by Robbie Fischer
This week JK Rowling’s fans have been stirred into action by the poison pen of Booker-Prize-winning author AS Byatt. The author of “Possession” railed against Rowling’s literary stature, accusing her basically of kow-towing to the low-brow, MTV/video-game culture of our time.
What an interesting observation!
Obviously some creative artists have the notion that they are creating works of art for the ages. Perhaps Byatt is among them. And such artists, many of whom belong to the “starving” variety, can be exused for looking upon popular entertainers with bitterness. But the popular entertainers can be exused as well, because they are *not* trying to create art for the ages, they are simply trying to entertain the public. And the fact that the public appreciates this is borne witness by their financial success.
JK Rowling understands how to tell a story.
She also understands her audience.
This is no great cultural crime. The same things could be said of Charles Dickens, whose stories had many points of similarity to Harry Potter, and whose serial novels were followed by as large and passionate a body of fans as Rowling’s. He was a good storyteller and he understood his times. Of course his stories reflect their times, to such a degree that today, it takes a person of above-average intelligence and determination to plough through them. His diction, his dialect writing, his vast compound-complex sentences and witty circumlocutions tire out many a reader today. Not as much as, say, Herman Melville. For him who has a keen mind and a tolerance for windy prose, Dickens is still quite a lot of fun. But he will never again be the man of the moment as he was in the 1840’s and -50’s.
The reason JK Rowling is so successful is that she knows exactly how to captivate the MTV/video-game generation, and the fact that they put down their joysticks and remote-controls to read her hefty novels is ample testimony to the power of her story-telling. What is so sinister about this? She is not trying to compete with Salman Rushdie or, well, AS Byatt. There is no reason for the literati to resent her success. Quite possibly, the fact that so many people are reading a real book for the first time will result in more people reading classics and “art” novels as well. It certainly doesn’t hurt.
Besides the criticism of AS Byatt, there remains the low hum of “Christian right” condemnation against JKR and our Harry. They say Harry teaches children Satanism, witchcraft, paganism, etc. Speaking as an ordained minister in a denomination known for its conservatism, I can only say: Codswallop! I have read these books with a critical eye and I find that they are completely, religiously neutral. They are purely secular entertainment that say nothing for or against any religion whatsoever, including paganism or Wicca. Simply because Wiccans take encouragement from Harry Potter doesn’t mean he has anything to do with them. JKR is on record that she does not believe in magic. She has merely created a magical, imaginary world in which the only “spirit” that anyone relies on is the spirit within him/herself.
Compare this to the series of young-readers’ books most often considered Harry’s closest competitor: Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. Sorry to offend those of you who love it, but afterall this is my opinion. And in my opinion, “His Dark Materials” is a completely undisguised attack on Christianity-its morals, doctrine, and history. Ask him and I doubt that he will deny it. Perhaps the fact that Harry Potter is so far ahead of HDM in sales is related to the fact that a magical world full of anger against a religion so many of us cherish, does not have the popular appeal of a magical world without any particular agenda.
JKR does address social “issues,” but she is not preachy as sometimes Dickens, and Roald Dahl, could be. Her world is rich in detail and unabashed fantasy, unlike CS Lewis and E Nesbit who sometimes seem apologetic for anything in their stories that could not pass for non-fiction. It is a world shadowed by evil and darkness, like the worlds of JRR Tolkien, but if he can be forgiven for wistfully longing for a time that is past, she should be forgiven for reveling in the present. Like the culture reflected in the writings of these other authors, the culture reflected by the Harry Potter stories is the culture of its own time, and of course some of the magic will fade when time and culture change. Who can deny that E Nesbit’s magical world has lost some of its appeal, along with the social structure that inhabits it? Who can deny that something of JRR Tokien’s vision is lost in translation to a new generation that cannot remember, imagine, or quite understand a society in which Sam would call Frodo his “master” and the distinction between a commoner and a gentleman was so evident that no one needed to remark on it? Who can fault JKR for never writing a sentence like the last one I just wrote, seeing as most living people would have trouble deciphering it?
As for the hype, you must remember that Harry Potter was huge before there was any hype about it. The first four books were already record-breaking bestsellers before the first movie was made and the merchandising craze began. Certainly some people have jumped on the bandwagon because of the hype and the fad. But don’t forget that most of the fans are in this for the long haul, and they at least know how to distinguish the real Harry Potter story from all the hype.
Let us leave prognostications about whether or not Harry Potter is for the ages or just for our times. We cannot see the future. And literary experts are just as limited as the rest of us in that respect. History is littered with the debris of prophecies made by the most qualified people that went totally awry. What concerns us now is whether or not Harry Potter is worth reading. An enormous, loyal, and enthusiastic following, the likes of which no author has seen since Dickens, cannot be entirely wrong. JKR does what she does, she does it well, and it hits the spot. Take it or leave it. But beware of hurling insults in the face of an entire generation of readers, whether you approve of what JKR does or not, whether you wish to do the same or something else. No one’s work is immune from criticism!
Robbie Fischer, Arizona USA
(clergyman, 30 years old)