ROLE REVERSAL

I'm pretty happy with this blog. I write long, rambling brain-dumps and the astute readers leave succinct comments. Today – partly because I'm still sick as shit and partly because it fits the issue – we shall reverse the roles.

I don't get Harry Potter. Someone explain the Harry Potter thing to me. Really. Please. I'm begging. I understand why children flip out over these things, but watching adults go bat-shit insane over what is essentially a new version of the same kind of story told in children's literature for 200 years is….disturbing. You can go on and on about what fabulous writing this is, and I will not believe you. You can tell me how creative and original the story is, and you will be wrong.

I picked up one of the novels way back when the fad first started, and I was absolutely bored shitless after about 50 pages. There was nothing wrong with it, but I was 23 and reading a book intended for 9 year olds. I really shouldn't have been entertained by it any more than I should be entertained by Sesame Street. There ended my experiment with the "novels", although I did have the colossal misfortune of seeing two of the films against my will. Calling them "unwatchable" is exceptionally generous.

Methinks this is just another example of the power of mass hysteria combined with the sad, sad fact that adult America reads at approximately a 4th-grade level. So please, Harry Potter fans (zing!), explain this to me.

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19 Responses to “ROLE REVERSAL”

  1. Mike Says:

    No matter how old I am, the kid at 0:40 will always entertain me…

    The only Harry Potter video I ever found any interest in was this one:

  2. Christina Says:

    Sheep!? Jerk! May the RMSF fairy visit you with a nasty trip to the bathroom. RMSF does cause that, right? All the best diseases do. (That's a rhetorical question, btw.)

    I can't speak for anyone else but me. I like them, but not because they are great fiction, anymore than I read romance novels or most sci-fi b/c they are great fiction. They are books that one can read without deep thought, which after working two jobs and housework and children and bill paying and errand running and….well, you get the idea. I'm exhausted and Faulkner is just going to be words on a page to me.

    Not only that, but reading the HP series out loud to my daughter got her excited about reading and now (at 15) she reads voraciously. I'm reading them aloud to my son (6) now and he's getting into the story just as she did. Maybe he'll be a reader too. Besides, that was/is really quality time spent with my kids and furthers my fondness for the books themselves.

    The HP series is written in a more modern vocabulary than the other stories of its kind like the Chronicles of Narnia or JRR Tolkein's stuff. I'm sure the voice was common for the time in which they were written but for kids now the language seems archaic. Shit, I seem archaic to my kids.

    And the fourth and final reason, it pisses off the wingnuts. Anything that pisses off the wingnuts must be good, by definition.

  3. Pat Says:

    I've read the books. You're right, it's not great literature. Each one needs a more strict editor, one who will excise about 100 – 200 unnecessary pages from the later books and make her stop using such clumsy sentence structure. Say what you mean, and omit needless words, JK.

    However, as the series progresses, she exhibits an actual, mature understanding of good and evil. No single character is pure this or pure that. All of the "good guys" are tempted to be bad, and all of the bad guys have redeeming qualities. I'm not saying it's Shakespeare, but it's more that Tom Clancy accomplishes.

  4. Matthew Says:

    The wide and deep appeal of the Harry Potter series is probably going to remain something of a mystery for all time. Even though I'm the last one to argue in favor of aesthetic objectivity, I will agree that Rowling's prose is merely sturdy and serviceable and her plotting is just barely clever enough not to be annoyingly predictable. I don't think that anyone will argue that this stuff is Ulysses.

    That said, it is hugely, enormously, unbelievably popular. Even among people who should probably know better. I work with a lot of smart, bookish people at my job, and about 70% of them bought the book within 12 hours of its release. Why? I don't pretend to have the answer, but I have my theories.

    HP is perfectly escapist. It takes place in an idealized version of adolescence, first of all. As Fitzgerald said, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Second, there's a pretty clear-cut division of good guys and bad guys. No one's going to deny the easy appeal of a Manichean morality. And finally, it takes place in a literally magical world. It's a triumvirate of escapism – escapism which most people cannot escape, so to speak. Here is a comic on the subject, expressing the appeal quite succinctly: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2003/06/25

    That said, I think that HP would not have become the global cultural phenomenon that it is if it had come out 20 years earlier. The Potter-fires were stoked by a zealous internet fanbase, and this cult is really more interesting than the books. Partly because they're doing really interesting, unusual things as readers. Even discounting fanfic, I've seen so many people discussing HP in the context of pretty unusual critical frameworks. I can assure you that JK had never considered 98% of these readings. I don't consider myself a real member of that group, but I peek on in them with quite a bit of curiosity from time to time.

    As a final point, I'm afraid that I have to call bullshit on you, just a little bit. Since I have a conveniently relative philosophy of literary appreciation, it does not shock me that this is something you are not inclined to enjoy. Like the time you derided the Gnarls Barkley cover of a Violent Femmes song without really having much affection for the original anyway, I'm willing to bet that you never really cared for any of Rowling's precursors at all. Britishy-themed fantasy fiction aimed at children (and the children in all of us) doesn't seem like it would be your bag – and it probably never was! I bet little 8-year old Ed was already reading Proust and Kafka (and Kundera? perhaps…), so you don't have a period in your past that these books fondly recall, which a lot of people do.

    There's nothing wrong with that of course. And I could be completely missing the mark, but that's my theory. It's tougher to come up with an explanation if you have an objective theory of literary merit, because then you just have to believe that everybody (EVERYBODY) who bought and read the Harry Potter books is wrong, somehow. And that's quite a task!

  5. Rick Says:

    THANK YOU for this post, Ed. I can't for the life of me understand why Harry Potter is the only reason America reads books these days. I refuse to read any of the series, simply out of principle.

  6. Tom Says:

    What's to explain, dipshit? I'd be pretty suspicious of the mental health of anyone who can break down exactly what is appealing to them about everything they like. Sometimes an enjoyable book is just an enjoyable book, without the need for a postmodern strokefest of analysis. At least this one has provided you with another outlet for your bottomless fountain of smugness and disapproval, so you're probably as grateful for its existence as the fans. Don't get me wrong, I usually find your pissy rants very entertaining and often extremely insightful. But you still seem like a bit of a tool, today more than most days.

  7. Mike Says:

    The poor state of the middlebrow! Can't one enjoy a book without having to immediately follow it with the insecure "I know I know I'm sorry it isn't __fill in Modernist here__ whom I should be reading…"?

    For comments: I don't think it takes place in an "idealized version of adolescence" (with the parents, godfathers and mentors dying all over the place), and it is less Manichean than LOTR (and has girls too!). Some people bitch that the magic, following Tolkien, isn't anti-modern enough – that the magicians seem perfectly comfortable with trains and London and aren't mini-Byrons communing too much with Nature or Eliot's narrator seeing the Inferno in London's Banking District. That's fine by me (I find that lamenting-the-rise-of-Man stuff in Tolkien the archaic part).

    [That fact may turn it into sci-fi/fantasy lite (or for the masses), which is again fine by me.]

    As for me, I think the 3rd book (and movie) gets a really good grasp of what it is like to be a student, and have teachers who inspire, terrorize, or bore you; the other books hit that with varying degrees. And I find the plot/action/turnarounds-at-the-end working just fine for me. I've found myself sad when characters die, and surprised by the various twists.

    The part that was "gee-whiz-oh-look-magic-jelly-beans!" about itself was ditched entirely by the 3rd book as well, which was the part that was annoying (and distinctly for 4th graders).

    What is the same kind of story being told for 200 years? I read 33% Tolkien + 33% Britian Boarding School novel + 33% geek culture more generally into the book, all less than 60 years old.

  8. Samantha Says:

    How funny is it that I have only just now gotten out of bed, where I have been [recovering from a hangover] since I woke up this morning, reading the fourth book in the Harry Potter series?

    I read a lot, and I read a wide variety of stuff – historical biographies, poetry (new and old), Tolkein, Varley, Hesse, political non-fiction, pop psychology crap, etc..

    I've even tried reading some of my 9-year-old daughter's other longish books, and, quite understandably, they don't hold my interest. But HP does for a lot of reasons:

    1. The books remind me of what it was like to be a kid in school and how much I enjoyed learning new stuff. I was a little nerdy, I guess.

    2. As simple as it sounds, even as an adult, seeing Harry and his friends try difficult things – from diving for a snitch at quidditch to facing death by dementors – and get through them is sort of inspirational.

    3. It's MAGIC! They have WANDS! They can cast SPELLS!

    4. The line between good and evil is not so rigidly drawn, but it is definitely there. Rowling is great at illustrating how following the rules does not necessarily mean you are doing the right thing.

    5. Harry is hot.

    But, hey, if Harry Potter isn't your bag, then don't read it.

  9. Samantha Says:

    P.S. For the record, I still think Sesame Street is funny. Granted, they've dumbed it down significantly over the last 10 years or so, but it's still one of the best kid shows around.

  10. J. Dryden Says:

    At the risk of subjecting Ed's already tender frame to a nausea-inducing bout of "Oh but it appeals to the kid in all of us," I'm afraid I'll have to. I'll try to be dryly academic about it.

    I would suggest that it's precisely *because* it's 'for kids' that adults have been drawn to it–that is, reading Harry Potter reminds us of the first time we read C.S. Lewis or Lloyd Alexander or R.L. Stevenson. We don't *relish* the immaturity of it, either self-consciously or not.

    Analogy: I'm still enthusiastic about the original STAR WARS precisely because I was a kid when I first saw it–I haven't discovered 'inner depths' or 'meanings' that, let's face it, aren't there in any event–it's simply that when I see it, I'm that kid again. (OK, yes, that was nauseating, and I'll stop.)

    To echo Christina: It's precisely because it so resembles the stories we read as children that we pick it up and–you can either view this as pathetic or not–relive that unfiltered enjoyment of narrative that we lost somewhere around the time we first read Salinger, and began to to focus on style over content.

    (Her point about the wingnuts is especially well-taken. To quote the shudder-inducing Becky Fisher in JESUS CAMP: "Let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are the enemies of God! And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God and had it been in the old testament Harry Potter would have been put to death!" Anything that pisses such people off *must* be a good thing.)

    Plus which, Samantha's right: Magic is cool, goddammit! And it gives those of us who had to take Latin an excuse to be smug about recognizing the derivation of all the spell-names.

  11. J. Dryden Says:

    At the risk of subjecting Ed's already tender frame to a nausea-inducing bout of "Oh but it appeals to the kid in all of us," I'm afraid I'll have to. I'll try to be dryly academic about it.

    I would suggest that it's precisely *because* it's 'for kids' that adults have been drawn to it–that is, reading Harry Potter reminds us of the first time we read C.S. Lewis or Lloyd Alexander or R.L. Stevenson. We don't *relish* the immaturity of it, either self-consciously or not.

    Analogy: I'm still enthusiastic about the original STAR WARS precisely because I was a kid when I first saw it–I haven't discovered 'inner depths' or 'meanings' that, let's face it, aren't there in any event–it's simply that when I see it, I'm that kid again. (OK, yes, that was nauseating, and I'll stop.)

    To echo Christina: It's precisely because it so resembles the stories we read as children that we pick it up and–you can either view this as pathetic or not–relive that unfiltered enjoyment of narrative that we lost somewhere around the time we first read Salinger, and began to to focus on style over content.

    (Her point about the wingnuts is especially well-taken. To quote the shudder-inducing Becky Fisher in JESUS CAMP: "Let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are the enemies of God! And I don't care what kind of hero they are, they're an enemy of God and had it been in the old testament Harry Potter would have been put to death!" Anything that pisses such people off *must* be a good thing.)

    Plus which, Samantha's right: Magic is cool, goddammit! And it gives those of us who had to take Latin an excuse to be smug about recognizing the derivation of all the spell-names.

  12. J. Dryden Says:

    Double-post. I'm an idiot. Apologies.

  13. Kreggg Says:

    Am I the only one who noticed Harry Potter on does one magical trick in the whole first movie? One!!! and that is before he goes to magic school.

  14. -h Says:

    I was originally turned off when my ex suggested I pick up a copy (1st book) because: "it's really good, even my dad and mom are into it". I guess you'd have to know them, but for me, that's all I needed to hear…

    And what continues to turn me off: the craze, hysteria, dorky fans in costume, and live reports on the evening "news" about the craze, hysteria, and dorky fans in costumes.

    Seriously, here's all I know about HP and pals:

    1) Central character is some kid named Harry Potter

    2) His closest associates are two guys and one girl? (I'm basing that on what I picked up watching SNL… the girl's name starts with H, I think)

    3) The "bad guy" is Voldemort (I only know that one because someone gave me a "Republicans for Voldemort" bumper sticker in 2004 and had to explain it to me when I told them I didn't get it).

    When it comes to HP, I'm happy changing the channel, looking away, etc. It's one of only 2 or 3 things that I'm completely happy to be totally ignorant about.

    This is in fact the most I've ever read/written about the topic. I feel dirty.

  15. Nick Says:

    I think what makes Harry Potter appealing is that you don't have to worry about phrases like "the easy appeal of a Manichean morality" popping up when you're just trying to read something fun before you go to bed. It's the literary equivalent of the Transporter movies. Genius/groundbreaking/deep? Not in the slightest. Entertaining, enjoyable, and worth a few bucks? Definitely.

  16. Peggy Says:

    I think Matthew pretty much beat me to everything I wanted to say, and what he missed, Christina and Nick got.

    As far as objective aesthetics go, I don't think Rowling is a very good author. Her constructions are wonky, her plots are not really that tricksy, etc. etc. HOWEVER–she is a great *storyteller*. She's good at taking archetypes and familiar ideas (school/teachers) and themes (longing for family, feeling like a stranger in the world, etc) and mixing them all up in a way that's interesting and new.

    I read them because I enjoy the story; I'm not saying it's enlightening, but, then again, I eat a lot of delicious things that aren't exactly health food.

    As for the adults that go batshit: I think there's an element of connecting with kids; there's an element of "the chapters are short, so I feel real smart!"; there's an element of nostalgia; there's an element of being part of something big, a trend–something that's exciting and new and not mundane.

    I mean, how many other crappy serialized novels have excited people's interest like this, only to be forgotten 20 years later? I'm not saying I think the HP fad will have disappeared by 2030, but I do think it's not an unprecedented thing for a lot of people to be swept away by 1)escapism and 2)escapism with friends.

    Also: yeah, the first two films did suck incredibly. I actually think #5 had the editor that the #5 book needed, though, because it cut out rather a lot of the chaff.

  17. Dave Says:

    At least it's not The Da Vinci Code.

  18. SwissToni Says:

    It gets kids reading. How can this not be a good thing?

    Having said that, although I have trawled my way through all 7 books now, I am painfully aware at the limitations of the writing and of the characterisation. Hermione is one of the major characters, but can you honestly say that she ever becomes anything more than a cipher of the class swot, always at the front of the class with her hand in the air. Is Ron ever anything more than the loyal (but dim) friend? The dialogue is often painful, and as has been mentioned above, after the third book, all have been at least 200 pages too long and could have withstood some robust editing.

    But… they're not all bad. I'm 33 years old, and I feel a bit pompous criticising Rowling for writing what is ultimately a charming set of stories for children. Is it really her fault that she doesn't have the craft or ambition of a writer like Philip Pullman and the "His Dark Materials" trilogy? Pullman is the one who will stand the test of time, I think, but Rowling's achievement is not to be sniffed at (even if the films are miserable fast forwards of overly long books). I cried when I finished reading the Pullman books, and at the end of "The Deathly Hallows" I just felt mildly annoyed, a bit confused and slightly cheated…. But that's my problem. It was a reasonably satisfying conclusion to the whole thing, I suppose, even if I could have lived without the afterword.

    You don't have to like them. That's okay too, you know.

    ST

  19. SwissToni Says:

    Oh… and I echo the comment about the Da Vinci Code too. Rowling is a million times more accomplished than Dan Brown.

    ST