I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of "art" and "literature" over the past week or so, prompted by a post over at Hobbsblog and the article it linked to, a rather interesting summary of the academy’s view towards J.R.R. Tolkien. (I’ll get my biases on the table right now: I don’t think Tolkien’s books are stupendous, although I enjoyed them a lot when I was younger; I’m unabashedly pro-English-professors; and I read a fair amount of science fiction.) There are three separate questions, and I think they each need to be addressed separately. Is Lord of the Rings an enjoyable read? Is it of literary merit? Is it a work worth studying? I think the first question can be dismissed immediately — obviously, a lot of people like LOTR. Heck, I like LOTR, even though I don’t think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. This horrifying poll to judge the 100 best novels of the last century makes it clear that a lot of people out there are devoted fans.
On the other hand, seeing that many Hubbard and Rand novels in the top ten makes a mockery of the word "best." Fear is a competent little horror novel, but I’ve read some of Battlefield Earth, and the idea of it as the third best novel of the twentieth century is absurd. Rand is worse — her novels are ham-handed exercises in setting up straw men for her mouthpiece characters to knock down (kind of reminiscent of Heinlein’s painful later work). An enjoyable work does not necessarily have a jot of literary merit; a work of great literarature is not necessarily one that gives, to use Roland Barthes’ irritating but useful terminology, "readerly pleasure." (Barthes attempts to distinguish between readerly and writerly pleasures — one can think of them, loosely, as the difference between the formally expected and unexpected in a text.)
A work that’s agreed to have great literary merit, can be nigh unreadable for the casual audience — I’ll suggest Moby Dick, which I got through (and actually enjoyed the second time around), or Silas Marner, which I didn’t even come close to finishing. I found Silas Marner mostly made me want to take a nap and read a book that I liked. And an enjoyable work — one of Robert Parker’s better Spenser books, say, or Asimov’s The Caves of Steel — can have absolutely no literary merit. (One can feel that a work is canonical but not meritorious, like Silas Marner or Clarissa, but we’ll leave the distinction between being a canonical work and being one of literary merit for later.)
What does it mean to have literary merit? Well, as the article suggests, plot can have very little to do with it — in most serious fiction, plot is less important than characterization and prose style. This is offputting to people who don’t enjoy a deeper level. That sounds insulting, but I don’t mean it to be — let’s go by analogy here. I read a lot of poetry in college; I still read more than probably 99% of Americans, but that’s because most Americans read hardly any poetry. Most serious poetry being written today is difficult, intentionally, and it’s been that way since at least the Black Mountain poets (Creeley and Levertov, among others) were at their peak in the 1950s, and probably since Whitman. There’s a lot to unpack. And, famously, it doesn’t rhyme.
Or, for a better analogy, think about symphonic music or jazz. I know virtually nothing about either genre of music; I like Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan; I like Pictures at an Exhibition and The Firebird Suite. But that’s all I know. I’m an untrained ear. My friend Bob, who knows a lot more about it, can pick out things I’m not identifying. My friend Kate, who’s getting a PhD. in musicology, can listen to a Max Roach solo and pick out things I can’t even identify when they’re pointed out to me. I’m reduced to gut instinct — "Yeah, this is nice." — when I listen to these genres of music. I know a lot more about rock music; I have a pretty good palate within the genre, I think. But rock music as a genre is less complex than either jazz or symphonic music; there’s less for me to uncode.
Serious fiction has cast away plotting as a primary element, the way Ornette Coleman cast away hummability. A great jazz musician might write something catchy, something you whistle snatches of at work, but it’s probably not his or her primary goal. That’s the goal of the three-minute pop song. A pop song can be interesting to an academic, but that’s a side effect; the musicologist (or studied fan) and the average radio listener aren’t trying to pick out the same elements when they hear a boy band. A professor of English isn’t necessarily looking for the same things from Joyce’s Ulysses or Dickens’ Bleak House that someone looking to expand from Oprah’s book club wants.
That’s not to say that popular entertainment can’t be of literary merit as I’m defining that term here, and that’s not to say that literarily meritorious books can’t be entertaining. I know a frightening number of people who dug the Illuminatus! trilogy, and I’d wager that more than half of them would have liked either Ishmael Reed‘s Mumbo Jumbo or Thomas Pynchon‘s The Crying of Lot 49 (one of the most enjoyable books I can name, by one of the most important American authors of the late twentieth century), which I think are better-written books with more layers to unpeel and savor. I can still enjoy those two books, whereas Wilson & Shea’s stoner opus is good only for nostalgia for me.
Popular entertainment can also be great art — Shakespeare, Melville, and Dickens were all writing for a mass audience. I think that, say, Ursula LeGuin or Dashiell Hammett’s work stands up under academic scrutiny. But isn’t it a lot to ask popular entertainment to also be great art? Not all art is great. I’d rather go see an honest slasher movie or film noir than a self-conscious attempt at importance that doesn’t deliver the goods. The thing that was so shocking about that reader’s poll wasn’t that Rand and Hubbard devotees ran their gurus’ books to the top of the list — it was that so many works that are enjoyable but not high art made it to the list. Charles de Lint? Lovecraft? The Stand? Better these than nods to acknowledged greats that nobody ever reads, I suppose, but there’s something very sad about Gone with the Wind being judged a greater work than Lolita (which, for the record, I found to be a fabulously enjoyable book).
And finally, obviously LOTR is worthy of serious academic consideration. Even if it’s not high art — which I don’t particularly think it is — academics often study work that’s more important for its historical positioning than its literary merit; this is why we still know who Thomas DeQuincy is, after all. Tolkien was one of the two or three most influencial genre fiction authors of the last hundred years; Hammett and maybe Ross Macdonald (with the unwitting help of Hemingway, via his story "The Killers") are the only authors who come to mind as having as great an effect. Even if Tolkien works were utter dreck, they’d still be fascinating historical artifacts for having sold so well, lasted so long, and inspired so many awful imitators to churn out so many awful books.