Sunday, July 22, 2012

Harry Potter and the Anti-Potterists

One of my geek-friends recently said that he wanted nothing to do with “that Harry Potter shit.” I am often surprised by the vehement hatred of fellow sci fi/fantasy geeks to Harry Potter. I assume some of it is because Harry Potter is so mainstream—but the Lord of The Rings Movies made Tolkein mainstream and almost none of my Tolkein-loving friends derided them. They may complain that Tom Bombadil is missing, along with all of the poetry, but they’ll still sit down to watch the movies.

I assume some of what drives this hatred is that Harry Potter remains the exception—not the rule. Yes, dyslexic kids sat down and read 500 page books—but this didn’t lead those kids to pick up The Chronicles of Narnia or The Hobbit or The Dark is Rising or any other books at all (until Twilight came out). You don’t have to work very hard to appreciate Harry Potter. This was initially part of the joy of the world of Hogwarts and Quiddich—at least for me. It is possible to write books that are appropriate for children and still interesting to adults. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one such book. The Hobbit is another.

Why does liking one preclude liking the other? I think this might partly be a case of “It’s not the band—it’s the fans I hate.” During the Harry Potter madness I found that people at work would come to talk to me about Harry Potter books the same way they would come to talk to me about home PCs—because I was the person in the office that did that sort of thing (reading, buying/repairing PCs).

While I’m flattered that my colleagues think that I’m the go-to person in the office for matters literary, I still find it a bit sad. I know that not everyone reads books for entertainment the way I do, and I know that plenty of smart people don’t read for fun. But still.

When I think about the Potter books, I don’t just think about the narrative. There are many happy parts to the story of JK Rowling’s novels in the real world—and some sad ones (at least from my point of view.)

Harry Potter was published by Scholastic Books in the US. If you’re my age you may remember your grade school teacher sending you home with an multi-colored sales pamphlet for Scholastic books. You and your parents would choose which (if any) books you wanted to order and you would come back to school with a check and an order form (usually filled out by a parent.) Several weeks later, you’d come back from lunch to find several stacks of books in the classroom and the teacher would call out the names of all the kids that had placed orders and give them their stacks of books.

I am happy that Scholastic got to publish the money-bomb that was/is Harry Potter. I am happy that that there were kids who chewed through the lengthy tomes that were the last four volumes of Harry Potter.

I am less happy about the emergence of books as commodities that you can get at Walmart or BJ’s (or Amazon) instead of actual bookstores. Harry Potter didn’t start this fire, but I think he added a lot of fuel to it. Not his fault—not JK Rowling’s either.

Harry Potter grew up along with his original audience. The character ages through out the series. I personally, am impressed by this and I wonder how parents or educators of the future will meet this challenge—do they dole out the books at the rate of one a year (one maybe every two years?) A child that is old enough to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is not necessarily old enough to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

There’s another part of the narrative of the Place Of Harry Potter in Early 21st Century Literature—one I’m not sure how to feel about. Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts and in Diagon Alley began as good fun and games, but as the series evolved the narrative became strongly—well I’ve been thinking about this all weekend and the best phrase I’ve come up with is “fight the power” (I considered “anti-fascist”). If you’ve got a better phrase please let me know and I’ll change it.

The later volumes came out during the beginning of the Bush and Blair administrations “War on Terror.” After Voldemort returns in the fourth book, Harry Potter begins his personal struggle against the Ministry of Magic because the Ministry refuses to believe that Voldemort is back. The ministry sends an inquisitor to his school in the next volume—look on Reddit for most hated literary characters ever and you will find Dolores Umbridge—and Harry fights her—even though she is a teacher and he a pupil. Harry questions the ministry’s policy of indefinite detention as well. A lot of this is a reaction to the policies of the Bush and Blair administrations. At the time the books were published I admit I took hope in what JK Rowling was writing. However, I admit that this makes them less fun to read.

I have long felt that artists—particularly writers have a duty not just to entertain but to hold up a mirror to the world so that it can see itself. I don’t think this means that they have to be miserabilists (like Balzac or Hugo.) One can entertain—and make a point (if you don’t believe me start reading Gail Collins and Beaumarchais.) In fact the point sticks better if one entertains. However, in spite of believing this I still wonder what the Harry Potter book series would have been if there hadn’t been the War on Terror to react to. JK Rowling says it was always about death (according to Wikipedia) and so perhaps it would always have been dark—even without George Bush. I also wonder about how this has changed it’s future value—particularly as children’s literature.

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