Harry Potter and the baffled geek

17 July 2007

I’ve read bits of the books, and not been that engaged by the prose. I’ve skimmed the plot summaries and character bios on Wikipedia (and boy, there are a lot of ‘em), and not found them particularly interesting or novel. Nope, I just can’t do it, no matter how hard I’ve tried: I’ve never really got into Harry Potter. This may come as a surprise to some; in fact, it did. Let me tell you a brief story. The other day at a dinner party while talking to someone, she remarked “I bet you love Harry Potter”.

I replied “Well no. I might be a computer geek but I have very little time for any kind of magic or old-fashioned fantasy. It’s just not my cup of tea”.

“Oh really? I thought you would have been a massive fan – what do you read instead?” she replied.

I said “I’m much more into science fiction – reflections on our contemporary selves – imperfect worlds, dystopias, the whole cyberpunk genre.”

“Well,” she said, “that’s pretty predictable, isn’t it?”

If you’re a geek, you just can’t win, it seems.

Anyway, back to Potter. For years I have been bewildered at the success of Potter by adults in the country. I am not that snobby about it – in my view it’s better than people reading the clich?-ridden, predictable, poorly-researched and tiresome bilge by the likes Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown, or the never-ending deluge of chick lit and SAS memoirs. And I’m not even bothered about the enormous money-making juggernaut behind it – it’s the same for all popular entertainment, even if it’s taken to new lengths with these books. This message is currently on the Popbitch messageboard:

Evening all. M’learned friends ask can we have *no* Harry Potter spoliers posted on the site please. There’s a load of injunctions out to stop the plot being revealed. I know the book’s out there, but that’s someone else’s problem. Link to it if you must, but don’t write about it here. Thankyouplease.

But still, it’s mystifying; what is it about this children’s book that really gets adults avidly reading it? Is it simply because we’re lazier these days and they’re easier to read? While not in the bad writing stakes of the aforementioned authors, JK Rowling’s prose is still commonly regarded as pretty simplistic. Is it because, tired and weary of our increasingly cynical and urban lives, we now crave escapism and fantasy?

I don’t think so, at least not greatly. If either was the case, then why has Potter taken to the fore, rather than, say, graphic novels or more “adult” fantasy or sci-fi? Why do I get, comparatively, more odd looks on a train for reading Watchmen (which was written for adults) than I would for Potter? Why are we even reading more at all, instead of watching more television or movies? Instead, both are declining while Potter is a billion-pound industry.

The best hypothesis I read on the Potter phenomenon commented on how JK Rowling draws on and amalgamates a variety of common tropes in British children’s fiction – the public school larks and japes of Enid Blyton and later Jill Murphy; the orphaned or otherwise outcast child, who is secretly talented, so prevalent in Roald Dahl’s work; the fantasy and wonder of Diana Wynne Jones or Susan Cooper. The result is a patchwork, an amalgam, something which Rowling has attracted further criticism for. Couple that with the popularity of the book amongst people in their 30s and 20s, the generations lured away from books by television and video games respectively, and there might also be a guilt effect going on – trying to reclaim a childhood love of books that never existed in the first place; a mishmash of classics people are dimly aware of, reclaimed via Potter.

Incidentally, it’s interesting to compare with that with the tension going in the opposite direction – the resurrection of old TV series popular with children in the past such as Transformers and Doctor Who. And there’s a “retro game renaissance” on as well, for those of us pining for the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog or Sam & Max. I wonder if the demographics for each coincide or complement each other – I have no idea to be honest but it’s an interesting thing to look at.

Finally, there’s the big question: If Potter represents the childhood literature we never read, what happens after the final Potter is released and we have no more? Do Potter readers progress onto something more (dare I say the word) mature? After their flourishing takeup of children’s/young adolescent’s literature, do the adult readers grow up slightly, and start reading the books they never have read as an adult? Will they stay where they are, but spread their wings and read more of the same, for ever and ever? Or will it simply spell the end of yet another trend and we take up something else we never did as children but we feel we were meant to, like play conkers or BMX bike-riding?


2 Responses

I agree that a large part of the popularity of Potter with adults of our generation is a sense of lost childhood; not sure that it’s because new mediums lured us away from books, as such, but more that they made us very worldly and aware and pseudo-mature before we were necessarily ready. As a paid-up Potter fan, there is a sense of liminal, not-quite-innocence that the books capture very well that’s extremely appealing.

But equally, I think where Rowling’s writing, simple though it may be, clearly excels (be it through calculated craft or simple fortune of native talent) is in the way she furnishes a world that many different people can take many different things from. And that, I think, is where the books’ real appeal lies. Personally, I read the books as being considerably darker and gloomier than many others; perhaps its no coincidence that I read Goblet Of Fire first, easily the most sinister of the books. Maybe, if I’d read The Philosopher’s Stone first, I’d never have bothered with the rest of the series – it’s by far the fluffiest, and also by far the most derivative of Dahl, a writer I’m less than fond of.

But other people take other things from the books. I think it’s a skill beyond simply incorporating different elements in the books; creating a consistent world that simultaneously works (for different readers) as escapist fantasy, moral fable, coming-of-age parable, action adventure, political allegory or long-running large-cast soap opera is no mean feat. It may rely on a certain non-committal authorial voice – blandness, as some would have it – but it allows the readers a certain imaginative freedom that more fearsome and thrilling stylists do not.

There’s also the point that the renewed interest in both YA fiction and SF/Fantasy could simply be seen as mirroring a return to more plot-driven fiction in literature as a whole; which is by and large a welcome thing. The word “mature” is, I think, not the most helpful one here – I often see little difference in functional maturity between a lot of works that had been previously squeezed into genre niches and works of apparent adulthood.

Harry Potter is execrable, appallingly written drivel. The adults who read it are chickenshit conformist consumer scum who will buy whatever Heat/The Sun/The Guardian tells them to. My contempt for them is multiplied tenfold if they buy the book with an ‘adult’ cover. I can get quite snobby about it.

The fact that the HP fan above dislikes Roald Dahl says it all really.