Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter and the Death of Reading?

I've been thinking a lot about Harry these last few days, but not as a gushing fan-boy. (I hope that doesn't come as a terrible surprise to anyone.) My kids love Potter, so I'm happy enough to see them get hours of enjoyment from Rowling's work. (Even more important - I'm proud to say they also read and listen to lots of other writers as well: Roald Dahl, Cornelia Funke, Ursula K LeGuin, MI McAllister, SF Said, Jonathan Stroud, for example.)

When I think of Potter these days, though, it's as a novelist with a new book out. That's a fortunate place to be in many ways, but it's not easy staying on your feet with the Potter juggernaut eclipsing all other books in terms of press, marketing and review attention. An awful lot of books aren't going to be getting the attention they might have this summer because there's simply not enough space for Harry and everyone else in the dwindling slots still available for book-talk. Honestly, there's never enough space and it's just getting worse, but the release of a new Potter book is a perfect storm of a media event that not all authors are going to be happy about. I'm not sure all readers should be happy about it either.

Am I jealous? Naw, forget about that. Rowling's success is so enormous that I've absolutely no inkling of how to measure it, no feeling at all that I'd want it. I'd love to be a bestseller, sure. Love to see a movie of my work made, you bet. But I dream of these things for a specific purpose: to provide me the security to just write for a living and know that I'm connecting with a good number of people. That, in itself, escapes most people who aspire to it. The heights that JK has reached seem a bit like outer space to me, and I've no desire to be an astronaut. (There's no oxygen up there, for one thing.) A much, much more modest level of bestsellerdom is a lofty enough goal for me.

With that modest desire in mind... I am happy to say that I'll still be garnering some attention even within this tumult. The Washington Post will be reviewing Acacia: The War with the Mein this Sunday. Will they be kind? I'm hoping, but I haven't seen it yet.

What I have seen, though, is an essay by Ron Charles (the senior editor of the Post's Book World) from a few days ago. It's called "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading". He says some interesting things. There's lots of quotable stuff, but this just jumped out at me. In arguing that Harry Potter doesn't seem to have led to any increase in reading, Charles writes...

The vast majority of adults who tell me they love "Harry Potter" never move on to Susanna Clarke's enchanting "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell," with its haunting exploration of history and sexual longing, or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," a dazzling fantasy series that explores philosophical themes (including a scathing assault on organized religion) that make Rowling's little world of good vs. evil look, well, childish. And what about the dozens of other brilliant fantasy authors who could take them places that little Harry never dreamed of?

Hmm... Take a look at the whole thing and let me know what you think.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Kit said...

agreed. i like to think that the whole world has ADD and they'd rather spend an hour in a movie adaptation than sitting down to 6 hours of text. a lot of people i know don't know how to lose themselves in a book--what they DO know is how to follow the crowd (JKR, ahem)..

7:16 PM  
Blogger John Dent said...

I've been saying it for absolutely ages. Harry Potter, the saviour of literacy isn't actually encouraging people to read. No-one I have met who wasn't already a prolific reader has actually picked up anything else, barring maybe Eragon or The Da Vinci Code.

Harry Potter is basically a bit of entertaining fluff, and nothing more.

Which brings me to another point--at what stage does "paying homage", referencing other literary works, or adapting from them actually become illegal?

2:28 AM  
Blogger Constance said...

It was by no means a reasoned discourse on the Harry Potter phenomenon and the "Death of Reading" as the title promised. I think it was a rather elitist rant in the vein of 'how dare people read what they like, instead of more weighty, philosophical tomes, ' and its subcategory, 'if you don't have the same tastes as me, you're wrong'.

Look at the language Ron Charles uses - "Cap'n Crunch in a Gucci bag." "cultural infantilism." "horning in on our kids' favorite books" "repetitive plots, the static characters, the pedestrian prose, the wit-free tone, the derivative themes". That kind of emotion driven appeal wouldn't fly even in my Philosophy 101 class.

"And when their parents do pick up a novel, it's often one that leaves a lot to be desired."

That sentence alone sums up Charles' feelings on the matter of popular reading tastes. The unwashed masses are too stupid to choose their own material, because they choose wrong in his opinion. Every time people choose "Harry Potter" over "The Law of Dreams," a kitten dies.

I'm not buying it.

"it has almost nothing to do with the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves -- without a movie version or a set of action figures." Isn't this exactly what happens to the people reading the Harry Potter novels? People lose themselves in the world Rowling created? Charles is trying so hard to prove his point that he contradicts himself.

While excusing the author on one hand, Ron Charles manages to backhand both her readers and her in one neat sentence. "Through no fault of Rowling's, Potter mania nonetheless trains children and adults to expect the roar of the coliseum, a mass-media experience that no other novel can possibly provide."

"As Albert Greco of the Institute for Publishing Research puts it: "People who read fiction want to read hits written by known authors who are there year after year.""

Why is that? Charles doesn’t stop to examine that question in his quest to bash. He hinted at the answer earlier – people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. With Harry Potter, people can connect not only with the author and her story, but with millions of other people reading the same thing. For such a rootless society that we've become, shared culture is a powerful motivator. It allows opportunities for dialogue between people from all walks of life that wouldn’t ordinarily be there.

"And what about the dozens of other brilliant fantasy authors who could take them places that little Harry never dreamed of? Or the wider world of Muggle literary fiction beyond?" Charles needs to look at Harry Potter as a gateway drug, not a speedbump. People move on to other authors and reading material at their own pace. Some jump from Rowling to Le Guin happily, others never make the transition at all. Instead of bemoaning the loss of those who didn't jump, let's celebrate those who moved on and became wider readers. In every endeavor, there is an attrition rate. Blaming Harry Potter for the failure of the masses to embrace "quality literature" is just silly.

"or Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials," a dazzling fantasy series that explores philosophical themes (including a scathing assault on organized religion) that make Rowling's little world of good vs. evil look, well, childish." The battle between good and evil is timeless, not childish. It's rather refreshing to know who to root for. Not everyone wants or needs weighty philosophical issues in their reading. We've done it to ourselves in schools by insisting children read books with hidden or blatant messages about everything from alcoholism to sexuality to the grieving process. We shove the idea down kid's throats that they need to read those kind of books to better themselves, and because books are "trying to tell you something." Pay attention. Reading isn't fun; it's for adding significance to your life. We manage to wring every last bit of joy from reading. Small wonder kids grow up and resolve to never read any "meaningful" books again. Reading Harry Potter is a form of rebellion against all the snotty, look-down-their-nose-at-common-culture critics who want to dictate what is literature and what is not. The Harry Potter 'phenomenon' as it is dubbed, couldn't have happened 30 years ago. The Internet has changed the way culture is absorbed and disseminated, and I think critics need to adapt, or they will become increasingly irrelevant and out of step with the unwashed masses they secretly loath, while pretending to enlighten.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Constance said...

P.S. If you'd like to continue this discussion and not weigh down David's poor blog like I did, visit David's Forum and the Other Authors header where longer rants can get their due. We're a friendly bunch. Stop by. :)

9:31 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

I hear you all. I'm actually not sure what I think of all this, mainly because there's valid points all around. For me the jury is out and probably will be for some time. I was all for the notion that it was fabulous to have tons of kids reading 800 page books. It seems obvious that would translate into not being afraid of other books too. But many people in the industry aren't at all sure that's actually happening.

And I'm okay with readers reading whatever they want. I wouldn't condescend to any individual on their reading choices, even if I think those choices could be better and more rewarding for them. BUT, people's reading choices aren't made in a vacumn. They're highly influenced by a for-profit industry that stacks the deck in ways meant to benefit their bottom line. And the bottom line on that is that it's alot more profitable to get tons of people to buy a handful of books than it is to have more modest sales of many different books. That, to me, is not something that's in the best interest of readers - not in terms of their enjoyment, enlightenment, pure entertainment or whatever else matters to you.

I think you make a good argument in response to Ron Charles, Constance, and you note lines that support your arguments well. I don't, on a personal level, think that Charles as much of a literary snob as you likely do. I do mean that on a personal level, though. I've reviewed for him in The Post several times, and I know he's assigned my novels to get reviewed - and that's never something any writer should take for granted. The Post didn't have to review Acacia. Many more "high-brow" publications wouldn't touch it. I think Charles knows an awful lot about good fiction, as evidenced in the review he wrote of Pride of Carthage for The Christian Science Monitor!

Anyway, there are a lot of open questions in this for me, and that will likely stay the case for some time. Right now, though, I'm going to embark on a fabulous weekend. The car is packed and we're heading into Sequoia National Park for a backcountry camping trip. We'll be hiking in to a high lake at around 9000 feet, close to the stars. Yes, this does mean I'll be missing up-to-the-moment Potter updates. I'm okay with that, though. Instead, we'll read aloud from The Hobbit and enjoy alpine silence. Awesome. I'll check back in when I get back.

Oh, and I agree with Constance. I'd love for folks to take this or any other discussion over the Forum. It's fun, and will be more fun with YOU there!

Best,

David.

2:43 PM  
Blogger Tia Nevitt said...

I will certainly poke my head in the Forum, but I wanted to say that I agree with Constance. Back in Jane Austen's day, she was so fed up with criticism of The Novel as a literary form that she allowed some of it to leak into her novel, Northanger Abbey, with a diatribe against literary snobbery. Please forgive an excerpt:

"Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?" (Catherine)

"Why not?" (Henry)

"Because they are not clever enough for you -- gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; -- I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time."

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors.

As for HP, I do intend to read it eventually, but this weekend, I intend to finish David's book, instead.

6:19 PM  
Blogger Lou Anders said...

This smacks of sour grapes and elitism.

Ron Charles says:

"Data from the NEA point to a dramatic and accelerating decline in the number of young people reading fiction. Despite their enthusiasm for books in grade school, by high school, most kids are not reading for pleasure at all. My friends who teach English tell me that summaries and critical commentary are now so readily available on the Internet that more and more students are coming to class having read about the books they're studying without having read the books."

But I contend that most young adults stop reading precisely because of the dead boring quality of the books they are required to read in school. School kills the joy of reading in so many of us. I met a friend in B&N a while back hunting with his daughter for a copy of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 541. I said, "You poor girl, it will bore you to tears," and then recommended she try Scott Westerfeld. A month later, I heard she hated the Bradbury but LOVED Westerfeld and was reading the series. It's the books you choose that matters.

"The vast majority of adults who tell me they love "Harry Potter" never move on to Susanna Clarke's enchanting "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,"

Yet it was when Clarke's novel was called "Harry Potter for adults" that it took off, so the success it had - and that success was tremendous - can in some part be attributed to adults who read Harry Potter and then looked for something more.

5:24 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Good points. I'm really lucky that high school didn't kill my love of reading. They tried. They really tried, and my poor grades reflect how much it influenced me. Fortunately, I kept reading outside of class. We also had a student-run reading group called the Subterraneans (after the Kerouac novel). I don't remember us getting much support for this club, by the way, but we did it on our own.

I agree wholeheartedly that young people should have much longer to learn to love reading before they're turned toward heavier stuff. I do think we're better off as people/partners/parents/friends/citizens/etc when challenging material is included in what we read, though. For me reading can/should be more than just entertainment, but entertainment should be a big part of it.

Hey, at this point I'm going to continue with a few more thoughts over at the Forum. There's a discussion going on over there, too.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I read the comments, the forum, and the original article, in that order. I'll make this easy on myself and say that I wholeheartedly agree with Constance, Tia, Lou, etc. I love a lot of classics, but nothing sucks the fun out of reading faster than Moby Dick. (At least for me.) And why do schools and people like Ron Charles make it an either or proposition? Do I have to choose between JKR and Chaim Potok? Or does my love for "The Chosen" give me permission to enjoy HP without being accused of "gloming onto the bestsellers everyone is talking about?" I consider myself widely read (although I don't think you have to be widely read to be a REAL reader, as Mr. Charles seems to imply) but I have zero interest in Susanna Clarke's book, or in Pullman's books, for the simple reason that I don't want to read stories with "sexual longing" or "scathing assaults on organized religion." That doesn't make me ignorant or blindly devoted to mega sellers. It only makes me someone with a different opinion from this particular reviewer, which is not uncommon for me. I find online reviewers give me what I want more often than the newspaper reviewers do. What do I want? Enough information about the book to know if *I* will like it, rather than a simple catagorizing of the reviewer (i.e. the golden shelf of "literary" or the black sea of genre "trash.") Perhaps this is the reason reviewers are not in demand the way they once were. The internet makes it easy to find out what other readers think (exactly what independent booksellers do) without having to suffer condescending insults simply because I like HP. As far as HP not spawning more readers, I think there's a simple reason for that. HP fans are being steered to books like Clarke's or Pullman's simply because they are fantasy, nevermind that the tone of those books are completely different. HP is fun, entertaining, clean, and reinforces (rather than degrades ) basic values of right and wrong that a huge percentage of the population holds dear. I have found it rare for those qualities to exist simultaneously in the same book. That's not to say that's only what readers want. My own personal list of favorites is proof against that. But I think HP fills a need that is hard to fill elsewhere. Maybe writers, publishers, and booksellers alike need to be more open to all needs of readers (not just the "deeper" "higher" "literary" ones). It sounds like England has the right idea. Read what you like without apology or arrogance. I'd love to see that attitude make it's way across the pond.

5:51 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Anonymous,

Hi there. Thanks for writing. Opinion noted and respected. I wouldn't argue with any thing you said. I think people that read as you do are wonderful. I'm all for readers embracing different types of writers and novels to meet different needs - pure enjoyment being one of those.

In a way I figure that article caught Ron Charles on a cranky day. I'm sure he would welcome and encourage readership just like yours. But clearly that doesn't come through in the article for you or Constance or Lou, etc.

Still, though, as John said early on there are a great many Potter readers that don't become regular readers. And Kit's not wrong for pointing out that people can act frighteningly like herd animals when making reading choices.

But, anyway, for me this is all a mixed bag. I'm happy to tote that bag along, living with it and hoping for better from all sides.

12:29 PM  

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