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Harry Potter: pick on someone your own size

Many of those who thought the boy wizard would save our world are now complaining that he failed to fulfil their fantasies.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Books

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, JK Rowling, Bloomsbury, July 2005.

So the new Harry Potter – is it any good? Or have we all grown out of it now, and couldn’t care less what some schoolboy wizard gets up to once every two years?

Watching the reviewers rehash the great Harry Potter debate around HP6 (or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, as it is known to non-professional readers), I can only conclude that the British intelligentsia hasn’t grown out of this infantile obsession at all – it’s just got bored with being nice about the books. And that’s really immature.

BBC News carries a review round-up with the headline ‘Critics split on new Harry Potter’ (1), but that’s something of a euphemism. The piece quotes the Independent on Sunday’s Suzy Feay as calling the book ‘wordy, flabby and not very well edited’, while Robert Crumb writing in The Observer said that author JK Rowling’s ‘prose ran the gamut from torpid to pedestrian’. For the other side of the story, it had to cross the Atlantic to find the New York Times‘ Michiko Kakutani equating the book’s achievement to classics such as the Lord of the Rings – but in the UK, of course, we went there and did that around the launch of Book Four, and the Tolkein line is passe now.

Even children, apparently, gave the book a ‘mixed response’: James Noble, 10, wrote in the Mail on Sunday, ‘I thought the beginning of the book was a bit boring because all the characters were doing was talking’, while 10-year-old Rosie Jenkins countered that it was ‘darker and more alarming than the others but that makes it more interesting and impossible to put down’.

So what is it? Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince seemed all right to me – but then, I’ve read and enjoyed all the books more than once and always argued that they are perfectly good children’s stories, no more and no less than that (see Harry Potter and the Meaning of Life, by Jennie Bristow). As such, they did not merit the cultural sycophancy that the early books attracted, and they don’t deserve to have their prose hammered by literary critics now. But Potter-mania has always been less about the quality of these children’s books and more about a general discussion about how adult intellectuals view our culture.

Despite the notorious secrecy surrounding each new Harry Potter book, the negative reviews were not a complete surprise. Before publication of The Half-Blood Prince, the UK media were sporting articles headlined ‘How Harry lost his magic’ (The Times (London), 9 July), and ‘Why I hate Harry Potter’ (BBC, 14 July). It seems that even something so innocuous as a series of children’s books about a boy wizard, which is so gushed over at first, can’t stay popular for very long today. (Although as the BBC admits, negative reviews are unlikely to dent the massive sales, with 10million copies predicted to have sold around the world in its first 24 hours (2). Whatever some Sunday newspaper says about The Half-Blood Prince, children will surely make their own minds up.)

Given the grandiose claims made about the books at the height of their popularity – that they would solve the literacy crisis among the nation’s children, or that they would teach our kids how to deal with the ‘big issues’ of life, death and evil with which our secular society is so uncomfortable – it was bound to become clear to some that these, really, were just not-bad kids’ books. But it seems more than a little unfair that Harry is now being slammed for not fulfilling these instrumental expectations. The thing that really annoys the BBC’s Robert Winder about the Potter phenomenon, for example, is that ‘[T]he series paints an unrealistic picture of Britain in 2005’ (3). Well, you know – this is a made-up story about wizards, not a special edition of Newsround.

The romance of Joanne Rowling’s rags-to-riches story – single mum writes children’s book in café down the road, and it suddenly becomes a word-of-mouth hit – has lost its sparkle with the fact that she is now the thirty-sixth richest person in Britain with another daughter, living the kind of luxurious family life to which those who eke out their existence writing book reviews can barely aspire. It seems that we are far more comfortable with success when it just happens to a member of the deserving poor than we are with people who get rich on a particular formula and show every sign of staying rich.

The fact that JK Rowling set out to write a series of seven Potter books, not just one, and has been faithfully churning them out every couple of years was once perceived as an enviable exercise in self-discipline – now, it’s more likely to be viewed as money-grabbing PR, and an unfair burden on parents forced to explain why their kids will have to wait another two years to find out how the story ends. Which, again, is more than a little unfair – whatever your views of Rowling’s prose (and it is on the stodgy side), the meticulous planning behind the series is something a bit different to the normal mode of fiction-writing, and is worthy of admiration.

And who are the books for? Harry Potter’s ‘crossover appeal’, to grown-up commuters and critics as well as to their target audience of children, has been one of the key features of Potter-mania. From the start, critics scoured Rowling’s books for their unique appeal to adults, rambling on about moral certainties and the role of fantasies while missing the two obvious points: parents enjoyed reading the books to their kids, and once you give middle youthers the legitimacy to read a kid’s adventure story on the Tube without embarrassment, they will leap at the opportunity. The critics moan about having the pressure to read their review copies in six hours – but how long does it take to read a children’s story anyway?

In an era of trash TV and comfort-food chick lit, the fact that adults buy and read Potter is neither here nor there. What is more disturbing is how damn seriously the books are taken by those adults who see themselves as the intelligentsia, pouring their own preoccupations and theories into the novels and finding themselves somehow disappointed that the new book doesn’t really do it for them. People might laugh at the Pope, lambasting Harry Potter for promoting ‘black magic’ – but the secular critics are no less obsessed with Rowling’s value system. After all the hoo-ha surrounding Rowling’s previous decisions to write about a murder (Book Four), and then to kill off a main character (Book Five), the critics exude a palpable sense of disappointment that there is nothing more shocking in HP6 than some more deaths. Presumably, Rowling’s child readers won’t be so blasé.

Critics have mocked Rowling’s clumsy forays into the world of teenage romance, which consist mainly of crass references to ‘snogging’ and ham-fisted metaphors for jealousy – but in doing so they tend to miss Rowling’s more subtle achievement. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Rowling has managed to make her characters noticeably more mature without a single reference to teenage sex – a rare feat for a teen writer. At least Harry and pals deal with issues such as human frailty and fallibility, and questions of the soul – rather more profound than the ubiquitous ‘am I ready to sleep with him?’ debate.

The ongoing attempts to read Harry Potter in relation to its relevance to current news events is becoming increasingly desperate. ‘Close readers and other killjoys will see all this darkness as a sign of our paranoid times, and it would be a hard point to argue’, writes one US reviewer. ‘Students pass through sensors on their way into and out of Hogwarts…. There’s even a minor character named Shunpike, never seen but only talked about, who functions solely as a martyr to Guantanamo-style preventive detention.’ (4) Some have delighted in drawing parallels between the dithering Muggle Prime Minister at the start of the book, and our own PM, Tony Blair. But why should it be of such significance what jokes a children’s author manages to weave into her stories?

The efforts to examine the book in its own terms, by scrutinising style, imagery and dialogue, are just embarrassing. Yes, Rowling has resorted in this one to the clunky technique of giving Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore great long monologues that explain everything that has gone on: which is what young James Noble means when he complains about ‘all the characters were doing was talking’. But if the literati are that bothered about quality and skill, why are they reviewing Rowling in the first place?

The British intelligentsia could do with having a proper discussion about values, love, good and evil, the soul, and what makes a good book. But the fact that they want to have this debate about Harry Potter, rather than the world, is pretty childish. Serious thinkers should pick on someone their own age, and leave Harry to work his magic among the kids.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by JK Rowling is published by Bloomsbury. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

(1) Critics split on new Harry Potter, BBC News, 17 July 2005

(2) Critics split on new Harry Potter, BBC News, 17 July 2005

(3) Why I hate Harry Potter, BBC News, 14 July 2005

(4) Book review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, San Francisco Chronicle, 17 July 2005

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Topics Books

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