J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter: Serious Literature or Adolescent “Slop”
By Dennis Greene
“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at age fifty.” –C. S. Lewis
Unless you have been living under a stone for the past twenty years, you have certainly heard of British author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels. Ms. Rowling has sold over 500 million copies of this seven-volume “young adult” series published from 1997 through 2007. The series has spawned ten extremely successful films and is frequently credited with encouraging the millennial generation to enjoy reading thick, complex books. This literary phenomenon has made the author a billionaire, and the Harry Potter franchise is now valued at over $25 billion dollars.
The Potter fan base is not limited to young adults. Millions of mature readers have come to know and love the Potter books by sharing them with their children or grandchildren. Others have sampled The Sorcerer’s Stone to see what the fuss was about and discovered, in one reviewer’s words, “the liveliest, funniest, scariest, and most moving children’s stories ever written. The praise from many well-respected reviewers has been effusive. A. N. Wilson in The (London) Times referred to Rowling’s narrative skills as Dickensian while Stephen King predicted that Harry Potter deserved his place on the shelf with Alice, Huck, Frodo and Dorothy. The Mail on Sunday rated The Philosopher’s Stone as “the most imaginative debut since Roald Dahl,” and the Guardian called it “a richly textured novel given lift-off by an inventive wit.”
The skyrocketing commercial success of the Potter books, along with the literary awards and critical acclaim they have received, eventually attracted the attention of the elite literary establishment. Leading the attack on the popular books was Yale Professor and well-known ;iterary critic Harold Bloom. In a Wall Street Journal article entitled “Can 35 Million Book Buyers be Wrong? Yes.” Professor Bloom observed that Rowling’s writing was “dreadful” and the book was “terrible” (note Professor Bloom’s magnificent use of richly descriptive adjectives) and then went on to disparage her readers.
“Why read it?” Bloom said. ” Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do. At least her fans are momentarily emancipated from their screens and so may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book. And yet, I feel discontent with the Harry Potter mania, and I hope my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery or nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages.”
The disparaging comments of this prominent critic, cloaked in the prestige of both Yale University and the Wall Street Journal, was an unwarranted attack on a young novelist whose first published work had achieved startling commercial success. In Rowling’s wizarding world, Professor Bloom would be easily recognized for what he is—a highbrow snob and a bully. If Professor Bloom were rewriting his article today, it would have to be titled “Can 500 Million Buyers Be Wrong? Maybe not.” I have no idea if it was a conscious decision, but in a later Harry Potter book, Ms. Rowling introduces Professor Slughorn, a mercurial, pompous, social-climbing Hogwart’s teacher who hosts dinner parties for “pureblood” students from famous wizarding families while excluding Hermione, the smartest student at Hogwart’s, because she is a “mudblood.” Professor Slughorn might easily have been patterned after a certain Yale literary critic.
Once Professor Bloom opened the floodgates, the deluge from other critics began. One of the first to pile on was Dame A.S. Byatt, an English author with an honorary title and an aristocratic aura, who opined that the Potter books were “written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, reality TV, and celebrity gossip.” Another British newspaper critic predicted that “in years to come, people will make a link between our plump, comfortable, infantilizing society and the popularity of Potter.” Other more measured critics did fairly identify a number of flaws in the Potter books, including tired writing, overuse of clichés, and being too complex for children and young adults to sort out. I don’t know exactly where Harry Potter should rate on the spectrum of young adult books of “literary merit,” but I believe it would be much closer to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Grahame’s Wind in the Willows than to Twilight or The Hunger Games.
After 20 years, the commercial success of the Potter series has assured Rowling and Harry Potter an honored place in popular culture. Whether the Harry Potter books are to stand as one of the great classics of English literature or are ultimately judged to be unremarkable adolescent “slop” as Professor Bloom contends, only time will tell.
I enjoyed spending time in Ms. Rowling’s imaginary wizarding world and coming to know all her unique and definitively drawn characters. But what made these books special tp me was Ms. Rowling’s extraordinary ability to make me care about each character and emotionally participate in their interactions. The seven-year transformation of each of these characters about whom I cared deeply was a poignant coming of age story. Ms. Rowling really “gets” the adolescent experience and makes the reader see it. I still have an emotional reaction when I think of Dobby’s death or Dolorous Umbridge’s tyranny. Along the way there are also trolls to kill, mysteries to solve, backstories to discover, unspeakable evil to oppose, and a series of wonderful friendships to admire. In addition, the books incorporate many of the traditional elements of classical English literature.
The most comprehensive discourse on the literary merits of the Potter books is John Granger’s Unlocking Harry Potter: Five Keys for the Serious Reader. He describes the way the author meticulously planned and structured the entire narrative before completing the first book. Ms. Rowling was familiar with many of the fundamental patterns of great English literary tradition and seamlessly wove them into her tale. Among the patterns evident in the narrative are:
The traditional Hero’s Journey.
- The patterns of Literary Alchemy, a tradition dating back to the middle ages and evident in works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jonson, Blake, and Joyce. The mythical philosopher’s stone, which is the title of the first Potter book published in England, was the key to medieval alchemy.
- Well devised narrative misdirection drives the reader to keep active and on edge through the 4100+ page journey and allows numerous plot twists and surprises.
- All the trappings of the English schoolboy novel as established by Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays published in 1857.
- Incorporation of numerous postmodern issues and concerns, including class prejudice, slavery, friendship, race, xenophobia, intermarriage, loyalty, family, bureaucratic ineptitude, credibility of the press, gender, individual transformation, tyranny, and, of course, love and death.
If you are a sophisticated reader who enjoys exploring the text to discover literary antecedents and subtext, as some scholars do with Tolkien’s works, there is much in Rowling’s Harry Potter books to examine.
There are many adult readers who haven’t read a Harry Potter book, either because they instinctively dismiss books designated “young adult” or because Professor Bloom and his ilk have driven them away. William Safire, in a New York Times article, argued that “children’s books like Harry Potter are responsible for the infantilization of adult culture,” and Ruth Graham in Slate argued that “adults should be embarrassed to read literature aimed at teenagers.” Faced with such highbrow snobbery, some potential readers may give in to the shaming. But those who do succumb will be doomed to reading only books like Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina, and “The Sun Also Rises” and existing in a continual state of depression. Instead, I suggest you look to the wisdom of C. S. Lewis who observed that “on becoming a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
If you are willing to risk being thought childish by literary highbrows, try reading Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone. You may enjoy it and discover for yourself the literary merit encased in Ms. Rowling’s magnum opus.
While Dennis spent five years as an engineer and then forty as a lawyer, he’s been a pop culture geek and junkiey for sixt. He saw “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in 1951 when he was seven and has been hooked on speculative fiction ever since.