Sunday, November 23, 2008

Harry Potter: "pretty good books?"

J. Bottum has an article at First Things praising recent children's literature and, in particular, the Harry Potter series. 

With respect to Harry Potter, I feel like I am in a horror movie (say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) where I discover some terrible thing happening, but everyone else says things are just fine, including people whose judgment I respect (like J. Bottum.)  Am I insane, or is everyone so under the spell of this dreadful series that they cannot see that it is... pure crap?

I am not talking about its religious and moral content, which is objectionable enough. I mean on a purely literary level. This is a series with cliched, superficial, lazy and repetitive writing, and formulaic plots. Does anyone wonder why kids who have shown no interest in reading can suddenly power their way through a 400 page book in a couple of days? Are the Potter books so magical that they can suddenly increase the reading ability of children? Or are the books written at such a superficial level that even the laziest reader can skim through them with no problem?

The books were painful going when I read them. Pages and pages of dialog barely rises to the level of pre-teen text messaging:

"' Unbelievable!' beamed Seamus.
 'Cool,' said Dean.
 'Amazing,' said Neville, awestruck."


"'Cool, sir', said Dean Thomas in amazement." (Dean Thomas says one and only one thing whenever he appears in the series: "Cool." He's one of my favorite characters.)


"'Moody!' he said. 'How cool is he?'
 'Beyond cool,' said George, sitting down opposite Fred.
 'Supercool,' said the twin's best friend, Lee Jordan..."

and on and on it goes. Kids can read these books all day for the same reason they can sit and read Instant Messaging text all day. And it's no problem adding a new book to the series. Change "cool" to "supercool" and you've got a whole new episode.

One of the annoying aspects of the series is Rowling's heavy use of childish adjectives, words you scold your child for using but somehow become fine literature when they appear in Potter books. "Stupid", for example, appears with depressing regularity. As something to occupy my mind while I slogged through The Sorcerer's Stone, I documented all the occurrences of "stupid" in the book. It occurs 22 times, starting with "stupid new fashion" on page 3 followed by "being stupid" on page 4, to "completely stupid" on page 10. I was thrilled on page 31 to see the clever skill with which Rowling manages to find two uses for "stupid" in one sentence:

"... Malcolm, and Gordon were all big and stupid, but as Dudley was the biggest and stupidest of the lot, he was the leader."

Is this what people mean when they call the Potter series "pretty good books?" My favorite use of "stupid" occurs on page 105 in a magical incantation by Ron Weasley:

"Sunshine, daisies, butter, mellow, turn this stupid, fat, rat yellow."

When the spell doesn't work Weasley dismisses it, without irony, as.... "stupid." It's only the unintentional hilarity of Rowling's terrible writing that makes the books bearable at all. And even such a master of "stupid" as Rowling eventually runs out of novel uses for the word and begins repeating herself. The "Don't be stupid" that appears on page 33 reappears on page 275, and the "so stupid" on page 242 rises from the dead on page 291. 

I was told that the series improves as it goes along, so I cracked open The Chamber of Secrets in the hope that perhaps J.K. Rowling had grown as tired of "stupid" as I had. But then why mess with success? If "stupid" sells, then give 'em stupid and more stupid. As if in answer to my question, it says on the first page of Secrets: "Do I look stupid?"

Here is an exercise for the reader: "Stupid" is not the only childish word repeated ad nauseum in the Potter series. "Funny" is another one. Count the number of times "funny" appears as an all purpose adjective ("he had a funny feeling", "funny way to get to wizard's school", etc.) in the Potter book of your choice. This is just lazy writing that allows an author to crank out 500 page books on an annual basis.

Another lazy characteristic of Rowling's writing is her incessant use of superlatives. Harry Potter is always running into the greatest things he's ever seen. If it isn't "the largest pumpkins Harry had ever seen", its the "best house I've ever been in", "the glummest face Harry had ever seen", "the strangest classroom he had ever seen", "Harry had never seen her look so angry", "had never been in a worse fix,"  or "the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life", etc. The length of the Potter books would decrease by 20% if you merely deleted "stupid", "funny" and "had ever seen."

The Potter books feature virtually the same plot in every book. They open with some scenes of Potter's terrible life with the Dursleys before the Hogwarts school term opens. Potter has some adventures on the way to school. At school, strange things (even for Hogwarts) begin to happen and Harry wonders if some evil plot is in the offing. Harry gets in trouble with the school authorities for breaking rules, usually because he is investigating the unusual happenings or because of a misunderstanding. Harry is involved in an ongoing school tournament of some kind (e.g. Quidditch or the Triwizard Tournament) that will climax at roughly the same time as the nefarious plot. The book reaches its climax as a teacher at Hogwarts is unmasked as a secret disciple of Lord Voldemort and Potter faces down Voldemort himself. Potter is as lucky as James Bond in his villains insofar as they never kill him outright but always indulge in an elaborate procedure accompanied by long-winded explanations that gives Potter time to turn the tables. Unlike Bond, who faces new villains every episode, Voldemort is always the villain and makes the same mistake every book. Voldemort is always defeated but never destroyed, to return with a similar plot that fails in a similar way in the next book. The school term ends and Potter returns to the Dursleys. By the fourth book we have seen the plot enough to know that the only new elements in the next book will be the exact details of how Voldemort will use the Goblet of Fire to get at Harry and which of the Hogwart's staff will be exposed as Voldemort's disciple in disguise.

Am I the last one on Earth who recognizes this junk for what it is? Should I just go along with it, having been promised that it will be all right once I go to sleep and wake up?

I must stay awake.... stay awake....

1 comment:

Noa Potter said...

I think that what you are writing is comeplete nonsense!