Thursday, September 06, 2007

Trudging through Potterland

I'm hewing my way through the first Harry Potter book. It's not by any means anything I'd call a pleasure, although I had vague hopes it would prove otherwise.

I'm reading the goddam thing dutifully, out of a sense of long overdue moral obligation. As a man who has despised everything about Harry Potter since the first book was published, entirely by osmosis, I finally decided I might as well actually read one of the fucking things, to see if my entirely negative opinion of all things Potter is in any way justified by the source material itself.

Now, as I said, I was at least faintly hoping to be pleasantly surprised. And unfortunately, I haven't been... at least, not yet. I will say this, though... Reading the book out of a sense of ethical obligation is strangely appropriate to the text itself, because it seems to me that it was written in much the same manner. Which is to say, at least in this first book in the series, J.K. Rowling writes as if she's cleaining a toilet. It's a nasty and unpleasant job, and she'd rather be doing any number of other things, but by God, that toilet needs to be cleaned, so she's going to do it.

Rowling shows no flair or talent for words in this novel at all. Nor does she seem to have a particularly fine or sophisticated grasp of story structure, plot, characterization, or exposition. Her dialogue frankly sucks, her writing style, such as it is, contains nowhere within it so much as a subatomic particle of grace or wit, and she badly, badly needs someone with authority, somewhere, to bar her from ever, ever, EVER inventing another world-specific proper noun again.

None of her world specific name coinages work well. Every once in a while she comes up with something that sounds more or less adequate to the job she sets it -- Slytherin, for example, isn't a terrible name for group of kids who are all destined to one day be evil sorcerers, although, in all honesty, if every sorcerer who eventually goes bad is always a Slytherin, why not start, like, teaching all the Slytherin kids crappy magic? But even here there's nothing even remotely subtle; you hear the phrase 'Slytherin' and if it doesn't strike you that there's something vaguely sinister there, then you were most likely shocked to be told that that guy Grimas Wormtongue was a bad 'un, too.

Voldemort isn't a terrible name for a villain, either. It ain't great. But it works okay.

Yet, for every made up phrase or proper noun she comes up with that kinda-sorta works okay, albeit in a halting, stumbling, haphazard fashion, there are eighteen more that are just retarded. Gringrott's? Who the fuck is going to bank at a place that sounds like a toe fungus? Hufflepuff? C'mon, she stole this from the Three Little Pigs. How is this supposed to be cool? Hogwarts? Seriously, you want me to go to school at a place called Hogwarts? It sounds like something that's resistant to penicillin. Knuts? Knuts? Do I even have to describe how fucking brain damaged I'd have to be before I ever let myself refer to a bunch of coins in my pocket, even to myself, as Knuts? Fuck all that.

Probably the worst name Rowland ever came up with, though, is one that's all through this franchise -- not quite as common as Hogwarts (a phrase which, honest to jebus, makes me wince every time I hear or read it), but one that's pretty well traveled nonetheless -- Dumbledore. I mean, what? The wisest of the wise, everybody's magical mentor, the Gandalf, the Obi Wan Kenobi, the Professor X of the entire Harry Potter universe... and he sounds like he flaps his gigantic ears to fly. Seriously, what the fuck was Rowland thinking?

Now, I knew she came up with crappy, stupid sounding names and phrases before I ever picked up the book; I got all that just from living in a world packed to the rafters with insane, drooling Harry Potter fans. I guess I was just hoping that, once I saw these dumbass phrases in their original context, they'd seem better, somehow.

Well, so much for that.

Here's the thing, though. I know it's extremely picky of me, but, well, even within a fantasy context, I still like my fictional worlds to make some kind of sense. Now, I understand what Rowland is trying to do here... she wants to create a world that is very similar to ours, but in which various fantasy elements (like magic, and magic users, and magical creatures) also exist. Rather than integrate these fantasy elements into our more mundane reality, which would create an entirely different sort of culture and society and world for everyone to live in, she wants to keep this all separate... so she can have the real world we all live in and are familiar with, but, at the same time, have all these fabulous fantasy elements that only a select few actually know about and interact with.

It's a great gimmick. Probably the most appealing thing about the books is this distinction between Muggles and Magical Folk, especially since it's pretty much designed to make any loyal Harry Potter fan feel superior to anyone not initiated into the inner mysteries... a Muggle, as it were.

As an aside, one reason I've always largely loathed Harry Potter is an unpleasant experience I had back in 1999 -- I think -- with a fellow temporary employee I was forced to interact with during a brief clerical assignment at an insurance office in Tampa. This fellow saw me reading something geekish -- I couldn't tell you what it was now -- on a break and decided to befriend me. However, upon learning that I'd never read a Harry Potter book, and had no desire to borrow any of his so I could remedy this grievous character flaw, he began to berate me by saying "Well, you're just a Muggle. Huh haw, huh haw! You don't know what that means, but that's because you're a Muggle! Huh haw, huh haw! You're a Muggle!"

Actually, I did know what the phrase 'Muggle' meant, because I'd read about the Harry Potter phenemenon by that time, and the word had been prominently mentioned in the articles I'd read. But I didn't bother to argue with him, I merely tried to ignore him as best I could for the remainder of the time I had to work with him... which wasn't easy, because he liked his own 'joke' so much that he compulsively repeated it, along with braying spasms of near hysterical laughter, every time he saw me after that. I think it was probably one of the deepest disappointments of this fellow's life to that time, that he couldn't get anyone else working the assignment to start calling me "Muggle", too.

Now, I'm very familiar with the phenomena of spurious elitism. It's a malady many of my geekish brethren fall victim to, and it's understandable. Many geeks are outcasts and rejects, living on the fringes of normal society because they are conventionally unattractive, or sometimes simply so gauche and otherwise socially clueless as to be intolerable to anyone who isn't also an outcast. For such people, the chance to be an expert in anything has a powerful draw, and the more obscure their area of expertise is, the more superior to non-experts they feel. I've had similar experiences to the one I described above with fellow geeks whose 'expertise' lay in other fringe areas... Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: the Gathering, superhero comics in general, the occult... any time someone has learned a lot of trivia about something that most people just don't give a shit about, there's a danger they will become insufferably arrogant about it... as if the fact that they can (mis)quote reams of Monty Python or Dr. Who dialogue for hours on end somehow makes them superior to people who have actually had real sexual intercourse with partners who were living, conscious, willing, and human, all at the same time.

Chronic to geekdom though this condition may be, I will say this -- I have never seen a subgrouping of geeks more prone to spurious elitism than Harry Potter fans. They all seem to have embraced the concept of being a "non-Muggle" with the avidity of a Templar snatching up the One True Holy Grail, and while it is certainly correct that few Harry Potter fans I have known have been remotely as rude about the whole Muggle thing as the guy I mention above, nonetheless, it seems to me that nearly all devoted fans of Harry cherish, in their heart of hearts, the notion that they themselves are certainly intrinsically and undeniably superior to mere Muggles.

Which brings us back to my affection for fantasy worlds that make actual internal sense: Here's something about Harry Potter's reality I do not understand -- why is the 'wizarding world' (yet another truly horrible phrase coinage) kept secret from the Muggles?

When Harry asks this question of Hagrid in the volume I'm reading, he is told that if Muggles knew about magic, they would expect magical solutions to all their problems. The implication is, providing magical solutions to Muggle problems is bad, and therefore, the very existence of magic and magic users must be kept secret from these tiresomely needy Muggles. Otherwise, one supposes, wizards and witches would be kept busy feeding the hungry, curing cancer, disarming nuclear weapons, coming up with cheap power sources, fixing global warming, ending wars, and all that crazy bullshit, and wouldn't have any time to sit around in magical pubs drinking magical ale and sending each other magical mash notes via magical owls.

Obviously, this explanation troubles me. This is very much like saying that people who don't know how to blow glass aren't allowed to have incandescent bulbs in their homes, and if you can't construct a central processing unit from copper wire and cadmium chips, you have no right to access the Internet. Magic, like applied engineering and basic scientific knowledge, is a field of human knowledge whose primary purpose is problem solving (or it would be if it actually existed). You shouldn't need to be able to cast a spell to benefit from the existence of working, functional sorcery, any more than you should need to be able to wire your house before you enjoy the benefits of electricity.

Now, I'm only 3/4s of a the way through the first book, and I don't even know if I'm going to finish this one, much less essay another, so it's very possible that at some point someone smarter than Hagrid may provide Harry with a much more intelligent reason why 'the wizarding world' keeps its existence entirely secret from all the Muggles.

Still, I doubt it. I think the reason is exactly as presented -- wizards are a bunch of stuck up, preening pricks who don't want to be bothered using their magical powers to help improve the existence of a bunch of worthless stupid good for nothing Muggles. Not that fans of the franchise will object to that, since it seems to be pretty much how they feel about Muggles, too.

Now, having said all this, I don't think there's much of anything wrong with the Harry Potter franchise that couldn't be cured by someone with actual writing talent. Neil Gaiman would probably write a terrific Harry Potter novel. I just don't think J.K. Rowling has managed it yet... or, at least, she didn't with the first one, which is likely all I'm going to read.


  1. I know you will find this disappointing, but I've read the entire series except for the last one.

    I just found it amusing to follow the story, even though as a literary read, there are much, much better things out there.

    What I like about it as a phenomenon is that it gets kids away from TV, video games, text messaging, and all the other things that degrade their ability to form complete sentences.

    And anything that will get a kid to read a 700 page novel in the summer is pretty amazing.

    Of course a more talented writer could do a better job with the literature, but I'm not so sure that kids would find it as accessible wholesale.

  2. A lot of braindead drooling NASCAR fans who would never, ever trouble themselves to read anything else have entire shelves filled with Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz paperbacks. (They never have the GOOD King stuff, you know, CARRIE up through, say, CHRISTINE, because the stuff King wrote back when he was actually working at his craft is somewhat demanding... not enormously, but much more so than the moronic comic strips without pictures he started writing with IT.)

    The fact that people who would not otherwise trouble themselves to read something, will read something that's written really badly, doesn't justify bad writing to me. When I review something I've read, I'm largely going to be reviewing it on the basis of how well it's written. HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE is, at least so far, really really badly written.

    It's possible that some 11 year old Harry Potter fan may some day cure cancer due to some sort of bizarre inspiration he found in a Harry Potter book, and that will be fabulous, but the Harry Potter book will still be a piece of shit regardless. Similarly, it's possible that some hard working mother of four may get shot in the chest by a freeway sniper and have her life saved by the hardcover copy of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS she was carrying home under her coat for her kids. And that will be a wonderful thing, too... but I suspect the book itself will still be a gigantic literary turd, regardless of its fabulous qualities as a bulletproof vest.

  3. On a completely different note, please don't think I find your literary habits disappointing in any regard. They aren't mine, certainly, but whoop tee doo. I like what I like, other people's mileage varies greatly. That's why they make chocolate and vanilla.

    I simply find it baffling that the most popular novelist of all time is so rotten at what she's so wildly successful at. But I guess it simply reinforces what a crap shoot life is. If J.K. Rowling can somehow end up with the bestselling fantasy series of all time, then, by God, pretty much anyone else could, too. There is no actual reward in this life for truly being good at what you do... which is, I suppose, reassuring, given how mediocre a writer I myself am.

  4. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Good entry B-man. Some well thought out reasoning on the first book.
    And Neil Gaiman did write Harry Potter, and a few years before JK did. It's called "Books Of Magic" and had the "greatest magician there will be" in the DC universe named Tim Hunter. He lived in England, wore glasses, had an owl as a companion...
    But Neil bears no animosity towards JK. As he just put it in San Diego, if she was going to steal from him, like other writers who steal she'd have enough sense to file off the serial numbers.

    Tony C.

  5. Anonymous10:54 PM

    Rowling shows no flair or talent for words in this novel at all. Nor does she seem to have a particularly fine or sophisticated grasp of story structure, plot, characterization, or exposition. Her dialogue frankly sucks, her writing style, such as it is, contains nowhere within it so much as a subatomic particle of grace or wit

    Well, the characterization gets a little better, at least sporadically, the dialogue pretty much sucks the entire way through the series, as does the exposition.

    I've read all 7 books, and to me, the first two read sort of like some of the juvenile mystery novels I used to read as a kid (something like, I don't know, The Three Investigators or The Hardy Boys).
    The third book is a big improvement on the first two. By the fourth, it actually looked as if Rowling might have an actual story to tell, but then the series goes precipitously downhill from there.

    Now, I'm not a fraction of the writer you are, Sir Bunnyman, but it seems to me that given the central premise of the books (Harry, raised as a muggle with no knowledge of the magical world, is suddenly introduced to said world), there are a few ways to approach the story that make sense.

    The first is to use Harry as the reader's proxy - the reader learns about this hidden magical world through Harry's eyes, since he's as ignorant as the rest of us. How does magic work? Where does it come from? What are the rules, history, etc? So basically as Harry learns to use magic, the reader learns too.

    Another would be to explore how Harry reacts to moving from a world in which he's an abused nobody into one in which he is a literal superstar. How does the experience change him? How does he deal with the changes? Etc.

    The third would be to tell a story in which, through Harry, the two worlds (magical and non-magical) collide.

    Any one of these approaches would make more sense than what Rowling does.

    Despite the fact that Harry has absolutely no knowledge of magic until the point that he goes to Hogwarts, he displays very little curiosity about how magic works, how to use it, or what it's history is - except when the plot demands it. Rowling has no interest in building a consistent magical world. In fact, in her world, magicians' sole talent seems to be the ability to shoot different coloured lights ("curses" or "spells") out of the ends of their wands. The targets of these curses can duck behind statues or walls, as if magic wands were little more than straightened out guns.

    And despite the fact that Harry has grown up in the "muggle" world, he seems to have no trouble adapting to this bizarre alternate world in which people who want to communicate with each other over long distances send fucking *birds* back and forth, instead of, I don't know - cell phones? e-mail?

    There's no attempt to reconcile how these two worlds (magic and non-magic) can even co-exist at all.

    She very clearly had no interest in even creating a cohesive narrative over the 7 books; it really isn't until book 6 that there's any kind of overall plot arc; the first 4 books in particular are very episodic and formulaic - "Harry goes back to school to solve some new mystery and thwart another attempt by You-Know-Who, etc etc; one of the teachers is not what they seem; someone who we think is a bad guy/good guy is really the opposite" pretty much sums up the plots for the first 4 books (there! I saved you the trouble. No need to thank me).

    If you want to read a series about a young man learning how to be a magician in a magical London of the present day, read The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. It's everything the Harry Potter series isn't - written with style, wit, and humour; excellent characterization, and a consistent magical world in which characters act like actual humans (except when they aren't. Human, that is).

  6. Don't lose sight of the fact that these books were written for kids (simple sentences, black and white dilemmas, etc.) and not meant for the discerning adult palate.

    Speaking of chocolate and vanilla, these sorts of books are not my usual taste (although my own local drooling NASCAR fan has Tom Clancy and David McCullough on his shelf). They were good brain candy to escape to during a difficult time in my life.

    Switching gears, I doubt that very many ten or eleven year olds would pick up a quality adult-oriented sci-fi book on his or her own. (present company excluded of course) History can only say if Potter-mania is a good or bad influence on kids, but I'm glad at least it gets them reading.

  7. Several things:

    First, now that Harry's gotten to the appallingly badly named Hogwarts, things have gotten much more interesting. There's about as much crashing stupidity in the mix as there is anything even remotely well conceived, but, nonetheless, the narrative is no longer as deadly dull as it was. I wouldn't say it's any better written, but at least there's more to hold the attention.

    Having said all that, a couple of things --

    I deeply and vehemently disagree with the implied presumption that children's books don't have to written as well as adult books. For one thing, I never accused Rowland of merely using 'simple sentences', I said she used BAD sentences. There's a different. Heinlein and Laumer use SIMPLE sentences; their prose styles are very simple and straightforward. But they write WELL.

    Children's books can be, and should be, and in fact, often are, written WELL. However, this first Harry Potter book isn't, and that's what I'm on about.

    Second, I also deeply disagree with the idea that children cannot enjoy or appreciate anything that isn't 'simple'. It's just not true, although it's a bias that has come to utterly dominate our culture and one I'm quite tired of. In the 1970s, just to use one example that leaps immediately to mind, Steve Engelhart and Steve Gerber were writing some of the most sophisticated and complex superhero comics ever done (DEFENDERS, MAN-THING, DR. STRANGE, CAPTAIN AMERICA, CAPTAIN MARVEL, AVENGERS, among many others) and their target audience averaged 13 years old. Readers of all ages, including many adults, enjoyed the stories, and those stories can be reread now and still be enjoyed at my advancing age (and I see levels in those stories I never would have before) but at the time, it would never have occurred to anyone at Marvel or DC to declare that these comics were for adults only. (Mostly because they didn't have nudity, sexual references, explicit gore, or bad words, which is what the 'adults only' tag has come to mean.)

    Kids are smart, and kids can enjoy sophisticated entertainment... but we no longer seem to believe that, as a culture. So earlier generations of adolescents got Englehart and Gerber and, well, THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, and contemporary kids get pablum like SPIDER-GIRL and CIVIL WAR and, well, HARRY POTTER.

    It doesn't have to be that way, though. We've simply forgetten that, by and large.

  8. Point noted.

    And "should" is such a lovely word. ALL published literature "should" have merit - for adults and children. Should be well written and worth the time. Should transport the reader into a different world. Trouble is, agents and publishers, no matter what their lofty intentions, are in the game to make money. Seven-zillion Harry Potter books make them more money than double that in Ursula LeGuiin (A moment of silence on her passing). Danielle Steele and John Grisham make more money than any literary novelist you can name.

    It sucks, but hopefully enough good stuff will slip through the cracks via self-publishing, e-books and PID (and the occasional agent or publisher who finds a diamond in the rough) to, if not reverse, at least slow this trend toward the dumbing-down of our printed literature.

  9. Oh, and Tony (sorry, got a little behind on the comments):

    Yeah, I took down BOOKS OF MAGIC the other day and glanced at the first couple of pages and said to myself "Hey, hell YES, that's Harry Potter, like ten years before Harry Potter ever showed up. Huh."

    And, certainly, Gaiman's Tim Hunter is a far better version of the character than Potter.

    However, I will say this - Rowland had to create her 'wizarding world' >gag< pretty much from scratch (well, she actually threw about seventeen ghost story cliches into a blender and then thrashed the resulting concoction until every last ounce of anything interesting or remotely sensible evaporated out of the mix, but, still, she had to run the mixer herself) while Gaiman got to set BOOKS OF MAGIC in the DC Universe's fairly rich and already established occult continuity. So that probably helped.

    Still, yeah, BOOKS OF MAGIC is about the best Harry Potter novel that is ever going to be written.

  10. Anonymous1:42 PM

    Kids are smart, and kids can enjoy sophisticated entertainment... but we no longer seem to believe that, as a culture.

    I think one of the things that the Harry Potter franchise did, aside from getting kids away from TV and video games, was to convince publishers that there was a BIG market for fantasy/sci-fi kid lit. There seems to have been an explosion in the number of childrens books being written now, and while a lot of it is probably crap, there is some really good stuff being published now, including the aforementioned BARTIMAEUS TRILOGY,or the INKSPELL trilogy by Cornelia Funke.

    For my children, however, the spark that interested them in reading wasn't Harry Potter - it was The Narnia Chronicles. I remember trying to convince my 5 or 6 year old son to let me read THE LION, THE WITCH, and THE WARDROBE to him as a bedtime story; he kept refusing, until one night I simply started reading it to him at bedtime. After one chapter he was hooked.

    I'm now trying to get him to read some Heinlein juveniles...

  11. All I will say is, much like the peasant who bore a most striking resemblance to Eric Idle, after his claim of being transformed into a newt, the series does get better.

    Sadly, it happens right around Book 6.

    And that's all I gots to say about that.