Potter Schmotter

Why do we read books? And what makes a book “well-written”? I have been thinking about this in the run-up to the imminent publication of J.K. Rowling’s seventh and final installment to the Harry Potter series. Seems I’m not the only one who is a bit sick of the series.

Litlove wrote a great blog post discussing Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness, in which she discusses the way in which Gilbert theorises that human beings are the only animal to think about the future in a imaginative and anticipatory way. Instead of reading literature to better ourselves, Litlove says:

How much more likely, given what Daniel Gilbert is saying, that we find pleasure in literature, for instance, because it gives us a spurious sense of understanding the world better, and being therefore more able to master and control it. The basic premise of stories is to represent a conflict and speculate on the ways it could develop. If we feel anxious about the events that might happen to us in life, then storytelling is a wonderful way to increase our possibilities in the planning department, offering us a tremendous store of solutions, consequences, possible outcomes and manipulative strategies to choose from. Literature rehearses for us all kinds of likely and unlikely situations, and provides those delicious anticipatory, imaginary pleasures we are so hungry for, as well as reassuring, or at least interesting, conclusions with which to assuage our anxieties.

I love these posts which make me think about things I often take for granted. I thought that this was a beautiful analysis.

I am a voracious reader. But what motive do I have for reading so much? To an extent, it’s part of my job: I have to read cases and texts. But I also read for knowledge and information, for inspiration, for fun and to admire the exquisite skill of a particular writer. There are some books I read for comfort, and some books I read when I want to have a good cry. I read some books just once, and others are worn thin because I have read them so many times. Sometimes I never manage to get through a particular book. (I see a trend: those Russian authors are troubling for me – I’ve never finished Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina).

I think good art is something which:

  1. Makes you say, “Ah, that’s how it is” with a sense of recognition (often, in the process, illuminating some detail or nuance of life that you haven’t previously understood yourself);
  2. Makes you think about the world in a different way: “What if things were like this? What an interesting/disturbing/thought-provoking way of looking at it!”

I don’t like artwork such as a cow’s head in formaldehyde – it doesn’t “say” anything to me at all, and it doesn’t make me look at things in a new way. There’s no skill in it, and it seems like art purely for shock value alone.

I agree that a sense of anticipation is definitely one of the pleasures of a good novel or movie – one often knows that Boy will get together with Girl, or Detective will discover Murderer, or Fantasy Character will succeed in her quest…but how will it happen? We enjoy recognising the patterns and rehearsing the situation.

Some books are purely for enjoyment. Some we read because they have a “hook” – we simply must find out what happens. I would put The Da Vinci Code in this latter category – it was appallingly written, but I had to find out what happened – it was the archetype of a “page -turner”. We read other books because they are beautifully written – but if there isn’t a hook to pull us through, we might not finish the book (eg, The Eye of the Storm by Patrick White – exquisitely written, but finishing the book is like wading through half-set concrete.) The very best books have a “hook” and are well-written to boot. Mmm, such books are pure pleasure.

I like novels that make me think about the world differently. I have a collection of novels about dystopias. Since my teenage years, I have an idea of writing a novel about a revolution where an underclass rebels but the new leaders are no better than the old (in a science fiction context). But I’ve never written it because it’s probably a bit passe these days.

I also like children’s fantasy novels (perhaps I need them to lighten my cynicism). I find that they are often very well-written and thought provoking. I must confess that I quite enjoyed the first three Harry Potter books. I didn’t take them seriously. But later, I began to dislike the series. There were a few things which changed my mind on this point:

  1. I arranged to play a board game with my friend “The Wordies”. The game was based on Book 1 of Harry Potter. Always competitive, I read Book 1 twice over the evening before the game, just to make sure I was primed to win. Unfortunately, my team mate and I found ourselves in Slytherin so all that reading was in vain – the game was arranged so that Slytherin could not win. However, the point is that after reading Book 1 twice over in quick succession, I found that aspects of the story to be very derivative, and the writing style really began to irritate me. (I’m in good company here: Harold Bloom also thinks it is badly written.)
  2. After the first three books, I started to see that the books were just written to a formula. Some books are written to a formula, but it doesn’t get boring (eg, Agatha Christie). But Harry just started to get predictable.
  3. Books 4 and 5 were far too long and I didn’t really enjoy them. Harry the whining self-indulgent teen really didn’t “gel” with me. And I hate bloody Quidditch.

The first two Harry Potter movies were two of the most boring movies I’ve ever seen, so I never bothered to see any others. Likewise, I never bothered to read Book 6. I won’t bother to read Book 7 either.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was dissatisfied with Harry Potter until I read A.S. Byatt’s biting commentary on it. She said:

“Auden and Tolkien wrote about the skills of inventing “secondary worlds.” Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from “Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper. Toni Morrison pointed out that clichés endure because they represent truths. Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.

But in the case of the great children’s writers of the recent past, there was a compensating seriousness. There was — and is — a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests. Susan Cooper’s teenage wizard discovers his magic powers and discovers simultaneously that he is in a cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance. Alan Garner peoples real landscapes with malign, inhuman elvish beings that hunt humans.

Reading writers like these, we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures — from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil — inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled. If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for. Ursula K. Le Guin’s wizards inhabit an anthropologically coherent world where magic really does act as a force. Ms. Rowling’s magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.”

Source: A.S. Byatt, ‘Harry Potter and the Childish Adult’, New York Times, 7 July 2003 (subscription needed)

To my mind, all great children’s fantasy series have an underlying moral compass. This doesn’t mean that the books should be didactic, but there should be an exploration of what is right and what is wrong. Any good fantasy book is a rehearsal of a battle between good and evil. It helps us rehearse for situations when we face real wrongs in the real world. The Harry Potter series is missing this moral compass. Voldemort is “evil”, but we are never quite sure what is so very “evil” about him, other than his desire to kill Harry (the nasty side of me secretly thinks that perhaps that is a good thing).

Perhaps I can illustrate my point by listing books which I think are great examples of fantasy for children, young adults, and adults:

  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien;
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (Yeah, I know they’ve got that underlying Christian message, but they’re still darn good books);
  • The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander (he manages to end the five book series without any fall in quality – no mean feat);
  • The Dark is Rising Series by Susan Cooper (also Seaward);
  • Diana Wynne-Jones’ books, including Hexwood, Deep Secret, A Tale of Time City, Howl’s Moving Castle (I think she’s one of the most seriously underrated children’s authors, although Miyazaki’s recent film seems to have led to a greater exposure of her work);
  • Alan Garner’s books including The Weirdstone of Brisengamen (which is set at Alderley Edge – near where I lived in the UK – I always hoped I might see the Wizard of Alderley there);
  • The Earthsea Series by Ursula K Le Guin (I also love The Left Hand of Darkness and The Lathe of Heaven);
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle;
  • Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series (Australian author);
  • Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series;
  • Margaret Mahy’s books (real world stories with a magical touch);
  • Terry Pratchett.

In a good fantasy novel, characters are put in situations where they are tested, and learn something about themselves (not always positive things). They grow up. The evil is real: those on the dark side enslave, kill and limit the freedoms of others. Often, the evildoers wage war on the forces of good. The consequences of victory for the side of evil impacts on all of society. Such books often explore the possibility of evil arising as a result of a desire to do good, or the possibility of those who seem evil having some good in them.

Harry Potter just seems shallow and simplistic by comparison. Part of the problem, I think is the fact that the world of Harry Potter is too black and white. It lacks subtlety. The attempts to introduce questions about racial purity, discrimination and bullying are didactic and heavy-handed.

For example, Harry Potter is bullied by the Dursleys and by Draco Malfoy, for no apparent reason other than the fact he is Harry Potter. But as far as I know (remember, I haven’t read Book 6), the bullying remains very clichéd. This can be compared with the rivalry of Taran and Prince Ellidyr in The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. Taran (the hero) is bullied by Ellidyr, but contributes to the problem with his hot temper. He eventually understands that, while you can’t control someone else’s behaviour towards you, you can control the way in which you react to them when they goad you. In the end, Taran sees that Ellidyr’s unkindness is partly spurred by his insecurities and desire to prove himself, and forgives him. Ellidyr finally understands that his conduct is wrong, and finds he has some good qualities. Both end up sacrificing a great deal for the safety of all. Despite the serious questions raised, Alexander handles the matter with humour and compassion, and does not become didactic or preachy. Harry, the Dursleys and Malfoy never seem to get beyond the childish tit-for-tat behaviour portrayed in Book 1. There is no room for learning or growing up.

If we read books to rehearse and anticipate the problems of real life, I’d recommend having a look at some of the books I’ve listed above, which manage to do this a lot better than the Harry Potter series. If my daughter decides to read Harry Potter, I certainly shan’t dissuade her, but I will try to introduce her to some other books as well. I think there’s better examples of the craft out there.

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7 Comments

Filed under books, children's books, fantasy, Harry Potter, reading

7 responses to “Potter Schmotter

  1. Anonymous

    And what makes a book “well-written”?

    Lactantius had been able to bring nothing with him save his own manuscripts and was thus left, with all his unrivalled powers of expression, rather vague about what to express; with, more than that, the ever-present fear of falling into error. He delighted in writing, in the joinery and embellishment of his sentences, in the consciousness of high rare virtue when every word had been used in its purest and most precise sense, in the kitten games of syntax and rhetoric. Words could do anything except generate their own meaning.

    Evelyn Waugh, Helena, chapter 6, Penguin edition (1963), p. 79.

  2. Litlove

    I agree with you about that head in formaldehyde. It’s not the kind of art that I like either – I want space to think about a work of art, rather than be confronted with a blatant statement. The list of children’s books is very interesting too, and something I’ll return to consult.

  3. Aimee

    I agree with you that Harry Potter is not always the best written example of its kind and because of the marketing blitz has become something of a juggernaut, suffering from a lack of editing (Book 5 was far too long), and obviously Rowling could learn a lot about convincing malevolent evil from Susan Cooper who remains one of my most compelling childhood memories! Nevertheless, I remember why I liked them in the first place – apart from the characters (who are entertaining) and the plot (which, although formulaic, keeps ratcheting forward and raising the stakes).

    The most interesting part was the way that Harry’s initiation into this magical society was, for me, a metaphor for growing up; and because the world was all strange and new for us too, it was a reminder of what that had been like. At first the magic world was wonderful and everything exciting, an escape from his dreary and disappointing (and abusive) real-world existence, but slowly Harry (and we) discovered that this world wasn’t perfect either, that it had not just the odd person who was mean, but the system itself was fundamentally flawed and the ‘adults’ were capable of deluding themselves into justifying their bad choices, and even the good guys weren’t always able to save the day. I found that arc interesting.

    Of course it has to be more than one point to remain worth reading over a 7-book series, and I certainly hope Rowling has found (or is listening to!) an editor to finish the series off well.

  4. -

    LOTR is much better than Harry Potter.

  5. Pingback: Not so much gibberish as derivative and boring « The Legal Soapbox

  6. I was so pleased to read this post. I love the ‘The Weirdstone of Brisengamen’ and read Lloyd Alexander’s series more times over than I could keep count of. Harry Potter tends to annoy me but until I read your post, I wasn’t quite sure why.

  7. Pingback: Harry Potter and JK Rowling « Searching for Crabshells

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