06 May 2014

Please Stop Complaining About Harry Potter

"The novel is dead," announces a Great Man of Literature.

"Well, the Serious Literary Novel is," he amends. "The 'kidult boywizardsroman' is doing just fine." He mentions this as if it supports his original contention, as if the massive popularity of a series of books written for children is proof of the downfall of global literary culture.


I am so dreadfully bored of hearing Serious Literary Writers complain about Harry Potter (and children's literature in general, but for some reason Harry Potter seems to irk them in particular).

For one thing, it is boring to hear people who only sell some novels complain about people who sell many novels. As Roxane Gay says, James Franco did not get your book deal. J.K. Rowling did not steal your readers. Another writer's success is not your failure.

In fact, Great Man of Literature, another writer's success might actually be your success. To grow a lifelong reader, you need literature for a reader's entire life, which generally looks something like this: picture books to early readers to chapter books to middle grade novels to young adult literature to literary fiction. Baby's First Kafka aside, most of us don't graduate directly from picture books to Great Works of Literary Note. Middle grade and young adult literature -- and yes, that would include Harry Potter -- is the bridge that helps readers travel from The Cat in the Hat to Mrs. Dalloway.

And there is truly great children's literature out there, GMoL. Wait, remind me of your definition of Serious & Worthy Literature?
The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.
So basically, Serious Literature uses words to help readers get inside the minds and hearts of fictional characters, to explore the ways those characters interact with each other, to describe settings that seem realistic and familiar or to create new worlds entirely, and occasionally goes all meta and comments on itself as an artform and/or describes other types of art.

Dude. Children's and young adult literature totally does that.

Beyond the astonishing fact that kidlit can indeed use words -- arranged sequentially, even -- to create characters who think and move and talk and feel and interact just like humans, so much so that readers grow to love them and celebrate their successes and suffer their losses (I myself am still in therapy over the devastating deaths of Old Dan & Little Ann, and my eighth graders wanted to sue Harper Lee for letting Tom Robinson die), children's literature can also -- and I know this is going to sound crazy -- use words to invent new worlds, like, oh... pick one at random... a magical world where wizards get to go to boarding school.

(And for the record, children's literature can also enact self-analysis.)

You want "difficult"? (We're not even going to unpack the idea that "difficult" is the same as "worthwhile.") Read Code Name Verity. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. When You Reach Me, for heaven's sake.

But look, even if you're staunchly opposed to the idea that books written for children could possibly qualify as Serious Literature, even if you cannot let go of the (imaginary) link between popularity and garbage (though ironically you seem to be arguing that the Serious Literary Novel is dead because not enough people read? But if more people read it, it wouldn't be Serious or Literary anymore? And also possibly no one has published a Real Serious Literary Novel since Finnegan's Wake in 1939 and every novel published in the last 75 years has been a "zombie novel" seriously, sir, WTF), even if you insist on mourning the Good Old Days when the Serious Literary Novel was at the center of the cultural consciousness, aka the twenty minutes between the rise of literacy rates due to increasingly widespread public secondary education in the early twentieth century and, you know, the apparent death of the novel in 1939 -- even given all that -- SO WHAT?

So what if people are reading about boy wizards? Or vampires? Or whatever popular thing is the current symbol of the downfall of literary culture? So what?

Readers are readers. Most folks who truly love reading will dive into all kinds of books, as long as they offer vivid, complex, interesting characters and a richly-drawn world and a compelling story. People read for all kinds of reasons -- to lose themselves, to explore other worlds, to amuse themselves on airplanes, to see what the fuss is all about, to fall in love, to study the craft of fiction. What do their reasons matter to you? That they're reading Gone Girl and not Ulysses on the train home says absolutely nothing about their worth or value as readers, thinkers, members of the culture, or humans.

So please stop complaining about Harry Potter.


Jody Casella said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE this. Thanks so much for saying it. I think what it all comes down to is our society simply not valuing or understanding or caring about kids. (It's similar to how "Serious" readers--um, men--discuss books starring women or teen girls. But that's a post for another day.)

LinWash said...

I totally agree with you! Love this post! I'm beyond weary of people who put down children's literature due to a misconception of quality.

Kim Aippersbach said...

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Thank you! Yes. What you said.

Christine said...

Amen to that! So many good points here, SO many. I consider myself an eclectic reader and on my shelves you'll find kids' books, classics, and (just about) everything in between. Two pet peeves of mine are people judging other people's reading choices and "the imaginary link between popularity and garbage," as you so perfectly put it. I hate feeling like whenever I like some popular book (like The DaVinci Code, Harry Potter, etc), I have to defend myself. Live and let live, people. Or rather read and let read :)