Golden Age of the Prickly Collar

Our post-Christmas family treat last year was a visit to Elgin to see part one of The Hobbit at the cinema there, preceded by fish & chips at the old Cadora (which I think means “Golden House”, I suppose on account of their very fine batter). This year part two was our post-New Year treat, in the faintly sci-fi surroundings of the ten-theatre cinema in Union Square, Aberdeen (sci-fi because it may well be that the future of humankind will be played out in Malls, into whose glittering enclaves no fiction of day and night, or wind and weather, will ever penetrate). The Hobbit? Well, yes, I thought it was a bit better than Part One, mainly thanks to the material that didn’t come from the actual story, and there was a bit of eye-candy for the boys (there had already been that strange anomaly of some heart-throb dwarves for the girls) in the shape of some elf-maiden I’d never heard of who, in addition to being a super-killing-machine took a couple of minutes off her frenetic stabbing-spree to do some instantaneous contact-healing of her dying dwarvish heart-throb. I had a job persuading the others (I mean, I didn’t succeed) that poor old Legolas, who we last saw in L.o.R. 3 skimming up an oliphaunt’s back with all the panache of the young Luke Skywalker, was looking slightly portly not because Orlando Bloom was getting a bit middle-aged but – the events of The Hobbit preceding those of The Lord of the Rings by about sixty years – because of puppy fat, which ought to be endearing.

Ah, so, that brings me to the nub of what I’ve wondering since our latest cinema experience…. This part two of The Hobbit was reasonably faithful, by modern standards of fidelity, to the original, but whereas part one struck me as The Hobbit without its charm, part two struck me more as The Hobbit without its innocence. I don’t mean I’m so deluded as to consider things were any “better” in the old days, but I’d been raking around Annie Lamb’s bookshop in Huntly just before Christmas and got a small haul of old “modern” books for Annie (Annie Ashton, that is) to read, and we got talking about that most fascinating “golden age” of British writing, which I assume must be nearly forgotten now, from about the end of the Great War to about the mid nineteen-fifties where, side by side with the hard-core “literary” authors you got the diverse, and frequently very literary, forayers into “horror”, “mystery”, the “supernatural” and of course “detective” fiction, but where genre writing as such hadn’t been whipped into line in quite the way it is now – one could nearly say it hadn’t really been invented. And then along came The Hobbit and overnight (well, I suppose it took about twenty years, but that counted as overnight back then) everything changed and with The Lord of the Rings the Fantasy Genre was officially born. This isn’t to say it hadn’t existed before: I think it was C S Lewis, though it might have been the ever-burrowing Lin Carter, who traced it back to William Morris, while clearly an even longer strand reaches back from George MacDonald to the German Romantics, including the Schlegels and Grimms and the even older sources that inspired them. But what as far as I can see mainly characterises the fantasy genre that we know and love (or not) today was the inclusion in its ranks of Bad Writing, and I suspect that, in this respect, dear old Prof Tolkien may be the villain of the piece. Not in The Hobbit, of course, which is a beautifully written bit of light entertainment, but once you get into the leaden tones that characterise a lot of The Lord of the Rings, at least from the point where it takes off into regions of the Epic, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he got away with it only because of something in the content which publishers considered too special to be left in obscurity. Not that there aren’t some bits of good writing (and some wonderful poetic moments, such as the confrontation of “Dernhelm” and the Nazgul), but it strikes me that it was Tolkien’s unevenness of quality, combined of course with his “success”, which opened the flood-gates to the avalanche (mixed metaphor?) of out-and-out crap which followed and which still engulfs us.

Another consequence of genre writing (not single-handedly, because the film industry has been a major player in this phenomenon), is the decline in reading ability. “Decline in reading ability?” today’s well-fed editor will protest, “what nonsense, there are more books being published now than ever before!” To which I would reply: Well duh – do the maths.

Here’s what I mean: Legolas skimming up (or down) the oliphaunt’s back puts us right in mind of Luke Skywalker doing his thing on the imperial walking-tanks in The Empire Strikes Back: we got the reference the moment we saw the scene. And that’s all right, it’s what we’ve seen in traditional story-telling for thousands of years. But then from that you see the film industry – precisely because it’s an industry – becoming so self-referential it’s got its head right up its backside in its efforts to avoid being too original. Why? Because originality is disturbing. Is that a bad thing? Well, if it interrupts The Flow, then yes it is. The Flow is the hidden force (The Force is nothing in comparison) that binds all living beings (human beings anyway, and we’re not bothered about the others) in a smooth continuum from producer to consumer and back again. The Flow is all.

So, I come back again to that matter of the decline in reading. I don’t actually believe anyone reads books any more. They skim, rather in the manner kids are taught to skim texts, looking for specific references, when cramming for some exam (the details of which will be lost to memory forever as soon as the finishing bell goes). So, the Flow runs thus: once an author has finished writing a book (and if he/she has got any acumen he/she will be churning them out at the rate of about one a week), the book is not read by anyone but skimmed, first of all by the literary agent, who is looking for clues that will help decide which publisher to approach; then by the publisher, who is looking for any promotional opportunities the text might contain, because of course no promo opportunities means no sales; then it gets checked in various ways by editors and artistic directors and sales people, none of whom are reading the text in a holistic way, asking themselves questions like what’s really going on here? but who are all merely skimming for what ‘s relevant to their own specialisation in the creation of a polished product. Then it gets to the booksellers who skim it – actually, sorry, no, they don’t even skim it, they skim whatever promotional literature the publisher has sent them about it – to help them decide where to place it in their shop. And then finally it gets to the reader, who takes it home and skims it, looking out for familiar material and, being reassured by the presence of same, can then appreciate whatever novelty this familiar material is presented with. Thus one “enjoys” a book. If the novelty quotient, either in the writing or the content, is high enough, the book will be called “original”, or even “highly original”, before it’s consigned to the scrap-heap of memory. No writer should complain about this because, considering the sheer volume of books being produced, if any one book were to be properly read, a thousand others wouldn’t be read at all, and then we’d all be out of business like in the good old days when you either had a private income or you starved.

I think I’d like to have been an author, back in those golden years from the ‘twenties to the ‘fifties, except – well, from the fifties I mainly remember woollen winter underwear, and prickly collars after your weekly visit to the barber’s (I think I spent my whole boyhood scratching), and queuing up for medical examinations by dominatrix-type nurses and hitleresque doctors, and teachers who were constantly exasperated at your poor performance, and feeling hung-up about sex, and counselling limited to gems like “just snap out of it” and – oh, I’m just remembering why I put such a deal of effort into growing up and I dare say what girls had to go through was even more unspeakable…. – When the first archeo-amphibians clambered onto land they probably felt the same way about the ocean – walking? breathing? yep, I’d give up a lot just to be able to do those things. Anyway that’s all I have to say about The Hobbit, which I first had read to me in 1958, which compensated for many miseries, and which I never forgot.

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2 Comments

Filed under Writing

2 responses to “Golden Age of the Prickly Collar

  1. I wouldn’t be so hard on JRRT. Great literature it is not, but it reads well and holds up after multiple readings. There’s a gulf between LOTR and the 1000 pages tomes that weigh down Waterstone’s fantasy shelves.

  2. tamrabam

    Love the thesis. Well, I loved the bits I read while skimming. Legolas was plump and you must be past it if you can’t appreciate the female eye candy. Keep up the good work and I will keep skimming.

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