I've just been reading through OSC reviews, and he stated
quote:Lord of the Rings was the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century, period. Those who think it was James Joyce's Ulysses are deluded. The story buried inside Joyce's literary pretension and self-indulgence is a fundamentally trivial one. It has no power to inspire the hearts of an age. It is a book designed to impress, not to inspire or ennoble or transform.
Maybe those two books are vying for their effect on literature, but to be considered the greatest works of literature, I think the impact on society should be a stronger criterion. For that, I would put up 1984 (George Orwell) or On the Beach (Nevil Shute) as two candidates. The first for bringing to attention the potential for any society to move the way of totalitarianism. The second for creating a public understanding of the potential devastating aftermath of nuclear war (a level beyond the already understood aftermath of world war and which, who knows, may have actually prevented MAD from happening).
I agree with OSC's commentary on Joyce and do not find either Ulysses or Portrait of an Artist... worthy of the title of Greatest Novel of 20th Century. His work is a narcotic for the pretentious.
The Great Gatsby is my clear favorite. LOTR is an understandable choice; however, it's appeal is to a less diverse audience.
I read (in a commentary on Tolkien) that someone did a survey in Britain to find the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century, and wound up both embarrassed and angry that The Lord of the Rings topped the list.
I've never read Joyce's Ulysses, and reading Finnegan's Wake was one of the few times I flung a book across the room. (Damned embarrassing when you're in a school library.)
On the other hand, I've gained depth and breadth since that attempt. I might do better. When I tried to read War and Peace as a kid I only got to about the end of the first chapter. Sure enough, a few years ago when I tried again, I did do better---I got a third of the way through. A few years from now and I may try again.
I'm not sure there IS a "greatest work". Greatest work for what purpose? It's like "pick of the litter" in dogs (I'm a pro dog trainer/breeder): Pick for what? One is a show dog, another a fieldtrial prospect, a third a gundog, a fourth a pet; each is best-suited to *that* job and would fail at any of the others.
Despite its fame, James Joyce's writing is fundamentally psychotic word-salad. I think there's a stage many readers go through that makes such works fascinating (I know I found it so, 30 years ago!), and meanwhile it seems like the greatest thing you ever read. When a famous critic is at that point, such a work can be acclaimed as "the novel of the century".
But after a certain point, we outgrow that fascination with the incomprehensibly-written, and there is nothing like writing to make you a more-critical reader.
"Critics have learned all they know from listening to each other." -- Jack Vance
I don't think a single book should ever be given the title of "greatest work" to the exclusion of a full century's worth of fiction. While I am personally partial to THE GREAT GATSBY, I consider it a technical and artistic masterpiece, it is simply one of the "greatest works" among many. I couldn't choose it to the exclusion of BRAVE NEW WORLD or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.
At best I would say that there are certain books that are "titans" of the 20th Century.
Whenever I hear a book condemned as "pretentious and self-indulgent", it strikes me as an accusation that cannot withstand examination on its own terms. To pass such a judgment on a book is nothing, if it is not pretentious and self-indulgent.
Stripped of its herd-instinct appeal to jump on the hatred bandwagon, when a critic calls an author "pretentious and self-indulgent", he is saying that the author set out to do something that appeals to himself, not something that would appeal to the critic. It is remarkably presumptuous of any man to hold that up a contemptible thing. How dare that author indulge himself rather than me! An author does not have an obligation to do any particular thing in his work, but a critic does. A critic has an obligation to be reasonable, and "pretentious and self-indulgent is not a reasonable assessment.
Hatred is the most irrational of emotions. Unlike dislike, which sensibly avoids its object, hatred holds its object close, cannot leave it in peace, cannot at any cost allow it to prosper. People who cannot keep themselves from hating a book are not qualified to pass judgment on it. It is all to easy to condemn a book. Every book has faults, and things that can be construed as faults in a carefully selected framework.
But are people who love a book equally unqualified to recommend it? I don't think so. Haters, despite the emotional appeal of their arguments, are stuck in an epistemologically untenable position. They have to show that no value exists in the book to justify their utter contempt. If you tell me that *you* find value in a book, I think that's prima facie evidence that value exists there, and that it's reasonable for you to invite me to share your enjoyment. If after a few such invitations I still decline take the bait, chances are you'll sensibly leave me alone. But people who hate a book seldom leave others to enjoy that book in peace. They are compelled deal out shame and contempt, or risk having their own bigotry in this instance exposed.
Literary odium is nothing but a form of intellectual bullying. We all succumb to the temptation from time to time, but we should reconsider it once the heat of the moment is past.
[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited January 09, 2011).]
I find your response humorous. Of course, accusing someone of being humorous is nothing if not humorous, to say the least.
Kidding aside, I am agnostic regarding OSC's judgment of Ulysses, but an observance of pretension and self-indulgence hardly requires pretension and self-indulgence. It can give that impression, sure. It might even be true. But it doesn't require it.
And what is all this about hate? You can have any range of disdain toward art and artists without having hate. The hyperbole here is strange, and evokes wonder about what is really going on behind the text.
But most of all, your comment seems to imply (though I might be mistaken) that there is no such thing as pretentious and self-indulgent art, and even if there is, it is impossible to identify it. That is a radically postmodern approach that denies reality, and I must pretentiously and self-indulgently reject it outright.
I am not by any means saying that literary criticism is impossible or inherently corrupt. What I am saying is that "pretentious and self-indulgent" is *bad* criticism, and by implication *better* criticism is possible.
Now if you said some book has meandering dialog, a plot driven by improbable coincidence, or characters acting who act in inexplicable ways, that tells me something about the book, even if reasonable counter-arguments can be made. If you tell me a book is "pretentious and self-indulgent", that is an emotionally loaded critique that tells me nothing about the book, but a great deal about your approach to it. Irrationally broad, emotionally loaded condemnation of a thing is a reasonable basis to suspect the condemner harbors a hatred of the thing condemned. Such hatred need not be conscious; that is the very essence of bigotry. Bigotry is hatred whose logical basis is unexamined and therefore that hatred escapes our consciousness.
If you strip out the emotional baggage from the term "pretentious and self-indulgent", it doesn't look like such a strong condemnation to me. Quite possibly *all* art is pretentious and self-indulgent. As for my meta-critique, I have a *pretense* or claim that my opinion on this matter is useful and *indulge* my interest in rational critique by offering it. Stripped of its emotional baggage, I am more than happy to have "pretentious and self-indulgent" applied to anything I do. I am also more than happy to plead guilty to hostility toward bigotry in all its forms. That hostility does not rise to the irrationality of hatred, because bigotry does not confine itself to harmless occupations.
I should also point out that labeling an argument "post-modernist" is by any reasonable standard (say that of the medieval Scholastics) an invalid counter-argument. You must demonstrate that *everything* that might be so labeled is utterly unreasonable. Then to apply the label to my argument you would probably have to show that my argument is utterly unreasonable. Once you had done that the label itself becomes superfluous.
Likewise if you say some piece of art is "pretentious" it surely means the author is claiming to accomplish something, *but fails*. The problem is that such claims are so often made as if the critic's subjective feelings *per se* are evidence for those claims. Whether or not one takes the postmodernist position that certain labels like "self-indulgent" are arbitrary social conventions, the requirement of demonstrating that the label applies to the case in question does not change. C.S. Lewis, arguing from a Natural Law position, never slaps a label on a thing, expecting us to take that at face value. That's what makes his writing so persuasive.
I'm arguing for *rigor* here, for being clear about what you mean and why it is justified. If you don't like a book, then come out and say so and tell us why. Don't just repeat your dislike in different terms meaning the same thing.
[This message has been edited by MattLeo (edited January 09, 2011).]
I see literary criticism as a matter of opinion. If one person sees something as "pretentious and self-indulgent", then it is his or her right to state that. I did have the opportunity to talk with OSC about some of his literary views at a writers' camp a little over a year ago, and he does have very strong opinions. I don't necessary agree with all of his opinions, but I feel that he has the right to have them. He strongly dislikes many of turn of century writers, finding their writing as unreadable, and he doesn't particularly like much of the literary fiction coming out today.
That said, OSC is in good company in recognizing The Lord of the Rings as the greatest literary work of the twentieth century. The vast majority of literary associations, as well as individual polls, have recognized Tolkien's trilogy as the greatest work (or at least among the top 5). There was no writer with greater literary knowledge or background (at least in his field) to set pen to paper. Oddly enough, OSC doesn't particularly care of 3rd person omniscient, which was Tolkien's choice of viewpoint.
IMO, "The Greatest Literary Work of the Twentieth Century" does not need to profoundly affect society. Uncle Tom's Cabin had one of the greatest affects on the nineteenth century in America, but it was nowhere close to being considered the greatest literary work of that century. However, LOTR did have an enormous affect on literature of the twentieth century - perhaps the greatest affect (Hemingway's writing in general would also be a strong contender). Every fantasy story written since LOTR, and there have been a lot since fantasy is one of the top writing markets, has been subject to comparison to Tolkien's work. There is no other work that sets such a standard. That, in itself, I feel justifies OSC's claim.
quote:Now if you said some book has meandering dialog, a plot driven by improbable coincidence, or characters acting who act in inexplicable ways, that tells me something about the book, even if reasonable counter-arguments can be made."
That's only one kind of critique. That's sort of like documenting all of the physical attributes of a person and assuming that is the best you can know about a person. But there are obviously many more facets to knowing a person, and the same goes for art. Any critique is going to be imperfect or incomplete, whether it consists of the nuts and bolts approach you prefer or of something else like its emotional content, its moral content, its beauty or any number of other other things, but that doesn't mean the critique isn't valid.
quote:If you tell me a book is "pretentious and self-indulgent", that is an emotionally loaded critique that tells me nothing about the book, but a great deal about your approach to it.
The irony here is that you cannot make such a statement as this without making deep assumptions and showing stark prejudices about the person who is saying it is "pretentious and self-indulgent." (Note that I an not using the emotionally charged word "bigot" when I say this.) When I see those words, one stereotype that comes to mind is a very humble literary professor who has studied an author and his work and come up with a thoughtful judgment that it is too self-indulgent and presumptuous for his syllabus. Instead he opts for a more uplifting piece of literature. There are as many kinds of people who might make this statement as there are people.
Your stereotype seems to be that it must come from some arrogant jerk expressing his dislike without any thought put into it. You throw around the word "bigot" like you are some authority about it, but frankly, doctor, you need to heal yourself. Your use of the word "bigot" in this context is obviously "irrationally broad, emotionally loaded condemnation" of a person. And, dare I say, is a reasonable basis to suspect that the person using the word harbors a hatred of the critic condemned? (I don't actually believe that, but it reveals the wildly irrational nature of your stereotyping words.)
So--as you say, you are not even aware of your bigotry here. (I'm not calling you names--this is your word to describe the phenomena we are examining here.) By implying OSC is a bigoted, unthoughtful, emotionally-charged critic--you are manifestly revealing your own irrational prejudices about him.
quote:If you strip out the emotional baggage from the term "pretentious and self-indulgent", it doesn't look like such a strong condemnation.
Right. Because literature has no emotional content and emotion has nothing to do with literature. Who would think such a thing?
It is a ridiculous and irrational presumption that a critic should extricate all human factors from his judgment of literature. Presumptuous and self-indulgent literature is, without question, part of our body of literary experience, and there is nothing wrong with identifying what is more or less worthwhile, especially in comparison with other literature. It is a valuable thing for someone to tell me that I don't need to waste my time on a book that is presumptuous and self-indulgent. Might they be wrong? Sure. But being wrong isn't the issue. You can be wrong about "meandering dialogue," "improbable coincidences," and the nutritional value of jelly beans. The issue is whether it is a valid and worthwhile critique to make (yes), and whether it necessarily requires us to apply our prejudices against the critic and assume he is a self-indulgent, emotionally charged, unthoughtful, presumptuous hater and bigot (er. . . no).
quote:I am also more than happy to plead guilty to hostility toward bigotry in all its forms. That hostility does not rise to the irrationality of hatred, because bigotry does not confine itself to harmless occupations.
I have to chuckle at this. You take a comment of OSC which is quite possibly devoid of all hostility and go off the deep end about all this "hatred," yet you disclaim your open and explicitly admitted hostility as not possibly coming out of the irrationality of hatred, and expect us to take you seriously. Even if I hadn't shown your contradiction above, this would be laughable.
quote:I should also point out that labeling an argument "post-modernist" is by any reasonable standard (say that of the medieval Scholastics) an invalid counter-argument.
I'm not sure why you think I need to demonstrate the unspecified things unreasonable that you claim I have to. By postmodern, I refer to this modern notion that thing have no nature to them, and that you cannot make a judgment about their nature. On the flip side, postmodernism believes that an individual can merely "decide" the nature of something (defying its true nature) by naming it and defining it. You seemed to be saying that there is no "presumptuous and self-indulgent" nature that can be examined or recognized, so I rejected it outright. There's nothing else to "prove" against the irrationality of the postmodern error.
quote:(snipped from above)I am not by any means saying that literary criticism is impossible or inherently corrupt. What I am saying is that "pretentious and self-indulgent" is *bad* criticism, and by implication *better* criticism is possible.
It's only bad criticism if it isn't *true*. If it's not true, then OSC is in error--get over it and move on. Over time we learn which critics are valuable to us. If its true and you don't like it, then your emotionally charged condemnations are just so much irrational, postmodern noise denying reality.
Either way, a critique can always be better--but it can be worse if it holds back valuable judgments about its quality, including (especially?) the attributes discussed. After all--that's what a criticism is for.
On the subject of what constitutes a "greatest work" I am always intrigued by the decision making process that goes on in determining what books make it to the high school required reading list.
Hemingway always makes it to the list, but never Tolkien. I would rather read THE HOBBIT any day over A FAREWELL TO ARMS. The idea of reading Hemingway just makes me want to have an apoplectic fit. But maybe that's just my self-indulgent pretentiousness talking
I thought this was going to be a "just-for-fun" thread. Obviously there is no formulaic method of determining the greatest novel. It's each person's opinion.
OSC's comments about Joyce are reminiscent of Ayn Rand's negative criticism of such literature and abstract art. I believe she iterates this in Atlas Shrugged (in addition to her large quantity of NF works).
Joyce is clearly a literary genius and did not fall victim to bad writing. Perhaps that is why many make the leap about his writing.
I believe I remember reading The Hobbit in junior high (middle school). The reason LOTR, which is a superior literary work, doesn't make it on many HS or college reading lists is due to its length. It is technically one book divided into three volumes. Most general literary courses, not devoted solely to fantasy or Tolkien, would not have sufficient time to effectively "cover" the book.
Tolkien is generally well thought of among collegiate literary professors if for no other reason due to his being a literary professor.
I think there are several levels to the impact of books. It's easy to get caught up in the public dialog as if that reveals the extent of impact--but I would propose that it is an inaccurate measure. After all, how many parents read "1984" or "On the Beach" to their kids around the dinner table? I know of none, but I've known of many who have shared the Tolkien books as a family--multiple times.
Also, I have to ask: would we know the danger of moving the way of totalitarianism (and, by the way, of postmodern denial of reality) and the potential devastating aftermath of nuclear war without those two books? I think we would (even if the knowledge seems to be becoming more and more distant these days.) So, yes, these books are often referred to when we consider totalitarianism and nuclear war--but I doubt they had that much to do with moving us.
The interesting thing about Tolkien (and I'm more referring to the pre Peter-Jackson-era than post) is that it seems to have ingrained itself as a cultural element of many families. I don't see the same happening with "1984" or "On the Beach." So it's my estimation that Tolkien has had a much farther reaching impact on the whole. His books also appeal less to ideological things and more to visceral humility, self-sacrifice, and desire to hold on to the precious things of our heritage.
There are other books that approach this phenomenon, like "The Narnian Chronicles," "Huckleberry Finn," and now, if it lasts, maybe "Harry Potter," but there are undoubtedly other levels of impact I haven't thought of.
[This message has been edited by mfreivald (edited January 09, 2011).]
quote: The interesting thing about Tolkien (and I'm more referring to the pre Peter-Jackson-era than post) is that it seems to have ingrained itself as a cultural element of many families.
This is interesting to me because I have had quite the opposite experience and have found very few people who pre-Peter-Jackson era knew much Tolkien other than "The Hobbit" (my strong suspicion being their familiarity was due more to the Rankin/Bass cartoon rather than to the book itself).
LOTR and D&D went hand in hand. It was part of the unofficial reading list for geek initiates. And yet, I have never known anyone to quote Tolkien to me, or to speak Elvish (but I've heard plenty of Klingon).
Which brings me to the following question - is Tolkien quotable? Would that be a worthwhile criteria to determine whether something is worthy of being "the greatest work of fiction" of any century?
This is the only quote I'm familiar with by Tolkien. I'm sure there are many more, but I like this one.
“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.”
Well, if "quotable" is the measure, Monty Python is the epitome of literature--hands down.
Maybe it's a bird-of-a-feather thing, but I hear quotes from Tolkien as much as any other author. (Though it's not like I have a tally.) So, yes, I'd say he's quotable, but I think such a measure would be horribly lopsided.
Some interesting thoughts across the board.
first: Read hobbit in high school 9th grade.
Have not read Joyce yet so I don't know if he is 'Pretentious' in his writing. I assume we are talking about his writing and not his manners. As in: Trying to sound intelligent by using long, complicated words, even though you don't know what they mean.
Not: making an exaggerated outward show; ostentatious.
As for self-indulgent: Indulging one's own desires, passions, whims, etc.: I have to agree this one is a little silly. Every artist/writer is self-indulgent. Whether you say I'm going to write this for my kids or write this so the world awakens to the boundless universal possibilities of life. Point is, you have to have a starting point and that is always going to be the writers own experiences and imagination to form the story. Even if you have a thousand pages of research it will be colored by the authors perspective when deciding whats important to include.
As for OSC's opinion on Tolkien and Joyce. He's a man, it's one persons opinion. I don't listen to the 50/50 opinions about his work so why should I start taking his as absolute on anyone else.
If OSC says Joyce is Pretentious and self-indulgent I still have to read Joyce to say I agree or disagree, so what difference does it make, unless your going to follow what he says blindly.
Tolkien, had some passages that bored me to tears, but it was a good trilogy over all. The funny thing about Tolkien is they always say he was creating a new myth for the west. Most all the names and concepts are already in ancient myth. I had to admit I was really was surprised when I found the name Gandalf in an old Norse story. Tolkien just did an amazing job of research, (But he was a professor. So not to surprising)and compiled hundreds of myths and a couple of languages and stole little parts of each and recreated it into a new combined myth. The fact that he, just like everyone else got his inspiration from reading ancient myths is not surprising. Saying Tolkien is the greatest after the movies is like trying to figure out if star wars the book by George Lucas was well written. Does anyone really care. No, because the movies shaped the pubic opinion.
Overall I could think of a dozen great works by authors that got little or no recognition. Their writing inspired me personally to better things, along of course with famous writers like Tolkien, Twain, and Fitzgerald, but I wouldn't give them anymore than their do, but that's just me.
mfreivald, thanks for your interesting input about the multiple levels of impact. I agree that for sheer impact, stories that get read to kids probably have some of the greatest influence. Where I live, however, reading books is a solitary pursuit, with discussions coming after one has read a book. So reading them around the table is an intriguing foreign concept to me.
However, while 1984 probably isn't the type of book that could be read to kids, I am sure that, in its time, On the Beach was read in that manner (if that is a cultural norm in USA). It's really a mainstream style story, not a science fiction one (in that it adheres to mainstream rather than genre norms), and it appealed to a wide audience (perhaps, at that time, for that reason).
quote:Also, I have to ask: would we know the danger of moving the way of totalitarianism (and, by the way, of postmodern denial of reality) and the potential devastating aftermath of nuclear war without those two books?
Totalitarianism was obvious by the time 1984 was written, so that one, probably not (although things like the links to the wider economy probably weren't known widely). But the dangers of nuclear war were not likely to have been understood by the public without some popular form of explanation, i.e. at the time, a novel or movie (both, as it turns out). Where would the general understanding of global warming be today if it weren't for An Inconvenient Truth? For all its controversy, it is now a significant part of the public consciousness, when it would probably have remained the domain of a few intellectuals, much like topics such as architecture or statistical analysis are now (i.e. most people know they are important, but wouldn't have much of an opinion on them). On the Beach did the same job for nuclear war.
(Side note - IMO the invention of nuclear control probably had the 6th biggest impact of the century on society, behind totalitarianisms, the rise of the media, the pill, antibiotics and the computer. Note: the moon landing may have as big an impact on the future, but on last century, its impact was only limited to a couple of decades.)
I have to agree with tchernabyelo's list. Those were the factors that most changed how we live and fundamentally how we think, and did so over the course of not just decades but generations.
The moon landing COULD have been such a factor if the space race hadn't petered out with the end of the Cold War, and the loss of that formerly-massive motivation to be first to gain that ultimate advantage of high ground. But as it stands, it became a blip -- a large blip but still, our lives today would be very little different had it never happened.
As to "totalitarianism" -- the concept is hardly new or even modern; only our perception of it has changed.
quote:I would argue that the following events all had far greater impact on the 20th Century than the moon landings did:
World War 1 Air travel Television World War 2 The atomic bomb
I might be willing to concede WW2, which with other than Einstein's influence was also primarily responsible for the development of nuclear fission technology.
However, I do feel a need to justify my claim regarding the Apollo space program - so here it is:
“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding.”
What would your world possibly be like without the Apollo program?
You could still be getting your milk in glass bottles - plastics You might be using a typewriter at this moment unless you were very rich (laptops and smartphones would be out of the question) - microprocessors/the microchip You would be watching analog TV and know very little about the rest of the world - global telecommunication systems (satellite TV, satellite radio, cell phones) More people would be dead - medical imaging devices and advanced medical technologies More people would be bored - video games and controllers The Cold War might never have happened (or we might have lost) - advanced missile systems and other aeronautic technologies.
So, as you pour yourself a cup of milk and stare at that blinking cursor in front of you, trying to decide whether to work on your story or play World of Warcraft, while you flip between CNN and Fox News and ask your spouse where you put your cell phone, be thankful that your heart's still beating and the commies haven't blown you to hell!
Oh, and I'm sorry I got off topic. Personnaly, I like Lord of the Flies, even though Golding used the word "furtive" too many times IMO. I enjoyed LOTR, and in many ways it is a greater work, but I liked Golding's writing style better.
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