Industry and educators are agreed: the world needs creativity. There is interest in the field, lots of urging but remarkably little action. Everyone is a bit scared of what to do next. On the question of creativity and imagination, they are mostly uncreative and unimaginative.
Some of the paralysis arises because you can’t easily define creativity. It resists the measurement and strategies that we’re familiar with. Indisposed by the simultaneous vagueness and sublimity of creative processes, educators seek artificial ways to channel imaginative activity into templates that end up compromising the very creativity they celebrate.
For example, creativity is often reduced to problem-solving. To be sure, you need imagination to solve many curly problems and creativity is arguably part of what it takes. But problem-solving is far from the whole of creativity; and if you focus creative thinking uniquely on problems and solutions, you encourage a mechanistic view – all about scoping and then pinpointing the best fit among options.
It might be satisfying to create models for such analytical processes but they distort the natural, wayward flux of imaginative thinking. Often, it is not about solving a problem but seeing a problem that no one else has identified. Often, the point of departure is a personal wish for something to be true or worth arguing or capable of making a poetic splash, whereupon the mind goes into imaginative overdrive to develop a robust theory that has never been proposed before.
For teaching purposes, problems are an anxious place to cultivate creativity. If you think of anyone coming up with an idea — a new song, a witty way of denouncing a politician, a dance step, a joke — it isn’t necessarily about a problem but rather a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent.
That’s the motive behind what scholars now call “Big C Creativity”: i.e. your Bach or Darwin or Freud who comes up with a major original contribution to culture or science. But the same is true of everyday “small C creativity” that isn’t specifically problem-based.
Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity, like humour, repartee, a gestural impulse or theatrical intuition, a satire that extrapolates someone’s behaviour or produces a poignant character insight.
A dull taming
Our way of democratising creativity is not to see it in inherently imaginative spontaneity but to identify it with instrumental strategising. We tame creativity by making it dull. Our way of honing the faculty is by making it goal-oriented and compliant to a purpose that can be managed and assessed.
Alas, when we make creativity artificially responsible to a goal, we collapse it with prudent decision-making, whereupon it no longer transcends familiar frameworks toward an unknown fertility.
We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy, that somewhat messy generation of figments out of whose chaos the mind can see a brilliant rhyme, a metaphor, a hilarious skip or roll of the shoulders, an outrageous pun, a thought about why peacocks have such a long tail, a reason why bread goes stale or an astonishing pattern in numbers arising from a formula.
Because creativity, in essence, is somewhat irresponsible, it isn’t easy to locate in a syllabus and impossible to teach in a culture of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are statements of what the student will gain from the subject or unit that you’re teaching. Internationally and across the tertiary system, they take the form of: “On successful completion of this subject, you will be able to …” Everything that is taught should then support the outcomes and all assessment should allow the students to demonstrate that they have met them.
After a lengthy historical study, I have concluded that our contemporary education systematically trashes creativity and unwittingly punishes students for exercising their imagination. The structural basis for this passive hostility to the imagination is the grid of learning outcomes in alignment with delivery and assessment.
It might always be impossible to teach creativity but the least we can do for our students is make education a safe place for imagination. Our academies are a long way from that haven and I see little encouraging in the apologias for creativity that the literature now spawns.
My contention is that learning outcomes are only good for uncreative study. For education to cultivate creativity and imagination, we need to stop asking students anxiously to follow demonstrable proofs of learning for which imagination is a liability.
Biologists are gathering evidence of green algae (pictured here in Kuwait) becoming carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious, due to increased carbon dioxide levels. As science fiction becomes science fact, new forms of storytelling are emerging. Raed Qutena
I count myself lucky. Weird, I know, in this day and age when all around us the natural and political world is going to hell in a handbasket. But that, in fact, may be part of it.
Back when I started writing, realism had such a stranglehold on publishing that there was little room for speculative writers and readers. (I didn’t know that’s what I was until I read it in a reader’s report for my first novel. And even then I didn’t know what it was, until I realised that it was what I read, and had always been reading; what I wrote, and wanted to write.) Outside of the convention rooms, that is, which were packed with less-literary-leaning science-fiction and fantasy producers and consumers.
Realism was the rule, even for those writing non-realist stories, such as popular crime and commercial romance. Perhaps this dominance was because of a culture heavily influenced by an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Richard Lea has written in The Guardian of “non-fiction” as a construct of English literature, arguing other cultures do not distinguish so obsessively between stories on the basis of whether or not they are “real”.
Regardless of the reason, this conception of literary fiction has been widely accepted – leading self-described “weird fiction” novelist China Miéville to identify the Booker as a genre prize for specifically realist literary fiction; a category he calls “litfic”. The best writers Australia is famous for producing aren’t only a product of this environment, but also role models who perpetuate it: Tim Winton and Helen Garner write similarly realistically, albeit generally fiction for one and non-fiction for the other.
Today, realism remains the most popular literary mode. Our education system trains us to appreciate literatures of verisimilitude; or, rather, literature we identify as “real”, charting interior landscapes and emotional journeys that generally represent a quite particular version of middle-class life. It’s one that may not have much in common these days with many people’s experiences – middle-class, Anglo or otherwise – or even our exterior world(s).
Like other kinds of biases, realism has been normalised, but there is now a growing recognition – a re-evaluation – of different kinds of “un-real” storytelling: “speculative” fiction, so-called for its obviously invented and inventive aspects.
a much larger collective conviction about who’s entitled to tell stories, what stories are worth telling, and who among the storytellers gets taken seriously … not only in terms of race and gender, but in terms of what has long been labelled “genre” fiction.
Rawson’s latest book, From the Wreck, intertwines the story of her ancestor George Hills, who was shipwrecked off the coast of South Australia and survived eight days at sea, with the tale of a shape-shifting alien seeking refuge on Earth. In an Australian first, it was long-listed for the Miles Franklin, our most prestigious literary award, after having won the niche Aurealis Award for Speculative Fiction.
The Aurealis awards were established in 1995 by the publishers of Australia’s longest-running, small-press science-fiction and fantasy magazine of the same name. As well as recognising the achievements of Australian science-fiction, fantasy and horror writers, they were designed to distinguish between those speculative subgenres.
Last year, five of the six finalists for the Aurealis awards were published, promoted and shelved as literary fiction.
A broad church
Perhaps what counts as speculative fiction is also changing. The term is certainly not new; it was first used in an 1889 review, but came into more common usage after genre author Robert Heinlein’s 1947 essay On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.
Whereas science fiction generally engages with technological developments and their potential consequences, speculative fiction is a far broader, vaguer term. It can be seen as an offshoot of the popular science-fiction genre, or a more neutral umbrella category that simply describes all non-realist forms, including fantasy and fairytales – from the epic of Gilgamesh through to The Handmaid’s Tale.
While critic James Wood argues that “everything flows from the real … it is realism that allows surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, dream and so on”, others, such as author Doris Lessing, believe that everything flows from the fantastic; that all fiction has always been speculative. I am not as interested in which came first (or which has more cultural, or commercial, value) as I am in the fact that speculative fiction – “spec-fic” – seems to be gaining literary respectability.
(Next step, surely, mainstream popularity! After all, millions of moviegoers and television viewers have binge-watched the rise of fantastic forms, and audiences are well versed in unreal onscreen worlds.)
One reason for this new interest in an old but evolving form has been well articulated by author and critic James Bradley: climate change. Writers, and publishers, are embracing speculative fiction as an apt form to interrogate what it means to be human, to be humane, in the current climate – and to engage with ideas of posthumanism too.
These are the sorts of existential questions that have historically driven realist literature.
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 Living Planet Report, 60% of the world’s wildlife disappeared between 1970 and 2012. The year 2016 was declared the hottest on record, echoing the previous year and the one before that. People under 30 have never experienced a month in which average temperatures are below the long-term mean. Hurricanes register on the Richter scale and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added a colour to temperature maps as the heat keeps on climbing.
There is an infographic doing the rounds on Facebook that shows sister countries with comparable climates to (warming) regions of Australia. But it doesn’t reflect the real issue. Associate Professor Michael Kearney, Research Fellow in Biosciences at the University of Melbourne, points out that no-one anywhere in the world has any experience of our current CO2 levels. The changed environment is, he says – using a word that is particularly appropriate for my argument – a “novel” situation.
Elsewhere, biologists are gathering evidence of algae that carbon dioxide has made carbohydrate-rich but less nutritious. So the plankton that rely on them to survive might eat more and more and yet still starve.
Fiction focused on the inner lives of a limited cross-section of people no longer seems the best literary form to reflect, or reflect on, our brave new outer world – if, indeed, it ever was.
Whether it’s a creative response to catastrophic climate change, or an empathic, philosophical attempt to express cultural, economic, neurological – or even species – diversification, the recognition works such as Rawson’s are receiving surely shows we have left Modernism behind and entered the era of Anthropocene literature.
And her book is not alone. Other wild titles achieving similar success include Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace, shortlisted for the Aurealis, the Stella prize and the Norma K. Hemming award – given to mark excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability in a speculative fiction work.
Kneen’s book connects five stories spanning a century, navigating themes of sexuality – including erotic explorations of transgression and transmutation – against the backdrop of a changing ocean.
Earlier, more realist but still speculative titles (from 2015) include Mireille Juchau’s The World Without Us and Bradley’s Clade. These novels fit better with Miéville’s description of “litfic”, employing realistic literary techniques that would not be out of place in Winton’s books, but they have been called “cli-fi” for the way they put climate change squarely at the forefront of their stories (though their authors tend to resist such generic categorisation).
Both novels, told across time and from multiple points of view, are concerned with radically changed and catastrophically changing environments, and how the negative consequences of our one-world experiment might well – or, rather, ill – play out.
Catherine McKinnnon’s Storyland is a more recent example that similarly has a fantastic aspect. The author describes her different chapters set in different times, culminating – Cloud Atlas–like, in one futuristic episode – as “timeslips” or “time shifts” rather than time travel. Yet it has been received as speculative – and not in a pejorative way, despite how some “high-art” literary authors may feel about “low-brow” genre associations.
Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, told The New York Times when The Buried Giant was released in 2015 that he was fearful readers would not “follow him” into Arthurian Britain. Le Guin was quick to call him out on his obvious attempt to distance himself from the fantasy category. Michel Faber, around the same time, told a Wheeler Centre audience that his Book of Strange New Things, where a missionary is sent to convert an alien race, was “not about aliens” but alienation. Of course it is the latter, but it is also about the other.
All these more-and-less-speculative fictions – these not-traditionally-realist literatures – analyse the world in a way that it is not usually analysed, to echo Tim Parks’s criterion for the best novels. Interestingly, this sounds suspiciously like science-fiction critic Darko Suvin’s famous conception of the genre as a literature of “cognitive estrangement”, which inspires readers to re-view their own world, think in new ways, and – most importantly – take appropriate action.
A new party
Perhaps better case studies of what local spec-fic is or does – when considering questions of diversity – are Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Claire Coleman’s Terra Nullius.
The first is a distinctly Aussie Handmaid’s Tale for our times, where “girls” guilty by association with some unspecified sexual scenario are drugged, abducted and held captive in a remote outback location.
The latter is another idea whose time has come: an apocalyptic act of colonisation. Not such an imagined scenario for Noongar woman Coleman. It’s a tricky plot to tell without giving away spoilers – the book opens on an alternative history, or is it a futuristic Australia? Again, the story is told through different points of view, which prioritises collective storytelling over the authority of a single voice.
“The entire purpose of writing Terra Nullius,” Coleman has said, “was to provoke empathy in people who had none.”
This connection of reading with empathy is a case Neil Gaiman made in a 2013 lecture when he told of how China’s first party-approved science-fiction and fantasy convention had come about five years earlier.
The Chinese had sent delegates to Apple and Google etc to try to work out why America was inventing the future, he said. And they had discovered that all the programmers, all the entrepreneurs, had read science fiction when they were children.
“Fiction can show you a different world,” said Gaiman. “It can take you somewhere you’ve never been.”
And when you come back, you see things differently. And you might decide to do something about that: you might change the future.
Perhaps the key to why speculative fiction is on the rise is the ways in which it is not “hard” science fiction. Rather than focusing on technology and world-building to the point of potential fetishism, as our “real” world seems to be doing, what we are reading today is a sophisticated literature engaging with contemporary cultural, social and political matters – through the lens of an “un-real” idea, which may be little more than a metaphor or errant speculation.
In Canada, they get them back 25 years after they are dead when the rights automatically revert to their estate. In Australia, our law used to do the same, but we removed the provision in 1968. In our law, authors are never given back what they give away.
Some publishers voluntarily put such clauses in their contracts, but that is something they choose to do, rather than something the law mandates.
Australia’s copyright term is long. For written works it lasts for 70 years after the death of the author. It was extended from 50 years after death as part of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement.
What copyright is for
Copyright is a government-granted limited monopoly to control certain uses of an author’s work.
It is meant to achieve three main things: incentivise the creation of works, reward authors, and benefit society through access to knowledge and culture.
Incentive and reward are not the same thing.
The incentive needn’t be big
The copyright term needed to provide an incentive to create something is pretty short.
But, in practice authors, artists and composers are often obliged to transfer all or most of their rights to corporate investors such as record labels or book publishers in order to receive anything at all.
In the film and television industries it is not unusual for creators to have to sign over their whole copyright, forever – and not just here on Earth but throughout the universe at large.
Canada’s law already protects authors by giving rights back to their heirs 25 years after they die. Bryan Adams’s proposal is to change one word in that law. Instead of copyright reverting to the creator 25 years after “death”, he wants it to revert 25 years after “transfer”.
Copyright is meant to be about ensuring access
Handing rights back to creators after 25 years would not only help them secure more of copyright’s rewards, it would also help achieve copyright’s other major aim: to promote widespread access to knowledge and culture.
Right now our law isn’t doing a very good job of that, particularly for older material.
Copyright lasts for so long, and distributors lose financial interest in works so fast, that they are often neither properly distributed nor available for anyone else to distribute.
In the book industry my research into almost 100,000 titles has found that publishers license older e-books to libraries on the same terms and for the same prices as newer ones. That includes “exploding” licences which force books to be deleted from collections even if nobody ever borrows them.
Publishers are interested in maximising their share of library collections budgets, not ensuring that a particular author continues to get paid or a particular title continues to get read.
Restricting access to books is not in the interests of authors or readers.
… and directing rewards where they are needed
If rights reverted after 25 years, as I have proposed and as Adams now proposes, authors would be able to do things like license their books directly to libraries in exchange for fair remuneration – say $1 per loan.
We could do it all without changing the total copyright term imposed on us by the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement and other treaties. We could get creators paid more fairly while keeping Australian culture alive.
Creativity is often defined as the ability to come up with new and useful ideas. Like intelligence, it can be considered a trait that everyone – not just creative “geniuses” like Picasso and Steve Jobs – possesses in some capacity.
It’s not just your ability to draw a picture or design a product. We all need to think creatively in our daily lives, whether it’s figuring out how to make dinner using leftovers or fashioning a Halloween costume out of clothes in your closet. Creative tasks range from what researchers call “little-c” creativity – making a website, crafting a birthday present or coming up with a funny joke – to “Big-C” creativity: writing a speech, composing a poem or designing a scientific experiment.
Psychology and neuroscience researchers have started to identify thinking processes and brain regions involved with creativity. Recent evidence suggests that creativity involves a complex interplay between spontaneous and controlled thinking – the ability to both spontaneously brainstorm ideas and deliberately evaluate them to determine whether they’ll actually work.
Despite this progress, the answer to one question has remained particularly elusive: What makes some people more creative than others?
In a new study, my colleagues and I examined whether a person’s creative thinking ability can be explained, in part, by a connection between three brain networks.
Mapping the brain during creative thinking
In the study, we had 163 participants complete a classic test of “divergent thinking” called the alternate uses task, which asks people to think of new and unusual uses for objects. As they completed the test, they underwent fMRI scans, which measures blood flow to parts of the brain.
The task assesses people’s ability to diverge from the common uses of an object. For example, in the study, we showed participants different objects on a screen, such as a gum wrapper or a sock, and asked to come up with creative ways to use them. Some ideas were more creative than others. For the sock, one participant suggested using it to warm your feet – the common use for a sock – while another participant suggested using it as a water filtration system.
Importantly, we found that people who did better on this task also tended to report having more creative hobbies and achievements, which is consistent with previous studies showing that the task measures general creative thinking ability.
After participants completed these creative thinking tasks in the fMRI, we measured functional connectivity between all brain regions – how much activity in one region correlated with activity in another region.
We also ranked their ideas for originality: Common uses received lower scores (using a sock to warm your feet), while uncommon uses received higher scores (using a sock as a water filtration system).
Then we correlated each person’s creativity score with all possible brain connections (approximately 35,000), and removed connections that, according to our analysis, didn’t correlate with creativity scores. The remaining connections constituted a “high-creative” network, a set of connections highly relevant to generating original ideas.
Having defined the network, we wanted to see if someone with stronger connections in this high-creative network would score well on the tasks. So we measured the strength of a person’s connections in this network, and then used predictive modeling to test whether we could estimate a person’s creativity score.
The models revealed a significant correlation between the predicted and observed creativity scores. In other words, we could estimate how creative a person’s ideas would be based on the strength of their connections in this network.
We further tested whether we could predict creative thinking ability in three new samples of participants whose brain data were not used in building the network model. Across all samples, we found that we could predict – albeit modestly – a person’s creative ability based on the strength of their connections in this same network.
Overall, people with stronger connections came up with better ideas.
What’s happening in a ‘high-creative’ network
We found that the brain regions within the “high-creative” network belonged to three specific brain systems: the default, salience and executive networks.
The default network is a set of brain regions that activate when people are engaged in spontaneous thinking, such as mind-wandering, daydreaming and imagining. This network may play a key role in idea generation or brainstorming – thinking of several possible solutions to a problem.
The executive control network is a set of regions that activate when people need to focus or control their thought processes. This network may play a key role in idea evaluation or determining whether brainstormed ideas will actually work and modifying them to fit the creative goal.
The salience network is a set of regions that acts as a switching mechanism between the default and executive networks. This network may play a key role in alternating between idea generation and idea evaluation.
An interesting feature of these three networks is that they typically don’t get activated at the same time. For example, when the executive network is activated, the default network is usually deactivated. Our results suggest that creative people are better able to co-activate brain networks that usually work separately.
Future research is needed to determine whether these networks are malleable or relatively fixed. For example, does taking drawing classes lead to greater connectivity within these brain networks? Is it possible to boost general creative thinking ability by modifying network connections?
For now, these questions remain unanswered. As researchers, we just need to engage our own creative networks to figure out how to answer them.
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 reminds 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 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 was 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.
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.