When the seventh and final Harry Potter book appeared in July of last year, it became officially time for the cultural establishments of our world to look at the series as a whole and begin to discuss its place in the scope of world literature. That Harry Potter has made zealots of both his supporters and detractors is no secret; the images of Potterites young and old decked in glasses and orange-and-maroon Gryffindor scarves are fresh in our minds, balanced on the other side by the now less-frequent news reports of suburban parents challenging the books’ inclusion in their children’s school libraries. (Let’s not forget, Harry opens “a doorway that will put untold millions of kids into Hell.”)
But there are Harry-haters more respectable than Jack Chick, and none has more literary gravitas than Harold Bloom, the famous Yale critic who might be the world’s most well-read man. In an article that leads with Bloom’s disgust over the National Book Foundation’s presentation of an award to Stephen King, he targets Harry Potter as a particularly nefarious cog in the war machine that’s been sent to obliterate the literary awareness of the Western world: “I suffered a great deal in the process [of reading it],” he writes. “The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible.” One shivers at the image of poor septuagenarian Bloom forcing himself choke down another page of such drivel, while his collection of Romantic busts look on with horror. Lining up with Bloom on the anti-Harry side are prominent literary figures like A.S. Byatt, and a gaggle of literary and social critics.
Of course, Bloom is describing only his reaction to the first book, which underwhelmed me as well, and when he states that the Harry Potter books are unlikely to introduce kids to better-written children’s novels, he’s probably correct. The idea that Harry Potter is a net social good because it gets kids reading is not only a well-meaning falsehood, it’s a red herring of Hagrid-like proportions. Even if it were true, it would do little to help us judge the books on an aesthetic level—not to mention the fact that our children’s literacy is a burden meant for us, not Rowling.
On the other side of the divide are folks like that bete noir of Bloom’s, Stephen King, whose defense of the Potter books borders on adulation. I have unfairly singled out this one of King’s commendations as patently ridiculous: “Talent is never static, it's always growing or dying, and the short form on Rowling is this: She was far better than R.L. Stine (an adequate but flavorless writer) when she started, but by the time she penned the final line of Deathly Hallows (''All was well.''), she had become one of the finer stylists in her native country — not as good as Ian McEwan or Ruth Rendell (at least not yet), but easily the peer of Beryl Bainbridge or Martin Amis.”
King might have chosen two names at random. While I happen to agree with King on sentiment—Rowling has become a much better writer, something which I believe began with the fourth book—this affirmation is nonsensical. Amis’ Money, a book which I love, is composed of an inspired satirical style that combines the beautiful with the crude. I found it quite affecting. But of course, that’s what Amis meant to do—he is a writer in control of his prose, and can use it to create emotion, pace, and meaning. Can we say any of these things of Rowling?
That Rowling has learned to get out of her own way by the seventh book is a testament to her growth as an author, but if we are serious we must admit that in the entirety of the series great stylistic moments are hard to come by. The image of Hogwarts is strong in our minds, but I can find no passages in which Rowling’s style is up to her extensive imagination; if our mental picture of Hogwarts is vivid it is because of what it is and not the way it is described (and is attributable, I think, in no small part to the films). The dialogue, while frequently clever when it comes to cracking jokes, stumbles mightily in moments of great intensity or meaning, except perhaps for some of the more intimate moments between Dumbledore and Harry. Even the line which King holds in such high regard as the exemplar of the series’ growth—Mrs. Weasley’s battle-cry of “NOT MY DAUGHTER, BITCH!”—seems guilty of the lazy trick of resorting to unexpected profanity. Cue the “ooooohs” from the soundtrack.
But even in the places of the final book where Rowling’s prose remains clumsy or wooden, I am seldom bothered by it anymore. Rowling isn’t Amis, but so what? Why do we need her to be? Is it necessary for the Harry Potter books to be a great work of literature for us to appreciate them?
If we look at them only as literature, I suppose. This may seem a strange thing to say—after all, literature is what they are, right?—but the truth is that by any serious metric, the reality about Rowling’s magnum opus is closer to the conceptions of Bloom and Byatt than that of King. The prose, while much improved, never quite reaches anything worthy of being called “good,” and the plot is frequently contrived to the point of absurdity. Too often the best ideas and characters are mired in a mish-mash of half-baked concepts, confusing plot points, and clichés.
But I maintain that the best way of viewing the Harry Potter series is not a simply literature, but as a cultural event. The books are a big part of it, of course—the biggest—but so are the films, the video games, the action figures, the fan fiction, all of that. We live in a world that perceives itself to be so embattled in the “culture wars” and lacking truly shared cultural icons that the emergence of Harry into the pantheon that includes Mickey Mouse, Superman, and Luke Skywalker is welcome as proof that pop culture remains well and alive in my generation. I mention those examples because they are ones I believe exist in our cultural consciousness not merely as envisioned by their creators but through the eyes of hundreds or thousands of creative minds. Of course, gentlemen named Disney, Siegel and Shuster, and Lucas own the lion’s share of the way those figures and their respective universes are perceived, but their pull on our imaginations is so strong that we have been reinventing them for decades.
There was long speculation that Rowling might kill Harry off at the end of the series; this idea was spurred on by the thought that by doing so Rowling could protect him from other writers—who are cast in this scenario in quite a predatory light—who might wish to continue his story by their own hand. But Rowling went in the opposite direction, ending Harry’s journey—and, as King writes, “if you think that's a spoiler at this late date, you were never much of a Potter fan to begin with”—with the simple sentence “All was well,” assuring not only Harry’s survival but his health and happiness. I do not know if Rowling has considered that this might leave Harry open to such literary poachers, but it is my hope that she considered the possibility and considered it good. Certainly such a move leaves the characters open to be perverted and diluted—I’m sure Harry Potter: The Animated Series isn’t too far off—but I think it also will help Harry to remain a living, vibrant character. Of course, I have no statistical evidence on the popularity of Superman to back myself up, but I feel as if having Harry alive is on its face the best thing for his legacy. This way, he belongs to us all now.
With all due respect to Dr. Bloom and Mr. King, I hold with the middle road walked by Christopher Hitchens, a man not known for his moderateness: “It is given to few authors to create a world apart, and to populate it as well as illustrate it in the mind. As one who actually did once go to boarding school by steam train, at 8, I enjoyed reading aloud to children and coming across Diagon Alley and
And if there’s really a culture war going on, put me squarely on King’s side against the Blooms and Byatts of this world. It’s a post-modern world now, the era of the lowbrow, no matter how tightly Bloom holds the keys to the canon.