Saturday, October 20, 2007

Harry Potter and the Flash in the Pan

The only opinion I have ever offered on this blog regarding the Harry Potter books is that the magic in them is not something evil, but merely a thematic element. I have never said, here anyway, what I've thought of the books (or at least the six I've so far read; it hasn't been a priority with me to rush out and read the seventh, though I figured eventually I would do so). But people who know me could tell you that I have found them to be a mixture of the admirable and the disappointing. J.K. Rowling would sometimes craft some small part of the story that I would think was well done, but almost immediately there would follow some clunky, overdrawn bit of sloppy writing, and I would sigh, and wonder why reading her books was somehow not unlike listening to a talented but completely untrained singer perform a too-ambitious aria--a handful of well executed notes in an evening of mediocrity.

I thought there were serious doubts, in particular, about whether or not her books would join the canon of beloved children's tales, or fade from prominence so far that in a century or so you'd be hard pressed to find a still-extant copy. I wondered whether later, savvier readers, already familiar with the elements of the tale, would find the task of wading through endless pages of ill-written dialog, uneven prose, and stomach-turning juvenalia to be worth the reward. I wondered whether Harry and his wand would provide some steady illumination in the annals of children's fiction, or merely create a flash in a slightly enchanted pan.

Though my opinion of the stories has been somewhat lower than that of many Catholics who have actually read them, I tried to be aware of three things. First, as a would-be writer of children's imaginative fiction myself, how could I be sure my criticism was fair, and not of the sour grapes variety? Second, I approached the books, not only as an adult, but as a former English major who did very well in literary criticism at the college level, so how could I be sure I wasn't applying unfair, far too high standards to these books? Third, and perhaps most of all, Rowling's vast commercial success and the overwhelming popularity of her books argued in her favor--who was I to be so critical of something that on at least a basic level obviously worked, and worked amazingly well?

Mindful of those things, I generally couched my criticism of Rowling in the most positive terms I could muster: she was a good storyteller, she needed better editing, she perhaps was unaware how often she left maddening loose ends or turned the story in a direction that made little sense from any critical perspective, she had the unfortunate tendency to try to relive her own teenaged years vicariously (and in a highly-romanticized style) through her various characters, she had never had the opportunity to develop her writing skills to the level where she'd have an "ear" for the too-long conversation or the too-wide digression. Behind all of these thoughts, though, lurked a suspicion that perhaps the truth was that the bulk of her stories' popularity hinged on the cliffhanger/to be continued motif lurking at the final chapters of each, and that once the books were finished it would start to be increasingly clear that whatever talent she did have, she had plumbed its depths, and simply wasn't capable of writing any better than she so far has; moreover, stripped of the dramatic tension created by the unknown ending, the stories themselves might begin to be seen for what they so often, unfortunately, are: tin-eared, derivative, mediocre, and cliched.

Occasionally, my true opinion would slip out. But for the most part, keeping in mind the three reasons I wrote above, I would keep my various conversations about Harry Potter to the point that the use of magic in fantasy stories isn't generally an attempt by the author to encourage children to take up the practice of witchcraft, and that I saw no evidence in the Potter books that Rowling was trying to encourage kids to take up the practice of evil magic.

But I've wondered, before, whether Rowling was capable of better work. I've wondered whether the Potter books would be forgiven their many and irritating inadequacies, their sometimes towering disappointments, for the sake of the author's storytelling skills and efforts. I've wondered whether anything about Rowling or Potter would really endure.

Well, now I know the answer.

What an incredibly foolish, stupid, shortsighted and arrogant thing to do. What incontrovertible proof that Rowling has already given us the best she's capable of doing, and will end up, in a few years, writing some overambitious and horribly written "prequel" to the Potter series as a last-ditch effort to produce something new. What a telling indication that Rowling is perfectly ready to trade what could have been a lasting literary legacy for some immediate but heady applause that comes more from the shock value and political correctness of what she said than from any actual appreciation of it.

Don't get me wrong; these are her characters. She's entitled to think of them as secretly engaging in all manner of dubious practices with each other if she wants to--but even if she does, she'd better not talk about it. The only possible excuse for revealing this aspect of this character now, when the book is ended, is to play a very adolescent kind of "gotcha" with her readers, some of whom aren't even old enough to know what "gay" means. There is, and I say this with all of the ire an amateur literary critic can muster, absolutely nothing important about her private speculations about the sexual orientations of her characters at this late date, for this simple reason: if it had been important for readers in their understanding of the character of Dumbledore to know that he was gay, she would have been bound by all the rules of honorable writing to reveal that fact to her readers long before the books were ended. It is utterly meaningless to tell us now, and if she starts pretending either that it matters or that readers should have guessed, than I will feel perfectly justified in dismissing her writings as the work of a dilettante and hack.

Worse, perhaps, is the consideration of what this "revelation" will do to the stories. Truly great literature doesn't tie itself in such a slapdash way to an issue of the day; either the issue is a central theme of the work, as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the issue is peripheral to the work, as in countless novels, plays, and stories, or the issue co-opts the work, as in The Jungle. But whether a contemporary issue blends seamlessly into a story or stands out like a sore thumb, the fact is that in order to do either the issue must be present in the story. If Rowling wants us to view Dumbledore as a character fraught with contemporary political meaning, she needed to weave the issue in, or mention it outright, or hint at it. If Rowling doesn't want us to view Dumbledore as a character fraught with contemporary political meaning, then she needed to remain silent about the "gay" identity of this character, because such an identity, in a work of present-day fiction, is always going to be political! But in neither case is she playing fair with her readers to insert Dumbledore's gay-contemporary-political-identity into the works after the fact! This is the worst kind of cheating, when the author decides to pander to some political identity group when the final book has been published, and the readers think they know everything important about the characters that there is to know. Bear in mind that it doesn't matter if she's always thought of Dumbledore as gay--she may think of Snape as a secret cross-dresser, too, for all we know, but it can't affect the outcome of the story now, so revealing it now is worse than useless--as is the revelation about Dumbledore.

From now on, the "Dumbledore is gay!" aspect of the stories will completely dominate any discussion or understanding of them. We will be told that our "acceptance" of Dumbledore as Harry's mentor and role-model means, subconsciously, that we accept gay men in these roles. We will be asked to interpret Dumbledore's every action in the light of his "gayness" and find the hidden angst which obviously relates to his own conflicts about his sexual identity. We will be encourage to compare and contrast other characters, and ponder the orientations of each (perhaps Luna Lovegood is a lesbian, etc.). The stories, whatever they used to be about, are now and forever more only about one thing.

If I thought Rowling knew this, I would have to wonder about her motivations. But there's something awfully familiar about her way of blurting out any old words, the clunkiness with which this was handled, the bad timing, bad taste, and bad instincts. With this incident to add to my opinion of her books, I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that whatever else she may be, J.K. Rowling is, quite possibly, a thoroughly stupid woman.


Stina said...

Thank you! I could never in a million years do what you did by putting this into words. I agree with you whole-heartedly (except for the literary criticism of which I claim complete ignorance).

Thanks again.

Opal said...

I bought the first one for my nephew b/c we didn't have any children and tried to get interested and have tried since; not my cup of tea!
You would need to break it gently to Mr. Shea tho..hee hee.

John Thayer Jensen said...

Red - thanks for this post. It did help me, as I have never been really sure whether such judgements on my part are valid or not as I have NOT got any education in literary criticism. I have felt about Harry that (1) the basic story was often fun and I was certainly keen to follow it to the end; (2) that, yes, the Christian themes are definitely there, and I HAVE read the last one, and it is thematically not bad, but that (3) I could never imagine going back to re-read the books (as I have done well over ten times each for e.g. Tolkien's or Lewis's fantasies, and that in fact (4) I skimmed a fair bit of it, just wanting to know what happened but couldn't keep my attention on the reading what seemed to me often poor writing - sometimes really very poor.

But as I say, I thought maybe I was wrong.

I wonder if you have an opinion about another book that had a certain amount of attention when it came out, which my Catholic friends raved about, and which, when I bought and read (or read-skimmed) it - twice, to try to see if I was just wrong - I found so annoyingly badly written that despite that good story line and the helpful theological and moral stuff, I JUST COULDN'T BE BOTHERED! That is Michael O'Brien's "Father Elijah." I found it so frustrating and still think that perhaps there is something wrong with me - but I frankly found myself so engaged in a mental argument with the author that I felt it was almost an occasion of sin for me to try to read it a third time :-)

I don't know, it seems to me that sometimes because a book has a good story and is morally good, people think that excuses shoddy writing.

Or perhaps I am just wrong. Just curious if you know "Father Elijah" and, if you do, what you think of it from the literary point of view.


Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, all!

John, I have not read "Father Elijah" and know it only by the comments of friends/family who have read it; their opinion coincides with yours, and the general thoughts I have heard suggest that the book is interesting but poorly done. If anyone has read it, please feel free to chime in!

Flannery O'Connor was very harsh, in her essays, with Catholic writers who thought being very devout and pious in their writing was enough to excuse them from writing badly. I tend to hold to the same principles, with the understanding, of course, that it's not entirely the inadequate writer's fault if he is published, insufficiently edited, or encouraged to continue without being made aware of his defects. Anyone can have one poor novel published, but more than that can't be held to be accidental, and thus the popular author of entertaining trash (Catholic or not) who improves not at all over time must bear some part of the blame for writing badly.

Alexandra said...

I'm also wondering why Rowlings has chosen to mention the gay thing now. I hope this isn't some sort of foreshadowing of what's to a gay novel for childen, or maybe she'll be coming out herself(facetious). What ever the reson, she's made the series very unwholesome for children, and ruined it for many. I'm sure it will affect her sales negatively.

Divine Mercy said...

iam not happy about her decision. but hey, what else is gonna jump out of the woodwork and surprise us?

Literacy-chic said...

We definitely see eye to eye on these books for a number of reasons. Nice discussion, but I have to say that you should NEVER be afraid to hold children's lit to high standards--a child reader deserves quality even more than an adult! Thanks for the compliment on Roman Catholic Blog!

Red Cardigan said...

Literacy-chic, thanks for commenting here! To clarify the "high standards" point, I should just say that while I do tend to hold children's lit to high standards, the standards are, of course, different for adult literature.

For example, I was recently re-reading Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles since one of my daughters decided to read them, and occasionally I would think an element was too simplistic or an outcome too obviously telegraphed--a problem for an adult reader, but not for the children for whom these books are written. So I had to wonder if *some* of my criticisms of Rowling weren't similar, though I knew that some of them were indeed based on actual deficiencies in her writing.

But you're right--children deserve the best we can give them!

freddy said...

Thanks, Red! Well put, of course! I've enjoyed the Harry Potter series probably a bit more than you have, but have had a hard time finding anyone to discuss the literary merits (or lack thereof). So often it's just a matter of "Harry is good" vs. "Harry is evil" and the idea of whether Harry is well-written just doesn't even make the grade. I can't think of Rowling, however, as a stupid woman. Ill-informed or perhaps ill-advised, perhaps, and sadly too much a creature of her times, in the end. I believe that future generations will lump Harry and his imitators in one sub-genre of fantasy fiction of this era and largely forget about it. I mean, who reads "Conan the Barbarian" books anymore? :)

Anonymous said...

Sadly those who object to the magic-related elements in Harry Potter can now point to a more fundamental darkness slithering through these books. While some may continue to claim that it teaches good versus evil, the question may be raised if the basic good versus evil theme really outweighs a homosexual character and Rowling's own ideology which obviously has, to some degree, infiltrated her story. Any story will have some basic theme of good versus evil for it pertains to common human experience. Someone may teach that it is wrong to steal but once they introduce other evil thematic elements then the message becomes clouded.

I do think the magical elements, by the way, are problematic in their own right. Had they been ambiguous and non-specific, as in Lord of the Rings where Gandalf is a wizard but has no specific magic spells he employs, then perhaps it would be acceptable. Many people have reported that Rowling went to the extent of researching magic and uses actual aspects of it. We live in a day and age when many, many young people want to, and are working on, being witches. It is simply problematic.

Now we know that Rowling is more sinister then many thought. No longer can these books be considered mere children's literature, innocent and pure. For a genuine Catholic with the desire to raise their children with the mind of Christ, there is much better reading available.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

"Rowling is more sinister"? Give me a break. I agree w/Red: stupid, yeah. But just because Rowling decided to say she always thought of Dumbledore as gay, doesn't really make him gay, now does it? With all the hand-wringing over the black magic that these books were supposed to be promoting, never once did anyone ever sniff out homoerotic undertones in the Dumbledore character. So I maintain: it isn't there. I never saw him as gay and I still don't.

So now if JKR decides to let the cat out of the bag and tell us that Hermione and Belltrix had a thing going on, Ron had a secret gambling addiction, his dad was a drunk and his mom did back-alley abortions, I should believe that, too?

If you say he's gay, you've got to come up with some kind of literary proof within the books to prove it.

Anonymous said...

Obviously there is some literary proof since readers suspected it and hence asked the question. Now that she has stated it, then it will be a known fact of the character.

If you'd assert that no one knew or suspected it, then one has to wonder why people asked her about it...

And obviously it is more than "she always thought of him as gay." She explains his history and the whole story of it. Obviously it is implicitly there in the character even if not explicit.

Opal said...

Not to be picky, but the term "gay" means that the person is living out the homosexual tendencies and lifestyle; whereas SSA and homosexual just states the orientation. Whether she is sloppy, stupid or "agree" with the gay lifestyle is where problems creep in.
There is one thing to have conflict, but how it is addressed and resolved will show how "christian" she is.

Anonymous said...

You said: "There is one thing to have conflict, but how it is addressed and resolved will show how "christian" she is."

Yes well I'ev never read nor will ever read Mr. Potter's tales but from the articles I have read, the character in question is lovable and so good and nice. The article noted then how Rowling showed that a homosexual individual can be such a wonderful person therefore we must be tolerant.

On the flip side in Brideshead Revisited, you have homosexual characters but they are all ultimately unfulfilled, unhappy, and constantly searching for fulfillment which leads one to the conclusion that their choice of lifestyle makes them unhappy. I do not think the same can be said for this Potter character. I could be wrong since as I said I will not read them.

God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, anonymous, for making the comparison with Brideshead, although I'm not sure HP deserves to be compared with literature like that. Thanks too for offering a balanced, concise, and somewhat different opinion!
Blessings to you and also to Red.

nicole said...

I don't care what she said about him. It is immaterial to the story in my opinion. The books don't ever present Dumbledore facing a question of engaging in a romance or whatever. In fact, I always saw him as a character who gave up a "normal" life, with a family and the like, to pursue the greater good. Isn't that more interesting anwyay? The idea that a person would make many sacrifices in order to carry out a call to serve? I don't think Rowling was necessarily making that a point in her story, but that is how I read it.
All authors (in my limited reading about them) seem to have backstories for their characters. Parts of their lives that we as readers may never know about. Was it short-sighted to reveal this about Dumbledore? Perhaps. Does it have to color the way we read the stories? Only if we want it to, in my opinion. You can read the books and dismiss this revelation and go on about the reading.

Jennifer F. said...

Red - THANK YOU. If nothing else, it's refreshing to know that I'm not the only one who didn't see what the big deal was about Harry Potter. I tried to read it once but couldn't get into it at all. I felt like the only person on the face of planet earth who didn't think that the books (or, the book I tried to read anyway) were that compelling.

Also, thank you for your thoughts on the issue with her announcing after the last book was out that that one wizard was gay. I found it really, really irritating but couldn't articulate why. As usual, you've done it for me.

Hélène said...

JTJ- I read Father Elijah and hated it. In addition to it being badly written, I couldn't stand the dialogue and didn't like the plot. Everyone else I know liked it, so I thought that maybe I didn't read it very well. I read Eclipse of the Sun and didn't like that either, so I am through with his novels. With a few exceptions, novels that are marketed to a religious audience are not very good.

cjmr said...

Great essay!