(Please note, if this is horribly written, it’s because there are roofers at my house, banging around the roof and the deck and everywhere, SO LOUD and irregular. I am running away as soon as I finish my coffee.)
I was really pleased to read Amanda from Pandagon’s rejoinder to the “Harry Potter is bad literature, adults who read kids’ books are stupid” snobby book critic editorial. This is basically that not everyone has the luxury to spend time contemplating Serious Literature.
But what I find more interesting about this passage is that his friends say they simply don’t have time to read and contemplate Serious Fiction. I say to take them at their word—Americans work more hours and have less leisure and make money than we have in the past, which leaves very little time for the leisurely reading of novels. An 800 page book of Serious Fiction—which I love, mind you, so I’m not picking on the pleasures of it—takes much, much longer to read than it takes to breeze through a Harry Potter book. If people are turning to Harry Potter, it’s because they want to have the joys of reading a narrative within the time that’s been allotted to them in our capitalist society to read.
But I think I get why so many critics who spend their time reading Serious Literature are baffled by Harry Potter’s popularity. As someone who does have the luxury to spend time contemplating Serious Literature, I totally get that Rowling’s prose is often…kind of bad. Her phrasing is often clunky and it often feels as though she seems obligated to inform us of every event in Harry Potter’s life, even if no one really cares whether he or Ron won at the chess game they played over their totally uneventful Christmas break. I find myself kind of nodding when I read these columns because they’re right, as Serious Literature, Rowling is a failure.
But she’s a really rich, really popular failure, whose books are beloved by millions. Clearly those millions are unwashed idiots who don’t know what’s good for them. Or, you know, maybe the Harry Potter books are so popular because they appeal to a different literacy. In responding to the critical panning of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Henry Jenkins asserts that POTC’s appeal is in world-building storytelling: “…in many ways, the film’s heart is not in telling a classical linear story. This film wants to explore a world and much of its complexity emerges from the fact that we have been able to accumulate and master more information about that world through the first two films.” To my mind, that argument works even better with Harry Potter. Rowling may not be the most artful crafter of prose, but the appeal to most fans (including me) isn’t in that aspect of the writing: it’s in the wealth of detail, the richness and intricacy of the world created in the book (and which is expanded with each installment), in the way she makes sure that even tertiary characters have arcs, and the sense that there’s a whole lot more happening on the edges of the story.
Maybe it’s just because I’m an academic, and for me it’s more about interpretation than evaluation, but I think there’s a lot more to be gained by looking at the ways readers do engage with a popular text and the kinds of intelligence it engages than by pretending millions of people are engaged in some kind of bizarre self-delusion and incapable of making their own choices about entertainment.
3 Responses to “Harry Potter and the Shifting Paradigm”