The Duck of Minerva


17 July 2007

It’s always fascinating to me to see certain traditional arguments, arguments that I would have liked to think were long dead and buried, resurface in slightly altered form. Highbrow intellectual critics whom I would like to think have been suitably disarmed as a result of their prior encounters with their opponents seem to reincorporate and revivify as if by magic when a target at all similar to the prior object of their criticism emerges; out they spring, wand in hand, ready to cast a hex or three and ruin everyone else’s fun.

That’s what Ron Charles seems to have in mind with his anti-Potter editorial in this weekend’s Washington Post. All the traditional pieces of the elitist dismissal of any and all elements of popular culture are present: Rowling isn’t a good writer, the Potter books are intellectually thin, people aren’t reading really serious (which means: “unpopular”) novels but are instead submerging themselves and being taken in by the “orgy of marketing hysteria” surrounding the Potter books, and so on. My favorite bit, though, is the sanctimonious self-congratulation the author pours on himself for having read and enjoyed an obscure novel last year:

My favorite was “The Law of Dreams,” a first novel by a 56-year-old writer named Peter Behrens. It’s the story of an orphaned boy who doesn’t know why he survived the evil force that killed his parents — and left him scarred. Set during the Irish potato famine of 1847, it’s not a fantasy, and it’s not for children, but there are plenty of monsters here, and Behrens writes in a style that’s pure magic. As of this writing, it has sold 8,367 copies in the United States. It’s enough to make a book critic snap his broom in two.

Oh, bully for you, you read a book that didn’t sell very many copies. Big deal. I am not sure where the nobility is supposed to lie in the mere act of reading (or watching, or listening to) something obscure, especially since that sentiment is conjoined with the notion that there is nothing of real value to be found in more popular works.

This kind of intellectual snobbery has been going on at least since Plato.

. . . a rational and quiet character, which always remains pretty well the same, is neither easy to imitate nor easy to understand when imitated, especially not by a crowd consisting of all sorts of people gathered together at a theater festival, for the experience being imitated is alien to them . . . an imitative poet isn’t by nature related to the
part of the soul that rules in such a character, and, if he’s to attain a good reputation with the majority of people, his cleverness isn’t directed to pleasing it. Instead, he’s related to the excitable and multicolored character, since it is easy to imitate. (Republic 604e-605a)

Sound familiar? The popular works can’t have enduring value, since they appeal to the baser emotions; real value is to be found in those obscure things that the majority of people can’t understand. That litany has pretty much been the staple curse of the intellectual snob for millennia; Charles isn’t adding anything even particularly novel to it. Nor does Charles seem at all concerned about, say, Nietzsche’s critique of this kind of intellectual asceticism, a critique which fairly clearly unveils the dismissal of the popular and the public as a kind of “weapon of the weak” directed against most of humanity by those who would deny their own commonality with the human condition.

Of course, Nietzsche also says that this is a sickness like pregnancy is a sickness — something good may come out of it in the end, but it is not an end in itself. What good, you ask? I can see two goods from where I sit. First, the dismissal of popular works might impel someone who is pissed off by that dismissal to defend those works more clearly, rising to perform the disarming charm that can render the snobs powerless. Second, that defense might promote a clearer and more profound understanding of those popular works.

Let me briefly endeavor to mount such a defense of the Harry Potter phenomenon.

I don’t want to try to claim that reading the Potter novels is some kind of a gateway to the reading of other novels; statistical data on that seems mixed, and my own anecdotal observations suggest that some people use Potter as a springboard while others start and stop their reading of novels with Rowling’s series. I also don’t want to claim that the Potter books belong on a list of “books that you should read before you die”; I can perfectly well imagine that people can get through their lives just fine without reading any of the Potter novels. (It’s much harder for me to imagine people going through life not having read, say, Tolkien or Shakespeare.) From just about any technical perspective, the Potter novels are not masterpieces, and I wouldn’t want to point to them as exemplars of the novelistic craft.

Nor is the universe that Rowling has created all that alien of a place to visit — indeed, that’s part of the secret of the Potter books’ success, since the world that they sketch is basically our ordinary world plus magic rather than something entirely different. There is very little displacement involved in reading the Potter books, and basically no aspects of the wizarding world that don’t map pretty precisely onto categories that are already familiar to us: classes, exams, pranks, jealousy, ambition, and so on. In this sense, the Potter novels are not demanding reads; this is not like reading Kafka or Joyce, or like reading Sheri S. Tepper or Iain M. Banks, all authors whose fictional worlds are not perfectly translatable into the categories of our own. Rather, the Potter novels are a pretty seamless reading experience, and the reader doesn’t have to continually work to make sense of them the way she or he has to with more disruptive novels.

Instead, let me defend the Potter phenomenon by saying that the key thing about it is its communal character. Like other mass media products, the experience of reading a Harry Potter book is less about the solitary encounter with the text and more about the public performance of being a Harry Potter fan: yes, the costumes and the toys and the like, but also and perhaps especially the conversations about the novels, the characters, the situations, the future. There’s something sociologically important about the existence of this kind of cultural commonplace (and let’s not kid ourselves about that — the existence of “Republicans for Voldemort” merchandise should be proof enough that we’ve entered that territory), and there’s something profound about participating in it. Profound, and literally inexpressible, since what we’re dealing with here is a communal experience that goes beyond mere spoken or written language and into what Wittgenstein would have called a “form of life.” Participating in such a form of life transforms the participant by making them a part of a collective effort to wrestle with or perform something; we become parts of a community of fans, able to interact in novel ways because of the novel possibilities afforded by the novel commonplaces presented by the mass media product. We literally construct ourselves differently through these experiences. As such, the “literary” merits of the Potter novels are quite beside the point; what matters is that they serve as rallying-points around which sense-making experiences coalesce.

Take that, Ron Charles.

[Oh, and for the record, I do not think that Snape is a good guy acting as a deep cover agent and only appering to cooperate with Voldemort; I think it’s more likely that Snape is trying to engineer a showdown between Harry and Voldemort in which they eliminate one another, so that Snape can assume Voldemort’s place. This weekend we shall see if I am correct or not!]