A.S. Byatt is splendidly caustic= in the NYT about the success of Harry Potter. It’s rather an interesting piece. Byatt rips into the Potter phenomenon, which she sees as part of a dumbing-down of fiction.
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.
But she does so without dismissing either good popular culture or children’s literature. The problem with Harry Potter, as she sees it, is that it’s too comfortable. It’s unoriginal, “a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature.” And it has no mystery about it – the Potter books are remarkably prosaic for all their emphasis on magic. In Byatt’s view, the books don’t have any counterbalancing concern with the serious things of life. Byatt contrasts Rowling with children’s authors like Ursula Le Guin, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner, who convey a real sense of mystery and danger in their books. Magic should bite.
Now Byatt is going a bit far – comfort books aren’t necessarily bad, even if they don’t have a scintilla of seriousness. First witnesses for the defence are the wonderfully scruffy Molesworth public-school comedies (for a Molesworth-Hogwarts collision, read the wicked parody here). And silly adult books can be good too; Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories are utterly frivolous, but they’re undeniably works of genius.
Still, Byatt puts her finger on something. Harry Potter has been so successful because it feeds into two sets of fantasies. It gratifies children, who dream of being popular, good at sports, and possessed of spiffy magic powers. It gratifies adults, who fantasize about the uncomplicated joys of childhood. It has very little to say about the awkward in-between stages in which children become teenagers and then adults. Talking about messy and complex stuff like this would break the spell. This is why Harry Potter doesn’t have the sense of mystery that Byatt is looking for. Magic is dangerous and exciting for the young adults in Garner and Cooper’s books precisely because it’s tied up with their burgeoning sexuality. Here be dragons. If Byatt’s right, the Potter series is likely to become increasingly awkward and dissatisfying as the protagonist moves further into his teenage years. Rowling won’t be able to pull off the balancing act for very much longer without looking silly.
Update: interested parties, pro and con, should read Ruth Feingold’s bit in the comments section to this post, as well as John Holbo’s response