Arts/Literature

Harry Potter and the Pile of Drivel

Once upon a time there were great children’s books

If you’ve never read Neverending Story, or the Narnia series, or the Tripods series by John Christopher, or anything by Terry Pratchett (most especially the Tiffany Aching series), or … or …

There are lots, and more are being written all the time but: move over kiddies, it’s Harry Potter time.

There is only one guarantee about this (hopefully) final instalment in the series. It’ll be the thickest book of the lot. JK Rowling is of the school of business that believes you can trick people into believing they’re having a great experience by increasing the amount of it available.

This is used by dud restaurants which fill plates to overflowing and rock bands of little worth who insist on epic guitar solos. They hope you’re fooled.

It works.

Harry Potter is the most successful children’s book of all time. It has outclassed everything. Its banal dialogue and trivial plotting recall the hohum drivel of George Lucas and witty banter so absent from the Star Wars series. It is founded on daytime soap opera and the people who find it obsessive viewing.

Can you imagine a collaboration between Lucas and Rowling? Imagine what it would be about?

“A long time ago in a private school for wizards far away …” It would be filled with absurd weaponry that never seem to have any real power, stupid plot diversions that are left abandoned, ranting dialogue full of words and without meaning, and obvious red-herrings we need to ignore.

It would even have a famous scene where our hero confronts the evil masked villain to hear, “Harry, Harry, I am your father!”

“Nooooooooooooooo!”

Oh, wait. Maybe they already did?

(Harry Potter and the Pile of Drivel will be released on 21 July. No, we are not linking to it.)

45 replies »

  1. If I want good literature, I won’t read Harry Potter. If I want a mindless escape from reality for a few hours (like millions of other readers who read pulp novels – think the hundreds of Star Trek and Star Wars novels, romance novels of all stripes), then HP is just fine.

  2. I’d rather have kids and adults alike reading crap than not reading at all. And given how Harry Potter has sparked and resurged the imaginations and creativity of millions of readers, and given the world as close to a truly communal experience in the age of division as we can manage, I’d say J.K. Rowling knows something you don’t, Gavin. 😉

    Not every book has to be WEIGHTY and SERIOUS and IMPORTANT. If reading and literature can’t be fun and light on occasion, that’s not a world I want to live in.

  3. Terry Pratchett is fun and light.

    Have you noticed the evil stereotyping in HP? All the fat people are ugly, all the ugly people are evil. All the good people are good looking.

    This isn’t teaching kids anything you don’t regularly accuse Hollywood of in stereotyping and weak thinking. And no, there is no excuse for it.

  4. I work in an indy bookstore in Vermont. I tried the first Potter book and didn’t care for it, and since then I’ve enjoyed making fun of the series, but every day at work now I encounter very intelligent people, kids and adults alike, who convey their enthusiam for the Potter series so well that I no longer make fun of Harry and co. From what I understand, the first two book bear little resemblence to the rest of the series (in tone, at least). People are reading. Kids are learning to love books. In other words, there might be more worthwhile targets out there than Rowling. In other words, I was a snob who didn’t really know what I was talking about . . .

  5. It’s true that the Potter series pales compared to many, including the ones Gavin names. It’s true that it can be fun, escapist reading. It’s true that it has gotten a lot of kids to reading when they wouldn’t have otherwise. And mostly it’s true that it’s the perfect formative childhood reading experience for the Millennial Generation – its weaknesses play perfectly to theirs, and at the same time its positive themes perfectly mirror the strengths of a cohort that’s at its best in team environments.

    All this aside, though, there is one tremendously great thing about the series that nobody is talking about. It’s hard being in the book business these days, and Rowling has made brazilians of dollars for the industry, helping sustain it through increasingly tough times.

    Anything that helps bookstores isn’t all bad, and maybe with luck some of these new young readers will graduate to better lit in the future. Fingers crossed.

  6. Yes, Sam, good point. And much more worthy blog entry might be one urging readers to buy their Potter (or whatever) an their local indie bookstore. Without indie bookstore literature in American is dead. Indies are being run in the ground by Amazon, Borders, and B&N. (I know, I work at a the local indie in bookstore in town.) One were gone (en mass) then those Walmart-esque companies will decide what American reads. And we’re dropping like flies. Buy Potter local. Order from your local indie (most can get you books just as fast as Amazon, and you get that bonus: actual human interaction with fellow booklovers).
    And quit playerhatin JK . . .

  7. Leebop – Absolutely. Now that I’m back in Denver I can bop down to Tattered Cover anytime I need something, and I wish that was a luxury people in every town had.

  8. Wow whythawk, bitter much?

    “Now hear this! All of you who have been enjoying the Harry Potter series for the past decade should be ashamed of yourselves! You can now return to your regularly scheduled unenlightened lives.”

    There are a lot of things in this world that are worthy of vitriol and condemnation, but…Harry Potter?

  9. I hate to pile on, Gavin, and I’m a lit guy myself, a writer and professor – I write what’s known in America as “literary fiction” – which is code in publishing for “mid-list books that the big vendors believe won’t sell.” I should hate Harry Potter for some of the just reasons you offer.

    I don’t, however, hate Harry Potter. It’s drawn millions back to reading – maybe they’ll be drawn to other drivel, maybe they’ll be drawn to more serious work. Once you’ve got them going to book stores, it becomes possible to get them make it a habit. For all her flaws, Rowling has done that.

    A side note – thanks to you Leebop and your colleagues who’ve supported the work of writers like me. My hope is that you’ll be rewarded with business success and continue to be able to help readers grow beyond the likes of Potter….

  10. And I might point out that while Terry Pratchett might not sell Rowling’s numbers, he’s hardly starving. There’s no reason why readers can’t enjoy both and buy the works of both writers–and/or others like them, as is often the case.

  11. As much as I like Terry Pratchett, he also write pulp along with his more serious stuff. Diskworld is much “fluffier” than Harry Potter, IMO, and great beach reading (you know, books that are easy to follow so if you fall asleep in the sun they’re easy to pick back up and that are cheap enough that if you get sand in it or your toddler throws it into the surf, it’s no big deal).

  12. I have to chime in here – I was one of those who looked down my nose at the Harry Potter phenomenon, not thinking the books were worth the time of a “serious reader”. Of course, then I actually read them and, although I am not one who will wait in line to get the new and final installment, I heartily enjoyed them, plotholes, 2-dimensional characters and all. I am not one to resent the popularity of this series.
    Yes, the books are mostly surface, black & white storylines. These are books written for children and adolescents, like the Wizard of Oz and the Alice books. Things are put in a simple enough way for children to understand the story, but entertaining enough to keep their attention asn well as our’s. Many of the deeper meanings attached to our childhood favorites comes out of our love and affection for them, from a desire to make them Important, and an understanding of the times in which they were written, not necessarily from the words of the author her/himself.
    I think that many of us “serious readers” have had issues with the Potter books because it really is that easy to attract readers, and we are perhaps resentful that our favorites (which we all *know* are written and plotted so much better than Ms. Rowling’s novels) are overlooked while these fluffy black & white, easy-to-read and comprehend novels are flying off the shelves. But to be a curmudgeon about Harry and those who love him is to miss the very thing that Leebop pointed out – the love for the novels has revitalized an industry that had been ailing. The popularity of the series opens up a world of better novels to these readers, children and adults, novels and writers that they may never have heard of, because once many of them are finished with this series, they will go onto Amazon.com or walk into their local bookstore and ask, “I really liked the Harry Potter books. What do you have that is like that?” And hopefully, they will continue to read, moving onto bigger and better literature. But, if they don’t, at least they read these, and will probably continue to read books from the best-seller lists or Oprah’s reading list. And even I have to admit that Oprah convinces her viewers to read some challenging books. Why else have I seen soccer-moms at the park deep into McCarthy’s “The Road”?
    I think I may have belabored my point here, but hopefully not too much.

  13. Josh,

    I adored the Prydain series as a child. I think I last re-read them about 7 years ago. Brilliant books and ones that I have started to recommend to my friends’children.

  14. Huh? Harry Potter killed all the great children’s books? I better search for my Narnia omnibus to see if it’s OK. (Personally I find the Narnia series overall a collection of mediocre Christian fables with one or two bright spots (Horse and His Boy, Silver Chair) and Pratchett’s writing hardly anything of “class” but whatever floats your boat.)

  15. When I was in elementary school, my teachers would tell me I need to expand my reading material beyond the Hardy Boys mysteries I always chose to read. Eventually I did, but the Hardy Boys taught me to enjoy reading, and I have that joy to this day…and I’m in my 40s.

    Harry Potter was never meant for serious readers. The books were written to encourage young readers to enjoy cracking open a book. Hopefully they succeeded.

  16. I’m sticking to my guns here. And Marc raises the reason.

    There used to be a writer easily as popular in her day as Rowling is now. Enid Blyton.

    Millions of kids around the world got their start with Enid. And their end. I remember being stuck on them myself around the age of six. I hoovered them up. A teacher pried me off by forcing me to read … The Hardy boys. Fortunately that was enough and I realised pretty soon how bad they were and moved on.

    Most people don’t. Most people become wed.

    Poor Daniel Radcliff trying to be an actor and being attacked my mothers as destroying Harry. Pity the rest of the kids. They’re going to battle to break these rolls. Seen Driving Lessons, a brilliant indy film with Rupert Glint? Difficult, difficult. And Rowling is going to find herself in the same position as Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Potter is now an institution.

    And it isn’t good for indy bookshops. It has commoditised literature, allowing it to be moved in massive volumes. It prepares people to read only what other people read and not find things on their own.

    I am a literature snob. Like I’m a wine snob and a coffee snob and tea snob and cheese snob and an olive snob …

    Why should I accept the humdrum when there are geniuses working to produce marvels. Why should I watch the “massification” of entertainment and not worry that there may soon be precious little demand for the specialisations I enjoy.

    And what happens when there are too few of us able to pay and support genius? Does it become the “state supported” theatre? With its vapid selection of opera and plays that no-one watches and have no life?

    I am not fighting the book. I have no quarrel with Rowling’s success. I am appalled at the spirit of man that requires that we all read the same thing at the same time and that millions across the world will queue for the same experience.

    How very, very dull.

  17. So basically you’re upset about the crasser tastes of the masses who have been lowering the bar for literature since the novel gained a form? Ok.

    Who are these “millions” who apparently abandoned the bastion of literature because of Blyton? Where is your proof that if “millions” of kids started with C.S. Lewis they’d be fervent theatre supporters today? Who is requiring you to line up for and accept anything? How do you know she’s going to be the new Sherlock Holmes? Would you be as appalled at the “millions” wanting the same experience if it were for some Flaubert revival? (Well, of course, then he wouldn’t only be read by the chosen few anymore.)

    If I had a penny for every best-selling author in his/her day who no one knows about now and every self-published chap who’s now taught in university…

  18. I’ve got a problem with literature snobs, so admitting to being one isn’t exactly a good thing in my book. They’re the same people who tell me that science fiction and fantasy aren’t literature yet refuse to acknowledge greatness in both of those genres. Hell, most literature snobs refuse to acknowledge true literature in any form of genre literature, and that’s just really, really sad.

  19. whythawk,

    Your vision of a world in which the majority only reads the same thing, and that thing being what we are told to read, is already an actuality, at least here in the states.
    We have the NYT Best-Seller List, which lists the following as the top 5 hardcover novels: The Quickie, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, Lean Mean Thirteen, by Janet Evanovich, The Judas Strain, by James Rollins, and Bungalow 2, by Danielle Steel. Without even getting into my opinion on all of these titles/writers, I point out that this is an example of the spirit of man requiring all of us to read the same thing. The Oprah reading list is a similar example of a large group of people eager to be told what to read and what to think about what they read. We also have the BookSense.com list, which, although oriented toward the independant bookseller-supporter with a more literary selection of novels (Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky is on it, but so is the Kite Runner, a book which makes me bemoan the state of novel today) is still a list that many people will look at and say “wow, guess I should be reading those”.
    Humans seem to be group oriented creatures – we want to fit in and be part of the herd, and are easily led into doing/seeing/reading what others are.
    And while snobbery in all areas *can* be a good thing, raising the bar and such, it seems a waste of our time to bemoan the lack of class or culture or whathaveyou in The Masses. That way lies frustration. I am happy to see people reading, and if I have to bite my tongue when they tell me how much they loved “The DaVinci Code”, then so be it. The least I can do at that point is recommend a book along those lines, with better writing.

  20. Not the point, don’t get distracted here. Kelly Bearden (21) has it exactly.

    Whatever happened to this much touted “long tail” where we’d all find our individuality and not get challenged on it for being a “snob”?

    Kelly may be happy to sigh and go along with it. I am not. And by the reaction I’ve caused here, I hit a nerve.

    I don’t mind that few people read me. I don’t need people to agree with me or even like me. I do appreciate though, that the few people who do read my creative work or look at my photographs enjoy it tremendously.

    I am an artisan and I would have a world in which artisans are appreciated for their endeavour not sneered at for being snobs.

    And don’t put words in my mouth. “Appreciated” does not mean “run out and buy”. If Flaubert was all anyone wanted to read it would be exactly the same, stupid.

    It is a lack of self-confidence which prevents people from challenging themselves to try new things but only stick to the common oik. And it is petty to criticize those who don’t.

  21. Here we go again. It’s like being back in the damned academy and having to listen to debates over serious literature vs popular literature, as though it’s an either/or. As though something that’s popular can’t be of artistic merit. As though something that’s deep and meaningful can’t be interesting to anybody but a spinster librarian or a very lonely English professor.

    Please. There’s a both/and here, and I say this as a guy who has read all the Potter books to date, as a guy who worships the cyberpunks, as a guy who has read and enjoyed Anne Rice and Flannery O’Connor.

    As a guy’s who a freakin’ POET, ferjebussakes.

    Don’t make me start posting poetry here, because you know I will.

  22. And don’t make me start serializing my novella, because you know… wait a sec, that would mean people would read it! No money off it, of course, but damn, I’m not making any money off it now…

    😉

  23. I’d just like to argue for online booksellers for a minute. I think stores like Amazon and B&N.com do push titles that you wouldn’t normally notice. All that lovely tracking of what I own helps their programs recommend other books to me, and sends me emails when authors I read before release a new title. Not to mention the online reviews by other readers. There is also the ability to track down hardbacks from used bookstores across the country and buy books not published in the US.

    The internet is a good thing for publishing. Word of mouth is now global and you are no longer limited by your small town bookstores’ selection. When I lived in Durango your choices were a tiny waldenbooks, the local metaphysical shop, and one small independent store mostly interested in women’s studies, the west, and local hiking/tourist books. If you wanted anything unusual, your choices were to leave town or order online. And the defintion of “unusual” was pretty damn broad in that town.

    The Harry Potter books are good. It’s a series written for children that adults are picking up and reading for enjoyment, even if they don’t have any kids. How often does that happen?

    I get tired of people ripping on something just because it has broad appeal. Sorry, your horse didn’t come in first. It doesn’t mean the doom of the planet, independent literature, or anything else dire. It just means that someone found a chord that resonated beyond one subculture. It happenes every once in a while, and yes, it leads to copycats, but then the furor dies down and life goes on. Did the popularity of Star Wars end independent film? Did the popularity of Shakespeare end theater? Did the Beatles end rock? If literature was going to be destroyed because a book found mass appeal, we would have all been doomed with the King James Bible. But considering the Dalai Lama and Aleister Crowley are both able to be widely published, I think the world will survive Harry Potter impact on children’s literature.

  24. You know, it’s funny – I try to support local business when I travel. Which means, when you’re in New York, supporting Borders.

    I don’t buy from Barnes and Nobel, however, because they presided over Penn State’s transition from a university-run non-profit bookstore to a privately operated bookstore, and the price of textbooks shot through the roof. Textbooks are expensive enough without adding significant profit margins and a near-monopoly on top of it.

  25. A few stray comments on this…

    * I got spoiled by Tolkien early on (age 12), and honestly since then I’ve read few things that moved me as much. I tried reading Harry Potter (both my kids love it), but after a few pages I wasn’t all that enthused and lost interest. I do enjoy the movies, though, particulary the first one.

    * I’m sad that Rowling had her name initialized by her publisher to improve book sales. I hope that practice is ended now… is it?

    * Read somewhere that Rowling lost the pleasure of writing these books some time ago, and is relieved it’s over.

    * Still think one of the best children’s books I’ve ever read was Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.

    * Sam, the big Tattered Cover in the Cherry Creek area shut down, not sure if you knew. They have a smaller store now open northwest of LoDo, I believe.

  26. The original Tattered Cover moved from Cherry Creek to the Lowenstein Theater at East Colfax Avenue at Elizabeth Street (in Denver, for those of you outside the area) when their Cherry Creek lease ran out. I’ve not been to the new location yet, so I can’t speak to how it compares to the old TC.

  27. It’s amazing the passion these books inspire in people. Everywhere I go I hear/read “ZOMG! DON’T YOU DARE QUESTION THE POTTER! OMGBBQ! NO SPOILERS OR I’LL HATE YOU FOREVER!!!!”

    The emotional investment some people have in these books and movies is amazing to me, they will attack friends to rabidly defend HP. HP is this sacred cow that even the strongest and crassest friends of mine won’t touch because the reaction would be totally overblown. While that badger is screaming to be poked with a stick, one doesn’t dare.

    I wish people would get this exercised about campaign finance reform or something 🙂

    In the interest of full disclosure, I have read all the novels, and have the final one ordered. I’m currently re-reading Order of the Phoenix to help me decide if I want to see the movie. I leaning toward no. (puts on asbestos undies) OotP is a humorless heavy handed anti-authoritarian screed. Normally such attacks on media and government fill me with glee, but reading OotP is like being bludgeoned.

  28. In skimming the above posts, only Mike Sheehan seems to touch on the one of the things that draws kids into the seemingly endless pages of a Harry Potter tome. As with the Hobbit, there is the allure of a mythology absent in the current social order.

    Mythology presents truths about life and the interaction of people in a way that the developing mind can understand beyond it chronological years of development because its spellbinding charm.

    Children need mythology – even a totally fictional one devoid of religious intent – to expand their minds. Harry Potter opens the door to dreams and possibilities in a way that adults seem to often forget that children require in order to grow up and to be able to separate fact from fiction in real life.

  29. I’m so pleased that HP is more important and causes more outrage than political intrigue.

    How do you know that HP is popular? How much of it is some of the most astonishingly good marketing of a children’s book in history? From the carefully stage-managed book launches, to the movie tie-ins and merchandising.

    This isn’t about the book … it’s a big-business dream.

    For the people who continue to worry about the monopolisation of business and culture down to a few who concentrate all thought … you bought the products.

  30. Whythehawk I haven’t attacked you for being an “individual” or artistic or whatever else you’re aspiring too. I can be a snob with the best of them, tout my collection of NYRB classics, name drop Borges and discuss japonisme influence on Proust.

    The problem is that your argument doesn’t have any real structure, as I see it, which is why I keep picking a part your points and why you evade by adopting a martyr’s stance. A true individual in my view would not base his tastes or define himself by the number of people interested in his pursuits. Being an individual is being true to who you are. If you would sincerely disdain Flaubert or J K Rowling not solely on the quality of their work but by how many people are reading them then you are just as dictated by mass interest as the masses. You’re simply floating in the opposite direction.

    Things get popular. It’s a fact of life. Certainly with the way the art world is structured now it is more difficult to find variety. But there are ways and the system isn’t nearly as tyrannical over our tastes as you and Kelly seem to think they are.

    I respect people who have “alternative” tastes, something off the beaten path, and wish to engage others, in order to share their love of whatever art they enjoy. I have no time for condescending self-described “snobs” who make grandiloquent, empty statements about true art being destroyed by its various popular formats. That attitude is exclusionary — it is validated by the expected defensiveness with which the masses will react. You don’t want them to experiment, otherwise your interests would have less cachet. (I mean you’re acting as if Harry Potter has doomed all good literature into the abyss.)

    That’s how I see it. I also find the paranoid dislike of best-seller lists weird. They just track the best selling books and act as a filter for the hundreds of thousands of books published every year. It’s not as if they’re the only recommendation source in the world.

  31. If you don’t think Harry Potter helps indie bookstore than A. you have never owned a business or B. you’re insane. It’s an absurdist statement. Have you ever met a fucking payroll dude?

    Sorry, but I work in one and you’re full of shit. You mean well, but you’re full of shot. Honestly.

    You gonna tell me how Oprah has fucked up books next?

    Basic rule: the indie book business is supported by selling books.

    (BTW sucks about your undiscovered genius . . .)

    I also stated that your blog would have better served by urging its reader to buy HP at an indie bookstore, and I noticed you didn’t address that point.

    Playerhatin’s too easy man . . .

  32. PS: we’re movin’ 80 boxes of HP books tomorrow from our local vermont indie bookstore . . . along those lines, please list for me your buisness credentials when you tell me Harry Potter books are bad for local bookstores.

    Have you ever been to a business school? Ever worked in a bookstore? Or in the book industry? Ever met a payroll?

    I’m sorry to harp, man, but I’m showing you the flipside of your own playerhatin attitude.

  33. Imani, you’re correct. My argument is all over the show. I apologise for that. My tonsils are flapping about my ears and I’m on vast amounts of medication. Makes it hard for me to concentrate. Feeling a bit better this morning.

    I have no problem with “things” getting popular. No gripe with Rowling’s success. Just bewildered by it.

    I love books. All genres. I collect children’s books and follow all the series. I am always astonished by the success of one over another. What makes one popular?

    I’ve read all the Harry Potters. I started reading them before the hype. My conclusion: they’re boring.

    Then the hype and I kept reading in case she was improving or in case I’d missed something. they’re STILL boring.

    They’re as boring and preachy as Artemis Fowl, more boring and more preachy than Lemony Snicket … you get the picture. And its success is as bewildering as George Bush’s popular re-election.

    It doesn’t matter that HP is popular or successful. Harry Potter is boring.

    I gather this is an outrageous thing to say. But I’ve said astonishingly more outrageous things in S&R than this. I’ve said that Capitalism is an axiom, like air. I’ve argued for libertarianism and objectivism.

    I certainly never got this sort of response. And it amuses me tremendously. I have enjoyed poking my finger in to see how far everyone jumps. Dammit, even (as Imani points out) though my argument is all over the show people still jump. Congratulations.

    Leebop. Your shop is moving 80 boxes. Congratulations to you too. However, if all your bookshop can offer me is Oprah Winfrey’s Bookclub and a box of Harry Potters why are you any different from the supermarket down the road, or Amazon, which offers the same thing?

    Here in Cape Town the biggest supermarkets will be offering HP7 below cost to bring in moms for grocery shopping. I’m not sure how this helps indie bookshops. But, as you say, I’m an ignoramus.

    Maybe I’m only imagining the slow decline of the indie store market; from music to books to electronic goods to groceries. If all you’re prepared to offer is the minimal necessary to stock the most popular things then you’re going head to head with the big supermarket chains which have significantly greater buying power and may be prepared to discount it further if it looks like being a loss-leader.

    As you say, I’m an ignoramus, so I won’t go any further into business strategy. I may drown myself.

    Oh, yeah, and since it’ll piss everyone off. Harry Potter is boring.

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