Friday, September 28, 2007

Burying Caesar, Not Praising Him

Let's say you're John Clute, writing an obituary of Robert Jordan for The Independent. You want to say nice things about the guy -- he's dead, and that's the gig -- but you also want to make your regular lofty critical position clear, and avoid saying anything overly positive that may be quoted against you later.

So your lede is:
The overwhelming presence of J.R.R. Tolkien blighted the careers of many writers who could not escape his shadow.
In context, "blighting" specifically does not mean "writing a long, somewhat Tolkien-derivative, exceptionally popular, fantasy series," since that's exactly what Jordan did, and you immediately go on to praise him for just that Tolkienian achievement.

So the study question is this: who, exactly, are these writers blighted by the presence of Tolkien? And what on earth do they have to do with anything?


Ran said...

I expect he might be thinking of writers like Dennis McKiernan or Terry Brooks, who are known for having been particularly derivative and difficult to speak of out of the context of Tolkien (at least in regards to the works they're most well known for, respectively the Mithgar and Shannara books; though perhaps Brooks had evolved Shannara enough now to step out of that shadow). I'm sure there are other Tolkien knock-offs who one mercifully forgets -- there's a host of Dungeons & Dragon books out there that are poor shadows of LotR, taking all the wrong things from it.

As to what these "blighted" people have to do with anything, I think he's placing Jordan as someone who managed some quality that the "blighted" people did not achieve.
Other than being an intense worldbuilder, having a Dark Lord, and being very popular, there's not a great deal of similarity between Jordan's work and Tolkien's beyond the superficial stuff of having heroes, or having a quest. Jordan's books are filled with politics and women (neither of which LotR can be accused of) and while there's not, exactly, an overwhelming sense of moral complexity, there's at least a little more variety in the moral types of his characters.

There's a very big cast of self-interested secondary characters who aren't heroic, whereas just about everyone in LotR was heroic in some aspect or another (individual hobbits might seem silly and foolish, but as a race they're lauded for their fortitude and tight-knit community to a degree that makes the very existence of the Shire in itself heroic).

That's my take, anyways, on what Clute means.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Elio: That's probably what Clute did mean, but, if a major bestseller with a thirty-year career is "blighted" in his eyes, I could use a bit more blight in my own life, thank you very much.

Really, it's yet another "most of this stuff is crap, but this guy was kinda half-decent, or I'll at least say so now that he's dead" kind of argument. And I'm not convinced Clute is a major authority on the subject of epic fantasy.

Ran said...

I suspect Clute doesn't give bestsellerdom much weight when considering the merit of an author's work, so "blighted" might well still hold for Brooks (in Clute's eyes, anyways). I certainly wouldn't mind that kind of blight, either.

I agree he's probably working hard to laud Jordan in a way that he can accept without straying too far from his usual views. So he picks out the fact that Jordan is massively popular without being in Tolkien's shadow (in his view, and that of many of RJ's fans), and runs with that. And there's something to that, I think. I think it's unarguable that RJ paved the way for other epic fantasies that are less obviously beholden to Tolkien to make their mark -- Goodkind (however much it pains me to admit he's made some kind of mark) and Martin, certainly, but also Erikson, Bakker, and probably a raft of other people who're doing noteworthy work in the genre.

What's interesting to me is that Stephen R. Donaldson was the first post-Tolkienian epic fantasist to really break out in a big way from Tolkien's shadow, but basically no one was able (or perhaps even attempted) to follow his footsteps into popular success.

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