Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and Political Correctness

Has it become politically incorrect for anyone to criticize JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books? Ron Charles, senior editor of the Washington Post's Book World section, is probably finding the answer to that question as a result of his column questioning the real value of those books. I've read a few of the comments that Charles received when his column was reprinted in the Salt Lake Tribune and I suspect that they represent a sampling of typical responses that the column will draw as it is reprinted around the country.

What is getting Ron Charles in hot water with all those Muggles out there? Not much, really, but it doesn't seem to take much.
It happened on a dark night, somewhere in the middle of Book IV. For three years, I had dutifully read the "Harry Potter" series to my daughter, my voice growing raspy with the effort, page after page. But lately, whole paragraphs of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire had started to slip by without my hearing a word. I'd snap back to attention and realize the action had moved from Harry's room to Hagrid's house, and I had no idea what was happening.

And that's when my daughter broke the spell: "Do we have to keep reading this?"
But all around me, I see adults reading J.K. Rowling's books to themselves: perfectly intelligent, mature people, poring over "Harry Potter" with nary a child in sight. Waterstone's, a British book chain, predicts that the seventh and (supposedly) final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, may be read by more adults than children...

I'd like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism. And when we're not horning in on our kids' favorite books, most of us aren't reading anything at all. More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one.
" But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"
Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath. And you'd better answer correctly. Start carrying on like Moaning Myrtle about the repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes, and you'll wish you had your invisibility cloak handy. Besides, from anyone who hasn't sold the 325 million copies that Rowling has, such complaints taste like Bertie Bott's beans, sour-grapes flavor.

Shouldn't we just enjoy the $4 billion party? Millions of adults and children are reading! We keep hearing that "Harry Potter" is the gateway drug that's luring a reluctant populace back into bookstores and libraries....

Unfortunately, the evidence doesn't encourage much optimism. Data from the NEA point to a dramatic and accelerating decline in the number of young people reading fiction. Despite their enthusiasm for books in grade school, by high school, most kids are not reading for pleasure at all. My friends who teach English tell me that summaries and critical commentary are now so readily available on the Internet that more and more students are coming to class having read about the books they're studying without having read the books.

And when their parents do pick up a novel, it's often one that leaves a lot to be desired.
How could the ever-expanding popularity of Harry Potter take place during such an unprecedented decline in the number of Americans reading fiction?

Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands - and rewards. Consider that, with the release of each new volume, Rowling's readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another.
Like the basilisk that terrorized students at Hogwarts in Book II, "Harry Potter" and a few other much-hyped books devour everyone's attention, leaving most readers paralyzed in praise, apparently incapable of reading much else.

According to a study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University, "In 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." There's not much reason to think things have changed.
The vast majority of adults who tell me they love "Harry Potter" never move on to Susanna Clarke's enchanting Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, with its haunting exploration of history and sexual longing, or Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, a dazzling fantasy series that explores philosophical themes (including a scathing assault on organized religion) that make Rowling's little world of good vs. evil look, well, childish. And what about the dozens of other brilliant fantasy authors who could take them places little Harry never dreamed of? Or the wider world of Muggle literary fiction beyond?
Most of what Ron Charles is saying in this column has been said a lot lately. Admittedly, since I'm not a fan of the Potter books, and because I've observed much of this for myself, I tend to agree with the man. I don't for a minute believe that the books are doing any harm when it comes to their influence on readers, young or old, but I also find it hard to believe that in the long term they will have any positive effect on reading habits. Maybe it's my innate cynicism speaking again, but I find it difficult to take seriously anything that has such a powerful marketing machine behind it. For me, Harry Potter has become the equivalent of country music's Garth Brooks, a singer whose music I still find distasteful because of the way that it was marketed.


  1. I couldn't get past the first chapter. It was just so cliché, and I found the anti-muggleism disturbing. I'm with the naysayers.

  2. I like Harry Potter just fine, and so do my kids, but I agree that I don't think that the whole phenomenon will have much impact on whether or not kids read in the long run. I think modeling by parents helps, and access to lots of great fiction (not just Harry Potter).

  3. aaaaaaaaaaagh! Garth Brooks! I'm still pissed off at him about the used CDs thing.

    Just Wild About Harry? Not really. I read the first 5 books, but I'm in no hurry to finish the series.

  4. I am an adult with no children and I enjoy reading the Harry Potter books. Sure they aren't great literature, but I have fun losing myself in the stories. Of course, I also read a lot of other types of books too. :-) (For the record, I personally don't hold it against anyone who doesn't care for the books/movies or even want to try them just as I would expect them not to hold it against me that I like them.)

    I am with Gentle Reader in that I do not think the Harry Potter craze alone is enough to change reading trends over the long haul, but I do believe that for many it creates an opening that teachers and parents could use to introduce a desire to read and encourage reading in other directions.

    Still, even with role modeling and fostering a like of reading, I doubt the impact will be great in our society no matter who writes what or what is read. There are a lot of factors that play into lack of interest in reading--none with easy remedies in today's society.

  5. I agree with a lot of this post-in fact, it's very timely for me. I read the first 3 books when I was 12, when I still lived in England and before they had become such a pop hit, and I really enjoyed them. I own the first 4, although by the 4th one I was starting to become less impressed. When I finally got around to reading the 5th one, I hated it. A lot. I only ended up reading the 6th one because I went on a road trip w/ a friend and she wanted to listen to it on cd.

    So, with that background, yesterday I found myself thinking that I should pre-order the 7th. Why? Well, because I figured if I didn't read it right away, the ending would be given away. So, I dutifully grabbed the 1st one off my shelf and reread it.

    And I came to a realisation. I'm not 12 anymore. It had lost the magic that other, more timeless (allegorical?) child series have (including Narnia and His Dark Materials). I don't care about how the series ends; in fact, I remember almost nothing from the 5th and 6th books. And that made me feel guilty.

    So, I guess this is a very long-winded way to say thanks for posting this. I'll definitely be linking to this post on my blog!

  6. Quite honestly, I get tired of most series after about the third volume. I think the level of self-identification for the target audience of hte Harry Potter books is what's kept the momentum of Rowling's success going. My sons will read the last and final book as soon as Amazon delivers it to my door. As long as they're not offended by the resolution she delivers, I suspect that they will always remember the series with a certain amount of fondness -- not on the basis of literary quality but on the basis of a shared reading experience with their peers.

  7. I've read the first three, and while I didn't despise them, I was less than impressed. I'm happy that we're finally getting actual discussions on the merits of the literature rather than the obsessed fan gibberish or the doomsday warnings from certain religious sects.

  8. Sylvia,I actually read, I think, a couple of chapters of the first book and at the time thought that it was a pretty good book for pre-and-early-teens. I didn't see it as ever appealing to adults...shows how much I know.

  9. Gotta agree, Gentle Reader. I don't see these books having any real impact on reading habits around the world. It's a great lesson for young people in the art of marketing, however. :-)

  10. Garth's a pain, isn't he, bybee?

    I'm sure that there are thousands and thousands of Harry Potter burnouts in the world but I wonder how many of them are going to be sucked back in just to find out for themselves whether or not ol' Harry is still alive after book 7. I'm rooting for Rowling to kill him off because that would show some real courage on her part...and that's why I doubt that he dies.

  11. Feline, I, sadly enough, have to agree with you when it comes to reading trends and whether or not they will be reversed into something positive. As long as kids (and adults)are so constantly bombarded with distractions of an electronic nature, book reading is going to suffer.

    If they only knew what they were missing...

  12. Thanks for that interesting bit of reflection, Eva. What you tell me confirms, to me anyway, that Rowling is ending the series not a minute too soon and that seven books may have been one or two too many already. I've seen several comments now that say that burnout was reached somewhere around book five. Interesting trend, that.

  13. Jill, that "shared reading experience with their peers" is an interesting phenomenon, for sure. It will people of a certain age something with which to identify for the rest of their lives. We all know how important nostalgia is to our self-images and how we can so easily relate to people with whom we have a set of shared experiences.

    That's a good point. Harry Potter will be alive for generations to come, no doubt about it.

  14. You know, John, I have see so little actual "criticism" of the Potter books that I was starting to wonder if anyone dared to do it. It is good to finally see some folks say what a lot of us have been thinking for a long time. The books will always be special because of their astounding sales figures, but whether or not they really stack up when it comes to classic children's literature is a whole other question.

  15. Ha! Very timely post Sam. Our family enjoys the Harry Potter series but more because it is something that we have read together as a family since they were younger.

    We have also dealt very recently with decreasing the electronic distractions because we have seen reading decreasing sharply and I wholeheartedly agree that it must be something that parents model and really pursue to make children readers for a lifetime.

    I don't believe any series, no matter how fun or smartly marketed can do that for the long haul.

  16. First, I'll confess to being a fan of the Harry Potter books--although I didn't think much of the first book. As (yes) juvenile as they are, I find them exciting and witty (in a subversive British way). I also like being able to talk about books and plots and characters, rather than just movies or TV or music, with my niece and nephews

    More to the point, I think critics and teachers, parents and readers are expecting far too much from a series of books for young readers.

    I certainly wouldn't argue that the Potter books shouldn't be subject to criticism. But the unbearable smugness of Ron Charles's piece totally irritated me, and I have written a very different reponse to the article (

  17. Cloyce, I enjoyed reading your take on the Ron Charles column and some of your points are particularly well taken.

    I wonder though if Charles is really trying to be a contrarian just for the sake of being one. I find myself feeling a bit wary of being labeled as one myself since I've posted several Potter threads lately that are more on the con side of the scale than on the pro side. But I'm not doing that just for the sake of being contrary. It's more that there's been so little on the negative side that it seems more interesting to finally see some things like that become more commonly discussed.

    I've never tried to judge children's literature at all since I'm not sure exactly how to do that. Are the standards different, do you think? Is there less emphasis on creative writing, on plot, or on originality? I'm sure those things aren't important to children since they don't have all that much reading history and are seeing things through fresh eyes. They wouldn't likely recognize rehashed plot lines and characters, etc. I do think that the Rowling is more susceptible to that kind of criticism simply because her books have been embraced by so many adults, but that's not something that she probably ever counted on happening.

    I enjoyed reading what you had to say on your blog about the column. Thanks for alerting me to it.

  18. Amy, I do think that the Potter books have been a wonderful opportunity for families to read together and to have an experience that binds them together as a family, something that they will long cherish.

    Here's hoping that some parents do manage to use Harry Potter as a tool to make their children realize that books can be, and usually are, much more exciting than what they see on television or on their game boys. Every little bit helps, and the Potter books might be the tipping point for some children.

  19. Although I don't like the Harry Potter books at all I have no problem with people enjoying them. My wife loves the series, as does most of her family. But her family also reads other books, in fact on both sides of my family we all read. And for that I am glad. I've never thought of the Potter series has having much literary merit and I didn't think other people did either, it's perfectly fine to have easy reads to turn to sometimes. But hopefully everyone can now get over the delusion that these books will make avid readers of everyone.

  20. Well put, Matt. Wow...I can't even imagine a whole family of readers. I suspect that's a lot rarer than most people assume. I can count the readers in my family on one hand; they think I'm the weird one, in fact.

    My wife is a pretty consistent reader, mostly novels and biographies but she has me do the leg work for her. I've come to know her reading tastes so well now that I seldom bring home books that she won't like.

  21. Maybe I'm overly cynical, but I honestly believe that people who publicly criticize uber-popular things like HP are doing so for their own publicity.

    I read that article and disagreed strongly with a lot of what he said about the alleged decline in reading.I don't really care what he thinks of HP one way or another, but as someone who spends all day every day with mobs of high school kids, I know that the charge he makes that they don't read is complete fabrication.

  22. Well, I've written quite a bit before on your blog about Potter so will try not to bang on TOO much. I agree with some of Charles' article, but think he's trowled on the hyperbole a bit. {I will admit to the phenomenon of reading it aloud and it becomng so mechanical not being aware of what's happening, but that's happened not only with Potter.) And yes, the language is hardly innovative, and it's repetitive - just the sort of stuff that hooks adult series readers (from Mills and Boon romances to our favourite series detective, whoever that may be), but langauage control is one of th e keystones of children's lit. Sure it can soar a bit more, but I do think adults who wank on about kids lit in 'high lit terms are having themselves on a bit: it might appeal to the hermione Graingers of the world (ie smarty pants girls) butnot too many others!

    I do have a success to report tho. Reluctant Boy Reader, aged 13.5, in my house, is trying to get through Vol 6 before he gets to 7. A combination of on his own reading, me reading it aloud, and tonight he wanted to read aloud to me "cos I'm getting so much better at reading, Mum!" I nearly cried - who could ask for more???

    But for him, the best author ever is Tim Winton. Tim has taken him through picture book, to early chapter book to the Lockie Leonard series (a 12-13 year old boy surfer with embarassing parents and teenage angst). Winton also writes some of the most lyrical grown-up literature in this country, and is one of the few writers I know who can convey the male psyche without resorting to cliches of the metrosexual or macho..I hope our reluctant reader who has been gaining confidence with Potter will continue with Winton into adulthood....

    (PS Saw Movie 5 and LOVED it!)

  23. Getting some personal attention could very well be the motivation for some of the articles we've seen lately, Dewey. That wouldn't entirely surprise me.

    Glad to hear that your personal experiences with reading teens is so positive. I do have to wonder why they don't translate into reading adults in higher numbers, though. I still find myself shocked by how few reading adults I run into in my own world.

  24. Sally, I really appreciate your thoughts and comments, so keep 'em coming, please.

    What you just said about the progress that your son is making in his reading put a big smile on my face. I can well imagine how you feel and how proud you must be...and if JK Rowling has something to do with that, then I will be the first to pat her on the back for a job well done. :-)

    As for what makes good kid-lit, I haven't a clue, personally. Like I said somewhere else, kids just don't have much of a reading history, so they won't recognize rehashed plot lines or characters anyway. As long as the book grips them with a good story and characters with whom they can identify, they will be happy campers. And that's a good thing.

    They have plenty of time (and hopefully will use it to continue reading) to make more legitimate literary judgments later.

  25. Well, I am of the view that controlled language and repetition is essential - it's what makes oral/aural story telling so succesful, and of course the ground-breaker was Dr Suess. kids need to hear the cadences and language over and over - ie when the toddler asks you to read them the same book over and over and over.

    It's the formual that has made The Wiggles so phenomenally successful, and why the best tiny kids TV shows work so well - Play School, Sesame Street.

    The trick is then to get the child to a point where they will launch out independently, and that's the tough bit.

    Many many many children's authors, especiallyin the fantasy genre (but not exclusively) write trilogiies - or even 2 x series of trilogies. Overnewton (Isobel Carmody) springs to ming. It also works in adut fantasy/sci fi - Stephen Donaldson, and then there's the Gor series (about 22books). So notconfined to children.

    Astute professionals working with kids - and this is where the school librarian is such a valuable asset who should never be, but often is, the first let go by udget-cutting authorities! - are well placed to guide students to other authors, and gently steer them towards non-series one-offs. as a former school lib. my happiest days were the ones when a student would come back with a book you had recommended and ask "Do you have any more as good as, or like that?"

    Anyway, I prefer the child to sert themself a goal like reading a big thick book like a Potter than one of those cut-down abridged version of a calssic, where the beauty has all been expunged.

    The other thing I have taught my son - when we were comparing how much we had read of Potter VI (I've now been asked to slow down so he can catch up, and then we can read in tandem) is to take things in bite-sized chunks and look not at how muchyou have to go, but feel pride about how far you have got so far...and likened it to say swimming laps in a pool (wheich he also enjoys) - not how many you haveto go, but the fact you've already come so far...

    So eve if Potter is a bit repetitive, building reading stamina is good too. Adults can get the same sense of accomlishment when conquering very literary prose. It's a message I keep in mind whenever I open an Orhan Pamuk or Gabriel garcia Marquez book! The going can be pretty tough esp to start with, but the reward at the end is so good.

  26. Interesting thoughts, as always, Sally...I can't imagine anything more rewarding than the experience that you described from your days as a school librarian. Helping to keep a youngster an enthused reader is wonderful work and something to be proud of, for sure.

    I'm kind of like you in that when reading some of the chunkier books what keeps me going is looking at the number of pages behind me rather than the number still ahead of me. I get a feeling of accomplishment when I see how much I've already achieved that keeps me going to the finish. I'm reading Little Dorrit right now at the pace of a chapter a day. It is not working particularly well for me, and I find myself confused sometimes because of the large number of characters. But I look at the 25 chapters I've read and that gives me the will to go on with the story...despite it being perhaps my least favorite Dickens novel so far.

    Do you and your son plan to finish book 6 before Potter 7 is available...just a few hours from now in Australia, I suppose. I wonder how long it will be before the "spoilers" become common knowledge; that would make me read it as quickly as possible, I think.

  27. I don't think we'll get VI finished by we will probably wait to buy VII.

    I had a minor procedure in hospital yesterday, and he came to visit me after school and sat by my bedside and read me a few pages. That was one of the best gifts ever.

  28. Truly a great gift from your son, Sally. Thanks for sharing that.