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OT: Super OT: Re: CHAT: JRRT

From:David Peterson <thatbluecat@...>
Date:Saturday, March 6, 2004, 1:26
Eek!   I started a (somewhat) OT discussion.   Sorry.   :(

Responding the Shakespeare comments of everyone:

I've read most of Shakespeare's plays (admittedly, not even four of his 
sonnets).   And while I'd rather read something like the Decameron (whence most of 
his ideas came) for entertainment, I must admit that after hating Shakespeare 
for a time (it was high school), I came to appreciate what he was doing with 
his plays (I took a class on late Shakespeare in college: Hamlet through my 
favorite The Tempest).   Would I call him the greatest writer of all time?   
Certainly not.   And I still dislike that a Shakespeare class is a requirement at, 
for example, UC Berkeley (and I'm sure the same is true of many other 
institutions), but that he's the only *writer* that's a requirement.   (Of course, I 
still think the idea of an *English* major, as opposed to a Literature major, 
is generally flawed, as the English courses at Berkeley specifically avoid 
including anything written in a language other than English.)

That's the really OT part.   Now back to Tolkien:

I wrote, and then and wrote, and then Joerg wrote:

<<David P:
> > Further, I remain to be convinced that Tolkien was actually a > > *good* language creator, rather than just a prolific, or highly > > public, one. >Andreas: > I would like to try to convince you, then, but first I need to > know what you think are the criterial properties of being a > good conlanger.
Joerg: A good question, and not an easy one.>> Yeah, I think I was assuming too much when I said this. I think I was assuming that Tolkien meant for his languages to be realistic, but now that I'm thinking about it, I have no idea. Further, Joerg brought up the comparison to abstract art. I would compare it not to abstract art, but to some earlier form of art. I'm not too good with visual arts, but let's say in comparison to Shakespeare, since he's been discussed. Were Shakespeare's plays realistic in the way that a realistic twentieth century novel is realistic, even considering the difference in time period? No. Can you judge Shakespeare's plays based on their realism from a twentieth century perspective of what realism is or should be? Certainly not. This may be the case with Tolkien, i.e., how can you judge a language based on its realistic properties if the very idea of realism/naturalism wasn't around? If it was the case that this was a foreign concept, then I admit that even my judgment of what's good and what's not (since I base it on realism, unless the language is *overtly* striving for something completely different [I assume realism/naturalism to be the default (which is not an uncontroversial assumption, I realizse)]) is irrelevant, just like it would be irrelevant to read the Iliad, for example, and say, "There is no god of war! I've never heard of Athena; this is totally fake!" So I take that back, and I await further information. Still Joerg: << is an engelang...>> Come November, I'll be a four-year list member, but I seem to have missed out on this term. What's an Engelang? Andreas wrote: <<> Slavish conformity is the enemy of creativity, but mindless
> heterodoxy is not a virtue in itself. For example, the glorious > pluralism of American culture is scarcely enhanced (except as > black comedy) by, say, white supremacists or New Age astrologers.
Then Joerg: I wholeheartedly agree.  New Age astrologers are a harmless and sometimes amusing nuisance.  The world would be neither better nor worse if they weren't there.  White supremacists are a disgrace; the world would be better without them.  But that's enough said here on that matter; let's not get deep into politics.>> I think Chomsky would disagree, as evidenced by his forward to that one book. ;) But divorcing from the politics, I want to say here that this is not "mindless heterodoxy". I realize you can say that, logically, this wasn't meant to apply to me specifically, but pragmatically, it did. I've never been a Tolkien fan, though I did give him a chance. Quite frankly, I was surprised to learn that anyone really held him in any kind of esteem. Maybe that just shows how removed I am from the sci-fi/fantasy community. Andreas wrote: <<I guess our disagreement begins about here. I remain unconvinced that there is something like objectively good or bad prose, unless the definition is purely utilitarian, which I strongly suspect isn't what this McWhorter is complaining about.>> The statement that this is a reply to is a very dualistic one, which I won't get into. Suffice it to say: John McWhorter actually believes that people were smarter back in the 1920's, and that "hip-hop culture", as he calls it, is ruining the English language. This coming from a linguist, you say? Yes, I reply, sadly. (He even said to someone else, in my presence, that "college kids today are just idiots". After this, though, he said, "Well, I don't mean you. I've read you're writing; you're a good writer. You know what you're doing.") I still contend that the sentence I wrote was of poor quality, and I'll get to my position later, when it becomes more relevant. Still Andreas: <<I must confess my identification with the conlanging community is very weak.>> Man, you *are* the conlang community. We *all* are, whether we like it or not. We can't identify with the community more or less, since we define it. We can identify with the average of the community, in a mathematical sense. The best way to think of it is that there is a prototypical conlanger (gay, bearded, male, left-handed, Lithuanian linguist?), and, regardless of how one feels one fits in, one's status (well, kind of) depends on how we match up with the prototype. Now, the prototype is probably what the outside world responds to. Therefore, the more general the prototype becomes, the less one can stereotype. For example, what's a prototypical human? A prototypical living entity on earth? The description is so vague that it's not useful at all, and so you have to dig deeper. Andreas: <<but the sort of person who'd dismiss conlanging because all conlangers he/she knew liked Tolkien is not the kind of person I want aboard, nor the one whose opinion of the hobby I'm interested in.>> Excuse the glibness of this, but this sounds like the mother telling her child with respect to the bully, "Anyone who calls you names is not your friend." The response is, "Well, duh, Mom." You still have to deal with them, though, unless you move for total isolationism. Some people think this is the way to go. I never did. Perhaps this can be seen as a crucial difference between people; something that can't be changed. If so, there's not much that can be done. Now this is just about writing: <<The phrases "genre fiction" and "genre writing" are used as pejoratives in English language literary criticism. It can hardly include the concept of "genre" in the sense I was taught back in literature class - a body of writings held together by a common style, purpose and/or subject matter - because then practically all writings would be "genre writing" (incl every posting to CONLANG by David!). So, I'd like to have the concept of "genre writing" explained, and why it is seen as inherently bad. I'd also like to know what separates "true" writing from "false", and what the heck are the "Cold Mountain phenomenon" and "genrefication of society".>> The sense of "genre" you were taught in literature class is still taught in literature class. I'd argue that "genre" can no longer be defined that way, though. For example, take a genre like "stream of conciousness". This is a genre attributed to authors like Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Faulkner based purely on the style of their *writing*. The same goes for the various other genres from way back when the term was introduced. Now, though, I'd argue that the term "genre", as defined by the *publishing industry* (and this is crucial here), refers *only* to content/subject matter. Now there are tons of genres--no longer just "mystery" or "sci-fi" or "fantasy", but the various types of genres that have been introduced into popular writing--the most popular of which is what I call the "opposite perspective" genre. There are a bunch of books coming out now where the whole point is to go to a certain time period and show the point of view of someone whose point of view was not generally taken into account. This even happens with literature, not just time periods (I'm think of Lo's Diary), and something like fairy tales (the basis of Frank (?) Maguire's career). There's also the quirky format genre. These are the novels that get published where, say, the entire novel is a series of e-mails. Or maybe there are pictures included, and newspaper cutouts, etc. Even David Eggers has done a bit of this. Another type is the general historical novel, where any old story is taken and put into a particular time period, and that's its trick (this would be Cold Mountain, Snow Falling on White Cedars, etc.). This is what I mean by "genrefication": Nothing can be published that's not in a specific content-based genre. Now, is disregarding my last statement, is this bad? Certainly not. There are some good ideas here. The problem comes when the publishing industry steps in and realizes a popular trend and suddenly publishes nothing but the genre fiction. Why? Because the goal of a serious writer is to get published. How do you get published? You have to write publishable material. What is publishable material? Something that can be sold to a particular audience (and if you doubt this, just pick up the current Writer's Market. Everyone's advice is: Remember your audience; think of the type of reader you want reading what you write; etc.). The danger in this is that writers, in order to get published, will focus more on "what's important", i.e., what will get them published. This is not (and has not been for a long time) the quality of the writing. All that matters is an interesting story that falls within a specific genre and can be sold to a specific demographic, and a quirky character or two. The result is that writers no longer even *think* about the writing itself. The writing is purely utilitarian: Get my idea from the paper to my reader. This is what I object to. Why? Because what I enjoy, what entertains *me* when I read, is excellent writing. When I tell someone about some of my favorite books, and they ask me, "What's it about?", I end up saying, "Well, nothing much", and their reaction is, "Oh, it must be boring." Take Gogol's Dead Souls, for example. It's about a guy who goes around the Russian country side asking to buy the contracts to the dead servants that still appear on the census. That's it. The writing is phenomenal, though. *That's* what I enjoy, and that's what I'm not getting from what I call "genre fiction", and I think it's because the point is the genre and not the writing. In fact, there was an interesting upshot of all this. Last year, I think it was, there was a collection of short stories released (and I think it was edited by the guy who wrote that novel about the comic characters--Something and Klay?), where the express point was that, "Short stories have gotten dull, because nothing happens in them. These short stories are devoted to action." In other words, they were saying that short stories where there isn't a lot of overt, in-your-face plot, are of lesser quality than those that focus on, say, the writing, or the characterization. It can hardly get more blatant than that. Now, how does this relate to Tolkien? Not directly. First of all, Tolkien wasn't writing in this era. Tolkien was writing when you could pretty much write whatever you wanted, and the publishing industry had a completely different criteria for judging what was publishable and what wasn't. However, what Tolkien gave rise to (and some people have commented on this) is a whole host of followers that aren't trying to write, but they're trying to write something that can be thought of as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy (plus the Silmarillion and the Hobbit). So, whenever I think of Tolkien, there's immediately this negative association (i.e., "He's the one that started it all..."). Of course, this isn't fair: He didn't intentionally do anything. He was just writing. Yet, this isn't the whole story. The rest of the story is his actual writing. His writing does not do anything for me at all. It just seems like writing from the era and place. Like Lord Dunsany (well, different era, but the same kind of thing). I place no personal value at all on his writing. And, I've already said that plot isn't going to do it for me (plus, I'm at turns bored by the content of, for example, the Lord of the Rings, or embarrassed by it, or offended by it). Plus, since I can get all the content in a visual format now, with the movies (which many have said were as accurate as they could be [and I heard that the many scenes that didn't appear were actually filmed and reserved for the DVD's...?]), why would I bother reading the books? It literally is, to me, a waste of time, and not at all worth reading, by any stretch of the imagination. Does this mean they're of no value to anyone else? No. They're of value to anyone who deems them to have value. Does this mean I'll recommend the books to someone else? Maybe as a punishment. Or to someone who I think would actually get something out of them. But, in general, no. Because when someone asks you what you recommend, they're asking for your opinion. And *hopefully*, when you give your opinion, it'll be understood to *be* and opinion, and not a statement of fact. <<(c) because his work is fantasy. <<snip>> Disdain on grounds (c) is more painful, because it arises from a smallness of soul rather than from a smallness of intelligence: it is dismissive of imagination, of subcreation (in the tolkienian sense), and of course of conlanging.>> I very strongly object to this. First of all, it underlies an assumption that fantasy is different from "real" literature. This interpretation is kind of forced onto us now, but *ideally* there would be no distinction between literature and fantasy, but a difference between careful (or thoughtful) writing and careless (or utilitarian) writing. For example, what this assumes is that: (a) imagination can only exist in fantasy, and that therefore (b) everything else is somehow lacking, or suffering from the "smallness of soul". First of all, if you take Nabokov's Pale Fire, I think it fulfills all three of the criteria above (including conlanging), but it most definitely is *not* of the fantasy genre. There are many reasons for this which I won't go into now. But what I've found, in general, is that for fantasy, the best place to go is to the best writers of the past (before there was a fantasy genre). This was because the writing was judged solely based on its merits, and not based on its content. Therefore, it didn't matter what the content was, and fantasy was fair game. Consider Kafka (whom, I know, some people dislike, for various reasons), whose stories were completely beyond realistic. Not even close to realistic. They were very close to fantasy, and contained fantasy-like elements, but the goal was still the writing, or the characters. And what bout Lewis Carroll? I'm not going to try to argue that he was the best writer, but can you imagine a literary critic classifying Alice and Wonderland as fantasy rather than literature? (Maybe children's.) And forget all that, just literature in general: The whole point is creation. Not just story creation, but linguistic creation (consider Beckett). Just because something lacks dragons or elves doesn't mean it's lacking in imagination. Further, just because something *has* dragons and elves doesn't mean that it's particularly imaginative. To assume either is basically a form of elitism, though, admittedly, it's reverse-elitism, since this point of view is hardly the mainstream. All right, I'm done. All the previous has been a defense or explanation of my *opinion*, not an attack, or an assertion of truth. After all, all I can assert is my opinion. -David


Mark J. Reed <markjreed@...>
Andreas Johansson <andjo@...>
And Rosta <a.rosta@...>
Ray Brown <ray.brown@...>
Peter Bleackley <peter.bleackley@...>