Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Great Harry Potter Review

I have a friend who reads a wide variety of things. This is in part because the friend has a family, and the children, one of whom is a teenager, and the other more or less preteen, enjoy a wide variety of reading material. Thus, my friend is also exposed to it. Like a number of my friends(though certainly not all of them), she was an English major in college. Let me state, for the record, that being an English major is not a bad thing to be. You get exposed to some very good stuff in such a course of study. The downside of this is, that being an English major doesn't necessarily lead to a "career". Except, possibly, for some people. Or maybe it doesn't lead to "a career" for any English major.

What "English major" backgrounds have a tendency to do, however, is engender a kind of "lit crit" approach to the written word, especially fiction. Sometimes, this "lit crit" approach works, as when reading literary fiction. Which is written, marketed for, and read by --- usually --- adult men and women.

Again, this is not necessarily bad. There are many people who actually enjoy reading literary fiction, and get something out of it. And this is fine.. Everyone is different, and I"ve found, in exchanging ideas with other readers and writers is, that there is a wide variety of tastes and approaches. Because nobody is exactly the same. However, there are some readers, and not a few writers who seem to thing that anything that is "not serious" or "too commercial", is, by its very definition, bad.

Which leads me to this review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the Harry Potter series.

It's hard to know where to begin with the review; Lakshmi Chaudhry dislikes the final volume on several counts: Harry "whines" a lot. Voldemort is kind of a "cartoonish" villain. He really should have gone after the Ministry of Magic, for they were the "true" villains. The ending is sappy and "trite". The writing is "clunky. And in the end, Harry doesn't "change", as a real "literary hero" is supposed to.

Reading this review, however, I was increasingly appalled at Ms. Chaudhry's apparent complete misunderstanding of Rowling's purpose, as it were, in writing the series. For Chaudhry just doesn't seem to understand that the series was, first and foremost, written with children, specifically preteens, in mind. An adult reader should be clear in their understanding of this, despite the increasing layers of complexity J.K. Rowling laid on during the development of the series. So, she doesn't like the near-total focus on the "wizarding universe"? Okay. She has a point. But, from the point of view of a a child reading the series, the "wizarding universe" of Hogwarts and everything associated with it is the only thing that really matters. She doesn't like the "good vs. evil" final battle? Has she read any literature for preteens and young adults that doesn't present such a triumph? For that matter, does she have any children at all? If she did, she would probably understand Harry's complaints, or his loyalty to his immediate friends, a lot better. Sure, Rowling could have introduced "larger" issues. Some writers are quite successful at doing this in books for children and young people. Often, however, they are not, and the results can be "clunkier" than anything Rowling might have intended. And, in a way, she does introduce "good" issues; the people who are the "bad guys" in the series, seem to go on an awful lot about being "purebloods". While this is kind of a crude way of saying we should accept and embrace all kinds and varieties of people, Rowling's genius, if you want to put it that way, lies in keeping things simple, but reasonably "relevant". I can imagine some kid, reading the series, and being totally absorbed by it, absorbing these seemingly "simplistic" truths.

And finally, Chaudhry's dismissal of the idea that love and friendship are important values to cultivate: What, values, exactly, does she think young people reading this book, ought to cultivate? It almost sounds as if she's one of these "high-minded" adults who would try to make their child be "independent"(whatever that means), so long as they blindly accept exactly what their parents feed to them. More likely, she sounds like the kind of adult who doesn't really "know" kids, because she herself doesn't have any. If she did, she might be a little less rigid about what she thinks kids "ought" to be exposed to.

Finally, it is interesting also, that Chaudhry refers to a famous(or infamous) review of the series that came out in 2003. This review was by A.S. Byatt, who is herself a good writer of her own kind of books. But in the review, as with some other "negative" reviews of the Harry Potter series that I've seen, I sense a streak of envy as well as a kind of literary snobbery: Byatt's work has gotten good reviews, but has never even begun to sell as well as the Harry Potter series. It is understandable that every writer who puts pen to paper would like to be as famous as Rowling. It is very understandable that every writer who has ever put pen to paper, would like to make that kind of money. Quite frankly, I would love to do both. But writing anything is a bit of a "crapshot". Publishers and editors may be looking for the "next J.K. Rowling", but what is likely to happen, at least for some little while, is that there are going to be a long series of imitations, none of which will do anything like as well --- though, if the author is lucky, he or she may make enough money to live on with some comfort. Even Rowling had a long string of rejections before she found her publisher in Britain. And after that, the first Harry Potter book sold, pretty much by word of mouth, as is common for reasonably successful first-time authors. It was only after Scholastic Books picked it up, that sales began to take off --- in the US. And this is about the best most authors --- if they haven't been thoroughly discouraged by rejections --- can hope for. Does Chaudhry understand this? I'm not sure she does. I think, when one reads reviews of very popular, but reasonably well-written literature like the Harry Potter series, that come out "negative" like this, that one should keep in mind that there are some people like Chaudhry, who seem to be able to connect with what makes these things popular. And why. Perhaps, as my friend, and some others, have suggested, she was never a kid. Or she went through an English major in college, and learned that she should "put away childish things". Or she doesn't have kids herself, so she doesn't have any way of understanding them. Or she suffers from disgruntled envy that "the masses prefer" Rowling to Byatt(the former just isn't "academic" enough, perhaps?). Or perhaps it's just plain green envy. I don't know. And I don't care. All I can say to Lakshmi Chaudhry is, she should try to get in touch with her "inner child". For, to quote another famous Biblical passage "If you are not as a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven."
Anne G


Helen said...

I so agree! I am an author of several (good) historical novels. I was dropped by my mainstream publisher because the sales figures were not high enough (well there was no marketing, so what can you expect?) My agent (ex agent now) wanted me to write something like Harry Potter. I said no. H.P. has been done & done very well by J.K.R. I didn't want to write a Harry Potter look-a-like. In the end I wrote a pirate novel for adults (Sea Witch) but my agent kept on and on about I must write it for children/boys. I did not want to write it for children. Nor boys. I wanted to write for adults, us grown-ups also like pirates. There is very little good grown-up pirate fiction. (one can only read Frenchman's Creek so many times!) What is it with these literary people? Why can they not accept a darn good novel for what it is, a darn good novel, even if it is not written in correct English prose with all the right things in the right place? MY priority for a good novel is whether it is a bl**dy good read - not whether it has too many adverbs or not! H.P is a good story ... and yes I am very, very, envious of J.K.R. but .... well Sea Witch is really good too folks!!!! :-)
Helen Hollick

Helen said...

p.s visit me on :- or

Anne Gilbert said...


I know you are the author of several(good) historical novels, having read or am reading some of them. And furthermore, in the end you have to write what suits you! I am aware, however, of several authors who had trouble getting published for a while, because of the kind of things they were writing. One author, Roberta Gellis, comes to mund. She wrote a series called The Roselynde Chronicles, or something similar. It was set in medieval times. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any market for this stuff at the time; romance writing was becoming more and more "formulaic", a problem many romances still suffer from today. So she turned to writing kind of fantasy stuff about Greek gods, and sold some of that, and then wrote mysteries. I don't know how well she's doing, but her stuff turns up in paperback from time to time. But unless you really like writing Harry Potter-style material, then you, or any other writer, shouldn't do it. This goes for writing "literary" novels as well. Some people who write "lilterary" novels, write really good ones, and they deserve to be read. And, BTW, over the last few months, I've been bumpiing into some quite interesting and well-written novels aimed at children and young people, but which could be read with great enjoyment by adults. But if you can't write that way, don't! And I've been told, you shouldn't try to "become the next J.K.Rowling, Stephen King, etc., because you can't. Every writer is unique, and has their own, unique way of writing. Anybody who tries to follow too closely in, say Stephen King's or J.K. Rowling's footsteps, will only come up with pale imitations.

As for the critics. . . well, these people usually don't actually write anything. As I said earlier, many of them seem to come out of "English department" backgrounds. There's nothing wrong with that, per se, but just because you have a "literary" education, and know the Jane Austen canon inside out, doesn't mean you will be able to judge modern authors, or modern tastes. And that, I think, is the modern critics' failing.
Anne G