It’s fair to say I’m a latecomer to the whole Harry Potter thing. I’m far too old to have been the target market first time around, and it’s only now that my boys are ready to start appreciating the wonder of Hogwarts. We began reading my little fellows the books this year, and for full effect will probably try to drip feed the titles in over the years ahead so they can have the very great joy of reading the later ones for themselves.
And what a special pleasure it is discovering this series alongside my youngsters, seeing the power of the stories to unleash and transform imaginations. The series are the publishing phenomenon of our time, with 450 million sales to their name, and J K Rowling can quite reasonably claim to be the world’s most successful author. To me, one interesting aspect of this is the way we reflexively associate mass appeal with low quality: think of the sneering attitude displayed towards The Da Vinci code, or the Twilight series (and to be fair, I’ve read neither so can not judge). A great part of the sneering instinct is the snobbery born of fragile egos, the desperate need to establish one’s superior by not being drawn into the entertainments of the masses. If it isn’t obscure, difficult and pessimistic, it isn’t art. This urge is understandable in adolescence, where finding one’s place is a central part of the whole gig, and misery still feels novel, but in adults is unforgivable. I well remember the vigour with which I rejected any music that was any sense associated with the mainstream when I was fifteen. More than thirty years later, I find that while this filter spared me some truly painful listening experiences, it also kept me from enjoying a great deal that is wonderful.
Harry Potter, I hardly need say, is in the wonderful camp, popular precisely because of its great quality. Sure, Rowling may not be the greatest crafter of sentences that’s ever lived, but there’s an awful lot more to a great story than the style of its sentences. Most obviously (and yet weirdly often neglected by the social skills support group that is the world of literary criticism) is the capacity to construct a story. And that’s where Harry Potter shines. Yes, there’s the ticking off of a bunch of tried and true ingredients (child alone, forced to find the strength to be a saviour, mateship, boarding school rituals and magic) but anyone can go the grab bag of the elements of successful children’s fiction and make a mess of it. What is clear from the opening chapter of the Potter series is that Rowling has a particularly strong instinct for constructing engaging storylines.
There’s a great set up, first building connection and empathy, while at the same time dropping all the hints and puzzles that constitute the foundation of the story contract. Then, right on cue, the arrival of Hagrid and the plot twist that marks the end of the first act, the game changer. From there, meticulous attention is paid to getting the balance right between world building, character development, and plot progression. Further, Rowling trusts her young readers to hold elements in their head, parking them up for future reference (sometimes having to wait for whole books to elapse before the pay-off). Reincorporation is one of her many strengths.
Most of all I’d nominate her ability to construct non-linear plots as the thing that sets her apart. She is supremely confident juggling complementary story arcs without losing the forward momentum of the A-plot. So, while this is always Harry’s story, and resolution hinges upon his actions and experiences, Rowling keeps a number of developing strands prodding and pushing at the primary narrative. In this, she trusts her young readership in a way that is sadly rare. Contrast this with the endlessly (tiresomely) novel and inventive fantasy stories that essentially run an and-then plot line, one damned thing after another. Who can forget the acerbic review of the Lord of the rings movies that went ‘a bunch of Hobbits walk the length of New Zealand in real time.’
While it would be a great mistake to conclude that popularity always speaks of quality (The Bachelor, anybody?) it is surely equally dim witted to conclude the opposite. In the case of J K Rowling, I would contend that she has sold more books not by dint of luck, fashion or canny marketing, but ultimately because she’s very very good indeed. So good that she managed to broaden the appeal of reading for an entire generation, taking it from the obsessive habit of the frightened, and making it a pleasure for those more fully alive in their world. And if the response of my boys is any guide, the books will produce the same brand of magic for generations to come.
My personal challenge now is to find something to read the boys in the gap between finishing book two, and that moment next year when they will be ready to most enjoy book three. The current suggestion in our household is that I write them the gap filler, starring of course two identical twin boys, and a tunnel into another world they dreamt up earlier this year. And so I am eight thousand words in, and racing to stay ahead of their curiosity, because that’s just what fathers do. (Sebastian has decided there will be a daunting ten books in the series, but has very generously started tapping out volume ten himself on the computer.)