Harry Potter

by Kieran Healy on July 16, 2005

Good to see all the fuss and hype over the new Harry Potter. I wonder whether it’ll be better than the last one, which I thought was a bit of a disaster. It’s a little shorter, which is a good sign. Like many people, I have my doubts that Potter will still be read by children a few generations down the line. He may end up a curio like Billy Bunter, or even the Oz books. The characters enter the culture but the novels hardly bear re-reading. But bugger posterity, to be honest: at some point you can’t argue with the huge queues of people waiting to buy the books. I’d happily settle for the gift of being able to write something that would be read by a hundreth as many people.

{ 30 comments }

1

Alexei McDonald 07.16.05 at 6:48 pm

It scarcely matters – few people write for posterity, after all, and fewer still with any success. Like a lot of other librarians, I love the way Harry Potter gets kids into reading, despite the vast number of competing distractions which just weren’t available when I was a kid. Stairhead critics can say what they like about the quality of the books, and point out the gaping plot holes to their hearts content, but they don’t have anything to compete with JK Rowling.

2

joel turnipseed 07.16.05 at 6:55 pm

Kieran… give yourself more credit: 50,000 people probably read your stuff already (at least, CT posts–can’t remember the last academic book that sold so well), right?

As for Potter, I’d like to ask: what do all the adults see in these books? A strange phenomenon…

3

lago 07.16.05 at 6:57 pm

You could, like the protagonist in Erik Tarloff’s The Man Who Wrote the Book, write utterly filthy porn under a pseudonym, thereby reaching many people while still retaining your academic credibility. But I suspect that might not be the writing gift of which you speak.

4

Matt 07.16.05 at 6:59 pm

The last idea isn’t so much fantasy- one of the professors at U.T. Austin who works on ancient philosophy wrote hard-core porn novels under a pseudonym. I have no idea if it sold well or not, though.

5

digamma 07.16.05 at 7:26 pm

The Oz books, those written by Baum at least, definitely bear re-reading.

6

LizardBreath 07.16.05 at 7:36 pm

I’d agree — I read the Oz books as a child in the 70’s, and expect that my kids probably will. They’re still in print in mass-market editions, aren’t they?

Potter doesn’t do much for me, on the other hand. I can’t imagine why they’re so popular.

7

rilkefan 07.16.05 at 8:21 pm

Michiko Kakutani may deign to review it, but can she give away the ending?

p.s. where’d the preveiw button go?

8

Barry 07.16.05 at 9:20 pm

Kieran: “But bugger posterity, to be honest: at some point you can’t argue with the huge queues of people waiting to buy the books. I’d happily settle for the gift of being able to write something that would be read by a hundreth as many people.”

Kieran, more sex and violence. Put a hot babe, a hunk and a gun on the cover.

9

Backword Dave 07.17.05 at 3:59 am

All right. am I being hopelessly sentimental, or are Alan Garner and Ursula LeGuin (who seem to be the closest approximation to Rowling from my childhood) not much better writers? I believe LeGuin is still selling, but Garner has dropped into obscurity. Kieran’s “a few generations down the line” may be wildly optimistic.

10

Ben Eastaugh 07.17.05 at 4:46 am

“But bugger posterity, to be honest: at some point you can’t argue with the huge queues of people waiting to buy the books.”

Possibly this is the point where we all sign our souls over to Mammon, yes?

Dave: that LeGuin’s work has stayed in print over the years is proof, to me at least, that there is some small measure of justice in the world. Not having read the Harry Potter books I can’t compare either them to either LeGuin or Garner, but I would be extremely surprised if they were anything like as good. My family have read them, and seem to think that at least they’re readable, but not worth much in the grand scheme of things.

rilkefan: WordPress doesn’t allow previewing, although there are plugins that allow for javascript-assisted live previews. My hope is that they rectify this omission at some point in the future, but don’t hold your breath. Anyway, don’t you enjoy the excitement of not knowing how your comment is going to come out? It might, perhaps, be an idea to give some indication of the formatting that WP will be applying to the post (whether it’s limited HTML, or Textile, or indeed anything at all).

11

Harry 07.17.05 at 8:19 am

Ganrer is, simply, a different league (and better, I think, than LeGuin). But, he will keep coming back, unlike Potter and…. look, the jibe at Billy Bunter was unfair, it was written for a children’s COMIC for goodness sake.

12

Russell Arben Fox 07.17.05 at 8:20 am

I picked our copy up at 12:30am, Satureday morning, and finished by that afternoon; my wife started reading it immediately after me, and finished at 1:00am last night. Yes, we’re hopeless. And we agree–the best Potter since Prisoner of Azkaban, and the one where Rowling finally, and yet at the same time (to most readers at least) shockingly, kicks the story up to the next level. I’ll be writing something about it very soon.

13

Cryptic Ned 07.17.05 at 10:54 am

Hey, I read all 12 Oz books when I was about 10 (c. 1992). Even “Glinda of Oz” and “Tik-Tok of Oz”. I still remember what the spine of the books looked like, with the mirror-image “Del-Rey” logo.

14

rilkefan 07.17.05 at 12:32 pm

That should be “all 14 Oz books by Baum”. I was going to say there were about fifty Oz books, but most of those were just “official”.

The above got my wife and me wondering about how long the Narnia books will be read. It turns out we have vivid memories of even the minor adventures, so “a long time” seems likely. On the other hand, Pinocchio is a great book which I managed not to read as a child or hear much about since.

15

Wax Banks 07.17.05 at 3:51 pm

Kieran –

Take heart! The sixth book is definitely stronger than the fifth. I admit, rereading your ‘Implausible Plot Device’ post, I’ve not really thought about that aspect of the books – but as far as I’m concerned that’s a measure of how engaging the books are as much as anything else. Improvements from volume five: less whining, less lame romance (and more cheeky romance), much plot-thread-gathering-and-weaving, and 150 thrilling pages at the end during which a couple of the biggest mysteries in the book are solved and then replaced with other, almost as intriguing mysteries.

Everything that’s wrong with her books is probably still wrong with them, but the majority of the negative reactions to the book seem to be little more than confessions of lamentable literary anhedonia – the most fashionable of disorders among the cognoscenti, I’m afraid, to which I remain proudly immune – and so I confess that, except for the incessant doom’n’gloom of volume five, I’ve been ecstatically happy every second of each volume.

Michiko Kakutani’s right about one thing: with the possible exception of book one, Rowling has never been shooting from the hip with these books. A lot of care has gone into the organization of the big story, and when her technical facility falls short, her empathy and infectious love of what she’s talking about keep the books afloat. In this regard she’s a lot like George Lucas – though his empathy has shifted to Anakin, which is a little spooky if you ask me.

Joel: what do you think adults see in the books? Themselves as they’d like to be. A world they’d like to visit. Magic, fer Chrissakes, from castles to airborne cupcakes to wounds that heal instantly and King’s Cross whole and safe. (cf. comments about anhedonia!!) You might ask, what do adults see in Thomas Pynchon, no?

16

Katherine 07.17.05 at 3:54 pm

oh, it’s just the usual: sympathetic, interesting characters. Engaging plot. Humor. A lot of “literary fiction” books come up short in one or more of these categories, in favor of self-consciously poetic description, more ambiguous characters, etc.

And a lot of it is because “everyone else is doing it” too of course–I do think there are better books out there.

As for why adults and children both get involved, there’s two generations of sympathetic, interesting characters. I read the first two because they were fun and you could read them in one sitting and to see what the fuss was about. It wasn’t until Azkaban that I was really drawn.

Unfortunately, she’s developed two bad habits in plotting with the last two:
–long, frustrating slow middle sections where no one talks to anyone else & we just sort of meander around
–followed by a stirring conclusion in which All Is Revealed.

I think it’s a combination of lack of editing on account of overwhelming success, having the beginning and end of the series better plotted than the middle, and the sorts of crutches many authors have which are noticeable when you read so many books by them about the same characters.

And, series are nice because you already know the characters. She’s really done a pretty good job overall having them age.

Haven’t read the sixth one yet.

17

ProfWombat 07.17.05 at 4:23 pm

She’s anti-authoritarian. She loves her characters, and names them better than anyond since Dickens. She’s quite clear-eyed about adolescence and its vicissitudes, and occasionally yields the floor to darkness.
As long as you don’t ask her to be someone she isn’t, seems to me she’s doing fine. The kids are all right.

18

Russell Arben Fox 07.17.05 at 4:40 pm

My comments are up. Don’t read them unless you’ve finished the book already (which means, given that it’s still Sunday where I am, that’s I’m talking only to the truly obsessed).

Wax: great response to Joel, and I concur fully with your assessment of Michiko Kakutani’s judgement. In particular, the final, terrible revelation in this volume makes it absolutely clear that Rowling has been carefully and consistently laying in front of us evidence of someone’s perfidy since at least Book 3, maybe earlier, and most of us (like most of her characters!) didn’t see it.

Profwombat: a great assessment of Rowling, and you’re right about her skill with names; what a tremendous ear the woman has.

Katherine: your complaint about Rowling’s slow middle sections seems, I think, truer than it actually is, because it was so grossly true of Book 5. You’ll think it’s true of this book as well, but…wait, I’ve said too much already.

19

yabonn 07.17.05 at 5:44 pm

(spoilerish)

Finished it : imho one of the best, after Prisoner of Azkaban.

Riddle’s youth is one of the good part of the book, and a nice impression, in a few brush strokes, i’d have liked more.

Slightly dissappointed to see Fudge and Dursley senior fade away a bit : Rowling is always good with authority-assholes.

I suppose Fleur _had_ to be snobbish – she’s right about the meat cooking, though. And the socks are here!

20

Tom Lynch 07.17.05 at 7:13 pm

Read the spoilers at Wikipedia – will read the book at some point. Rowling isn’t overrated – most commentary on her work takes pains to mention that she isn’t the most technically gifted writer out there.

It is a shame (as others have mentioned) that other writers didn’t get the same degree of recognition. Garner and Le Guin are great examples, but Diana Wynne Jones is a little closer to Rowling in genre (she’s also done “witch school” novels) and generally quite a bit better.

The Harry Potter novels have a lot of good points to them, chief amongst which is their general good humour and easy-going approach to plot and character (something which has probably been lost a bit with the last couple). One also find a lot of frustrating aspects though – they are so hideously formulaic in structure, and the overall arc of the seven-book series is so deadening, that maintaining interest is becoming a chore lightened only by repeated “pseudo-twists” where events unfold in just a slightly different way than one might have expected.

I disagree that Rowling is anti-authority. Rowling is for authority in the hands of a particular class of people – the “special” people whose “extra talents” are really just class markers. Dumbledore is head of Hogwarts, and Hogwarts is the centre of all events in Rowling’s fantasy universe. Yes, Dumbledore and Harry ignore the authority of the Ministry of Magic, but only because they themselves are the true authority. Dumbledore’s reliable but distant benevolence reminds me of Richard the Lionheart in the Robin Hood tales.

21

Phill 07.17.05 at 7:51 pm

I finished a few hours ago. The most interesting part is what happens right at the end. Rowling kicks away the whole formula used for the books to date.

I don’t think that it is very likely that we will be reading about any house quidich matches in Book 7.

Perhaps the editors could start a Potter thread for people who have read the book and want to post spoilers.

22

Tracy W 07.18.05 at 3:45 am

I think the Potter books have a stream of inventiveness – of funny and weird things – that Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin don’t have. E.g. the howlers, the owl post, the sweets, the pictures that move, etc. (Although I adored the little dragon in the first Earthsea book and still want one of my own.) Rowling’s closer to Margaret Mahy or Roald Dahl than the first two authors Dave mentions. Maybe that’s what’s driving her sales.

23

agm 07.18.05 at 4:26 am

I must strongly disagree about Rowling’s ability with names. I went with a friend to the local distribution festivities, after which I borrowed and consumed the first in the series. It took about all of 30 seconds for me to get annoyed by the cutesy naming scheme; I don’t like cutesy acronyms and naming in real life, I sure as heck don’t want them in my free reading.

(For pete’s sake, Slytherin is just a horrible name for a house, it plays on people’s conception of snakes, prejudicing them unfairly. Fluffy was amusing, yes, as well as the use of nicknames for Voldemort, but repeating the full name of Whoever-the-hell’s Every Flavor Beans every single time is grating.)

24

Ray 07.18.05 at 6:17 am

I think the difference between Rowling and Garner, for example, is that Rowling creates a stream of different things, while Garner creates a different world. There’s nothing alien or fantastic about Potter magic, nothing strange or wonderful. Okay for kids, but nothing to get excited about.

25

a 07.18.05 at 6:21 am

Finished the sixth. Agree with everyone that it’s better than the fifth, which was the worst of the lot. I like the fourth best, because that’s when the series begins to get dark.

26

ProfWombat 07.18.05 at 8:47 am

Bertie Bott’s Beans are a commercial product in Rowling’s world; perhaps she’s willing to have her characters find the incessant repitition of trademarks as annoying as we do.

And I must respectfully disagree with agm. Giving characters names that resound with their attributes is a noble literary tradition. I can still laugh out loud at the antics of Fighting Bob Acres, Sir Peter Teazle and Mrs. Malaprop, or hear someone introduced as Uriah Heep and know who’s coming even before I’ve seen WC Fields do what needs to be done.

27

Richard Bellamy 07.18.05 at 10:25 am

I’m reading my daughter the Oz books now. I’m not quite sure if it’s the stories that aren’t holding up or the readers. I’m getting gut-bored with them, but my daughter is fascinated, and keeps asking for the next one when we finish.

Also, I’m frequently torn about whether the books are (1) sexist, (2) feminist (3) progressive for their time, but regressive now, (4) par for their time, but regressive now.

Most fully, there is the invasion of General Jinjur’s army in Book 2. General Jinjur is upset that women have no power in the kingdom, so raises an army to take over Oz (feminist), her army is armed with sewing pins (par for the time), they are upset that all the emeralds are being used by men in an impractical manner to make the city beautiful (feminist), they want to use the emeralds to make pretty clothes (sexist). Their military strategy is based on the assumption that men wouldn’t hit a girl (sexist/par for the time), they eventually take over and make the men do their share of the work (feminist), but are happy to give up power when the royal heir appears, because the men are doing such a crappy job of the housework anyway.

In a later book, we run into General Jinjur again in passing — she is now a happy housewife, having found a docile husband who apparently lets her beat him up.

28

Steve 07.18.05 at 4:12 pm

Also, I’m frequently torn about whether the books are (1) sexist, (2) feminist (3) progressive for their time, but regressive now, (4) par for their time, but regressive now.

I think Jinjur’s Army is a fairly obvious lampoon of the suffragette movement. Don’t forget that Baum’s mother-in-law was Matilda Joslyn Gage. Adult men in the Oz books tend to be rather ineffectual (if I recall correctly, Baum’s wife Maud handled his business affairs) or antagonistic, and I believe Baum was a personal supporter of women’s suffrage. So I’d say “feminist, but good-naturedly condescending”, Richard.

29

rilkefan 07.18.05 at 11:29 pm

“Also, I’m frequently torn about whether the books are (1) sexist, (2) feminist”

Me, too, leaning towards more 1) than 2). Oh, you’re talking about the Oz books now, not Harry Potter.

30

Dan 07.21.05 at 1:43 am

In particular, the final, terrible revelation in this volume makes it absolutely clear that Rowling has been carefully and consistently laying in front of us evidence of someone’s perfidy since at least Book 3, maybe earlier, and most of us (like most of her characters!) didn’t see it.

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