Cave. Hic Dragones.

by Henry Farrell on July 8, 2003

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.

bq. 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”:



SageOne 07.08.03 at 3:11 pm

I couldn’t agree with you more. The Potter books are meant to be fun and let your imagination run ragged for the duration.


Bill 07.08.03 at 3:50 pm

Have you actually read _Order of the Phoenix_? It is hardly awash with the “uncomplicated joys of childhood”, and Harry is hardly unaware of his “burgeoning sexuality”. HP is very much about growing up, coming to realizations about one’s society and making moral choices.


Joe G. 07.08.03 at 3:51 pm

I’m about 200 pages into the newest installment. In one lighthearted scene, a sobbing mother has a nervous breakdown as she is forced to imagine the very possible deaths of her husband and children. In another carefree moment, Harry studies a group photo of the previous generation’s heroes, while a colleague describes their various horrible fates, including a husband and wife that were tortured into madness.

Fun for all.


Sol 07.08.03 at 3:57 pm

I can only assume the Susan Cooper books being referenced are something other than her most famous series. At least, I remember _The Dark is Rising_ as being an utterly unsexual adolescent power fantasy. Nice books which I remember fondly, but if anything, of rather less substance than the Harry Potter books.

I dunno, I’ve read a very broad sampling of the best fantasy of the last century, from Lord Dunsany, Lieber, and le Guin through Brust, Powers, and Gaiman, plus much of the standard children’s literature. No one is going to confuse the Potter books with the best of the best, but they are solid additions to the canon, particularly in comparison to the children’s end of the spectrum. (I just reread (for the Nth time) A Wrinkle in Time at more or less the same time I read the Order of the Phoenix, and Potter book is just plain better.)


Jonathan Ichikawa 07.08.03 at 3:58 pm

I might just be branding myself as a person whose imaginary life is confined to TV cartoons, but I really have a hard time believing that Byatt read the same book I did. “Order of the Phoenix”, the latest book, seemed to me to deal rather squarely with the “awkward in-between stages” — Harry is growing up.

Fortunately, Henry’s analysis provides a (more or less) concrete prediction for Byatt. There will be two more books, Byatt’s criticism predicts that they will become less satisfying. I feel like she’s wrong, but time will tell.


Andrea Harris 07.08.03 at 4:38 pm

Sounds like sour grapes to me. “Why on earth is that bloody children’s book author so popular, as opposed to the childrens’ authors I like?” Also — I agree that Byatt doesn’t seem to have read the fifth book, which is about as comforting as sitting up in the middle of the night listening to your parents fight. (Don’t get me wrong, I loved the book, but it was mostly lacking in the comedic elements that the previous books had, and which I speculate are one of the things that made the series so endearing, and irritated many of its critics so.)

I will also add that I loved LeGuin’s original Earthsea trilogy — which AFAIK are her only “children’s books” — but that the followup, Tehanu, I found didactic and boring (Tenar as a housewife? Sure…) full of obligatory good-for-society references to such PC concerns as child abuse and sexism. I have not read The Other Wind, so I will withold judgement on it. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising set is also a childhood favorite; the only book that lacked something is the last one, which I think rounded up the conflict much too patly. I like some of Garner’s fantasy, but some of his novels (for example, The Owl Service) are a bit too bitter and depressing for younger children.


Maria 07.08.03 at 5:33 pm

I’m with Henry on this (well, I would be, wouldn’t I?) but I may not help his case much as I read the first HP, was drastically underwhelmed by it, and promptly gave up on the rest of them. I’m told Phoenix is better – i.e. darker and deeper, etc. – but I just found the first one so derivative and utterly flat I can’t be bothered. Let’s face it, Harry is no Ged nor ever will be. He’s too young for me to fancy, too straight to be interesting on his own account, and I’m fed up to the back teeth with his boy’s own adventures. Why does Hermione have to be such a humourless girly swot? Wasn’t the Beano full enough of those? And those reassuring tropes that pass for characters in Hogwarts have no reason to exist when Terry Pratchett’s parodies of same sell by the truckload.

But if you’re looking for a fantasy writer who really deals with the hairy underbelly and general ickiness of adolescence; with the fear and desire of burgeoning sexuality in a world where adults are unreliable and appearances are deceptive, then go no further than Angela Carter’s Magic Toyshop.


Greg 07.08.03 at 5:44 pm

I have no quarrel with the Harry Potter phenomenon (doo DOOO doo DOO doo) (If you get that joke, you watch too much TV)

Would it be better if the kiddies were reading Twain or Shakespeare or someone from the Official Pantheon of Literary Fiction (and not those from the Uncouth Cabal of Genre Fiction)? Perhaps. But we must take baby steps. Remember, we’re dealing with kids that are generations removed from knowing what to do when the power goes out.

Within reason, anything that gets kids away from video monitors and into libraries is a step in the right direction.

(Side note: Why should anyone care that the Harry Potter series doesn’t address the “burgeoning sexuality” of the main characters? I’m sure some people would like to see “Harry Has Two Hogwarts” hit the stands, but I simply don’t see the rush.)


RatherWorried 07.08.03 at 5:55 pm

Rowling is writing a series that will redefine the genre for children’s books. If you have not read the entire series you can not comment on the quality. That is like dismissing the Lord of the Rings after reading the Hobbit!

This last installment is a deep book about adolescent awkwardness, peer pressure, an anti-government screed, a fantasy story and a bemused look at the divide that exists between the old and wise and the young and impatient. This is not a deep analysis, this is the mere surface of a very deep book. Frankly if you didn’t at least get this…you didn’t read the book.

As to the other worthy authors mentioned here, they have many similarities to Rowling’s books but most lack the depth of plot. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series is a wonderful series of books with a very simple plot. The plot for all of her books is laid out and understandable to anyone of sufficient age by the second book, “The Dark Is Rising”. Rowling, by contrast, never revealed the total plot twists. There are no twists in Coopers series.

Madeline L’Engle wrote the “Wrinkle in Time” series. Again this is a wonderful series of children’s books but lack the sophisticated world that Rowling has developed in the “Potter” series. In addition her characters are not as rich or developed as Rowlings characters, nor does she deal with growing up as sensitively or as realistically as Rowling has in this most recent book.

Finally, although it may be trendy to dismiss a major success like the Potter series, the authors of these negative reviews may find themselves feeling like the reviewer who claimed that Tolkien’s world, while certainly sophisticated, provided nothing of substance to his readers. That reviewer stated that Tolkien was destined to be forgotten since his books did not appeal entirely to children or entirely to adults. All who would like to be a fool for posterity…fire away at this series, but at least read the book before you review it!


Keith M Ellis 07.08.03 at 6:25 pm

I am also reminded of critics of Tolkien who only read “The Hobbit”. It’s my strong impression that Rowling is aging the style of writing of the books along with her characters. This most recent book is an altogether different thing than the first.

Are there better books? Well, yes. Are Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” books better? Yes. (Excepting the tiresome polemical nature of the third.) Is Rowling often clumsy and is much of her work derivative? Yes again.

But I don’t understand why people embrace the philosophy of “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. I prefer to let things be what they are, to judge them by appropriate standards. After all, I’ve read most of the western canon (indeed, my education was the so-called “Great Books” education)….if this were my standard against which all other books were judged, I’d have very little to read.

In a world where very few people read books, the fact that in the USA Ann Coulter and Michael Savage can top the bestseller list should give pause to those who fear an imminent intellectual apocalypse as a result of the popularity of Harry Potter. There are, quite simply, more important things to worry about.


withheld 07.08.03 at 7:21 pm

It’s sour grapes all the way. Why do they read Harry Potter, asks the intellectual literateur, instead of reading *ME*???

Well, Mr. Intellectual, it’s because they want to know if Voldemort zaps Harry at the end. It’s because they care what happens to the Harry character.

BTW, I read the first Earthsea book (back in my twenties, probably a mistake) and thought it was OK, but being a Latino I didn’t care too much for LeGuin’s patronizing of the brown people. I like Harry Potter books best.


Chad Orzel 07.08.03 at 8:00 pm

I’ve read all five of the Harry Potter books, and was seriously disappointed in the last volume. At the end of the fourth book, I thought Rowling had set things up for some really interesting advances in the story and characters, but the next book dropped back into the same plot ruts as the previous books. The plot continues to be driven by the fact that nobody talks to anybody else, Snape is still unremittingly awful to Harry, there’s still no war against the Dark Powers.

The only real progress in the fifth book is that Harry becomes Petulant Teen Boy, and spends most of the book in a snit. It’s a convenient excuse for the “no communication” plot engine, but not exactly pleasant reading.

The end of the fifth book looks like it’s set things up for really interesting developments in the future, but then that’s what I thought at the end of the last book…


John Cole 07.08.03 at 8:09 pm

The problem with people like A.S. Byatt is that everything in the world has to conform to her perception of its role, otherwise it was a waste, or a tragedy, or not doing enough. You almost feel like she thinks the books are being used as school texts.

It is a book- a light, easy to read, fictional series of stories that have delighted millions around the world. Precisely what else it supposed to do? Lighten up, and go home and make your mate miserable, Ms. Byatt. Let the rest of us enjoy our leisurely pursuits without your high-minded carping.


Doug 07.08.03 at 9:13 pm

What a killjoy Byatt turns out to be!

And her essay doesn’t pass the “so what” test – no, Harry Potter probably isn’t literature for the ages, and yes, His Dark Materials is deeper – but so what? Y’like ’em, y’dont, it’s not worth the huff. Since there isn’t much to chew on, I don’t see the point of trying to make them carry a great deal of discussion. It’s like saying Jelly Bellies don’t make a full meal. Surely someone as supposedly clever as Byatt can give us something more interesting.


renska 07.08.03 at 9:31 pm

Yes, Rowling’s books are derivative, and yes, she’s not as much a master of prose as some of the other Byatt authors referenced: Cooper, et al. And I confess to having found the popularity of the first installment in the HP series somewhat inexplicable given what else is out there (Diane Wynne Jones is a fave, Margaret Mahy is awesome, and I did enjoy Pullman’s Golden Compass but thought the following two books in the His Dark Materials series were, in this order, “okay” and “not quite dreadful”).

On the other hand, what Byatt has missed is the complexity of what JKR is trying to accomplish (I agree with those people who think that Byatt can’t have read Order of the Phoenix and still have written that review).

In the case of the first book, Byatt is correct, more-or-less. The novel does seem to be pure wish fulfillment, and the wizarding world seems to be a splendid alternative to the mundane world of the Dursleys. Slowly, however, it’s becoming apparent that this is not the case; that the wizarding world is very flawed; that predjudice abounds; that authority figures are fallible.

One example: in the first novel, we learn that Hagrid did something wrong. In the second, we learn that he was found guilty of raising a “monster” that caused the death of a student (he wasn’t, in fact, guilty). In the latest installment, it’s implied that Hagrid was scapegoated, not simply because he had a habit of raising dangerous creatures, but because he’s not fully human. Much easier to believe the nasty halfbreeds do the damage and that a good human wizard (i.e., Tom Riddle AKA Voldemort) would never do such a thing. This is actually one of the books’ more subtle lessons; the others are applied with the equivalent of an anvil.

What’s happening is that, as Harry matures, his perception matures. The books mature, too, well past the point of mere wish fulfillment. For that reason, I admire what JKR is trying to do, though I do sometimes think that her reach extends further than her grasp. Still, the HP books are not happy-happy joy-joy pap. Byatt needs to examine her biases.


YT 07.08.03 at 9:46 pm

Byatt: the books don’t have any counterbalancing concern with the serious things of life.

Henry: It has very little to say about the awkward in-between stages in which children become teenagers and then adults.

I think that somebody should have to prove they know what they’re talking about, before being paid to criticise it. Nobody who’d read Book 5 could possibly take this seriously. One of the central focusses of that installment is exactly the awkward, often painful, process of growing up, including everything from puberty to learning that heroes have feet of clay.

The other main aspect of the plot is how the students deal with how their lives are affected by the creeping tyranny of the Department of Magic
and its institutional denial that the main bad guy poses any sort of a threat. Not exactly shiny-happy-kiddy stuff.

I suppose that it might not be mature enough for Ms. Byatt until Harry gets into a dysfunctional marriage with Cho Chang, then has a secret, torrid affair with Hermione, which induces Ron to suicide, and leaves Hermione knocked up with Harry’s love child, which she gives birth to in the middle of nowhere, and lives the rest of her life a miserable fallen woman living on the sufferance of her Muggle family. Such silly things as a battle against government tyranny and the forces of darkness are such kid’s stuff.

What. Ever.


Ruth Feingold 07.08.03 at 10:08 pm

Hmm… so much to respond to.

First of all, a note about the nature of criticism: one can be, as Henry puts it, “splendidly caustic” without suffering from sour grapes — just as one can be lavish in one’s praise without having utterly surrendered one’s power of judgement. It’s possible to like or dislike something on aesthetic, emotional, or psychological grounds and provide good reasons why; ad hominum (or, in this case, ad feminam — take note, A.S. Byatt is a woman) attacks, however, don’t do much to advance the discussion.

Although I’ve read Potters 1-4, and am planning to read 5, I agree with Byatt on a number of points (although, as a practitioner of cultural studies, I strongly disagree with others). When I first read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I was disappointed by what I felt was an utter lack of magic. Yes, all the trappings of “magic” — witches, spells, mythical beasts — were there, but very little of the force behind them. If I were classifying the novel, I’d put it not so much with fantasy as with boarding school stories — a perfectly respectable sub-genre, mind you, but not what I’d been expecting or desiring. Should what I was expecting be the ultimate arbiter of quality? Obviously not — yet, as Rowling’s works are generally compared to other children’s fantasy novels, this disjunction (which other readers, such as Byatt, report feeling as well) is worth taking note of.

Many other novels Rowling’s are compared to are loosely drawn from the Mabinogian or legends of King Arthur, which gives them a certain mythic quality; virtually all set up a clear battle for supremacy between forces of Good and Evil. Yes, Voldemort is a bad man, and his associates are pretty unprincipled as well, but I seldom get the sense that they’re truly EVIL — the physical manifestation thereof. This, I think, is what Byatt is talking about when she mentions “seriousness,” and says that “Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.” When I read Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, I know that if Susan and Colin don’t suceed in their quest, the world will effectively end. Ditto for Will in The Dark is Rising, Lyra in His Dark Materials, and the protagonists of many other children’s fantasy novels I’ve read (and reread) and loved. Probably some people get this sense of urgency from Rowling; I don’t.

Another aspect of many classic children’s fantasy works is that they pull ordinary children into a world — either a real, physical place, or a community of characters — that is fundamentally different than the place that they left. The children find out that in this world they’re extraordinary, not ordinary; they must learn to master an entirely new way of thinking and behaving; they’re often thrust into much more adult roles than they would occupy at home. Harry Potter fits this description in many ways, of course — except that his new world really ISN’T all that different from his old one. Like I said before, the novels are boarding school stories, and many of the things Harry must adapt to are only slightly ramped up versions of what any kid has to learn in a new school setting (is the Potions master hating you really any different from the Math teacher hating you?). As Byatt says, Hogwarts “is a caricature of the real world, where much of the evil “is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.” The parallels work because they’re funny, not because they’re magical.

The Potter novels have definitely gotten darker as they go along, which makes me like them more, but it still seems to me that the basic premise — a wizarding school, where one goes to master the tricks of the trade — works to demystify magic, to make it mundane and everyday. It also strips children’s fantasy of another important element: the notion that, in this alternate world, children are somehow more empowered, more knowledgable, more fundamentally in touch with what’s going on than the clueless grownups they leave behind. Instead, at Hogwarts, the children are in training to BECOME the adults that surround them.

Which leads us back to the question of whether, as Henry argues, “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.” Sol says that Cooper’s books are “utterly unsexual”; I assume, though, that what Henry’s referring to is that fact that Will comes into his power on his 11th birthday — so that his acquisition of power is, precisely, a marker of adolescence.

There’s a good argument to be made for the idea that children’s magical fantasies are fundamentally all about adolescence: you’re on the dividing line between two worlds, and don’t always have control over your movement back and forth between them; in the old world you’re a child, but in the new one you’re powerful and adult; etc., etc. A number of writers — Garner (The Moon of Gomrath, in particular), L’Engle, and Margaret Mahy, for example — are even pretty explicit about the coincidence of sexual puberty and magical ability.

Interestingly, though, there’s just as strong a tradition for having magic be the provenance of childhood, something the protagonists abandon — or grow out of — as they get older. In P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins books, for example, the baby Barbara can understand the speech of birds up until the point, I believe, that she first starts speaking to people (whatever the marker, the point is that she grows out of this ability). C.S. Lewis’s child protagonists gradually cease visiting Narnia, because they’re too old. There’s often a bittersweet sense of loss in these books when the children have to say goodbye to magic, but also a recognition that growing up means putting childish things aside. After all, if one has grown up successfully, one no longer needs the power that magic provides to disempowered children.

There is a caveat here, however: the “good” grownups in these books, though lacking direct access to magic themselves, generally still believe in it; only the grownups who fail in imagination forget what it was like (to partake in magic; to be a child). Hence Susan, in Lewis’s The Last Battle, who no longer believes in Narnia, because she’s switched her allegiance to lipstick and stockings — the trappings of a sexually aware young woman.

OK — so this is probably longer than anyone wanted to read. But it beats writing what I was supposed to be writing this afternoon…


Demosthenes 07.08.03 at 10:59 pm

Not to distract from the fine points put forward in this thread (including the variation from one book to another, the somewhat more complex storytelling than Rowling is given credit for, the “growth” of the character and whatnot), but Harry Potter’s success shouldn’t be seen in a vacuum. It is, at its heart, a children’s version of Magical Realism: a very different genre than traditional high fantasy. Anybody who’s been within fifty feet of a Neil Gaiman work (or the umpteenillion awards they tend to scoop up, or the endless book signings, etc.) knows how popular the genre is. It would make sense that translating its “look and feel” to the children’s arena, as Rowling did, would be successful.

Oddly enough, by the way, the very reason I think that the series (and the genre) is successful is precisely why it was criticized above: it’s prosaic nature. Magical Realism works (in my opinion) precisely because it manages to minimize the alienness of traditional fantasy- it grafts the fantastical onto the reader’s lives. Neither Harry Potter nor the Sandman (to lift the most popular Gaiman series) are as lyrical as your typical fantasy entry, but they’re much more “plugged into” everyday life, and dangle the possiblity that there really is more to that everyday life than the reader knows about.

(That same concept is why both the Matrix and the X-Files proved so popular. the letter from Hogwarts is essentially the same thing as the phone call from Morpheus- it hints at Something More.)

To borrow Ruth’s expression, it’s “the slightly ramped up” aspect that makes it for me.

Oh, and by the way, Chad: I actually read that as not dissimilar to how a teenager would react to being “snubbed” by such an overt father figure. It got annoying, but that doesn’t make it inaccurate.


Jimmy Doyle 07.09.03 at 12:30 am

I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, but I find it hard to believe that they could be as tedious as Possession.


Henry 07.09.03 at 12:52 am

Way too much to respond to, so I’ll limit myself to a few points. Ruth – you’re exactly right – the bit about Will gaining his powers on his 11th birthday was what I was thinking of in Cooper’s work. The theme comes out much more obviously in Garner’s work – Susan in the Moon of Gomrath, and pretty well everyone in the Owl Service. Your other points are very interesting – esp. the distinction between fantasies of childhood, and fantasies of adolescence. Stephen King’s “It” is a superficially unlikely, but nonetheless genuine candidate for the first category. As is Dan Simmon’s “Summer of Night.” Andrea – I’m one of the very few people in the world who really liked Tehanu – didn’t think much of the follow-ups tho’. To the various critics of AS Byatt – fair enough if you don’t disagree with her, but she doesn’t dismiss children’s literature _tout court_. Indeed, she goes to pains to identify some children’s writers whom she really likes. And they aren’t all critical favorites like Pullman – they include Terry Pratchett, who isn’t precisely fashionable among litterateurs. In short, you’re at perfect liberty to disagree with her tastes – but they’re informed tastes, even if they aren’t shared by everyone. She isn’t dismissing an entire genre unread, as some commenters imply. And she _has_ very obviously read the fifth book; she just finds its attempts to handle adult themes to be ham-handed.


x 07.09.03 at 1:45 am

Is there any published author that hasn’t read the HP books blinded by envy?

The HP books are not perfect by any stretch of the imagination (I don’t think I’ll be re-reading them any time soon), but to call all their readers idiots like this writer does, well…


Chad Orzel 07.09.03 at 3:20 am

Regarding my earlier comments, “Demosthenes” writes:

Oh, and by the way, Chad: I actually read that as not dissimilar to how a teenager would react to being ?snubbed? by such an overt father figure. It got annoying, but that doesn?t make it inaccurate.

I’m not complaining that it was unrealistic or inaccurate, just that it served as an excuse to build another book around an idiot plot (in the sense of “this would be over in ten pages if the characters weren’t acting like idiots”).

Each of the books so far has revolved around a problem that could’ve been solved easily by Dumbledore intervening at an appropriate time, had anybody bothered to talk to him about it. In the first book or two, that’s excusable, but it’s gotten old.

What I’d like to have seen in Book 5 is some sort of problem that legitimately can’t be solved by anybody but Harry. What we got was a new and irritating method of making sure that none of the adults find out about the problem until it’s too late.

The book was redeemed somewhat by having some of the blame for the situation fall onto the adults in the story, and having Dumbledore accept responsibility for treating Harry fairly shabbily. But ten or twenty pages at the end aren’t enough to keep the book from being a huge disappointment.

I think Ruth Feingold raises makes some very good points above. I’ll have to think about those a little more.

(I should also note that I posted my original remarks primarily because the initial responses (of the form “nobody who read the last book could possibly say such things”) were the sort of statements that are perfectly aimed to get my back up. I hadn’t intended to get into another Harry Potter discussion, but I really, really hate the “if you don’t agree with me, you obviously didn’t understand the book” school of argument.)


Timothy Burke 07.09.03 at 3:52 am

I thought it was a fairly bad essay that took some legitimate complaints–the cheerless instrumentalism of the way that cultural studies normalizes popular culture as sociological evidence and actively suppresses a debate about relative merit or quality–and appended those complaints to a fairly sour, banal slam on Rowling whose logic is largely “If it’s popular, it must be horrible”.

The charge that Rowling is derivative is an old one, and it has some modest charge to it: the Potter books are definitely a hodgepodge of multiple familiar narratives. But then, Lord of the Rings was one part Norse mythology, one part high Catholicism: it wasn’t de novo, leaping from Tolkien’s brain like Athena from Zeus.

In fact, strikingly, of the works Byatt cites as superior, many could easily be dismissed as without merit and derivative if the Potter books are. I like The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, too, but it’s hardly flamingly original. And as a couple of other people noted, Cooper’s Dark is Rising series has no “burgeoning sexuality” in it at all that I recall, and pretty fulsomely rips off Arthurian themes. It’s also a good series, by my lights.

Derivative is sometimes a criteria on which I think judgements of meritlessness can be made: I have little hesitation about upbraiding Terry Brooks’ Shannara books for that reason. But it’s a criterion for judging merit that has to be deployed with some care, and Byatt is careless in such a way as to suggest that there’s little more than a curdled, envious and mean=hearted spirit behind the complaint.


Henry 07.09.03 at 4:22 am

I think the point that Byatt is trying to make isn’t really that the Potter books aren’t original, but that they don’t come to life – they don’t have the sense of danger and mystery that the good stuff does. The magic is remarkably unmagical. And here, I think, she has Rowling dead to rights. Byatt isn’t saying “If it’s popular, it must be horrible” at all. She spends a good chunk of the piece extolling Terry Pratchett’s work – he sells millions upon millions in the UK, where Byatt is from (a single figure percentage of all books sold in the UK are Pratchett books), but doesn’t get any critical recognition whatsoever, apart from the occasional sneer-in-passing. In talking up Pratchett, she’s actually taking on the literary snobs. I think that Byatt goes too far in condemning Harry Potter fans – but I also think that she’s right on the merits of the books. They may not be derivative in the Tolkien-by-numbers sense of the Shannara series – but for me at least, they’re dead on arrival, an awkward agglutination of cliches that have no vigor or spark to them. (flame away, aggrieved Potter fans).

On the Susan Cooper/sexuality thing, read Ruth’s post up above. In fact read the comment full stop; imho it’s better than the post.


lindenen 07.09.03 at 4:29 am

“Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.”
See. I disagree with this entirely. Yes, the main characters are Potter, his friends and his family; however, the problem posed by their enemies is something that affects the entire universe of the books. I do honestly feel there is a battle between good and evil happening. In fact, one of the more interesting parts of the most recent book is how it explores the grey areas of life. Harry because of his willful recklessness and temper is partly responsible for the death of someone close to him.

Please don’t judge all the books from the first one. The first Potter book was not that good. The writing has tripled in quality since then.

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.

Statements like these make me believe you’ve never read any of the books. In a couple of the books Harry is ostracized because his classmates think he is killing them. Many of the people at school literally believe he is crazy, a liar and just trying to get attention. The newspaper constantly mocks him as all three.

My mother has taught elementary school for over twenty years. She believes that the books are popular because they are so realistic in the depiction of children, how they talk, interact with one another, etc. Harry Potter reminds me most of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv show.


Doug 07.09.03 at 8:09 am

“When a book sells 5 million hardcover copies in its first day, it’s inevitable that there’s going to be someone who slams it and tells us that what we’re seeing is merely a pop phenomenon that bears no relation to literature. That esteemed gasbag Harold Bloom, in his guise as self-appointed keeper of the canon, did the honors after the fourth Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” telling us that reading should enrich us (without ever getting around to declaring whether it should entertain us) and shortly thereafter launching his own compendium of children’s lit that, in his view, did just that. Right on schedule, just a mere two weeks after the new Harry Potter release, it’s A.S. Byatt, apparently having made peace with Martin Amis’ dental work, who steps into the ring against J.K. Rowling’s books in a New York Times Op-Ed.”

That’s the opening paragraph from “A.S. Byatt and the Goblet of Bile.”

One of the elements I liked best about the first three HP books was seeing how Rowling caught the differences in the main characters as they grew each year. Harry & co are clearly different between 11 and 12 in ways that I only barely remembered being, but was delighted to find on the page.

Some of that has gotten lost as the last two have sprawled. I think the latest would have been much better if it had been about a third shorter. I’m not sure just what I would have cut – didn’t pay careful attention as I whooshed along – but I remember a feeling of wandering in the first half, and didn’t finish with the feeling that everything along the way had been necessary for the ending.

I suspect that’s what has Harry firmly in my good-but-not-great category. Terrific fun, cleverness and humor, but not much art. Candy for the brain.


Chris Young 07.09.03 at 10:02 am

I’m no Rowlingite, but I’m inclined to think Byatt is out of order here. The Potter books may be self indulgent and superficial – so what, does Byatt never read a good whodunnit? And they can’t be more derivative than Tolkien. If they are sold as entertainment, and they entertain, they’re fit for purpose.

But what gets me about this debate is that everyone posting here must be at least in secondary school. Why are *they* reading it? This isn’t point scoring, just genuine puzzlement. Before Rowling came along, did they curl up after work with a copy of Just William, or Swallows and Amazons?


Doug 07.09.03 at 12:05 pm

Hi Chris,

I’m reading Harry Potter because the first three were such great fun. There was cleverness, delight, light satire, and surprising stories well told. I’m also enjoying being part of the pop phenomenon – it’s good fodder for casual conversation. On the NY to London to Munich flight two weeks ago, it was neat to see how many people were reading the books, what kinds of folks were, and whether they had the US or UK editions in hand.

As for what I was reading before HP-5, I’m your basic omnivore, with weaknesses for history, politics and sf/fantasy. The last six months include To Begin Where I Am (Czeslaw Milosz), The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials (Telford Taylor), The Wide Window (Lemony Snicket), Race of Scorpions (Dorothy Dunnett), Reave the Just (Stephen R. Donaldson), The Russia Hand (Strobe Talbott), Moneyball (Michael Lewis), Pattern Recognition (Wm Gibson) and Beyond Belief (V.S. Naipaul). One out-and-out kids’ book in that bunch, but a lot of crossing the alleged high-low divide.

I’m happy to come along for the ride on Harry Potter now, but I’m not quite as thrilled as I was. That’s partly inevitable, since the thrill of discovery is gone, but I do think the last two have been a bit flabby.


Chris Young 07.09.03 at 1:31 pm

Thanks Doug. I wasn’t thinking about them being pop, more that children’s books, however much one loves and admires them, tend not to bear re-reading after a certain age (depending on the book). I think this is because children really do experince the world differently to adults, and the best children’s books accurately reflect this.

I’m sorry they’re getting flabby, though I can’t say I’m surprised. Young’s Postulate of Authorial Inflation states that a given novelist’s books tend to have more pages and fewer ideas as the author’s personal authority grows in proportion to their editor’s.

I first noticed this with Saul Bellow, but it applies equally to Patrick O’Brian or Terry Pratchett. Given the cash power she wields Rowling’s publishers haven’t done badly if they’ve kept her on the straight and narrow for three volumes.


RatherWorried 07.09.03 at 2:57 pm

One last comment about the Potter series. My initial impression after finishing Phoenix was of slight disappointment. I felt it lacked some of the original imagination of the prior books. It is however the most sophisticated plot with far better character growth than any prior book in the series.

This series is very different from every series that has been ponied up for comparison in that the characters are not rapidly changing within a book, they are slowly growing up and as they become more sophisticated understanding the world better. The Ministry of Magic was just as political and nasty an environment in book number 1 but Harry at 11 years old was too young to understand this. If you don’t get this, you’ve missed entirely what Rowling is doing.

As he has grown older the sophistication of the plot lines and the reduction of adult wizards from heros to flawed mortals demonstrates far better control over characterization than any other author of children books that I have ever read, and certainly better than any mentioned by Byatt!

After reading the posts here it became apparent that some readers were looking for a book that Rowling wasn’t interested in trying to write. It also is obviously apparent that some posters need to read the book again (or read it for the first time). I do appreciate the differences in taste that exist and understand that a reader can prefer one writer over another, but the reader needs to try and understand what the author is doing with a book, or in this case a series. The books have nothing whatsoever to do with fantasy or science fiction and increasingly less to do with children’s literature. Rowling is telling a wonderful story that increases in sophistication as her characters have the ability to understand it. It is a pretty unique series.


Emma 07.09.03 at 4:25 pm

Not to interject a muggle comment here, but…has everyone forgotten that the folk that made these books popular were CHILDREN? I heard about Harry Potter from a 9 year old neighbor, who saw my collection of fantasy books and said, “there’s this new one out…” Whatever she does well or badly from our adult standpoint, Rawlings resonates with children. Reading them as adult literature is as misguided as reading Tolkien as religion.

IMHO she continues to “grow” Harry and his friends very well indeed.She walks them through feelings of loneliness, otherness, fear of abandonment, the anger at being abandoned, the discovery of parents as human beings, and the headiness of the nerdy runt finding out he was good at something. AND the growing up into sexual beings. I knew this latest one was going to be popular with kids the moment I wanted to slam Harry against the wall for being such an obnoxious git…


clew 07.09.03 at 9:32 pm

Byatt not only defends Pratchett, but judging by her own novels – _A Whistling Woman_ most recently – she thinks Tolkien is valuable. She is not an automatic pop-loather.

The charge against Rowlings that sticks hardest is that her magic isn’t an enlargement of the world; it’s a lot more like next year’s consumer electronics, or a game of Pokemon. It should at least be as gripping as research electronics, for heaven’s sake; but that’s much harder to write. Think of the difference between bad and good nature writing. (Similarly, it may be impossible to film the exaltation of computer hacking, so we get third-water kung fu instead.)

So, if they aren’t really books about magic, they’re boarding-school stories, and they aren’t that far from other boarding school stories: I think the more-complex-as-the-characters-age is not unprecedented (Camp Fire Girls?).

I find them mildly enjoyable, though I think I enjoy them mostly because so many other people are reading and writing about them. I read some of the better fanfic first, and the diffraction halo of wildly conflicting interpretations makes the simple originals a lot more interesting.

But I can’t say they’re unusually good; say I broke my knees and wept like a woman, but I will not swear. There’s a lot of everything that isn’t very good but still justifies its existence by bringing people happiness. Only if one lies about it and claims that it must be just as good as anything else anybody likes is it dangerous. I know there are arguments for that last claim; a lot of what’s hitting Byatt is not argument, but the fretful belief that anything that does not echo one’s choices is a personal attack.


Avedon 07.10.03 at 12:40 am

I think Rowling is really slick with exposition and I also think there was always some darkness in her work. Prisoner gave me nightmares.

I read the first one because I like good fantasy/sf kidfic and I wanted to see what the buzz was about. I read the rest because I liked the first. And I think Geoff Ryman is right when he says there’s nothing wrong with escapist fantasy.

But I don’t think HP is purely escapist. I think there are a lot of issues that people – not just kids – have to deal with that are usefully illustrated in these stories, and I’m not the least bit disturbed that so many kids are having their little adventures in these books. I also note that once kids find their way to the fantasy shelves for HP, they are also discovering Diana Wynne Jones and a number of other good fantasy authors, which is good for them and for us.

Never did think much of Byatt’s articles, though.


Paul 07.10.03 at 5:16 pm

I think Byatt’s article is flawed for a whole bunch of reasons, not least of them being the unnecessary psychobabble–ironically followed by the truly insane assertion that the Tolkein books are devoid of sexuality. She needs to look again at the Frodo/Sam/Gollum triangle. But I do agree that something is oddly lacking for me about these books.

I would write all this off as a matter of personal preference were in not for the near-religious devotion that these books have inspired.

I think part of the reason why these books are so insanely popular with some people is that they are primarily derivative not of fantasy children’s novels like the Narnia series but of a body of literature, boarding school novels, which many people, especially in America, aren’t really familiar with. So perhaps it seems them like an extremely clever, “magical-realist” approach to the child’s fantasy novel, where to me is seems like a relatively pedestrian boarding school novel with a Saturday morning cartoon sort of magic grafted on — the game they play (forget the name), for example, is really just the obligatory cricket match on broomsticks.

The magic in these books also seems oddly…technological. The broomsticks have even have brand names. This may be a clever attempt to appeal to a generation that associates magic most closely with their Playstation, but it leaves me cold.


ogged 07.11.03 at 12:11 am

Just a couple of brief points: as some people have all but said, the fact that there’s magic in the books doesn’t make them fantasies. The proper comparison, in my frame of reference, is Judy Blume.

Second, we shouldn’t confuse the popularity of the books as measured in sales with the popularity of the books as measured by individual devotion. I’m an adult and I read and enjoy them, but a large part of my enjoyment is participating in the mass phenomenon.

Ok, I can’t resist a little substantial defense. Severus Snape is a great character. A man who has turned from evil without becoming in any way soft or likable (which distinguishes him not just from likable heroes, but the stock gruff-but-heart-of-gold characters in so many books and movies). I think you have to go to “respectable” adult literature to find a similarly challenging portrayal.


John Casey 07.11.03 at 3:21 am

Two of the things I like about HP:

1. Harry inhabits an absolutely Godless universe. No one has ever attended a religious service of any sort at any time, nor taken a deity’s name in vain or otherwise. Why have I not seen this remarked upon elsewhere?

2. ‘Magic’ isn’t. It’s technic. It’s accessible to anyone with a basic knack, and can be learned. Not unlike C++, I suppose.

I suffer from an overdeveloped need to know what happened, so I zoom through books driven to uncover plot. So I read them again, more slowly, to see who happened, and where it happened, etc. Harry Potter is rewarding in this way.



biz 07.11.03 at 3:28 am

This latest book is going to warp some young minds but good. I heartily endorse it. What other children’s literature teaches you that newspapers are lies and you can’t trust the government? (Outside of “The Snarkout Boys and the Avacodo of Death” by Pinkwater that is…”


Danny Yee 07.11.03 at 9:14 am

Another good read for those not overcome by the hype is Philip Hensher’s review in the Spectator.

I’ve only read the first two Harry Potter books (review of the first), but I think Byatt (and Hensher) are reasonably balanced and pretty much spot-on.


chand 07.11.03 at 6:34 pm

I think this thread has drifted from its starting point. Byatt’s op-ed piece is an expression of her inability to imagine how a book could be simultaneously popular with children and adults. She rhetorically asks, “Surely one precludes the other?”
My daughter, now almost 17, taught herself to read. She did so because her mother was taking too long getting through Laura Ingells Wilder’s Little House series. My son, now 9, taught himself to read because we were too slow with the Harry Potter books – we were only able to deliver a chapter per night. The whole family read these books aloud to eachother (is that too “Leave it to Beaver” for you all or what?). Both series are remarkable in that they can engross children and adults. Some adults still get enjoy things most often associated with children. I prefer to characterize this as ‘childlike’ rather than Byatt’s pejorative “childish.”
This leads me to the major problem with Byatt’s essay; it is so insulting. Although my son is a bit of an exception, none of the rest of my family watch cartoons, and none of us watch “the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.” To characterize the millions who read Potter books thus is simple cultural bigotry. She is not unique in this; I myself felt something like righteous indignation welling up in me at being associated with soap opera watchers. But this is the point. Rather than focus on the Potter books, her critique is aimed at their readers. She writes that adults that read Potter books “regress” or are “reverting”, are ignorant of a “real sense of mystery,” and are of limited imagination. It is hard to feel that any of these are meant as compliments. It is Byatt that personalizes the issue and that is why so many are responding to her piece.
For this reason, I think that Byatt is reacting to the Potter books in more than a simply academic way – it must be personal for her as well. I can psychobabble with the best and speculate that Byatt is cut off from her ‘inner child.’ But perhaps she is one of those adults, who for whatever reason doesn’t really like kids. The ones who go to dinner parties and ignore those shrieking whirlwinds except if their wineglass is imperiled. I don’t imagine she ever gets down on the floor and plays anymore, but I may be wrong. It may be that she is envious of Ms. Rawlings material success or it may be an ideological disagreement. Byatt writes that “being taught literature often destroys the life of the books.” She implicates “dumbing down and cultural studies” as part of the problem but also states that even before the modern era, there were problems with the literature establishment. (As an aside, cultural studies, along with political correctness are convenient scapegoats as are often taken to extremes. They are reactions to institutionalized racism and state patriarchy, however, so critics should honestly examine their own motivations prior to casting stones.) Clearly Byatt most highly values “amazing sentences.” But in the absence of a good plot, why not write poetry?


cafl 07.14.03 at 5:35 am

AS Byatt in the Guardian last December on fairy tales, magic, and the deficiency of the modern imagination:,12084,865620,00.html

She covers the same territory as her HP review.

Despite being the mother of four, I think she doesn’t spend much time around children.


Ruth 07.14.03 at 7:48 am

This is a paltry observation, but I can’t help but remark on Ms. Feingold’s observation (and Mr. Farrell’s enthusiastic second) about Susan Cooper: “Sol says that Cooper’s books are “utterly unsexual”; I assume, though, that what Henry’s referring to is that fact that Will comes into his power on his 11th birthday — so that his acquisition of power is, precisely, a marker of adolescence.”

I am confused that this is remarked upon in this context as a way to distinguish Cooper from Rowling, because Potter too comes into his power and knowledge precisely on his eleventh birthday.


Ruth Feingold 07.14.03 at 2:47 pm

Given the now-complicated set of nesting posts, I’m not sure which context “ruth,” above, is talking about (my comment? Sol’s comment? Henry’s post? Byatt’s article?). Just for the record, I want to make it clear that I didn’t take a position on whether the Rowling books are sexual or asexual (or, more precisely, whether they do or do not link magic in any way to sexuality/potential sexuality). And yes, the fact that Harry’s chronologically on the cusp of adolescence when he gets invited to Hogwarts does seem like an indicator that Rowling may be following the puberty=magic line; at any event, she’s certainly not reserving magic for children alone.

Actually, given the real-world parallels Rowling creates in other areas, one could probably make a convincing argument for magic as being a metaphor for sexuality in her books: they start making you learn about it in school when you’re old enough to understand it, but you’re not allowed to actually USE it till you’re an adult — and if you rebel and do dabble in it, even if you have good reasons, they prosecute you for practicing while underage. Sound familiar?

This doesn’t exactly tap into the mysterious powers of sexuality, and puberty’s associations with change (a la Mahy’s Changeover, for example) — but it sure as hell fits in with Rowling’s overall take on the power structure.


dan 07.16.03 at 10:00 pm

The ambivalence of our age’s communication technology, the displacement of writing and reading, and the overwhelming influences of Consumerism feed the fires of the debate over Rawlings and Byatt.

Yet, from the written page’s ashes, Rawling like Fawkes seems to rise with a flash of enthusiasm inpired in bright children and some gray adults.


G. DeeDee 08.06.03 at 7:56 pm

Thank you Henry,

I don’t know you, but I like you all the same.

” Byatt isn’t saying “If it’s popular, it must be horrible” at all. She spends a good chunk of the piece extolling Terry Pratchett’s work – he sells millions upon millions in the UK, where Byatt is from (a single figure percentage of all books sold in the UK are Pratchett books), but doesn’t get any critical recognition whatsoever, apart from the occasional sneer-in-passing. ”

This what I have been waiting and praying for someone, with a louder voice than my own, to say. Byatt has clearly read the book. She’s also written a few. Even if you don’t like her work, she’s still a respected academic with the creds and the chops to make the criticisms she does. She has no reason to look at her Booker and think, “I wish I were Joanne Rowling”. I am sure she doesn’t lack either praise or cash.

The fact that many have dismissed Byatt’s comments as literary snobbery made me worry that none of these readers had ever even heard of Terry Pratchett. Did they just skim over that name and think “must be some boring high minded tripe”? I admit I’m not much of a fantasy reader in general, but I do know who he is. Any reader of fantasy would. Good Omens is hardly considered Ivory Tower Library material. But it is hilarious. So if the only fantasy (magical realism or otherwise) that you have read is Potter, then how can you judge what fantasy can be?

So thanks for saying what has been bugging me since I’ve started reading reactions to Byatt’s article. She’s not jealous. She’s not against popular books. She just wants us to start thinking again. Order of the Phoenix was enough to get me thinking again. It got me wondering why I even liked Potter.

The answer – Byatt was right about one thing. I liked it because it was mindless entertainment. However, that being said I like mindless entertainment. I think for a living and it nice to have someone else entertain me for a while. . But Phoenix attempts to be so much more which is why it fails. It fails because underneath the boarding school romp there wasn’t anything more important to tackle. So yes, Phoenix deals with sexual feelings, government control, mortality and the media. But it doesn’t do any of those things well.

There are few good scenes. The one with Molly over her dead children is good. However, to get those one or two good moments (not great mind you) I had to slog through hundreds of pages of preachy, uninspired dreck of teenage melodrama and one-dimensional political musings. Those adult themes are simply ham fisted in the extreme.

You see the trick of a great book is that after thinking up relevant themes (adult or otherwise) the author has to then to write about them with insight. Rowling hardly ever achieves anything even passable in her latest. When she does, it is not enough to garner praise for the book as a whole. This book shrank rather than expanded Rowling’s secondary world by having it be duller than the real world (enchanted paper airplanes are nothing when you’ve seen oldfashioned communication tubes at work – that is magic!) and having her experienced adults behave as though they had received lobotomies over the summer. The magical world has become as dull as Rowling’s literary style always was. The thestrals (and no I am not capitalizing it because I don’t capitalize ‘dog’ either) both say nothing and symbolize even less. They are exactly what Byatt means when she claims the world is only dangerous because Rowling says it is. Rowling has tamed her wild beasts as used them as carriage horses. In addition, they say nothing about how death changes a person who sees it. That is because Rowling isn’t a particularly subtle or insightful writer (I’m tempted to say ‘thinker’. But I really don’t know her. Bad writers can also be incredibly intelligent and insightful people. She is probably both.). That is fine. She’s not into the darker mysteries of life. But if you aren’t able to conceptualize the profound, don’t try to write about it. Be the Candace Bushnell of kid’s fantasy. Stay shallow.

Rowling I suspect has nothing to add to the myth and reality of the teenage landscape. Will I keep reading? Maybe. But I am not going to pay for the privilege.

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