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Yeah, yeah, I know...

I see that A.S. Byatt has been stoking up the fires of Potter fury yet again. After that first weekend during which a resentment of critics offered up their error-ridden, supercilious hackery, I had hoped this was over.

A.S. Byatt isn't so easily ignored as the various newspaper reviewers of whom I just think 'well, you're just some bozo with a degree, a newspaper job and delusions of adequacy, like me'.
(Except when I agree with them, in which case they are paragons of all that is brilliant and insightful among Her Majesty's Fourth Estate. )

She needs to make a crust as much as the next fellow and at more than £800 a pop, these op-ed articles are easy money, because every would-be bestseller and his dog who *doesn't* like Harry Potter is muttering to him/herself "why is J.K. Rowling selling more books than me? Or indeed God?"

In my opinion, Byatt can write breathtaking prose *and* she can plot with some success, skills that few possess in combination, and that entitles her, like Stephen King, to have an opinion about Harry Potter to which I should pay attention.

However, this has the feeling of something that was knocked together in a few hours from fragments on the mental hard drive: a snipe or two about 'dumbing down' here, a namecheck of Keats here, of Freud there and a mighty swing of the machete at various things that Byatt hates and would probably mention hating in an article about the correct way to fry chicken, such as the worship of celebrity and the cultural studies lovers (though she gets kudos for being right about Pterry)

In the midst of this think she makes a couple of good points but, like most of the people who read this book for work, rather than pleasure, she doesn't understand why the series works as it does for adults -- and that it only works as literature *as* a series. You need the cumulative effect.

* * *

I think that most of the criticisms Byatt levels at the world-building of the Potterverse are true, but in large part, only for the first two books. In The Philosopher's Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, the storytelling is mostly of the kind that Byatt describes,

It is the simple "family romance". Its storytelling is linear, the humour is simple and child-like, albeit with a dark streak that's not quite as black and cruel as Dahl's. The Dursleys are cartoonish, the world is a patchwork built up of much-beloved elements, such as the boarding school book, the magical fantasy and the triumphant orphan who discovers his birthright.

It is over-reliant on characters being too stupid to keep each other properly informed and on coincidental magic. All the books are repetitive to some degree, which is inevitable when the writing revolves around the academic year.

Yes, it started out as a "secondary secondary world" in PS, but it twisted beyond that "patchwork" Byatt mentions in Azkaban and has gone on complicating itself into a world that is distinctively Rowling's. There are plotholes and inconsistencies and annoying tics, but we can see some of these smoothing out and disappearing as the series go on. Jo Rowling is *learning* as a writer and becoming more confident in what she dare do in terms of plotting and we can see it happen.

What Byatt misses is that the joy is in watching the iterations of the themes in different darker ways, which mirrors the process of Harry's growing up and seeing the shades of grey in the initial black and white of the wizarding world.

Byatt writes: The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. To her, that makes it commonplace, and, in what is surely the most damagingly condescending part of the whole piece written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip

Part of the pleasure for this reader, is the way that the magic world interleaves with the muggle world and how the two are increasingly impingeing on one another. It's a theme I hope the next book will explore -- how a war in one world affects another. I think Byatt sells Rowling short by insisting that her readers are deficient in imagination and that her books are lacking in deeper themes.

To take one example: the Dursleys. They start off as Roald Dahl-eque caricatures of the evil foster family (and I notice that no critic has mentioned Roald Dahl, the most obvious precursor to Rowling in popularity and twistedness). As the saga goes on, we get a glimpse of the ignorance (Vernon) and fear (Petunia) that has made them that way, then suddenly in OotP, they pop into 3-D as it becomes obvious that Harry *had* to be placed with them for his own safety, and that Petunia clearly knows that. Even Dudley seems a little more real, after his encounter with the dementors. He's hideously spoiled still, but suddenly he seems to have possibilities as a player in the stories rather than a bit-part caricature.

Byatt then states Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

Well, yes and no. You could argue that PS and CoS are unthreatening and concerned only with Harry's friends and family. You could also argue that Harry, a newcomer in the magical world, and aged only 11, would be mainly concerned with friends and family and as such, it's a realistic interpretation of the narrow world of a young boy. But in GoF and particularly in The Order of the Phoenix, the world opens up and become significantly darker. We realise that there's much more at stake than the cosy world of Hogwarts and that the enemy is more than Lord Voldemort, it's the wizarding community's complacency and its odd, hidebound social structure. We realise that the oncoming storm is going to blow it all into the sky.

If Fudge's compromise and denial at the end of GoF is the equivalent of Chamberlain's Munich agreement, it's clear that by the end of OotP war is all but declared and we're entering into the equivalent of the phoney war of 1939.

I can only hope that the final two books of the sequence present similar step-changes in quality and in daring storytelling.

What Byatt apparently fails to understand is that it is not that the books are childish and comforting, but rather that they started out that way and now they're mutating in ways we could never have expected.

The joy of reading Harry Potter is not in finding a watertight exercise in world-building but in the beguiling way in which the ramshackle Potterverse accretes layer upon layer of detail, twist upon twist of darkness. What was once comforting black-and-white certainty is now shaded in grey. Dumbledore is not infallible or invincible. James was not noble. Snape was the wronged party in his war with MWPP. Even Hogwarts can be breached by the dark forces and even someone like Percy Weasley, who grew up in a loving, tightknit family of the kind Harry would have loved, can be drawn away to the enemy camp, whether he knows it yet or not. Friends and hopes die and Harry is only beginning to guess how many will before the conflict plays itself out.

I don't think that's safe or unchallenging.

* * *

I doubt I could argue that Rowling's actual prose style is a patch on that of Philip Pullman or Ursula LeGuin or the others Byatt uses for comparison. Stephen King, no great stylist himself, is deadly accurate on her faults but puts it kindly: at times she's genuinely good but she overuses adverbs, she repeats, she descends into cliche. It's nothing that a bloody-minded and tough editor couldn't slap her out of, though there's little chance of that now.

But whatever Byatt may think of her prose style, Rowling is, just like Stephen King, is a *storyteller* to the tips of her eyelashes and she makes us care about those she is writing about.

There are some people in the published world, and in the world of those who write for nothing more than pleasure, whose prose may not be of the highest order, whose stories may not be the most original thing in town, whose world-building may be ridden with holes and illogicalities, but there's something about the way they tell a story which is magical. Their writing has an inescapable velocity and you either enjoy that or you don't.

It's as though a story is like a bike ride. Sometimes you're on a boneshaker, riding uphill, against the wind and it's all you can do to finish. Sometimes it's flat ground and you're on a shiny, machine-tooled racing bike with Shimano brakes and you know you're in for a smooth, fast ride.

But with people like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, you're not on the best bike in the world or riding the smoothest road, but you're zooming downhill by God, with the wind in your hair and yelling at the top of your lungs because this is how it *should* feel. Not writing or art or literature but that most primitive of urges: story-telling.

What I love about this sequence of books is that we're going faster and faster and the road gets twistier and twistier, and I'm yelling at the top of my lungs because storytelling should always feel this good.

* * *

A tangent on Philip Pullman:

Unlike some commentators, I like Philip Pullman. I don't always agree with his pronouncements and he's a bloody-minded old cuss with a hang-up about religion, but I love Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife with a passion. I like The Amber Spyglass a great deal (but that may be because of the angels and because of the end).

And I think that if you put Northern Lights up against The Philosopher's Stone, it's clear that Northern Lights is a better books. It's better-written and better-plotted.

But I think that the HDM trilogy suffers in two ways in comparison with HP. The first is not his fault -- HDM has been held up by the self-righteously trendy 'we're all about the literature' camp as the anti-Rowling, which it really isn't. Two different animals whose chief uniting characteristic is their ability as fantastical storytellers.

The 'literature' brigade hold Pullman up as an example of an ideal world-builder when each subsequent book in the HDM series dilutes the impact of the first by providing ever more worlds described in ever-sketchier detail. They also ignore that he let his theological musings hijack parts of The Amber Spyglass, slowing up the story.

In short, critics: please shut up about Philip Pullman. It's laziness to drag him into the argument every single bloody time.



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 10th, 2003 05:05 am (UTC)
I've only read the first Harry Potter, and wasn't sure I would continue -- it all seemed so slight.

Keep going. I enjoyed the first one, but was in no rush to pick up the second one. I bought 2 and 3 at the same time right before an annoying business trip. After 2, I thought -- this had better get better or I'm not reading anymore.

After 3, you're in for good.
Jul. 10th, 2003 05:06 am (UTC)
Jeez! Publish that! It's exactly right.

You've got a connection or two, don't you? ;)
Jul. 10th, 2003 06:53 am (UTC)
Yeah! What she said!
Jul. 15th, 2003 06:18 pm (UTC)
Thanks for that, but you seriously overestimate my place in the chain of command *g*

Also, *cough* Byatt offered the piece to us first , I hear, and was turned down because she couldn't get it in in time for the big Potter package, and they didn't want to continue the saga into a second week.

Jul. 10th, 2003 05:59 am (UTC)
>Stephen King, no great stylist himself, is deadly accurate on her faults but puts it kindly: at times she's genuinely good but she overuses adverbs, she repeats, she descends into cliche.<

Plus the overuse of the ellipses and the capital shouting letters. And Yes! to the bicycle analogy! That puts it perfectly.
Jul. 10th, 2003 06:22 am (UTC)
Ah, the bicycle analogy is beautiful and true.
Jul. 10th, 2003 06:54 am (UTC)
What I love about this sequence of books is that we're going faster and faster and the road gets twistier and twistier, and I'm yelling at the top of my lungs because storytelling should always feel this good.

Bingo! This is what I love too. I hear about the critic's issues, I read what you wrote above (which is really *very* good BTW) and I realized that I'm just not that...intuitive. Observant. That...deep for lack of a better phrase. That informed about the literary world.

I just like the story. :)
Jul. 10th, 2003 08:08 am (UTC)
I am so glad to know you.
Jul. 10th, 2003 09:36 am (UTC)
Stephen King really IS the best comparison here, though his technical chops are superior to Rowling's.

But there are a few important things other people have observed that if you're publishing this somewhere you might want to address.

Those being: Characterization. Both King and Rowling are masters at making us genuinely CARE about the main characters and by making the perhaps cartoonish supporting characters interesting enough for us to wonder about them. Snape is a perfect example of this. So this is really one step up from baseline storytelling (I use E.M. Forster's definition of storytelling which is "wanting to know what happens next.") Because you can read some good storytelling where you do not identify with the main character or really give a shit about them (I'd put Pullman here). So these writers have plot + emotional investment in the protagonists, which is more than storytelling. And, you can add on some world-building to that, which, while it might not be the most original world you've ever encountered contains enough original elements that it has never before appeared in this configuration or has never been viewed through this particular sort of lens before. So that's a different POV from other people who have handled similar things.

Plot + emotional investment + original world configuration/POV

It works for King, it worked for Dickens, Twain, Irving, Alcott and Austen. It works for every author who can do it well, and it works on all the books greatly beloved by people everywhere. Byatt can lack on the emotional investment front sometimes. And that's why she's not as popular as Rowling or King.

ALSO, in Rowling you get the series growing up with the age of the protagonist. She's a teacher, she's studied Piaget and Bruner and it shows. As Harry's mind expands with age, the world-view of the books expands and things which formerly were cartoonish (as they would be in a child's perspective) become rounded and shaded. This is the REAL genius of Rowling and something I've never seen in a children's book series before.

C.S. Lewis wrote his books all on the same level, Tolkein talked down to us in the Hobbit and wrote for adults in LOTR, Pullman doesn't give a shit about the age of his readers and packs his stories full of stuff kids wouldn't get but adults writing literary reviews are impressed by, Dahl was all about delighting children with the smartest cartoons EVER. None of them grow up a book series with the protagonists age. This is a remarkable innovation on Rowling's part and it's why adults find the first two books lightweight but dig into the later books. The kids are already hooked. "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, now I am a man and I've put away childish things." to paraphrase a quote I can't remember. This is the real groundbreaker with Rowling and she deserves high praise for it as it is complicated and she's managing it amazingly well.

Every book builds on the first ones, every book knocks back the walls of perception farther and farther from the "nuclear family" worldview of the school. Every book adds shadings and complications to the world that kids only perceive as they grow. It's astonishingly cool because you can REMEMBER what it was like when you realized your parents weren't perfect or someone you disliked was telling an unpleasant truth, or that people you trusted had their own agenda that involved screwing you over. And we see all those universal things in Rowling.

That's the other important thing about Rowling and King. Their books deal with universal truths, and that's why they have universal appeal, like Terry Pratchett, too. You recognize these people and these situations and are allowed to remember your own similar experiences. That's genius in itself.

Jul. 10th, 2003 03:41 pm (UTC)
Oooh, good post. I didn't love OOTP as much as you, but that's a great rebuttal to Byatt.

Wish to hell I could do that business with the bicycle. The only person I know who can, to the same extent, is Max. Once you pick it up, you simply can't put it down.
Jul. 14th, 2003 08:07 am (UTC)
A tangent on Philip Pullman:


In short, critics: please shut up about Philip Pullman. It's laziness to drag him into the argument every single bloody time.


Yes, please. I have to say I was irritated at King's review of HP in Entertainment Weekly because it sounded like too much like one friend bolstering another, as well as the King of Genre making a pronouncement that nominated Rowling for Queen. Gah.
The toss-away slam at Pullman (the Potter books being "better") was completely irrelevant.

That comment rankled me for days, and I seriously contemplated writing my first letter to a major publication to say how stupid the comparison was. Of course that was an idiotic notion, considering what I really wanted to do was write *King.* Yeah. (And I might have tossed in a gripe about how he ruined my name, so there.)

Will have to read the Byatt review -- I'm only familiar with her fiction, not her other writings...
Jul. 15th, 2003 06:23 pm (UTC)
I think I had read so many hostile reviews which completely missed why people are buying the books by the time that I read Stephen King's review that I felt quite refreshed by the tone of it. I even forgave the Pullman thing *g*.

A lot of people who like Pullman seem to be opposed to Potter and vice versa, which is peculiar (IMO) as the two things are neither akin to each other or oppositional, what they have in common is that they're fantasy books for children that have gained a mainstream audience.

And yeah, you should write King. Couldn't he have called her Glenda or something? *g*
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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