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The future of Tolkien fandom? (was Re: Article on Tolkien in _Salon_)

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  • Michael Martinez
    ... A fan cult isn t defined by message board participation. I m sure there is no universally accepted definition, but the Tolkien fans are distinguished from
    Message 1 of 19 , Jun 9, 2001
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      --- In mythsoc@y..., "Trudy Shaw" <tgshaw@e...> wrote:
      > Check out the message boards. It's already there!
      > The "cultists" tend to be about 13-20 years old.

      A fan cult isn't defined by message board participation. I'm sure
      there is no universally accepted definition, but the Tolkien fans are
      distinguished from the Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dorsai fans (to name
      a few long-established fan groups) by the lack of fan organizations
      which focus on specific aspects of the created worlds, lack of
      costuming communities, lack of fan festivals.

      Xenite.Org has, so far as I know, the oldest Tolkien-oriented forum
      on the Web (the news groups and some mailing lists are older). We
      don't have a "cultish" reputation, even though you'll find plenty of
      people there using screen names from the books, or made up from
      elements of Tolkien's languages. We have a pretty solid reputation
      for serious discussion. Now, maybe that's because I have not
      consciously fostered a cultish atmosphere. Yes, there are hundreds
      of other Tolkien-related forums out there (I laugh every time I see a
      news article claim there are about 400 Tolkien Web sites -- the
      number of forums alone exceeds 400). The sheer number of forums, but
      for the fact the media don't seem to know they exist, could lend
      weight to the idea of a cultish fandom, but Tolkien fans are just not
      as visible as, say, Xena fans (with whom I have a great deal of
      experience).

      Tolkien "conferences" tend to be just that: conferences. Mostly run
      by or supported by people in the academic community, or who have some
      experience with the academic community. Which is not to say that
      only academics are drawn to such conferences, but you can pretty much
      find academic names in the rosters (at least for the conferences with
      Web sites). Look at a Xena convention guest list or organizer list
      and you'll find little indication of the professional stature of the
      people involved. That is, I know that Xena has been studied
      academically, but Xena fandom and the television show lack the
      reputation for seriousness that Tolkien fandom and Tolkien's works
      possess.

      When I proposed a Tolkien and Middle-earth track for Dragoncon, I
      said I didn't want just another series of panels where people talk
      about how Tolkien inspired them, etc., etc. It's hard to put
      together an interesting program in part because there is so little to
      feed the popular SF community's imagination.

      The movies pretty much saved us (and were the chief but not only
      reason for why I proposed the track). We can bring in actors and
      TheOneRing.Net did a whizbang presentation with spy reports and
      special footage. But we've got other programming content which is
      less formalized. I did put up a couple of panels with three
      linguists who discussed the mechanics of Quenya and Sindarin. The
      sessions were not standing-room only, but they were well-attended.

      Nonetheless, I think that, if Dragoncon continues to do a
      Tolkien/Middle-earth track over the next few years, we'll inevitably
      have costume contests, Prancing Pony galas, and other "typical"
      fannish presentations. I have even tried to find people to do some
      music videos for me (haven't had much success).

      Eventually, there may even be official Lord of the Rings conventions
      (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Creation Entertainment had
      already approached New Line Cinema about that), and dedicated Tolkien
      fan conventions which go well beyond what I'm able to do with the
      Dragoncon track.

      Tolkien's fandom has not distinguished itself with much of the
      traditional fannish activity beyond creating some (fairly well-known)
      fanzines. The blending of fannish research and academic study
      represented by the publications of the Mythopoeic Society and a few
      other organizations helps to give the impression that Tolkien fandom
      is a bit more "serious" than, say, your typical Babylon-5 fan group.

      The moveis are going to inspire a lot of people to build up the
      traditional fannish activities which have been devoted to other
      authors, other worlds, other movies. People will look back on what
      we have today and say, "How quaint" or "how different it all was."
    • Michael Martinez
      ... 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
      Message 2 of 19 , 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
        reasons.

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

        > >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
        poem.

        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
        sales).

        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
        criticism.


        > >> 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
        contempt.

        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
        Tolkien.

        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.
      • David S. Bratman
        ... I don t know what you think my credentials are, and I suppose I m not sure what the interviewers think they are either. I was referred to Mooney as a
        Message 3 of 19 , Jun 10, 2001
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          >At 06:30 AM 6/10/2001 +0000, Michael Martinez wrote:

          >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.

          I don't know what you think my credentials are, and I suppose I'm not sure
          what the interviewers think they are either. I was referred to Mooney as a
          Tolkien scholar, but he cited me as the editor of a Tolkien fan magazine:
          not very different credentials from yours. At any rate, despite my
          university affiliation (I'm a librarian), I'm actually an independent
          scholar - like Doug Anderson or Carl Hostetter - not a professor, so I
          don't expect outside observers necessarily to take me seriously as a
          scholar, even if the real professors are sometimes kind enough to do so.

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

          Well, maybe you have different contacts than I do. I've been, as I
          mentioned, reading Tolkien and contacting other Tolkienists for over 30
          years, and I never heard of you until a couple months ago, when I found
          your book listed when searching Amazon for new books on Tolkien. That's
          neither your fault nor mine: it just indicates the broad and disparate
          range of Tolkien fandom, and the danger of arguing a negative, that
          something does not exist.

          Just to improve my understanding of your Tolkien world, though, may I ask
          when you came across the Mythopoeic Society? Have you ever been a member
          of it, or of the (British) Tolkien Society, or any of a number of other
          print-based organizations? This is not to imply that there isn't Tolkien
          fandom outside the world of print-based organizations; far from it. But if
          I can go 20 years without having heard of you, I wonder how long you went
          without having heard of us; and if you did hear of us, why your obviously
          passionate interest in Tolkien did not earlier spill more prominently into
          places where we'd come across it.

          I don't think it will be useful to argue the definition of "quality" any
          more. Your definition is so broad as to render the term meaningless, in my
          opinion. If you wish to use the word "quality" in addressing me, please
          always attach an adjective so I know what sort of quality you're talking
          about. I think I've already demonstrated at too-great length that even
          those who like and defend "junk" (the term "eye candy" is often used by its
          defenders) differentiate enjoyability from quality (all right, literary
          quality - literary quality by their own standards, not someone
          else's). The adage, "one man's junk is another man's treasure" only
          demonstrates different types of value, not different types of quality. A
          book that's junk for reading may be an absolute treasure as a
          doorstop. That doesn't make it a book of quality, only a doorstop of
          quality. And a book may be enjoyable for other reasons than its
          quality. I've gotten huge treasurable enjoyment out of reading completely
          incompetent Tolkien scholarship: that doesn't make it scholarship of
          quality, or even a book of quality. Variations in evaluation may also be a
          result of different scales of specifically literary quality. It's there
          that the disagreements about Tolkien lie, and that would be a much more
          fruitful avenue of discussion than pursuing this definition up its own
          fundament.

          >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.

          Those who argue that Tolkien is a cult author are not doing so on the
          grounds that he's being defended. It's the nature of the defense, and the
          nature of the interest in him, that cause this reaction, fairly or
          otherwise. But if you lump together literary quality, popularity,
          enthusiasm, and sales as just different aspects of an undifferentiated
          "quality", you may not see this.

          >Attacks on Tolkien are few, far between, and extremely minor.

          See above about "different contacts." I wish I lived on your planet.

          >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.

          I wasn't talking about academia, but media. But OK, let's talk about
          academia. It's certainly true, and delightfully so, that Tolkien is an
          author studied in great detail and with great enthusiasm in some academic
          circles, but these are extremely limited ones. When Tom Shippey inveighs
          against the academic dismissal of Tolkien, he is referring to something
          decidedly concrete, which I've heard testimony of from elsewhere. This
          can't be dismissed as "well, academics are always arguing about
          something." It's an argument of a different nature from, say, whether
          Milton was of Satan's party, or even whether Milton scholarship is passe.

          >> 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.

          I know of nobody who argues that more than one author wrote the Shakespeare
          plays - even a now-obsolete fad for claiming that his works were the
          product of a committee of prominent Elizabethans is not the same thing as
          saying that he did not exist (instead, he was a committee) - except insofar
          as some of his lesser-known plays are collaborations and that he lifted
          some text directly from his sources, points acknowledged by conventional
          Shakespeare scholars. Arguing that the name was a pseudonym is not pretty
          much the same as arguing that there was no Shakespeare. Indeed, the most
          striking thing about the pseudonymists is how fervently they believe there
          was a Shakespeare, and that he fits the personal characteristics of their
          own favored candidate.

          >> 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.

          I didn't when I first wrote. I did when I wrote my herein-quoted
          reply. My statements were a response to your elaboration of your
          view. But I should have phrased this differently: perhaps "I think we have
          entirely different ideas of what the popular conception of Tolkien is."

          >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.

          First you say that you never encountered any Tolkien cultism perceptions
          until quite recently. Now you say that the 1960s cult doesn't count.

          I wasn't just talking about the 1960s. My examples were largely from the
          1970s and 80s, and are still valid today.

          >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 many didn't. And I already pointed out that the large sales of what
          many people perceived as an unreadable book was itself seized on as
          evidence of a "cult". This happens whenever a bestseller is strongly
          looked down upon. I don't recall the word "cult" being used about "The
          Bridges of Madison County", but the same perception was there.

          For someone who insists upon using the word "quality" to indicate any sort
          of appreciation or liking whatsoever, you're oddly narrow about your
          definition of "cult".

          >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.

          That's one outlet. I could point to others, but why bother?

          How many volumes of "The History of Middle-earth" did the NYT review?

          >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.

          Which is why I won't bother to provide anything else - you won't accept it
          if you see it.

          >The difference between a cult and a fad, however, is persistence.

          Tolkien's popularity has lasted nearly 50 years since LOTR was published,
          35 years since the boom. Since this can no longer be dismissed as a fad -
          believe me, they tried to do so - now they call it a cult.

          >And fantasy gaming owes a great deal to other authors, not just
          >Tolkien.

          Indeed, which is why I wrote "in a sense". Actually, many of these authors
          owe more to fantasy gaming than the other way around.

          >That's twice you've mentioned Russia.

          I only mentioned Russia once, I believe. Alexei Kondratiev mentioned it
          entirely independently, calling it "a Tolkien "cult" (fully justifying the
          word)."

          >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?

          Now this is a curious sleight-of-hand argument. The actual existence of a
          cult is a different question from whether the media perception of one is
          accurate. The media are defining, or beginning to define, as a cult
          something that isn't, we're agreed on that. You go further and say there
          is no cult at all. Alexei and I point out that there is. You say that
          doesn't count because it's not what the media are looking at when they say
          "cult". But the media doesn't have to be looking at it for there to be
          one. And if your guess about future media reactions to Tolkien is correct,
          they'll probably find it.

          >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.

          Oh, I never said that. I said, "it's much easier for the mindless to watch
          a movie than read a book." That doesn't make all viewers mindless. Don't
          falsify me in this manner, or you shall see Gandalf the Grey uncloaked.

          David Bratman
        • Michael Martinez
          ... I think a lot of people fling the phrase Tolkien scholar around without really having any idea of whether there is a correct usage for it. I ve been
          Message 4 of 19 , Jun 10, 2001
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            --- In mythsoc@y..., "David S. Bratman" <dbratman@s...> wrote:
            >
            > I don't know what you think my credentials are, and I suppose I'm
            > not sure what the interviewers think they are either. I was
            > referred to Mooney as a Tolkien scholar, but he cited me as the
            > editor of a Tolkien fan magazine: not very different credentials
            > from yours. At any rate, despite my university affiliation (I'm a
            > librarian), I'm actually an independent scholar - like Doug
            > Anderson or Carl Hostetter - not a professor, so I don't expect
            > outside observers necessarily to take me seriously as a
            > scholar, even if the real professors are sometimes kind enough to
            > do so.

            I think a lot of people fling the phrase "Tolkien scholar" around
            without really having any idea of whether there is a correct usage
            for it. I've been called a Tolkien scholar by many people, but have
            never claimed to be one myself. I feel that anyone who doesn't go
            through a peer review process may have all their ducks in a row but
            is still a bit of a rogue.

            You, at least, participate in a more formal medium of scholarship
            than I do. And I don't think reporters come to me because I am
            a "Tolkien scholar" but rather because I am a "Tolkien writer". At
            least, that is how I've been portrayed in the news stories that have
            been brought to my attention ("Writer Michael Martinez says....")

            I now call myself an essayist, since I write essays and have
            published a book of essays. I HAVE written some scholarly stuff, and
            published a little of it, but I feel more comfortable as an outsider.

            > >Nonetheless, with all my fan contacts, I've yet to find anything
            > >among Tolkien fans which resembles the fan groups devoted to other
            > >topics.
            >
            > Well, maybe you have different contacts than I do. I've been, as I
            > mentioned, reading Tolkien and contacting other Tolkienists for
            > over 30 years, and I never heard of you until a couple months ago,
            > when I found your book listed when searching Amazon for new books
            > on Tolkien. That's neither your fault nor mine: it just indicates
            > the broad and disparate range of Tolkien fandom, and the danger of
            > arguing a negative, that something does not exist.

            Yes, well, I've often enough said you cannot prove a negative. But
            then, we seem to be referring to two different things. There is
            nothing in Tolkien fandom today like the groups of Star Wars and Star
            Trek and Babylon-5 fans who put on specialized conventions with
            masquerades and bring in actors and writers and producers to speak to
            them about those created universes.

            Middle-earth is growing but not in the same way. That process will
            change.

            > Just to improve my understanding of your Tolkien world, though, may
            > I ask when you came across the Mythopoeic Society? Have you ever
            > been a member of it, or of the (British) Tolkien Society, or any of
            > a number of other print-based organizations? This is not to imply
            > that there isn't Tolkien fandom outside the world of print-based
            > organizations; far from it. But if I can go 20 years without
            > having heard of you, I wonder how long you went without having
            > heard of us; and if you did hear of us, why your obviously
            > passionate interest in Tolkien did not earlier spill more
            > prominently into places where we'd come across it.

            I don't remember when I first heard of the Mythopoeic Society, but
            that was many years ago. I joined it for a year around late 1997,
            IIRC, after a number of people had pressed me to do so for a few
            years. I contemplated submitting some of my research to Mythlore at
            the time, as I was publishing some research in other journals (of, I
            suppose, less stature than Mythlore, but people like my writing).

            Anyway, I knew of the Mythopoeic Society, and the Tolkien Society,
            for many years before any of you heard of me. As for why my passion
            for Tolkien didn't spill into areas you'd have encountered it before,
            that's a long story that would bore even an Ent. I did not become
            active in fandom until 1992 or thereabouts, and have only gradually
            expanded my activity each year as my interests have connected with
            new topics. And my fandom activities started out small, as a "warm
            body, bless you" at a small Georgia convention.

            So, for years, my Tolkien research was limited only to my own
            pleasure, and occasional debates with friends.

            > I don't think it will be useful to argue the definition
            > of "quality" any more. Your definition is so broad as to render
            > the term meaningless, in my opinion.

            Actually, I agree with you on both points. But the word "quality",
            like many a good English noun, has long relied upon context for
            precision, and I did attempt to provide a context when I first
            started discussing "quality".

            Quality is always determined by value, and different value sets
            always apply different ratings of quality to the same things being
            measured.

            > >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.
            >
            > Those who argue that Tolkien is a cult author are not doing so on
            > the grounds that he's being defended. It's the nature of the
            > defense, and the nature of the interest in him, that cause this
            > reaction, fairly or otherwise. But if you lump together literary
            > quality, popularity, enthusiasm, and sales as just different
            > aspects of an undifferentiated "quality", you may not see this.

            I don't lump these things together, however, as I have striven to
            point out repeatedly. Furthermore, it may not have been your
            intention to imply that defending Tolkien establishes him as a cult
            author, but you did write (in response to me):

            >>I still run into this Tolkien cult
            >>nonsense and I just dismiss it. And I've pointed out to more than
            >>one reporter that when Shakespeare outsells Tolkien, I'll take the
            >>Bard a little more seriously than I have in the past.

            >That's a clever remark, but unfortunately it's also a cultish
            >defensive remark.

            In fact, in following up to you, I stressed the difference between
            quality measured by sales and literary quality:

            >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.

            Something is of high quality if it meets some expectation for high
            quality. A badly written story which sells 1,000,000 copies is a
            high quality item (in terms of sales). Any major publisher would
            want more successes like that, regardless of the literary quality of
            the story.

            > >Attacks on Tolkien are few, far between, and extremely minor.
            >
            > See above about "different contacts." I wish I lived on your
            > planet.

            It's called Earth. It does have its share of problems, though, such
            as occasional condescension in the face of different experiences.

            > >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.
            >
            > I wasn't talking about academia, but media....

            Yes, I know. I simply dismiss the media's "attacks" on Tolkien,
            since they aren't taken seriously by most people. The media is
            generally clueless and laughed at by the Tolkien
            community. "Generally" applies to both sides of the fence. There
            are exceptions on both sides.


            > ...But OK, let's talk about academia. It's certainly true, and
            > delightfully so, that Tolkien is an author studied in great detail
            > and with great enthusiasm in some academic circles, but these are
            > extremely limited ones. When Tom Shippey inveighs against the
            > academic dismissal of Tolkien, he is referring to something
            > decidedly concrete, which I've heard testimony of from elsewhere.
            > This can't be dismissed as "well, academics are always arguing
            > about something." It's an argument of a different nature from,
            > say, whether Milton was of Satan's party, or even whether Milton
            > scholarship is passe.

            It's all part of the world of academia. I've heard the same attacks
            pressed against Faulkner and Twain as against Tolkien, and different
            attacks. And I've seen plenty of defenses. Attack and defense are
            part of the academic method of "engaging in learned dialogue".
            Sometimes an attack is well-regarded.

            I've spent many an hour in a college library, pouring through
            literary journals, sifting through the overweighted ballyhoos of
            genteel professors who felt they had discovered something which would
            lay to rest all prior claims of authenticity or authority about a
            particular author. They are generally laughed at and derided in the
            next issue by their colleagues, or at least remonstrated for
            overlooking vital facts, or discarding entire sections of the
            relevant texts, etc., etc.

            Some of these dandified flame wars have also been archived on the
            Internet, but not many.

            Every time someone sets pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), they
            are writing the All-Time Greatest Revelation of True Knowledge. I
            think the best papers are the parodies that the academics write for
            their own amusement. As a crusading student I wasn't allowed to see
            those things, but I knew when the professors were discussing them. I
            still want to know what one Biologist meant when he exclaimed in the
            student center one day, "Paradigm! I didn't use that word! @$%
            ^$^#!!" and he got a round of laughter from his friends.

            > >> 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.
            >
            > I know of nobody who argues that more than one author wrote the
            > Shakespeare plays - even a now-obsolete fad for claiming that his
            > works were the product of a committee of prominent Elizabethans is
            > not the same thing as saying that he did not exist (instead, he was
            > a committee) - except insofar as some of his lesser-known plays are
            > collaborations and that he lifted some text directly from his
            > sources, points acknowledged by conventional Shakespeare scholars.
            > Arguing that the name was a pseudonym is not pretty much the same
            > as arguing that there was no Shakespeare. Indeed, the most
            > striking thing about the pseudonymists is how fervently they
            > believe there was a Shakespeare, and that he fits the personal
            > characteristics of their own favored candidate.

            We're drifting into differences of abstractions here. I use a very
            stringent rule of applicability with my terminology, undoubtedly
            because my computer science and mathematics professors drummed
            technical correctness into me. The study of literature doesn't
            demand precision the way abstract sciences do.

            > >> 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.
            >
            > I didn't when I first wrote. I did when I wrote my herein-quoted
            > reply. My statements were a response to your elaboration of your
            > view...

            I hadn't explained my view, let alone elaborated on it. I was, in
            fact, rather glibly referring to my view without explaining it,
            chiefly because I haven't been able to spend much time on the Net for
            the past couple of weeks. If I had more time, I could write more
            concisely and perhaps would need to do less explaining.

            > But I should have phrased this differently: perhaps "I think we
            > have entirely different ideas of what the popular conception of
            > Tolkien is."

            I can agree with that.

            > >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.
            >
            > First you say that you never encountered any Tolkien cultism
            > perceptions until quite recently. Now you say that the 1960s cult
            > doesn't count.

            And I am hardly contradicting myself. I didn't discover Tolkien
            until 1975, and at the time I was very involved with people in the
            commune movement who said things like, "Oh, yeah, Tolkien. I read
            him in the 60s." Not that I was an expert on communes and Tolkien
            fads, but he just wasn't getting that much attention in 1975.

            > I wasn't just talking about the 1960s. My examples were largely
            > from the 1970s and 80s, and are still valid today.

            So, on which campuses is Tolkien still a college phenomenon? I've
            got quite a few college contacts, still. I haven't heard of any
            Tolkien raves in at least the last 20 years.

            You're being very broad and generic, and nothing you say in that
            respect will convince me there is some sort of Tolkien cult craze
            going on. The college crowds are into things like Anime, gaming,
            Harry Potter, Xena, Babylon-5, etc.

            People from all over the world (including the United States) contact
            me every day. I hear from a lot of Tolkien fans. They just fail to
            mention how their lives have been affected by Tolkien (in any of the
            ways you refer to). I don't hear from as many Wiccans as I used to
            (which I deem to be fortunate, as I always felt badly for them when I
            explained that Andre Norton's Witch World novels have nothing to do
            with Wicca, except for possibly a few borrowings of concepts).

            Admittedly, a cult phenomenon doesn't have to have any connection to
            the Internet. But I'm actively promoting a book about Tolkien and
            Middle-earth. I sat in a bookstore yesterday and talked to people
            about my book, Tolkien, the upcoming movies, etc., etc. Saw no sign
            of any cult (as in any sort of obsessive interest in Tolkien). A LOT
            of people knew Tolkien. Many were still surprised to hear that
            movies are coming out.

            But the most obsessive comment I heard from anyone was, "I'm still
            getting the soundtrack for Princess Mononoke" (this said to a
            boyfriend).

            I'm looking for the Tolkien cultists, actually. They might buy my
            book. :)

            If they are out there, they are very few in number, and they are NOT
            the people the media have in mind when they glibly dismiss Tolkien's
            readers as a "cult". The Tolkien cult to which I have referred is
            the imaginary cult the media goes looking for. They are looking for
            the dedicated fan groups like the Klingons, Storm Troopers, and
            Federation officers that are shown on television.

            Such people just are not a part of today's SF fandom. If ever they
            were, they were just participating in something which has now faded
            into the past.

            > >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 many didn't. And I already pointed out that the large sales of
            > what many people perceived as an unreadable book was itself seized
            > on as evidence of a "cult". This happens whenever a bestseller is
            > strongly looked down upon. I don't recall the word "cult" being
            > used about "The Bridges of Madison County", but the same perception
            > was there.

            Then we're back to the point I made: if we are a Tolkien cult, then
            every Shakespearean is part of a Shakespearean cult. Every Norman
            Mailer fan, every person who looks forward to the next Jack Ryan
            novel is a member of some sort of cult. These people are obsessed.

            And we don't need to dwell on it. Which is why I dismiss it when the
            media approaches me looking for contacts in the "cult". I don't have
            any. I can put them into contact with thousands of Tolkien fans,
            many of whom have never heard of me. I can't put the media into
            contact with any obsessive fans who comprise some sort of popular
            cult. I don't know anyone like that, I don't know OF anyone like
            that.

            > For someone who insists upon using the word "quality" to indicate
            > any sort of appreciation or liking whatsoever, you're oddly narrow
            > about your definition of "cult".

            The word is used mostly of religious beliefs and practices. It is
            also applicable to obsessive behavior. SF fandom has a lot of
            obsessive groups. I have seen how Klingons can argue about honor and
            loyalty for days on end. They are very politically aligned, too.
            Just like the Klingons portrayed on television.

            What do Tolkien fans obsess about? The linguists, I suppose, come
            closest to meeting that criterion. But they don't strike me as being
            any more cultish about Tolkien than a typical historian. That is,
            the best Tolkien linguists seem to be pretty well-grounded in
            historical languages.

            [Re: NYT reviews, as 1 outlet of many, don't refer to any Tolkien
            cult]

            > How many volumes of "The History of Middle-earth" did the NYT
            > review?

            1 or 2

            http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/02/11/specials/tolkien.html

            > >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.
            >
            > Which is why I won't bother to provide anything else - you won't
            > accept it if you see it.

            I would accept anything verifiable.

            > >The difference between a cult and a fad, however, is persistence.
            >
            > Tolkien's popularity has lasted nearly 50 years since LOTR was
            > published, 35 years since the boom.

            Tolkien's popularity, however, is not a cult. The cult you allege
            exists is supposedly only a subset of Tolkien's readers: members of
            communes, people dressing up as Hobbits, etc.

            Just because someone says there is a cult doesn't mean there is. If
            there IS a cult, it shouldn't be hard to find. The cultists weren't
            exactly beating down our doors to get into Dragoncon's Tolkien and
            Middle-earth track last year, and I haven't heard from them yet
            (unless we're going to call the linguists cultists -- I can agree to
            that, though I don't mean to be condescending toward them).

            I could use a few costumed hobbits and rangers.

            > >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?
            >
            > Now this is a curious sleight-of-hand argument.

            Is it always your response to be insulting and inflammatory when you
            cannot get your own way? We WERE talking about the media, and no one
            bothered to suggest that we were discussing the Russian media, so
            it's hardly "sleight-of-hand" to try and keep the reference to the
            media who have contacted you and me. I believe the people who most
            upset you recently were American Prospect, were they not? And how
            closely associated is the New York Times with Russia?

            > The actual existence of a cult is a different question from whether
            > the media perception of one is accurate. The media are defining,
            > or beginning to define, as a cult something that isn't, we're
            > agreed on that.

            Then what the heck have you have been arguing on about? I merely
            pointed out that I don't cater to media perceptions about a Tolkien
            cult.

            > You go further and say there
            > is no cult at all. Alexei and I point out that there is.

            But not where we've been talking about. If you have to go so far
            afield to find a Tolkien cult, then perhaps you should stop and
            consider whether it's really worth arguing over.

            > >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.
            >
            > Oh, I never said that. I said, "it's much easier for the mindless
            > to watch a movie than read a book." That doesn't make all viewers
            > mindless.

            Nonetheless, it does imply rather strongly that you feel qualified to
            label as mindless some unspecified mass of people who watch movies
            rather than read books.

            I take a dim view of people who resort to quick and easy insults.

            It's better to say you disagree with someone else, than to imply
            you're better than they are simply because you don't agree with them.
          • David S. Bratman
            Michael Martinez - It s too difficult to try to make two superficially contradictory points at the same time: that the media is wrong in claiming that Tolkien
            Message 5 of 19 , Jun 10, 2001
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              Michael Martinez -

              It's too difficult to try to make two superficially contradictory points at
              the same time: that the media is wrong in claiming that Tolkien fans form a
              Tolkien cult, and that there is in fact such a thing as a Tolkien cult. So
              I basically give up. Most of the places where you're puzzled by what I
              write result from confusion between these points. That's particularly the
              case where you get so upset by my reference to the Russians, but it comes
              up over and over again in your latest. I'm arguing point A, and you
              respond as if I was arguing point B. This may be partially my fault. But
              gee, when I talk about attitudes towards bestsellers that are strongly
              looked down upon by critics, that does not lead us back to your point about
              Shakespeare, because he isn't strongly looked down upon by critics. So I
              don't think it's entirely my fault.

              The media perception of a Tolkien cult, after the 60s and before now, is
              not a campus phenomenon. I gave specific examples of what I was referring
              to in an earlier post. I was not being "broad and generic."

              I said before, and will repeat it: academic arguments over the value of
              (e.g.) Faulkner and Twain are not the same thing as general dismissal, in
              certain circles, of Tolkien as critically valueless. The kind of flame
              wars you describe are entirely different from this. Just to give one
              example: when "Ulysses" topped one oft-noted list of the greatest novels of
              the 20th century (as I recall), there was no Germaine Greer to say that
              this was the embodiment of her nightmare.

              No doubt, for every esteemed author, there is some academic somewhere so
              high-minded as to scoff at anyone interested in that author. And there is
              no author so "low" that some junior-college professor, at the very least,
              won't write an article discussing that author. But it takes a particular
              combination of non-academic popularity and high-academic disdain to
              generate the kind of dismissal to which I refer, and which Staci Dumoski,
              for instance, took for granted in her post setting forth a query about
              whether Tolkien's own academic standing had anything to do with it. (An
              interesting question, Staci, and I wish I had time to address it now.)

              In today's New York Times, composer Bruce Beresford is described as having
              purchased "four discs of music by one of his favorite composers, Alan
              Hovhaness. 'But don't make too much of that,' he said of the Hovhaness,
              laughing. 'The classical music establishment doesn't think much of him.'"

              That's the sort of dismissal I'm referring to, and Hovhaness is very
              similar to Tolkien both in the nature of his mixed reputations, and the
              nature of his work that leads to those reputations. I'd love to talk about
              that sometime, but I don't have time to embark on that right now.

              Lastly, sir, I would advise you very strongly to look to your own house
              before you go around accusing people of being insulting, inflammatory, and
              most of all implying that they feel qualified to label things and that
              they're better than someone else.

              David Bratman
            • Michael Martinez
              ... [snip] Your penchant for reinventing history is the chief cause of your frustration. If you would not reword everything I say (especially in such a
              Message 6 of 19 , Jun 11, 2001
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                --- In mythsoc@y..., "David S. Bratman" <dbratman@s...> wrote:
                > Michael Martinez -
                >
                > It's too difficult to try to make two superficially contradictory
                > points at the same time: that the media is wrong in claiming that
                > Tolkien fans form a Tolkien cult, and that there is in fact such a
                > thing as a Tolkien cult. So I basically give up. Most of the
                > places where you're puzzled by what I write result from confusion
                > between these points.


                [snip]

                Your penchant for reinventing history is the chief cause of your
                frustration. If you would not reword everything I say (especially in
                such a misleading fashion), you'd find it easier to communicate with
                me, not to mention understand what I write, since you wouldn't be
                scoping out what you try to write for me.

                Try being less hostile, antagonistic, and condescending toward others
                and you'll find you'll get a better response from people who don't
                believe your sweeping generalizations.
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