Sunday, February 18, 2024

not entirely there

This weekend was the Mythopoeic Society's Online Winter Seminar, whose topic was queerness in all its manifestations, and the papers that I heard mostly stuck pretty closely to it. One of the more interesting, if provocative, speakers defined queerness by saying that the meaning was inherently unstable, but that basically it means "transgression from the normative." This is what it meant, for instance, when a crusty hobbit told Gaffer Gamgee that "Bag End's a queer place, and its folk are queerer." And that's the root of the word's application to specifically sexual transgression, which as a common usage is generally dated from the trial of Oscar Wilde, though it was less prominently used in that sense earlier.

So, since if there's one thing fantasy literature is full of, it's transgression from the normative, there should be plenty to talk about. And there was, but I didn't get much out of it, and bailed early. This was partly due to not liking online conferences. Somehow it's one thing to sit in a cramped classroom chair in a stuffy room and listen live to someone read a paper, but less appealing to sit in my own chair in my own office and listen to someone on a computer.

But it was also due to the style of the papers. These presenters have obvious passionate personal commitment to their subjects, to which their own personal identities are tightly wrapped. But they're also trained industrial-production academics, most of them working on their Ph.D.'s, and they write in stultifying heavy-weather academese. It's a shame: what I like about Tolkien scholarship, or used to like about it, is that so much of it was not written in the academic style, even if it was by tenured academics. Scholars like Verlyn Flieger and Tom Shippey and Brian Attebery and Diana Glyer write like real humans imparting their brilliant insights into the literature that you and they have both read, in ordinary comprehensible language.

The conference was also dotted with the kind of severe correctives of personal failings, especially of those of the past who were not so enlightened as we, that so alarm right-wing critics of this sort of academe. Indeed, some of these right-wingers are former leftists who have decamped in disgust. I, at least, would never do this. Over the top (as Joe Biden would put it) as some of these correctives may be, the right wing's own directives are vast orders of magnitude worse, and far more thorough and sweeping, and more hurtful to those they hit. I know the difference between what's occasionally overloaded and what's thoroughly rancid.

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