Sean Leo, 8, echoes the cover illustration of Harry Potter, even to the glasses. (Ruth Fremson/The New York Times)
The Subtlety of Hogwarts? Give a Wizard a Break!
By ALAN COWELL
The first readings are over, the tired eyes glazed, the mammoth tomes laid aside. Blessedly, Phase 1 of this year’s Harry Potter frenzy has concluded. But hold on. Relief may be premature. For now, it seems, it is time to settle in for Phase 2: Potter deconstruction.
Just one month after the publication of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth in J. K. Rowling’s projected seven-book series, battle lines are already forming in the debate over the literary merit of the Potter books.
Put simply: Is Harry Potter literature or not? And by extension, what benchmarks are appropriate in making a judgment: C. S. Lewis or Billy Bunter, J. R. R. Tolkien or Enid Blyton?
By and large the initial reception has been overwhelmingly favorable. “The dissenting voices are very rare,” said Robert Potts, an editor of The Times Literary Supplement in London. “Harry Potter works very well in the existing tradition of English children’s literature. It takes an extremely curmudgeonly attitude to despise these books.”
Yet the remarks of scores of reviewers and commentators on both sides of the Atlantic — indeed, as far afield as The Straits Times of Singapore — make it clear that proponents of a minority countervision are prepared to take up the cudgels against the prevailing view of the Potter story, even to brave the accusation that nothing breeds resentment quite like success.
Perhaps the most immediate issue is the character of the books’ protagonist — Harry Potter, schoolboy wizard. He may entrance readers by the millions but that — in the counterview — may simply be because he provides the simplest of pegs on which dreams may be hung. “He is not a boy of depth or subtlety,” said Robert McCrum, the literary editor of The Observer of London, in a review that generally praised Ms. Rowling’s abilities as a storyteller.
Mr. McCrum’s criticism echoed the conclusions of this year’s judges for Britain’s Carnegie Medal, Britain’s most prestigious award for children’s books. Annie Everall, the head of the 12-member judging panel, which announced its conclusions just before “Goblet of Fire” was published, said that there had been a consensus on the panel that Harry was “more one-dimensional” than rivals for the prize, which went to Aidan Chambers’s “Postcards From No Man’s Land.”
Some critics go further, arguing that Harry has become no more than part of a stale formula wearing thin after four books. “J. K. Rowling hit upon a winning formula at the beginning of the series, and she has hardly changed it” in “Goblet of Fire,” a review in The Daily Telegraph in London said.
Then there is the matter of language, where the gulf seems to lie primarily between highbrow and not-so-highbrow perceptions of the books, although in what some Potter enthusiasts may take as a backhanded compliment, Colin Cheong said in The Straits Times, “Just because some adults happen to enjoy the Potter books does not mean the books should be judged against an adult’s ‘literary’ yardstick.”
In the United States, a much-debated critique of Ms. Rowling in The Wall Street Journal by Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, provided possibly the most heavyweight intellectual imprimatur to the dissent. “Her prose style, heavy on clichés, makes no demands upon her readers,” Mr. Bloom wrote last month, even as he vouchsafed the hope that “my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages.”
Mr. McCrum, in The Observer, was just as blunt. “Her work teems with exotic personnel and it has the reader by the throat from page to page, but her prose is as flat (and as English) as old beer,” he said.
Of course, the same could be said for many, if not most, authors of the blockbuster best sellers that cram airport bookstores. But in the Eng. Lit. 101 debate around Ms. Rowling, the question leads straight into the issue of where Harry Potter fits in the canon of children’s literature — or at least of children’s literature with a sufficiently large adult audience to stir a largely adult debate.
This, oddly enough, is an area where the lines blur. Some voices are utterly dismissive. Even before “Goblet of Fire” was published, Anthony Holden, a judge for Britain’s highly regarded Whitbread Award, went public with his reasons for opposing the nomination of the third Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” for the prize. Referring to what he saw as its direct antecedent in the literature of British boarding-school life, he called the Potter books “a tedious, clunkily written version of Billy Bunter on broomsticks.”
Some skeptics, like Jeff Baker, a book critic for The Portland Oregonian, are prepared to concede that the books are “well written and extremely imaginative” but echo the view that Harry Potter is not yet assured of a place in the annals of great children’s literature. “J. K. Rowling is a fine stylist and a clever fantasist,” he wrote, “but she is no J. R. R. Tolkien. ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are more exciting and, frankly, more beautiful than the Potter series, and C. S. Lewis’s amazing ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ series, which Rowling often cites as an influence, is more poetic and fully formed.”
So where does all this leave Ms. Rowling? What do the critics see as her place in the history of English literature?
Clearly the idea of an author’s producing work by installment, a technique that drives the annual frenzy of choreographed anticipation at the heart of the Potter marketing strategy, is not new: Charles Dickens did the same in the 19th century with such effect, Mr. Baker says, that 6,000 New Yorkers lined the docks in 1841 to await the final installment of “The Old Curiosity Shop.”
Still, Ms. Rowling is very much a phenomenon of this era, and in the counterview her work is in the same league as the other fleeting shadows of an insubstantial, market- and celebrity-oriented age. “Potter is one with the weekend megamovies, pop stars, sitcoms and reality TV,” said Rex Murphy in The Globe and Mail of Canada, “and belongs to the same machine that feeds their crass, short, forgettable lives.”
Even Ms. Rowling’s vaunted triumph in bringing children back to the printed word has not escaped criticism, with the naysayers arguing that her success is driving out other novelists. In The Times of London, Marina Warner, who has written frequently about fairy tales, evoked a string of other writers who have also “re-enchanted the landscape.” And Tom Kemp, musing in The Daily Telegraph on the all-absorbing fascination Ms. Rowling has for so many children, said it “would be nice if she left them time to read other authors as well.”