Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Harry Potter and the Qualified Recantation


For as a surfeit of the sweetest things
The deepest loathing to the stomach brings,
Or as the heresies that men do leave
Are hated most of those they did deceive,
So thou, my surfeit and my heresy,
Of all be hated, but the most of me.



When I was eight, Miss Beale, old and grumpy with white curly hair, taught me how to write stories, good and clear, which would earn me house points.


"Good stories," she articulated, slowly and clearly, "Must have lots of unusual, vivid describing words, including adjectives, which come before naming-words, and adverbs, which come after doing-words."


I wrote this down slowly, carefully and neatly on the plain, white pages of my square, red exercise book which was on top of my brown, wooden desk.


"Good stories," she accentuated, "Must be written in complete sentences. They should be made up of proper words. You must never use any slang expressions."


I looked out of the window. The sky was blue, the grass was green. At least a hundred children were playing quickly and happily on the elephant-free playing field.


"If there is direct speech," she opined, "You must use expressions like 'he asked', 'he explained', 'he shouted'."


Twenty years later, when I was a grown-up, tall and stout with brown hair, I read a number of books by people who made their living writing stories.


"Only use adjectives as a last resort", they said, "And don't use any adverbs at all. Use the kind of language that you would use in real life, even if it is not grammatically correct. Don't be afraid to say 'said' over and over again. Don't tell the reader how to feel. Don't say that a monster is 'frightening': describe it in such a way that the reader will think 'Gosh! How frightening.' The best rule that any writer can follow is 'show, don't tell.' "


I think that children like the Harry Potter books because they are written in the style in which bad teachers tell conformist children constitutes "good writing". Eight-year-olds read J.K Rowling and think "I could do that too." And they are very probably right.


*


"Harry led them all back into the kitchen where, laughing and chattering, they settled on chairs, sat themselves upon Aunt Petunia's gleaming work-surfaces or leaned up against her spotless appliances: Ron, long and lanky; Hermione, her bushy hair tied back in a long plait; Fred and George, grinning identically; Bill, badly scarred and long-haired; Mr Weasley, kind-faced, balding, his spectacles a little awry; Mad-Eye, battle worn, one legged, his bright blue magical eye whizzing in its socket; Tonks, whose short hair was her favourite shade of bright pink; Lupin, greyer and more lined; Fleur, slender and beautiful, with her long, silvery blonde hair; Kinglsey, bald, black, broad-shouldered; Hagrid, with his wild hair and beard, standing hunchbacked to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling; and Mundungus Fletcher, small, dirty and hang-dog with his droopy, basset hound's eyes and matted hair. Harry's heart seemed to expand and glow at the sight: he felt incredibly fond of all of them, even Mundungus, whom he had tried to strangle the last time they had met."


This may be the single worst paragraph ever committed to paper by a published author. The first sentence is far too long. It gets caught up in a monotonous and repetitive formula: "This character, with this attribute and this attribute, doing this thing: that character, with that attribute and that attribute, doing that thing." Children's books are often read out loud: you might think that the Best Loved Children's Author of All Time would road test her typing and find out if it is possible to get your tongue around her sentences. (I have been told by people with kids that there is no safe way of pronouncing "Harry-ron-and-hermione.")


Most of us see the world in terms of very specific tags and trade names. We don't see "a glass of bitter ale" but "a pint"; we don't use "the vacuum cleaner", we use "the hoover" or "the dyson". So why say "the appliances" rather than "the fridge" or "work surfaces" rather than "Formica top"?


To this vague language, Rowling applies teacher-pleasing describing-words like "gleaming" and "spotless". Is it physically possible to clean a "work-surface" so much that it gleams? Rowling is trying to tell us – as opposed to show us that far too many people have crowded into a small kitchen, and that they are disregarding Petunia Dursely's fussy cleanliness. A writer would have picked out some details which conveyed this comic situation: "The room smelt of pine and chlorine."; "Harry smiled when Hagrid plonked his big bum on the newly polished dining table." Rowling prefers to use the language of washing-powder adverts.


This tic runs right through the series: Dudley is taken to "burger bars" rather than to "McDonalds"; he has a "computer console" rather than a "Playstation 2". There are a certain number of arse jokes and toilet jokes, but Rowling is very reluctant to use the word arse (or even "bum") and imagines that children say "bath-room" (rather than "loo" or "bog") even when there are no adults present. In the movie, Ron is occasionally allowed to say "bloody", but in the books, the most he ever does is "use swearwords." In the latest volume, one of the adults gets to say "bastard" and "bitch" but the children limit themselves to "Merlin's underpants!" and "Merlin's baggy Y-fronts!" This is presumably an example of the series becoming darker and more adult as it progresses.


The kitchen paragraph re-introduces us to a short-list of eight potential casualties. If you have lovingly committed the first million words of the saga to memory, you already know who Mr. Weasley is. If you haven't, then a list of distinguishing features is not much use to you. I haven't really given Harry Potter much thought since I tossed Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Prince aside in disgust: so I freely admit that I had forgotten who "Fleur" was: it didn't help very much to be told that she was the slender, beautiful one. And for goodness sake – don't tell us that the girl is beautiful: describe her so that we think "How beautiful!" Possibly, Rowling thinks that we seeing the world through Harry's eyes, and it is he who is saying that Fleur is beautiful. But a 17-year-old wouldn't use that word about a girl: he'd be more likely to think that she was cute or fit or hot or horny or pretty or nice-looking.


When you are reunited with old friends, your heart does not "seem to expand and glow". I am not even sure what a glowwy expandy heart would feel like. A writer might have described actual human emotions based on her actual human experience: "Harry felt as if he had just finished some intense physical exercise". She might have shown us what Harry felt by showing us what he is doing: "He started to giggle uncontrollably at the weakest of jokes." Or she might have just told us how he felt in plain language: "Harry was very pleased to see them all again." Rowling simply mouths a boy-band lyric: a set of words which have no actual meaning behind them.


Ursula Le Guin's fantasy world is driven by language: everything has a True Name and a wizard must understand words before he can control the world. Tolkien's world is driven by music: it was sung into existence before time began, and historical events are less important than the songs in which they will be remembered. J.K Rowling's world is driven by hair-cuts. Before he regenerated into Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter's main personality trait was his untidy hair. The one thing that we have to know about each member of the Order of the Phoenix is whether they have bushy hair, long-hair, short-hair, long silvery blonde hair, wild hair or matted hair. Disappointingly, Rowling doesn't tell us the colour of their eyes, or how many Charisma Points they've got.


*


"But Andrew, these books are intended for children. It's not fair to judge them by the standards of an adult critic."


Here is a passage of writing from a book that was intended for children:


"I do not know what it rightly is to faint, but I do know that for the next little while the whole world swam away from before me in a whirling mist; Silver and the birds, and the tall Spy-glass hilltop, going round and round and topsy-turvy before my eyes, and all manner of bells ringing and distant voices shouting in my ear.


When I came again to myself the monster had pulled himself together, his crutch under his arm, his hat upon his head. Just before him Tom lay motionless upon the sward; but the murderer minded him not a whit, cleansing his blood-stained knife the while upon a wisp of grass."


Note the clarity of the viewpoint. There is no question that we are listening to a slightly older Jim Hawkins recollecting what happened the first time he saw John Silver kill a man. Notice that he is using the kind of language that a teenage lad might use. Note that the details are drawn from Stevenson's observation of the world, not theatrical conventions or stock phrases. Note the skill with which we are first told what it felt like to Jim; and then given a vivid picture of what Jim saw, based on a telling detail which shows us what kind of a man Silver is. The only adjectives are the ones which convey actual information: "tall hilltop", "motionless body".


Here is a passage from a book that was intended for quite young children:


"The wind had dropped, and the snow, tired of rushing round in circles trying to catch itself up, now fluttered gently down until it found a place on which to rest, and sometimes the place was Pooh's nose and sometimes it wasn't, and in a little while Piglet was wearing a white muffler round his neck and feeling more snowy behind the ears than he had ever felt before."


You may think that A.A Milne didn't really understand children, but he certainly understood words. He has taken the trouble to actually describe the snow-storm, not with clich├ęs, adjectives or stock expressions but with a clever little metaphor that the kids are going to have to think about for a second or two. The whimsical personification of the snow cleverly tells us both what it looks like and what it feels like. Snow flakes do dart around unpredictably; you aren't sure when one of them is going to land on your face.


Finally, here is an excerpt from one of the key texts in the Western Canon. I don't know if it was intended for children, but I first read it when I was in Miss Beale's class:


"And a few minutes later, Peter Parker forgets the taunts of his classmates as he is transported to another worldthe fascinating world of atomic science!


But, as the experiment begins, no-one notices a tiny spider, descending from the ceiling on an almost invisible strand of web a spider whom fate has given a starring, if brief, role to play in the drama we call life!


Accidentally absorbing a fantastic amount of radioactivity, the dying insect, in sudden shock, bites the nearest living thing at the split second before life ebbs from its radioactive body!"


This is not nearly such good writing as Stevenson or Milne: it is functional, journalistic prose, intended (arguably redundantly) to describe the illustrations which accompany it! But it states clearly what is happening, without wasting any words! It is written in the kind of language an ordinary person might use! The slightly breathless, present tense sentences create a sense of urgency! It is somewhat over-written ("life ebbs from its body" rather than "it dies") but there are no stock phrases and few un-necessary adjectives! Like Rowling, Lee makes the mistake of telling us that science is fascinating, rather than showing us that Peter Parker is fascinated by it – but on the other hand, "fascinating" is a word that a science nerd might well use!


Miss Beale undoubtedly thought that reading books was intrinsically merit-worthy and reading comics was intrinsically wicked, so it's worth noting that Lee uses longer words than Rowling: I imagine the text of Spider-Man is of a higher reading age than that of Harry Potter! Comic books were printed on very cheap paper, and this meant that full-stops tended not to come out: so the letterers put exclamation marks at the end of sentences! And yes, I know that spiders aren't insects!


*


"But Andrew children love these books. Shouldn't you be applauding the fact that Rowling is getting children to read, rather than picking holes in her choice of words?"


Up to a point, Lord Voldemort.


Whatever you may have read in the Daily Mail, the yoof of today are not in any danger of becoming illiterate. They read text messages and My Space and blogs and e-mails. What they do not necessarily do is read many novels.


Does this matter? Miss Beale would probably have said that it was a Good Thing to read Good Books because they improve your grammar and expand your vocabulary – which is, being interpreted, they enabled you to fulfil your destiny as a useful little economic unit that doesn't make spelling mistakes in its CV. A spoonful of Quidditch makes the lexicon go down. Any long compendium of text would do the job just as well: The Times would be much more use than Treasure Island.


I do actually think that novels are more valuable, or at any rate, differently valuable, than newspapers or movies. But only on one condition: they have to be the kind of novels which have novel-like qualities. That means "psychologically believable characterisation, description which describes, and a plot which is more complex or subtle than fits into 90 minutes of cinema." If what you are reading really is "some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" then you have probably gained something from reading it. If it isn't, then you haven't. Harry Potter isn't.


Some people think that it doesn't matter what the younglings are reading, provided they are developing the habit of picking up books. Give the kids a shot of Harry Potter (the first hit is free) and before long they'll be full blown James Joyce addicts. Transformers leads to The Seventh Seal and The Da Vinci Code leads to Documents of the Christian Church as surely as the Northern Line leads to High Barnet. Is there actually any evidence for this?


*


"You are missing the point here. Granted, for the sake of argument, that as a prose stylist. Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown could both beat J.K Rowling in a 'write your way out of a wet paper bag' competition: kids still like the Harry Potter books because they are good stories. So it's as stories you should be judging them."


I'd better come right out and say it, then.


I enjoyed the first three Harry Potter books very much indeed. If I am exasperated with J.K Rowling, it's because she has drained all the fun out of the series in the later volumes.


I remember the first time I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. I was on a train to Reading. It passed the time. I enjoyed the silly word play (Diagon Alley, spellotape, the Mirror of Erised). I liked the dotty details about the magical curriculum and the inventive descriptions of the actual lessons. I thought that Quidditch was an impressively bonkers idea. I thought that Draco Malfoy was an eminently dislikeable villain, and that Prof. Dumbledore – much zanier in the early books – was a splendid comic creation. ("What happened down in the dungeons is a complete secret. So naturally, the whole school knows.") I liked the idea of a world where the oil paintings talk back at you, where the chocolate frogs hop away before you can eat them, and where trains leave from non-existent stations.


I thought that Rowling had cleverly dusted off the old and slightly reactionary genre of the school story and given us permission to enjoy it again. I thought that it was a witty conceit to set such a story in a world which functions, like Alice in Wonderland, according to a kind of dream-like illogical logic. That's very much how the adult world can appear to a child. (That was Lewis Caroll's point as well, obviously.) Snape asks Harry questions that he knows perfectly well that Harry can't possibly answer. Harry is sometimes late for lessons because one of the staircases in the school moved while he wasn't looking. The Headmaster makes strict and sometimes rather arbitrary rules but is just as likely to praise Harry as punish him when he breaks them. That's how school feels to a child. "I don't know how this works, I can't avoid getting into trouble because I simply don't know what these irrational adult-things expect of me." When I was eight, it was obvious that the class bully was a member of a secret order bent on world domination and that Miss Beale was a wicked witch in disguise. At Hogwarts, that's actually true.


Hogwarts includes everything which is theoretically fun about boarding school, but excludes everything that can make it traumatic. Harry gets to be with his friends 24 hours a day; he stays in a big exciting house, with lots of grounds to explore. He has a considerable degree of independence: how many children have their own personal grown-up free territory like the Gryffindor common room? On the other hand, he has a reasonable amount of privacy: he shares a room with his best mate and sleeps in a four poster bed. (The only bathroom we actually see the inside of appears to be a full sized swimming pool: we rather pointedly aren't told what the first year's showers are like.) School dinners are delicious and you can eat as much as you like. There is very little bullying. The first time Harry is in trouble, he anachronistically wonders if he is going to get the cane, but in fact, detention turns out to mean "going on a thrilling adventure with Hagrid" or, at worst "doing some comically boring chores". Most of the time, if you are naughty you simply lose house points. There isn't any P.E: so far as I can tell, Quidditch – conceived as a combination of American football and Formula 1 racing – is only played by those kids who positively want to try out for the team. There is some kissing (sorry, snogging) in the later books but the problems of adolescence, let alone the logistics of a co-ed boarding school are omitted (or more accurately, repressed.) Harry can't, by definition, miss his parents, because he doesn't have any: by another piece of looking-glass logic, the only time he feels homesick is during the holidays.


All this is an awful lot of fun. The problem sets in around volume 4, when Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment. The whimsical "Billy Bunter with a magic wand" adventures become subordinate to a painfully derivative fantasy quest story in which Harry is the Chosen One who can defeat the Dark Lord. This creates massive inconsistencies in tone. In the fifth volume, evil Blairite Dolores Umbridge starts to physically torture misbehaving pupils. Are we to read this as comic violence or react to it as a realistic depiction of quite serious child abuse? If the latter, are we entitled to ask whether there are social workers or schools inspectors in the wizarding world? If Harry is now the Hero With a Thousand Faces are we really supposed to care (or imagine that he cares) about his wizarding exams or who wins the Quidditch tournament?


Each of the seven Harry Potter books contains two different stories. One story typically concerns some dramatic event from the past. It's often something which will impact on Harry's life and call into question something he believes in: maybe his father wasn't quite the saint he thought him to be; or perhaps Dumbledore secretly fathered a love child with Mary Magdalene. The second story describes how Harry-ron-and-hermione collect a series of clues – fragments of old letters, anecdotes narrated by other characters, and un-convincing plot devices like Tom Riddle's sentient diary and the magic pot that contains the headmaster's memories. Eventually, they have enough MacGuffins to re-construct the back story, at which point Prof. Dumbledore pops up and shows them how it all fits together.


Now, in books 1 and 2, the focus was entirely on the front-story: that is "the adventure of a new-bug at a funny school". We only cared about the identity of the Heir of Slytherin and the location of the Philosopher's Stone in so far as they provided a pretext for Harry to leave the dorm after lights out, sneak into the girls' toilets (sorry, bathrooms) and generally have a thrilling but slightly naughty time. Even Lord Voldemort is primarily a plot device: a bit of doublethink which allows Harry to be excused and even sometimes rewarded for breaking the school rules. ("The dog ate my homework" and "I have a medical condition which means I have to eat chocolates during maths" don't work nearly so well as "I had to do it because otherwise the Dark Lord would have covered all the lands of Middle-Earth in a second darkness.")


In the third and best of the books, the front story and the back story were about equally important. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a thrilling school story about an escaped murderer possibly hiding out in the school grounds; but when Harry learns the convict's identity, he also discovers some genuinely interesting things about his parents and the origins of Lord Voldemort.


From volume 4 onwards, the focus increasingly shifts to the back-story. It feels as if the story which Rowling wants to tell is not the one about Harry-ron-and-hermione, but the one about Harry's parents and their contemporaries. Harry is simply the lens through which James Potter, Lilly Evans, Tom Riddle and the rest come into focus. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the school story has atrophied completely. We learn about the childhood and early career of Prof. Dumbledore. We find out why he was content to remain a school-teacher instead of taking on some job that would have been more appropriate to his talents – Minister for Magic, emissary of the Valar or Anglican Deity. (This is not very interesting.) It is revealed (for the sixteenth or seventeenth time) whether Prof. Snape is a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard; a good wizard pretending to be a dark wizard; or a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard pretending to be a dark wizard pretending to be a good wizard. (This is actually rather well done.) Harry-ron-and-hermione's function in all this is to traipse around the countryside collecting two different sets of plot coupons – the "horocruxes" which contain parts of the Dark Lord's soul, and the interesting but largely irrelevant "deathly hallows". J.K is so wrapped up in herself that she can't see why we might think that "A Harry Potter book which is mostly not set at Hogwarts School" is a slightly odd notion.

So, instead of following any conventional narrative structure, the books are built like computer games. Deathly Hallows reads (seriously) like the novelization of a third person quest adventure. Characters decide which location to explore; they visit each room in that location in turn; they pick up clues or solve a puzzle; they sift out which clues are relevant to their quest, what is a red herring, and what is a pointer to some sub-plot or side-quest. When they meet another character, the main thing is to work out what question they need to ask it in order that it will recite the next section of the back story. Harry is linked telepathically to Voldemort; and the occasional flashes where he sees the world through the Dark Lord's eyes feel an awful lot like cut-scenes.


I wonder if this is the key to the books' popularity? Give children or thick adults Treasure Island or Tom Sawyer and they will say "Where are the missions? Where are the puzzles? Where is the underground trap-filled labyrinth? Who is the end of level boss?" Give them Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and they will feel right at home. It's the only form of narrative structure these people understand.


At the beginning of chapter 10, Harry-ron-and-hermione are hiding out at Grimmauld Place (geddit?) former headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix. While the others are asleep, Harry decides to explore the place. First, he goes into his old room:


"The wardrobe door stood open, and the bedclothes had been ripped back. Harry remembered the over turned troll leg downstairs."


J.K helpfully explains that this is a Clue, and goes through its possible meanings:


"Somebody had searched the house since the Order had left. Snape? Or perhaps Mundungus."


Harry then goes to the room which Sirius Black, his godfather, had used as a boy. (Wizards have godfathers, celebrate Christmas, name hospitals after saints and put quotes from the Bible on their grave stones, but they don't have churches, vicars or Christenings and their weddings and funerals are secular affairs. But hey, it's only a kid's book, right?) It is described at some length: we are told what posters Sirius used to have on his bedroom wall; and then we are told what this implies about his personality. ("He seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents".) Harry searches the room and, among many unimportant items, he finds this level's Important Clue: a single page of a letter which his mother wrote to Sirius shortly before she died. The fragment finishes with the words "it seems incredible that Dumbledore...". J.K helpfully points out that this is another Clue, but that some more information will be necessary in order to decode it:


"That Dumbledore what? But there were any number of things that would seem incredible about Dumbledore..."


In another vintage piece of comic over-writing, she tells us that a letter from his dead mother is of some importance to Harry:


"Harry's extremities seemed to have gone numb. He stood quite still holding the miraculous paper in his nerveless fingers while inside him a kind of quiet eruption sent joy and grief thundering in equal measure through his veins..."


Once he has calmed down, Harry searches the room again, and finds an old photo; this doesn't effect his extremities nearly so much because he already has pictures of his family. After discussing the new Clues with Ron-and-hermione, he decides to check the remaining unexplored room which has "Do not enter without the express permission of Regulus Arcturus Black" written on the door. They already have in their inventory an amulet with R.A.B on it, so they quickly spot that this is also a Clue; however, when they search the room, they can't find anything of any use. A few pages later, they encounter Kreacher (geddit?) the House Elf, and, by asking him the correct questions, get him to narrate a section of back story concerning Regulus Black.


Harry is not interacting with characters or the world: he is walking a around a pre-programmed "scene of the crime", being fed information and activating plot devices. If this was a classical detective story or indeed a halfway decent computer game, the significance of the clues would not be spelled out. We would be told that Sherlock Holmes had found an old letter, a photo, and an amulet and be implicitly challenged to work out the back-story for ourselves. What would happen, I wonder, if you went through the book and deleted all the passages in which J.K says: "Harry found a clue. Harry thought about the clue. Harry wondered what the clue meant. Harry went and asked Hermione about the clue. Ron said 'Blimey mate it's a clue'."? Do you think that you would end up with a much tighter, punchier, shorter book, like, for example, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone?


This is why fans of the series are so obsessed with spoilers. No-one pretends that they are waiting for the new book for the sheer fun of reading about what hi-jinks Harry and the gang will get up to this term. The only reason for reading it is to discover which new pages from her notebook J.K Rowling is going to release into the public domain. Once you know that information, there's no actual need to read the book.


Any sense of tension or suspense you may experience – and I can't deny that I kept turning the pages over – is created by the publicity campaign, not by the book itself. Since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling's publishers have performed an Equus style striptease act – coyly mentioning that if you read this volume will show you something that you've never seen before, and that you really ought to queue up outside Borders at midnight on Friday in order to be one of the first five or six million people to know what it is. The flyleaf to Order of the Phoenix described Prof. Dumbledore saying to Harry "Please sit down. I am going to tell you everything." So we plow our way through 765 pages because we are mildly interested to find out what the big revelation is going to be. (Nothing very interesting or surprising, and a good deal less than "everything".)


Before volumes 4, 5 and 6 we were warned that "A major character is going to be killed off", which made the books seem more like Big Brother than adventure stories: not "How will our hero escape..." but "Someone is going to be evicted from the series? Read the next 500 pages and you might find out who." This approach gave the final scenes of Deathly Hallows a quite spurious urgency. When Harry confronts Darth Vader, we couldn't help thinking that he was in genuine danger – not because Rowling was typing the scene in a particularly dramatic way, but because the publisher's hook for this volume was "Perhaps the person who gets killed off this time may be Harry Potter himself." The actual battle, by the way, is so convoluted that only a child could possibly understand it. Harry is not, in fact, required to defeat Voldemort neither naked nor clothed, neither riding nor on foot, wearing a hat which is not a hat, and eating a cheeseburger that is not a cheeseburger, but it would have been much simpler and more believable if he had.


I don't blame adults for reading this kind of thing. Adults use books to send themselves to sleep after a stressful day at the office. They don't expect them to make much sense. They probably don't pay much attention to them. If you paid attention to Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown or Barbara Cartland your heart would probably glow and expand and all your extremities would drop off. Some of them may even want a fix of dragons and centaurs and magic swords and feel that they can get away with reading Harry Potter without Peter Bradshaw and John Humphrys calling their virility into question.


But something has gone very wrong with a world in which children would rather read about a school-shaped theme-park than Greyfriars or Linbury Court or Malory Towers or //please insert name of contemporary school story here//. It's a pity if their first meetings with dragons and unicorns are in this mushed-up watered-down baby-food form. Oh, maybe after finishing Harry Potter they'll go looking for more dragon-books and stumble on A Wizard of Earthsea or The Sword in the Stone. But isn't it equally likely that 1.3 million words of knock-off reproduction fantasy will leave them never wanting to see another dragon ever again? And is that why the Harry Potter series seems to be approved of by the kinds of grown-ups who openly sneer at Tolkien readers? Do they secretly hope that J.K Rowling is a kind of spiritual vaccination that will cure the kids of imagination for the rest of their lives?

53 comments:

HP said...

I think in about five or six years of everyone wanting to know what-do-you-mean-you-don't-read-Harry-Potter, no one said what I think this well.

Thank you for that.

Helen Louise said...

A few thoughts:

- I still like Harry Potter, so there.
- After my friends and I had finished the book, I said, "But why didn't they go to Aberforth much earlier?" and my friend replied, "That would have been meta-gaming."
- I once tried to write an essay on why J.K. Rowling is better than Philip Pullman. It's a difficult task and some of my answers probably exposed me as both a Christian (grr! atheist! grrr!) and a bit of a cretin (but J.K. Rowling's so much easier to read...) but the answer that I thought might actually serve in academic circles was that I actually care about the characters in Harry Potter. (Actually, this is probably the same reason why I think David Eddings is a third-rate fantasy author but still remember his books with fondness...) I'd gone off Lyra by the end of His Dark Materials and didn't find many of the other characters terribly interesting. For that matter, I read a couple of chapters of the Da Vinci Code and decided that I hated them all, except perhaps for the Evil Albino (TM). But I'd quite like to meet the Harry Potter characters... more to the point, I can actually imagine meeting them, even though most of them are wizards and I'm just some Muggle.
- I did enjoy your post very much. Miss Beale does sound rather familiar. Once we were told to write a story about a child about to be evacuated, so I wrote about a young Cockney and delighted in using slang and making deliberate grammatical errors (the relish with which I used double negatives and phrases like "should of" was perhaps a little more than was warranted). My teacher, though undoubtedly she and Miss Beale would have got on, fortunately liked me and realised this was meant to say something about my character rather than illustrate my own inability to use the English language.

Dan said...

the answer that I thought might actually serve in academic circles was that I actually care about the characters in Harry Potter.

On the flip side, something I suggested in my post about Harry Potter last time around (see the actually mostly defunct weblog) was that the reason we care about the characters in Harry Potter isn't so much that they're well written or likable. As Andrew suggests, Harry's chief distinguishing feature is his messy hair.

The reason (I suggest) that we care about the Potter characters is because they're familiar, because everybody knows about them. I've read more about Snape in casual conversations on the internet than I have in seven books worth of material.

Incidentally I've also got the first part of a chapter-by chapter breakdown of the books, and farewell to the series here

Mike Taylor said...

Very interesting. I find myself forced to agree with every specific point that you make (as Douglas Adams said of Asimov, "the actual writing is terrible") yet still wholly disagreeing with your conclusion.

Much as with your Return Of The King film reviews, actually. (Aren't we about due another one of these?)

Most readers of this blog will be familiar with the distinction that C. S. Lewis makes between Story and Myth. According to Lewis's conception, in the former, the telling is crucial: the choice of words, the rhythm of the prose: in a word, literature. In myth, though, it's the central points of character and plot that carry the weight, that have a resonance through picking out aspects of the universal that, however subconsciously, we recognise. For this reason, it doesn't matter than there is often no one definitive statement of a myth (e.g. all the Norse myths) -- nothing important is lost. In the same way, Lewis somewhere says that he was entranced by the myth that is Kafka's _The Castle_ when someone told him about it, but that his subsequent actual reading of the novel added nothing.

Elsewhere Lewis wrote of sort of obituary entitled "The Mythopoeic Gift of Rider Haggard" in which he pretty comprehensively dissed Haggard's actual writing, but strongly praised what he called the central myths of _King Solomon's Mines_, _She_ and others. He also asserted that while _Ayesha_, the sequal to _She_, is a better book than the original, it is an inferior myth.

All of this is of course by way of introducing the observation that while JK's writing is pretty terrible (especially in the earlier books), the myth is one of the most powerful I know. I think Lewis would have liked it a lot. Strange: back when I was reading _Chamber of Secrets_ (the HP book I read) I never dreamed for a moment that I'd end up holding it in the same basket as LotR and, I suppose, Narnia.

Of course HP is wildly different from both of those antecedents in that it takes place in our own world -- and not even entirely in such vaguely located pseudo-places as Hogwarts, but also in very familiar concrete locations such as King's Cross Station. Paradoxically, given its strong reliance on an thematic centre in magic, it has a reassuringly mundane feel to it.

So for me I guess the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Much greater.

RedTango4U said...

There are many different ways to communicate with people and rouse their emotions..enough to have them coming back for more..again and again. Apparently some of these ways don't require absolutely perfect writing skills. HP is as much an adventure as it is an emotional soap opera, and it is these elements that grab the imagination moreso than perfect sentences and structure.

Does Stephen Hawking, who has to talk with the help of digital assistance, make the universe any less a compelling place because his voice and appearance are unconventional..out of the norm? Of course not..because his *ideas* are so compelling that they still manage to transcend the way in which they are conveyed to the audience.

Readers want a connection to the characters, the opportunity to see them challenged and grow,and the eventual unraveling of their secrets. This is far more compelling than being sure each sentence complies with the National Sentence Structure standards.

personalfeeds said...

Just for some tiresome pedantry, Dudley does have a PlayStation. It buggers up the internal chronology of the series.

Is a JK Rowling/Agatha Christie comparison reasonable? The writing isn't great but it keeps you reading.

Robert Rodger said...

Thanks, Andrew. You hit many of the reasons I couldn't be bothered to read these books. Plus as an example you used Spider-man. I've made a spirited defense once of why I'd rather my nephew read Spider-man than Harry Potter.

emjaybee said...

Well, it's nice to get a more erudite reason for not reading the series than "it bored me." Which it did, but that was the first book and movie. I was mildly entertained but then forgot it almost immediately, and never picked it up again.

Maybe it didn't help that Lewis's (and other) descriptions of boarding school kept popping up in my mind, and so the school-story aspect just didn't work for me. If there had been some serious bullying, etc. early on, I might have found it more compelling. Somewhere along the lines of Dahl's Matilda, perhaps.

I'm not overly worried about kids getting turned off of fantasy or what have you by this. Thanks in part to Potter, fantasy is everywhere in the children's/YA section of the bookstore, and at least some of it is better-written than Rowling. Lewis, for example, but I believe there's a movie being made of the Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, which aren't that well-written but do a better job of being truly English and mysterious.

I don't think we can really predict the reading preferences of adults from what they read as children. If that were true, I'd still read nothing but horse-novels.

Andrew Stevens said...

What I'm not going to miss is reading previewers and reviewers saying that "Rowling has created a world as detailed and complex as Middle-Earth or Narnia." These people have clearly never read either Tolkien or Lewis. Saying that Rowling's world is as complex and detailed as Tolkien's is insulting to Tolkien and saying that Rowling's world is as detailed and complex as Lewis's is insulting to Rowling. (Nothing wrong with Narnia, of course, but it's an obvious hodge-podge that Lewis was making up as he went along. It's enjoyable in spite of that.)

The Rowling books did lose their way after Book 3, but I thought Book 6 was decent and Book 7 was mostly satisfying. I'm glad I'm not the only one who noticed that Dumbledore morphed from a brilliantly funny creation into a second-rate Gandalf with a third-rate backstory.

Sylvia Drake said...

Yes, quite.

And yes, I read all 1.3 million words too.

You're perhaps being hard on the Kidstoday, though. I know some readers under the age of ten, and generally if they read HP, it's one of their multiple literary interests. I'm not certain that HP is "creating readers", so much as encouraging kids who like books to read more and engage with others socially about the books they like. (So, fannishness, basically, which is a nice side effect IMO.)

We consume all kinds of stuff when we're kids; I think it's just part of growing up. Not to say that I don't share your concerns about HP and wish the world were talking about better books--I just think young imaginations are resilient enough to handle a lot of stuff that's unworthy of them.

Also--well--I haven't discussed DH with my eight-year-old tutoring student yet, but I'll bet that if he liked it more than I did, he won't declare with passionate certainty that it's because I hate JKR/am a snob/can't accept that it {is, isn't} a children's book/wanted the characters to suffer {less, more}. He appears to know that different people may like different things, and that even if you think someone is silly for having a certain taste, liking a story someone else didn't like doesn't prove you love stories better than they do.

"I liked the part at Gringotts" is what he'll probably say, and I'll agree, or perhaps he'll say the ending was cool and I'll disagree, and we'll still be friends. I know people well over the age of eight with whom I would feel far less confident of a peaceful resolution. Y'know?

SK said...

Wizards have godfathers, celebrate Christmas, name hospitals after saints and put quotes from the Bible on their grave stones, but they don't have churches, vicars or Christenings and their weddings and funerals are secular affairs.

So they'd be Anglicans then?

Louise H said...

I think I'd go further than Mike; I agree with all the facts you present but not the conclusions you draw from them.

To take the most outrageous first; the idea that she should somehow have stuck with the format of the first three books. I like Buffy S1 and 2. I liked them when I first watched them. But mainly I like them now because I know how things are going to change.

However well or badly you think she's handled the changes to the series (and I happen to think it's one of the things she's done rather well, despite the series' other flaws), the books are almost entirely consistently Harry-focused.

The things that the first books are primarily about are the things that 11 year old Harry will be most aware of; the peculiarity of it all, the friendships, the sport, the homework. Voldemort is not really any more real to him than he is to us.

But a book about a 17 year old playing Quiddich and eating chocolate frogs while civilisation collapses around him? I suspect not. The move away from the school stories has to reflect the move of the hero away from school concerns.

Rowling is extremely good at keeping that focus. Fred and George's joke business allows her to throw in a few more chocolate frog type jokes without being too incongruous but generally she allows the more childish aspects of the magic (and eventually the whole school environment) to drift into the background of an older boy's perceptions in what one imagines is a pretty realistic manner.

I believe Rowling has stated that she intended that the series would grow up with its readership. It hasn't managed that of course because its readership has been so widespread- there were 7-8 year olds in the queue for the book behind us, as well as adults. But it develops for exactly the same reason that Buffy develops, and even Stalky and Co manage to do a little bit, because perceptions and the character's ability to interpret what is going on changes as they grow up.

Which is why the comedic school of the first book changes to the sort of place where Umbridge has ministerial approval to torture children in the fifth. That's not really much different to the way I remember the teachers in my middle school and my high school- the middle school ones were either nice or frightening, the high school ones were rather more complicated. There's an increase in understanding of motivation and character by Harry himself that allows the adults to stop being ciphers and start being characters (to the extent that JKR does characters, of course.)

You might well not like the later books but there only seem to be three alternatives; stop at three books, start again with a younger child, or make Harry one of those awful characters from the sixth form school books where they play cricket a lot who always seem to me now to be dangerously institutionalised and pathetically naive.

Re the writing; yes, of course the style is not good. Every point you make is ca good one.

Nevertheless, there are many books that I give up reading because the style is so bad (the latest ones are the Hidden Empire series, where my loathing of the style finally outweighed my interest in the plot, Dan Brown where I got a chapter in, and as for Eragon....)

I've never found JKR's style a hindrance. It's not good; there is no pleasure to be gained from her phrasing, and the horrible paragraph quoted was one that did bring me up short. But, in the context of the story she's telling, it isn't really a problem.

By context I don't mean that its a children's book; that's certainly no excuse. But it comes back to the Harry-centric nature of the writing. There is no narrative voice (that's probably a technical term that I'm misusing).

The writing forms two functions at once (but only two); it's a description of Harry's perceptions and feelings at any given time and by default it's also a screenplay (which is why each conversion to film is the least controversial ever).

As a result there's no insight from the author that isn't an insight of Harry's. Harry's not a particularly introspective or eloquent character, so we don't get thoughtful and eloquent prose. And I think it's much easier to be tolerant of a character's bad prose than an author's.

That is presumably why the other characters come across as a bit cardboard. One only ever sees as much into them as Harry does. Harry himself I think is pretty rounded, in a teenage sort of way.

Incidentally I thought that style worked best in parts of the last book where the collapse of wizard society was seen in this rather disjointed and confused way. It was also in the last book that JKR moved away from it to describe scenes where Harry was absent, and that didn't work very well at all.

I thought your theory about computer games was interesting, but doesn't really explain why the first couple of books were successful.

And the children's fantasy market appears to be ever increasing, so I don't think it's putting them off (incidentally, I see the Belgariad has just been reprinted in snazzy covers and added to the Teen Fiction section).

On a similar note, because I can see you're not tired of reading this post yet, I saw a trailer last night for a fantasy film so cliched it actually had me laughing out loud in the cinema. To stop, abruptly, when they announced that it was an adaptation of "The Dark is Rising".

Jason Fisher said...

First, thanks for a thoughtful post. Now, to my disagreement with it. :)

As Andrew suggests, Harry's chief distinguishing feature is his messy hair.

Err, isn’t somebody forgetting something. Isn’t Harry’s scar his chief distinguishing feature?!

I am on the side of Mike Taylor (excellent substantiation with Lewis, as I would have pointed to also). I should note, too, that Tolkien greatly disliked Stevenson, though you esteem both of them highly yourself. Philip Pullman hates Lewis and Tolkien. And plenty of Tolkien and Lewis fans I know hate Pullman. Point being: tastes differ.

Other commenters have rebutted most of the points I’d have disagreed with, so I’ll just offer one or two short replies to your argument about good writing versus bad. First, that long sentence you so disliked from the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? There’s nothing particularly wrong with it from a writing standpoint. Virginia Woolf (certainly no slouch!) has a remarkable, and structurally similar, sentence of 181 words in her essay “On Being Ill”. Just because a sentence is long, it isn’t automatically bad.

Second, your points about minimizing adjectives, avoiding adverbs altogether, and showing instead of telling — all of that is overly facile, mere pap fed to beginning writers. As very general rules, these are not bad suggestions, but when taken too strictly, they can produce writing every bit as bad as that you seem to dislike so much. And not following them doesn’t automatically produce bad writing either. Take a look at Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer for elaboration on this.

Is Rowling’s writing the best I’ve read? Certainly not. But I love her books nonetheless. And the idea that Rowling is “cur[ing] the kids of imagination for the rest of their lives” — hardly. If there’s one thing you can’t defensibly accuse Rowling of, it’s lack of imagination — or the catalyzing of it readers of all ages.

Julien said...

From Charles Dickens's "Our Mutual Friend". Compare and contrast with the scene in the kitchen:

The great looking-glass above the sideboard, reflects the table and
the company. Reflects the new Veneering crest, in gold and eke in silver, frosted and also thawed, a camel of all work. The Heralds' College found out a Crusading ancestor for Veneering who bore a camel on his shield (or might have done it if he had thought of it), and a caravan of camels take charge of the fruits and flowers and candles, and kneel down be loaded with the salt. Reflects Veneering; forty, wavy-haired, dark, tending to corpulence, sly,
mysterious, filmy--a kind of sufficiently well-looking veiled-
prophet, not prophesying. Reflects Mrs Veneering; fair, aquiline-
nosed and fingered, not so much light hair as she might have,
gorgeous in raiment and jewels, enthusiastic, propitiatory,
conscious that a corner of her husband's veil is over herself.
Reflects Podsnap; prosperously feeding, two little light-coloured
wiry wings, one on either side of his else bald head, looking as like his hairbrushes as his hair, dissolving view of red beads on his forehead, large allowance of crumpled shirt-collar up behind.
Reflects Mrs Podsnap; fine woman for Professor Owen, quantity of
bone, neck and nostrils like a rocking-horse, hard features,
majestic head-dress in which Podsnap has hung golden offerings.
Reflects Twemlow; grey, dry, polite, susceptible to east wind,
First-Gentleman-in-Europe collar and cravat, cheeks drawn in as if
he had made a great effort to retire into himself some years ago, and had got so far and had never got any farther. Reflects mature young lady; raven locks, and complexion that lights up well when well powdered--as it is--carrying on considerably in the captivation of mature young gentleman; with too much nose in his face, too much ginger in his whiskers, too much torso in his waistcoat, too much sparkle in his studs, his eyes, his buttons, his talk, and his teeth. Reflects charming old Lady Tippins on Veneering's right; with an immense obtuse drab oblong face, like a face in a tablespoon, and a dyed Long Walk up the top of her head, as a convenient public approach to the bunch of false hair behind,
pleased to patronize Mrs Veneering opposite, who is pleased to be
patronized. Reflects a certain 'Mortimer', another of Veneering's oldest friends; who never was in the house before, and appears not to want to come again, who sits disconsolate on Mrs Veneering's left, and who was inveigled by Lady Tippins (a friend of his boyhood) to come to these people's and talk, and who won't talk. Reflects Eugene, friend of Mortimer; buried alive in the back of his chair, behind a shoulder--with a powder-epaulette on it--of the mature young lady, and gloomily resorting to the champagne chalice whenever proffered by the Analytical Chemist. Lastly, the
looking-glass reflects Boots and Brewer, and two other stuffed
Buffers interposed between the rest of the company and possible
accidents.

Harry said...

SK: perhaps Unitarians rather than Anglicans.

Andrew: Thank you. This article confirms that I contain multitudes, because I enjoyed it but I also enjoyed the books.

charlene said...

I will add my voice to the chorus saying that I agree with most of the points you make (I had a teacher who took off points every time we used "said" in a story, grr), but not with the conclusion. (I love the HP books, though I certainly don't love them the way I madly adore Tolkien.)

It's a pity if their first meetings with dragons and unicorns are in this mushed-up watered-down baby-food form...But isn't it equally likely that 1.3 million words of knock-off reproduction fantasy will leave them never wanting to see another dragon ever again?

I do have to disagree strongly with this. No kid is going to be turned off fantasy by reading Rowling, for two reasons. First, as Le Guin remarked somewhere-or-another, kids read mush, and it is good for them. When I was a kid, I read indiscriminately: Tolkien and Le Guin and Dragonlance (which, by the way, is infinitely more twee than Rowling, plus having much worse grammar) and Cooper and Mercedes Lackey (which is much worse than Rowling, who at least doesn't pretend to be writing high fantasy). And I eventually learned to tell the difference.

Second, I'd be surprised if most kids even realize that adults would stick both Hogwarts and Earthsea in the same artificial "fantasy" category. They have entirely different feels.

Jallan said...

I think I've only read, at most the first two Harry Potter books. I didn't continue because they didn't particularly interest me and I couldn't see what the fuss was all about.

Yet your criticisms do seem to me to be somewhat, shall we say, unfair, in the way that academics and adult-folk used to criticize the Oz books (which were banned from most public libraries as unliterary trifles) and the way that many criticise J.R.R. Tolkien's writing.

With Tolkien, they often use the same trick you did: the critic supplies a passage by another writer who writes in an entirely different style, and claims that because the writing of the former is almost universally recognized as "good writing", therefore Tolkien is not a good writer, as though one cannot appreciate both beef bourguignon and baked alaska.

I might claim that Homer was a bad writer, in calling Achilles "fleet-footed" instead of showing us that he was a fast runner, in calling Odysseus, again and again, "wiley" without showing us his wiles. And where did "tamer of horses" come from for Hector? Shouldn't Homer have either shown Hector breaking-in horses or have found some more reasonable descriptive phrase. How often must we be told that Agamemnon is "King of Men"?

It seems to me to be quite acceptable that Rowling, in providing a description if the entire gang together in one setting, should put them in one sentence as an emphasis on their togetherness and should also provide them with their normal descriptions. There is a delight in recognition in such passages.

That the books to some extent resemble D&D-style games is reasonable. As a child I recall reading some older books about "chums" at English boarding schools and many of those stories were rather contrived mysteries in which the protagonists gathered clues by talking to the right people and making the proper responses (in between getting kidnapped and beaten up and gettgin in trouble with adults and so forth).

Though I didn't like the Rowling books particularly, from the little I've read of them, I don't think comments comparing them with what you feel are obviously(?) far superior stories you read as a child makes a point any more than someone whose childhood reading was Hans Christian Anderson can make a point by looking down on Walter R. Brooks' Freddy the Pig. You do much better when defending your tastes against the absurd criticism of others than when taking the other side.

Mark Twain wrote an hilarious essay proving, he thought, that James Fenimore Cooper was a horrible, horrible writer. I think Twain proved his point, mostly. But despite that, I still love Cooper's writing as do many others. You can't prove badness in the way you are attempting to prove it.

Remember Rudyard Kipling: "There are one and twenty ways To recite a tribal lay And each and every one of them is right."

Jim Allan

Tom said...

"If there’s one thing you can’t defensibly accuse Rowling of, it’s lack of imagination"


That was a joke, right?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

There are some valid points here and some that are less valid. Many of your problems with the series seem to be rooted in a dissonance between the story you thought you were reading and the one Rowling was actually writing. For example, your criticism against Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is that it is at this point that "Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment", whereas I believe she was always doing the latter.

Whether this failure in communication is your fault or Rowling's is a matter for discussion - by the end of the second book, it seemed fairly obvious to me that the series was headed for a climactic battle between good and evil, but others' mileage may vary. Similarly, it is possible to debate which one of those stories - the revamped boarding school novel or the epic fantasy - is more worthy and more suited to Rowling's gifts (I tend to feel that one of the series's greatest attractions is the way in which she combines the two). Ultimately, however, it seems more than a little unfair to criticize the series for not being the story you wanted to read.

Which is not to say that you don't make some good points. Rowling is by no means a good writer, and in Deathly Hallows especially I was often brought up short by an unfortunate turn of phrase. It's also true that the plot token structure of Deathly Hallows is problematic. You've made the argument that Rowling wants to tell the story of the parent generation, not that of Harry and his contemporaries, before, and while I don't agree with it entirely - discovering his past is one of Harry's most important avenues to adulthood - it is certainly true that the adult characters are a great deal more interesting than the children.

All of these points, however, good and bad, are unfortunately overshadowed by some truly vile generalizations about the people who read and like the books.

It's the only form of narrative structure these people understand.

This is why fans of the series are so obsessed with spoilers. No-one pretends that they are waiting for the new book for the sheer fun of reading about what hi-jinks Harry and the gang will get up to this term.

Any sense of tension or suspense you may experience – and I can't deny that I kept turning the pages over – is created by the publicity campaign, not by the book itself.

I don't blame adults for reading this kind of thing. Adults use books to send themselves to sleep after a stressful day at the office. They don't expect them to make much sense. They probably don't pay much attention to them.

You're just a hop and a skip away from being A.S. Byatt at this point.

Oh, and as someone who read all seven books out loud, I can't for the life of me imagine what the problem is with saying "Harry, Ron and Hermione." Unless you're trying to cram all eight syllables into a single breath, in which case your kid is probably better off with the audio-books anyway.

Wallsy said...

Utter crap.

There are certainly a lot of things wrong with the Harry Potter books, but this missed all of them and focused on things that aren't actually bad.


====
we don't use "the vacuum cleaner", we use "the hoover" or "the dyson". So why say "the appliances" rather than "the fridge" or "work surfaces" rather than "Formica top"?
====

Uh, I say vacuum cleaner, and "appliances" is more than just a fridge. I have no idea what a "Formica top" is, but I would normally say bench. Unless I wanted to include the table as well.

So that criticism was complete crap.


====
To this vague language, Rowling applies teacher-pleasing describing-words like "gleaming" and "spotless". Is it physically possible to clean a "work-surface" so much that it gleams?
====

Has Andrew Rilstone really never heard "gleaming" (and similar words) used to describe something that is very clean? Whether it's literally possible or not is irrelevant.


====
A writer would have picked out some details which conveyed this comic situation: "The room smelt of pine and chlorine."; "Harry smiled when Hagrid plonked his big bum on the newly polished dining table."
====

Other than not really fitting the style of the book, I don't see how this is any better or worse than Rowling's actual words. Well, other than the "chlorine" bit. I have never encountered a kitchen that smells of chlorine.


====
Dudley is taken to "burger bars" rather than to "McDonalds"; he has a "computer console" rather than a "Playstation 2".
====

Not mentioning specific brands seems fairly reasonable to me.


====
In the movie, Ron is occasionally allowed to say "bloody", but in the books, the most he ever does is "use swearwords." In the latest volume, one of the adults gets to say "bastard" and "bitch" but the children limit themselves to "Merlin's underpants!" and "Merlin's baggy Y-fronts!"
====

Just a guess, but it could be because they're children's books.


====
When you are reunited with old friends, your heart does not "seem to expand and glow". I am not even sure what a glowwy expandy heart would feel like.
====

That would be a metaphor, and I understood it without difficulty.


====
A writer might have described actual human emotions based on her actual human experience: "Harry felt as if he had just finished some intense physical exercise". She might have shown us what Harry felt by showing us what he is doing: "He started to giggle uncontrollably at the weakest of jokes." Or she might have just told us how he felt in plain language: "Harry was very pleased to see them all again." Rowling simply mouths a boy-band lyric: a set of words which have no actual meaning behind them.
====

So, you'd prefer if it were written in a more boring manner?


The bit where he quotes other books, written in different styles, is pointless. Yes, it's written in a different style to those. So?


====
The problem sets in around volume 4, when Rowling ceases to treat Hogwarts as a literary device and starts treating it as if it was a real educational establishment. The whimsical "Billy Bunter with a magic wand" adventures become subordinate to a painfully derivative fantasy quest story in which Harry is the Chosen One who can defeat the Dark Lord.
====

So, you'd prefer if it had been the same book over and over again? The later books are different to the earlier ones. They're supposed to be. What's the problem?


====
The actual battle, by the way, is so convoluted that only a child could possibly understand it.
====

What? I didn't have any difficulty, and I'd been up all night (I was reading my sister's copy and wanted to finish it before I went home) by that stage.


And near the beginning he mentions liking things like "Diagon Alley, spellotape, the Mirror of Erised" but then later seems to be saying that similar things "Grimmauld Place" are bad.


As I said, there are plenty of things wrong with those books, but those aren't them.

Dan said...

Err, isn’t somebody forgetting something. Isn’t Harry’s scar his chief distinguishing feature?!

No.

Harry's scar is a mcguffin. Like his invisibility cloak. It's something he carries around with him and gets benefits from.

I think when Andrew says "his chief distinguishing feature is his messy hair" he means that Potter's hair is the thing that tells us most about his personality. We all know exactly what "the skinny kid with glasses and perennially messy hair" is supposed to be like. Several of, I imagine, were exactly that kid at school.

Second, your points about minimizing adjectives, avoiding adverbs altogether, and showing instead of telling — all of that is overly facile, mere pap fed to beginning writers.

I can't speak for Andrew, but several people here seem to be under the impression that Andrew is saying "JK Rowling is a bad writer because she does not follow this set of arbitrary rules". I think that he is in fact saying "JK Rowling is a bad writer, and here are some commonly accepted guidelines which describe the ways in which her writing is bad."

"Show don't tell" may be an oversimplification, but it's an oversimplification of a valid point. Throughout the Potter books we are told that Harry possessed many admirable qualities. He is brave and loyal and clever and noble and apparently also "the master of death." We seldom see him displaying any of these qualities. Instead we see him procrastinate, whine, shout at people and generally act like a moron. This creates a disconnect between the character Rowling wants us to believe Harry to be, and the character I see him as.

I'm sure you could come up with a long complicated name for that problem, one which is less "overly facile" than the one which Andrew uses, but really why would you bother when "show don't tell" works perfectly well.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

The bit where he quotes other books, written in different styles, is pointless. Yes, it's written in a different style to those. So?

Oh, for Dumbledore's sake. I quoted two books and one comic, written in what is (in my opinion) a BETTER style to Rowling, and explained why (in my opinion) that style is BETTER.

The "point" that I was trying to make is that some people might (I thought, perhaps) say that Rowling's bad (in my opinion) writing didn't matter very much because of the age of her target-audience, so I felt that I should point out some books written for the same target audience where the the writing was (in my opinion) good.

If I say that the pizza in such-and-such a restaurant was (in my opinion) bad; then I don't have to show that I can cook a better pizza: I claim to be a restaurant critic, not a pizza chef. But I should point out some restaurant in a similar price range that (in my opinion) cooks good pizza, and explain why (in my opinion) their pizza is nicer.

ian said...

ah, some proper criticism on the subject; thanks, mr. Rilstone.
Rowling, as a writer, simply suffers from having nothing to say.
Must agree with "charlene" though; if dragonlance (or Brown) could not kill fantasy, nothing will.
andrew stevens: you are certainly right about those being odd comparisons (such as viewing a children/young adult book on the same level as a fairly mature adult epic), but:
"(Nothing wrong with Narnia, of course, but it's an obvious hodge-podge that Lewis was making up as he went along. It's enjoyable in spite of that.)"
that would be the filmatized book only you are talking about, then?;)

Louise H said...

"(Nothing wrong with Narnia, of course, but it's an obvious hodge-podge that Lewis was making up as he went along. It's enjoyable in spite of that.)"
that would be the filmatized book only you are talking about, then?;)


The Magician's Nephew.

Pure and (presumably) unashamed retconning.

I would much rather read a series (like HP) where the author has a reasonable idea of where it is going from the start. Even if (like Tolkien) he isn't always sure of how he's going to get there. Otherwise you end up with the Face of Boe. Or Twin Peaks.

(is that enough geek culture references in one para?)

Helen Louise said...

Oh, but I like The Magician's Nephew!

It's funny how emotionally involved we can get in topics like these... After Order of the Phoenix, I got an e-mail from someone who'd obviously found some fellow HP fans on the internet, asking me to join the protest marches, boycotts and "letters to JK" campaigns to get [dead character] back. I thought the boycott idea was particularly inept.

Dan you said:
The reason (I suggest) that we care about the Potter characters is because they're familiar, because everybody knows about them. I've read more about Snape in casual conversations on the internet than I have in seven books worth of material.
I'm not sure what you mean - if you mean that they're familiar because the books are well-known, then that doesn't explain why anyone liked them when they weren't popular... and if you mean that they're familiar in the sense that we recognise them as being like people we know and it's easy to identify them, then I'd argue that that is evidence of good writing.

Throughout the Potter books we are told that Harry possessed many admirable qualities. He is brave and loyal and clever and noble and apparently also "the master of death." We seldom see him displaying any of these qualities. Instead we see him procrastinate, whine, shout at people and generally act like a moron.
I don't actually think that is the case, though. Or at least, yes, he does procrastinate, whine, shout at people and act like a moron. But he's also brave, loyal, clever and noble. And I think that's what makes him an interesting character.

Helen Louise said...

(well, maybe not clever...)

ian said...

? Narnia did end up with a coherent cosmology; even that rare thing in a created world, boundaries. That it grew along the way is surely a mere formality?
But then, i liked the David Lynch parts of Twin Peaks as well.

Kevin said...

Exactly!

Dan said...

I'm not sure what you mean - if you mean that they're familiar because the books are well-known, then that doesn't explain why anyone liked them when they weren't popular... and if you mean that they're familiar in the sense that we recognise them as being like people we know and it's easy to identify them, then I'd argue that that is evidence of good writing.

I mean a little of both, actually.

Before the books got famous, I think people identified with the characters because they were fairly archetypal. This I genuinely do think was good writing. Good, but not great. Harry, Ron and Hermione had just enough personality for us to like them, but not enough personality to put us off liking them.

Once they got famous though, I genuinely think that the fame began to take the place of characterization. It becomes glaringly apparent that, for example, Snape is much less complex than the internet assumed he was.

Essentially I don't think Harry is *badly* characterised, I just don't think he's very *well* characterised either.

I don't actually think that is the case, though. Or at least, yes, he does procrastinate, whine, shout at people and act like a moron. But he's also brave, loyal, clever and noble. And I think that's what makes him an interesting character.

Harry is moderately brave, moderately loyal, and has nods towards nobility. But he's no braver or more loyal (and arguably a deal less noble) than any of the other characters in the book.

I don't dislike Harry. I think he's a bit bland. I do object to being told every five minutes that Harry is totally and utterly wonderful.

I mean for Pete's sake, he gets to literally become Jesus at the end of the book.

Andrew Rilstone said...

By "hodge podge" I assume you mean "Spenserian synthesis"?

Tpolg said...

I had never read any Harry Potter till today. I had to go see the secret Potty chamber movie because I lost a bet (never bet against Lord of the Rings) but I mentally gave the books the benefit of the doubt, and figured that they were much better than the movies (thus being only horrendously bad). But now, after reading your sample paragraph it appears that the movies are actually better than the books.

ian said...

Mr. Rilstone said:
"By "hodge podge" I assume you mean "Spenserian synthesis"?"

always wondered why people did not notice that.
but yes - after the first book, (and some criticism from Tolkien) lewis had a quite clear idea of what he was about.

Charlene said...

I agree with your general point, but I think you might be a bit misinformed with respect to the difficulties a writer can get into when publishing internationally.

A book that is simultaneously published in many countries is subject to the laws of each of those nations. The brand names you've mentioned (Hoover, Dyson, Formica) are still legally registered trademarks in many countries, including the US. Ownership of a trademark in the US gives the owner the exclusive commercial use of that brand name, but it also forces them to vigorously defend their trademark lest they lose the right to that exclusive use. If the right is lost, the trademark passes into the public domain, and any competitor can describe their product using that brand name. (See "Webster's Dictionary" and (outside Canada) "aspirin" for examples.) If Rowling had a character "hoovering the floor" or sitting on a "Formica top", she would be using a trademark as a generic, and the owners of the Hoover and Formica trademarks would have the right and even the duty to sue her to protect themselves.

Perhaps less importantly from a legal point of view, many of these terms would not be understood in the least by the international readers who make up the bulk of Rowling's fans. A Canadian, for instance, would understand what "hoovering" meant but might giggle at the term (you hoover cocaine, not the floor, which you vacuum). He would likely, however, have no clue whatsoever what a dyson was, and he might wonder why the narrator felt it necessary to specify the exact composition of the countertop.

Some writers publish separate British and North American editions for these reasons, but perhaps Rowling or her publishers didn't want to do that.

Books Aloud said...

I was under the impression that Rowling had indeed published separate British and North American editions. I’ve just finished reading the series as U.S. audiobooks and I’m sure they can’t be the same as the U.K. versions. Some of the pronunciations are odd to my British ears. Stalactites have the stress on the second syllable, for instance. And the vocabulary is oddly American, too. Dustbins are called “trashcans”, training shoes are called “sneakers” and fringes (back to the ubiquitous hairstyles) are called “bangs”. And wasn’t “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” published in the U.S. as “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”?

Liz said...

For me, the genre fluidity is one of the best things about Harry Potter. It's not 'just another school story' and neither is it 'just another fantasy adventure.' Obviously, as you prefer the first three books, you like traditional school stories. "Since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling's publishers have performed an Equus style striptease act" Book 4 is the point at which the series changes from being simply a school story to something much more complicated. It's a shame that you stopped paying attention in book 6 - you missed out or didn't recognise that these books are about what it means to be alive and what it means to be dead, rather than what it means to be teacher's pet. The reason for the "Equus style striptease act" is that is actually very difficult to briefly summarise the books, as each of the film directors has found out.

Anne-Marie said...

Thank you for stating beautifully why I never liked these books. I tried the first one in English, and it bored me. When I went to live in Austria for a year, I read them in German because my vocabulary wasn't up to adult books. By the fiftieth page of the third book, I was bored again. I read all sorts of books, so it isn't the story -- it's the atrocious writing. However, I dare you to answer the question, "(gasp) Why don't you like the Harry Potter books?!?" by saying, "Because they're bad." I'm pretty sure that's a good way to die.

Iain said...

Andrew, you wrote:

This may be the single worst paragraph ever committed to paper by a published author. The first sentence is far too long. It gets caught up in a monotonous and repetitive formula: "This character, with this attribute and this attribute, doing this thing: that character, with that attribute and that attribute, doing that thing."

Always wanting to play the devil's advocate, could I say that I found the deliberately extended almost hypnotic repetition to be quite interesting in a literary fashion - a kind of word picture as HP takes in all his friends and what strikes him about them at that time (which will turn out to be the last time for some of them).

Quite often monotony and banality can be used as a deliberate device, for example in Ravel's Bolero, of which Ravel himself wrote "I have only ever written one masterpiece. Unfortunately it contains no music".

A similar effect is used in the first movement of Shostakovich's 7th Symphony - seemingly endless repetition of an incredibly banal tune, of the kind that once you've heard it, never leaves your head. The tune, like in Bolero just gets layered with more and more heavy, and equally banal ornamentation till you're just desperate for it to stop. It irritated Bela Bartok so much that he inserted a parody of it in his own "Concerto for orchestra". By all normal standards of symphonic writing, it's abysmal - and yet the effect is deliberate, and overwhelming and conveys exactly what the composer thought about the war.

Going back to literary examples, as a matter of interest, would you apply the same dismissive literary criticism to Psalm 136 of which the formula is {God did this} (his love endures for ever) {God did that} (his love endures for ever) etc etc etc for quite a long time.

Andrew Rilstone said...

The question of "badness" in literature is quite difficult. I was taught never to start sentence with the word "and" or "but". But there are many decent writers who quite often break the rule. And I don't think that it is necessarily a response to say "Ha-ha: according to your rule, Tolkien must have been a bad writer." The writer's code is more guidelines than rules.

A gifted word-smith may have spotted that

"...he smote once more upon the brazen doors, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat. And Morgoth came."

is better than

"...he smote once more upon the brazen door, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat, and Morogth came."

or

"he smote once more upon the brazen door, and challenged Morgoth to come forth to single combat....and Morgoth came"

or even

"he smote once more upon the brazen door, and challenge Morgoth to come forth to single combat. To everyone's great surprise, Morgoth came."

(I think that the period before the "and" represents and exaggerated pause: we subliminally hold our breaths for a second and think "will he come or not". The full-stop makes us feel surprised, which is better than writing "surprisingly enough." Compare: "(He) besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave.")

I said that Rowling over-applies a rule that prissy school-teachers used to give to young children: "Put lots of adjectives in your writing", and pointed out that the advice given to adults is more often "Put as few adjectives as possible in your writing." But clearly, both "rules" are actually guidelines, and I am not such a fool as to think that the mere presence of a describing-word in a piece of text is sufficient grounds to damn the writing.

The ballad beginning "The old home town looks the same / as I step down from the train" tells us on now less than twelve occasions that the grass around the speaker's home town is "green". What other colour should it be? Is the protagonist an inhabitant of the planet Brupekedrin 13 who is surprised that the grass is not a purply shade of mauvy russet? Of course, the adjective isn't there to convey information: it's there to create a more subtle literary effect. It's what folk singers would call "a kenning", a repetitious tag that is intended to make a particular phrase memorable. We hear "it's good to touch the green, green grass of home" five times; and the two "greens" make it stick in our memory. This generates a certain sentimental impact when it changes to "and they'll lay me neath the green, green grass of home" in the final line.

Similarly, when Dickens uses the word "fog" 14 times in one paragraph, he is generating a literary effect which would probably have been spoiled if he had crossed the paragraph out and replaced it with "It was very foggy."

The Biblical example is problematic, because it expects the response "You surely aren't saying that God is a bad writer?" I don't think that the belief that a particular text is the carrier of the logos (or, for that matter, that it is Infallible Word Of God) requires you to believe that it is great literature, any more than a belief in the Incarnation implies that Jesus was necessarily a champion sprinter or the world's tallest man. The King James version of the Psalm 136 is a choral, call-and-response hymn, which makes use of "parallelism" -- as we were taught in Sunday School, the words don't rhyme, but the meanings rhyme.

So the same thing is repeated in different words, in order to give it emphasis: "To him which smote great kings....and slew famous kings...And Og the King of Bashann". Much of the poem is simply a narrative summary of the book of Exodus: "To him which divided the Red Sea in parts...And made Israel to pass through the midst of it...But overthrew pharaoh and his hoist into the Red sea..."

I assume that service leader is intended to call out the first part of each phrase ("Who remembered us in our low estate") and the congregation calls out the refrain ("for his mercy endureth forever"). Presumably, chanting "his mercy endureth forever" 26 times is intended to impress the concept on the congregations mind: and this is meant to have a spiritual effect on them (like a "mantra" in Hinduism). Or possibly the repetition was part of the musical setting?

You think that the "haircut" paragraph in Rowling may have a specific literary purpose. I don't find it so myself; but I certainly agree that your explanation is the kind of defense that Rowling needs. It is no help to say "it's a children's book" or "it doesn't matter whether or not it is well written," or "yah-boo, Andrew's a literary snob" or "you just happen to prefer Stan Lee's style to J.K Rowling's". It is very helpful to say "In fact, Rowling's style, is one that she has deliberately adopted in order to produce a very definite effect; and if you tried to "improve" the text, you would in fact find that the books no longer worked."

I can certainly think of writers of whom this is true: everyone calls Lovecraft a terrible writer; yet everyone knows the Chthulu mythos, and it's hard to see how you could "improve" Lovecraft's style and leave the mythos intact. The idea that this is true of Rowling is worth exploring.

Iain said...

Looking again at the paragraph, I think my initial "explanation" of deliberate banality is probably incorrect, though it was an example of how such things could be used to valid effect. It seems to me the effect is more cinematic - one sees a long slow pan, the camera playing on each character in turn - with these characters, contrasted mainly by their different hairstyles, all united in a common goal.

I'm not sure if cinematic techniques constitute "good writing" as I'm probably more a literary chav than a literary snob!

Tom R said...

"Dumbledore's death in the style of GK Chesterton"

By Zander Nyrond

Guardian Unlimited (Friday 15 July 2005)

http://books.guardian.co.uk/harrypotter/story/0,,1529505,00.html

HeoandReo said...

I'm probably not the kind of guy who's supposed to call out writers (Most I have so far is 10th Grade English), but like you, I never really saw the appeal of the books. I'm the type of person who doesn't want to get bored from the start, and for this reason, I preferred the earlier books vastly, because they were just long enough to tell a story, and not drag it on. Then again, those earlier books were the only ones I bothered to read. (My Potter resume is just books 1, 2, 3, and 100 pages of 5.)

I personally think that J.K. Rowling jumped the shark around book 4, where it stopped being a situation of actually giving the action, and more along the lines of 'OK gaiz lets go for the world record of longest fantasy book evar lololololol'. While more things can be added, sometimes, J.K. Rowling just heavily embellishes onto things. What could have taken 2 pages now takes 50. For chrissakes, I couldn't even make it through 100 pages of book 5 because nothing happened. (I'm probably exaggerating, but I don't remember if anything of note even happened, or if Harry had even returned to Hogwarts in those 100 pages. I'm thinking he didn't, and I never want to check.)

I've read pretty long books before, but that's because they managed to keep things going all through it. (A difficult feat, but possible.) Of course, different strokes for different folks, and that's just what I personally like in a book.

"I don't dislike Harry. I think he's a bit bland. I do object to being told every five minutes that Harry is totally and utterly wonderful.

I mean for Pete's sake, he gets to literally become Jesus at the end of the book."

That reminds me, I'm also not really liking the characters, either. Harry Potter himself is arguably the perfect literary example of the fan term, 'Mary Sue/Marty Stu'. He's got all these virtues written about him and everything handed to him despite showing evidence of the contrary, but even then, those are twisted, somehow, into virtues themselves.

Some of the other students also suffer from poor characterization. Draco Malfoy kind of showed some potential as a 'friendly rival' type of character, but the potential was taken away and he became a cookie-cutter villian similar to those seen in Saturday morning cartoons with their convoluted Rube Goldberg machines. Harry's friends are just there as devices to give Harry himself more depth. (i.e. Ron's there to be cowardly, or Hermione's there to look good, or whatever.) If Ms. Rowling wanted to write about 1 person only, she could just commission herself to write biographies and call it a day.

I hope J.K. Rowling still has some leftover potential to use, to go back to her roots instead of letting all the fame get to her head and continuing to write mediocre-at-best 'attempts' at books in general. I won't hold my breath. At best, the next one might be 500 pages instead of 500,000, and at worst, I don't wanna know.

Eros said...

After reading your post on Harry Potter, and the subsequent comments made by others on this fine blog, I've come to the conclusion that you are completely and utterly wrong on just about every point you tried to make, mostly due to your unwillingness to take the Harry Potter series seriously at all, and the fact that you openly admit to not caring about any of the characters and then proceed to lambast the author for not taking your hand through all the pages and offering play-by-play explanations of what's been going on during the six books you should've read carefully before the start of the seventh. It's a series for Christ's sakes, not several different novels with loosely connected plotlines.

"This may be the single worst paragraph ever committed to paper by a published author. The first sentence is far too long. It gets caught up in a monotonous and repetitive formula: "This character, with this attribute and this attribute, doing this thing: that character, with that attribute and that attribute, doing that thing."

Let me explain to you why this supposedly 'worst paragraph EVER' moved me close to tears.

As the seventh book is the last book in the series, I knew that Harry's adventures would end at the final page. This is an intensely emotional passage because you know that this is the last time you'll get to see Harry and his friends all together in one room--not because of a sleezy Big Brother publicity campaign on who will be voted off, but simply by virtue of the fact that this is the final book of the series. Harry, who hadn't seen his friends for several months after a particularly trying year, wanted to take in as much as he can in one glance, absorbing them all and taking in their love.

I, too, find your criticisms of Rowling's use of trade names (or lack thereof) to be utterly invalid. Is the pleasure you get from a novel that affected by 'tissues' instead of 'Kleenex?' Why on earth would you even care? And if you're concerned with recreating realistic teenage dialogue, seeing as how I'm a teenager I can guarantee you that 'kids these days' aren't raising eyebrows at their friends whenever someone says "Let's go get fast food!" as opposed to "Let's explore the myriad of fast food possibilities like Burger King, McDonald's, and Taco Bell!"

"I haven't really given Harry Potter much thought since I tossed Harry Potter and the Half-Baked Prince aside in disgust: so I freely admit that I had forgotten who "Fleur" was: it didn't help very much to be told that she was the slender, beautiful one."

Erm, okay? You openly admit to tossing aside book 6 and not paying much of the rest of the series any attention, then whine when you're not given a paragraph recap of who Fleur Delacour is at the very end of the series? Honey, we're at Book 7 now. If you can't recognize Fleur Delacour by name alone after she's made significant appearances in the past three books, that's really not J.K. Rowling's fault at all. Plus, Rowling doesn't have time to drag along casual readers with constant references to Fleur's past so they won't fall behind. She's not obligated as an author to sparknote her own text for you.

Your further criticisms of Rowling's writing seem to be coming from a standpoint of English critics lauding her for excellence in writing. No one with any literary merit is proclaiming to the world that Rowling is God's gift to writers. She herself isn't walking around wearing "I'm The World's Best Children's Writer" crown on her head. We all agree: she's not a great writer!

"Some people think that it doesn't matter what the younglings are reading, provided they are developing the habit of picking up books. Give the kids a shot of Harry Potter (the first hit is free) and before long they'll be full blown James Joyce addicts. Transformers leads to The Seventh Seal and The Da Vinci Code leads to Documents of the Christian Church as surely as the Northern Line leads to High Barnet. Is there actually any evidence for this?"

There isn't any evidence to the contrary, either, which makes this section in your post rather pointless. I've known plenty of kids who have read Harry Potter (myself included) and who are now majoring in English lit. I have both read and enjoyed James Joyce as well as Harry Potter, so make of that what you will.

"Harry can't, by definition, miss his parents, because he doesn't have any: by another piece of looking-glass logic, the only time he feels homesick is during the holidays."

Not only is this statement probably quite offensive to orphans everywhere, it truly shows you have not been reading the books with any sort of care at all, and have no place calling their literary worth into question. Harry pines for his parents nearly every day. The central theme of all seven books is death, the fear of it, trying to connect with those who have gone, constantly feeling as though a part of him is missing because his friends all have parents and he doesn't...Harry's greatest strength is his ability to love, and that means he does ache constantly for his parents, who continue to drive him and motivate him up until the last page of the book, where he names his children after them.

I also agree with an earlier poster that argued that there was a disconnect between the book you wanted to read and the book Rowling was actually writing. Given the climax of Philosopher's Stone, it was exceptionally obvious to me where we were headed by Book 7...Voldemort would return and Harry would have to face him. And you can't expect a 11 year-old to have the same reactions, interests, and insights as an adult 17 year-old.

"In the fifth volume, evil Blairite Dolores Umbridge starts to physically torture misbehaving pupils. Are we to read this as comic violence or react to it as a realistic depiction of quite serious child abuse? If the latter, are we entitled to ask whether there are social workers or schools inspectors in the wizarding world? If Harry is now the Hero With a Thousand Faces are we really supposed to care (or imagine that he cares) about his wizarding exams or who wins the Quidditch tournament?"

The answer Rowling gives us to your last question is quite clearly: NO! Harry comes to this realization as early as Book 1--as he's rallying support from Ron and Hermione to capture the Philosopher's Stone, he argues that there's no point to worrying about expulsion or exams because if Voldemort takes over, there will be no Hogwarts to worry about! This also demonstrates that you really have not read the books with any sort of care. We are entittled to call into question the lack of social services in the Wizarding World--Rowling utilizes this world she's created as a microcosm of our own, pointing out institutionalized racism, bigotry, and the dangers of a totalitarian government. The wizarding world is by no means a perfect place, and Rowling rather candidly acknowledges this.

"We only cared about the identity of the Heir of Slytherin and the location of the Philosopher's Stone in so far as they provided a pretext for Harry to leave the dorm after lights out, sneak into the girls' toilets (sorry, bathrooms) and generally have a thrilling but slightly naughty time."

Correction: you only cared about the identity of the Heir of Slytherin because it allowed Harry to experience night-time shenanigans. My friends and I who have read and enjoyed the books are genuinely interested in the mythology and background of the world Harry lives in. The Heir of Slytherin Story is one of my favorites, and quite scary, too.

"So, instead of following any conventional narrative structure, the books are built like computer games."

There are two things wrong with this critique. One is your assumption that books who don't follow a conventional narrative structure are 'bad,' and that the sort of 'adventure format' of a modern day roleplaying game makes for a dull, tedious story. I'd like to point to Final Fantasy (particularly FFX and FFVII, FVIII) for having riveting stories, as well as a score of other games that if put into novel form would make for great reading.

"Wizards have godfathers, celebrate Christmas, name hospitals after saints and put quotes from the Bible on their grave stones, but they don't have churches, vicars or Christenings and their weddings and funerals are secular affairs. But hey, it's only a kid's book, right?"

The Wizarding World Rowling paints is a largely secular one. There may well have been Christian Saints in Wizarding History hundreds of years ago, but the practice of combining wizardry with religion seems to have died out, most likely due to the way religion, in particular Christianity, has treated witches and wizards and the like. And at the same time, there are millions of families alive today who are not the least bit religious but celebrate Christmas and the like as secular holidays. And how do you know a Wizard Christening is remotely like a Christian one? Sirius is named Harry's godfather, but we have no idea as to how this title was bestowed upon him, there very well may have been no religious ceremony involved.

"This is why fans of the series are so obsessed with spoilers. No-one pretends that they are waiting for the new book for the sheer fun of reading about what hi-jinks Harry and the gang will get up to this term. The only reason for reading it is to discover which new pages from her notebook J.K Rowling is going to release into the public domain. Once you know that information, there's no actual need to read the book."

There is tension created, sure, by publishers who tease fans with potential spoilers about who lives or who dies, but this is not the sole appeal to reading the book. Why do people care about the characters well-being if it was so shoddily written? Obviously, people have come to love these characters fiercely (which I believe is a mark of a great writer, and I don't know how you could possibly disagree), and yes there is some sort of morbid fascination with finding out if they live or die, but the attachment and the love comes first. Otherwise, why bother?

"But something has gone very wrong with a world in which children would rather read about a school-shaped theme-park than Greyfriars or Linbury Court or Malory Towers or //please insert name of contemporary school story here//. It's a pity if their first meetings with dragons and unicorns are in this mushed-up watered-down baby-food form. Oh, maybe after finishing Harry Potter they'll go looking for more dragon-books and stumble on A Wizard of Earthsea or The Sword in the Stone. But isn't it equally likely that 1.3 million words of knock-off reproduction fantasy will leave them never wanting to see another dragon ever again? And is that why the Harry Potter series seems to be approved of by the kinds of grown-ups who openly sneer at Tolkien readers? Do they secretly hope that J.K Rowling is a kind of spiritual vaccination that will cure the kids of imagination for the rest of their lives?"

This last paragraph is equal parts silly and completely not true.

First off, you come off sounding incredibly elitist and out of touch with Rowling's story as well as her goals as a writer. No one can 'sedate' a child's imagination through bad writing. Claiming that a child's imagination is that prone to stifling is insulting to imaginative children everywhere. A child will keep imagining whether or not you feel like the unicorns in Harry Potter are properly presented.

Do you think that the kinds of parents who 'sneer at Tolkein readers' just unfortunately have an image of a Tolkein fan as someone who lives with his parents at the age of 30 and plays D&D every night with three other bachelors with substance abuse problems? I mean, if you're going to start stereotyping Harry Potter readers, I'm perfectly at license to do the same to fans of Tolkein.

I believe you did enjoy the first three Harry Potter books. I believe you found the fourth book's direction to be puzzling, wanting to read more of the same. What I have a hard time believing is that after your bad experience with the fourth book, you continued to read books five, six, and seven, each time becoming more 'disgusted' by the books and finally throwing down the sixth one in contempt. You were coming into reading these books with a negative perception already, whether that was from jealousy (HP getting more attention and praise than C.S. Lewis' work) or your annoyance with how immensely popular the books have become so much that people everywhere couldn't shut the hell up about them.

If you're ever interested, please, please, please read books four through five again, this time with more of an open-mind. They're quite beautiful, and surprisingly deep in social commentary as well as philosophy.

Whew, rant over. Thanks for reading!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Oh, don't hold back. Tell me what you really thought.

Brad said...

Excellent essay, thank you.

"Give children or thick adults ... Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and they will feel right at home."

Heh. I've come across quite a few of those 'thick adults' in the past year, trying valiantly to justify lauding Rowling as a literary God.

I appreciated very much your equating Harry Potter - and in particular 'Deathly Hallows' - with a computer game. What made Rowling's work even more amateurish, and this comparison even more valid, was her writing the characters themselves acknowledging this fact, multiple times, including Mr. Lovegood's observation:

"... One simply uses the symbol to reveal oneself to other believers, in the hope that they might help one with the Quest."

and Harry's outright statement:

"But you said it, Hermione! You've got to find out about them for yourself! It's a Quest!"

Capitalised 'Q' and all.

It's a sad indictment of an Author's desperation when she has the actual characters trying to legitimise the plot in this manner, practically breaking the 'fourth wall' in winking at the reader and making comments on the story in which they are players.

Measi said...

I disagree that your other examples of books focused up on children are better. They're simply different, from another age of writing.

What's wonderful about Harry Potter is that the characters are present day. Children can relate to them, or recognize their peers in them.

And they READ these books - without prodding from their parents. Something strikes a chord with them, as opposed to the more "skilled language" classics which are dry and frankly unapproachable to many children.

Your complaint about name brands of items (the PSP, for example) shows your ignorance on the topic. Name brands of electronics can't be used in these books without clearance from the company, with rights clearances for every single nation they're published in. Therefore, it's much easier - and safer - to be generic. Particularly with something as massive as Harry Potter, where every named company would be suing to get proceeds for their names being in the books. It would be a legal nightmare.

I think the summation of your entire rant is that you didn't like the books, the writing doesn't speak to you, and therefore Harry Potter sucks. It's snobbish "these books are better" elitism, simply because YOU like them more. But really? It just comes down to a matter of preference, of style, and personal interest.

I prefer to celebrate the fact that a few years ago, I watched a nine year old who had never willingly read anything over ten pages by himself pick up the Harry Potter series, and didn't stop reading, having to be forced to go to bed. And undoubtedly even after being told to bed, he was reading under his comforter with the emergency flashlight from his bedside table, as quietly as possible, so he wouldn't be chastized again.

Perfect books or not, who cares? Children love them, and many of them have discovered the joy of getting lost in a book. Said nine-year-old now reads voraciously, and he says it's because Harry Potter made reading fun.

Therefore, the books are wonderful. For that reason alone.

Andrew Rilstone said...

think the summation of your entire rant is that you didn't like the books, the writing doesn't speak to you, and therefore Harry Potter sucks. It's snobbish "these books are better" elitism, simply because YOU like them more. But really? It just comes down to a matter of preference, of style, and personal interest.

The "rant" above could be applied to any critical work ever written by any critic, from Samuel Johnson or Oscar Wilde to the hack who write 200 words each week for the local paper. If all criticism is subjective, and any attempt to say "This book is well written, this book is poorly written" is snobbish then we can never say anything about books. Ever.

I wrote a 2,000 plus closely reasoned words explaining why I didn't think the latter books in the series works. If that comes down to personal preference, then best just sit in a corner going "bibble".

If J K Rowling has really bred a generation of children so stupid that they find Winnie the Pooh, Treasure Island and Spider-Man too "dry" to read then I really don't see too much hope for the human race.

Man In Art Gallery: Oh, I really don't like that painting.
Whistler (a painter): Then let me buy you a gin and tonic. You're sure to write that.
Oscare Wilde (overhearing): I wish I had said that!

You know the rest.

Rosemary said...

I'm still finding it hard to pin down why I'm not a fan of the Harry Potter books. All of the above is very well-reasoned, of course.

I agree that once you know the plot, the writing doesn't really merit going back and rereading later on (perhaps until you've forgotten the plot again). And I agree that the characterisation is bland. The comparison springs to mind with Orson Scott Card of Ender's Game, and his "parallel sequels" (another set of novels about the same events written from one of the other characters' point of view). Can you imagine the 7 Harry Potter novels again from Hermione's point of view? Or one of the Weasleys'? They would be exactly the same.

The only character for whom that might work would be my long-standing favourite, Snape, and I'm not sure Rowling could pull it off, on the evidence I've seen so far...

Kristopher A. Denby said...

Stirring the old porridge pot here, eh? It was a well-written article, and you made your points very well. But I found myself disagreeing with you on this most basic point: But I love Harry Potter, Andrew!

I won't make excuses for it, and I've got a lot more respect for your criticisms than I do for some of the comments posted here. Saying, "I really enjoyed HP, but Rowling is a shite writer" is tantamount to saying, "I like shite". It's a coward's way out and an obvious attempt at fitting in. Looking away while the cool kids beat up a nerd is no different than getting your own kick in while he's down.

If you're for something or against something, have the stones to say it without qualifying it. If you can't do that, you're just background noise to me.

Nice post, though.

Kris

The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

K said...

I came here to rant and realised Eros had already said everything I wanted to say.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am sorry for having criticised your religion.

David Pulver said...

"It gets caught up in a monotonous and repetitive formula: "This character, with this attribute and this attribute, doing this thing: that character, with that attribute and that attribute, doing that thing."

Isn't this particular paragraph just another take on the Catalog of Ships from Homer? By this time in the narrative everyone has their favorite character, so much like the Greeks wanting to make sure their home town is introduced, she's got to give everyone their due...

Mrs.Lacer said...

My daughter (8) is currently about half way through the final book and loving it, prior to starting Harry Potter (at around 7) she wasn't that into chapter books but thanks to a combination of JK Rowling and Roald Dahl, she no reads a wide range of writers. I think though that my daughter is more in debt (and therefore I am to) to Dahl rather than Rowling, as she was exposed to both at around about the same time and initially showed not that much interest in Rowling, it was only after the madness of things like Charlie and The Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach did she 'get' Hogwarts. But the Harry Potter series has taught her to follow very long story arcs, always a useful skill for when she gets into comics later ;)

I have to agree that JK Rowling's writing is not brilliant (it'll be interesting how she fairs when her adult book comes out) and she is overly descriptive and it bugs the hell out of me to see my daughter being taught in school to write the same way. It made me laugh, in an ironic sort of way, the other day when the school published a postcard Pullman had sent in reply to some questions sent by one of the older pupils, one of the questions had been 'you use 'said' a lot' (as in implied 'my teacher tells me not to use said'), to which Pullman replied something along the lines of 'yes I do use said a lot', if I remember correctly I think he said he found it useful.