Potted

Potted
: In all the hyperactive hype over Harry Potter, it is accepted media wisdom that these long books are a good thing because they’re getting kids to read them.

Pardon me, but that’s like saying that Mary Higgins Clark is good because it’s getting middle-aged bon-bon eaters to read.

They’re not dissimilar. As narrative drama goes, Harry Potter sometimes displays the story-telling skill of a 6-year-old recounting a movie: This happened, then that happened, then this, then that. Resolution comes deus ex machina — when J.K. Rowling intervenes to solve the crisis with a magic spell or medieval gizmo rather than through the dramatic conflict and examination of conscience of the characters.

But my criticism isn’t with Harry Potter. If you like the books and movies, wonderful: enjoy. I’m the greatest fan of popular culture; being popular is the best review.

My criticism is with the media assumption that Harry Potter — just because it’s a book and more just because it’s a long book — is high culture. It’s an oddly snobby assumption. In my view, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is better dramatic fiction; so is Star Trek. They depend on human conflict to resolve dramatic tension rather than the sudden entrance of a monster. Yet they don’t get nearly the respect — or certainly the hype — of Harry Potter because they’re not thick books.

Just because it’s on paper, that doesn’t make it smart. Just because it’s long, that doesn’t make it smarter.

  • http://www.livingroom.org.au/blog Darren

    very true….great stuff….

  • http://spleenville.com/ Andrea Harris

    Jeff. They’re kid’s books. So you aren’t going to get a version of The Brothers Karamazov when you open up something written by J.K. Rowling — big deal. You’re not going to go all Harold Bloom on us and start grousing about how kids are reading Harry Potter books instead of Jane Austen novels, are you?
    As for the media’s acting like these books are “high culture” — well, they are compared to most stuff on tv and in the newspapers. Heck, TV Guide is Shakespeare compared to some of the stuff the box and the dailies serve up to us.

  • http://www.fear.org/hadaway.html Brant Hadaway

    Jeff:
    I enjoy your site, but sometimes you show yourself to be an insufferable curmudgeon. As one who has recently enjoyed both the Potter books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my daughter, I have to say that (heresy!) J.K. Rowling is a much more disciplined writer than, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien. Rowling never puts a detail in place that doesn’t pay off at some point, and her stories are page-turners because she has that storyteller’s gift of leaving the reader wanting (dying) to know, “What happens next?”
    By contrast, Tolkien could go on for pages with self-indulgent verse and irrelevant details that never served any sort of dramatic purpose other than to allow Tolkien to show off what a great genius he was at creating an alternative universe. Characters wander in and out of the Rings stories without ever serving the dramatic thrust. In this sense, Tolkien was a great episodic writer, but Rowling is onto something much more difficult.
    Of course, the language of the Potter books is directed at a simpler reading level. But that hardly detracts from Rowling’s skill as a storyteller any more than Hemingway’s economy of language makes him a lesser writer than Faulkner.

  • http://www.mindofmog.net mog

    For a good children’s book, try The Golden Compass http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/goldencompass/ I thoroughly enjoyed it. As to J.K. Rowling, she did pull of quite a feat, going from public assistance to being richer than the Queen of England with writing the books. As I haven’t read them myself, I can’t really state whether or not they are high culture or just fun reading. I do, however, enjoy reading your viewpoint.

  • Mike G

    If anyone’s saying what you’re saying, then it’s stupid. But I don’t believe many people are saying THAT.
    What Harry Potter is doing is getting an audience that didn’t read TO read. Some of those will read other, better things– from Rowling to Tolkien to Tolstoy, a route that kids didn’t seem to ever get to when they started with Tomb Raider. That much I believe, and in that sense, any reading is better than no reading, because there will be some trickle down for some kids.
    Believe me, I tried to sell a young adult novel about 10 years ago and what everybody said was that teen boys don’t read books. Not don’t read good books, don’t read books period. Rowling has almost singlehandedly changed that.

  • http://spleenville.com/ Andrea Harris

    Hm. Tolkien’s writing style comes from the time when people didn’t expect to devour books in one setting. You know, they’d read a little bit, then put the book down to go do something, come back and read more… I wonder how many “great books” would pass the “Must have a climax in n pages!” smell test. (For instance, all those Russian novels with their Endless. Speeches. About. God. And. Destiny.) Of course, that hasn’t stopped me from devoting an entire day to reading LOTR.
    As for the Pullman books… Golden Compass I’d definitely recommend. The second book in the trilogy, The Subtle Knife, was about fifty/fifty. But Pullman lost the thread in the third book (The Amber Spyglass. Worst character: the nun-turned-scientist, straight out of a lapsed Catholic clich

  • http://www.beggingtodiffer.com Greg

    Jeff,
    Your reverse prejudice is showing. And I think you’re selling Rowling short. Whether you characterize HP as popular fiction or youth fiction, Rowling’s really quite good. In my opinion, shes about twice as good as Stephen King, and fifty times better than Grisham, who’s really not very good at all.
    Interestingly, most people are prejudiced against Rowling because she writes children’s books. You seem to be prejudiced against her because she writes books. Sorry, but that’s just odd.

  • Jeremy

    I think you’re selling the Harry Potter novels short, which makes me wonder if you’ve actually read them.
    They’re actually fairly Campbellian, much in the way the first Star Wars trilogy was. That’s part of the reason both were successful, IMHO.

  • Diana

    Now Jeff, comparing books that get kids to read with books that get “middle-aged bon bon eaters” to read isn’t quite right. Kids need to learn to read, especially boys, who don’t take to book-learnin’ naturally.
    BTW I thought that the phrase “middle-aged bon bon eaters” was subtly sexist, but very funny. It was worthy of Philip de Vries, a great writer little read nowadays.
    What would you call guys who read Tom Clancy novels? Middle aged balls-scratchers?

  • http://alphabetcity.blogspot.com Robert Stevens

    The original sorcerer’s apprentice? Carlos Castaneda.
    The original sorcerers? Nagual Don Juan and Nagual Don Genaro.
    I haven’t read any of Rowling’s books but, based upon my fondness of the Castaneda series, I can imagine why kids and adults devour them.

  • Diana

    oh god, *Peter* de Vries. How could I?

  • Charlie

    Jeff, I think you’re making the same mistake that people made when they said Twister didn’t have a plot. The sequence of “this happens, then this happens” isn’t nearly as important to the Potter novels as the emotional progress as Harry goes from abused Cinderella to … well, whatever he’s going to end up being.

  • http://galdierifiles.blogspot.com Chris Galdieri

    While my admiration for Buffy eclipses my admiration for Harry Potter, I do think the HP books have an advantage over Mary Higgins Clark because they make reading less intimidating for young kids. I read constantly as a kid (and still do!) but I remember many of my peers complaining as late as high school about having to read 200-300-page books for school. If reading 900-page Harry Potter books makes kids who otherwise would have seen a book that size and fled for the hills more confident about their ability to tackle other books, Rowling deserves every piece of praise that’s been heaped upon her.
    Plus, Rowling has dethroned (no pun intended) the Queen as the wealithiest woman in the UK. Surely having that title go to someone who actually earned it counts for something.

  • Catherine

    I agree with Mike G and Chris Galdieri. I was ALWAYS overwhelmed by large books and part of the Rowling story was that they had to hide her sex because “boys won’t read books written by women” and boys have little interest in books period. Reading comprehension and language skills, grammar etc. are all aided by reading.
    I have never read the books, although I have plenty of 30-something friends who are fans as much as their kids and they are bright people.
    Why does every book have to be an intellectual exercise? It’s OK to sometimes just have fun. Having just graduated from college, I am way behind on light, fun reading. Something you can read while on the subway, with an ear open for your stop. I just bought “Shopgirl” by Steve Martin and a friend passed me “The Nanny Diaries.” In between the light books I read my Economist and I am looking forward to finally reading “Atlas Shrugged” and “Animal Farm.” All while studying for the LSAT’s.
    Sometimes it’s nice to give the brain a break, and read some fluff or fantasy.
    Sometimes Jeff, you really do sound like a cranky old guy. “Growl, in my day when I was 9, we read Chekhov for fun…grrrr! It was painful, but we liked it that way!” hee hee

  • Cornelius

    Deus ex machina? That’s hard for me to see. I read these books for the same reason I read all of the books my four bright and curious children read – because it’s my job. And (full disclosure) I actually enjoy the Harry Potter series, once I suspend my disbelief in magic.
    Your statement that “…Resolution comes deus ex machina…” is hard for me to map to the books. J.K. Rowlings doesn’t intervene – the protagonists resolve the conflicts theselves, often by the clever and inventive use of magic. Perhaps you’re misled by the fact that a lot of the solutions involve the use of magic, which to us here in reality smacks of deus (or something) ex machina. But these books aren’t set in reality – they’re set in a very special place: a school which teaches the use of (wait for it) magic.
    Imagine instead a series of books following a young man and his friends in a law school. The conflicts would be with students, teachers, perhaps some people outside of the school. They’d often be resolved by clever and innovative uses of the law, or by related research and analysis. The deus ex machina equivalent there would be if the conflicts were often resolved by intervention by, e.g., the supreme court, without the characters seeking or causing such intervention.

  • John

    Jeff, you do sound a bit like the grumpy old man here. I’ve been an avid reader all my life, and yes, I’ve read all the Potter books to date.
    I’m a lifelong reader as a consequence of finding nice easy enjoyable books to read when I was a child. I started on Peanuts comics, progressed to Piers Anthony, moved on up to Tolkien, and sprang from there to cover every topic I possibly could. From Socrates to Machiavelli, even the Federalist Papers.
    The first book to catch the mind is just the first stepping stone in a long lifetime full of knowledge and enjoyment.

  • http://so5minutesago.blogspot.com/ Eric Deamer

    The point is that these books are overrated and overhyped. They’re given this huge pass simply because they are books and because they seem to just be getting longer and longer per volume , which is somehow seen as some kind of good in itself. I’ve read all four of the damn things so far, and I’m probably the only person on earth who doesn’t have a strong opinion about them either way. The comment about “deux ex machina” was dead on though. I would go even further than that. I’d say the middle 2 had resolutions that were almost scooby-doo esque. I mean, they just went and on and then it was all resolved because all the seemingly scary, evil characters were just in disguise . . . more or less