It’s 20 years on June 26 since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the seven-book series. The Philosopher’s Stone has sold more than 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages; the series has inspired a movie franchise, a dedicated fan website, and spinoff stories.
I recall the long periods of frustration and excited anticipation as my son and I waited for each new instalment of the series. This experience of waiting is one we share with other fans who read it progressively across the ten years between the publication of the first and last Potter novel. It is not an experience contemporary readers can recreate.
The Harry Potter series has been celebrated for encouraging children to read, condemned as a commercial rather than a literary success and had its status as literature challenged. Rowling’s writing was described as “basic”, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “flat”. A Guardian article in 2007, just prior to the release of the final book in the series, was particularly scathing, calling her style “toxic”.
My own focus is on the pleasure of reading. I’m more interested in the enjoyment children experience reading Harry Potter, including the appeal of the stories. What was it about the story that engaged so many?
Before the books were a commercial success and highly marketed, children learnt about them from their peers. A community of Harry Potter readers and fans developed and grew as it became a commercial success. Like other fans, children gained cultural capital from the depth of their knowledge of the series.
My own son, on the autism spectrum, adored Harry Potter. He had me read each book in the series in order again (and again) while we waited for the next book to be released. And once we finished the new book, we would start the series again from the beginning. I knew those early books really well.
Assessing the series’ literary merit is not straightforward. In the context of concern about falling literacy rates, the Harry Potter series was initially widely celebrated for encouraging children – especially boys – to read. The books, particularly the early ones, won numerous awards and honours, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize three years in a row, and were shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1998.
Criticism of the literary merit of the books, both scholarly and popular, appeared to coincide with the growing commercial and popular success of the series. Rowling was criticised for overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks, her use of speech or dialogue tags (which identify who is speaking) and her use of adverbs to provide specific information (for example, “said the boy miserably”).
The criticism was particularly prolific around the UK’s first conference on Harry Potter held at the prestigious University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2012. The focus of commentary seemed to be on the conference’s positioning of Harry Potter as a work of “literature” worthy of scholarly attention. As one article said of J.K. Rowling, she “may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare”.
Even the most scathing of reviews of Rowling’s writing generally compliment her storytelling ability. This is often used to account for the popularity of the series, particularly with children. However, this has then been presented as further proof of Rowling’s failings as an author. It is as though the capacity to tell a compelling story can be completely divorced from the way a story is told.
Writing for kids
The assessment of the literary merits of a text is highly subjective. Children’s literature in particular may fare badly when assessed using adult measures of quality and according to adult tastes. Many children’s books, including picture books, pop-up books, flap books and multimedia texts are not amenable to conventional forms of literary analysis.
Books for younger children may seem simple and conventional when judged against adult standards. The use of speech tags in younger children’s books, for example, is frequently used to clarify who is talking for less experienced readers. The literary value of a children’s book is often closely tied to adults’ perception of a book’s educational value rather than the pleasure children may gain from reading or engaging with the book. For example, Rowling’s writing was criticised for not “stretching children” or teaching children “anything new about words”.
Many of the criticisms of Rowling’s writing are similar to those levelled at another popular children’s author, Enid Blyton. Like Rowling, Blyton’s writing has described by one commentator as “poison” for its “limited vocabulary”, “colourless” and “undemanding language”. Although children are overwhelmingly encouraged to read, it would appear that many adults view with suspicion books that are too popular with children.
There have been many defences of the literary merits of Harry Potter which extend beyond mere analysis of Rowling’s prose. The sheer volume of scholarly work that has been produced on the series and continues to be produced, even ten years after publication of the final book, attests to the richness and depth of the series.
A focus on children’s reading pleasure rather than on literary merit shifts the focus of research to a different set of questions. I will not pretend to know why Harry Potter appealed so strongly to my son but I suspect its familiarity, predictability and repetition were factors. These qualities are unlikely to score high by adult standards of literary merit but are a feature of children’s series fiction.
Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix are covered in this month’s instalment of What’s The Difference? from CineFix. Previously they covered earlier books and movies, this is part 2 of 3. Grab a butterbeer and enjoy.
For me Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire were when the series really took off. The earlier two books were clearly aimed at a younger audience than my snobbish adult reading ways would allow me to fully to enjoy. And when you look on your bookshelf, you’ll notice how much thinner those first two books are – yes, I am assuming you have them in paper on a bookshelf in your house. You aren’t weird, are you? The extra length of the later books in the Harry Potter series also signals a narrative that has matured with its audience – those pre-teens were going to become teens at some stage, just like their favourite book characters.
This extra length also makes the novels harder to adapt faithfully. As the video covers, there are some interesting ways they achieve this, but it also means they have to make other changes that are troublesome for the later movies in the series. For me the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare being skipped over in the movies is an obvious choice, but also one that removes an important layer to the narrative. It is, after all, the Elfish uprising that helps turn the tide in the fight/war against Voldermort. This element can help you see the conflict as more worldly, rather than focussed on one school in the UK. Unless the Wizarding World is only confined to Europe and the UK is the centre of the EU….
There is probably an argument to be made for Harry Potter to be turned into a TV series that faithfully adapts the books to the small screen. HBO would be interested for sure, as long as they could cast +18 year olds with no nudity clauses in their contracts.
I guess it was only a matter of time. CineFix have finally gotten around to comparing the Harry Potter series of books to the movies. This is part 1 of 3. Grab a butterbeer and enjoy.
Truth be told, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the Harry Potter series. I disliked the first film – it was clearly made for children – and could not be convinced that this phenomenon was anything more than overhyped rubbish.
Yeah, I was wrong.
It was after the movie series took on the darker and more adult tone that I became interested. I decided to see what all the fuss was about and began reading; an easy thing to do since my wife had the books in our collection. I loved the books, reading the final two on our honeymoon.
With the fandom surrounding the books, this was always going to be a series that was as faithful to the source material as possible. Last thing you want to do is piss off a bunch of kids you’re planning to milk for the next decade with film, merchandise, and costume sales. Even though the CineFix guys talk about the first three films being largely faithful adaptations, I can think of a few minor points that were glossed over in the movies, such as the Phoenix tears healing all wounds. That moment in the film seemed to smack of deux ex machina, unless you had read the books. And that is a liberty you aren’t meant to be able to take with adaptations, as the reading audience is always smaller than the movie audience… usually.
I’m looking forward to the other instalments in this book versus movie comparison, as they may explain why the movies made some of the changes they did.
This is a great breakdown of why readers give up on reading and which books are the biggest culprits. I largely agree with most of the sentiments and books listed. It is very interesting to me that “slow and boring” is the #1 reason people abandon a book. Not just #1, it is number two and three as well, as the next reason had less than half the polling. I’ll offer a few comments on each part of the infographic.
Top Five most abandoned:
Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling – This is no surprise really. I’ve heard it is a particularly dark book and the remark that people were expecting it to be more like Harry Potter shows that no-one read the blurb.
Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James – Who’d have thought that Twilight fan-fiction would be poorly written?
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson – When you have a trilogy that could have been edited down to a single book there are bound to be a few readers, like me, who think this ‘thriller’ is slow going.
I haven’t read or heard of anything to do with the other two on the list.
Top Five most abandoned classics:
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – When people don’t get it then of course they will abandon it. One of the rejection letters for Catch-22 said, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say…Apparently the author intends it to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien – I can see why some people wouldn’t like this book. While I loved it, there are unnecessary characters, events, chapters, scenes, language use… Okay, it’s long and waffly.
Ulysses by James Joyce – At a thousand pages, unless you like an abridged, tiny text, 600 page version, this was never going to be an easy read.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville – I read this when I was in primary school. It made my brain hurt. Very hard to read and spent a long time between the interesting scenes.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand – Great doorstop, selfish drivel to read.
Reasons for and against abandoning:
It really doesn’t surprise me that the reason most people give up reading a book is that it is boring and slow (46.4%). What does surprise me is that the reason people keep reading a book is not because people are enjoying the book but that they like to finish a book regardless (36.6%). Clearly too many people are reading books that they don’t like. Given the popular books, like the already mentioned Stieg Larsson and EL James, it shouldn’t be surprising. I’ve read instruction manuals with more action than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
I remember working out roughly how many more books I could read in my life. I have averaged reading roughly 100 books per year for the last few years. Now excluding a major accident or the zombie apocalypse, I should be able to continue this average until I die peacefully in my car travelling the wrong way down the freeway at age 90. That means I can only read another 5,500 books in my life! There are more than 8,500 books published every year in Australia, so my chances of reading all the great books I’d like to are slim. We really don’t have time to waste on bad books.
I am the reason that author’s of series have to write novels so that they can stand alone. That’s right, I don’t read series in order all that often. I started with Lee Child’s 61 Hours, Michael Connelly’s City of Bones, JK Rowling’s’ Goblet of Fire, Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis and Matthew Reilly’s Scarecrow. Long time fans don’t appreciate readers like me.
The first Elvis Cole novel I read was Sunset Express, which I enjoyed immensely. I decided to read the series the right way, so I went out and bought the first three Elvis Cole novels. Robert Crais kicked off this series with Monkey’s Raincoat, which was a shorter crime thriller.
Wit, humour, action, a weeping widow and drug dealers: mix and stir. Crais is definitely an author I’m trying to emulate and enjoy his writing and characters. I’m looking forward to the next two instalments.