Why Harry Potter is wonderful (was Re: : [Fwd: Bullying, DWJ, and Harry Potter...])

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Mon Feb 3 01:23:40 EST 2003


Don't all y'all love my new subject line?  I've read fourteen books in a
week, my brain is pudding, and I feel like going ten metaphorical rounds
defending an unpopular topic.  :)

On Sun, 2 Feb 2003 21:49:35 +0000, hallieod at indigo.ie wrote:

>Melissa:

>>I think sending Harry back to the Dursleys is questionable, and I don't
>>really buy the internal excuse that he'll be protected or be a better person
>>or whatever it is.  But I'd kick Dumbledore myself if he went around
>>stopping everyone from being evil.
>
>I wasn't really talking about policing the world.  You've allowed the 
>point about Dumbledore's repeatedly sending Harry back to the 
>Dursleys, which was one of my main problems.  But there's also the 
>fact that he is the head of a school, in which children are bullied 
>by both other students and teachers.  No school authorities will ever 
>be able to completely eliminate bullying, of course, but that does 
>*not* absolve them from making an attempt.  Malfoy Sr. uses his 
>outside power to influence the running of the school too, which is 
>where this intersects with Dumbledore.

Two different issues, really.  The second, about Malfoy Sr., has nothing to
do with Dumbledore's power or lack thereof; Dumbledore is at the mercy of
the Board of Trustees or whatever the heck they call it.  This is an
administrative problem.  It's also at the heart of the crisis that comes at
the end of book four, because the leaders of the wizarding world and the
Hogwarts administrators are confused about the difference between law and
right--something that allowed Malfoy Sr. to make a play for power at
Hogwarts in book two.

And what makes you think Dumbledore doesn't try to stop bullying?  In fact,
what constitutes bullying here?  Draco's mean little tricks are NOTHING
compared to what real bullies do in real life.  What's more, Harry's not the
victim; Harry is his nemesis.  The only victim we've seen is poor Neville,
and potentially that drip Colin Creevy, but that could just be irritation on
my part.  Probably we just have a different definition of the point at which
adults need to step in.

>>If he did that, we'd have a world full
>>of Muggle-headed wizards who didn't ever have to make the choice between
>>good and evil for themselves.  There are some battles you have to fight for
>>yourself.  Harry has no problem defending himself against sweet little Draco
>>Malfoy; he doesn't need Dumbledore's help.
>
>As I said before, I firmly believe that in a school environment, some 
>effort has to be made to protect kids from bullying.  I find it very 
>strange, and quite disturbing, that the conventions of old-style 
>boarding school stories (such as the necessary existence of a School 
>Bully) should have been adopted, without either the usually 
>accompanying school ethos of Fair Play and Honour (also an element of 
>most I've read), or the modern-day school belief that children have a 
>right not to be bullied.

Again, I simply don't see Hogwarts as an environment on the same level as
those old boarding school stories.  But I'd be interested in what kind of
intervention you think would be necessary in this case.  From my
perspective, Dumbledore would have to follow Harry around all day long
waiting for sweet Draco to pounce in order to prevent his bullying.  Now,
I'd also like to see Malfoy Jr. tossed out on his can, but mainly because I
think his father would use it as an excuse to start a war and THEN the
series would get interesting.  Seriously, though, our perceptions seem so
different on this that I'd like to hear why the bullying is so bad here.  I
keep flashing on that unpleasant scene at the beginning of _The Silver
Chair_ and it just seems so much worse....

>>>After rereading the two HPs, I then reread _A Wizard of Earthsea_.
>>>Talk about contrast!  The writing style is very different, but it
>>>strikes me that DWJ and Le Guin have the same way of exploring
>>  >character in a rich and subtle way, while Rowlings takes the easier
>>>option of lay-it-on-with-a-trowel black and white depictions.
>>
>>Absolutely true.  And I ask you (all of you, not just Hallie):  what makes
>>you certain that one way is better than another, in every situation, in
>>every text?  Is it fundamentally, objectively better to explore character
>>subtly, to create ambiguity in a text, to eliminate stark areas of black and
>>white?  Or is it just what you prefer?
>
>And I thank you, all of you who wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot 
>keyboard, and left me to answer it! ;-)  (I had a tutorial in Belfast 
>yesterday, which took up the whole day, as MY excuse for not replying 
>earlier.) 

And I was so sure someone else would have something to say.  Ah, well.  This
is what happens when I get too fond of the contents of my own head. :)

>  But it 
>would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I honestly cannot 
>imagine any way in which it is not better to explore character 
>subtly, and to present morality in a way which does not at least 
>imply in-born tendencies to worth or lack thereof, based on any 
>circumstance of birth or externals (be it appearance, name, family, 
>religion, nationality or whatever).

Then let's step back a bit.  What exactly do we mean by "better"?  Certainly
it implies a ranking of sorts; one can't have a "better" without a "worse"
to give that relative term meaning.  But ranking for what?  I tend to think
of things like this in a very utilitarian way.  They tried to beat it out of
me in college, but it stuck.  At any rate, my thought would be, "What are
you trying to accomplish with this?"

And this relates to the fact that no reader springs fully-formed from
anyone's head.  To state the obvious, in order to become a better reader,
you have to read.  The more you read, the more you learn about the process
of reading.  Your experience and your repertoire of technique grows.  You
may have started with tiny little readers (one of Sally's, BTW, is in our
library) but soon you discover that those are too easy.  You move on to more
difficult and more complex books.  As you progress, the books you leave
behind can't offer you anything more.  You need something...better.

>From my perspective, the Harry Potter books offer something to beginning
readers that cannot be duplicated.  We who are experienced readers of
speculative fiction often forget, when we are reading our fortieth King
Arthur pastiche, that there is someone out there reading it for the first
time.  It's their first exposure to the legend.  They're blown away.  We
think it's crap.  (That would actually be me.  I have a low tolerance for
King Arthur stories.  So glad DWJ wrote _Hexwood_.)  This experience of ours
spreads across the spectrum.  Fantasy is a highly self-referential genre;
readers are expected to recognize hints and images in order to get the full
experience.  And to non-readers--both those who don't read SF and those who
don't read at all--this genre is horribly impenetrable.  Seriously.  They
don't get it because they're totally untrained and they don't know where to
start that training.  Imagine giving a three-year-old a law book and telling
them to hop to it and start reading.  That is only a slight exaggeration
describing what it's like for non-readers who begin reading fiction of any
kind, but particularly SF.

Now let's look again at J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series.  It's easy
for beginning readers to get into.  It telegraphs obvious clues about
personality, atmosphere, foreshadowing, and plot so that inexperienced
readers will more easily participate in the reading.  My husband has already
pointed out the things he noticed about style and readability, and I agree
about that.  It's easy to tell who the bad guys are and who the good guys
are.

But then there's more.  Rowling subverts all those clues.  She sets you up
to believe that so-and-so is the bad guy, and then he isn't.  She inserts
all sorts of clever references (i.e. spell names, character names) but in a
way that it doesn't matter if you don't get it.  Professor Lupin?  What a
funny name...what's that howling I hear?  The adult wizarding world is
coping with problems and politics that children (both readers and the ones
in the story) are mostly oblivious to--yet the clues are there, and after
several re-readings, even inexperienced readers start to pick up on it.

In short, I think holding this series to the same standards as other fantasy
misses the whole point.  It's not even as simple as not wanting to compare
the tyro Rowling to DWJ at the height (or even the beginning) of her career.
These books are meant for something else entirely.  This is beginner's
fantasy.  Why so many adults around the world love it, I don't know--unless
those adults are also beginners when it comes to reading fantasy.  We've all
said "why is JKR getting so much attention?  People need to read DWJ because
she is the very best!!" and that's so true.  She is the best at what she
does.  But a lot of people aren't ready for her.  I don't think they ought
to be denied what they need just because it doesn't meet the standards of
good fantasy.  This goes for all kinds of fiction.  It gives me ulcers to
see certain dumb books flying off the shelves, but...that's really all those
readers are up for.  And yes, some of them will never progress any further.
But it's really up to them.

>>And before anyone answers, I would remind you that there are well-respected
>>readers who denigrate speculative fiction because its techniques of
>>characterization, description, and plot are not literary enough to be "real"
>>literature.  This is relevant, I assure you.
>
>Well, yes, but are there well-respected readers of speculative 
>fiction who denigrate speculative fiction?

Yes.  Most readers who hyperfocus on a single subgenre of SF are not kind
about other subgenres.  But it's still the same example that you comment on
below:

>It's one thing for 
>someone who may have picked up one or two high fantasy books, or one 
>or two children's books, or whatever, to denigrate a whole genre 
>based on that reading.  Surely it's quite another for some of a group 
>of people who came together on the basis of reading an author of 
>(originally) children's/YA speculative fiction, to find the Harry 
>Potter books unsatisfactory for some reason or another? 

This is a good point.  But there is a big difference between finding a book
unsatisfactory (meaning "I don't want to read this and I don't think it's a
high enough quality to meet my needs") and finding it inadequate as a
representative of the genre.  What I'm saying is that by classing HP as
simply a fantasy book on the level of all other fantasy of its type, we're
judging it according to the wrong standards.  Gili made a good point in
another post that the difference between DWJ and HP is that HP isn't the
sort of thing you deeply analyze; you just read it quickly and move on, a
popcorn book.  I think that there is, in fact, some value in analyzing the
Harry Potter books, but it's on a completely different level than ordinary
critical analysis.  You can't really take the plot apart like you would for
_Time of the Ghost_; you can't do the kind of psychological character
analysis on Harry that you might for Mitt or Mordion or Sophie.  But it does
make me wonder *how* Rowling achieved this universally intriguing story (and
YES, I do mean "intriguing for kids") because every child of my acquaintance
knows these books well, loves them, has birthday parties centered around
them.  (I was Snape at one of them.  I did such a good job that I ended up
converting one very blond boy to Slytherin.  Mwahahahaha.)

>With the 5th 
>book ranked number 1 on Amazon.co.uk from about the second it was 
>listed, I don't think a few non-fans are really going to do much 
>harm.  Heck, I probably won't even put any of the books in my Worst 
>Book of 2003 category, so Rowlings reign will not be threatened  ;-)

I wouldn't worry about disturbing her reign; she's already made more money
than, well, probably not God, but one of his lesser saints.  Except I'm sure
they don't handle money.

And I'm not buying it.  I'm waiting for the paperback.

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