Firstly, I’m going to take a moment to do a little self-congratulatory back-patting. I took my Grade 7 piano exam on Tuesday and somehow, against all the laws of music appreciation, managed to come out with a Distinction! I haven’t had a Distinction in a piano exam for quite a few grades now so it’s an all-round good feeling. Plus, I’ve accepted my two offers: Royal Holloway as my firm (what else) and Reading as my insurance. Then I went and applied for a student loan, which was less fun. Next step, applying for accommodation!
I read a post on 101 Books today that pulled some of the choicest quotes from an article by A. S. Byatt. The article was about how everyone who likes Harry Potter is juvenile. While eleven years may be a long time ago and what she wrote might not be relevant any more, I’m bloody well going to respond to it because nobody, in my opinion, should be allowed to make broad, sweeping generalisations like that just because they don’t like a book. Holy run-on sentence, Batman!
I haven’t got a problem with opinions about literature. I, personally, do not find Shakespeare riveting. I can appreciate what he did for modern literature but I still wouldn’t read his works for pleasure. Dickens, Tolkien, the Brontës: I have tried some of their books and I just can’t finish any of them under my own steam. That doesn’t mean I automatically try to dissuade others from reading them, or that they are somehow ‘lesser’ because I don’t like them.
That’s where the problem comes in. Byatt appears to have taken against the Harry Potter series and is making conjectures about the kind of adults that enjoy the books. Mostly, these come in the form of mildly insulting comments on how ‘consumable’ the book is and how people who read books like that are not capable of handling more heavy-going and difficult literature. You know, like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl.
The whole basis of this argument: that Harry Potter is juvenile because it’s an easy read, is one of the most close-minded and snobbish I’ve seen. For any book, ever.
If you look at a list of the generally accepted ‘classics’; the books that shaped literature, you’ll notice some things. The majority of the authors on that list are white, male and dead. If you were to send an alien race all the books on that list, they would end up with a very strange view of our society. While I don’t think putting Twilight on the list would be a good idea, I still think Twilight had a whole lot of influence on young readers that might never have picked up a book in the first place if they’d been faced with the classics. It then went on to influence a whole lot of new literature and film. Disparaging a book simply because it is readable is extremely short-sighted.
Another issue I take with Byatt’s article is that she doesn’t actually appear to have read the source material thoroughly. If you are going to criticise something, at least have the decency to know what you are criticising!
He…discovers that his mind is linked to the evil Lord Voldemort, thereby making him responsible in some measure for acts of violence his nemesis commits.
[On the events of The Order of the Phoenix]
No. Harry is not responsible for Voldemort’s crimes. He is merely witness to them, and this is discussed in depth in the fifth book after Arthur Weasley is attacked. Harry feels tremendous guilt and responsibility over what happened, but the fact remains that Harry could only watch, he couldn’t influence.
Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.
You can’t rank bureaucracy up next to Voldemort. Voldemort is a homicidal maniac; the Ministry of Magic is, for the most part, misguided. Yes, bureaucratic meddling is portrayed as negative (although I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was intentionally evil (except Professor Umbridge (bitch))), but there isn’t a book called Harry Potter and the Red Tape. Voldemort is every inch the fleshed-out, fairytale villain Byatt refuses to acknowledge him as.
Even worse, Byatt goes on to say that the Harry Potter universe is a pale imitation of the fantasy lands dreamed up by other authors. Apparently, Harry Potter lacks seriousness. While I agree that we don’t get to see enough of the wizarding world besides Hogwarts and London, there’s plenty to occupy people. So what if there aren’t “malign, inhuman elvish beings that hunt humans” lurking behind every tree. There are Death Eaters. There are wars. There are whole classes at Hogwarts, taught by Remus Lupin, devoted to exactly the sorts of creatures Byatt feels are missing from this world.
Then we have the condescending comments about the type of adults that read Harry Potter:
They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild.
Um, hello! I am an adult! I don’t live in an urban jungle! Every single one of my childhood holidays was spent in this region of France, one of the most isolated areas in the country. And there are many more readers like me. While we don’t live in the ‘real wild’, how many people with access to books like these (*cough*Byatt herself) actually do? Please do not lump everyone who reads this book into one category just because it supports your argument.
She notes how unoriginal Rowling is, with elements of her story coming from so many others before her. She even compares J. K. Rowling to Terry Pratchett:
[T]he great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.
I fully agree that his wit is metaphysical and his ability to write is amazing. But you can’t say that he is completely original. You just can’t. So many of his books (fantastic though they are) are based on previous works. Every writer borrows from another. You can’t write something that hasn’t already been written in some form, somewhere or other. You can personalise it, make it individual, come at it from an entirely original angle, but some aspect of your work will have been influenced by something else.
And then there are the thinly-veiled allusions to the low intelligence of the reader:
[N]ewspaper gossip columnists…make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero.
Now, I may be reading this the wrong way (I have my red ranting glasses on, they can blur meaning sometimes) but that sounds a hell of a lot like she assumes you don’t know what the word ‘celebrity’ means. After all, she’s managed to assume that every grown-up reading this book is not capable of handling more than the most watered-down topics in books. Apparently, our generation “hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery”. We are childishly sheltered in our “urban jungles”.
Clearly, Ms Byatt has never experienced the internet.