Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sound the Keening Bell

...for Harry Potter, of course. The release of Book Seven, alternately known as Deathly Hallows in English and Relics of Death or even more morbid options in other languages, is probably the biggest book news of the year, maybe of the decade. It marks the end of one of the most successful literary enterprises, ever, probably next to Gutenburg's rendition of the Bible. And I'm really, really apprehensive about how this book is going to turn out.

First, a little background of my experiences and interactions with the Harry Potter series. Like almost every semi-literate twelve-year-old, I picked up the first book when it came out, and liked it. I kept reading the books, faithfully, from the second to the fifth. I considered them to be truly good books, and they held my interest over half a decade. My peer group and I, of course, are exactly the right age to enjoy the entire range of the series, from its innocuous childlike inception (when we were in middle school) to its dark and somewhat depressing antepenult (when we were nearing the end of high school and ready to handle such heavy matters).

Enter Patrick Norton, one of my five most respected high school teachers, who taught my AP Lit class. One of the obvious foundations for an advanced treatment of English is its classic literature, and to understand that you have to first define what a classic is. Norton used the counterexample of Harry Potter to define what a non-classic is. To be a classic, among other criteria, a book must have a point beyond mere storytelling, it must be unique or at least creative and lucid in making that point, and it must show us rather than tell us why that point is important. Harry Potter does none of these things, according to this instruction.

Why use Harry Potter as this counterexample? First, because of the contemporary relevance of the series. For an intelligent bunch of teenagers in the mid-2000s, there was a good chance that their recent literary development at least had a flavor of Harry Potter in it, if not outright dominated by it. Second, because of its overwhelming popularity and fanbase. People are fanatics about these books. Sure, John Grisham, Robin Cook, and Dan Brown, just to name a few, have their loyal readerships. But nobody's proclaiming The Firm, Toxin, or even for all its attached controversy and resultant staggering popularity, The DaVinci Code a classic. And yet, Harry Potter apologists are more than willing to do so for their books.

So, according to Norton at least, Harry Potter is not a classic... not that there's anything wrong with that. The immediate follow-up to the "what is a classic" discussion was the "what makes a book good" discussion. Just because a book isn't a classic doesn't mean one can't find it entertaining, exciting, or even thought-provoking. And just because a book is a classic doesn't mean one has to agree with or enjoy it.

At the time, though, I wasn't so ready to accept Norton's assertion. After all, these books did have characters that were at once deep and relatable, they had literary devices peppered throughout, and they had a staying power that far outmatched most popular fiction. Didn't that qualify as a classic? Once I finished that class, I read the sixth book in the series. This one was even darker than the previous, bordering on horrific (or at least occult) in some places, and it introduced a completely new plane of moral ambiguity into the series. That much further emboldened my intellectual position that, if Harry Potter wasn't a classic, it at least had admirable classic-like qualities.

So, the more Harry Potter I read, the more convinced I was that the series shouldn't be immediately dismissed as non-classic. And now, the more I read about what book 7 is going to be like, the more convinced I am that JK Rowling is sabotaging her own position. The biggest fear I have about this book is that it's going to attempt to explain too many things, to tie together too many loose ends. Loose ends are okay. In the real world, things don't come together nicely. Granted, a world with wizards and flying brooms and evil necromancers isn't real, but once you accept the premise of those things existing, you can at least shoot for verisimilitude. Explaining every last unknown destroys that.

To paraphrase JRR Tolkien, the undisputed founder of the modern fantasy genre and an author to whom JK Rowling owes virtually the entirety of her inspirational credit to, "in a fantasy setting, there are some mysteries that don't need to be explained." Tolkien cited Tom Bombadil, the yellow-booted primordial guardian of nature, as one of those mysteries. He's been there as long as Iluvatar (God) himself. He played into the main storyline of the series, but wasn't central to it. He comes and goes as only a being that ancient and powerful can please. None of this is addressed in the books, and Tolkien correctly asserts that it does not need to be. That's because Tolkien was building a setting in which the reader was supposed to believe that many things were happening: the story of the One Ring, and many other complex lives, tales, and events that didn't necessarily interconnect. That's the mark of good world-building.

Rowling had the potential to do the same thing. Her world is cleverly crafted, and from the start of the first book, we're awash in believability of setting. With her promises to make things all come together at the end, though, it's clear that she's crafting a story, not a setting. Take her mention of bringing Dolores Umbridge back. In the real world, a character like Umbridge would come and go, making her indelible mark on the environment, and then departing when the time was right. If Rowling brings her back, it's only for fan satisfaction and the exploitation of an inside joke.

Finally, there's the Snape dilemma Rowling has worked herself into. If Snape turns out to be a Good Guy, then there's an inconsistency with him having been so much of a jerk to everyone of the other Good Guys. There hasn't been any narrative justification for him to have switched to the Good Guys; nothing in it for him. If he turns out to be a Bad Guy, then Dumbledore, the smartest, wisest, and most amazing Good Guy ever, was wholly wrong for decades. There hasn't been any narrative justification for Dumbledore to even be capable of making a mistake that big. My own feelings on Snape are well known; it only makes sense for him to be out for himself and playing both sides. And it makes the world more believable. If Rowling neglects this opportunity to make Snape neutral, she's put the nail in her own "Harry Potter is nothing but popular fiction" coffin.

Completely unrelated to Harry Potter, a loyal reader may have noticed that I never posted a review of 300. That's because I didn't have a lot to say about it. The first time I heard of this movie was at a friend's apartment, when I was shown the trailer for what was proclaimed to be "the most amazing movie, ever." A lot of people still held that view after they saw the movie. I was not one of them. I was skeptical of the movie from the first time I saw the trailer, and I still held that view after I saw the movie. But posting a somewhat negative review of 300 on the "This! Is! Sparta!" obsessed Internet would be akin to posting a critique of the Church's position on birth control somewhere in Vatican City. It just wouldn't have any impact.

Someone with a larger reader contingent than I do, though, may get noticed. Take, for instance, someone who had been noticed by Digg. Someone like these guys, who feel exactly the same way about 300 that I do. Give their review a read.

Currently listening: "Clark Gable," the Postal Service


Geeks of Doom Invade Blogger said...

Thanks for the shout-out!

Nick Simmons said...

I don't know that I need Harry Potter to be a classic or a non-classic or anything else - I understand the desire to classify and in some sense justify a book's overall status, but one of the main reasons I have rejected the path of Major English is the entire notion of canon. Whose canon, blah blach blegh. Does it have value, or is it just popular fiction? We want to ask this question, because we want to feel like a book we enjoy has merit beyond being "just" damn fine storytelling. Sounds like your teacher has a case of the "need to feel smart"s that was interfering with his ability to enjoy books on their own terms. Or even on our own terms, instead of the terms set forth by others, i.e. "What is A Classic™?"

That argument notwithstanding, and to go along with you almost completely, there is substantial difference between a book that is enjoyable and layered throughout and then sustains that depth beyond its covered confines and a book that sacrifices all of that hard work for the sake of a pat and satisfying ending. I think the series succeeds in so many ways, is some of the most compelling writing our language has ever known (or at least our generation of the language), though that doesn't mean "best." I really, really hope we do not witness a creator stagger and fall under the weight of herself.

I was deeply bothered by a display in a Borders (the one trip I've made to a Borders in months) that featured some kind of doorhanger or sticker or inflatable hat or something that allowed you to proclaim your choice for whether Snape is Good or Bad. From the author standpoint, the only way to even allow the reader to position on the subject is to deny either one the satisfaction of being right - this could, I think, be a glimmer of hope for the book. However, there are deeper issues related to the need for polarization en masse, that it must be Good or Evil or nothing, that I don't really feel like I need to elaborate on but will instead sort of indicate generally. So, over there. That thing. That's troubling.

Will Harry Die? Is Snape Evil? Will Malfoy Dispose of Contenders and Assume the Post of One True Love? Let's hope that kind of sensationalism is the marketing reflex and not a depiction of the tone of the book itself.

Matt Pavlovich said...

The "classic/not a classic" heuristic is, of course, not the only one to evaluate a book's worth, but it's one that I'm sort of familiar with, and it does a decent job of highlighting the potential for flaws in the last Harry Potter book. (If only I could reject the path of Major Chemical Engineering because of a disagreement with fluid mechanics...) And I don't think anybody who was in that class would disagree that Norton's only weakness was a translation of intelligence into pomposity. In any sort of schooling, the requirement for a teacher is being better educated on a subject than those you are teaching. Norton was the only teacher I ever had (at least in high school) who was legitimately smarter than those he was teaching, and he made sure we could tell that.

Undoubtedly, the Harry Potter series is wonderfully compelling, and has a huge following mostly because of that. You don't get that many people reading your books because they're not good books.

Ah, Borders. Yes. I'd forgotten all about that until you reminded me. One is entirely unable to as much as approach a Borders without being assaulted with "Snape: Friend or Foe?" signs. My answer: who says he has to be only one or the other? They've even published a book called The Great Snape Debate that invited prominent authors to weigh on on the matter. Of course, all of this assumes the black-and-white nature of the rest of the series, where every single character is either Good or Bad (or sometimes, in the case of the Ministry of Magic, neutral) but never anything more interesting. And exactly like you said, if Snape turns out to be entirely Good or entirely Bad just for the sake of an ending, I'll be sorely disappointed.

Most bothersome to me is Rowling's own comment of saying Snape's allegiance will be decided by the final battle. Of course, maybe this is Rowling codespeak for "Snape's utter lack of an allegiance will be revealed by the final battle" or "Snape's multiple and shifting allegiances will be explained by the final battle." Hopefully.