Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.
I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.
Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.
Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?
When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.
As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.
Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.
Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.
Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.
This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.
* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.
** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.
“I AM NOT SURE THERE IS SUCH A THING AS RIGHT. OR WRONG. JUST PLACES TO STAND.”
The Auditors of Reality have had enough of Death. His fledgling personality doesn’t seem right to them. So they contact Death’s boss, Azrael, who decides to give death to Death. This seems like a wonderful chance for Death, who takes a job as the farmhand Bill Door. But The Auditors, being the obviously efficient types, have failed to have a succession plan and haven’t hired the new Death. This creates some interesting problems for the recently deceased residents of the Disc.
When I picked up Reaper Man, my exact thoughts were “I don’t think I’ve read a Pratchett book for at least a couple of months, must be time for another one.” I’m gradually working my way through all the Discworld novels with an emphasis on the ones involving Death and The Watch. The City Watch books often tend to have a more solid plot, whereas the Death novels can feel a bit more ambivalent about plots.
Reaper Man did have a solid plot, but it felt more like a series of pins being used to hang worldbuilding and character development on. If that sounds like a criticism, it isn’t. More an observation that could be applied to most Discworld novels. I mention it here because the character arc ends after the plot, which can mess with some people’s appreciation of stories.*
I’m looking forward to my next Discworld adventure soon.
This short animated pilot is based upon Reaper Man:
* This is pretty much what people are complaining about when they say that The Lord of the Rings movies have too many endings. The plots are tied up long before the character arcs are.
Camels would receive more admiration if they published in the peer-reviewed literature and spat in fewer people’s faces.
Teppic sets out from home to learn a trade. An honourable trade. An important trade. A valued trade. So he attends Ankh-Morpork’s famed assassins’ school. But he has barely graduated when his father dies and he has to return to the family business: king of an ancient land. His new worldliness clashes with the millennia of tradition held in place by the priests of Djelibeybi. These traditions lead to cataclysm and Teppic has to save the land of pyramids before war breaks out. Because war has to break out. It’s tradition.
As I was reading Pyramids – the bit with You Bastard calculating the flares – the sheer scale of the Discworld novels struck me. There are so many little pieces crammed into each book that you wonder how Sir Terry managed to repeat that effort over 40 times. It probably struck me because Pyramids is a more straight-forward narrative with a focus on the character of Teppic. When compared to many of the other Discworld novels I’ve read of late, this one is an “easy read”.
Definitely a 4 mathematical genius camels out of 5 novel.
I’m not going to make a joke about learning a trade being a killer idea.
Mort is a tall skinny kid who just wants to know how the world works. Death has been flat out since the beginning of time. So when Mort’s dad decides it is time for him to learn a trade, Death offers him an apprenticeship to help cover some of the work. Hopefully, Mort doesn’t mess it up.
I quite like Death. As in the character. Death and his granddaughter Susan are two of my favourite Discworld characters. So it was definitely time to read the earlier Death instalments in the series. Worth it!
I was only a few pages into Mort when I found myself chuckling. Out loud. Normally I can keep that stuff to myself. But I couldn’t help it.
There doesn’t need to be much more said than that. Entertaining and chuckle out loud funny.
Claire Hansen is a Keeper drawn to the run-down Elysian Fields Guest House. When she arrives, the owner forges her signature on the deeds and does a runner, leaving her in charge of one employee, one permanent guest, one ghost, and one gateway to hell. With the help of her cat, Austin, she might be able to figure out how to close the gateway. Or she might be stuck there forever.
For our wedding anniversary, we went shopping at a specialist sci-fi and fantasy bookstore. My purchase was the Keeper Chronicles. Yeah, we know how to celebrate. We’re kinky. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tanya Huff, but I was promised a fun story with humour. I think it is fair to say Summon the Keeper delivered on that promise.
The book meanders along, introducing characters, having those characters banter with one another, introducing a few random elements, and generally giving you the feeling that you’re just reading a series of scenes. Then Huff ties everything together in an exciting and fast-paced finale that almost blindsides you. I think that feeling of meandering through the bulk of the story is the only reason I’m not diving straight into the next instalment in the series.
Overall, I enjoyed this paranormal – or is that urban fantasy – novel and will be reading the rest of the Keeper Chronicles in the coming months.
When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.
It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.
So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?
How should I know? I don’t watch the show.
What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.
At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.
Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.
Update: This post wouldn’t be complete without Lindsay Ellis’ take on things. She raises several points that the other videos don’t, especially the “Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy” – or more accurately “Hot Fantasy That F**KS” – aspects of the series.
So, if magic and science are incompatible, does that mean gravity is magic or physics?
Kate Daniels is scraping by making a living as a mercenary. In her world magic rolls through in waves, knocking out technology and allowing all the beasties to have way too much fun. As a result, people need mercenaries with magical abilities like Kate. Then, as part of a power play, someone kills her guardian sending her after the most powerful magical beast in Atlanta.
The Kate Daniels series was recommended to me by my wife. She has been steadily reading the whole series and kept making appreciative sounds whilst reading them. Written by Ilona and Andrew Gordon, I wouldn’t have immediately picked up a book that hints at fantasy romance. The cover of Magic Bites may be more neutral, but some of the later books in the series I saw in the library had a lot of chiselled male torsos on them.
Fortunately for me, Magic Bites reminded me more of a Harry Dresden book than a steamy romance. Kate is a much more likeable character than Harry,* and the world she lives in makes a bit more sense.** There is also the implication of Kate having continuing adventures that are building toward something, not just another series that will keep churning out instalments.
I’m looking forward to reading more of Kate Daniels’ adventures.
Luggage that doesn’t get lost? This must be a fantasy novel.
After shooting off the edge of the Discworld in The Colour of Magic, Rincewind and Twoflower are magically returned to the Disc for reasons unknown. The world turtle, Great A’Tuin, is swimming through space, excited about the red star it is approaching. The Wizards have noticed the red star and the magical change that allowed Rincewind and Twoflower to return, allowing them to uncover an ancient prophecy. Can the prophecy be fulfilled before Great A’Tuin reaches their destination?
When I finished The Colour of Magic I was a little peeved. Whilst a continuing story cliffhanger is a common fantasy trope, a book satirising fantasy tropes should surely rise above such shenanigans. That downgraded my rating to 4 stars.
Happily, The Light Fantastic finished the story started in The Colour of Magic in a highly entertaining fashion. I especially enjoyed the introduction of Cohen the Barbarian, being a fan of the Robert E Howard stories. Death and the other horsemen learning Bridge had me grinning for days. I wouldn’t rate this as one of Pratchett’s best Discworld novels, but it certainly started the ball rolling.
We don’t often think of fantasy novels as being mysteries. And yet, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the mystery elements are cornerstones of the plot.
Mystery isn’t easy to do well, either, as we will see in the two videos below from Just Write. In the Harry Potter novels we see the elements Rowling used to great effect, and in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, we see how Rowling bungles those elements.
I suppose the big takeaway is that even a master writer* can mangle the craft.
*Feel free to disagree with this assertion and point out to me Rowling’s various flaws as an author in painful detail that assumes I’ve never read the Potter books. That’s why they invented the comments section.
The chief said, ‘I’m going to need your badge, your gun, and your ability to turn into a werewolf.’
Harry Dresden is living on the memory of ramen noodles and hasn’t heard from his contact at the Chicago Police in ages. But with the full moon dawning, a spate of murders leads Lieutenant Murphy to call on his wizard skills. With the FBI sticking their nose in, Murphy under investigation, and a pack of werewolves on the prowl, Harry is up to his neck in trouble before the moon has risen.
Jim Butcher really does love to make Harry suffer. He is obviously a big believer in creating a large stack of insurmountable odds for each of Dresden’s adventures. This is both entertaining and frustrating. Entertaining because it keeps the suspense up. Frustrating because you kinda want there to be fewer fires layered under the frypan Dresden falls out of. Or to put it another way, you start asking, ‘Isn’t it time to kill the bad guys yet?’ Or to put it another way, the damned suspense nearly killed me.
This was another enjoyable Dresden adventure. I’m looking forward to my next one.
‘Don’t do that! You’ll disturb the carpet people.’
The Munrungs have just had their village destroyed by fray, a natural phenomenon from above The Carpet. In the aftermath, Glurk and Snibril try to help their village flee the attacking Mouls, a people who regard all others as animals and rather good eating. It is then they realise that fray is pushing a path of destruction through The Carpet and that the Mouls are attacking every city and town in its wake. Can they save civilisation so that people don’t go back to hitting each other?
While I was reading this novel I kept having to remind myself that it was the heavily revised edition written by the 40-something Pratchett, not the 20-something of the original edition. This was Pratchett’s first novel and as an ode to fantasy fiction had just the right amounts of absurdism and humour, which I can’t see a 20-something nailing. If Pratchett was this good out of the gate then every other author would be left weeping into the keyboard. Hopefully, someone who has read both versions can point out the differences.
This is, of course, not a Discworld novel. Apparently, all reviewers have to point this out for some reason. As such, Pratchett’s style, particularly his satire, is less pronounced here. While I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Carpet People, for long-time Discworld fans this may feel a little light or insubstantial. Or maybe they just feel guilty about having vacuumed their house.
Do sugar lumps disappear or were they never there in the first place?
Sam Vimes is making sure The Watch is moving with the times and keeping Ankh-Morpork in line when Lord Vetinari summons him for a new job: ambassador. He is despatched to Uberwald for the upcoming coronation of the Low King. It isn’t long before he is using diplomacy to take care of bandits, solve a mystery, break traditions, and stop a coup. As Vimes says, “So this is diplomacy. It’s like lying, only to a better class of people.”
The first Discworld novel I read was Guards! Guards! so the City Watch series are always among my favourites. The Fifth Elephant is more plot orientated than some other Discworld novels, so it feels more streamlined and ordered than some others. That doesn’t mean that the humour or satire are lacking, even if they can be a bit subtle at times (e.g. feudalism vs capitalism commentary is rife but takes a backseat to the plot).
I really enjoyed this novel. Nothing more to say really.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see… Some really awesome stories.
This month’s It’s Lit with Lindsay Ellis covers the much-maligned genre of fantasy.
Fantasy is a lens to explore what we as a society find important to our pasts, our presents, and future. Fantasy and science fiction often fall under the umbrella of “speculative fiction” – as a result they are often grouped together, especially in bookstores. But science fiction is a forward-looking genre propelled by the possibilities of technology (and the things that worry us about it), fantasy is … more backward looking.
Witches ride on brooms and wizards hold a staff in their hands. Nothing phallic about that.
Eskarina “Esk” Smith was born the eighth son of the eighth son and was bequeathed Drum Billet’s wizarding abilities and staff. Minor mixup. Esk is a girl. But too late for any take-backs, Esk’s magical talents have her training with Granny Weatherwax in witching. This isn’t enough for Esk as she is meant to be a wizard, she has the staff and everything, so she journeys to the Unseen University for training.
I’ve come at the Witches instalments of Discworld backward. The first one I read was The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last novel before his death, in which Granny Weatherwax dies.* So to come to the first was overdue. I was somewhat disappointed with The Shepherd’s Crown – probably because it was unfinished in terms of Pratchett’s usual revision process – but not so with Equal Rites. This was highly enjoyable and tackled some interesting tropes of fantasy, as well as plotting the rise of grrl power on the Disc.
*That isn’t a spoiler, it’s pretty much the first chapter.**
**Not that Sir Terry was a big fan of using chapters, but you take my meaning.
Wizards with synesthesia hearing octarine would be an interesting experience.
Twoflower arrives in Ankh-Morpork with his sapient luggage filled with gold. After years in inn-sewer-ants he is looking to become the first tourist on the disc. Rincewind makes his acquaintance thanks to his gift for languages, and they bumble into adventure.
Having read some of the last instalments in the Discworld novels I thought it was time to go back to read the earlier instalments. The writing in the books has changed over the course of the series. Most of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far have been directly satirising a modern-day topic or institutions, but The Colour of Magic is much more concerned with satirising fantasy novels themselves.
It is hard to give this novel a higher rating, however, as it does what all annoying fantasy series do: continue in the next book. Yes, great joke, but it does mean that until I’ve read The Light Fantastic there are no five stars from me.
Welcome to Superheroes Annonymous. Barbara, would you like to tell us why you’re here?
I really enjoyed this comic. Barabara isn’t a nice character, she is a loner, outsider, and she is battling personal problems, so she takes this out on everyone around her. Layered over this is the ambiguous threat of Giants who are coming to destroy everything she holds dear.
[Spoiler] I liked the ambiguity of whether the Giants are just a fantasy world and an analogue for the troubles Barbara is battling. We see her face those troubles and grow, and (hopefully) become a better person, if one still dealing with loss. [/spoiler]
This isn’t a story for everyone, but it will pull at the heartstrings if you give it a chance.
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled? Never messing with a philosopher.
Saloninus is the greatest philosopher of all time. But nearing the end of his life he wants another 20 years to complete his final works. So he does a deal with the devil. But the devil is suspicious. They might have an airtight contract for Saloninus’ soul, but there is something amiss. Is the devil about to be swindled by the greatest thinker?
A couple of years ago my uncle recommended KJ Parker to me. I’ve finally gotten around to reading one of Parker’s books. My uncle clearly has good taste.
This was an interesting and often humorous tale. After a recent letdown with an odious fantasy novel, this was refreshing. Briskly paced, world building without the laborious exposition, and characters that felt like real people, topped off a solid and interesting story. I’ll have to schedule some more KJ Parker reading for the near future.
Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise, someone would try to interrupt our reading.
Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.
Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).
Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.
Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface, they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.
For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.
I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010… Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).
The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).
But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.
The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.
These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.
It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.
It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.
I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!
For comparison, the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.
“Key” insights from the Aussie research:
• We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.
• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too – While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.
• We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.
• We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.
• We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)
* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data since respondents were filling in a daily diary and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.
I recently reblogged an article from The Conversation about how awesome the Harry Potter books are, but how snobby (some?) literary people are about them. The vitriol and chastisement of the Harry Potter books remind me of a time when I too was not on the Potter bandwagon. Oh, how wrong I was.
And once again we come to my favourite book chest thumping topic. How worthy is Harry Potter and how wrong have the snobby people been about it?
I think it is worth addressing a few of the arguments that are levelled at JK Rowling and genre fiction in general. Let’s use Rowling as a stand-in for all genre authors. Because all genre authors are just as successful and beloved…
Mostly the arguments revolve around Rowling not having the correct goals in her writing. Of course, these supposed goals are rather arbitrary and change depending upon who is deciding what Rowling’s goals should be. Because apparently writing an entertaining book series that sells hundreds of millions of copies, has devoted fans, promotes laudable social principles, and got some kids reading books who wouldn’t have otherwise isn’t enough for some people. They also tend to expect the world from the Harry Potter books, something that I’ll delve into further below.
Take for example this piece by Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian:
Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?
If I do, then that means you’re one of the many adults who don’t have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn’t make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. Source.
Ugh. I’ve got two words for you, Nicholas Lezard, and they are what your mum should have said to your dad on that fateful day.
There is so much to unpack in that small quote. Lezard starts by insulting fans of the books, then says he isn’t insulting them, then insults them again. Someone who could write a paragraph such as this is self-evidently someone upon whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. He’s insulting the use of speech identifier verbs whilst failing to understand the audience and style being utilised. If you expect YA to be using the same style as the Man-Booker winners you’re gonna have a bad time.
But why insult fans, young and old, of the series? Why insult Rowling? Although she is probably insulated from such lowly criticism in her gold-lined money castle. He didn’t like something, he can critique it, but he is forgetting that a literary critique stands on the argument, not insulting people for disagreeing with him.
This speaks poorly of Lezard and other such critics. In a previous post, I discussed literary people defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. But this is Lezard leading a charge against the peaceful village inhabited by the Lesser Works. He has marked himself the despotic bigoted scourge of Fiction Land, seeking to crush all those who would dare be different from him.
Other critics of Harry Potter have argued that the series didn’t do enough to change the world. This piece comes from the unsupported opinions at The New York Times:
But in keeping with the intricately plotted novels themselves, the truth about Harry Potter and reading is not quite so straightforward a success story. Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, U.S. statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along. Source.
Of course, the problem with this argument is that it requires one series by one author to change the lives of all kids worldwide… The article itself cites the series as having sold 325 million copies worldwide in the decade since the first book’s release (a third of that in the USA alone). Out of the 1.9 billion kids and 7 billion people in the world that means only 17% of kids, or 4.6% of people have bought a Harry Potter book (because nobody ever bought the whole series, or two copies of one of the books, or saw a copy in a library). To put that 325 million copies for the entire series in perspective, roughly 175 million people paid to see A film in the cinema that was tenuously about cars. A similar number paid to see the final Harry Potter film. Let’s face it: reading isn’t that popular.
Let’s break this amazing phenomenon down a bit further. There have been several studies that have looked at readers, particularly kids, and how many of them have read the books.
This is a small survey of children (N = 233) looking at Harry Potter fans, but is consistent with other studies and with a Waterstones reader survey the researchers used to validate the small study. You can see that most kids had read the first book, but that quickly dropped off as the series continued. The studies showed that only 25-35% of kids had read all 7 books in the series, with the average fan reading 3.98 books in the series.
Another thing to note is that studies have also found that 46% and 49% had read a Harry Potter book. Or to put it another way, over 50% of kids hadn’t read any Harry Potter books, and many had only tried one (usually the first one). The most popular book series of all time still isn’t read by a majority of people.
But what about JK Rowling’s influence on reading?
This study was of only 650 kids, but it does illustrate that particularly amongst secondary school kids that they were inspired to read. More books, more difficult books, and more fiction – and if someone can point out the difference between non-fiction and fiction I’d much appreciate it.
Another study of a similar size found supporting results:
Many, though not all, of our enthusiasts consider the Potter books a major contributor to both their self-identification as readers and their wider literacy development. Perhaps the most striking change they reported was the confidence and motivation to try more challenging books or more books in general. Thus, the Potter books—particularly the thicker ones—acted as a “Portkey” or “gateway,” transporting readers into the world of more mature fiction. Source.
The increasing complexity and length of the books were cited in both studies as giving people confidence to grow as readers. But it was also noted that one of the reasons given for not reading all of the books in the series was also the increasing complexity and length. In other words, you can’t please everyone, especially not kids. Unless you have ice-cream. And the kids aren’t lactose intolerant.
So the problem isn’t that the books are second-rate, nor that they aren’t encouraging people (kids are people too) to read. The problem is that even the most popular book series ever is going to have a limited impact. Rowling has managed to connect with a huge audience – for a book – which has had positive impacts on readers, such that they are more likely to go out and read more books, even the more complex books that keep the literary snobs in a job.
It is a big ask to expect one book series to have improved literacy rates. At the risk of labouring the point – any further – most people don’t read, and most people who do read won’t have read Harry Potter. The problem isn’t Rowling failing to inspire people enough. It isn’t that she wasn’t a good enough writer. The problem is that people love to make lazy attacks on genre fiction. They don’t want to admit that reading is not that popular and that what we have been doing is probably not encouraging new readers. At least Rowling was on the right track.