Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Civility on the Net ('laundry lists')

So, I've been mulling over recently why there's so much incivility and rancor on the internet. In particular, I was struck by two threads on the MythSoc list a few weeks back, both concerning the recently announced BEOWULF translation by JRRT that's coming out next month.

The first came in response to a query forwarded to the list:

The question is, why wasn't a translation of Beowulf by an Anglo-Saxon scholar published before? Did Tolkien submit it to a publisher in his lifetime? Why did Christopher Tolkien wait so long to publish it, long after *Laundry Lists of Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits: A Comparison with a Note about Dwarf Wives and Runic Laundry Marks*. The fact of its late publication suggests, in the absence of other facts, that it is not good or not interesting.

Now, setting aside the main thrust of the question, and its implication that delay in publication indicates deficiency in merit (a dubious premise*), it's hard for me to read the above and not conclude that it's deliberately insulting. Describing Tolkien's posthumous work as 'laundry lists' is an old joke,** only evoked by those who intend to belittle it. It's the equivalent of people who in the old days would insult TSR by mis-spelling the name 'T$R'. Those of us who worked at TSR took that as a deliberate and gratuitous insult, the proper response to which was to ignore comments from anyone who used it: their self-declared hostility negated any obligation to respond. And that's just the response that several posters on the MythSoc list advocated: that a deliberately insulting question didn't deserve an answer, much less a civil one. And I have to say I pretty much agree with them. Why engage with people who go out of their way to be deliberately unpleasant? And in the unlikely event it's not deliberate, engaging with people whose grasp of basic civility is so weak that they can't tell an insult from a question lacks any appeal.

So much for the deliberate insult. The second example came only a day or two later, in the form of a posting including a link, with the post carefully identifying the piece thus linked to as full of errors. And so it was:

Now, granted that it's a good idea to read any interview in the knowledge that a published interview might not always fully and fairly represented what the person interviewed meant to say, this piece is still full of such flagrant errors that it's hard not to include that here we're seeing an example of what I call 'Low Information Expert' -- when someone's asked for his or her opinion and replies from an assumed position of authority despite not  knowing much about the subject at hand. This time I posted myself, regretfully intemperately, in this second thread.

I think what annoyed me into posting this time, when I'd been able to sit out the first round, were (a)  the multiple and manifold errors in the linked piece and (b) the deliberate insults to Christopher Tolkien included therein. As for the first, it's not true that Christopher Tolkien only learned about the existence of this translation through Michael Drout: Drout found out about them when looking at the material Christopher Tolkien had sorted, organized, annotated, and deposited in the Bodleian Library. It's not true that Tolkien died in the 1980s, nor that the Tolkien Estate is trying to extend the copyright beyond the usual legal limits .*** And I have to say that some of us are looking forward to reading Tolkien's lecture notes on BEOWULF, significant portions of which are said to be included in the new edition.

Leaving aside the errors, I think in hindsight it was the personal attack on C.T. that goaded me into response. Errors are always with us. Snarky comments are always with us. But it's harder to let malicious personal attacks on people you know and whose work you respect pass unchallenged.

As for the larger question, I'm currently on four email lists. One is small and friendly and v. localized in content. A second, somewhat larger one, is friendly and supportive. A third occasionally flames up but a firm moderator keeps us all in line when need be. It's only the fourth, which has minimal and infrequent moderation, that regularly sinks into extended bouts of ill-will and, worse, replays the same arguments, between the same people, on a regular basis.  So it's my conclusion, based on my personal experiences, that internet civility is directly linked to consequences or the lack thereof.


--John R.

current audiobook: Shippey's lectures on Heroism
current reading: WIZARDY AND WILD ROMANCE by Michal Moorcock

*after all, it's only a year since we finally got THE FALL OF ARTHUR.

**it might make an interesting project sometime to try to trace back who was the first smart-alec who thought this one up and what it says about the people who keep reusing it all these years later.

***and in any case the 75-years of standard copyright protection she mentions will carry us all the way to the year 2048 or thereabouts.


Brer said...

The origin of the "laundry list" crack might possibly be Woody Allen's “The Metterling Lists,” The New Yorker, May 10, 1969. Worth a look at, still.

Wurmbrand said...

I do wonder about how the people think, who criticize Christopher Tolkien for his release of material left unpublished when his father died. I'm grateful for it. If CJRT were in it for the money, he could have found more lucrative ways to capitalize on it: for example, farm out various fragments, such as Tal-elmar, to some fantasy author to "complete" as full-length books; or to milk the Tolkien properties for merchandising dollars -- and so on. Really what is it with these folks? : )

Marcel R. Aubron-Bülles said...

I'd second Wurmbrand on that.

By now I have started referring people to the Tolkien Trust, a registered charity, basically giving out all of the money they receive via the film companies to other registered charities in the UK for social and cultural, often volunteer, work. That is, to a good cause.

And then I ask them what Warner Bros. et al. do with the gazillions of dollars they are making with the films.

That usually works.

Ed Pierce said...

People who make these cracks about Christopher Tolkien publishing anything and everything in order to make money probably don't have much of a clue about the nature of the texts that Christopher was dealing with, or the amount of work that went into preparing them for publication. I'd be very curious to find out what sort of money the Tolkien estate has made from the 12 volumes of the HOME series combined. My guess is that it (while still being somewhat substantial) is a mere pittance compared to the royalties that continue to flow in from sales of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. That someone would spend decades preparing such work with profit being the primary motive, seems far-fetched, to put it mildly. If one wants to argue about the literary quality of Tolkien's posthumous works, that should be fair game, but to cynically suggest that Christopher's efforts are motivated by greed seems to me to be ignorant at best.