[This has turned into something of an essay--which I hadn't meant it to be. Sometimes I plan to say one thing and it kind of, well, grows. As the rambling of a "non-literary" person, it might make sense, it might be crazy, or it might have all been said before...]
Through this latest round of "Did Tolkien write literature?" (it's also going on at one of the message boards I regularly check in on), there's been a thought nagging me that I haven't quite been able to articulate in my own mind, much less put into words. I think I finally have it traced to one fact that might possibly provide a legitimate reason for the disconnect between some literary critics and the public, especially where LotR is concerned (that's the Tolkien book I know and admire most, so it's the one I'll talk about here).
My great revelation is this (drum role, please): literary critics evaluate works on their literary merit (as defined by people who evaluate literature). Okay, I know this sounds like a "Duh!" statement, but bear with me a minute.
Do I think LotR is the best work of fiction of the 20th century?--Yes!
Do I think JRRT is the best fiction writer of the 20th century?--No!
There are some things "even" literary critics should love in the book: the settings are superbly described, the interwoven plot of books III-V is a masterpiece (but modern critics seem to care less about plot than other elements), there are some breathlessly beautiful turns of phrase (but the whole book isn't that way), Frodo is arguably one of the best-realized, most complex characters in fiction (but, with the possible exception of Sam, the other characters in the book aren't), and there are themes deep enough to satisfy anyone (but they're buried in the reality of the story instead of in symbolism, and you can't piece them together without allowing yourself to enter into the story).
I swear on a stack of Silmarillions that even if given the chance I wouldn't change a word of LotR, but as a 25-year proofreader and copy editor, there are times while reading it that I subconsciously reach for my "blue pencil" to correct a word usage here, take a few excess words out of a sentence there, or make a paragraph somewhere else a little more stylistically consistent.
Asking if Tolkien was the best writer of the 20th century is a bit like asking if Baryshnikov (not sure of the spelling) was the best actor. Sure, Baryshnikov was in a few movies, and he did a pretty decent job of acting in them, but that's not what he's going to be remembered for. In the same way, Tolkien produced books that are quite well written, but that wasn't his main contribution to the art of fiction. Unless I'm forgetting something, Baryshnikov danced in every movie he acted in--otherwise, there'd have been no real reason for him to be in the movie. In parallel to that, Tolkien expanded his creation of Middle-earth (or another alternate world) in every piece of fiction he wrote--otherwise, he'd have had no real reason to write it. As Baryshnikov used movies to communicate his dancing to a public that otherwise wouldn't have seen it, Tolkien used fiction as a vehicle for sharing his true, unparalleled gift: subcreation.
In fact, some things the critics complain about are there _because_ the writing is subservient to the creating. The most obvious is the "uneven" style he's often accused of. Most fiction writers use modes of speech as one way to differentiate among their characters, and alter the dialogue accordingly. But in LotR, even the _narrator's_ voice changes depending on which culture is involved, which is something most fiction writers _don't_ do. I'd find it hard to say that Tolkien even _has_ "a writing style," because the way of writing he uses at each point isn't there to be "a style," but is there to support the ongoing act of creation contained in the pages of the book.
The elements needed to make his creation real (internal consistency, coherent languages and customs, historical backstory, the moon being in the correct phase at a certain time, etc.) are dealt with superbly. Elements with the sole purpose of making the book "literature"--well, they're just not important in what Tolkien was trying to do, so why would he have worried about them? Some literary critics say they are assessing only the literary aspects of a work and, using only those elements, LotR doesn't measure up; I can see this as a legitimate argument, although I might not agree with what they choose to call literary aspects.
The best _book_ of the century isn't necessarily synonymous with the best _literature_ of the century. Somehow, the people who evaluate what are considered "literary elements" have cornered the market on the academic evaluation of entire books, which certainly contain much more than those elements. The public, on the other hand, tends to see a book as a whole rather than separating what's "literary" in it from what isn't. (I'd also put most non-academic book reviewers in the second category.)
The public doesn't admire, love, and buy LotR--or vote it the best book of the century--for its literary achievements (as defined by people who define such things), but for being what it is: a door into a secondary creation so completely realized that it lets us see our own reality more deeply--if we allow it to. That is no mean gift left to us by a subcreator who happened to write fiction.
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