June 30, 2003

Pedant Errant: Harry Potter vs. Jennie Bristow

First Richard Dawkins tells me that I'm dim; then Jennie Bristow (who ever she is) tells me that I'm culturally infantile. I don't usually do the fisking thing, but when I read Bristow's article I decided to make an exception.

I'd like to begin by saying that I'm far from J.K. Rowling's biggest fan. I did not stay up after midnight to buy the latest episode. I do not regard her books as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I do not wish to have Harry Potter's baby.

And it's undeniably true that the media hoopla about Harry Potter is rather silly.

But Bristow's article is such a miracle of smugness and snobbery that I can't help but tear it apart line by line.

Once upon a time, it was record shops that staged high-profile midnight openings to sell the latest hot release to queues of impatient fans; it was senior politicians who found themselves grilled on national TV by the BBC's flagship interviewer Jeremy Paxman; and it was intellectuals and literary novelists who shaped great debates about moral values, social structures and our essential humanity.

Clearly, Bristow yearns back to those halcyon days when only senior politicians said anything worth listening to, when they still made records that were worth buying, and when intellectuals and literary novelists were the lions of popular culture.

Barring the bit about records, this would be when, precisely? When has anyone but other intellectuals paid attention to what intellectuals think about anything?
Certainly not in my lifetime...oh, but I forgot. I'm a cultural infant.

Then again, she seems to think that it's a bad thing that people queued up to buy records at midnight. Could that be because they were...popular?

But that was a long, long time ago, when the world had never heard of JK Rowling, and Harry Potter was just a manuscript on a literary agent's desk. Now, six years on from the first Potter publication, bookstores will open at one minute past midnight on Saturday 21 June to sell the first copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to hordes of parents and young professionals. A Paxman special - JK Rowling: The Interview - will be broadcast on Thursday night on BBC2. And even before anybody has read this new book, the commentary has started about the moral magic of Harry Potter and Why It Speaks To Us.

That Rowling--she's ruining everything, single-handed. Yep, before the book was even released, she'd wound up that old commentary machine and sprung a load of moral magic on the nation. The sewage is streaming from every media outlet, and it's all because of her.

What's behind this Potter-mania? Clearly something other than the quality of the novels. When Harry and friends first took off as a favourite read for British children, earnest commentators made earnest attempts to talk up the literary merits of our modern JRR Tolkein [sic] - now, Rowling's journalist fans concede that the books have a 'certain leadenness in their prose…and an absolute formula in their plotting' , and you no longer risk getting shot for comparing Rowling more with Enid Blyton than with CS Lewis. When reviewers finally get to read the new Potter, no doubt there will be the predictable backlash of claims that it is not that good - but who cares? The discussion has gone beyond all that.

A 'certain leadenness in their prose'--as opposed to what, precisely? The Potter books are written using standard transparent prose, which is completely appropriate when you're telling a novel-length story. It's not flashy, I'll grant--but why is this a bad thing?

I've been reading the first Potter book aloud to David, and Rowling's prose passes the "read-aloud" test better than many published authors do. Bristow might see this as a mark of low quality--but the best authors I know pass the test as well (and better than Rowling).

Of course, I enjoy the Potter books, so I recognize that my taste in these things is automatically suspect.

What's the deal about Enid Blyton, anyway? I've not read any of Blyton's work, but this is at least the third time I've heard some smug so-and-so use Blyton as the epitome of bad writing.

Since it began, Potter-mania has represented a cultural infantilism, that only grows as the years go by. It is about what we expect from our kids, our books, our value system and ourselves. Whatever happens in The Order of the Phoenix, the story of our obsession with Harry Potter is unlikely to have a happy ending.

Have you noticed that there's no argument in the above paragraph, just a bald assertion? Nowhere does Bristow define what "cultural infantilism" means.
For me, it conjures up a picture of a rather large baby teething on the Western Canon. It's clearly meant to be derogatory, and I gather that we all should be ashamed of ourselves. Our values are all screwed up.

And yet, when presented without a definition, it's just name calling.

Cast your minds back to the late 1990s, when parents, teachers and cultural commentators began to spot an interesting trend. A new series of books about a boy wizard at boarding school had captured the hearts of the nation's school-children, with the consequence that - shock horror! - kids actually wanted to read.

Yup, that's what happened. For the first time in ages, a book--a book!--became a pop culture phenomenon.

Bearing in mind that these kids are commonly referred to as the 'PlayStation generation', and presented as unwilling illiterates who will happily while away the hours with a keyboard mouse or TV remote but would not be seen dead with their noses in a book, the fact that they hungered to read about Harry was assumed to be nothing short of a miracle. The fact that the Potter books, with their male protagonist and the author's androgynous byline, appealed to boys - those sporty, techie creatures widely assumed to be the losers and drop-outs in the reading game - was even better.

I like that line: "widely assumed to be the losers and drop-outs in the reading game". I've always been a reader, but when I was a kid, I was definitely in the minority. Few of the other boys in my classes seemed to read much, and only when their parents or teachers made them. And that was a long time ago; it's been well-documented how grammar schools have become unfriendly to boys in recent years. Of course, it's politically incorrect to say so, and no doubt I'm a crybaby for calling your attention to it.

Of course, I'm also the father of a young son who's just learning to read.
Let me tell you about Captain Underpants some time.

Parents and teachers started stockpiling Potter references as commentators waxed lyrical about the way that one female first-time author had single-handedly solved a problem where government national literacy strategies had persistently failed.

Funny--give kids something that they want to read, and maybe they'll want to read. What a radical idea! As Bailey White pointed out, maritime disaster captures the kids' attention far better than any distance of running Spots. Apparently adventure does a better job than diversity and political correctness.

Okay, so it's good that children read books - and we can assume, for the sake of argument, that they could do with reading more of them. But the excitement surrounding Potter indicated just how far our expectations have fallen. Not so very long ago, it was not considered enough for children just to read books - they had to be good books. For example, the very fact that kids enjoyed the Famous Five led to the suspicion that Blyton was brain-rot, and the compulsion to teach Narnia in class.

Good grief, they are teaching Narnia in class? Does Philip Pullman know about this?

Chuck Jones points out that the way you learn to appreciate good books is by reading lots of bad books. I don't know of any way to short circuit this process. May God bless my mother--she often criticized what I read, but she never tried to prevent me from reading it.

Note again--Bristow equates popularity with lack of quality, and infers that because the Potter books are the one, they must necessarily suffer from the latter.

For all the original artificial hype of Potter's literary qualities, it is self-evident that their readability, not their quality, is what made them popular with children. Yet while Enid Blyton was actively resisted by school libraries in the past, on the grounds that it might distract from the better quality stuff, Rowling's equivalent has all but formed the basis of English exams.

Now this is just too absurd: "their readability, not their quality, is what made them popular". Not only is popularity bad, readability is bad. An author who does a good job of respecting her audience and communicating well with them is a cheap, low-quality hack; Real Authors are above that sort of thing.

Rowling has written readable prose! Stone her!

In recent years, it seems that our expectations of children, and of the books that they should read, have plummeted: so much so that when the last Potter book was published three years ago, many even complained that it was too long for Rowling's young fans.

Hmmm. First, she says that Potter's big because kids would read Potter when they wouldn't read anything else. Then she says that our expectations of children have plummeted.

Seems to me that things are on the way back up.

It's not just about children. An even more unsettling development in early Potter-mania was the way Rowling's books took off among adults - not just parents reading them for the sake of their kids, but young professionals reading the books for their own sake. It was this that prompted Rowling's publisher, Bloomsbury, to produce distinct 'adult' editions with grown-up covers.

Heavens! Adults have been reading popular, readable fiction! Oh, dear! And not just any adults--but "young professionals!" As one who is turning 40 at the end of July, it's so nice to be told I'm still young.

Incidentally, we've only got the one edition over here in the U.S. It's
the one all the adults are reading.

Sales of these editions have been lower than the children's editions - although a startling proportion of young adults happily confesses to reading the books. Presumably anybody who is not embarrassed to read a children's book in public is not going to feel humiliated by a children's book jacket. In fact, the nature of our times means that aspiring to the infantile is positively cool.

It's infantile to read in public? No infant I know can read. Trust me, I've researched this.

There she goes, calling names again. She just can't accept that intelligent young adults--you know, 40somethings, like Deb English and Jane me--people she thinks should be her natural allies in preferring hard-to-read books about (I presume) neurotic people and their sex lives--are enjoying something she happens not to like.

Actually, I'm quite curious to know what she does like--she doesn't offer any alternatives.

Joel Rickett, news editor of the Bookseller website, argues that the Harry Potter trend among adults is part of a broader process of cultural infantilisation. 'That whole retro thing became hip in the late 90s and it was acceptable to regress back into childhood', he told BBC News (2).
Today's young adults do not want to leave the parental home, they watch nostalgia programmes on 'I love the 1990s' when the decade has barely ended, they use websites like Friends Reunited to get back in touch with schoolfriends when they have barely left school themselves, and they go to 'School Disco' nights at London clubs, dressed in a version of school uniform and dancing to music from their recent past.

Nobody I know goes to 'School Disco' nights at London Clubs. In fact, I don't know anybody that fits this description. Certainly not me. But I guess that infantilism is one of those horrible syndromes that you never recognize in yourself.

What should be more natural for a generation that does not want to grow up than to cocoon itself in children's books? Books that are, as Joel Rickett says, easy to read, comforting, and nostalgic for a recently-lost youth.

Hmmm. Not only must books be difficult to read, they mustn't be comforting either. I guess I'll have to think twice before I pull down Patrick O'Brian the next time I'm home with a cold. I find him comforting, and therefore he's not worth reading.

Note that we have only Joel Rickett's word that Harry Potter appeals to my nostalgia for a recently-lost youth.

Seems to me I graduated from college almost twenty years ago....

The 'crossover' appeal of Harry Potter to a grown-up audience fuelled the conceit that there was something special, and more challenging, about these books compared with other children's novels: a conceit that seemed to come from people who just don't read enough. What is adult popular fiction other than well-plotted, formulaic pap - as shown by Chick Lit, John Grisham, James Patterson and many other bestselling authors?

There's another sign of bad fiction--it's well-plotted. Good fiction, on the other hand, must be challenging. Remind me to inform P.G. Wodehouse.

Who stated this conceit, by the way, that there was something more challenging about the Potter books? All I remember anybody telling me is that they enjoyed them. Ooooh, could this be media beating up on media?

A good children's story - good in the page-turning, as opposed to the literary, sense - will have a similar kind of appeal. (I challenge any self-confessed Potter reader to resist the charms of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and Famous Five - although you would need to read those in secret.) When it comes to gripping, unchallenging brain candy, the main difference with the boy wizard is that you can read about him in public, smug in the knowledge that you are part of an accepted cultural trend. In today's infantile culture, it's okay to aspire to be childlike.

Yup, exciting, compelling storytelling is a bad childish thing. There goes
Patrick O'Brian again.

I still don't know what's wrong with Enid Blyton.

The latest instalment of Potter-mania, however, has taken our cultural infantilism to a new low. Having grudgingly accepted that the books' appeal is probably due to something other than their literary merits, there is an earnest attempt to distil their unique qualities or failings in terms of the moral and social values that they promote. This gets closer to the point - but not for the reasons that commentators suggest.

Again, I think this is a media thing. Nobody I know talks about how Harry Potter promotes wonderful moral and social values--they just like a ripping yarn.

Not that I think there's anything wrong with courage, self-reliance, perseverance, loyalty et cetera, et al.

Richard Adams, writing in the Guardian, argues that beneath Potter's popularity 'a political bandwagon [is] being pushed' (3). 'Despite all of the books' gestures to multiculturalism and gender equality, Harry Potter is a conservative', he continues. He lambasts the fact that 'Hogwarts' curriculum doesn't include teaching foreign languages, geography or overseas trips, despite the ease of magical travel. Naturally, there are no wizard comprehensives'.

What about the O.W.L.'s and the N.E.W.T.'s? And what about Victor Krum and Fleur Delafleur, who spent a year at Hogwarts from overseas?

That's one of the things that makes Harry Potter juvenile fiction, of course. In a real school for wizardry, they'd have to study other things too.

Anyway, we really don't know anything about the sixth and seventh years yet, or what they involve.

Adams derides Rowling's 'careful racial inclusiveness' for failing to include celebrations of Rosh Hashanah or Diwali as well as Christmas; he objects to her attempts to 'make pointed racial commentary' through representations of slavery in the form of house-elves; and he attacks her representation of the Dursleys as the 'epitome of the modern middle class: crass, mean-spirited and grasping, living in a detached house in the suburb of Little Whinging'.

Now we get to the real problem: Hogwarts is insufficiently inclusive! At least, that's all the sense I can make out of this quote.

Because I must be missing something--read plainly, this would seem to indicate that Rowling is trying to be challenging by adding racial commentary and satirizing the modern middle class, and this, As We Know, is something that only Good Fiction does.

But I must be mistaken. After all, the Dursleys aren't the epitome of the modern middle class; they're just rude, greedy, self-centered, and uncharitable.

Or was Bristow trying to insult me yet again?

For Adams, it seems that what accounts for Potter's popularity is Rowling's willingness to pander to the prejudices of Little England (and he is not alone in this view). Aside from the fact that taking it all oh so seriously misses the essential point of a children's book (to entertain, not to indoctrinate), such criticisms of Rowling also miss the point of her success.

Did she just say that the essential point of a children's book is to entertain? Without, presumably, being readable, well-plotted, or compelling. Isn't she shifting her ground here?

Anyway, I know that everyone here in Los Angeles is just thrilled with Rowling's evocation of Little England.

It's not that Harry Potter is a form of inappropriate social commentary - it is not social commentary at all. These books catapult the reader into a safe moral universe of Good v Evil, uncomplicated by the moral dilemmas of the real world. And it is this that, ultimately, renders them quite banal.

So good and evil are banal? But anywat, Ms. Bristow clearly hasn't read the latest book, in which Harry (spoiler warning) has to negotiate the murky waters of dating, learn unpleasant truths about his father, and deal with evil people in authority.

In the cringe stakes, Adams' kind of PC critique is only outdone by the sycophantic hyping of Potter's positive moral qualities. Set in a world of Good Boy Wizard and chums versus Bad Adult Wizard and followers, the Potter books uphold many values which today's society (thankfully) still perceives as positive. Courage, friendship, love, honesty and the desire to do what's right shine through in Harry, his friends and the noble adult figures; and these qualities are pitted against the greed, avarice, brutality and weakness of their opponents on the Dark Side. There are few grey areas, and to date there has been little sense of redemption.

OK, finally, here's a paragraph I can mostly agree with. Though I think
there are more grey areas than she does.

Not surprisingly, that kids gravitate towards these values has been greeted with nothing short of gratitude, by those struggling to promote any sense of positive virtues in a morally confused world.

You'd think this would be a good thing.

But the fact is, we do live in a morally confused world - and the mass escapism to Potter-dom only highlights the depths of this confusion. In order to promote such virtues, Rowling has to locate her novels in a society that is morally black-and-white; where there are few dilemmas, only right and wrong choices. It all makes for a rollicking read, but how such values translate to the more complicated Muggle-world that Potter's readers inhabit is anybody's guess.

Oh, no! Harry Potter is insufficiently nuanced!

And of course, a rollicking read is a low-quality experience.

But, in my view, we don't live in a morally confused world; rather, we live in a world of morally confused people, many of them in the media. The fact is, morality is black-and-white; we as sinful human beings just don't like to accept that. We don't mind admitting that Hitler was evil, or Saddam Hussein; they committed big crimes. We don't like thinking about the little evils in our own lives--the little lies, the little betrayals, the little crimes.

The values exhibited in Harry Potter's translate all too painfully to our own.

After all, it is not as though Harry Potter's traditional values have been accompanied by a revival of the church, the Tories, the Girl Guides or the Boy Scouts. The kind of ideologies and institutions that sprung from the spirit of Empire and explicitly preached the virtues of goodness, nobleness and a sense of moral right are increasingly unpalatable to a modern reality organised around relativism, self-indulgence and emotional fragility. That, of course, is why those who love Potter are deeply uncomfortable with Enid Blyton's 1940s fables of boarding school life - the values are the same, but while Blyton reeks of Empire, Potter magically escapes both a tricky history and an uncertain reality.

So Potter encourages "goodness, nobleness, and a sense of moral right", and this is "unpalatable to a modern reality organised around relativism, self-indulgence, and emotional fragility," while leaving behind the trappings of Empire. And somehow this makes Potter bad?

She seems to be saying that Rowling secretly advocates a return to the bad old days of the British Empire, when honor, bravery, and playing the game were respected virtues. How is this a problem?

The publicity surrounding Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has made much of how this book will deal with the death of a major character (bookies have reportedly been taking bets on whom that will be), and how this shows Rowling's preparedness to deal with Difficult Issues. (Rowling will tell Paxman tonight how much she cried after finishing the pertinent chapter.)

But I thought fiction was supposed to be challenging...isn't that what she said?

What with Harry being the world's most sentimental orphan, and a death of a fellow pupil having already happened in book four, it's hardly a first. And so far as I can see, death is the only really Difficult Issue the Potter books have dealt with. Life and death fits into their black-and-white universe - the subtleties of life, and relationships between people, don't figure too much.

What about dating, dealing with bullies your own age, dealing with adult bullies, et cetera, et al?

It seems to me that (from a schoolboy's point of view), Rowling is dealing with the Difficult Issues.

'So what?' you might reasonably ask. 'She's writing a children's story.' My sentiments exactly. Rowling can go on writing the plot-driven page-turners, to the delight of her child readers and for no discernible literary or moral benefit. But let's stop pretending that dealing with death makes Harry Potter good for you, or that Rowling's value system has any relevance outside of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

So there you have it in a nutshell. Well-plotted, readable, compelling books have no literary value, and portrayals of courage, cleverness, courtesy, loyalty, and honesty under pressure have no moral benefit.

Clearly, Bristow only likes unpopular, unplotted, unreadable, boring books that glorify cowardice, stupidity, discourtesy, disloyalty, and dishonesty.

Bully for her.

As for me, I'll go on reading O'Brian, Pratchett, Wodehouse, Bujold, and, yes, Rowling.

Posted by Will Duquette at June 30, 2003 05:13 PM | TrackBack
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