Tuesday, July 16, 2013

HPP: Engaging the Critics, Part I

A few weeks ago, Masha shared a couple of links to commentaries about Harry Potter from renowned scholars, each in their own field--Harold Bloom of literary canon fame and Michael O'Brien from the classical Catholic educational background (think Tolkien and Lewis).  Both are the types (I think, in O'Brien's case) to rally behind the white Anglo-Saxon male dominated canon, and that's not necessarily a condemnation from me.  I just think it's interesting that we have two critics with similar tastes, who dislike Harry Potter for differing reasons, and worth mentioning.

Never one to shy away from stating the obvious, below I am going to examine their arguments in full, starting with Bloom.  At current writing, I do not know whether I "agree" or "disagree" with either Bloom or O'Brien.  Rather, I am writing this break-down as an examination, and we shall see where we stand when we arrive at the end.

Harold Bloom does not begin well when he likens the popularity of Harry Potter to that of Tolkien--something that is inexplicable and cheap, that will wane with time.  Then he makes the claim (as many have, I am told) that Harry Potter is not well written.

Harold Bloom and JRR Tolkien

Now, if he means that the lexicon is limited and the syntax straightforward, he is right.  It is a children's book, however, and the first of a series: it is to be expected that it will start simple to attract a young, wide audience.*  But fair enough, I'll give him that.

If he means in terms of plot, I'm not sure I follow (no pun intended).  The plot is engaging, grabbing the reader in from the first page and keeping the events fresh but relevant.  I suppose he is looking for something more cerebral, like a late Henry James?  A novel of manners, like Jane Austen?

As for the characterizations, I cannot see how they are simple or one-dimensional.  Quite the contrary.  There are layers there to Snape and Dumbledore that are communicated very well for the simpleness of the novel.

Rowling also draws from tried-and-true mythological traditions.  Perhaps Bloom is looking for something revolutionary?  But then, canon is a predictable cycle of action and reaction, each new literary movement a direct opposite from the one preceding it, so often the novelty of a novel (see the irony** there?) is overstated and over-represented by the juxtaposition, and truly "new" literary inventions are much rarer than first made out to be.  So is Bloom disapproving of Rowling's following of the (very successful) conventional literary formula?  (See * below.)  It seems this is the case, when he says that Harry Potter does not posses an "authentic imaginative vision."

I know his intentions are good, but after reading the HP essay,
it's such a presumptuous title!

He writes

Rowling has taken 'Tom Brown's School Days' and re-seen it in the magical mirror of Tolkein (sic.).***  The resultant blend of a schoolboy ethos with a liberation from the constraints of reality-testing may read oddly to me, but is exactly what millions of children and their parents desire and welcome at this time.

Yes, okay.  Well . . . so?

In what follows, I may at times indicate some of the inadequacies of  "Harry Potter."  But I will keep in mind that a host are 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?

Ah, now I see.  He's concerned for the youth.  c;

Rowling presents two Englands, mundane and magical, divided not by social classes, but by the distinction between the "perfectly normal" (mean and selfish) and the adherents of sorcery. The sorcerers indeed seem as middle-class as the Muggles, the name the witches and wizards give to the common sort, since those addicted to magic send their sons and daughters off to Hogwarts, a Rugby school where only witchcraft and wizardry are taught. Hogwarts is presided over by Albus Dumbeldore as Headmaster, he being Rowling's version of Tolkein's (sic.)**** Gandalf. The young future sorcerers are just like any other budding Britons, only more so, sports and food being primary preoccupations.

He's absolutely right about the two Englands, something I find delightful about Harry Potter, from the first time I picked up The Sorcerer's Stone years ago.  It's the typical set-up for a fairy tale, the mundane of everyday weighing heavily on the reader via the character; only too soon to disappear, we know, else we would probably put the book down and cease reading (or we'd have been reading Virginia Wolf to begin with).  And yes, there is a caricature of normal people as "mean and selfish," but I see parallels there to other children's authors such as Roald Dahl and Lemony Snickett.  Does the caricaturing make it unacceptable, but (and correct me if I'm wrong, really) doesn't Charles Dickins do a bit of that as well?  And is the flat-out, accurate-in-all its-ugliness depiction of human depravity in stories such as Heart of Darkness acceptable?*****

The statement about those "addicted to magic" seems inaccurate, as it is clearly shown that magic is an inherited trait and not something achieved by mere wishing.  Bloom says that the reasoning for Harry's being handed to the guardianship of his aunt and uncle is never disclosed by Rowling, but I've been told by those knowledgeable of the series that this is not the case.  So there's some inaccuracy about the books, which, if not undoing his points, certainly throws uncertainty on his credibility.  He goes on about Harry's upbringing for a while, and I gather that his issue so far has been with HP's conventionalism.  So Rowling's is a sin of unoriginality.

"A born survivor, Harry holds on until the sorcerers rescue him and send him off to Hogwarts, to enter upon the glory of his schooldays."  Point well made.

He admits the admirability of Harry in the climax [SPOILERS], then says, "Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?"

Now, as far as I have read, Harry Potter is not a challenging, game-changing story.  But I have to protest the implication that reading it will not at all enrich mind, spirit, and personality.  What is the anthropomorphic castle if not an introduction to the Gothic genre?  And the Flamels' longevity coupled with Voldemort's rabid lusting for the Stone (and the blood of innocents) if not a grammary to Paradise Lost?  On the contrary, I think Rowling's borrowing of these classic elements is essential to and accountable for, at the very least, some of the interest in Harry Potter, beyond action in the form of zipping brooms and hi-jinks with clever and uncomfortable spells.  To the meat of the story, those things are pink fluffy frosting; they give a temporary sugar-high, no doubt, that distracts from the more substantial substance (seewhatIdidthar?) of the story; but the ingredients for a good, sturdy recipe are present underneath, and they remain when the saccharine "tricks" and "spectacle" fade.  And yes, it is a recipe, in the sense that is a formula.  But we follow recipes and formulas because they work.

Finally, the zinger:

I hope that my discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery, or a nostalgia for a more literate fantasy to beguile (shall we say) intelligent children of all ages.

So, there it is: literary fantasy beguiles.  It can't be worthwhile if it isn't true, or based in reality, or boring realism, or fantasy treated as realism (Henry James again?).  But the same doesn't stand for The Odyssey and the Arthurian romances . . . or did the people back then just not know any better, and so are excused from providing better fare for the literary canon?  Or is it only okay when it's satire, like Mark Twain?  Or when it's overwhelmingly dark like The Picture of Dorian Gray?

Is our lad Harry Potter on par with the greats, worthy to take his place alongside Shakespeare and James Joyce and The Canterbury Tales?  I don't think so, at least not at this point in the execution of my Harry Potter Project.  But I can't see how the reading of it is worthless and without merit entirely.


And I think "common" readers realize that.  As Chesterton would say, regarding the "awful authority of the masses," sometimes our humanity instinctively leads us to what is good and affirming.  Something unknown within us responds to truths never named: that friendship and self-sacrifice, and standing by what's right in the face of impossible pressure, is more than mere escape, but a glimpse toward that which the soul knows and misses, and not something to be swept up in the "dustbin of the ages."

*  The "stretching his legs" cliches he mentions on page 4 I happen to like, as it establishes the "this is just an ordinary story about an ordinary family" tone before jumping into the Shocking Reveal--this is more a sense of trite storytelling, as I am sure of the art and intelligence of Rowling enough to know that she could do better if she'd wanted to.  Then we wander into territory that asks, "Is using pre-established formula considered bad form for literature?"
**  I'm probably not using the correct definition of "irony" here!
***  You should see my expression as I acknowledge the glaring spelling error.  Let's hope it's a typo.
****  Still trying hard to believe it's a typo.
*****  Would Harold Bloom accuse me of peacocking by dropping my knowledge of literary canon?  Probably, but he'd be wrong about that, too.



  1. Oooh! I have so much to say about this! Yay for more critic talk!!

    My main thought though..is about Rowling's lack of authentic imaginative vision..Now, I'm a judger, and I know that. And I wouldn't call what Rowling does Art in any real sense, nor literature..but I would defend to some extent her imaginative vision - though I'm not really sure what he means by "authentic". If he's implying a lack of individuality, depth, or quality to her 'imaginative vision' I'd disagree decidedly. I he's implying more of a 'consistent' and 'united' imaginative vision, I'd agree with him, but 'consistency IS the refuge of the unimaginative' so it's value is sort of, you know, over-estimated; and MOST writers lack a truly consistent imaginative vision, because we are none of us entirely consistent within ourselves. Rowling is pretty obviously a relativist and a product of her culture, but there is a thread of consistent imagery in the books that often takes them beyond that. Like the movie Pan's Labyrinth that doesn't intend at all to be so Catholic but is..

    And Gandalf and Dumbledore are so NOT the same type..WTH Mr. Bloom, Have you even Read Tolkien?????? Ugh. Not all 'old wizard types' are the same.

    Writing talent..(I'm still sort of feeling that Rowling has story-telling talent, but sort of wastes it on cheap tricks and should have had a better editor, especially in the later books). But then, I'm not a big fan of Alice in Wonderland either, and Bloom thinks it's all that and more.. Generally I think that authors with some talent tend to whore it a bit for popularity, because most reader's - especially of kid's books - are addicted to the saccharine, junk-food style and it diminishes the writers (and readers) potential. But lots of writers (even some of the best) do it intentionally, and I don't know that I think Rowling is doing it intentionally..which makes her sound less talented but more honest. :/

    I'm sounding really harsh..I don't mean to..just working through thoughts..I guess overall, I like what Rilke says:

    "Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsay able than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

    1. I adore Pan's Labyrinth, but I've never tried to watch it through a Catholic lens. That's on the to-do list now.

      I wouldn't call you a judger. Rather, you're judicious. You withhold rash opinions and are careful with your approvals. I think that's a pretty good quality to have.

      For me, I tend to side with the authors against the critics: it's in my nature as a writer to be indignant that the so-called professionals know better about what the author is meaning to write than the author herself. Oh Rilke, you know just what to say!

      That may account for my faith in Rowling as a stylist. I just have a feeling she knows she's being flat; at least in this first book, I think it suits the story. However; as the plot gets more complex and the characters more intricate, I'd expect a bump-up in style to accommodate that. I think. We'll see. c;

  2. which I guess is me saying there is something of art in Harry Potter..how much, or what sort..I don't know, but the words seem to fit the responses to the stories in a way, and so there must be an aspect of art to them, right..or can I hide in my inconsistent, imaginative mind and avoid that question forever?? ;)

    1. It's a fascinating concept, one I think I've been trying to catch at. But it's like grasping at light, as Rilke said.

  3. I. Love. This. Piece!!!

    And am also enjoying your comments, Masha!!

    Perhaps my own difficulty with Bloom is partly the fact that I'm fairly well-read but have not been taught, or maybe I should say schooled. I didn't go to university. I was homeschooled, and taught to read with discernment on a religious level but not to seek out good literature. Everything I know, I know from self-guided reading and a few professor-blogger-types. I haven't been taught the canon as canon, and when it comes to books as literature, I've learned--rightly or wrongly--to look first for books that stick with you and make you think/grow your understanding, and second for books that are well-written, which quality is either hard to define or the definition is a well-kept secret. (My own belief is that Rowling's writing is good as storytelling and sufficient, but not much more than that, as prose.)

    All that to say, Bloom's interpretation sounds more or less like gibberish to me. Harry Potter inauthentic? Harry Potter non-enriching? Harry Potter a waste of time? So he's saying that I'm one of a class of time-wasting, unintelligent plebeians? A failure for loving Rowling, even though I also love Shakespeare and Austen and Waugh and Greene? That Rowling's work is uncompelling trash, even though she succeeds in creating a vivid world with unusually complex characters and thick themes for children's lit, in direct spite of her weaknesses as a writer? I just don't get it.

    Christie, it was helpful to read your explanations and points of agreement and dissent, since you have more of a traditional education in Bloom's field. I learned a lot. I'll be very interested to see where you stand after you've finished the Rest of the Story. :D

    One thing that I probably failed to notice in the previous conversations: Bloom might have been honestly mistaken about the unexplained reasoning for Harry's placement with the Dursleys. If he wrote this essay before book 5 came out, it hadn't been explained yet.

    Masha, that Rilke quote is beautiful... I think that's where the nameless art comes in. Rowling and her Harry have provided a lot of us with an experience we're still trying to put into words, and can't quite. Also, I liked your defense of her imaginative vision. :)

    1. The best books, for me, are the ones that are harmonious: they are well-written and impactful. Which is not to say that the one or the other don't make it into my list of favorites, that's not true at all! There are a handful of decadently written novels that I adore but which don't leave me feeling affirmed and a better person; those I won't be handing to my son to read any time soon, at least not 'til he's older. I'd much sooner give him the artless prose with meritable storytelling (and by meritable, I don't necessarily mean moralizing).

      Bloom reminds me of Jack Zipes, whose criticism to Snow White and the Huntsman I responded to on here a while ago--the kind of assumption that the common people don't know what's good and what's not, and need to be told. I do believe there's a difference between "literature" (high-brow) and fiction, but not that the latter is completely without merit. I think that's just willing blindness. :P

    2. I think, Jenna, that uneducated, time-wasting plebeians like yourself (ignorant Philistine would be another good term for you ;) )..in general People Who Like Harry Potter.. can't read the classics for any Good Reason..maybe you just like the story?? You can't have any sort of Intelligent Reaction to it, because you like fantasy that Intelligent Children would hate..;)

      Poor you! I think you're fine, and I think that discernment in literature is largely self taught anyway..and some people don't bother, despite a dozen degrees, and some people don't mind varying the diet a little..including somethings that may not be 'superior fare'. And I think Harold Bloom probably has a pile of trashy romance novels under his bed, for when he needs a break from Enriching Literature ;)

      I sometimes think Harold Bloom hasn't quite grown out of his Pretensions to be A Coffee House Intellectual and has to diminish people who have the capability to read for fun, and also the people whose ability to be enriched doesn't necessarily require them to read books that Look Impressive..that last bit was on the uncharitable side..I should have said something nicer, but I couldn't think of a way to say it that didn't come out Really Mean..

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