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pottering around

Much as I enjoy the Harry Potter books, I don't think they're great literature. I don't think they're the best children's books ever written or anything like it, and the claims that they're original and groundbreaking work have always annoyed me. And I think Harry himself is a very flat character. But I do really like the books, and I think Rowling has a great gift for creating surprisingly complex supporting characters (if anything truly dreadful ever happens to Neville I might have to stop reading the books, and I really, really hope that he'll turn out to be the true hero). So this inane "why I don't like the Potter books" piece on the BBC website annoyed me a lot.

First of all, the commercialism has nothing to do with the quality of the books. Sure, it's annoying. But if you're going to dismiss something for being popular, and hijacked by commercial interests, well, say goodbye to Dickens. Not a good argument. But it gets worse.

Harry Potter, I think, also represents this long-forgotten Britain of the 1950s in many ways.

Living at a boarding school, he inhabits a world of duelling practice, of house-masters, of pet rats and harmless games.

It is a world where good and evil are clearly defined and not one with the many grey areas and dangers familiar to children and young adults today.

My Harry Potter would certainly not be a part of this world. He'd be more of an urban Harry for 2005.

He might hang round bus-stops late at night wearing a baseball cap and drinking cider.

He might harass the neighbours with his magic powers and end up with an Asbo.

My Harry Potter would probably sell about three copies, though.

Ooooooh, cider and Asbos! How "urban" and real. Sadly, Mr Winder, your Harry Potter would also be a tired cliche that would sell about three copies because it would be boring as fuck and far too reminiscent of one of those dreary "gritty" kids' books so popular in the '70s and so prevalent in school libraries for the following decade and a half, some of which were genuinely brilliant but most of which were just laboured, tokenistic shite. While I think diversity of backgrounds is hugely important in children's books, especially with regard to race and class, the idea that books are only relevant to child readers if they literally depict those children's lives just doesn't work for me. I didn't read a single book set in my own fucking country when I was growing up, and while I would have loved to read a decent Irish children's book set in modern Dublin if such things had existed, I still found things in English kidlit with which I could identify. I'd rather have read a good book about English kids than a crappy book about Irish kids. Also, if he'd actually read one of the books as opposed to sitting through one film and leaving one actual book unread (something which basically makes the entire piece redundant), he might have noticed that for all Rowling's failings, her world isn't black and white at all. Snape is a bastard and a bully but he's not actually evil. The Marauders were actually pretty unpleasant at times, and genuine bullies. Even Harry himself was almost a Slytherin. And let's not even begin on the inaccuracy "harmless games" reference.

But this was the most patronising bit of all:
Author AS Byatt said that adult Potter fans are actually "reverting to their inner child" when they read Potter, and that they were "for people whose interests are confined to the worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip".

One of the BBC News website's very own readers has the perfect response to that one, though - "I've never heard of AS Byatt," he said in a recent Have Your Say on the issue.

Because all Harry Potter fans are ignorant fools! Apart from the chance that that reader could have been being sarcastic, one contributor to a BBC website is hardly representative. And then there's that revoltingly snobbish Byatt piece itself, which was based on the premise that anyone who reads children's literature is some sort of emotionally retarded freak - the idea that there are adults who read the Harry Potter books AND OTHER BOOKS TOO, including some of La Byatt's own offerings, doesn't seem to cross her mind. Nor does the fact that in dismissing children's lit in general she's just dismissed an entire literary genre that includes everything from Richmal Crompton to Antonia Forest. Wasn't it Auden who said that while there were good adult books that weren't really suitable for children, there were no good children's books that weren't suitable for adults? I'm paraphrasing here, but whatever his exact words were, they were spot on. Unlike Byatt, the pompous, pretentious cow. Saints preserve us from soaps and celebrity gossip! I loathe people who automatically dismiss entire genres, whether those genres are televisual, musical or literary, as I don't believe there's a genre (besides, maybe, Christian apocalyptic fiction) that doesn't have at least one good thing in it. Even the South Bank show gave Corrie its drama award this year. I'd rather watch Coronation Street, with its exquisite writing and gloriously surreal humour, than ever read another book by Byatt's increasingly boring sister or indeed Antonia herself.

Anyway, maybe one day Mr Winder will write his own "urban" Harry Potter book. But why anyone would want to read a children's book by a writer who sneers at children's literature and its readers is beyond me.

Comments

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
ladyxoc
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:45 pm (UTC)
Here's five bucks, now go play in traffic.
"Personally, I've never understood the hype about Harry Potter."

Personally, I've never understood why the likes of old Wankwurst there don't just fuck off and go watch tv or have a beer or something and stop bugging the crap out of the rest of us.
zoje_george
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:46 pm (UTC)
Bah! BAH, I say.

Byatt came out with that bit of nonsense when the last book was about to be published, and then we had a rash of big name authors writing "children's" books. Methinks a lot of her noise is sour grapes.

Why do so many people have to get all hateful about enjoyment? About reading or film watching for PLEASURE? If it's not your cup of TEA, then fuck off and make one for yourowndamnself, right?

Oh and I disagree with you, Christian apocalyptic fiction has one good thing in it: plenty of stuff to point at and laugh.
ladyxoc
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:47 pm (UTC)
Left Behind! They are the funniest things ever, in a squicked-out way. Like Falwell in boxer shorts.
zoje_george
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:52 pm (UTC)
AAAAAAIIIIIEEEEEE!

Spiderintheglass didn't bother me, but THIS ... THIS IS CRUEL AND UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT!

I'm hiring an internet lawyer and internet suing you for internet assault!
blue_monday
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
That'll only encourage her - last week it was Bloomberg in thongs! She is teh EVIL!
ladyxoc
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC)
muhahahahahaaaaa

and

HA
zoje_george
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC)
She hates our freedoms!
ladyxoc
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:55 pm (UTC)
Hey, it's not like I said

FALWELL IN A PINK SEQUINED THONG

or anything.
zoje_george
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:57 pm (UTC)
Oh for fuck's sake!

I'm gonna start BANNING you!

WHY do you hate America?
stellanova
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:58 pm (UTC)
Bwahahahha!
ladyxoc
Jul. 14th, 2005 06:06 pm (UTC)
I will lead the THONG INSURGENCY!!!
protoainsley
Jul. 14th, 2005 06:01 pm (UTC)
Who needs a basilisk with you around to petrify people?
ladyxoc
Jul. 14th, 2005 06:05 pm (UTC)
Hee!
cangetmad
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:49 pm (UTC)
I do always think that people who write that kind of knocking copy are writing at least primarily, if not exclusively, about themselves, their neuroses, and how they would like other people to think of them. In that sense, they're interesting studies. Being anti-kidlit is just as much a new public identity as adults reading Harry Potter on the train.

JK Rowling is very definitely not writing a new sort of book. I do think she's done some new things with the interlocking genres she works within, and I think she bears comparison with other good children's writers. Plus, she seems like a nice, honest, generous person. Why the HELL must people always have a go? It's not like she cynically set out to write a seven-part kids' fantasy book knowing that was a sure road to fame and fortune.
blue_monday
Jul. 14th, 2005 05:54 pm (UTC)
I read that article at work this afternoon and promptly spent half an hour grumping about it with fellow Harry Potter fans in the office. It is an utterly ridiculous piece of tripe, and I'm a little surprised the BBC published it without a rebuttal piece to go alongside.

I spent half the article wanting to throttle the man and point him at definitions of fantasy until he actually got the point, but I figured it'd be a futile exercise.
millamant_
Jul. 14th, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC)
A great rant! As you say, I've never understood why soap operas and, say, Joyce or Faulkner have to be mutually exclusive pleasures. Why the need to choose in the first place? And why would it be a moral failing if I didn't?
protoainsley
Jul. 14th, 2005 06:00 pm (UTC)
I would disagree with you about JKR being original, because one of the things I love most is her inventiveness and the way so much in the books appears fresh and light, even in the darkest times, but you've read far more of the books that she borrows from, stylistically, so my opinion's sadly uneducated. I'd never heard of school stories before you/others at Chicklit fit HP into that genre and explained its conventions, and I still haven't read any real ones (just Pamela Cox's fill-ins in the St. Clare's series). Of what do you find HP to me most derivative (not to challenge, but to add to my TBR list)?

I, being petty, decided not to bother reading Possession after hearing about Byatt's comments on HP. I learn more about myself from kidlit than its adult counterpart (which is why I read so bloody much of it). Most kidlit I read is well-written, but the emphasis is more on telling a good story, on unraveling the plot, on having characters change and grow, than on wordplay one-upmanship, like writing is a contest to see who's Most Literary. The literature has a place, and I love it, but good YA has something to teach everyone, whether 8 or 80, and its lessons are both universal and adaptable.
dorianegray
Jul. 14th, 2005 07:47 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear!

But if you're going to dismiss something for being popular, and hijacked by commercial interests, well, say goodbye to Dickens.

And Shakespeare. And a whole lot of other "classics". [Insert my standard rant about classic writers of the past and their need to make money here.]

those dreary "gritty" kids' books so popular in the '70s and so prevalent in school libraries for the following decade and a half, some of which were genuinely brilliant but most of which were just laboured, tokenistic shite.

I've heard that particular variety of kitlit called "oil-rigs-and-rape". I hated those books when I was a teenager, and I still hate them. Not only were they depressing and utterly irrelevant to my life - they were dull! The characters rarely had any personality; the plots were usually highly predictable; the writing tended to be pedestrian...oh, what a waste of paper and ink they were.

I didn't read a single book set in my own fucking country when I was growing up,

You never read "The Turf-Cutter's Donkey"? (Okay, that's one of the few I can think of that I read as a child.)

Also, if he'd actually read one of the books as opposed to sitting through one film and leaving one actual book unread (something which basically makes the entire piece redundant),

Well, that's the nub, isn't it. I'm about to read "The Da Vinci Code", just so I can form my own opinion of it (though based on the prologue, which is all I've read so far, I have no very high hopes). Likewise, I waded all the way through "Lord of the Rings", and now I can give an informed dismissal of it. Anyone who hasn't bothered to read a book has no right to give an opinion of it.

As for the rest, all I can say is that maybe Ms. Byatt should revert to her own inner child occasionally; it might do her good.
kulfuldi
Jul. 15th, 2005 06:34 am (UTC)
Yes, but 'The Turf-Cutter's Donkey' is set in a long-ago rural Ireland where most Irish books and films from Joyce to Roddy Doyle were set. It's an idea of Ireland which is less recognisable to most urban Irish children than, say, modern London. I think the only book I read as a child which was set in urban Ireland was 'The bookshop on the Quay' - by the same person, Patricia whatsername.

Even if you didn't spell it out, I agree with your rant about classic writers and their need to make money. Four years in college studying literature gave me a stronger respect for people who wrote books with the intention of making money than for people who set out to write a great work of literature (although actually few writers fall purely into one category or the other). The first endeavour is all about your audience; the second can be quite self-regarding (cf James Joyce). I prefer reader-focused books to author-focused books.
clanwilliam
Jul. 15th, 2005 12:29 pm (UTC)
I dunno. There's elements of Turf-Cutter's Donkey that my parents would recognise from their childhoods and their parents would definitely recognise from theirs.

My great-aunt in London told me once that when my grandmother married my grandfather, the cooking facilities at the farm were just a black pot over the fire. My great-aunt's comment was "I mean, we were poor in London, but we did have a stove!"
kulfuldi
Jul. 15th, 2005 01:19 pm (UTC)
Not only all of my grand-parents, but also all of my great-grandparents came from urban areas. So I can't say it meant anything much to me.
dorianegray
Jul. 15th, 2005 06:56 pm (UTC)
Well, but stellanova didn't say she hadn't read any books set in contemporary Dublin (or wherever it was she grew up); she just said she hadn't read any set in Ireland, full stop. And there certainly weren't many such books when I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, but there was Patricia Lynch at least, and I'm going batty trying to remember the name of another book I loved which might or might not have been by her, but it involved a down-trodden heroine and a ballad singer and an annoying boy and a house with a stained-glass window depicting swans (possibly the Children of Lir) - and, of course, a quest-type journey with magical happenings. I need to go raid my parents' bookshelves; they're bound to still have it. And I had Sile De Valera's retellings of Irish fairy-tales, and a couple of collections of myths, and another batch of fairy-tales retold by...someone Kennedy, I think. None of them contemporary, and not "relevant" in the social-worker-sense, but I loved them all.
clanwilliam
Jul. 14th, 2005 11:41 pm (UTC)
Rowling's genius is that she takes her style from the books we all grew up and loved (and I suspect she did too) and merges them together with a modern perspective.

I bet Rowling's childhood bookcase included Arthur Ransome, CS Lewis, Enid Blyton and at least one classic girls' author, such as EBD. They've all influenced the Potter books and that's why the books sell not only to kids (all these authors are still in print, remember) but to adults who remember those books themselves.
alices
Jul. 15th, 2005 03:14 am (UTC)
Gah. The BBC's Robert Winder is so very much missing the point about children's fiction. If he'd bothered to actually ask any children, instead of taking their parents' word for it that they never read the books, he would see that the reason the HP books are so popular is that, in essence, they are the perfect children's books - the magic and the world of wizards provides the excitement and fantasy, with the boarding-school setting, the close-knit group of loyal friends, and the presence of Dumbledore acting as a safety net. Adults may find it boring, but it wasn't written for them, and it's disingenuous for them to assume that children share their feelings about what defines good literature.

(I was going to follow his example and write this comment in one-sentence paragraphs, to give it that essential tabloid feel, but it was taking up too much space.)
kulfuldi
Jul. 15th, 2005 07:40 am (UTC)
didn't read a single book set in my own fucking country when I was growing up, and while I would have loved to read a decent Irish children's book set in modern Dublin if such things had existed, I still found things in English kidlit with which I could identify.

When I was studying children's literature in college, the (English) lecturer asked us all did we not find it very odd, as children, that the family in the Famous Five books had servants? I think she was trying to get us to make statements about the class origins of children's books. We all looked a bit nonplussed, and then pointed out to her that children's books don't happen in the real world, they happen in England. Or, more precisely, in children's-book-world, which is usually in England and often has boarding schools and servants. It doesn’t resemble the world we know – so what? - and the servants seemed to me to be literary characteristics rather than class characteristics, like the Englishness. That’s book-children for you - they have servants. And sometimes also psammeads.

I did, and do, find things to identify with in books and films which are set in the UK or the USA – or elsewhere, or in other worlds, or in the past, or in an imaginary past. Perhaps, though, the line between fantasy and non-fantasy is a bit more blurred - because in ‘reality books’ there were still a set of conventions to be learned (servants, married vicars, school dinners, trains that actually work…) which formed part of that book’s version of normality. And that was still true in the gritty 70s ‘oil rigs and rape’ books. I’ve never minded that – as you say, much better a well-written book set in the UK or the USA than a badly-written one set in urban Ireland. But maybe it’s more alienating if you’re from the book-country, just not from the traditional-children’s-book-protagonist background.
dorianegray
Jul. 15th, 2005 07:05 pm (UTC)
We all looked a bit nonplussed, and then pointed out to her that children's books don't happen in the real world, they happen in England. Or, more precisely, in children's-book-world, which is usually in England and often has boarding schools and servants. It doesn’t resemble the world we know – so what? - and the servants seemed to me to be literary characteristics rather than class characteristics, like the Englishness. That’s book-children for you - they have servants. And sometimes also psammeads.

Yes, exactly! When I was a child I knew that book-children were like me, in that they had friends and squabbles and wanted to do things that were fun (and that they very often shouldn't) and so on. But all book-children lived in book-world, which had things like servants and psammeads and adventures just waiting to be stumbled upon, none of which I ever came across in real life (any more than I did alien invaders, fairy godmothers, ballet classes, boats on lakes, winters with snow, rationing...). Book-world was (and is) a wonderful place, but it wasn't real life.
leedy
Jul. 15th, 2005 09:19 am (UTC)
I have not read the Harry Potter books, nor have I any great desire to read them (not in a "pah, these children's books are beneath me" sort of way, in that I've read lots of good children's books as an adult, just that they don't sound like something I'd like much and there are so many other books I haven't read yet), but that article is just IDIOTIC. "I'm still not expecting to find my urban Harry"???? No, and you probably won't find, I dunno, a Mexican Harry or a female Harry or a pensioner Harry or a robot Harry IN SPACE, because THAT'S NOT WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT. Hmph.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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