In her short novel, or novella, Bellwether, Connie Willis speculates in a sort of Josephine Tey manner on how fashions change, and who changes them. The question could be reframed as, can we recognize what it is in the Zeitgeist that makes a particular piece of work take fire so much that everyone gets drawn in? A bit over 100 years ago one of the Hot Novels of the Future Generations dwindled gradually to the villain's name, Svengali, entering the surging sea of detached metaphors whose origin is long lost. At the time, though, many touted Trilby as enduring literature.
How can we tell at the time if the work is going to become an enduring part of literature or a bright but relatively brief-spanned comet of popularity—all but forgotten the next generation down? That might be related to this question: when does a work change from being popular for itself to a social fad, that is, you have to read it, or pretend to read it, in order to seem part of the in crowd? We all can name books from childhood or adulthood when this was true.
This isn't to say that Harry Potter is popular primarily for social reasons, though there are definitely levels to engagement, I discovered over the past few years as a teacher using the books in the classroom: there are of course the passionate readers, then there are the kids who don't read much but did read Potter, then there are the kids who don't actually read the books—though they own them—but wait for the movies, and the kids who don't read them or see the movies but like to talk about the story with other kids. These last subsets don't explain away a readership of 80 plus million, of course. There was definitely something in the Zeitgeist through the late nineties and early 2000s to make the books resonate so powerfully. At some point, yes, I suspect they became de rigueur but before then, there was a readership both vast and dedicated.
I have this deeply intellectual and academic theory I call zing. I see zing as that moment of visceral thrill (which includes physical reactions—terror, vertigo, eroticism, grief, laughter, etc), the joy of recognition, the shiver of the new, the echo of longing, the glimpse that widens the universe in a single flash, which in many human beings can be defined as gnosis. Current brain theory states that some are born with that, some aren't, but for those who are, a work that resonates with that level of meaning can strike so far down in one's psyche as to cause tectonic shifts in paradigm.
Zing is often personal (Pride and Prejudice has zinged me all my life, but it left Mark Twain utterly cold all his life) but culture is made up of individuals, and sometimes books have a cultural zing, which happened to Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter story zinged with a lot of readers for whom all the elements of the story were new: the boarding school story, the lonely orphan who turns out to be special, the fights with evil adults when everything seems to be about the orphan…and of course the magic. Rowlings' magic was so clever, her witty exchanges so fun between the main characters, that longtime readers for whom these elements were not new got charmed into the storyverse. Does this particular zing have the staying power to last for generations? My guess is, no. But none of us can be sure unless we actually survive that long.
Rowling has got three favorite story types going for her in one book: the Boarding School Story, the Rejected Kid with Powers Story, and the Sports Story. Add in magic, witches, and monsters and some funny bits and brisk pacing, and one can see why these books are very popular. One can carp that fads are largely created by followers—but someone had to spark the fad, and Scholastic's marketing blitz cannot take all the credit, much as they might like.
I think these elements, so well blended with magical razzle dazzle, and a very likable set of heroes, is the recipe that spelled Rowling's success. At the core, Harry is a very good guy, the classic hero, who might be sinned against, but who never sins. If kids try to emulate Harry Potter, they won't go far wrong.
So are the Books Great Literature?
I don't think so. In part because Rowling sidesteps any question that requires her to make her wizarding world consistent—or even meaningful. Instead she races with brisk skill over the surface, keeping the reader from pondering too long why the magic world doesn't help the Muggles, though they are inextricably intertwined, and exactly what good their magic does (though they don't like Dark Arts—but are content to train obvious Dark Magicians).
The adults are conveniently stupid when needed to keep the kids in the action, refusing to listen just when any other adult would see alarms. The headmaster, supposedly benevolent and omniscient, seems content to permit the beginners to face death over and over, stepping in to explain everything after they win. Because of course they do, even against superpowerful Evil.
The focus is kept firmly on the kids; the adults are at best one dimensional, until the requisite surprise ending, when key adults turn out not to be what they'd been thought all along. But all the rest stay in place, unconcerned when Malfoy and his cronies stereotypically do horrendous things, and rather passive and unchanging. Our good guys get punished often for tiny infractions; arrogant, malicious kids like Malfoy seem to get away with astounding rule breakings. Christmas is celebrated, but no one seems to be a Christian. The larger ethical ethos seems unaddressed, and the paradigm is curiously one-dimensional. The world just is. Kid readers won't mind this, but some adults find the lack of focus on larger questions in favor of pages and pages of Quidditch games less than exciting.
On the prose level, Rawlings' strong unit is the scene, and not the sentence. We have a lot of flashing and twinkling eyes and falling faces—all placemarkers for easy emotions, rather than real human reactions. Tables groan under food, not by magic. Most of the characters are Types, their behavior pretty predictable. This is stuff kids would never notice, but the cumulative effect is that the story doesn't linger in the mind as an example of good characterization. A good point, though, is that Rowling does not write down. She gets the young reader to reach for the dictionary, a definite plus.
Above I mentioned the lack of paradigm. There is an equal lack of theme, unless it's 'the good old ways are best.' Underlying Harry's world is the old ancien regime message that 'Blood will tell'; that aristocrats are, after all, meant to rule, and watch out for those nasty middle class clods like the Dursleys, or those comical servants with their commoner accents (Fred and Stan—and Halgrid, who the other teachers don't want hired because he isn't "proper"). Substitute 'magic talent' for 'aristocratic blood' and the old message about keeping to your born place snaps into focus. Harry is the hidden 'prince', right down to his effortless grace at games (in place of the arts of war) and his enormous powers. There isn't a named throne, but the 'Lord' in front of Voldemort, the 'Chosen One'—it all wears the trappings of fantasy kingdoms, even if there isn't quite a kingdom.
I do not believe any of this is harmful, or pernicious. It's just a tremendously entertaining set of stories that comfortably favor the status quo, and kids will read a lot worse in their time. The important thing is that kids are reading. Reluctant readers are delighting in Harry's adventures, and I hope that when they finish with this series, they will have the reading habit, and will turn to teachers and librarians and ask, 'What next?' and we can guide them to better books. If Rowling introduces many more children to the rich world of literature, then she has done a great thing indeed, aside from any questions of 'Great Literature.'
I finished the fourth book last night. Rowling's young heroes and villains are now fourteen, and the story is more Young Adult and less middle grade than the previous four: we get good guys using 'bad words', and the beginnings of attraction and jealousy. The dangers are even more fraught, and the adventures take 700 pages to unfold. Rowling's vision does not kowtow to marketing requirements (probably more stringent here in the States, where too many publishers look at books as 'product') and more power to her. Kids who before resisted books are not boggling at 700 pages, and I hope that gets noticed by the Powers That Be who are desperately seeking the next Potter Clone.
Again, like the previous books, there are good and not-well-thought-out elements combined. The emotional pacing at the end is terrific, despite the long quest being basically a red herring. There are lots of funny bits, and the characters— outside of Malfoy, Crabbe, and Goyle, who continue to be predictable cardboard bad guys—do manage to come alive on the page, despite a preponderance of cliches. The adults in charge continue to be just stupid enough, as usual, to put Harry in mortal danger, and Harry is unswervingly good and true, the Prince in Waiting who is training for the Great War. Somebody good does die, as rumor had it; Rowling hits the reader suddenly, but then makes it just bearable with ghostly reappearances in a key point.
The entire houseelf sequence, I suspect, if written by an American, would net the author a major slamdunk for the Uncle Tom attitudes not just in the elves' insistence that they really like not just serving, but being subservient. So…they 'like' bowing, scraping, running about in fear of offending their masters (and that word is used all the time), their fractured English peppered with honorifics, and their inability to dress properly? It's only Hermione, she who's of 'mixed blood' who insists on their consciousness being raised, but she's held up in ridicule—we're supposed to think she's just being silly, because subservience is in their natures. As one of the characters says of Mr. Crouch and his house-elf Winky, "You can judge a man by not how he treats his peers, but by how he treats his inferiors." Kids probably won't notice any of this, but it bothers this adult, who's read too much history to shrug it off.
This is a better book overall than the last one, even if it has pretty much the same plot as usual: Harry versus Voldemort. And it looks like the next book will be Harry versus Voldemort yet again. Other than that, the kids' relationships, the imaginative touches (flying memos!), the dangers and fights, are terrific. Adults will know where the story is going, but kids will love it. And the house elf question is addressed—and there seems to be a lot of backpedaling on the question of aristocratic blood being 'best'. (Is Pansy Parkinson a whack at Pansy Pakenham and the Bright Young Things?) Also Dumbledore at last gives a kind of explanation for the adults being so stupid all the time. I don't know that they are convincing to the adult, but the kid won't notice. And likewise kids won't notice that tables still groan, and pandemonium still reigns, etc. One can argue that these books are not written for adults, they are written for kids, and the kid audience is gobbling them up with passion and devotion. And so I still maintain that any writer who gets kids to read an 800 page book is a winner for me!
I think I enjoyed this book most of them all. Rowling's sense of humor never lets us down, and her touch with teen emotions seems to be largely on target. The old plot veers slightly as Voldemort himself fails to appear—but we learn all about his past as, at last, Dumbledore talks to Harry and answers Questions. I will not mention the surprise at the end, except to say that it probably is a shock for kid readers, but the adult will see how she cushions it beforehand, setting it up so it's inevitable. What interested me more was that she has made it clearer all along that someone is a shadow prince to Harry's Prince—whose actions will, I predict, turn out to be utterly the opposite of what we think in this book. That prince and Harry are seemingly adversaries, but do not lose sight of Voldemort. Book seven may break the mold, or stay with it but carry the formula to its maximum effect—whichever way it goes, it will make fun reading.
There are a lot of good world building touches in this book. Though magic still doesn't quite seem to do anything whatever besides provide means for magic wars, the otherworldly touches are fascinating—the phoenix, the centaurs, the mer folk, and of course the various monsters. Characterwise, there are some satisfying pair-ups. Again, there is far less emphasis on good blood and social status. Fleur, who was so tiresome in the past, gets off one of the best lines in the book.
So now the impatient wait begins for number seven!
So. I finished HP 7 a week ago, after a few days of reading. Like the other books in the series, which I've read once, it was always fun to pick up, but easy to put down: the story seemed to follow the track I'd thought pointed out in the previous books, with few surprises. I assumed that we're going to have yet another battle with Voldemort, bigger and better than ever, and as always, he'll go down at the end of the school year, the battle being connected with Hogwarts in some way. But this time he'll go down for good…and then everything will go right back the way it was.
Snape's fate wasn't any surprise. I'd felt for the last three books or so that Snape was being set up to take the fall for Harry in some way—that he was a secret good guy, and the bottom motivational line would be his obsession with the Potter parents. Voldemort continued to be a ranting idiot straight to the expected end, and I figured that a lot of secondary characters would have to be turned into redshirts in order to keep the sense of danger up but have the main three (with Ginny added on as Harry's future love interest) safe.
The characters never really grow and change, they stay pretty much the same all the way through; this is mostly an action series, though there are some very good emotional scenes—mostly when the main three are in conflict, Rowling doesn't really do love scenes. Since the wizarding world doesn't work for me (why are they trained for eight years to either do tricks or to fight one another? Why don't they use all that power to, say, cure cancer, or make the world a better place?) those long sequences guessing about the various spells and hunting about for Horcruxes made me want to skim. But Harry finally became a hero at the end, and didn't leave all the real work to Hermione: and the moment of meaning, I think, for young readers who are seeking the zing of paradigm was Dumbledore's "You move on."
I got one big zing from this book, and some mild ones, mostly toward the end. The big zing was when Harry found his mother's letter, and saw that her handwriting was like his— that the familiar tails on the g's were like a friendly wave. Woo, did that zap me good. The next zing in intensity was Harry's realization that Voldemort, Snape, and he himself had found a sense of home at the school. That snapped the storyline into focus: the climaxes being set at or connected to Hogwarts took on meaning. And another zing was Harry using Severus's name for one of his kids.
I think the story will make a terrific movie because the action will play well on screen, being tightened down and made visually wondrous. The end will be fantastic in good directorial hands—the actors are certainly up to the job. And in a movie one doesn't notice so many characters staying cardboard all the way through, like Crabbe and Goyle. Though some did get to take a single breath of life: Dudley in chapter one, and Malfoy in the previous book, ever so briefly. And Cissa did in this one—again ever so briefly. Dobby was less painful right before his death—I felt that Harry began his apotheosis by making Dobby's death meaningful. And I really liked the tense dialogue with the goblin, as both make enough effort to see one another's point-of-view to give us insight into the two cultures.
Clearly a vast number of readers got many zings from the books, and not just kid readers. Adult readers and writers like Orson Scott Card found the books powerful—in his review he states that he feels they will become a part of enduring literature. I wonder about that, but none of us can tell—we're living in our time, we have no idea what elements invisible to us now will resonate with future readers. Far too many authors over the centuries got seduced into writing their One Great Work— and thus produced unreadable and forgotten stodge. Rowling has never given any evidence she was trying to write the One True Work, she just wanted to tell a good story. And readers around the world feel that she did.