Thursday, July 19, 2007

In Defense of Pottermania...

Couldn’t have said it better myself – here is an adult critic’s defense of Pottermania, wittily titled “The Masses Aren’t Asses.”

Indeed they are not. Harold Bloom et al. can kiss my ass. Look, I seriously considered making a career out of studying great literature. I was in the English Ph.D program at Yale for a couple of years (though I didn’t study with Bloom). My roommate in grad school, who’s one of the most insightful readers and best writers I’ve ever met and who’s now teaching Shakespeare to undergrads, is nearly as addicted to Harry Potter as I am. So is my dad, who has a Ph.D from M.I.T. (admittedly, not in literature). So is my mom, who also loves Henry James and Jane Austen. So are many of my friends with postgraduate degrees. Are we all smoking something, or are we all blinded by some kind of regressive desire to be as little children again?

Neither. It’s worth noting that Bloom, as I understand it, never got past the first book, and many other adults willing to give Harry Potter a try give it up with a shrug after the first or even the second installment. To those people I say: please, please read book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. If, by the end of that one, you are not hooked, then Harry clearly isn’t your cup of tea. But until then, don’t dismiss us Potterheads.

I’ve always respected Taylor as a critic (he wrote a very fine piece on Steven Spielberg some years ago for Salon, which confirms he’s firmly in touch with his inner child), and I now respect him more than ever. Building on what he gets so right in his editorial, here are my own thoughts on Harry’s immense popular appeal:

What is the secret of Harry’s success? In this reader’s opinion, it’s changed over time. The series started out as a fairly formulaic wish fulfillment fantasy: who hasn’t dreamed of being discovered and singled out as a Very Special Person—and better yet, a Very Special Person who can do magic? Even the shadow cast by the death of Harry’s parents and his cruelly unloving relatives had, in the beginning, the feel of Roald Dahl Lite, no more than a standard setup for the self-realization that was bound to follow. But what stood out initially about Rowling’s trek down this well-worn path was the richness of the world she invented—an alternative universe that brilliantly rendered the unfamiliar familiar by harnessing the fantastic in service of the mundane. Rowling constructed this universe with an unerring eye for detail, somewhat reminiscent of the miniature world of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. For every quotidian item, device, or activity in our world, Rowling created a magical counterpart with an ingenious twist: Bertie Botts’ Every Flavor Beans in place of Skittles; Quidditch, played on flying brooms, in lieu of soccer; pictures in which the people move around instead of remaining in eternally fixed poses. The crowning feat of her vision was, of course, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, a delightful riff on the British public school system, which our hero, like any British schoolboy, entered with no idea what to expect.

However, this sense of fun, of perpetual novelty and discovery (which reaches its apotheosis, appropriately, in Book 4, the midpoint of the series) gradually dissipated as Harry plunged deeper into both the darkness of his past and the ultimate showdown looming in his future. The plots became more convoluted, the endings less tidy, the general ambience darker, and of course the body count reached a point at which nothing and no one was sacred. None of these alterations, in themselves, guaranteed either ongoing popularity or greater literary merit. Though Rowling possesses a wonderfully supple and inventive imagination for the details of Harry’s life, the broad strokes of her narrative are, for the most part, heavily derivative. And her writing style frankly is all too often clunky and graceless, sometimes dreadfully so, which I suspect is the real reason literary gatekeepers like Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt have looked down their noses at her.

Here, however, is what Rowling got right: She presented a world so complete and so seductive that it drew us in, through the eyes of characters who were very recognizably children going (and growing) through adolescence. Half of her appeal as a writer lies in her sense of how children of that age range actually talk, think and interact, and in her wit, a quality most fantasy writers entirely lack. (See Exhibit A: J.R.R. Tolkien; Exhibit B: Ursula LeGuin; etc.) Rowling gave us characters we could believe in, despite their fantastical environment, and in whom we invested our interest and sympathies. Then she upped the emotional stakes. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, she tightened the screws of our anxieties, our fears that after all, everything might not come out right—or if it did, it would be at a terrible price. We were hooked, and there was no escape.

Of course I’m biased, but I know I’m far from alone. I remember the days after a new Harry Potter came out, I’d spot the unmistakable volume on the subway, in the park, by the pool, and of course in the bookstore, and feel an immediate fellowship with each person who held it. Especially those I saw reading with an intentness I recognized: the readers who wouldn't rest, who when not working would barely pause for meals and perhaps not even for sleep until they finished the book. Catching them in the act was like a secret handshake. Not much conversation, as there was a tacit taboo against revealing anything prematurely, but a clear understanding that linked us all—persons of varying races, classes, and, yes, ages. I expect a revival of that mutual goodwill this time round. I also expect to see a tinge of ruefulness, reflecting our shared awareness that this is it. The party is coming to an end, and we'll all be strangers again in the morning.


Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Actually the one thing I hate about the otherwise admirable Harry Potter books is the snob factor that seems to go along with reading them. You just can't read these book, you have to inhale on the first day of publication and buy the most expensive copy possible.

I don't begrudge Ms. Rowling her royalties (after all, she is one heck of a storyteller) but I can't help but find it ironic that the latest book is priced as a level that is likely to be within the budgets of many poor kids. In other words, the books are more likely to read by someone like rich kid Draco Malroy, not Harry Potter.

Heh. Irony.

8:18 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Sorry for the errors.

That was meant to read "these books," not "these book"; "inhale them on," not "inhale on"; "at a level," not "as a level."

8:22 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

That may be, and I've often wondered about the demographics of Harry Potter readers, which I vaguely remember hearing once that Scholastic refused to release - how widely do they cut across classes and races? Pottermania seems like such a universal or at least ubiquitous phenomenon, yet you've gotta wonder how much relevance J.K. Rowling has in certain sectors of society...

Let's just hope the public libraries managed to get a lot of copies, too, though I have a feeling they are probably understocked compared to the nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble...

All that said, your comment is somewhat ironic given all the articles that came out recently revealing that booksellers have had to slash the sale prices of The Deathly Hallows so much to stay competitive that they're hardly making any profit on the book. I won't weep over the major retailers so much, but this is just one more burden on smaller independent shops...

12:48 AM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Well, I suspect that whatever price the new book is sold for, somebody is going to be unhappy.

8:44 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home