Ruh roh

Photograph from The Guardian; credited to Haywood Magee/Hulton Archive.

Via Jezebel (observed despite my ongoing distaste for the Gawker redesign): JRR Tolkien’s estate has sued to stop the publication of a first-time novelist’s book, Mirkwood: A Novel About JRR Tolkien. The Guardian story Jezebel sourced is more thorough. From The Guardian:

The dispute comes only months after Tolkien’s heirs settled a multimillion-pound lawsuit over royalties from the Lord of the Rings films. Tolkien’s family claimed that the New Line studio behind the $3bn-grossing trilogy failed to pass on any money to the estate, showing “insatiable greed”.

Peter Jackson, of course, has had his own issues with New Line’s financial protectionism. While the Tolkien estate’s motives in the New Line case were clearly monetary, and while uncompensated usage hovers around the edges of this statement about the book, the estate sees this suit as a different set of issues (also via The Guardian):

“At no time have our clients granted permission to use the name and personality of JRR Tolkien in the novel, nor would they in any foreseeable circumstances.” It claims “unlawful commercial advantage” has been taken of the estate’s “valuable rights”, and argues that Hillard’s book “trivialises the name, personality and reputation of the late professor”.

In any case, my sympathies lie with the author, one Steve Hillard of Austin. Hillard cited other works in which historical figures have been re-imagined in fiction, including Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (and Libra, of course).

The thing with most of these types of projects is that they take on subjects whose prominence in our pop cultural memory is unquestioned. There’s a new novel out narrated by a fictionalized version of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. A cursory Googling reveals no nay-saying by the family. Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama is still in print, despite being littered with B-list names, mixed in with the fictional scene. There’s not much commercial advantage to be gained from names that do not loom large in history.

I talked to a friend a while back about using real people in fiction and he suggested that people (like myself) do this because it is “easier” than creating a “real” character. I could not disagree more. But the conversation got me thinking about what it is that draws me to fictionalizing pop cultural icons, and I’m not 100 percent sure. Why do I write about pop culture at all?

Well. In part because I think it’s our lingua franca. The Bible may once have provided a set of allusions common to the majority of the Western/Christian empire, but now the allusions we share are culturally-based vs. religious, culture being a word I use very loosely. The internet is creating more and more fractured subsets of audience, meaning that allusions one uses with a particular group can have deep resonance. That’s not even an internet-only phenomenon: Karl Rove’s technique of seeding Bush II’s speeches with the language of Evangelicals has been much-discussed. It all boils down, I think, to our longing for commonality and connection, shared values. We’re all looking for our tribe.

It’s more complex than that, obviously, but it’s too early to be thoughtful, and this morning I accidentally knocked over and shattered the French press resulting in NO COFFEE. Much sadness. But I’ll be following this suit as it unfolds.

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One response to “Ruh roh

  1. My guess is that the layers for the JRR Tolkien family have influenced them in this decision. After a multimillion pound suit, I imagine they have some high powered law firm filling their ears with legal advise.

    Hopefully it gets struck down in court, the novel doesn’t have the influence or the pretensions to change public perception of Tolkien.

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