Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter - Bad for America

I recently announced on Twitter that I will not be tolerating any spoilers regarding the latest and last Harry Potter book (indeed, as of Friday afternoon, I will be going officially and completely "offline" for several days in order to revel in my reading without interruption or distraction). In response, a friend of mine announced (I hope playfully!), "Harry Potter is bad for America" and sent me a link to an article by Ron Charles published a few days ago in the Washington Post. Now, personally, any time someone says something is Bad for America, I tend to giggle a little bit and maybe wink conspiratorially in the direction of the responsible party. But being a thoughtful person with my fair share of crusades against ignorance and infantilism, I like to give even the most curmudgeony protester a chance to make their case.

So what exactly were Mr. Ron Charles's objections to the Harry Potter books? For most of the article, he dwells almost exclusively on the mass-marketing of the books (with their subsequent movies and merchandise) to seemingly intelligent, mature adults. He laments this "bad case of cultural infantilism," with its "Cap'n Crunch in a Gucci bag" adult editions of Rowling's books and the ever-increasing synchronization of the public's "fits of enthusiasm" on each book's worldwide release date. Of course, the same stunt was tried with the final two films of the Matrix Trilogy, which fell disastrously flat--so perhaps childish, synchronized enthusiasm for mass-marketed media is not the sole explanation for the Harry Potter books now decade-long success, after all.

Charles has, it seems, stepped beyond the job description of "book critic" and become an analyst of cultural trends. Since I'm not professionally qualified to be either, and yet here I am pretending to be both, I suppose I'm not one to complain. Furthermore, I don't entirely disagree with him regarding his general misgivings about the decline of serious readership, and the glorification, even among those who deem themselves "professional writers", of the "pop novel" which strives to be a book-version of what might as well be the latest Thursday-night television drama. I've ranted on about these very topics.

On the other hand, I am a fan of the Harry Potter books. I am also, I'd like to think, an intelligent, mature adult (no, I don't just play one on the internet). My tiny apartment is crammed with bookshelves, all creaking under the weight of myriad "serious" works of classical and contemporary fiction, as well as poetry, creative nonfiction, philosophy, mythology, and the like. Does this make me a hypocrite? No. Does it make me an exception to the "cultural infantilism" that so disturbs Charles? Perhaps. But I think, most importantly, it suggest that the Harry Potter craze is not a cause or contributor to the "death of reading" in America, but a symptom of much larger cultural trends. In a modern world where "seriousness" is often a synonym for cynicism, pessimism, irony and apathy, Rowling has written a set of books addressing "serious" subjects such as death, truth, morality, power, corruption, choice and hope--books that are not only accessible to children (whom we have, perhaps, learned to dismiss as potentially "serious" readers), but which actually trace the complicated process of growing into adulthood.

At this point, we might throw our hands up into the air as the debate over Harry Potter devolves into a passionate (and equally biased) he-said-she-said scuffle. Charles's only direct criticism of the books are regarding "the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes," but he fails to cite any specific examples from the books themselves. Indeed, at the beginning of the article, he seems to imply that he has only ever read three and a half of what will be seven total books (the first three being by far the shortest, simplest and most "childish," as any Harry Potter fan will tell you). Is it possible that he is that notorious kind of critic, most annoying and belligerent of all--the kind who hasn't even read the books he's criticizing? Horror of horrors. Of course, we will forgive him for this possibility--we understand that his career demands that most of his time be spent reading "serious" novels written for "adults" and that he would have no reason to read children's books that his daughter had grown bored with. (We will also forgive him for assuming that, when a sleepy ten-year-old grows bored of listening to her father read a book in a disengaged monotone, it must mean the book is boring and the story is bad. After all, Mr. Charles is a book critic, not an expert on the various techniques of the artistic craft of oral story-telling.)

What is left for us, then? In my next post, I will look at some of the things that, as an actual reader of the Harry Potter books, I have most enjoyed and appreciated about the series. I'll discuss how I think the books' central themes address some of the underlying symptoms of "cultural infantilism" that concerns both Charles & me (and, I would guess, probably bothers Rowling as well). So, until then...


  1. I do not see Harry Potter as "bad" for anyone. Particularly good? That's another question. They seem rather hard-core Anglican in their world-view, namely that Good and Evil are real concepts and that they are not inherent in a person but are shown by their actions. I ... I dunno about that part. But since the rest of her spiel is more nuanced, I can handle it. Can't cause much harm, it sells books, whatever.

  2. The question of whether or not the Harry Potter books are "good books" must be framed in terms of whether or not they are good children's books, since that is their intended genre. The question of why so many adults read them--and whether or not they should--must be addressed, I think, by looking at cultural trends and the sociological and psychological explanations for them. Charles seems to confuse these two issues, citing the Harry Potter craze as a perfect example of infantilism without considering the larger implications of children's literature as a genre within adult culture. Instead, he assumes that if a children's book is enjoyed by a large number of adults, then there's something wrong with those adults. That seems, to me, too simple an explanation. My point is that Charles does not actually address the question of whether it's possible that the Harry Potter books actually are good books. He says they're not, and if you disagree, you're wallowing in immaturity, case closed. This seems a rather harsh claim to make if he hasn't even read the books himself.

    As far as the "real concepts" of Good and Evil being "hard-core Anglican" (I assumed by "they," you mean the author, J.K. Rowling?)--it's my understanding that symbolic "evil" incarnate in an ultimate villain is a common theme in fantasy novels, and I'm not so sure I agree with your analysis that this ultimately treats "Evil" as a "real concept" (in fact, I'm not even quite sure I know what you mean by that... surely, the concept of evil is real, regardless of whether or not you believe that evil itself actually exists and/or can be embodied or acted upon). Perhaps it would help if you clarified what kind of "concept" you had in mind as an alternative?

    On the other hand, it's kind of amusing that you see such a Christian theme in the books, when so many Christians themselves are put off by the series. ;)

  3. Yeah, I was being playful. I'm not completely sure how I feel about Harry myself. I started to find it pretty tedious around the end of the second book and I don't recall whether I ever started the third. I read Pullman shortly thereafter and I thought Rowling suffered in the comparison -- the Potter books just started to seem mawkish and predictable. "Wit-free" doesn't seem fair, though. My sense is that Charles just disliked the books, and knew of many he thought should have been more successful, but was thinking about the hype and marketing -- rather than the books themselves -- when he wrote his piece. But who knows. The article reminds me of the old story about Tolkien reading his MS of the Lord of the Rings aloud to the Inklings at Oxford and some crusty character muttering, "Oh no, not another fucking elf."

    I'm enjoying your various online presences, by the way. You may be interested to know that my book is finally coming out, though I still don't expect anyone will ever read it (they're pricing it at a cool hundred bucks).