In Praise of Harry Potter (and in criticism of other recent YA works)

Over the summer, I spent many lonely nights in Chicago and Mexico re-reading the Harry Potter series. Okay, so maybe the nights weren’t lonely at all, but I was alone, and Harry Potter kept me great company – same as he did when I was a teenager, when the first books came out. It’s been more than 10 years since Book 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was first released but I can well remember the intense anxiety of waiting. I was 17, and I had saved up something like twenty-five dollars, which seemed like an enormous sum to pay for a book, for the pre-release so I could get it the day it came out. Two of my best friends went to the bookstore with me, and we spent an entire day at home, reading together and feeling very proud of the fact that we were the type of people who did such things. Equally well I remember the next day, when I had to work at 8AM (having stayed up almost all night trying to finish the 607 pages), and darting back into the break room between patients to get a chance to read half a page. Harry Potter was infectious and addictive. It brought a lot of joy and creativity to my young life, and I probably needn’t explain the yearning I felt for my own owl that would arrive and bring me news that I had been invited to attend a school for magic that would require me to leave my family for most of the year (ha, ha).

This time reading was a little different though. Because I’m entering my first year of teaching public school Language Arts, the literary merit of these books is of particular interest to me. Before I started the series, I read several articles on whether Harry Potter constituted true literature, whether it was good for young adults, and whether the writing merits the phenomenon it has become.  All you have to do is Google search the topic to find literally thousands of articles written on the subject, so I’ll do you a favor and sum them up here.

Generally speaking, people love Harry Potter. They really do. Experienced readers, writers, and publishers from all over the world have been sucked into these books and enjoyed reading them over and over again. However, you have your typical cranky funsucking literary experts who want to shit on the series, using descriptors such as these: oversimplified; too easy to read; too many dialogue tags; too formulaic; trash; pulp fiction; coddling the minds of America’s youth; etc.

There is a fabulous article from the Atlantic on the science of snobbery, which I believe everyone should read at least once, the principles of which I think we can apply here. In every field, whether it be wine, cars, or literature, you have the well-heeled snobs who feel a gross disdain for anything common. Some of these people are justified in feeling how they do; I admit I’d rather be driving a Lexus than my Corolla. However, the mere phenomenon of extreme popularity is often enough to earn the contempt of these highfalutin cultural vanguards, and Harry Potter seems to be guilty of the charge of being liked by everybody. Naturally, this makes it not literature.

Have you ever heard of McDonalds? It’s a small chain restaurant in America that people either admit they love, or privately love and publicly excoriate. McDonalds has a breakfast item called the McMuffin – perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to try one, as they’re quite expensive and difficult to get ahold of – that is almost universally enjoyed by anyone who is not a snob. The funny thing is that when a couple of mischievous dudes blind taste-tested McDonalds, including the McMuffin, foodies have good things to say. The video was filmed in the Netherlands, but the universal signal of head nodding and smiling (okay, plus the subtitles) tells us what we need to know: That McDonalds is kind of awesome.

This is a long-winded metaphor for Harry Potter. Some literary snobs think that Harry Potter is just another many-paged McMuffin. Friends, it is not. I myself am quite a literary individual, and I have nasty, horrible things to say about the Twilight series. But rest assured that in every way, the quality, substance, and creativity of Harry Potter vastly outpace not only Twilight, but most of the abstract, experimental, badly written bullshit that is coming out of the literary world right now (and for which its sales are suffering).

Is it easy to read? Yes. Is that a crime? I would argue, no, and I am confident that Stephen King, George Orwell, and Strunk & White would agree with me – they have all praised the virtue of writing in direct, easily understood English.

Let me illustrate why clear writing is so important by sharing an excerpt from a book on education I recently tried to read:

“Knowledge, learning, technological power, conditioning, and the like…All such scientific approaches have great admonitory value. They provide us with incongruous perspectives that allow us to see mankind from many angles, each of which in its way adds a new “hark ye” to the lore of human relations. But they are all extrinsic, non-substantial approaches – and as such are not suited to define man’s essential dramatic nature. They heckle so superbly that many in the audience come to mistake the heckling for the address.”

Wut?? A second or third reading might shed some light on the meaning of this passage, but goodness me, there are a thousand easier, more clear ways to say this. And yes – being clear in your rhetoric is a virtue. The passage above, especially in its later sentences, tries so hard to sound intelligent and metaphorical that is ends up saying hardly anything at all. The only reason to be deliberately obtuse is to enjoy the sound of your own intelligence, and indeed, so much of today’s literature simply ends up as a masturbatory experience for the author and his buddies in their glass house who fancy themselves the only deep appreciators of literary genius.

I’ve recently picked up YA novels, which are being published at lightning speed, and couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters, let alone finish the book. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a great example: it’s critically acclaimed, has won plenty of awards, and is complete, utter horseshit. The writing is truly oversimplified, the entire scenario is contrived: the main characters are two gay Hispanic boys whose parents just so happen to be literary, accepting types (yes, the boys’ names really are Aristotle and Dante), who go through a series of grossly simplified emotional endeavors and further contrived scenes (one of them throws himself in front of a car to save the other) to arrive at the end, where they’re gazing at the stars in a truck bed, with their parents’ blessing. Again – wut?? Where is the pain, the suffering? Where is the tormenting by their peers and family? Where is the deep, intellectual processing of these events? Where is the character arc, the plot development, the writing of any substance whatsoever? (Seriously, these are direct quotes from the book: “When I was a boy, I used to wake up thinking that the world was ending” – “The summer sun was not meant for boys like me. Boys like me belonged to the rain.” – “And it seemed to me that Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.”). Vomit. But of course, the book hit all the identity politics markers, including Hispanic teens, gay teens, potentially suicidal teens, and the briefest mention of drug use, so it won awards. The writing sucks. The plot sucks. And this is modern YA. But Harry Potter is… oversimplified? Too many dialogue tags?…

Sure, Harry Potter doesn’t read the same as Moby Dick (great book, no offense Herman), and that’s okay. In fact, to teenagers, that’s preferable. This is not to say that complicated literature which requires slow reading and deep thought isn’t worthy; but if we expect young readers to pursue that, 1) Most don’t have the reading skills, 2) Most don’t have the life experience or perspective to truly appreciate the metaphor of the white whale, and 3) Most don’t know which books to pick up.

I’m not a fan of the general infantilizing that’s going on in the American school systems, but the evidence is in: Kids read more when they like what they’re reading. Kids also learn to read better when they read more. This creates a beautiful feedback loop and make it really important to give kids substantive, well-written content that is within their levels of understanding.

That being said, Harry Potter is not actually that easy to read – the narration flows smoothly, and because of the context it’s easy to infer the meaning of words you may not know (another virtue), but there is higher-level vocabulary aplenty in the books. It has been argued that dialogue tags (“Harry said”, “Hermione replied”), and modifiers (“She looked up, surprised”, “He said, angrily”) abound, and this is true. However, this works in favor of non-skilled readers, and is done smoothly enough that they mostly disappear for more advanced readers. I notice bad dialogue tags and modifiers in adult literary fiction, especially when they’re misplaced or done badly, but Rowling is consistent in her use and they make sense.

And there is no gross political undertone, no didactic message badly hidden within the pages. Nope, most of the characters aren’t gay or people of color. But does a good character need to identify exactly with certain aspects of your life to make a book worth reading? Of course not. The lessons teens (and adults) read about within the pages of Harry Potter are universally applicable: Be a good person. Choose your friends wisely. Stand up for what you believe is true and right. Life is hard and deeply unfair, and yet it still has meaning. The line between good and evil is not always so clear.

Some of the Harry Potter books – I’m looking at you, No. 5 – are actually quite dark. Harry endures all kinds of difficult things on top of the typical teenage angst – which is handled in the most non-condescending manner – and then his beloved godfather dies. We only see a little of Harry’s emotional processing after Sirius’ death, but what we see is good. He vaults between denial, hope, rage, and spending whole afternoons weeping by himself. But nothing here is overwrought or pitying. If you have a heart, sure, you’ll probably cry. But Rowling doesn’t need to convince you to pity Harry. She writes so well that you’ll do it all by yourself – and yet, you’ll know that he will be okay, because kids are resilient and Harry is a good kid.

Beyond the life lessons Harry Potter provides, the books are truly funny (Hermione is once mentioned reading a book full of diagrams of Muggles lifting heavy objects), and wonderfully imaginative. Perhaps they are formulaic, but I can’t see any other way for them to be – the nature of the novels means that Harry has to go through the school year and we know that a dangerous adventure awaits him at the end. The building of the danger throughout the school year propels the plot, with excellent pacing, in every book and that pacing is mirrored throughout the series. As you get closer to the end, the 5th and 6th books become darker and more mysterious, leading you to hope that things will be resolved in the 7th, and eager to see Harry rain justice upon Lord Voldy-thing’s head. Intricate plot lines weave their way throughout, and the sheer volume of spells, textbooks, characters, and magical beasts is mind boggling. I dare Harry Potter’s literary critics to show me another magical world that is half so well-developed (excepting, of course, LOTR).

Beyond the magic, the character arcs throughout the series are beautifully wrought – and, as many people have noticed, the writing itself become more mature as Harry ages. Every person, even the vile Professor Snape, is explored, changed, complicated, understood. Friendships change, develop, mature. The things people do and say are realistic and consistent. Tragedy is neither overspun nor turned away from. Every time I read the series, I am so impressed by Rowling’s creative genius, and I really think it is just that – genius.

Who knows if Harry Potter will be taught in academic literature classes in the future? Who fucking cares? The books will endure as they have over the last 20 years on their own merit with or without the endorsement of academic elites, and kids and adults from all over the world will enjoy getting sucked into the immersive experience of Harry Potter and Hogwarts. I highly recommend getting into the series again yourself, and if you haven’t read it before – you’re in for a treat.

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