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Faery Lands Forlorn
July 7, 2003 3:45 PM   Subscribe

Faery Lands Forlorn A.S. Byatt, author of Possession and other novels, looks at the phenomenon of adults reading the Harry Potter children's books: Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.... Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.
posted by Artifice_Eternity (105 comments total)

 
Personally, I find that Byatt nails exactly why I have zero interest in the Rowling books. They are a rehash -- perhaps entertaining and competent, even intelligent -- but still, a rehash, of ideas presented a million times before. And they seem to lack the sense of true "otherworldliness" that the best fantasy stories have.

Further comments here (self-link).
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:50 PM on July 7, 2003


But, I hasten to add, I am happy that my 9-year-old daughter just devoured the latest book in a week or so. Great literature they may not be, but as Byatt says, the books seem to be good at capturing a child's point of view.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 3:54 PM on July 7, 2003


Can Byatt tell me why I watch Blind Date?
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 3:55 PM on July 7, 2003


Artifice, have you read them? Or any one of them? Or any part of any one of them? regardless of my opinions of the novels, to review the entire category of people who appreciate a specific book or series of books as Byatt is doing seems very overly judgemental. Review the books, leave the psychoanalysis out of it.
posted by jonson at 3:56 PM on July 7, 2003


Nothing like success breeds jealousy in those who believe their own tastes are superior. Rowling's world touches people; it has meaning.
posted by mischief at 3:58 PM on July 7, 2003


tee hee hee!
posted by quonsar at 4:03 PM on July 7, 2003


Yes, Jonson, but Byatt has a point. While I wouldn't go so far as to call the whole series irrelevant, she is right about there being little more at stake than Master Potter and his friends. For the school year, Harry will go on adventures with Ron & Hermione. Things will happen and they will seem horrific at the time, but everyone knows that Harry will emerge victorious at the end. So will Ron. So will Hermione. This is the way the formula goes. Nothing outside of Hogwart's matters. Harry hits the books and the entire world is put on hold. It's a remarkable literary device, placing all of your characters in an aquarium like that.

Of course, I'm more a Pullman fan myself...
posted by grabbingsand at 4:04 PM on July 7, 2003


Yes, it did seem like this was a review of the kind of people who like Harry Potter, rather than the books. It says nothing about the quality of the writing - which is mostly good, but Rowling's excessive adverb usage and other verbal tics could be an easy target for someone who wanted to write a real piece of criticism rather than take cheap shots at fans. The only thing someone unfamiliar with the books could pick up from this article is that they sometimes involve prosaic, real-world sources of evil. I'm still not sure what Byatt thinks is superior about Susan Cooper (whose books put me to sleep as a child looking for something to pick up after finishing Lloyd Alexander's Prydain chronicles.)
posted by transona5 at 4:05 PM on July 7, 2003


I quoted the most inflammatory parts of Byatt's piece (in which she generalizes perhaps overmuch about the audience for Rowling's books). Still, I think she has some good points. I have read parts of one or two Potter books -- couldn't sustain enough interest to read any more -- but saw the first movie, and have of course been deluged with media hype and marketing spinoffs as well. Her assessment of the tone of the series -- mild, familiar, tame, in contrast to the more numinous, original, otherworldly tone of certain other fantasy works and authors -- seems accurate to me.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:14 PM on July 7, 2003


What the hell ever. I love the Harry Potter books. I don't call them great literature, but they are among the more intelligent things currently written for popular consumption.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:15 PM on July 7, 2003


bit of a tangent : transona5, I LOVED Susan Cooper's books as a kid. Actually, I re-read them as an adult and still enjoyed them. I think part of it was that she wove in a lot of Celtic and British myths and legends. But she did include very prosaic real-world evils, including racism. There was also a neat thread of free will vs. destiny in the later books that reinforced the idea that people aren't necessarily born good or evil. I haven't been able to make it through a Harry Potter book - I never found the characters interesting enough.
posted by synapse at 4:20 PM on July 7, 2003


I have the same problem with Shakespeare's plays. First of all, everyone knows that he didn't come up with an original plot in his life. All his plays were derived from popular and well known stories (well, except "The Tempest"). Not only that, it appears he chose to write what would sell.

Then his plays are all about things that only impact the characters in the play. Take "Macbeth," for example. Outside the world of Scotland, none of the things that happen matter. We all know that the villain is going to lose, the hero is going to win and order will be restored. I am, what kind of weak writing is that?

Plus, I think he made up half of those words he uses. Also, his plays include things that were meant to appeal to the morons in the audience, like dogs or dirty jokes. I don't even believe that a poorly educated member of the lower class (I mean, come on, he wasn't even a noble) could have written any of the plays.

That Rowling, with her popular books, is clearly a talentless, derivative hack in the tradition of over-praised Shakespeare. I am glad that her books are getting the drubbing that everyone intelligent and wise I know tells me they deserve. I, of course, can't be bothered to read such awful literature and spend my reading time going over nothing by the novel "Possession" by A.S. Byatt, which isn't derivative of anything and only uses two adverbs.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:22 PM on July 7, 2003


What the hell ever. I love the Harry Potter books.

Well, there's a strong refutation of the argument.
posted by solistrato at 4:22 PM on July 7, 2003


Excuse me, that would be "nothing but the novel" not "nothing by the novel." Carry on.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:23 PM on July 7, 2003


LittleMissCranky: Maybe so. It's interesting, tho, to contrast them with what popular novels were like 100-150 years ago... Dickens, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, Austen, etc. We think of that stuff as sophisticated, high-class "literature" now, but it was all written for, and eagerly devoured by, middle-class audiences. Now much (tho by no means all) of the middle class would consider such stuff unbearably "highbrow."
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:23 PM on July 7, 2003


Artifice_Eternity, try to find a good Greek mythology book (not Homer's stuff), something along Bulfinch's approach, but for children.
posted by MzB at 4:25 PM on July 7, 2003


Joey Michaels: I like Possession, but I read plenty of other stuff too... including "lowbrow" stuff like sci-fi.

If Harry Potter is to your taste, go for it.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:27 PM on July 7, 2003


Here's how I would paraphrase the article: "If people weren't so stupid and infantile, they'd read my books instead of Rowling's." It's true that there are better fantasy books than the Harry Potter books, but it's also true that the majority of people have no interest in reading them, and not because they are psychologically deficient.

There is only one reason that so many people read the Harry Potter books and that is because it amuses them to do so. Few mainstream readers will find similar pleasure in tradional fantasy of the Tolkien ilk, and even fewer will enjoy the really fantastic work of the Gene Wolfes and Sean Stewarts of the world. This is not because most people are stupid (although they probably are), but because they are simply not interested in what modern fantasy has to offer.

The Potter books are fun, light, and clever. Don't like 'em, don't read 'em.
posted by vraxoin at 4:27 PM on July 7, 2003


I read the whole thing, not just what was quoted, and she never provides any evidence for her soap-opera and television-cartoon sneers. It's true that magic in the Potter books is practical, almost like engineering, but she never explains why that makes them bad books, other than offering some vague contrasts between the "urban jungles" of today and "the real wild" which one must inhabit to appreciate real fantasy.

Maybe I didn't give Susan Cooper enough of a chance as a kid (although Byatt's recommendation isn't going to convince me.)
posted by transona5 at 4:29 PM on July 7, 2003


MzB: as far as Greek myths, I'm a fan of the D'Aulaires. I grew up with their book, and also read plenty of Tolkien, Lewis, Susan Cooper, Madeleine L'Engle, E. Nesbit, etc.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:29 PM on July 7, 2003


it was all written for, and eagerly devoured by, middle-class audiences

As was Shakespeare, by the bye. Very few, if any playwrights of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thought much of him; for a long time, Shakespeare epitomized everything that was wrong with English theater, though certain passages were recognized as worthy of repeating.

Not that . . . you know . . . Rowling is the new Shakespeare or anything.
posted by vraxoin at 4:30 PM on July 7, 2003


transona5: I think Byatt's comments on "secondary secondary worlds" are the strongest part of her argument. Older fantastic authors were working directly from folk sources or from their own encounters with nature. Rowling seems to work from having read lots of other fantasy books.

As I reread her comments on Rowling's readership, tho, I see some British classism (highbrow vs. middlebrow) at work.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:39 PM on July 7, 2003


Review the books, leave the psychoanalysis out of it.


I'm confused. Do you mean that Byatt is a poor psychologist, or do you deny the worth of ALL psychoanalysis? Or do you just deplore it when it enters a literary discussion?

I don't think this was a review at all. It was an attempt to reason why grown ups like Harry Potter. Which, to me, is an interesting question (since the Harry Potter phenomenon is an anomaly). I don't agree with all of Byatt's reasoning, but some of it seems likely and all of it is thought-provoking.

My main issue is with this statement: Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery.

Sounds good, but upon second thought I don't buy it. People like mystery (both the garden variety "Law & Order" kind and the cosmic "numinous" kind) just as much as they ever did. If they didn't, there'd be no more religion. I doubt attraction to the numinous is a variable human trait -- I think it's "in our genes."

And I think a longing for the numinous is ONE of the things that attract people to Harry Potter, though I'd agree with Byatt that they don't find what they're looking for (they find other things, instead, which divert them and keep them coming back for more).

Critics often mistakenly think that people can't appreciate (or have lost their taste for) high art because they are willing to settle for low art. But most people settle for low art, because they don't know any better -- or because the high art is to scary to them. It may be scary because it's too intellectually daunting. Or it may be scary because it's too emotional daunting (it makes you FEEL to much, too fast, too strongly!)

Fantasy is wonderful, and most people cling to it when it enters their life. But where is Joe Public going to find his fantasy? Tolkien is daunting for many reasons. It's stylistically somewhat difficult. It's not contemporary. It's not immediately gripping (as in from page one). And it's socially connected with geekdom, a kingdom that many people try to avoid. Pullman's books are superior to Rowlings (at least in my eyes), but they don't have the PR that the Harry Potter books have. Many people have never heard of them. So when ordinary people reach for a fantasy story, what are they going to grab? A book they've never heard of, a book that scares them, or a book that everyone knows about and which has a warm -- comfortable (as Byatt notes) halo around it?

But none of that means that if Joe Average DID read Tolkien or Pullman, he wouldn't enjoy it or find it superior to Harry Potter. He probably would, because he's human like Byatt (who likes good fantasy because she's also human). But many human's are often willing to settle for less -- as long as less is good enough. Or as long as they don't know (or are scared of) more.

Harry Potter also offers another benefit: readers become part of a huge social group -- other Harry Potter readers. I'll never forget sitting on the subway one day watching six different people reading one of Rowling's books. Most people like to feel connected, and Potter (whether it's good or bad) gives them that feeling.

(I've never liked Star Wars, but I saw the first three films when they came out, because it almost seemed perverse and inhuman NOT to see them. But I really hate them, so I've avoided seeing any of the prequels. I don't regret my decision, but it does feel odd sometimes. I miss out on a lot of conversations. Maybe when they come on TV, I'll watch a little bit -- just so I know what Jar Jar Binks is and why people hate it so much.)

Rowling's world touches people; it has meaning.
Well, people read Rowling's books, in any case. Does it touch them? Deeply?

Zillions of people watched Three's Company when it was hot, and (as Ignatious) points out, many people now watch Blind Date.

As far as I'm concerned, there are two wrongheaded ideas about public taste (which are, oddly, opposites of each other):

1) If the general public likes it, it must be crap.

2) If so many people like it, it must be touching something deep inside them.

These are uninteresting, intellectually weak (and ultimately tautological) definitions of artistic value.
posted by grumblebee at 4:41 PM on July 7, 2003


I had to look up "numinous".
posted by SiW at 4:43 PM on July 7, 2003


No, she's not saying people are stupid and infantile - otherwise, why is she so keen on Terry Pratchett? Likes reading Tolkein when sick?

What she's saying is that the magic is really window-dressing, isn't proper, mysterious, slightly terrifying magic. And by "mystery" I think she's thinking of spiritual mystery, not mundane crime mystery.

I see a bunch of people projecting what they think a high-brow novelist should say. Apart from grumblebee, who does seem to have actually read what she wrote.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:46 PM on July 7, 2003


Goodness, Solistrato, sorry to distress you.

Artifice: I'm not quite sure of the point you're trying to make about the contrast between today's popular fiction and that of a century or two ago. I suppose that I agree with you, to a point, although I might argue about either Dickens or the Brontes being considered overly highbrow.

I guess that I'm confused as to why Byatt (among others) are attacking Rowlings as if she were trying to pass herself off as the next, ahem, Shakespeare. No one does that with Tom Clancy or Roald Dahl. Rowling's work is entertaining and exceptionally well written and conceived for what it is.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:47 PM on July 7, 2003


Wow, I enjoyed Possession & Angels and Insects as well as adoring the Harry Potter books. Wonder what that makes me...
posted by Plunge at 4:47 PM on July 7, 2003


SiW: It was unfamiliar to me too, when I first encountered in Jung's writing. But it's a good and useful word. I found some thoughts about it here.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2003


But with the "secondary world" thing, she claimed two things: that Rowling borrowed significantly from the other authors she mentioned (Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones) and that those writers' books are better because they are not derivative of earlier works in a similar way. Byatt didn't even attempt to provide any evidence for either of these claims. Is it just self-evident?
posted by transona5 at 4:49 PM on July 7, 2003


But most people settle for low art, because they don't know any better -- or because the high art is to scary to them.

I think that's faulty, grumblebee, although I agree with many of the other points that you made.

Sometimes people don't "settle" for low art -- they enjoy low art on its own terms. Just because I love champagne doen't mean that a good cold beer doesn't have its own value.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 4:51 PM on July 7, 2003


Re: collections of Greek myths: my favorite is Nathaniel Hawthorne's A Wonder-Book For Boys and Girls.

As for Byatt's article: my only experience with HP is the first book, which was featherlight, but easily turned its own pages (primarily because of the book design, which doesn't get enough attention: after a HP book you feel as if you've read a hefty novel, because of the paper's stock and the typesetting, etc., and that's a pleasurable feeling. Some Stephen King novels use the same technique). Rowling isn't a stylist, and when you're recycling age-old motifs you need style to separate you from the rest of the pack (see E. R. Eddison for an early example, and Tad Williams for a more recent one). One of the reasons I greatly preferred the film version of HP1 to the book is that the film's production designers had much more of a descriptive talent than Rowling does. That said, it'd be churlish to deny that the book was a page-turner, though I've had no desire to read the second.

Re: the impulse to begrudge Rowling her popularity: the trouble behind the HP phenomenon, so to speak, is that it's not translating into the benefit for the publishing industry that one would hope for. With all the licensing and hype surrounding HP, the book's status as commodity is trumping its status as text. If the content of books takes a backseat to the hype surrounding them and the number of copies sold, doesn't the motivation diminish for publishers to print new writers, or innovative work suited for minority tastes? If you had to choose between publishing the next potential Rowling or the next potential Pynchon, which would you pick? Which do you think your company's shareholders would want you to pick?

I don't at all blame Rowling for some sort of dumbing-down of culture, but the insane success of HP, in a market that has no comparable successes, is one sign of the increasing consolidation and commodification of the book-printing business.

On preview: geez, this is a busy thread.
posted by Prospero at 4:57 PM on July 7, 2003


Here's how I would paraphrase the article: "If people weren't so stupid and infantile, they'd read my books instead of Rowling's."

I don't see how you pulled that from the article. At what point does Byatt ever mention one of her own books? Surely she's allowed to have a strong opinion without that being interpreted as self-aggrandizement (or self-promotion).

I have the same problem with Shakespeare's plays ... his plays are all about things that only impact the characters in the play. Take "Macbeth," for example. Outside the world of Scotland, none of the things that happen matter.

Okay, you were (perhaps) joking to make a point, but I must disagree with this. Ambition only matters in Scotland? Guilt only matters in Scotland? Do family ties only matter to Hamlet? Does forgiveness only matter to Leontes (Winter's Tale). Does jealosy only affect Othello?

Even on a simple level, Shakespeare's plays are chock full of worldly and other-worldly references (there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosohphy...). They are simply DRIPPING in the numinous!

Harry Potter, on the other hand, is much more claustrophobic and self-referential. Byatt feels that this is a bad thing, which it may or may not be (you be the judge). But if you really believe (even if you HATE his writing) that Shakespeare doesn’t have a sense of the numinous, then all I can imagine is that you haven't read any of it since you were forced to do so in High School.
posted by grumblebee at 4:58 PM on July 7, 2003


Sometimes people don't "settle" for low art -- they enjoy low art on its own terms. Just because I love champagne doen't mean that a good cold beer doesn't have its own value.


I agree, LMC. I would say that we're both right: sometimes people settle, sometimes they DO enjoy low (or even bad) art ot its own terms.

Generally, though, I think that people enjoy well-constructed art (to use a fairly neutral term), for the sake of the art itself: because they get deeply drawn into the artist's world, and that world makes them feel deeply.

Poorly-contructed art affords different pleasures (to those who like it). It provides just enough distraction (to stave off boredom) without being too mentally or emotional taxing. Or it ties them to a social network of other people who are also into this particular artwork (in which case it doesn't much matter whether it's poorly constucted or well constructed).
posted by grumblebee at 5:04 PM on July 7, 2003


isn't proper, mysterious, slightly terrifying magic. And by "mystery" I think she's thinking of spiritual mystery, not mundane crime mystery.

But who defines which magic is "proper" and what sorts of magic are superior to others? This critique is based on a prejudice as to what elements "proper fiction" comprises, which is spurious--there is clearly no such animal. The only thing good fiction requires is that one enjoys reading it.

And what relevance does any of this have to young adult fiction, which is written to address the rather simple (from an adult perspective) conflicts of youth? Rowling doesn't have any control over what audience buys her books. If only pre-teens read them, then would your criticism be obviated? I don't get it.
posted by vraxoin at 5:04 PM on July 7, 2003


At what point does Byatt ever mention one of her own books? Surely she's allowed to have a strong opinion without that being interpreted as self-aggrandizement (or self-promotion).

One assumes that Byatt writes books which meet her own criteria for "proper" fantasy.
posted by vraxoin at 5:06 PM on July 7, 2003


By the way, I think you stack the deck a little bit when you use the metaphor of champagne and beer.

They are simply two totally different drinks, albeit one of which is considered more high-class than the other.

Sure, I like caviar and Big Macs, but so what? They both taste good.

It's more interesting (and apt) to compare gourmet pizza with Pizza Hut pizza. Yes, I'm willing to settle for Pizza Hut when I'm hungry (and I will probably enjoy it if I have nothing better to compare it to). And I might even prefer it to gourmet pizza, because I have to get all dressed up to eat the gourmet version. Plus, more of my friends hang out at Pizza Hut than at five-star restaurants.

But if I simply compare the pizzas, I have to admit that the gourmet one is far superior.
posted by grumblebee at 5:10 PM on July 7, 2003


One assumes that Byatt writes books which meet her own criteria for "proper" fantasy.

Well, I'm sure she tries, but who knows whether she feels that she succeeds or not.

I direct plays (in New York). I also see plays. I tend to have strong opinions about plays that I see. But if I say, "boy that play sucked," I'm NOT implying that my plays are better. I'm just implying that ... well ... that play sucked.

If we decide that every critic is self-aggrandizing or hypocritical, then we negate all criticism.
posted by grumblebee at 5:15 PM on July 7, 2003


vraxoin, most competent literary criticism is by people who are themselves authors, and always has been. Crack open the NYT Review of Books sometimes. To accuse a critic of envy merely because she is an author herself is ignorant and doesn't even rise to the level of ad hominem. Take your own advice: if you don't like her opinion, or don't agree with it, fine, don't read any more by her. But if you're going to quarrel with it, try to refute it on its merits rather than just impugning her motives.
posted by George_Spiggott at 5:16 PM on July 7, 2003


Grumblebee -- Fair enough. Let's use pizza. I would have to disagree that the gourmet pizza is necessarily superior. Higher quality ingredients? Yes. More care in preparation? Sure. But, without getting overly relativistic, I would argue that the two pizzas are too different to allow reasonable comparison, especially when it comes to taste. Sometimes you just want a good slice of greasy pizza, regardless of the fact that you can eat it in your underwear, although that's certainly a plus.

More to the point, my quibble with your comment is that you seem to imply that one must make a choice between high art and low art, and that there's an inherent judgment of the chooser to be made. Given that I'm not going to fill every moment of my life watching Hamlet, a little Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not unwelcome.

I'm a big Spinoza fan; a broom is a good broom because it performs its function well. You wouldn't fault a broom because it can't slice meat. Same with art (or reasonable facsimiles thereof). Harry Potter does what it was intended to do. It's silly to get cranky because it doesn't slice meat.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 5:22 PM on July 7, 2003


Very few, if any playwrights of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries thought much of him; for a long time, Shakespeare epitomized everything that was wrong with English theater, though certain passages were recognized as worthy of repeating.

<derail>
Sure, Shakespeare was maybe the second- or third-most popular of the pre-1642 crowd in the Restoration theatre, but the fact that he was revised and adapted so frequently indicates something about the hold he had on other playwrights.

Dryden, Gildon, and Pope may have written off some aspects of Shakespeare as the defects of a regrettably unrefined age, but the abuse was usually balanced with praise. Only the extreme formalists dismissed him completely, and they were pretty much drowned out by the early eighteenth century, when the Shakespeare cult got well and truly entrenched.

And wasn't Shakespeare and the middle class more a nineteenth-century thing? (Both the middle class, and Shakespeare's appropriation by them, I mean.)
</derail>
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:26 PM on July 7, 2003


*Spoiler*: Don't read my comment if you want to remain completely unsurprised by anything in the 5th book. It's not a major spoiler, though.

Consider the following passage from the book, which takes place just after Harry has found out that Ron and Hermione have been chosen as the Gryffindore Prefects (and not him!)
For some reason, Harry found he did not want to look at
Hermione. He turned to his bed, picked up the pile of clean robes Mrs Weasley had laid on it and crossed the room to his trunk.
'Harry?' said Hermione tentatively.
'Well done, Hermione,' said Harry, so heartily it did not sound like his voice at all, and, still not looking at her, 'brilliant. Prefect. Great.'
Thanks,' said Hermione. 'Erm - Harry - could I borrow Hedwig so I can tell Mum and Dad? They'll be really pleased - I mean prefect is something they can understand.'
'Yeah, no problem,' said Harry, still in the horrible hearty voice that did not belong to him. Take her!'
He leaned over his trunk, laid the robes on the bottom of it and pretended to be rummaging for something while Hermione crossed to the wardrobe and called Hedwig down. A few moments passed; Harry heard the door close but remained bent double, listening; the only sounds he could hear were the blank picture on the wall sniggering again and the wastepaper basket in the corner coughing up the owl droppings.
He straightened up and looked behind him. Hermione had left and Hedwig had gone. Harry hurried across the room, closed the door, then returned slowly to his bed and sank on to it, gazing unseeingly at the foot of the wardrobe.
He had forgotten completely about prefects being chosen in the fifth year. He had been too anxious about the possibility of being expelled to spare a thought for the fact that badges must be winging their way towards certain people. But if he had remembered ... if he had thought about it ... what would he have expected?
Not this, said a small and truthful voice inside his head.
Harry screwed up his face and buried it in his hands. He could not lie to himself; if he had known the prefect badge was on its way, he would have expected it to come to him, not Ron. Did this make him as arrogant as Draco Malfoy? Did he think himself superior to everyone else? Did he really believe he was better than Ron?
No, said the small voice defiantly.
Was that true? Harry wondered, anxiously probing his own feelings.
152 HARRY POTTER
I'm better at Quidditch, said the voice. But I'm not better at anything else.
That was definitely true, Harry thought; he was no better than Ron in lessons. But what about outside lessons? What about those adventures he, Ron and Hermione had had together since starting at Hogwarts, often risking much worse than expulsion?
Well, Ron and Hermione were with me most of the time, said the voice in Harry's head.
Not all the time, though, Harry argued with himself. They didn't fight Quirrell with me. They didn't take on Riddle and the Basilisk. They didn't get rid of all those Dementors the night Sirius escaped. They weren't in that graveyard with me, the night Voldemort returned ...
And the same feeling of ill-usage that had overwhelmed him on the night he had arrived rose again. I've definitely done more, Harry thought indignantly. I've done more than either of them!
But maybe, said the small voice fairly, maybe Dumbledore doesn't choose prefects because they've got themselves into a load of dangerous situations ... maybe he chooses them for other reasons ... Ron must have something you don't ...
Harry opened his eyes and stared through his fingers at the wardrobe's clawed feet, remembering what Fred had said: 'No one in their right mind would make Ron a prefect ...'
Harry gave a small snort of laughter. A second later he felt sickened with himself.
Ron had not asked Dumbledore to give him the prefect badge. This was not Ron's fault. Was he, Harry, Ron's best friend in the world, going to sulk because he didn't have a badge, laugh with the twins behind Ron's back, ruin this for Ron when, for the first time, he had beaten Harry at something?
At this point Harry heard Ron's footsteps on the stairs again. He stood up, straightened his glasses, and hitched a grin on to his face as Ron bounded back through the door.
'Just caught her!' he said happily. 'She says she'll get the Cleansweep if she can.'
'Cool,' Harry said, and he was relieved to hear that his voice had stopped sounding hearty. 'Listen - Ron - well done, mate.'
In the 10 chapters of the book that I've read so far, this is the most interesting passage to me. Rowling does, sometimes, take the time to do some more serious character development. I don't think she does it as well as any of the other fantastic names mentioned here (Tolkein, Lewis, L'Engle.... and the undersung Lloyd Alexander). And Byatt has a point that many of the conflicts within the Potter universe are just grudge matches, especially between Harry and Voldemort, and that the painted black "Pure Bloods" vs the painted white "Pure Hearts" is a little monotonous. But a little closer look reveals the conflict between those fascinated with Power and Pride vs those with humanity... including weakenesses of humanity, like some jealousy when someone else gets a public honor, or a spat between classmates.

I think Rowling's critics -- especially those with some great success, like Byatt -- could take a lesson from Harry's self-encounter in the passage above. : )
posted by weston at 5:27 PM on July 7, 2003


Byatt's essay reminds me of a wonderful critique I once read of Norman Rockwell's paintings (alas, I forget who wrote the critique or where it was published).

The writer mused over whether or not Rockwell was a great artist -- or simply a (highly) gifted craftsman. He concluded that Rockwell, while technically one of the most brilliant draftsmen of the 20th Century, was lacking as an artist, because he robbed his art of mystery.

As an example, he examined on of Rockwell's best efforts -- and ALMOST great painting of a girl looking at herself in the mirror. (You can see the painting here.)

The girl is looking at herself sadly, and her eyes are very expressive. It would be great to be able to read ANYTHING into her eyes -- to spend hours wondering why she was so sad. But Rockwell doesn't let his audience feel any mystery, because in the girl's lap you can clearly see a glamour magazine. So we know EXACTLY why she's sad. So the painting, well-crafted as it is, doesn't stay in our minds very long.

Mystery keeps art in our minds!

Compare this painting with DaVinci's Mona Lisa. Why is she smiling? Good think DaVinci didn't put a chocolate cake in the corner of the canvas!

Rowling doesn't have any control over what audience buys her books.

Similarly, Rockwell never CLAIMED to be a great master.

Whenever someone writes a strong negative critique, people always accuse the critic of being unfair to the artist. But the critic is not trying to be fair or unfair. The critic doesn't (or shouldn't) care WHO the artist intended his audience to be or whether the artist was trying to create high art or low are. The critic simply tries to confront the artWORK head on.

Whether Rowling intended it or not, grown ups ARE reading her books. Byatt asks why.
posted by grumblebee at 5:31 PM on July 7, 2003 [1 favorite]


has anyone else read alan garner? i don't know who susan cooper is, but garner's elidor terrified me - it's one of the few books i can remember reading when i was a kid. i think that raw, elemental, power (or rather, the lack of it) is what she's referring to when she talks about "ersatz magic" (otherwise, i think i'm not alone in finding that passage the most difficult to understand). in comparison, potter is bland.

in the context of low/high art i guess byatt would say that's fine, but when you fancy a beer you can still choose a good beer.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:33 PM on July 7, 2003


grumblebee, i think your defence is misguided. people are criticising byatt not because they feel she's being unfair to rowling, but because they feel they are being criticised, for enjoying the book. that's the source of the emotion...
posted by andrew cooke at 5:38 PM on July 7, 2003


I would have to disagree that the gourmet pizza is necessarily superior. Higher quality ingredients? Yes. More care in preparation? Sure. But, without getting overly relativistic, I would argue that the two pizzas are too different to allow reasonable comparison...

Fair enough, but I don't think you're leaving ANY room in the world for criticism. What CAN be reasonably compared? I guess we could compare one Pizza Hut pizza with another Pizza Hut pizza. That would be like saying you can only compare Rowling books to other Rowling books.

More to the point, my quibble with your comment is that you seem to imply that one must make a choice between high art and low art, and that there's an inherent judgment of the chooser to be made.

Where do I imply that? I definitely don't MEAN that.

I do think that some art is better than other art. But that DOESN'T mean that I think one can (or should) only consume the better art. Nor do I judge people who prefer a mix -- or only even people who prefer bad art. To each his own.

I DO, however, think it's fascinating to talk about WHY people prefer one or the other (or both).
posted by grumblebee at 5:39 PM on July 7, 2003


has anyone else read alan garner? i don't know who susan cooper is, but garner's elidor terrified me - it's one of the few books i can remember reading when i was a kid.

God, yeah. I read 'Elidor' when I was about nine. Some of the images Garner came up with -- abandoned castles filled with dead roses; live children eroding out of hills; damp spots on walls that resolve into people -- stick with me, even though I haven't even seen the book in nearly twenty years. 'Raw, elemental power' is dead on.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:42 PM on July 7, 2003


I realize that, Andrew, and I have some sympathy for them. But I think Byatt's points would be less clear if she cluttered up her essay with apologies and attempts to spare people's feelings.

Rather, as other people have stated, I wish she had provided a bit more evidence to bolster some of her claims.
posted by grumblebee at 5:43 PM on July 7, 2003


Interesting that you also mention Alexander, weston. I wonder what Byatt would think of him. His name never seems to come up in the list of writers that includes Jones and Cooper.
posted by transona5 at 5:44 PM on July 7, 2003


If that excerpt was a fair example of Rowling's writings, I'm glad I haven't read any of the Potter books. I have read better prose in those little pulp paperbacks my kids would bring home from the library as preteens.

Tolkien may not be a total pageturner all the time, but you can be darn sure you had a rich mental picture of the action on every page.

But to be fair perhaps Rowlings was not aspiring to greatness.
posted by konolia at 5:47 PM on July 7, 2003


> I had to look up "numinous".

I did not. But I still like Harry. I think A.S. needs a visit from the Illinois Enema Bandit.
posted by jfuller at 5:56 PM on July 7, 2003


Interesting that you also mention Alexander, weston. I wonder what Byatt would think of him. His name never seems to come up in the list of writers that includes Jones and Cooper.


I've wondered about that too, especially for Cooper. I enjoyed her books, but don't think her work was quite the calibre of Alexander's. I've wondered if she's benefited from tangential contact of mythologies (I know, for example, kids who are immediately attracted to the title The Boggart due to their encounters with it in the Potter world.) Or maybe having 11 year old sudden wizard protagonists is a good underling decision. : )

Interesting also that Alexander's characters -- especially Taran from the Prydain series -- follow a personal journey where they grow from the quintessential childhood fantasy that Byatt criticizes and into adult responsibility. Taran begins book 1 bereft of parents, hoping to be the secret important person with powers, and ends book 5 claiming that position not out of desire but out of responsibility, choosing a human and real life over a happily ever after. The growth is evenly spaced and well-woven into the plot of all five books, rather than a pause in the exposition. I enjoy it, if you couldn't tell.

but garner's elidor terrified me

And andrew, L'Engle's "Ecthroi" from Wind in the Door and Swiftly Tilting Planet gave me a lot of whimpering sleepless nights. Don't know if that was my imagination or hers, tho'. : )
posted by weston at 5:56 PM on July 7, 2003


Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.... Should they be?
posted by Joeforking at 6:06 PM on July 7, 2003


I don't want to come across as a Harry-hater. I'm think the books are okay. They could certainly be a lot worse.

But I am curious about the claims I keep hearing that the books are well-written. What do people mean by this? Are they talking about characterization, imaginative devices, or prose style.

To me, Rowling doesn't seem to be a master of any of these things.

Take her prose style, for instance:

"I never thought to look in here!" she whispered excitedly. "I got this out of the library weeks ago for a bit of light reading."
"Light?" said Ron, but Hermione told him to be quiet until she'd looked something up, and started flicking frantically through the pages, muttering to herself.
At last, she found what she was looking for.
"I knew it! I knew it!"
"Are we allowed to speak yet?" said Ron grumpily. Hermione ignored him.
"Nicolas Flamel," she whispered dramatically, "is the only known maker of the Sorcerer's Stone!"


I'm not a professional writer, but I can immediately spot problems here -- specifically with the mind-numbing "ly" adjectives.

It's sort of a writers 101 rule that you don't have to keep coming up with different ways of saying "he said," or "she said," but Rowling doesn's seem to know that.

Instead of "whispered excitedly," why not something more evocative like "hissed?" And what exactly is the difference -- in actual sound -- between "whispering excitedly" and "whispering dramatically."

Wouldn't it be better to say, "Ron groaned, 'Are we allowed to speak yet?'" instead of "'Are we allowed to speak yet?' said Ron grumpily.

And I think the aliteration of "flicking frantically" undermines the image.

I'm not trying to pick nits. I'm just curious as to what people mean by saying she's a good writer -- other than simply, "I enjoy her books."
posted by grumblebee at 6:12 PM on July 7, 2003


Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.... Should they be?


It's not a matter of should or shouldn't. But if the book DID transcend itself, it would be so much better.

Perhaps this discussion comes down a division between those of us who can FEEL how those books could be so much more -- so much better -- than they are, and those who feel like they're good enough the way they are.

If you can see how they could be simply and greatly improved, it's hard to enjoy them.

It's also easy -- if you don't care for the books -- to feel like a Jew who wandered into a convent. It's SO hard to say you disliked these books without raining on everyone's parade. But people who DISLIKE a book have just as much a need to talk about their feelings as people who like it.

My bottom-line feeling about Rowling is that she's a little bit fun and a large bit disappointing.
posted by grumblebee at 6:19 PM on July 7, 2003


grumblebee--Here's an article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune that attempts to address the questions you have. (Warning: they have one of those "zip code and birth date" portal pages.
posted by arco at 6:21 PM on July 7, 2003


Good thread, people. So good that I've only one thing to add: I hate the binding. Now, this is in no way the fault of the author, but everytime I've held a hard copy of Harry Potter in my hands my in collector frowns deeply on the cheap stock paper and the shoddily glued bindings. Glued, for God's sake! This is a tiny quibble, I know, but has colored my opinion of the Harry Potter phenomenon since the beginning. The books won't survive years of repeated readings; fans are going to be purchasing each book multiple times through their lifetimes.

the trouble behind the HP phenomenon, so to speak, is that it's not translating into the benefit for the publishing industry that one would hope for. With all the licensing and hype surrounding HP, the book's status as commodity is trumping its status as text.

Exactly.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:25 PM on July 7, 2003


Now that I reread it, that article I linked to does a pretty good job of dismissing Byatt and her Harry-hating brethren (I'm looking at you, Harold Bloom): "English professors arguing over what constitutes literature are about as illuminating as biblical scholars arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin -- plenty of heat, not much light." (The article is by Matt Berman, Children's Book editor at that paper.)

Berman argues that Rowling's books are "perfectly tuned" to their audience: children who are used to flipping past the extraneous details (web-surfing, channel-hopping) to get to the "meat" of what they need out of a story. Berman says that Rowling's books are "all meat," through deft plotting and imagery. The question, I suppose, is whether Berman's argument actually feeds into Byatt's assertion that adults who read the Potter books should have moved beyond all that and yearn for something more profound. While that's a noble dream, I don't quite think it's in touch with the reality of the current state of reading, imagination and storytelling in society.

People are starved for a great story (not necessarily a profound one), and they often don't even know it. The are used to being fed "entertainment" that cares little for actually telling a good story. Watch the glazed-over eyes of people as they file out of the latest vapid summer blockbuster flick; they think they've been entertained, but they're still missing...something. Then compare that to the person in the subway who is completely engrossed in Harry Potter. If nothing else, the Potter series is a terrific and engaging story with delightful, witty touches, even if it is a derivitive story. Would it be better if they read (or watched) something that challenged them to explore and question themselves in addition to telling a great story? Absolutely. But when the average person reads a book a year (if that), Harry Potter really must be magic to get them talking about a book.
posted by arco at 6:46 PM on July 7, 2003


(P.S. There are a lot of linked articles, reviews, etc. about Harry Potter and his [adult] fans over at the Leaky Cauldron.)
posted by arco at 6:49 PM on July 7, 2003


While we're quibbling, those "'ly' adjectives" are adverbs.

Read the fifth book, as I read all the others. Light summer fare. Next.

I would agree that a book is more interesting because there are deeply human values (sometimes codified in a race of people or an object such as a ring) that the characters are fighting for. When Gandalf goes after the Balrog, not only is it thrilling to see an old man who is a warrior and a hero, he is a hero because you know exactly what each of them is fighting for. I would argue also that Buffy, slight as it may seem on the surface, achieves the same effect. Good and evil seem a lot more abstract and less interesting in Harry Potter Land. I'd like to believe that good friends and "nice people" are worth fighting for, but then why are all Muggles put down?

This is probably why I prefer Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope to most contemporary or even American writers. There was this fascinating English phenomenon—often hypocritical and invariably precise—called "honour." I think about it a lot here in the U.S. at the beginning of this century.
posted by divrsional at 6:50 PM on July 7, 2003


I just wrote a long post, which I've now deleted, in defense of Byatt -- in short, because I think that what causes me, at least, to like her piece is the relentlessness of the Harry mediapresence, its insistent residence on the front page, and the dutiful "it's gotten the kids reading again" refrain we've been hearing over and over -- as if no other book has been able to, you know, do the job, dammit. Get those kids reading! Finally, somebody wrote an interesting story! Enough piddling around with this high art!

Of course, the work in the industry which has been pushing this particular story, and this particular book. And I've had to write some Hail Harry copy myself. And so I do not, it would seem, have a leg to stand on, and restrict myself to this.
posted by BT at 7:05 PM on July 7, 2003


I agree somewhat, divrsional - good and evil do seem a bit abstract in the Harry Potter books. In LOTR, we have a precice symbol of power (The Ring), a truly scary evil one (Sauron), and a well defined "what's going to happen if we lose?".

Volemort doesn't raise orc armies. He takes over the souls of teachers. Rowling seems to have kept the "good" and "evil" powers rather diffuse and uninteresting, apparently in an attempt to create intermediated characters that are more dynamic and complex. We know next to nothing about what drives Dumbledore. We don't really know much of the history and aims of Voldemort.

However, the result is that the interplay of characters is much more interesting. I'm 1/3 of the way through Order of the Phoenix, and I'm concerned about the evil influence of the Malfoys, the long term aims of the Ministry, the absence of Hagrid...I feel dissapointed that Voldemort is kept so distant that he doesn't even really seem like a threat, but on the other hand, I'm worried about what Draco knows about Sirius.

The books aren't perfect, but I don't see any legitimate cause for tearing them to shreds.
posted by Jimbob at 7:07 PM on July 7, 2003


I hope I didn't tear them to shreds when I mentioned that I've read them all, Jimbob. But I'm not sure that for me the interest came of not knowing much about the history and aims of Voldemort. Power, obviously, is at the heart of it, but power to do what? Kill innocent people without consequence?
Some kind of ethnic cleansing? Sauron wants to rule Middle Earth. Should we make the same assumption about Voldemort? We don't even get to see Muggle World, except at the beginning and end of each book, and there ain't much worth fighting for.

I agree that Rowling makes a creditable effort to give her characters psychological subtlety. But my sense was that Byatt longs for a spiritual impetus. So do I.
posted by divrsional at 7:29 PM on July 7, 2003


ADVERBS! Quite right, of course. I guess the old Alzheimer's has finally set in.
posted by grumblebee at 7:35 PM on July 7, 2003


Just a couple of things. First, Joey Michaels, the Bard had more than one original work. You mention The Tempest, but don't forget about A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fans of Neil Gaiman will understand.

Second, the reason most people don't like reading "high" literature is because their vocabularies never mature much past adolescence and they are simply unable to enjoy it. /curmudgeon
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:46 PM on July 7, 2003


Why, exactly, does anyone care? I genuinely don't understand; some people don't like the HP series. Lots of other people do. So what? What is achieved in the discussion?

(because, frankly, it all seems to be "I like X because Y, and I don't like Z because it doesn't have Y". That's not illuminating. You know, I like chili dogs because they have chili. Isn't that important? Aren't you glad I told you that? Can we now discuss my chili preferences, and why anyone that disagrees with me is either an elitist bastard or an ignorant slug?)
posted by aramaic at 7:49 PM on July 7, 2003


Aramaic, you've surpassed us all -- far beyond criticising the critic, now you're criticising criticism itself! Now that's meta.
posted by George_Spiggott at 7:57 PM on July 7, 2003


Before I try to be reasoned and sensible and even possibly contribute to this thread, I just have to get this out of my system: A.S. Byatt kicks ass in about seventeen different ways, and this article is one. She is so, so right about Harry Potter: I couldn't even make it through the first book; the pacing was all wrong, the internal logic of the world she was trying to create wasn't convincing, the dialogue and exposition sucked, and I could not believe or care about Harry's paper-thin emotional dilemmas. *cough* Okay. ymmv, as they say. All due respect, etc. Lots of people reading, cultural phenomenon of the first order.

I agree with Byatt from the bottom of my heart simply because I have read those books which are full of the numinous magic she describes. Magic where real things are at stake. Yes, please, go and read Alan Garner if you want to have your breath taken away. The subject matter of his work is primal, and he writes fearlessly: the ending of The Moon of Gomrath left me physically shaking, but what is more, and better, shaken to the depths of my eleven year old self with the power of those words. It's the difference between the experience of art and the experience of entertainment. One is nourishment for the thinking, considering human being; the other leaves you with nothing lasting. Textual candy floss. Ursula Le Guin has also written essays about children's literature in which she echoes many of Byatt's concerns. ... Damn. I've just scanned through Le Guin's essay collection The Language of the Night, and can't find the quote I'm looking for, so I'll wing it. Le Guin writes of children's literature that children can devour garbage, it's even good for them, but that plastic is poisonous. (Again, not exact as it's from memory.) I am impassioned about this because I know, I know, in my bones, how it feels to be taken out of yourself, into another experience, one full of terror and consequence and mystery, real mystery, not the high school trivialities of Harry Potter. It's the difference between riches and poverty, between wine and grape drink, between love and lukewarm.
posted by jokeefe at 7:58 PM on July 7, 2003


aramaic: I often have the same feeling in discussions about politics. How often does anyone ever really change his/her mind? We believe these things instinctively, and yet we try to convince others to agree with us intellectually.

But jokeefe answers you best. It's moving to read of someone's passionate response to a book.
posted by divrsional at 8:18 PM on July 7, 2003


You never know, she could kill Harry in the end. Or he might end up as another Lord Voldemort or something.
posted by geekhorde at 8:28 PM on July 7, 2003


I like chili dogs.
posted by geekhorde at 8:30 PM on July 7, 2003


"...Nothing like success breeds jealousy in those who believe their own tastes are superior." (Mischief) - sort of like North American or Australian aboriginal cultures observing the arrival of the pre-industrial English?


We all (most, anyway) have participated in ripping the numinous heart out of the world - not the world as viewed from the Christian, sanitized, fortified-with-bleach scrubbing powder perspective, but the eructant world where the unexpected and disturbing mix in true numinousity.

And so we serve this up to our succesor generation - Harry Potter. Children go for the best they can find in their perceptual universe, so that's praise for Harry's world, I guess...or not. What is the best meal to order at Burger King? Help me out, folks, I don't eat there often. Should I get a Muggles Burger with Voldemort fries?
posted by troutfishing at 8:33 PM on July 7, 2003


jokeefe - I agree entirely.

Though, at least they're reading, which I suppose is better than sitting in front of the television.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:46 PM on July 7, 2003


I don't agree that that act of reading -- reading ANYTHING -- is necessarily better than the act of watching television.

But that's a subject for another thread.
posted by grumblebee at 9:03 PM on July 7, 2003


the eructant world

Whoa, I didn't need to look up 'numinous,' but you've stumped me there.
posted by transona5 at 9:03 PM on July 7, 2003


If it gets children's books a larger audience, I think it's good. There are a lot of adults who wouldn't have read Pullman or the rather brilliant Garth Nix if they hadn't been seduced into the children's section by Harry Potter. Consider it a gateway drug and move along.
posted by blissbat at 9:05 PM on July 7, 2003


Two words: Madeline L'Engle.

(or is that three?)
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:33 PM on July 7, 2003


You never know, she could kill Harry in the end. Or he might end up as another Lord Voldemort or something.

Tee hee! Rowlings -- if only HP wasn't now a valuable commodity to various powerful people and organizations that could CRUSH her like a BUG -- could break more little (and, clearly, not-so-little) hearts than probably has ever been done before with a disturbing, twisted trainwreck of a final book.

It'd be like getting to the end (or lack thereof) of Infinite Jest, except, y'know, for millions and millions of kids. And adults, yes.
posted by cortex at 10:18 PM on July 7, 2003


he might end up as another Lord Voldemort or something.

That would be OK, but only if he has kids with Cho, and one of them grows up to challenge Emporer Voldemort, blow up the Death Eater's Star, and save his dad from the dark side.
posted by namespan at 10:33 PM on July 7, 2003


You never know, she could kill Harry in the end.

And? What, exactly, would killing Harry in Book 7 do? Prove she's oh so dark and mature? Prove that terrible things happen to undeserving people?

The tales we tell shape us. If we settle for tales that are simple, that flatter and entertain, that do not actually risk anything, either in their creation or in their transmission, then we live duller lives. This goes from Harry Potter to the news to religion.
posted by solistrato at 11:10 PM on July 7, 2003


Harry's world is very magical, not only inside the novels but for the very visible effect it has had in the real worlds of children AND adults ... just like any other sensation of wonderment, the magic disappears if you look for the fishing line or think too hard about it.

Adults get very boring very fast when they try to define what magic is.
posted by elphTeq at 12:38 AM on July 8, 2003


grumblebee: agreed on the stylistic points. Rowling has never risen beyond classic beginners' writing faults. A glance at the Turkey City Lexicon finds right up-front "said-bookisms" (unnecessary substitutes for "said") and the "Tom Swifty" (excessive use of adverbs). As to the second-second hand accusation, my favourite example relates to Lord Dunsany's stories, where the train to the Edge of the World leaves from Victoria Station, but you can only get a ticket "if they know you". For me the irritation sets in when people are wetting themselves about the originality of Rowling's idea of the secret platform for the train to Hogwarts.
posted by raygirvan at 3:16 AM on July 8, 2003


Civil_Disobedient: the Bard had more than one original work. You mention The Tempest, but don't forget about A Midsummer Night's Dream. Fans of Neil Gaiman will understand.

Point taken, although the play within a play about Pyramus and Thisby is taken from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" and elements of the main story are almost certainly from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale." I think there might be some influence from Plutarch's "Lives," too, but I haven't read that in years.

But while we're at it, couldn't Gaiman have come up with an original plot for his story about Shakespeare? Man, these writers who can't come up with original ideas for stories! I, for one, believe that if a story is derived from anything it must automatically be bad.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:22 AM on July 8, 2003


Let me try and put what Byatt has said in one sentence: " I don't think J.K. Rowlings books are magical enough, I prefer other writers."

Faery nuff (forgive the pun), that's her opinion. What gets my goat is she tries to justify this difference of taste with some tired and pretentious pseudo-intellectialism. What a twit. I think the books are full of wit and magic, the centaur Firenze seems to come from another world, and the evil is not just black and white: Prof Umbridge is not pure evil but because she cannot understand good and envies it she to supress it and bully it, to make the world reflect her meagre perspective, sounds a bit like our friend Antonia Susan Drabble! (A.S. Byatt's real name)
posted by stephencummins at 5:25 AM on July 8, 2003


The main thing for me about the series is what blissbat said. It gets kids reading. My eleven-year old is a very advanced reader, but seldom reads for fun. Yet she reads the Harry Potter series...and the vocabulary can be pretty demanding.

What's great about the phenomenon is that we have a whole generation of children with a shared reading experience. My generation shared TV shows like Gilligan's Island and the Ed Sullivan show.

I read the first book to share the experience with my daughter and side more with the critics than with the fans.
posted by kozad at 6:22 AM on July 8, 2003


The topic at hand is adults reading Harry Potter, not kids. The discussion of why it's appealing to children, and the whole "got kids reading again" thing is immaterial. Stephen King defended the reading of comic books because, well, it's reading. Same with this.

As for adults, the article makes some good points, but misses the mark. It's as if she's suggesting adults are reading the Potter series in place of Literature, when they're reading it in place of King, Grisham, Clancy, or even the various Harlequin Romance types. They're fun, silly, and entertaining on a very basic level, and that appeals to a broad swath of people.

Yes, I've read all five novels. My usual reading material would be considered Literature, and it's nice to take a break from them on occassion. After slogging through an informative but rather dry overview of the Versailles conferences, Potter's a nice refreshing chaser. If it wasn't Rowling, it'd be Christie or Herbert or Tolkien. Adults need their escapism in whatever form they can get it. Rather than putting a value judgement on it, I'm just glad something has got the adults reading again.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:59 AM on July 8, 2003


Well said, GhostintheMachine.

To me, Byatt's entire argument seems to be, "Yes, it's popular, but it's not real literature," which A) sets her up as the arbiter of what is Real Literature and what you think doesn't count, and B) implies that anyone who doesn't read only Real Literature is wasting their time. Blah blah, woof woof.
posted by RylandDotNet at 7:19 AM on July 8, 2003


I realize that the topic is adults reading Harry Potter, but I thought it appropriate to be reminded of the whole point of the series: kids. And insofar as adult lit is concerned, most of the Rowling fans here have been saying "C'mon, lighten up...it's escapist fare!" I think, though, that it is fair to point out that there is plenty of "beach reading" out there without all the typical kid lit phrases like "he said grumpily."
posted by kozad at 7:24 AM on July 8, 2003


People shouldn't eat at McDonald's either, but that doesn't stop'em.
posted by graventy at 8:36 AM on July 8, 2003


I think I'll take up the loyal opposition - and I think y'all, have hit on the most important points - the world of Harry Potter et al. is not some magical world of mystic grandeur where everything is epic - although the fate of the world DOES rest in the hands of our heroes. It is our world with a twist, and that is perhaps why the books have been sucked up like crack-on-a-stick.

While when reading, folk often enjoy getting swept up in worlds larger and more fantastic than their own, folk at some level also enjoy seeing themselves lionized. By making the world of Harry Potter an extension of our own, Rowling, like Gaiman in Neverwhere, has made the reader feel as if they are part of the story - lurking somewhere in the background, their own life is intertwined with that of the story. Kids take this to the point of running around in harry potter outfits and shouting "Alohamora!" as their imaginations run wild with this breach of the imaginary and real. Adults find echoes of themselves and both the world they grew up in as well as the one they see around them.

And the fate of the world DOES hang in the balance - while the stories have always been about personal growth and growing up (more on that later), it is clear that the endgoal of Voldermort is to inflict his will on both the magical and mundane world. In order to do both, the magical world must first be overthrown, and fortunately this has never come to pass - it part and parcel of Harry's quest and that of his fellows to prevent this from happening. Pair that with the thin line between personal and imaginary reality the reader experiences, and you have a pretty compelling story.

All of which brings me to the last point brought up - that in this (and to some extent the last) book, it is easy to stop caring about the characters - they become whiny, selfish, quick to anger, and slow to recognize the good that other people do them. How often does Potter seethe against Dumbledore only to eventually realize that he is a fallible good human being with only Harry's best interests at heart. I would argue that the development of the characters is ample evidence that, indeed, Rowling is raising a teenage boy. Having been one myself and gone to school with many others, I think she's actually hit the nail on the, albeit british, head. My god teenagers at that age are whiny angsty brats, quite often! And, again, as the readership grows older, they'll probably recognize some of the same things in themselves - as well as learning along with Harry how to overcome those qualities.

Hell, it's much like the painful growing process we all watched in Buffy (because everything has to relate back to Buffy)- every season viewers became incensed with the awful painful directions that Joss et al. took the characters. After every season, folk looked back fondly, realizing how it was all part of the growing up process. I think this is no different, and for me, its a fascinating, if sometimes too close to home retrospective.

So, having finished #5, those are my thoughts, and I'm excited and ready for #6 - to see where the characters and the world goes.
posted by jearbear at 9:33 AM on July 8, 2003


This critique is based on a prejudice as to what elements "proper fiction" comprises, which is spurious--there is clearly no such animal. The only thing good fiction requires is that one enjoys reading it...And what relevance does any of this have to young adult fiction, which is written to address the rather simple (from an adult perspective) conflicts of youth? Rowling doesn't have any control over what audience buys her books. If only pre-teens read them, then would your criticism be obviated?

Well said. I have a lot of problems with the HP books, but then, I have problems with every book I've ever read. Perfection is something you strive for, not something you achieve. There is a wide range between "best. book. ever." and "total crap." Overall, I'd probably give these a solid B (judging them for what they try to be/do), which is more than enough to keep me reading them.

If people here are truly making the argument that only Rowlings is writing second-level derivative fiction, they I submit that they haven't done much reading lately.

Two points:

1) I have seen/heard a lot of people expressing opinions similar to Byatt's here: He spends a lot of the book becoming excessively angry with his protectors and tormentors alike. I must have read an entirely different book, because my take was that he didn't become plausibly angry enough! Or are we just meant to become mildly peeved at our "tormentors"?

2) The story of Harry Potter is told across the entire series of books, not in any one volume. In this context, Byatt's remark Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family is simply wrong. Voldemort is struggling to (re)gain a position of power from which he can do great harm, to both the magical world of the wizards and the world of the muggles. When he had power in the past, he exercised it to do harm in both these spheres. The only reason he hasn't begun to do so again in a large way is that he has been thwarted in his attempts to get to the point that he needs to be in by Harry Potter et al. To say that nothing is at risk simply denies the premise of the story, as written. Perhaps some people would prefer that Rowling spend more time detailing this, making it a greater conflict, but that's a separate complaint—you may wish for more, but you cannot simply dismiss what is there.
posted by rushmc at 9:43 AM on July 8, 2003


jearbear: I think I'll take up the loyal opposition - and I think y'all, have hit on the most important points - the world of Harry Potter et al. is not some magical world of mystic grandeur where everything is epic - although the fate of the world DOES rest in the hands of our heroes. It is our world with a twist, and that is perhaps why the books have been sucked up like crack-on-a-stick.

I think that you are missing the point of the article which does highly praise at least two fantasy novels that provide really good fantasy while being set in a "real world with a twist". Alice Cooper's The Dark is Rising provides more of a sense of dread of what might be lurking in the background while Prachett dishes up the bent reality with a better sense of humor. (Byatt also mentions Ursula LeGuin who has been a master at writing novels that are accessible to juvenile writers without talking down to them in the same way that the Potter books seem to.)

Granted, I read the books when I need some nice, light marshmellowy reading, but there just isn't much there.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:57 AM on July 8, 2003


I'm with you KJS, but you're thinking of Susan Cooper, not Alice.
posted by BT at 10:34 AM on July 8, 2003


Essentially, what Byatt is saying, is that she doesn't like Rowling's books because they aren't the sort of fantasy Byatt favors; she then uses her personal taste to bludgeon Rowling's Harry Potter books, and the taste of those readers who do like them, condemning them as "secondary secondary" fantasy.

She's missing something rather important. I too very much like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones (warning, Flash site), Tolkien--and a host of others like them, for instance, Patriacia McKillip's RiddleMaster of Hed, or Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles . . . or, oh heck here's a page I made. The books Byatt favors, and that I very much like, are derived from or influenced very strongly by medieval Celtic myth, and, in Tolkien's case, Germanic and Finnish traditions.

Harry Potter is descended from an alternate tradition, that of Victorian children's fantasy. The tradition includes the books of George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, and the "allegorical" member of the Inklings, C. S. Lewis. Victorian fantasy has as legitimate a pedigree as the Celtic stuff (which also has a Victorian heritage in the the Lady Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion).

Were Byatt to compare Victorian fantasy to Victorian fantasy, she would do better to look to Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, or perhaps Garth Nix's Old Kingdom trilogy.
posted by medievalist at 10:36 AM on July 8, 2003


When I was but a sprout, I was a voracious reader, and my tastes fell along two distinct lines: Tolkien, and the Foxfire books. I don't know who remembers the Foxfire books, but they were a 1970s attempt to put down on paper the store of knowledge that our rapidly homogenizing culture was losing: how to skin a rabbit, find one's way by starlight, pick non-poisonous mushrooms, build a lean-to, whatever. The Tolkien connected me to an imaginary world that was exciting precisely because I knew I could never BE there. The Foxfire books were a different kind of excitement: my friends and I would sit around and conjure up Robinson-Crusoe-esque situations from which only our wits and hands and the skills we learned from reading Foxfire could save us. It was excitment because, even though it was far-fetched, it COULD happen, and we'd have real skills to fall back on (I later learned that reading about skinning a rabbit is much more fun than actually doing so, but not as tasty).

I've read just the first Potter book, and frankly didn't finish it because I lost interest. I know I'm coming to a kid's book with an adult perspective, but the work struck me as essentially false. The conflicts Harry faces are external and administrative, the sort of trials a mid-level manager might have when reviewing the monthly spreadsheets. There was no sense of real danger, no sense of discovery, no movement toward self-knowledge or insight, no epiphanies.

I don't know what my point is, other than I too like chili dogs.

The Pullman books, on the other hand, I bought for my cousins, in an attempt to wean them from Rowling.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:47 AM on July 8, 2003


Antonia Susan Drabble! (A.S. Byatt's real name)

Ob trivia: Antonia Susan Byatt is her married name, not a pseudonym. Also, if your sister is already publishing novels under her maiden name, you might want to differentiate yourself.

By making the world of Harry Potter an extension of our own, Rowling, like Gaiman in Neverwhere, has made the reader feel as if they are part of the story - lurking somewhere in the background, their own life is intertwined with that of the story.

Nice post, jearbear. I would just add that this intermingling of our world and the world of fantasy is a continuing motif in English children's literature (the one I know best): Narnia, obviously, where crossing the threshold to the other world and how it is accomplished is always central to the story (through the wardrobe door, through the gate in the wall, using magic rings, and finally the ultimate return to Narnia, with the death of the main characters in a railway accident), or E. Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet where the children time travel by walking through the amulet itself. More recently, in Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain the children merely bicycle down a country lane to find themselves out of the world. I enjoyed the first HP very much during the first few chapters--especially the idea of the world of magic existing parallel to the "real" world, which seemed like a nice metaphor for the complexities of society and finding your place in it away from the constraints of your family, but after the Sorting Hat (which I loved) it all fell apart for me. After that there was just the plot, which didn't grab me, and the rest of the book took place at Hogwarts, which really isn't much compared to the Le Guin's Great House of Roke. They deal with really powerful, world shaking stuff there, like the genuine reality of death and loss and suffering. Killing off a minor character or two, as Rowling has done in the last two installments, isn't as effective a way of portraying death as, say, Le Guin's village of the dead in The Farthest Shore. It still gives me a chill to remember the line "And those who had died for love passed each other in the streets." That's utterly real, the unshakable face of loss; and yet this is balanced with how marvellously life affirming the rest of her work is. The light and the shadow, as she would say--we need both, and children especially need grand myths and metaphors in order to try to make sense of this world. Adults reading HP? We are starved for a good story; how many billions of dollars with Lord of the Rings have made by the time all the money is counted? It's just that HP is and is not that story...
posted by jokeefe at 11:06 AM on July 8, 2003


Right on, jearbear. Setting aside issues of how adeptly Rowling writes--and personally I prefer writing to be in service to the story, not vice versa--perhaps the problem lies in labeling the Potter books "fantasy" or "fantastic" in the first place. Magic is presented in them is clockwork-like, goverened by rules and Ministries, ever-ready to be taught to that year's crop of eleven-year-olds. It's much closer to Arthur C. Clarke's famous aphorism ("sufficently advanced technology...") than to elemental forces in the universe. Same word, different meanings, so comparing it to, say, the eternalness and spookiness of magic in Susan Cooper's books is a little misleading. And I can't find the quote at the moment, darn it, but in an interview, Rowling herself even stated that she wrote the first book and then was rather suprised to find that it was, technically, a fantasy.

And on the subject of "what's at stake?" in the books...well, not every series can have Sauron and the death of your world lurking behind every corner, hammered on as the Very Bad Thing You Must Face (or Prevent, or Recognize Is Your Father, or whatever). The Potter books have horrors and unpleasantries aplenty, but they're of a less abstract, less spectral kind than people melting out of walls or Meg Murray being forced to name the unnamed, and in some ways, that can be more scary. They speak to fears maybe more specific to kids--the loss of (a) parent(s), (non-)acceptance by your peers, betrayal by authority figures--but adults can definitely relate.

Thinking about what has really made me shiver while reading the series, I don't think you can top the description of Neville's parents, broken and driven permanently insane via torture--but still alive, and poor meek Neville able to visit them but never know them or comfort them, or they him. Or Ginny, possessed by Voldemort in book 2 and unable to tell anyone, knowing she's doing horrible things and guilt-striken but unable to stop herself. Or, more centrally, Harry, the orphan raised in an abusive home--one which may serve mainly as comic foil and as contrast for his charmed life in the wizarding world, but which hits uncomfortably close to home for a lot of people.

Harry's challenges may have magical causes to set them in motion, but they're of a much more personal nature. I think Byatt sees this as insularity and therefore veering towards irrelevancy, when really it's one of the books' selling points. It's because Harry's world isn't a more scalable fable (isn't yet...let's see how people treat it 100 years from now...) that kids especially can appreciate it as being "on their level". (And overgrown kids, like me.)

For the record, I was suprised to find how much I enjoyed the fifth book. Just when you thought Harry couldn't have any more angst...
posted by Asparagirl at 12:23 PM on July 8, 2003 [1 favorite]


The girl is looking at herself sadly, and her eyes are very expressive. It would be great to be able to read ANYTHING into her eyes -- to spend hours wondering why she was so sad. But Rockwell doesn't let his audience feel any mystery, because in the girl's lap you can clearly see a glamour magazine.

Ummm, and this comment explains why critics are full of themselves. Art, books, music etc are relative. You see a sad girl in that painting and then ASSUME that you know that Rockwell painted her as sad because of the magazine she is reading. I see a girl sitting in front of a mirror trying to emulate her favorite star (Vivian Leigh of Gone with the Wind?) She also appears to have cast off her dolly in an effort to be more adult-like.

Anyway, I don't watch soap operas, I don't watch TV (or at least rarely), etc, etc. And I LOVE HARRY POTTER. Like music, if it moves you then that is reason enough to read it. Don't let ANYONE tell you what is good or bad literature... or good or bad music.... or a good or bad person for that matter.
posted by terrapin at 12:30 PM on July 8, 2003


<aside>
Personally, the dementors give me the heebie-jeebies, kind of like the dark riders in LOTR. Especially at the end of book 4... *shiver*
</aside>

This is not to say that spectral beings from other books aren't more heebie-jeebie inducing. But I like what David Edelstein wrote about the books with regards to their treatment of evil:
"I find the anxiety level of Order of the Phoenix to be startlingly in synch with the mood of the day. I suppose one could argue—as Young does—that children's literature has a mandate to be more escapist. But I think it also owes us a bit of catharsis. There is something healthy about seeing our worst fears realized (for a time). And Voldemort—the "mudblood" aligned with the "purebloods" in a war against mudbloods and Muggles alike—makes a haunting antagonist in an age of escalating illiberalism."
posted by arco at 2:24 PM on July 8, 2003


Here's Salon's very perceptive response to all this.
posted by transona5 at 11:07 PM on July 8, 2003


Ob trivia: Antonia Susan Byatt is her married name, not a pseudonym. Also, if your sister is already publishing novels under her maiden name, you might want to differentiate yourself.

Fair enough, I didn't dig very deep on that one, I just loved how Muggle-ish the name was. I still think she's a snob though!
posted by stephencummins at 3:53 AM on July 9, 2003


a very perceptive response

In what way? It's just an extended ad hominem attack on Byatt and other Potter critics.
posted by raygirvan at 4:42 AM on July 9, 2003


it always worries me when charles taylor or his wife stephanie -- they of the floral prose that can't seem to hide justifications of their bizarre taste -- are called on to "respond" to any number of pop-culture phenomena. i see little bitterness towards rowling in byatt's article, and it's strange to see taylor (who as i recall devoted a review of cowboy bebop: the movie to trashing spirited away) reading that element into the article.
posted by pxe2000 at 6:55 AM on July 9, 2003


Just in case anyone is still following this, here are a few letters to the editor that the Times received regarding Byatt's article. (It's the Times, free registration, corporate media, yada yada...)
posted by arco at 1:37 PM on July 9, 2003


Personally, the dementors give me the heebie-jeebies, kind of like the dark riders in LOTR. Especially at the end of book 4...

Book 3, you mean? Book 4 has few mentions of dementors, and none in the end (except a Boggart simulating one).

I have read all 5 Harry Potter books in the past week for the first time in my life, and I'll say that I've been tremendously moved by them. The most endearing feature of the books, from a literary standpoint, is a massive build-up in complexity, tone, and language as the series progresses. You'll notice that the fifth book is almost 800 pages, while the first one is under 300 - the narrative improves by a similar factor. Despite some objective plot and narrative shortcomings, the books are unparalleled literature for their primary audience, due to merits too numerous to list. The critiquing faction of the non-primary audience seems to have trouble with an initially populist plot line and the universe that appears incoherently amateurish at first, while in fact it is far from that.

I won't go into lengthy comparisons with the accepted and nominated leaders of the genre. In my opinion, the HP cycle is important and wonderful due as much to the features that made it so popular as to the more complex ones that made me appreciate it. To me, the immersion into the Hogwarts universe has been every bit as interesting, exciting, and enriching as those into the best worlds of LeGuin, Strugackie, and Asimov.
posted by azazello at 7:26 PM on July 9, 2003


azazello, you may well have convinced me to give HP another try. We'll see...
posted by jokeefe at 7:40 PM on July 9, 2003


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