard of Oz_. Fortunately, there's no reason that we can't read both.
The Harry Potter books are badly-written on a number of levels, but
they do have a power that some more smoothly written books lack.
Compare, for instance, the first one to the somewhat similar _Wizards'
Hall_ by Jane Yolen. That's a finely written book, but I don't think
its as powerful or compelling to readers as the Harry Potter books.
And while many people have suggested that "Diana Wynne Jones had been
doing this for years, and better" in fact, as much as I love _Witch
Week_ or _Charmed Life_ or _The Spellcoats_, I can't explain the
powerful attraction of the Rowlings books away with mere recourse to
"unsophisticated readers" or "wish-fulfillment fantasy" or other such
dismissive language. Marion Zimmer Bradley is a writer who commits all
sorts of writing "errors," which your Freshman Comp instructor would've
blue-pencilled until her/his arm tired after page after page. But she
had some things to say, not all of which are easily said outside of her
fiction. I think that's why her works have reached a wide popularity,
perhaps in some ways wider than some much "better" writers--because her
message or her art is more easily comprehended or apprehended than that
in these other writers.
I wonder if this issue is complicated by some dimension involved in
writing fantasy that isn't as clear in "realistic" fiction. We also
accept truly "bad" writing in Grimm's fairy tales in a way that we
wouldn't in more conventional narratives.
On Feb 21, 2005, David B. wrote:
> I would not like to see what you'd look like after you took your
> that The Wizard of Oz is not great literature into an Oz convention.
> Oz is
> the first great American fantasy. Baum, followed by Thurber and
> Eager, his
> great successors in his type of fantasy, were the masters of their
> and nobody better dismiss any of them as trivial around here.
David Lenander, Library Manager
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