Thursday, February 6, 2020

scholarship non-award

I was delighted to come across this list, Ten Best Books of the Decade, 2010-2019: Fantasy Studies. Actually it includes 12 books, but of the 7 older books on the list, 2 were Mythopoeic Scholarship Award winners, and 3 more were finalists, including such fabulous entries as Brian Attebery's Stories About Stories and the Levy/Mendlesohn Children's Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (the two winners) and Stefan Ekman's Here Be Dragons.

But of the 5 new books, those that would be eligible for the award this year, none were familiar to me. But among such exalted company, they were worth checking out. I'm a long-time member of the awards committee, and I'm always on the look out for candidates.

Well, I've found copies of all 5 of them. Mind you, I've read none in full. I just dipped in and sampled parts, to get a sense of whether they'd be worthy of being considered as nominees for the award. In particular, as I always do for triage in the general fantasy category, I look to see what they have to say about Tolkien, if anything: because the complexity of his work makes him a challenge to study, but if you can't get him right, there's no point in going any further.

And I'm dismayed to find that not one of these five books strikes me as a worthy candidate for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award. If someone else nominates them, I'll examine them more closely, but otherwise I'm not going to make the effort.

1. The Canons of Fantasy: Lands of High Adventure, Patrick Moran (Cambridge University Press, 2019)
This is hardly a scholarly treatise at all. It's very short, and is evidently one of a series of books intended as brief overviews of their topic. The author cites Jamie Williamson's The Evolution of Modern Fantasy (which won the MSA in 2016), but hardly seems to have read it. Instead of a research book, as Williamson wrote, this is armchair theorizing that doesn't even seem to have spent enough time cogitating in the armchair. It's well-written and intelligent, but there's not enough here to qualify it as an award candidate.

2. The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy, C. Palmer-Patel (Routledge, 2019)
Actually this book came out with a 2020 publication date on it, so it's not eligible yet this year. The goal of studying the relatively uncharted fantasy epics of 1990-2010 is a worthy one, but the relentless mediocrity of most of the chosen subjects, plus a clumsy writing style and a lack of the deep insights into structure needed to make a study like this work, show this as a sorry sight next to Roz Kaveney's brilliant brief study of the epics of the 1970s and 80s (in Eaglestone's Reading The Lord of the Rings).

3. A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic, James Gifford (ELS Editions, 2018)
I found this book almost unreadable. There are worse examples of turgid, convoluted prose in academia, but this one is bad enough. The relentless insistence on viewing everything through politically-colored lenses (alternately Marxist and anarchist), whether it's suitable or insightful to the topic or not, is also extremely tiresome. I hope nobody makes me read this in full.

4. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas (New York University Press, 2019)
Now this is an intelligent, insightful, and productive study of an important but neglected aspect of several very popular fantasies of recent times. I got a lot out of the Harry Potter chapter (which I picked to read because I'm familiar with the topic), and I'm almost ready to nominate it. Yet in the end I was too dismayed by the author's choice to spend much of the chapter defending herself from charges of plagiarism that erupted on the Internet regarding her fan fiction. It's just not appropriate to raise a personal beef like that in a serious scholarly work.

5. Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century, Maria Sachiko Cecire (University of Minnesota Press, 2019)
This is another intelligent and well-written treatise, and one which I actually look forward to reading in full. Unlike the first three, which bring in Tolkien more as a totem than a topic, this book actually discusses him (and C.S. Lewis), and so far as I've seen gets its facts right. Yet something smells off about the discussions, the way old food in the fridge smells off. In her intent to propose an alternative social value structure from the one held by Tolkien and Lewis (which she also posits as shared by Pullman, which is one of the things that smells off about it), the author reads them with a level of skepticism and scorn that casts their principles as illegitimate. This is not an appropriate candidate for an award created in these authors' honor.

No comments:

Post a Comment