Tue
Jun 21 2011 12:44pm
Genre in the Mainstream: The Literary Merits of Potter

The literary merits of Harry PotterTen 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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48 comments
Jeff R.
1. Jeff R.
Part of it is the names. However workmanlike here prose in general is, Rowling has a gift for creating character names that is very, very rare.
Heidi Byrd
3. sweetlilflower
I agree with most of your analysis, but I have to disagree on the parts about Deathly Hallows and Horcruxes. We get Harry's Invisibility Cloak really early... and Hermione questions its powers several times. Also, the Diary is a horcrux and we understand why Tom Riddle was able to interact through it once we get the explanation of how horcruxes work. As you said, the early novels give a lot of clues to the Final Showdown, and these are just more examples of this foreshadowing occuring.
Jeff R.
4. N. Mamatas
Now that's a good lede! Made me want to click right through...
Ryan Britt
5. ryancbritt
@sweetlilflower Fair enough. Though I always felt most of the horcrux and deathly hallows stuff was sort of retroactive.
Marcus W
6. toryx
I'm not the biggest Harry Potter fan or anything. I enjoyed the books in general and was impressed in a number of ways by choices Rowling made throughout the series.

What basically makes the entire series work for me, however, is how effectively it captured almost everyone who read it. There are a number of people (including at least one Tor blogger) who grew up with Harry Potter. There are adults who read them to their children. There are adults who never had children who read them. There are still children reading them today and becoming new fans.

I've always said that anything that gets people to read is okay by me. Then the Twilight series came along and ruined the whole statement for me. But I think that no matter how unliterary (which, in my mind, is the crux of Bloom's complaint) the series may be, they effectively grew with their audience and with their characters and that's no easy thing to pull off.

On a separate note, I saw the Horcruxes coming from book 2 (though they didn't have a name at the time) and I don't think they were remotely retroactive. There were just too many clues along the way.
rob mcCathy
7. roblewmac
Personally the reason I only read the first second and last book was I Found the whole universe a downer. Non-magic people are "muggles" and the people who run magic all have so many secret adgendas the universe has to be saved by little kids. That's REALLY DARK.
Ryan Britt
8. ryancbritt
@7 roblewmac Good point! I never really looked at it that way. Wonderful.
Jeff R.
9. GoldsteinLives
Bloom's problem is that modern literary criticism has eaten itself, a phrase which here means "has become so pompously obsessed with staring at its own navel that it has consumed all of its actual value as a tool to analyze literature."

This is not to say that the act of criticizing literature is inherently without merit, indeed, it is incredibly valuable. Unfortunately the focus of much modern literary critics is on things like which tropes the author uses and whether they have been used before, or whether the author's prose is "workmanlike" or stylized. And of course, that's neat and amusing so far as it goes, certainly one of the things most of his fans enjoy about Snicket/Handler is the unique literary voice. BUT...

The core of literature, what distinguishes literature from pulp, is not the style of the prose or the frequency of well-worn tropes. It is how well one, as a reader, can get invested in three dimensional characters or become enamored of exploring ideas contained within the story. The rest is no more than a tool to get you there.

For example, Asimov has a very workmanlike style, some would even call it soporific. But is there anyone that doubts his impact on science fiction, on world-building, on the ideas explored by thousands of authors and millions of readers?

Too much modern literary criticism misses the characters and the ideas in favor of demanding authors jump through the requisite stylisitic hoops. To use some philosophical criticism to criticize literary criticism, its insistance on form isn't just foolish, it is a tyranny of language, just another iteration of privilege.
Jeff R.
10. Lsana
In answer to Mr. Bloom's question, I would say that no, 35 million readers aren't wrong, they are just answering a different question from yours. The question is not "Are the Harry Potter books great literature on the order of Shakespeare, Dante, Austen, etc?" The question is, "Are these books worth twenty bucks of my money and 5 hours of my time?" to which the answer is an overwhelming, "Yes."

Are they great literature? Who knows? Who cares? Probably they shouldn't be taught in English class, but that isn't a knock on them. Really, what's going to happen as far as the "literary merit" debate goes is that we'll see in 50 years if people are still entertained by them, in which case, they will become "Classics of genre literature." And then we'll see if people are still reading them 100 years after that. If they are, Harry Potter will become a classic work, an excellent example of the magic realism school, and symbolic of all kinds of things that English PhD students will dig out of them.
Jeff R.
11. AgingComputer
I agree with Ryan that the horcruxes and hallowses were retroactive. There are plenty of mentions of other "invisibility cloaks" other than Harry's throughout the early novels and the reader is not inclined to notice that anything is out of the ordinary with Harry's. The most glaring example is how Ron immediately knew what it is in Philosopher's Stone. If I recall correctly he stated that the such cloaks are "really rare" (implying that they are not unheard of and certainly not that Harry's is unique in any way).

I did enjoy how Rowling tied together elements from previous books to form the horcruxes concept. However, it seemed that she didn't have a clear picture of it until Goblet at the very earliest. I don't believe there is any indication of hallowses until the final book, as well, and this gave our fearless heroes not just one but two sets of McGuffins to hunt down.

Ryan, I'd be interested on hearing your take on Harry Potter himself as a character. I've always felt that the adults of the series were the most fleshed-out characters (as you stated - Lupin, Snape, Dumbledore, Voldemort himself) and that the kids and especially Harry were rather flat, serving as the reader-as-proxy for children especially to identify with.
Jeff R.
12. Lsana
@sweetlilflower,

Hermione questioned the powers of the cloak? Do you have citations on that? It's not that I doubt you, but I don't remember anyone suggesting anything unusual about Harry's cloak until after the discussion with Xenophilius.
rob mcCathy
13. roblewmac
I thought what DID work is by the end Harry is shown to like Werewoloves and trolls and things like that. He's a nice kid
Ryan Britt
14. ryancbritt
@11 Aging Computer.
@You know I'd have to think about Harry himself a bit. I suppose my knee-jerk reaction would be to agree withy you. He's sort of a surrogate you're supposed to insert yourself into in order to understand the story.

However, I'd say he's a pretty realistic character in terms of what he wants and how he feels throughout the series. My biggest issues with Harry are sort of his crumby attempts at romance. I always wished he was a little bit more of a heartbreaker. But, then again, these are kids books. Overall, you've given me something to think about though!
Jeff R.
15. GoldsteinLives
@AgingComputer. I don' t know how retroactive the hallows are, but the horcruxes are not. There are interviews indicating that elements of the horcrux storyline from Half-Blood Prince were going to be in Chamber of Secrets, but Rowling put it off until later.

@Lsana. As to the special-ness of the cloak, there is a reference to the fact that other cloaks exist but the magic eventually wears out. We discover Harry's does not. I don't recall where the first mention of that was.
Ryan Britt
16. ryancbritt
@10 Lsana I love your 5 hours of my time and 20 bucks argument. I think you're totally right. But, for me, it's fun to talk about this literary stuff.
Ryan Britt
17. ryancbritt
@9 Goldsteinlives

Nice Snicket homage there. Well done.

Also, well said.
Jeff R.
18. Lsana
@GoldsteinLives (and others),

The closest I remember to a "other invisibility cloaks wear out" is a brief reference to Moody having two of them, which could be interpreted as he was afraid one of them would wear out before he could make a new one, but could also be interpreted as "Moody's afraid one will get lost or stolen or just misplaced at a critical time."

With all the Potter fans out there, someone has to be able to give me chapter and verse on this. Please?

@ryancbritt,

I quite agree. It is fun. I'm just pointing out that for the vast majority of the Potter fans, it isn't what they are about. They aren't asking if it is great literature, or even the most fun book that was ever written. Just is it sufficient fun to be worth the investment.
Jeff R.
19. radagastslady
1.roblewmac: world save by little kids? I believe the main characters are adults by the world saving time.
2. Lsana: teach in English class. As an English teacher (retired) yes, I did and would use them to teach characterization, plot elements, conflict.
Are they great literature, time is the real test. We must always remember that Shakespeare himself was writing "popular" entertainment.
James Whitehead
20. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
@1 Jeff R., I love Rowling's knack for names as well. She exhibit's that rare talent for picking out the perfect name for a character, main or side, that you don't see much today. She reminds me of PG Wodehouse in this regard whose character names were always so evocative to me.

As to whether or not the series has 'literary merit' I don't know. I'm not a literary critic and I was never very good at that sort of thing in school. I enjoyed the series thoroughly. I loved the first three books for their light-heartedness & the final four for their 'seriousness.'

Is Rowling on the same level as Tolstoy, Harding, Melville, Austin, etc... - God if I know. To cite her works as proof of the 'dumbing down' of today's literature, however, is a foolish assertion.

My mother, one of the most well read people I have ever met, read each book to my nephews during summer vacation (school hols) as they grew up; they were lucky to grow up with the books. She loved the series. My parents have all the books on cd for their trips. It is primarily a children's book series, despite how dark it gets in the end. Comparing Rowling's works to the literary 'giants' of the english language seems to be disingenious at best.

Also, I didn't have a problem with the horcruxes coming out when they did in the series. It showed how dark & dangerous things were for the world - wizarding & muggle alike. If it took Dumbledore all his time, effort, & considerable power to dig things up then that added weight to what was coming.

Finally, as I fan, I did like the epilogue. It ended the series well and let Harry 'end' as he wanted to; just as a regular person finally and no longer 'the boy who lived.'

@19Radagastslady, good points & I like the name. ;-)

Kato
Jeff R.
21. N. Mamatas
Unfortunately the focus of much modern literary critics is on things
like which tropes the author uses and whether they have been used
before, or whether the author's prose is "workmanlike" or stylized.

Greetings, time traveler from 1929!
Ryan Britt
22. ryancbritt
@Lsana
I agree. I actually think fun is often lost in assessment of serious literature. If all art is entertainment first, we should be allowed to have fun, right?
Jeff R.
23. (still) Steve Morrison
@Lsana:

It’s in chapter nine of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the scene where Mad-Eye shows Harry the old group photo:
From an inner pocket of his robes Moody pulled a very tattered old Wizarding photograph.
“Original Order of the Phoenix,” growled Moody. “Found it last night when I was looking for my spare Invisibility Cloak, seeing as Podmore hasn’t had the manners to return my best one… Thought people might like to see it.”


There’s a later mention of the spare cloak having been lost when Podmore was sent to Azkaban. I’m certain, though, that the fact that Harry’s cloak was more durable than others was first mentioned in Deathly Hallows, after the visit to Xenophilius.
Ryan Britt
24. ryancbritt
@All Invisibility Cloak Stuff:
This is very interesting. So Harry's cloak is not unique? Or maybe the other ones are just kind of poser invisiblity cloaks, and Harry's the like the original? I'd totaly forgotten about the mentions of other cloaks! Nice wokr people.
James Whitehead
25. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
@24 ryancbritt, Harry's is unique in that it works too well. Hemoine commented on how great it was since the 'typical' cloak doesn't last as long. Definitely a hint early that the cloak wasn't a 'normal' invisibility cloak.

The other cloaks could have been inspired from the story of the three borthers & therefore pale immitations of the original.

Kato
Jeff R.
26. laurene
The Potter books were great fun, and I really appreciated that they opened kids up to books in general. It's sad how often I hear of kids complaining about having to read books, having to listen to books being read to them, and thinking books in general are stupid. No, HP will not be known for it's great prose, but they books were brilliant in producing a lovely magical world, appealing to all ages, and actually getting kids excited about reading. If anything, the books should be given honors for getting kids excited about reading.

That being said, as much as I enjoyed the books and am happy to see them flourish, there were some pretty big flaws I felt.

1. Harry never changes. He's the same angry, rash, and somewhat self-centered boy in book seven that he is in book one. I see almost no change in how he approaches the world. After all that he has been though, when you look at his character, one would think it would have changed him- for better or for worse-at least a little. I can't tell you how annoying his "I don't want you to die for me" lines got! My dear Harry, the whole world-muggle and wizarding- is under threat because of Voldemort. People are not dying just for you. They are dying to protect the world they know and love.

2. The whole elder wand stunk of a cheesy deus ex machina to me. I loved the horcruxes because for me it made sense. It answered the question of how Voldemort kept coming back despite constantly killing him, and gave greater purpose/meaning to those strange objects (Tom's diary)other than a simple cool factor; however, the deathly hallows popped out of the blue (unless I'm missing some previous foreshadowing, and if so please correct me). I love how the Deathly Hallows was a children's story that was relatively well known, but the first time we hear about it is seven books in. I felt like she could have alluded to them more, maybe mentioning them more, or throwing that line-circle-triangle symbol around earlier. Also, the previous books seemed to all rely on the characters' cunning and ingenuity, and suddenly stopping that in the last book and switching to primarily a "quest for the holy grail!" plot felt cheap.
Jeff R.
27. laurene
@24 & 25
I remember Hermione mentioning that Harry's cloak wasn't like the others (lasting too long, working too well. Others weren't good at making you that invisible, or something like that. I think there was something about the cloaks strength besides longevity, but I'd have to look it up.) I agree with Kato in thinking that the other invisibility cloaks were poor copies of the original.

But back to my comment on the DH, this seemed to be the only foreshadowing of them before the seventh book. Am I just not remembering correctly?
Birgit
28. birgit
"Ah, but the Third Hallow is a true cloak of invisibility, Miss Granger! I mean to say, it is not a travelling cloak imbued with a Disillusionment Charm, or carrying a Bedazzling Hex, or else woven from Demiguise hair, which will hide one initially but fade with the years until it turns opaque. We are talking about a cloak that really and truly renders the wearer completely invisible, and endures eternally, giving constant and impenetrable concealment, no matter what spells are cast at it. How many cloaks have you ever seen like that, Miss Granger?"
"What about the Cloak, though?" said Ron slowly. "Don't you realise, he's right? I've got so used to Harry's Cloak and how good it is, I never stopped to think. I've never heard of one like Harry's. It's infallible. We've never been spotted under it-"
"Of course not - we're invisible when we're under it, Ron!""But all the stuff he said about other cloaks - and they're not exactly ten a Knut - you know, is true! It's never occurred to me before, but I've heard stuff about charms wearing off cloaks when they get old, or them being ripped apart by spells so they've got holes in. Harry's was owned by his dad, so it's not exactly new, is it, but it's just ... perfect!"


HP 7, ch. 21
Jeff R.
29. Laura Lee Nutt
An enjoyable and thoughtful essay. I’m glad to see someone argue for Harry Potter in a literary sense.

From my observations and education in English and literary criticism, there appears to be a divide between those who appreciate genre fiction and those who condemn it as a lesser from of written baby food, suitable only for the unenlightened and unsophisticated. This prejudice against genre fiction often blinds literary critics to some wonderful examples of the very things they admire in literature. Genre fiction often contains symbolism, character journeys, and more stylistic elements such as analogy, alliteration, or other literary devices. Harry Potter is full of symbolism and character journeys even if it’s lacking in literary devices, but, hey, it’s a children’s book series. Few kids will appreciate irony or metaphor.

To those literary critics who are willing to apply their brilliant analysis across genres without prejudice, thank you.

Besides all this, I will always remember and appreciate what Brandon Sanderson said at this year’s DFWCon. To paraphrase: We can say we don’t like something like Harry Potter or Twilight, but someone out there did, and in these two cases, many adored them. It is inappropriate for us to condemn these people as wrong or unintelligent. Rather, it is better to acknowledge our different opinions. Not everyone has to like the same thing and especially not for the same reasons. Respect must be an element of how we treat each other as readers.

Mr. Britt, thank you for such an engaging and insightful analysis.
rob mcCathy
30. roblewmac
ok granting Harry's a late teen by the time he does his final world save. But still between the the nasty muggels and generations of Wizards saying "Go to it kid! you're the chosen one. Oh yeah Professor Snape REALLY does'nt like you. Have a good year" was just unpleasent.
Jeff R.
31. vsthorvs
The invisibility cloak was a retcon. The way it's described in book 7 is way more powerful than it was in previous books.

But the horcruxes made sense to me. I mean there had to be some explanation for how Voldemort was still sort of alive. It just took 6 books for us to learn how.
John Adams
32. JohnArkansawyer
Throughout the series J.K. Rowling approaches One Hundred Years of Solitude territory regarding the complexity of her characters’ family trees.



I always wondered what it was that made me love that book, and now I know. It's all those begats Mister Marquez threw in.
Katie McNeal
33. Katiya
Excellent article! Couldn't agree more with Laura Lee @29 about the disagreements regarding genre fiction, too, and how "literary" is almost always "not genre", and vice versa. It's a mark of my utter enchantment with the characters and plot construction that I never would have considered the merits of her prose, or thought about it as "workmanlike", until I began seeing more and more articles like this one. Actually though, when the books were first released, I didn't want to read them because I thought they were "too kiddie", her cliches too much for the sophisticated ten-year-old I apparently thought I was.

Completely valid point about the Hallows, certainly, though like most people I agree that the Horcruxes, while introduced formally at a very late stage, were there from the start. However, I kind of thought about the Hallows as a return to the "whodunnit" stage of the books, a full circle. In each of the first three books, Harry and co are introduced to an element, usually the one in the title, and throughout the novel learn more about it, eventually hitting a climax by interacting with said element. The Hallows were on par with that, in my opinion, but of course by then we had so many other things at stake that the effect was a bit spoiled.

And regarding the cloak, I love Ron's comment that birgit quoted @28, because that is EXACTLY how we as readers have been for years. We're back in Harry's shoes just as we were in book one, asking all of Harry's questions and getting answers from Hagrid. Ultimately, Harry is a bit outside the wizarding world, so much so that things that SHOULD be odd are not, and we have totally taken the wonderful cloak for granted because we don't know any better. The reveal was fantastic, because all along Harry has had this super amazing thing that, to him, was just how everything always was. I don't know, I thought it was really well done.
Jeff R.
34. cofax
It's pretty clear to me that the horcruxes got at least some attention from JKR before Book 6, because she had to have had some kind of idea where the story was going and how it had to end. I don't think she did a great job seeding the clues for the horcruxes, myself, but I'm willing to believe she had them in mind and was building to that climax.

What I don't believe is that she had even thought of the Hallows before she was mostly done writing Book 6. I just reread the entire series in the last couple of months, and there's no indication at all about anything like the Hallows prior to Book 7. If she'd had them in mind, I have to believe she would at least have included more about Grindelwald (instead of a couple of passing references), and would have mentioned the fairy tale a couple of times.

My opinion is that when she started writing Book 7, she realized she didn't have enough plot to fill the entire school year (after all, there's only so much to be said about camping), and had to invent something quick to add another layer of difficulty. (Why she felt obligated to stretch it out over the whole school year is beyond me, although a friend pointed out that that would have given Tonks time to have the baby, but I fail to see why that was in any way necessary, myself.)

So the Hallows were invented on the spur of the moment, complete with the whole "Master-of-the-Wand" shell-game, which is why we needed three enormous info-dumps in the end of the book to understand the plot. (Snape's memories, Dumbledore's lecture in the train station, and Harry's speech when he's confronting Voldemort.) I didn't follow the wand business at all the first time I read the book, because in the previous six books, I'd never been given any particular instructions indicating that who took what wand from whom was of any importance. And I cannot for the life of me figure out how they will film it and have people follow that plot without changing a great deal in the way the information is released to the characters.
Jeff R.
35. DarrenJL
Harold Bloom is a tool. From everything I've read about (or from) the man, he would consider being called a pretentious blowhard not just a compliment, but a double compliment.
William Fettes
36. Wolfmage
Rowling's prose may not reach the dizzying heights of literary acclaim, but I think it's a little uncharitable to call it workman-like. Her command of the schoolyard lexicon and atmospherics is masterful. Her playful and onomatopoeic nomenclature is ingenious in its simplicity and consistency. And her dialogue creates sufficient flashes of brilliance and comedy that it grabs you and keeps you engaged throughout the story.

The invisibility cloak, and the Hallows generally, are possibly retconned into the story. But I don't think it matters. Perhaps some firm precursory anchors for the Hallows would have created a tighter link between the final arc and the earlier books, but it's hardly necessary to enjoy the conclusion of the story.
Teresa Jusino
37. TeresaJusino
When you compare something like the Harry Potter series or The Hunger Games series to something like Twilight, it's clear to see that "literary merit" has nothing to do with genre, and everything to do with the writer weilding the words. Twilight appeals mostly to teenage girls, because it appeals to them emotionally. Harry Potter appeals on the level of story, which is why kids were able to grow up reading it, and why parents read Harry Potter to their kids. No one is going to read Twilight to their kids, because it doesn't hold up.

"Workman-like" prose is certainly not a bad thing. Hemmingway was all about simple sentences, and he's all up in the literary canon.

Have to make a point about Luna Lovegood, though. Like many of the "fools" in literature, she wasn't "crazy." She seemed crazy, but was, in fact, the most insightful of the bunch. She talked about thestrals, and while no one else could see them, or believed in them, Harry could see them because he'd lost his parents. To anyone else, she'd sound like a raving loon - but to those with the sense to really listen to what she had to say, she was a font of useful information and wisdom. I, too, love me some Luna Lovegood! :)
Birgit
38. birgit
The Horcruxes were there from the beginning when they kept Voldemort alive. Then the diary appeared in the second book.
The Hallows aren't directly mentioned before the last book, but there are some hints that they were planned early. Grindlewald is mentioned in the first book on a Chocolate Frog card. The connection between Harry's and Voldemort's wand is there from the beginning and it makes sense that Voldemort has to search for some way around that. The Mirror of Erised foreshadows the Ressurection Stone (Dumbledore saw Ariana, not socks). Dumbledore borrowed the Cloak but can be invisible without it.
Ryan Britt
39. ryancbritt
@29 Laure Lee Nutt
Thanks! It's sort of one of my missions to break down the walls that are certainly erected on both sides of the genre divide.

I think I have a tendency to read "straight" literature like it's genre and read genre like it's straight. At a certain point, all of this stuff is made up, which makes it all fantasy of a kind. I know that's a broad stroke, and it's all a little more complicated than that, but I think most types of writers could learn something from a genre that is totally alien to them.

Thanks again!
Jeff R.
40. Laura Lee Nutt
@39 ryancbritt
I'm so glad to hear that you're seeking to break down this divide. It's been something I've wanted since I was in college and had to put up with teachers constantly telling me that genre fiction wasn't real literature. It was so hard to bite my tongue and avoid massive arguments in class and even harder not to get offended since they attacked the very genres I write. I managed all this and still have a great respect for those teachers, but it was a point I could never swallow easily with them.

Good luck in your crusade, and I'll try to do my part to help out in tearing down those walls. :)
Bruce Meyer
41. dominsions
I agree with what was said about the crafting of the characters, and Luna Lovegood is a great example. It was beyond literary and something like magic.

www.dominsions.com
Jeff R.
42. KyleJones
I'm not so sure about your horcrux/hallows speculation, but I think that's for Rowling to know and for us to never find out... ever. In regard to the "whodunit" nature of the books, I think the Goblet of Fire is the perfect transition into the later books. While it still retains the mystery of the first three, it portrays that mystery in a much darker way (up to and including Cedric's death).

Couldn't agree more about the characters. If there is one thing I wish I was better at as a writer, it's providing such depth to characters as Rowling does hers. While Luna is a fine example of this, my favorite is actually Neville. His development follows the formula of the series and practically parallels Harry's. He's introduced as a bumbling boy walking around in shoes that are too big for him. As the series develops, so does Neville. His story becomes darker when Harry sees his parents' trial in Goblet of Fire. By Deathly Hallows, Neville is a roughish hero who has quietly filled out those shoes I mentioned earlier. Rowling introduced all the catalysts that make Neville what he becomes and final mashes them together in Deathly Hallows... brilliantly done in my opinion.
Jeff R.
43. threeoutside
Thanks to everyone for a fascinating and thought-provoking discussion! I have just 2 points:

1) It is not at all uncommon for an author working on a series to "discover" things - plot elements, important characters that weren't important in earlier books, etc., as they go. That's part of the fun of writing. So if the Deathly Hallows weren't really on Rowling's mind in the earlier books, I don't have a problem with that.

2) I can't remember where I read this but it was a really interesting angle: the *literary* reason for the Deathly Hallows was to present Harry with a real hard choice: the three DH items, if he could get them all together, would be an easier way to defeat Voldemort than slogging through getting all the Horcruxes - or at least they would appear to be. And indeed it seems to me that this aspect of them was pretty heavily emphasized in the books, with Hermione nagging constantly that Harry needed to focus on the Horcruxes. So the DH were like a big fat red herring, trying to lure harry away from his destined path. And he did almost fall for it, which would have no doubt been catastrophic. (It was for Voldie, wasn't it?) But Harry passed the test.
Jeff R.
44. Fan #93,412
Though this is a side-thread and not really pertinent to the article, no one has mentioned that Harry's cloak wasn't really as perfect as the Hallowed Cloak was described to be. Moody's mad eye could see through it (GoF, pg 471), and Malfoy cursed Harry while he was wearing it in the beginning of the Half -Blood Prince.
Jeff R.
45. Phoenix112
I don't know if you will believe it or find it a reasonable thing to do, but I almost had tears in my eyes after reading this review / literary analysis of yours. It made me feel very nostalgic as it reminded me of my childhood. It has been a while I last

I more-or-less agree with everything you have penned down, especially about her ability to creae life-like characters, and give them the characteristics of real-life people.

I too can't explain the impact Harry Potter has had on my life, or what it means to me. As you put it, it's just magic. :)
Bill Capossere
46. Billcap
I think perhaps part of the problem (besides as someone already mentioned literary/worthy are really two different questions), is the conflation as well of “literary” and “well-written.” Literary I’d say, along with being well-written, brings with it certain expectations, such as starkly original uses of metaphor and simile, startling use of language (the “I never would have thought of putting it that way but that’s exactly right”) and so forth. I’d say one couldn’t have poorly written “literary” fiction—that would just be the attempt at literary fiction that failed. But you could have literary genre/popular fiction and you can also have well-written genre/popular fiction. Harry Potter is clearly not the former.

As to whether it is the latter, as Tim O’Brien once said (roughly) how does one generalize about war? It’s too big. War is ugly. War is beautiful. War is thrilling. War is tedious. There’s just so much of HP that it’s difficult to generalize about it. If you focus on prose as a requisite for “well-written”, while I’d personally agree with “workmanlike” or “adequate”, one could certainly in all those pages find some beautiful passages and some roll-one’s-eyes passages. If you focus on character, I’d agree again, it’s very well-written. If you focus on structure and tightness, you’d give her a well-written on the first three (especially book three which I’d argue is far and away the best crafted one in the series) but it’s really hard to argue any of the following ones deserved their length (I recall watching her publisher get asked “How do you edit J.K. Rowling” and his response was “You don’t.” From a monetary standard, he was absolutely right. From a writing as craft standard, he was absolutely wrong).

Literary? Not at all. Well-written? Sporadically (I’d lean toward less so than more so). Good? It brought utter joy to countless numbers and made books news—so yes, absolutely wondrously, fantastically good.
Jeff R.
47. (MY NAME)
"But from a structural point of view, this is another brand new element introduced into already fairly crowded magical world." Of course there are brand new elements sometimes. Is YOUR life a well planned, straight line towards a set goal? If it is, I feel really sorry for you.
Jeff R.
48. Gaga
What a wonderful, wonderful article. It is writing such as this that I can read. A great fan of the Potter novels, I have no objection to criticism and anaylsis, but do love when the author employs a kind tone. Bloom's writing was condescending. Yours is most amiable. Thank you.

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