Most criticism of Harry Potter by professional critics or other fantasy readers drives me crazy. Why? Because Harry Potter criticism usually takes on one form: ‘the stories are formulaic and she can’t write well.’ I was recently arguing with a friend who is obsessed with George R. R. Martin over this point, with him suggesting that Martin’s work has far more literary merit than Rowling’s ever could.
For nearly thirteen years I’ve been arguing with people about how Harry Potter is more than just an exciting escapist yarn and deserves serious scholarly attention for its literary qualities (this includes friends, family and many college professors). So I decided to codify three aspects of the writing in Harry Potter that I consider to be intellectually worthy of attention and appreciation. In other words, since people I argue with usually attack Rowling’s writing skills (rather than the thematic quality or seriousness of the books), the following responses suggest ways that her writing is intelligent, mature and thought-provoking. Whenever you are conversing with someone who maintains that Rowling is the literary equivalent of Michael Bay, please feel free to use these arguments to respond!
1. The Artistry of Genre Experimentation
A hallmark of highfalutin interpretations of literature involves an appreciation for form. Many people can write a good yarn, but only true artists understand the complexities of form. James Joyce, for example, wrote an intriguing story about a man whose wife is having an affair on him (a basic plot point of Ulysses), but what makes Ulysses art is the way that Joyce communicates that story: through different styles of writing (standard narration, stream of consciousness, poetry, playwriting).
What makes Rowling’s work an example of high art in her genre is the way that the overall series of seven books cleverly mirrors the genre of the writing style with the age of the characters. I’ve heard many people explain how the stories get ‘darker’ as the series progresses. But it’s not just that–as the series progresses Rowling ‘grows up’ the genre of her writing style to match character growth.
When I was eleven (and younger), I loved reading mysteries like the Hardy Boys and The Boxcar Children and so on. When I was thirteen, I preferred more titles on the adventurous side of things, Treasure Island and the like. By fifteen, I was blown away by how much Holden Caufield thought the way I thought. Later on in high school, after giving up a few times, I finally read The Lord of the Rings from start to finish and was hooked on fantasy epic quest narratives forever.
The Harry Potter books mirror this progression. The first few books, where Harry is youngest, are told like middle grade mystery stories that are mostly school-level whodunnits. Azkaban and Goblet mature to more dangerous adventures, where morality becomes less simple and death becomes a more serious threat. By Order, Harry has become Holden Caufield and is dealing with the angst of young adult heroes. By Hallows, Harry is on the same type of hero quest usually reserved for heroes on the cusp of becoming full adults. I know of no other series that so intriguingly uses subgenre narrative styles to mimic character growth, and Rowling’s accomplishments here deserve attention.
2. A Real Time Coming of Age Story
The next example is similar to the above but different in important respects. A great deal of fantasy stories are coming of age stories insofar as by the end of the story, the main characters end up crossing the threshold from youth to adulthood. But this is usually metaphorically accomplished; take Star Wars where much of Luke’s growth is handled off screen and is inferred. When we leave him in Empire he is a crying handless mess; when we see him in Jedi he’s force-choking pigs. Something changed!
Most stories rely on the passage of time to let the reader fill in the developmental gaps. Take many of Dickens’s books, which are quite long and are frequently coming of age stories. Dickens has to rely on the passage of time. Harry Potter doesn’t rely on that crutch. Rowling takes an eleven year old and grows him in real time over the course of seven years. The movies get a lot of attention for how amazing it was to see Dan, Rupert and Emma grow up right before our eyes, but that was, frankly, a matter of biology. Sure they grew up with grace and maturity, and that was a Hollywood miracle, but it was much more difficult for an author to grow fictional characters through seven year-long narratives, and that accomplishment is Rowling’s. Taking an eleven year old character and making each new book about one year in that character’s life is an intriguing experiment. The Harry of Year One is different from the Harry of Year Three and he’s different from the Harry of Year Five and he’s different from the Harry of Year Seven. Usually coming of age stories have difficulty showing three of four major stages of maturation; Rowling shows seven stages of progression from innocence to experience. As far as coming of age stories go, this is an incredible accomplishment.
3. The “Epic vs. the Novel” Interpretation
This is the snobby response. If method one and two fail, it’s time to turn to literary theorizing. A great deal of Harry Potter criticisms I’ve heard contend that Rowling’s writing suffers from her black and white, good vs. evil character development–while books like A Game of Thrones are far more realistically developed. At this point in such arguments, I throw down my English Major status and ask, but have you read Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories on Epic and Novel?
Bakhtin was a Russian literary scholar who argued about the essential difference between novel and epic forms in a way that I’ve always found useful when reading fantasy literature. He argued that an essential quality of epic writing is externalization–that a lot of the characters take their interior states and represent them externally (where traditional novels might focus more keeping interior thoughts interior). And while Harry Potter does allow for much character introspection the way that novels do, I’d say that Rowling’s artistic mode is much more epic. How does Harry realize that his father lives on inside him? Is it by learning something about himself through lengthy reflection and interior monologuing? No. The externalized representation of Harry’s father (the stag patronus) appears before Harry, making him believe that his father is still out there, only to later realize that this external representation came out of him–proving that his father is still somewhere inside him. In other words, the external action of the plot (Harry seeing the stag patronus saving him and Sirius) symbolically represents the internal state of the character (Harry coming to terms with the absence of his father in his life). This is epic character development. Rowling takes what is happening on the inside, which a traditional novelist might dwell on internally, and represents it in an external form.
Anyone who wants her to conform to other novelists is missing that this is her mode of making meaning: the symbolic mode of epics, myths, fairy tales and all of the truly immortal paths of storytelling.
So there it is, if you have to defend Rowling against this typical kind of Harry Potter criticism, please use these arguments and fight the good fight!
And before you leave, please make sure to comment below and to check out the Gifs of the Week–with a Harry Potter/Neville Longbottom focus!
Do you have any particular examples of arguing with people about the quality of Harry? Do you disagree with me that Harry deserves this kind of attention? Comment below.
For more Harry Potter Commentary, see this post on “Strong Writing: Owning the Cliche.”