Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Why Should I Read...?"

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling, 2007

I had long resisted reading Harry Potter. That wasn't because they were children's books, but because they were so hyped. I am naturally resistant to reading anything which is forced down my throat, and often disappointed by books which are touted as spectaculars.
Harry Potter was therefore an acquaintance I was not keen to make. Set against this, though, was the fact that the books were fantasies which had picked up a mainstream audience, and so of professional interest to me.

In the end, I'm glad I held off reading them as long as I did, because in the end I was able to read them one after another, without having to wait a year between each book. Reading them in this way reinforced the consistency of Rowling's vision, and for a month I lived in her world. I've chosen the last book in the series as "Why Should I Read...?" not because it's the best of them (although it's close), but because to get that far, you'd have to have read the other six - so it's seven for the price of one.

The criticisms of the books are well-known, and in most cases misconceived. The later books are supposedly "too long". While Rowling tends to the verbose at times--and the proliferation of adverbs can irritate--they are tightly plotted, both within and between individual novels. The writer she most reminds me of is Dickens: in her ability to create comic grotesques, in the fierce morality of her voice and her mastery of the long, complex plot, the comparison is not inapposite. Modern readers, queuing for days outside the bookshops in the way nineteenth century readers thronged the dockside for the latest Dickens instalment, clearly agree.

Unlike George R.R. Martin, Rowling can keep control of her material over the long haul, but like Martin she has a propensity for killing off sympathetic characters. It's this steeliness of vision--her recognition that characters are subordinate to the overarching structure--which pushes her work into the enduring category. When you read the later books, in particular, you have a real sense of peril which most thriller writers can't match. Characters you care about can and will die. And these are children's books! Here again, Rowling is to be commended: she doesn't sanitise her message for a juvenile audience, and a series which starts off with the cosiness of Enid Blyton ends with bloodshed on an epic scale. The way in which the books treat death, not as a plot feature, but as the thematic core of the series, is more mature than most books written for an adult readership. And those readers, sadly most in the US, who denounce the books as apologetics for paganism and witchcraft have missed the point by the largest margin possible. The Harry Potter series is profoundly moral, and in a mainstream Christian way--and, incidentally, retailed with much more humour than those more overt Christian propagandists CS Lewis and Tolkien.

Rowling's series is destined to be regarded as one of the greats of fantasy literature: at once profoundly serious and richly comic, propelled by a spectacular imaginative fertility, these are books which will be read, re-read and loved for generations to come.

How has it influenced me?

I first picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone less than two months ago: it hasn't yet had a chance to influence my writing. But if you see me kill off your favourite character in a future book, you know where I got the idea...

Lessons for the aspiring writer?

  • Write what you want to write--if it's good enough, the market will come to you
  • The reader will forgive you killing off favourite characters if there's a good reason for it
  • Humour and tragedy can, handled skilfully, enhance rather than contradict each other
  • You probably don't need that adverb...


Alis said...

Tim, how fantastic to read such a very positive review of the Harry Potter series (which I love. It's so refreshing when the carpers and criticisers are so rampant. I think you're spot on with the comparison with Dickens and also in pointing out the moral and - dare i say it - messianic vision which is (I agree) far better than Lewis or Tolkein.
Thank you!

Tim Stretton said...

The invective the series attracts is astonishing to me. Even if it were rubbish, it would be praiseworthy for attracting so many children to reading.

Much of the criticism has to be put down to envy--although it would be nice to think that fellow writers are more generous--and the pervasive desire to bring down that which is exalted.

Luckily the books are big enough to shrug off such critics.

David Isaak said...

Rowling can indeed be thanked for creating a new generation of readers (the one just a little older is a dead loss).

But one of the most interesting things to me is how many non-reading adults she has converted.

I'm not a big fan of JKR myself--not that I have anything against her. I read the first HP book and enjoyed it, but not so much that I was compelled to pick up the second. (Some folks tell me that judging the HP series by the first book is like judging Tolkein by The Hobbit.) I suspect I'll get around to the series sooner or later, and I suspect I'll enjoy it...but I seem to have this huge stack of other books ready to topple over on me.

Tim Stretton said...

The series darkens and deepens as it moves on. The first one--or indeed two--are standard, if well-crafted, children's books. It's what the later volumes build on that foundation which makes the series remarkable.