Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: The Literary Merits of Potter

Ten years ago, literary critic Harold Bloom wrote an essay in The Wall Street Journal called “Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong?” in which he outlined his dislike for Harry Potter. Calling elements of the prose “heavy on cliché” and asserting that the status as a New York Times bestseller was emblematic of a “dumbing down” of the culture; Bloom’s essay (now notoriously difficult to find online) was seen as a savage assault on the beloved series. He later followed it up in a Newsweek article in 2007 titled “Harry Potter and the Money Making Machine.”

Now four years after the conclusion of the seven-part novel series, and just a month a way from the final installment of the cinematic adaptations, how ought Potter be regarded on its literary merits? Did Bloom have any legitimate points? Or does Potter endure despite its supposed literary failings?

SPOILERS below for the entire series.

A re-read of Bloom’s essay actually reveals a little bit more introspection and caveat than one might think. Bloom hopes (worries) that his “discontent is not merely a highbrow snobbery.” He clearly disseminates his opinion from a position of not understanding the basic fantasy appeal of the novels. Indeed, as I’ve pointed out previously, sometimes books deemed of serious literary merit seem to have little to do with entertainment and more to do with making sure the reader feels depressed. If one is looking for a downer, Harry Potter, despite all of its “darkness” is probably not the way to go.

Harold BloomFirst, I’d like to quickly address Bloom’s points about the prose itself; the nuts and bolts of Rowling’s writing. According to someone like Stephen King, she is fantastic, while to Bloom, she’s a terrible prose stylist. I think reality is probably somewhere in-between. True, Rowling’s prose could best described with tired writing cliché of “workman-like”; meaning the sentences are just sort of trudging along without any discernable style and are really just trying to depict the concepts as easily and as quickly as possible. Here, I find myself agreeing with Bloom. I, too, roll my eyes at a lot of the filler sentences in which characters roll their eyes or stretch their legs. However, unlike Bloom, this sort of meta-read of the Potter novels didn’t prevent me from enjoying them or getting through them. In fact, while I do think the prose is generally uncreative, the arrangement of the characters and ideas is very creative. A highly stylized or self-aware literary voice served well the Series of Unfortunate Events novels, which are in every single way better written and have probably higher literary value than Potter.

However, what Rowling gains in having a plain, easy prose style is populism. And that isn’t necessarily a dirty word. When you’re dealing with all the crazy concepts in the Potter-verse, it’s probably best not to take chances with the prose. These are, at least, superficially, kid’s books.

The literary merits of Harry Potter

The structure of the Potter novels is a different beast all together and initially with the early three novels, something I admire. The first three books have the structure of a whodunit, with the various heroes all being sorts of Mrs. Marples. (Nina Lourie made a similar observation here) If one wanted to say Rowling had things in common with Agatha Christie, I don’t think they would be too far off. (I’m sure a Harold Bloom type wouldn’t be crazy about Christie either.) The point is, every single one of these first three novels ended in a twist, or a reveal of the “culprit.” In the case of the third book, the supposed villain, Sirius Black turns out not to be the villain at all, giving us another twist rooted firmly in classic mystery writing. In short, when the core of the Potter books was that of an honest-to-goodness mystery, they were structurally at their very best.

But then came everything post-Goblet of Fire in which the length of the books doubled and the structure became more muddled. What is the ultimate point of The Goblet of Fire? Well, in the end, the Goblet itself was nothing but a port-key designed to transport Harry to Voldermort for a blood donation. Was this entire tournament the best sort of ruse to make this happen? This twist is so elaborate and out of left field, that it pales in comparison to the satisfying twist in The Prisoner of Azkaban. After The Goblet of Fire, the Potter novels become more about preparations for a secret war, rather than a series of magical mysteries all part of a larger puzzle. By the time we get to the sixth book, the background mythology of Voldermort is still shrouded in so much mystery that the majority of The Half-Blood Prince is a series of flashbacks. What actually happens in The Half-Blood Prince? Harry wanders through a bunch of memories with Dumbledore, and then at the end a lot of bad stuff happens and Dumbledore dies. This is not the same kind of book as the whodunits that preceded it.

The literary merits of Harry Potter

As the series progressed, many praised Rowling for her success at making the books “darker” and “grittier” as the characters aged and the situations grew more dire. For the most part, I’m inclined to agree with this. Had the series retained its whodunit format, the motivation for a reader to continue with the series would have relied upon enjoying that format. But for most, such a format would have grown tiresome. Just how many Sirius Blacks can she pull out of her hat? When the books took on an epic scope after The Goblet of Fire, greater promises were being made to the reader in terms of mortal stakes. Rowling started killing people off, starting with Cedric Diggory, just to make sure all the readers understood that anything could happen to any of the characters, at any time.

I think the idea of killing of characters was handled well by Rowling in the case of Dumbledore, Diggory and a few others, but by the time we get to Deathly Hallows it feels pretty amateurish. Because it’s the big finale, the sheer amount of death feels slavish to the urge of making the final volume truly “epic.” The structure of the series has become a high fantasy, complete with a storming of a castle at the end. As such, these sorts of scenes fall prey to a lot of dull, boring battle tropes the series avoided back when it was a quieter mystery/adventure about teenage wizards. Sure, Harry fights a giant monster at the end of Chamber of Secrets, but there you feel his pluck and lack of preparation. The battles in Deathly Hallows are more rote; complete with Harry double-wanding somebody like a gangsta for effect and nothing more.

The literary merits of Harry PotterAnother structure debacle is the notion of horcruxes. This very important plot device is not truly revealed until the 6th book and subsequently the 7th book becomes almost exclusively a hero’s quest to destroy them. Structurally, the other five books didn’t really seem to be leading to this kind of by-the-numbers fantasy quest. The evidence is dubious at best. Sure, it’s all meticulously explained to us, but with all the existing threads in the series, why introduce a brand new concept the protagonists have to deal with so late in the game? Similarly, in The Deathly Hallows the Elder Wand becomes an end-all be-all focal point of the novel. Yes it is very, very cool, and the legend of the Deathly Hallows themselves is chilling. But from a structural point of view, this is another brand new element introduced into already fairly crowded magical world.

Further, with the kids we all know and love absent for Hogwarts, the passage of time and the familiar yearlong structure sort of crumbles apart. Just how long are Harry, Ron and Hermione in the woods? This also always struck me as a massive cliché. We know from fairy tales characters will face a lot of hardship and the narrator will say “they’re not out of the woods yet.” In The Deathly Hallows they are literally “not out of the woods” for like half the book.

However, The Deathly Hallows does return to the roots of the early Potter books by having a fantastic twist in which Snape has been the good guy all along. This chapter was probably my favorite in The Deathly Hallows as it allowed Rowling to sort of play detective with her own plots. This was highly original and really did connect with the spirit and essence of why the books are so fun to read in the first place. That being: you constantly discover new ways of looking at certain plot points based on clues you’ve been given earlier. The fantasy, humanistic and mystery elements blend extremely well here because it all revolves around an interesting well-developed character.

And this is where Rowling wins the Literary Tournament Cup. Nearly all of her characters are fantastic, well drawn, memorable, distinct from one another, relatable, and rich. They also grow and change considerably over the course of seven books. From the bookish Hermione to the classic romantic hero of Ron, to the complicated mess of Malfoy, the nerdy Colin Creavey, tortured Professor Lupin, guilty and rash Sirius Black, and the sad bitter, and ultimately good-hearted Snape. Even Voldemort gets a fantastic well-explained biography, complete with a family tree.

Throughout the series J.K. Rowling approaches One Hundred Years of Solitude territory regarding the complexity of her characters’ family trees. Occasionally, I wished I had a couple of family tree charts just to keep it all straight in my head. Which is nothing but a complete compliment. The real reason everyone kept reading these books had a lot to do with the cool magic and epic scale, and certainly not the convoluted plots. By at the end of all of it, they wanted to know what was going to happen to their favorite characters. Would they rise to the occasion? Would they turn evil? Would they change? Do we want them to? Will it be painful watching them grow older? Many have said that the epilogue at the end of The Deathly Hallows was a little corny and unnecessary. I’d agree as a critic, but disagree as a fan of the characters. The epilogue at the end of The Deathly Hallows was character-porn. It was a total indulgence in fan curiosity and allowed J.K. Rowling to tie up her story as a fairy tale for children. Which is arguably what she set out to do in the first place.

The literary merits of Harry Potter

There is one final note about characters, which I think is illustrative of Rowling’s real talent: Luna Lovegood. Though introduced late in the series, my favorite character was Luna Lovegood, if only for the demonstration of Rowlings literary acrobatics. Luna and her nutjob father believe in all sorts of “wacky” magical creatures that the “regular” wizards think is absolutely ridiculous. When Luna talks about Crumple-Horn Snorkacks, you know she’s off her rocker. Even though the narrative and characters are already steeped in a world of broomstick games, ghosts, deadly spells, dragons, shape shifters, and countless other off-the-wall concepts! How could a writer possibly introduce a character that is on the fringe of all of that? How did Rowling do it? How did she create Luna and her wacky sensibilities? Even without the strange names the characters bandies about, we know that Luna’s off. From her roaring lion hat, to the cadence of her speech, she is an alien among wizards. It’s wonderful, but we do understand that the strange creatures she references are silly, while the creatures we’re familiar with are “serious.”

I wish I could explain how Luna and all of Rowling’s other characters were crafted so effectively. I wish I could do it with some serious literary anyalsis. But I can’t. Instead, I’ll just call it what it is. Magic.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. His favorite Harry Potter thing, other than Luna, is the Patronus.

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