I don’t know anything about Horcruxes

Monday, 25 July 2005 — 7:09pm | Harry Potter, Literature

And I wouldn’t tell you if I did.

One of the ancillary benefits of writing about the new Harry Potter book when all the major fan websites and discussion forums are closed for spoiler protection, as was the case last weekend, is that you appear very high in the Google charts for a day or two, and blog traffic jumps twentyfold as if it just had a run-in with a Great American Jackalope. It seems that being on topic, even be it in a disorganized splitter-splatter that you forgot to sweep under the rug before eight hundred uninvited guests crash your dinner party (and your little server, too!), gives SEO scammers the old one-two any day of the week.

I do have some sober second thoughts to offer about Regulus Black, soul-eating lockets, double-crossing Potions profs and the proper care and feeding of a Blast-Ended Skrewt in light of the myriad observations brought to my attention by respondents in the comment box and via e-mail, but not now. But lest thee think the rest of this post is a mistake, it will commence with my talking Potter once more.

Colby Cosh, I’m told, is a somewhat prominent journalist from this neck of the woods whose blog sports a clean wordmark banner in oblique serifs and middleweight traffic to match. Last week he wrote an article for the National Post which basically amounts to “nobody’s going to remember J.K. Rowling decades from now” and 877 words of eloquent padding.

I wish Mr. Cosh the best of luck in beating back the torrential downpour of hate mail, predominantly written by impulsive illiterates that drown out the level-headed critics, that descends from the heavens whenever a writer with a megaphone attacks something popular that may or may not be spectacularly good (and in this case, I think it is). Words of advice that I feel are appropriate here: draco dormiens nunquam titillandus, kiddo.

As for my part in all this – well, given how resident Anglophile Sarah and something-else-ophile Roman have both given the piece a mention, both very much in their own fashions, I couldn’t possibly remain left out.

There’s honestly not much to respond to, though, so this will be short and won’t even require me to speak of the Potter series’ lasting virtues and pervasive universals, of which I think there are many. Cosh’s syllogism, once you uproot the Opinion-page flower garden, amounts to: a) Some incredibly popular authors from the early twentieth century have since been forgotten; b) J.K. Rowling is an incredibly popular author; 3) therefore, J.K. Rowling will be forgotten within the century.

Allow me to introduce you to ∈. My little buddy ∈ is, in set theory, the “is a member of the set” symbol. Yes, sales figures show that Ms. Rowling ∈ the set of incredibly popular authors. Where, though, is it demonstrated that Rowling ∈ the set of forgettable popular authors who don’t outlive their press and contemporaneous relevance?

Okay, I’m not playing fair. You can’t demonstrate such a thing because it hasn’t happened yet, and any claims either way are predictive. But then let’s work by comparison, as Cosh does, and answer his rhetorical question: “What blind god bestows immortality on some authors and consigns others to oblivion?” And just to show that I mean business, a few paragraphs down I’m going to pull out my 3/3, Flying, Trample Raymond Chandler.

The problem with the comparisons drawn in the article is that there are better ones from the same time period, the early twentieth century – not marginally, but significantly better.

Take Agatha Christie, for instance – nobody special, just the bestselling prose author of all time. Like Rowling, her writing has a characteristic, well-mannered British flavour that appeals to the good Anglophile, not just on the level of form, but also on the level of content for the millions who consume it in translation. Like Rowling, her world is a complex construction populated by an assortment of eccentrics that challenge the starring sleuths at every turn; but it is a cozy world where ultimately, the clues and answers draw more attention than the inciting murders do. And like Rowling, she’s a woman, but we’ll not get into that.

The criticisms of either author’s modus operandi run along similar lines: that their stories lounge on chesterfields too comfy to be threatening and thus too unreal to be believable, that instead of doing something wholly original they solo off the leadsheets of others who quaff the same formulae and choose to impress with meticulousness.

Raymond Chandler, noted inventor of the simile-spouting private eye narrator archetype, wrote a seminal critique of the twentieth-century detective story, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and entitled “The Simple Art of Murder”. (You can see a slightly off-angle PDF scan here, but it is often reproduced in print with a collection of short stories.) Read the essay, as it is one of the most important things ever written about mystery. In it, he writes that the detective story is some of the most difficult fiction to concoct, yet it is at the same time very easily publishable:

The average detective story is probably no worse than the average novel, but you never see the average novel. It doesn’t get published. The average – or only slightly above average – detective story does… And the strange thing is that this average, more than middling dull, pooped-out piece of utterly unreal and mechanical fiction is really not very different from what are called the masterpieces of the art. It drags on a little more slowly, the dialogue is a shade grayer, the cardboard out of which the characters are cut is a shade thinner, and the cheating is a little more obvious. But it is the same kind of book. Whereas the good novel is not at all the same kind of book as the bad novel.

Chandler goes on in this manner and responds to what today, in hindsight, we refer to as the Christie Cozy – the clue-scrubbing deductive puzzles that invariably miss some critical insurer of plausibility beneath all their intricate workmanship. Some of the authors he glosses over in this deliberation – E.C. Bentley, Freeman Wills Crofts, A.A. Milne – we don’t hear much of anymore, at least not in conjunction with mystery. I suppose we still know who Milne is, but that’s because of his kids’ stuff like Winnie the Pooh and not The Red House Mystery. (This will become important.)

So if the detective stories of the day were all chips off the same block, why is Christie synonymous with everything that followed Arthur Conan Doyle? Chandler answers this, but not directly. In rebuking Dorothy L. Sayers for her statement that mysteries, of which she was herself a prolific writer, were intrinsically second-class escapist literature, Chandler goes on to praise Dashiell Hammett and his first-class The Maltese Falcon for introducing gritty gangland realism as the remedy. But observe:

How original a writer Hammett really was it isn’t easy to decide now, even if it mattered. He was one of a group – the only one who achieved critical recognition – who wrote or tried to write realistic mystery fiction. All literary movements are like this; some one individual is picked out to represent the whole movement; he is usually the culmination of the movement. Hammett was the ace performer, but there is nothing in his work that is not implicit in the early novels and short stories of Hemingway.

His argument is, in effect, that authors are not remembered for originating as much as they are remembered for exemplifying. Once the sort of detective fiction that Philip Marlowe’s creator wrote of passed into history, Agatha Christie became the era’s flagbearer by way of such exemplification.

I do not know if, at the time, Chandler realized that his own work would be regarded one day as the culmination of something that Hammett began – the mythos of the quintessential American gumshoe. His work is representative. So, as we shall see, is Rowling’s.

Where Rowling and Christie diverge is that only the former traverses two other spheres that often intersect. The first is children’s fiction, and the second is fantasy.

Good children’s fiction – the kind that adults go back and read – is notoriously unclassifiable. Often, the subject matter resonates far beyond the the confines of the single-digit Flesch reading level, and one is reluctant to call them children’s stories at all for fear that the term is disparaging and exclusionary. Let’s dispense with this in a hurry. Yes, adults read Harry Potter. I read Harry Potter. University professors, God bless them, teach and study Harry Potter. They’re still children’s novels, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Unlike mysteries, here we deal with authors who write for an audience that doesn’t concern itself with realism simply because it doesn’t have a lot of real-world fact-checking to fall back on. Also unlike mysteries, “children’s lit” is not a genre, since its distinguishing mark is an attribute of form, not content. In contrast, Chandler’s statement that good and bad mysteries fundamentally tell the same stories is an extension of genre defined as fluid form that bubbles around a solid content core, including (but not limited to) a murder and a bowl of petunias.

What we do have, though, is an existing system for passing fiction down from one generation to the next.

How is it that people discover what books to read, anyway? Word-of-mouth recommendations, certainly; bookshop browsing, bestseller lists, movie deals, and allusions from without; in fact, it’s all kind of erratic in a spotty kind of way, which is why it is only in very special cases that everybody reads the same book.

Children’s fiction is the huge exception. Standard curricula, Scholastic book orders, well-read teachers (if you’re lucky) and the active encouragement of doing any reading at all unite with the result of having people read the same books in droves, or at least become aware of them likewise. A lot of books are lost in history because nobody told their kids to read them, and those kids went off and either developed their own tastes, or tragically stopped reading them outright. But the ilk of Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum and yes, A.A. Milne receive a proper introduction. These books are inherited, as they are easy to leave as cultural inheritance. Without a doubt, Harry Potter ∈ this corpus.

Finally, we turn to the realm of fantasy, which returns us to the generic distinctions assessed of mystery. Just as J.K. Rowling’s brand of sleuthing hearkens back to the Christie Cozy that has long gone out of fashion in mainstream detective writing, Harry Potter marks another sort of representative culmination. It drew adult readers back to the kind of serial fairytale where Magic is fun and (relatively) innocent. Whereas the post-Tolkien “adult fantasy” experiments have drifted off in the opposite direction, churning out paperbacks thicker than they are wide burdened with unpronounceably apostrophic nomenclature, the ever-English Potter breathes some life back into the spellwork of forces good and evil.

History has shown that this is the sort of life that lasts, and I am confident that Rowling’s importance will prove to be historical. A series of books that is this popular, and more importantly, this emblematic, will affect both writing patterns and reading patterns until the Next Big Thing that steps up to bat in the selfsame ballpark – which may not be anything new, but is certain to be the next ripple in a long wave of ripples, the indicator of its precedent’s subsidence.

Rowling works in genres, and a plurality of them at that. Moreover, they are genres that are aware of their own history, and the works of the present propel authors forward, authors who grab new readers by the collar and pull them right back. Cosh’s examples of writers who have faded into obscurity – Harold Bell Wright, Jeffrey Farnol and the American Winston Churchill – dabbled primarily in the historical and the modern, not genres in themselves, where the subject is in flux and there is little propagative continuity in stylistic influences.

I am not saying that novels outside of genre are far less likely to survive; that kind of claim presumes a consistent system to produce a bell of fiction that never stops ringing, and none exists, for physicists have yet to discover the resonant frequencies of written words. But one must admit that Rowling has certain advantages, since she’s more than an author: she’s a movement. Really now, it’s hard to name an author working today who is more thoroughly guaranteed to take the fast-track to English lit’s pantheon.

I suggest that Mr. Cosh take on a certain Dan Brown. There, his argument about press-driven momenta apply just fine, and Brown makes for much easier pickings.


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