Monday, July 23, 2007

A pair of notes

The reviews are coming fast and furious on the 7th Harry Potter book. While I've finished the book, out of respect for a particular fellow reader I will request that Wordwright remain spoiler-free until Friday or so. After that, it's all fair game.

I will go on record, however, as saying (in contrast to Robert McCrum, the Guardian UK's literary editor) that I think that Rowling has constructed a series that will be considered a classic with a devoted readership on par with The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or [insert your own favorite children's or genre series here]. Sure, the Potter books have flaws, but so do Tolkien's and Lewis's.

McCrum's list of backhanded compliments is as follows:
So what to make of it, now that it's done? From the point of view of the English canon, it's hardly great literature. But if Rowling is neither CS Lewis nor Tolkien, nor Philip Pullman, hers has been, none the less, an extraordinary performance. At the end of a decade of accumulating Pottermania, you have to acknowledge, first, the ambition to undertake such a marathon, then the dedication to execute it, and finally the ability to bring it off.

To write one successful children's book requires uncommon gifts, to write two suggests a touch of magic, but to complete no fewer than seven bestsellers and apparently retain your sanity, and your all-round niceness, is a marvellous achievement. The completion of this world-shaking heptalogy is something close to a triumph.

So what does it all amount to? It's not difficult to find things in these books to sneer at. Cardboard characters? Tick. Torpid paragraphs? You bet. Flat-footed dialogue? On every page. A more-than-slightly autistic attention to minutiae? No doubt.

Perhaps it's the autism that animates it. The fair-minded critic has to concede that Rowling's devilry lies in her attention to detail. The magic of Potter is that he inhabits a fully realised parallel world. Moreover, Rowling does that unbeatable thing: she makes it work. How exactly she does it remains the mystery, but it's to do with a primitive grasp of basic storytelling.

(The full review contains some light but off-puttingly important spoilers.)

Secondly, and completely unrelated, many of you may have noticed that I've brought E.L. Lit Mags just about up-to-date. Those of you who pay close attention will have noticed that The Offbeat is the one area in which I'm a bit behind. While it would not be entirely unfair to surmise that a certain dissatisfaction with the last few issues plays a role in my procrastination, the larger factor is that I'm unhappy with the photos I've taken to be used on the website. Most of the RCR covers survived my amateur digital photography. The Offbeat covers didn't hold up so well. (Damn flash glare.) Hopefully I'll have the impetus I need to complete the job when I get my hands on the 2007 issue: Tell Me Everything.


Tim said...

Somehow, I don't think comparisons with the other giants of British fantasy lit is appropriate. Rowling just doesn't seem to be up to what Tolkien, Lewis, or Pullman are up to. Or in the broader children's lit universe Carroll, or Wilde, or Dahl, for that matter.

The best analogy might actually be to Laura Ingalls Wilder. If you read the description of what Rowling does well, and the source of her appeal -- creation of a recognizable but slightly strange alternate world, stiff but decent and workmanlike universal characters, a narrative series that holds a certain class of reader in thrall, happy endings with dark moments but a love of quiet domesticity and friendship, it holds up pretty well. And so do those old books, generation after generation.

(Deathly Hallows is the first Harry Potter book I am reading.)

mother of light said...

i have to say, i haven't read any of the harry potter books. i will start soon--ut i don't enjoy being part of a marketing scheme (waiting ravenously for the next installment, etc) esp when it is impossible to determine when the damn thing will end. i have friends who fell for "the dark tower" and are still reading new books, or the robert jordan fantasy stuff. this is the reason LOST has won me over--the producers announced an end-date. so we know it won't suck:)

i suspect my thought upon finishing harry potter will be that no one touches tolkien--the man invented an entire history, languages...the simirallion (sp?) and the appendix to the books show what i can only call tolkien's creation myth/bible. and there is never any dumbing down. my prejudice against rowling is that while it seems the stories are interesting and well-drawn, i always want my books to stand up as literature, and to not be dumbed down.

i could be wrong. who the hell knows. in summation, "what tim said".

Gavin said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the book, Tim. My impression of the HP5 movie, while I enjoyed it, was that a lot of it didn't hold up without the previous four movies. I have a similar suspicion about the seventh book, so I would be interested to hear it confirmed or disproved.

Gavin said...

I do think that Tim is right about Tolkien, Lewis, and Pullman in particular having different goals than Rowling. The former are using fantasy as an access point to or extension of their theology, and there's nothing religious about the Potterverse. (I'm interested in dissecting the ethics of the Potterverse, but that's a subject for a post of its own.) In fact, Rowling's avoidance of any discussion of the source or deeper causes of magic in her universe is conspicuous. I think it's revealing (and humorously absurd) that she has described the passing of magical ability from generation as a genetic process—and even that is never made explicit in the books. (The relevant quote is here, on her website.)

In thinking about Rowling, I keep coming back to Dickens as an analogy—flat characters, some social commentary, but an overriding gift for plot. Sure, we eliminate the whole social realism thing, but it seems to be no more of stretch than the other analogies I've seen.

Tim said...

I don't have much problem following what's happening, or keying into the mythology of the series. I've seen all of the movies, including the new one, and they cue up the backstory from the last book often enough that it's pretty easy to keep up.

My overall impression of the prose is that it's a touch repetitive, cloying, and heavy on the adverbial constructions for my taste. It does not stand up as great literature. It is fun to read out loud. And she writes a good, cinematic chase scene.

I think Dickens-meets-Little House on the Prairie is pretty right-on.