Tolkien's readership still seems to be largely composed of people who read him and other fantasy novels, and are maybe not so interested in what is sometimes referred to as 'mainstream' or 'literary' fiction - meaning the stuff written by people who tend to end up being at least nominated for the Booker Prize. By the same token, the much smaller but more vocal and influential readership (one is tempted to say 'market') for the Booker-oriented end of contemporary fiction tends to dismiss Tolkien's work as at best uninteresting and at worse contemptibly 'escapist'.
This is a shame, because a commentator as erudite as Tom Shippey is perfectly placed to talk about what Tolkien is good at in terms which the average literary novel reader can understand. Given that most readers of contemporary 'serious' fiction are not usually very expert in ancient languages, which were Tolkien's and which are Shippey's stocks-in-trade, this is quite an achievement.
Shippey's best book on Tolkien is 'The Road to Middle-Earth', but it's not an easy book (in fact it's one of the densest works of literary criticism I've ever read) and it's hardly likely to appeal to anyone who has not already read a lot of Tolkien. His much later 'JRR Tolkien - Author of the Century' is somewhat polemical, being aimed at people who perhaps need to be convinced that Tolkien is a writer worth reading and worth taking seriously. This book is a selection of his essays, articles and lectures on Tolkien, and as such is intended for people who are familiar with the work. There is much food for thought here, including a fascinating essay on the connections and disconnections between Tolkien's work and Richard Wagner's, which might have been written specially for my father-in-law, a great guy (and a classically trained musician) who nevertheless refuses to read Tolkien on the grounds that he thinks Wagner's stories are silly.
The book is full of wonderful close readings and clear-eyed analysis, and Shippey is familiar enough with the so-called canon of modern English literature to be able to draw enlightening connections between, say, Tolkien's attitude to class and Thomas Hardy's.
As time goes by, and the Tolkien industry kicks in (largely thanks, it would seem from the rather spartan look of this book, to the availability of cheap desktop typesetting), Tolkien comes to seem less and less like an embarrassingly popular writer of escapism and more and more like a serious author, someone who - like W.B. Yeats - had perhaps troubling and unfashionable but nevertheless strong, vivid and persuasive things to say. That this is so is due in no small way to the work of Tom Shippey and people like him - intelligent and erudite people who are unprejudiced enough to think that Tolkien might be a writer worth taking seriously.
I was a teenage Tolkien nut. In my late teens and early twenties I read a lot of 20th century literary and postmodernist theory, and decided that Tolkien was bad because he was popular; everyone knew that the great mass of people were hopelessly swayed by the ideology of late capitalism (or maybe they were just repressed, or maybe they just hadn't deconstructed themselves enough yet, or something, anyway) and in any case they couldn't be trusted to understand who they really were or what they really wanted - it was the job of intellectuals to help them realise what their true needs and interests were.
In my late twenties I read Tolkien again because the movie was coming out, and to my surprise I greatly enjoyed it. I have regained my earlier interest in folktales, storytelling and old languages (although I'm not really interested in re-learning all the Elvish I admit to once knowing) and am no longer convinced that it's worth the effort of trying to understand what Jacques Derrida was talking about in his more deliberately opaque pieces. I no longer believe that Tolkien's immense and enduring popularity entails a lack of integrity and literary quality. I once caught a supposedly left-wing journalist saying that Tolkien was so popular because his work appealed to the most ugly and atavistic impulses in people. It seems to me now that that attitude is not only illogical (because if it were so, then Nazism would command huge public sympathy, instead of almost universal disapproval and hatred) but that it also betrayed what was, in a supposed fan of the people, a remarkable fear and mistrust of the imaginations of most readers. The good thing about this is that the battle to convert the majority of readers to the idea that Tolkien is worth reading is already won. The problem is that the most heavily indoctrinated class, the intelligentsia, still largely refuses to read him, preferring to talk drivel about him instead. Books like Prof. Shippey's may help to change that.