In July of 2001, the New York Times made an editorial decision that was heralded with complete outrage. Critics called it an abandonment of judgment, a wholesale sellout to commercial interests, and an utter travesty.
In short, they kicked the Harry Potter books off the bestseller list.
For the preceding twenty months, the first three Harry Potter books had been holding top slots on the Times’ bestseller list. To make matters worse (for publishers other than Bloomsbury and Scholastic, that is) Goblet of Fire was on the verge of publication, guaranteeing that 40% of the real estate on the world’s most influential bestseller list would be occupied by the work of a single author for months to come.
While this extraordinary phenomenon accurately depicted what Americans were buying and reading, it posed a problem for publishers who use the bestseller list as a marketing tool. Placement on the list is parlayed into increased sales in a number of ways, including placing the author on talk show circuits, special pricing from major book chains, and adding a New York Times Bestseller medallion to a new edition cover, in addition to the free exposure generated by the list itself.
Under pressure from publishers to free up spaces on the list for new books, the Times created a separate list for Children’s Fiction, which removed the Harry Potter books from the Fiction list and sent them packing – to a ghetto, a cordoned-off section that relegated Jo Rowling’s books (and their sales figures) to a cave in that dreaded critical Neverland known as genre fiction.
Genre fiction – westerns, science fiction, horror, detective novels, romances. And, of course, fantasy. Along with serial fiction and the “popular novel,” these categories describe the growing critical fragmentation of fiction as a literary form. It’s a self-serving fragmentation, driven by scholars and critics as well as the publishing industry, for reasons that form the two sides of the same coin. The ghettoization of “non-literary” fiction allows scholars and critics to form, staff and police a hierarchy of expertise which has as its main product the conferring of scholarly legitimacy on its chosen works, and at the same time allows Barnes and Noble to direct its readers to a particular aisle or shelf where they are sure to find more of something they’ve enjoyed before. It is entirely debatable whether either of these outcomes is good for readers, or for books, or most importantly, for the larger enterprise of the development of humanity of which reading and writing fiction is so critical a part.
What’s the difference between genre fiction and “literary” (read: legitimized as good by the critical establishment) fiction? The New York Times had to answer this question when it decided to split its fiction bestseller list into genre (Children’s) and nongenre (Fiction). How would they make the call whether a book was a children’s book or not? Very simply, as it turns out. Charles McGrath, editor of the NYT Book Review section outlined their literary principles thusly: ”What we’re going to do is to take our cue from the publishers. If you publish a book as a children’s book, we will treat it as that. If you publish a book as an adult book, we will treat it as that. And Harry Potter was published as a children’s book.” 1
But for the sake of argument, let’s agree that there are critics who take the question somewhat more seriously than did the Times, and decided to give it a serious answer. Russell Celyn Jones is a professor of creative writing who is himself a novelist. He is also a former judge of the Booker Prize. (The website of the Booker Prize describes it as “the pinnacle of ambition for every fiction writer.” 2 This might conceivably be true if writers living outside “the Commonwealth and the Republic of Ireland” were eligible to enter and if all writers were primarily motivated by prize money and prestige.) Jones is a typical, if not distinguished, member of the hierarchy of expertise and a loyal citizen of the critical establishment. Here’s his definition, which is about as good as they come.
The distinction between popular and literary is often blurred, but I’ll hazard to make one. Unlike popular or genre novels, literary novels cannot be prescribed by publishers. They are what they are, and are usually like nothing else. They create their own enclosed world, are inventive in terms of narrative and character, and have an inimitable voice, the personal signature of the author. Governed by their own rules and procedures these books can make demands on the reader. But then reading itself is demanding now, in our media-frenzied days. Another distinction concerns destiny. Literary novels are put out into the marketplace to survive on their own merits. Within a month nearly all of them will die, returned to the distributor’s warehouse and pulped.3
So, if a reader is using this definition to determine whether a work of fiction is literary (and potentially worthy of the Booker prize) she should ask herself the following:
· Was the book “prescribed” by a publisher? (Let’s take this ambiguous verb to mean requested of the author by the publisher to meet the demands of the marketplace, rather than required by the publisher to be edited to meet those same demands.)
· Is the book “like anything else” or is it unique?
· Does the book create an enclosed world? Is it inventive in terms of narrative and character?
· Does it have a unique authorial “voice”?
· Is it governed by its own rules and procedures, and therefore potentially demanding to read?
· And finally, was its most likely “destiny” to be a complete commercial failure?
Every Harry Potter fan that mentally puts the books through these paces comes up with an affirmative. Was it prescribed by a publisher? No. Rowling came up with it independently (and now famously) while riding on a train, worked it out, and shopped it to a number of publishers who declined it because it looked unlikely to be either a literary or commercial success (imagine the lives of those unhappy, unhappy publishers.)
Is it like anything else, or is it unique? Well, it’s both. It’s got some antecedents in literature, but so does virtually every other novel. But unique? Absolutely. The Harry Potter series clearly owes debts to previous work, but cannot in fairness be called a rip-off or thinly veiled copy of anything.
Does it create an enclosed world, inventive in terms of narrative and character? Please, say the HP fans. The woman invented everything from the candy to the sports in these books. The narrative is largely managed chronologically within a standard third-person limited point of view, but frankly, there’s a limited number of good ways to handle narrative, and lots of Booker prizewinners employ the same style. Are the characters inventive? Yes, in the same way that the books are unique. Although comparisons between them are unavoidable, Dumbledore is not Gandalf and Harry is not Frodo in glasses (and shoes) any more than Gandalf was Merlin.
Is it governed by its own rules and procedures, and therefore potentially demanding to read? Ask the legions of fans that have burned midnight oil, documenting the references to everything from the Tarot to medieval elemental theory to Roman history and astrology and documenting internal linkages and references. For a close reader, it’s worse than an unannotated version of The Waste Land.
And finally was Harry Potter’s most likely destiny to be a total flop? Yes. But this is a useless question, since the most likely fate of all but a tiny handful of books is that they will be neither widely read or profitable. What Jones probably means by this is that literary novels are not generally accorded large marketing budgets by their publishers, and depend on word of mouth and discerning readers if they are to achieve success – and here again, the Harry Potter books pass the test. (And in fact, Jones’s failure argument is itself a failure, as the marketing campaigns waged by publishers on behalf of their Booker hopefuls are well documented.)
Yet none of the Harry Potter books have ever been shortlisted – or longlisted – for the Booker Prize, and it is unlikely they will be.
Harold Bloom is one of the most influential critics of our time. If Russell Celyn Jones is a good citizen of the critical establishment, Bloom is one of its senators. In the pages of the Wall Street Journal he asks of the success of the series, “Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong?” and answers, “Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.” 4
Why are they wrong? Bloom’s professional refusal of literary legitimacy to the Harry Potter series is worded as follows:
I have just concluded the 300 pages of the first book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” purportedly the best of the lot. Though the book is not well written, that is not in itself a crucial liability.
In what follows, I may at times indicate some of the inadequacies of “Harry Potter.” But I will keep in mind that a host is reading it who simply will not read superior fare, such as Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” or the “Alice” books of Lewis Carroll. Is it better that they read Rowling than not read at all? Will they advance from Rowling to more difficult pleasures?
Harry Potter, now the hero of so many millions of children and adults, is raised by dreadful Muggle relatives after his sorcerer parents are murdered by the wicked Voldemort, a wizard gone trollish and, finally, post-human. Precisely why poor Harry is handed over by the sorcerer elders to his priggish aunt and uncle is never clarified by Rowling, but it is a nice touch, suggesting again how conventional the alternative Britain truly is. They consign their potential hero-wizard to his nasty blood-kin, rather than let him be reared by amiable warlocks and witches, who would know him for one of their own.
One can reasonably doubt that “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” is going to prove a classic of children’s literature, but Rowling, whatever the aesthetic weaknesses of her work, is at least a millennial index to our popular culture. Her prose style, heavy on cliché, makes no demands upon her readers. In an arbitrarily chosen single page --page 4 -of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés, all of the “stretch his legs” variety.
How to read “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”? Why, very quickly, to begin with, perhaps also to make an end. Why read it? Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do. Is there any redeeming educational use to Rowling? Is there any to Stephen King? Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality? 5
In an enormously controversial move, in 2003 the National Book Foundation gave its Contribution to American Letters award to Stephen King. In some ways the comparison between Jo Rowling and Stephen King is as unavoidable as the comparison between Dumbledore and Gandalf. Both were bitterly poor writers who succeeded commercially beyond the measure of any previous author, and both have received savage treatment at the hands of the critical establishment. Where Rowling tends to avoid commenting on the critical negatives her work receives, King has ridden into the fray with guns blazing. In his acceptance speech, he said:
I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack. For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. Witness my childish resentment of anyone who ever got a Guggenheim.
But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers, of course, which is us because writers are almost always readers and listeners first.
Tokenism is not allowed. You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, “Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.” It’s not good enough.
What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say. And if your only point of reference for Jack Aubrey is the Australian actor, Russell Crowe, shame on you.6
The “animosity and willful lack of understanding” King describes are on full display in Bloom’s review of Sorcerer’s Stone. Readers of the series will immediately notice Bloom’s factual errors. Rowling does in fact explain exactly why Harry is handed over to the Dursleys after the death of his parents, but Bloom has already stopped listening. He is too busy counting clichés to add anything useful to our understanding of either the book at hand or fiction in general. It’s possible that The Wind in the Willows or the adventures of Alice are in fact “superior” to Harry Potter, but Bloom fails to articulate any reasons why this should be so.
And yet he asks a crucial question: Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?
Whose province is it to determine what enriches the mind of a reader? In the same way that the Harry Potter books have been consigned to the ghetto of the children’s list, literary criticism itself has been consigned to the ghetto of a thousand English departments. When the reading public allows Harold Bloom and Russell Celyn Jones to decide what is enriching and what is not, we deserve what we get from them – a narrow world hemmed by poorly articulated principles that values exclusivity for its own sake.
Charles Dickens was the most popular author of his day and enjoyed a celebrity not unlike Rowling’s. He too published his books in serial form, and the eagerness with which new installments were awaited would be well understood by the millions eagerly watching the web for a sign of the publication date of Book 7. His last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, was panned by fellow author Henry James in the December 21st edition of the Nation in 1865:
To say that the conduct of the story, with all its complications, betrays a long-practiced hand, is to pay no compliment worthy of the author. If this were, indeed, a compliment, we should be inclined to carry it further, and congratulate him on his success in what we should call the manufacture of fiction; for in so doing we should express a feeling that has attended us throughout the book. Seldom, we reflected, had we read a book so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt.
In all Mr. Dickens’s works the fantastic has been his great resource; and while his fancy was lively and vigorous it accomplished great things. But the fantastic, when the fancy is dead, is a very poor business.
The word humanity strikes us as strangely discordant, in the midst of these pages; for, let us boldly declare it, there is no humanity here. Humanity is nearer home than the Boffins, and the Lammles, and the Wilfers, and the Veneerings. It is in what men have in common with each other, and not in what they have in distinction. The people just named have nothing in common with each other, except the fact that they have nothing in common with mankind at large. What a world were this world if Our Mutual Friend were an honest reflection of it! But a community of eccentrics is impossible. Rules alone are consistent with each other; exceptions are inconsistent. Society is maintained by natural sense and natural feeling. We cannot conceive a society in which these principles are not in some manner represented. Where in these pages are the depositaries of that intelligence without which the movement of life would cease? Who represents nature? 7
Now that’s criticism. James uses the review to advance his idea of what a good novel should be; namely, naturalistic, or as we would say today, realistic. James believed fiction should provide “an honest reflection” of the world, and wrote accordingly, adding to humanity’s understanding of the purpose of fiction in both his theory and his practice. There is not a whiff of mere snobbishness here, or of the wishy-washy uselessness that characterizes the Jones definition; on the contrary, his attack is characterized by passion and precision.
Ultimately, James’ critique of Our Mutual Friend does not stand. James’ naturalism would give way to modernism and modernism to postmodernism, and postmodernism would leave us in the overcharted yet poorly navigated waters which Harold Bloom now sails as Captain Hook. What James calls a failure of naturalism is currently recognized alternately as successful satire and poor dialogue, and Our Mutual Friend continues to be both widely read on campuses and cited as an influence by authors such as John Irving and Jane Smiley – a measure of its enduring merit. However, his review remains as useful to our understanding of the book today as it did in its own time, helping us to draw distinctions between Dickens’ values as a writer and James’.
Will Harold Bloom’s review of Jo Rowling be read fourteen decades from now? Is there any real passion, any genuine value or principle operating in service to fiction itself that animates the misguided drive to fragment fiction into literary and popular, adult and children’s, genre and mainstream? Readers, if you don’t see such a principle at work, it’s time to break the rice bowls of the critical establishment.
And to the future judges of the Booker Committee: it’s not too late. There’s still one more Harry Potter book coming, and it promises to set the world on fire. You should read it.
1. Corliss, Richard. “Why Harry Potter Did a Harry Houdini.” 21 July 2000. CNN. 17 Jan 2006. http://archives.cnn.com/2000/books/news/ 07/21/potter7_21.a.tm/.
2. The Booker Prize Foundation 2005. “About the Man Booker Prize”. The Booker Prize Foundation. 17 Jan 2006. http://www.themanbookerprize.com/about/.
3. Corliss, Richard. “Why Harry Potter Did a Harry Houdini.” 21 July 2000. CNN. 17 Jan 2006. http://archives.cnn.com/2000/books/news/ 07/21/potter7_21.a.tm/.
4. Bloom, Harold. “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” 11 July 2000. The Wall Street Journal. 17 Jan 2006. http://wrt-brooke.syr.edu/courses/205.03/bloom.html.
6. King, Stephen. “Acceptance speech,” Winner of the 2003 Contribution to American Letters Award, The National Book Foundation. 2003. National Book Awards. 17 Jan 2006. http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_sking.html.
7. James, Henry. “Review of Our Mutual Friend.” The Nation (New York) 21 Dec. 1865. Mitsu Matsuoka. April 2005. Nagoya University. 17 Jan 2006. http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/ ~matsuoka/CD-OMF-James.html.
Bloom, Harold. “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes.” 11 July 2000. The Wall Street Journal. 17 Jan 2006. http://wrt-brooke.syr.edu/courses/205.03/bloom.html.
Corliss, Richard. “Why Harry Potter Did a Harry Houdini.” CNN.com. July 2000. CNN. 17 Jan 2006. http://archives.cnn.com/2000/books/news/07/21/potter7_21.a.tm/.
James, Henry “Review of Our Mutual Friend”. The Nation (New York). 21 Dec 1865. Mitsu Matsuoka. April 2005.Nagoya University. 17 Jan 2006. http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/CD-OMF-James.html.
Jones, Russell Celyn. “Read between the hype.” 22 Oct. 2002. The Guardian Unlimited, 17 Jan 2006. http://books.guardian.co.uk/bookerprize2002/story/0,12350,816731,00.html.
King, Stephen. “Acceptance speech,” Winner of the 2003 Contribution to American Letters Award. The National Book Foundation. 2003. National Book Awards. 17 Jan 2006. http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_sking.html.