Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Sneer

Careful readers of Antick Musings will have noted that I do not think The New York Times's book-reviewing apparatus has any idea of what SFF is or can do, and that everyone involved in the NYTBR seems to be compelled to insult and misread us at every turn.

This week, the Times apparently has noted that J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Hurin was an immediate #1 bestseller, that it seems to be serious in intent, and that they have previously failed to cover it. Since their judgment could not possibly be wrong, they decided to poke at it in their Inside the List column this week.

I suspect the intent of that column is to be jocular and familiar, but that really only works for books and genres that the Times understands and has a history of covering well, which is not the case here. The bold-faced subhead (Middle-earth, middlebrow") sets the superior tone.

In the first sentence, the Times writer (Rachel Donadio is credited at the bottom, so I think she wrote all three bits) says that Hurin's strong sales prove "that fans will consume anything -- anything! -- by the Hobbit-meister." I will reply in three ways:
  1. By wondering if the Times is in the habit of calling John Updike "the Rabbit dude" or Philip Roth "the Newark masturbator," and, if not, why "Hobbit-meister" rolled off their collective tongue in this case.
  2. By noting that, actually, Roverandom proved her supposed point, and that the sales actually prove that the really rabid Tolkien fans are not the only ones buying Hurin.
  3. By pointing and laughing.
Next, the Times (oh, let's just say Donadio from here on, to make it cleaner) states that this "prequel springs from stories Tolkien began and set aside as a young man before he turned to 'The Hobbit'." Possible clarifications include:
  • I'm probably a stickler on this point, but I do think "prequel" should be reserved for a work written later but set (within its fictional world) earlier. Admittedly, there is a huge grey area when you get into works written but left unpublished for a long time, like Hurin. But I did want to mention that I wouldn't use "prequel" in this case.
  • "Began and set aside" is technically correct in this instance -- J.R.R. Tolkien began and set aside more versions of his stories than many of us have had hot dinners -- but it gives the wrong impression: Tolkien worked on this story, in one form or another and off and on, for about sixty years.
  • It really sidesteps the essential issue, which is that Tolkien was, even as early as 1918, deliberately trying to create an internally coherent myth-system and imagined mythic history for the British isles. "The Children of Hurin" was one of the important pieces of that myth-system, and, while he may have set this particular story aside now and then, he continued work on some part of the mythos throughout the rest of his life.
After that, Donadio quotes from W.H. Auden's glowing reviews of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King from the NYTBR of olden days -- perhaps feeling a bit guilty for the previous comments. But she returns to form by quoting a Entertainment Weekly pan of Hurin and then archly, look-at-this-ridiculous-person-style, quoting "someone named Jill" who commented on that EW review on the EW site.

One last comment, not aimed at Donadio but at the unnamed EW reviewer: I have no problem with you calling Hurin "swampy" -- I liked it better than that, myself, but it is Tolkien in High Mythic mode, and that can be a bit much for readers used to modern diction -- but referring to such a monument to editing as "unedited" only shows that you didn't read Christopher Tolkien's preface. You may find it boring, dull, or unreadable in whatever way it struck you, but the one thing The Children of Hurin definitely is not is "unedited."

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