Defending Harry Potter

"It is for this reason that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter masterpiece has so captured the popular imagination. In the same vein as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, Rowling weaves deep truths into her narrative as she expounds on the nature of love, of friendship, of sacrifice, of good and evil." -- Christina Littlefield,

My brother-in-law Brian shared with me an article from the New York Post by Kyle Smith that criticized J.K. Rowling's writing skills and the Harry Potter series of books as lacking literary value and moral messages for its readers. I am now duty-bound to defend Ms. Rowling and the Potter franchise on behalf of its fans around the world.

Brian wrote to me: "Although overstated, Kyle Smith's premise is generally sound. The Harry Potter books are fun reads, but they are not exactly literary masterpieces. Pulp does not make for great literature...or so Shakespeare said. They are fun stories, but although they rehash familiar stories in new clothing, Rowling's works lack for ethical depth. There's nothing wrong with that. People who enjoy the stories should be able to enjoy them. On the other hand, some people want to go to ridiculous lengths to make the books out to be more than they are. Writers such as Lewis and Carrol were writing deep moral stories that comment about their own times and the human condition (at least the Christian version of it in Lewis' case). No one will ever accuse Rowling of deep social commentary. Her story is more basic than that. Harry is more like the little engine that could, always digging deeper to make it up another, even bigger, hill."

Brian, I'm surprised you agree with Kyle Smith's poorly argued article. It's an opinion piece, and, yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I can refute almost all of his flawed assumptions.

I'd actually put Rowling's books up there as masterpieces in the genre, comparable to Baum, Lewis, Barrie, Carroll, etc. Rowling is a pretty good writer and each book in the series became more mature -- she wasn't just dishing out pulp, a standalone adventure in each chapter to sell copies forever (which she could have easily done and her publisher would have loved). Having read the books, I think they are quite literary. She borrows a lot from other greats in the genre, but I think that's intentional.
The two primary ideas that Kyle Smith is proposing in his article that you seem to agree with are: (1) Harry Potter has no literary merit, and (2) Harry Potter has no moral underpinning.

I reject both.

(1) The first argument seems to be Mr. Smith's attempt to marginalize the Potter books and lump them as tomes not worthy to be considered literature or studied in schools. I daresay it's a veiled attempt to ban them from school libraries, which Conservatives for some bizarre reason have tried their best to do.

In our discussion, you and I both brought up comparisons to other classic authors of the "children's literature" genre (although J.K. Rowling writes so well that she has crossed over into a readership for all ages, not just kids). I claim that the Potter books are worthy of being in the same category as the books of Oz, Narnia, Neverland, etc. You claim that they do not.

But let's look at the facts. I dare say that Rowling's writing style is actually much more engaging than the writing of L. Frank Baum, for example. Some of his Oz books are almost unreadable by comparison. She has much more developed protagonists and antagonists than the characters in the tales of Lewis Carroll or C.S. Lewis, in my opinion. And her storytelling is much more polished and gripping. Rowling knows how to use foreshadowing, dramatic tension, conflict, etc.

Finally, those classics you mentioned also faced criticism. Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books were criticized as being rambling nonsense with drug references. The "pulp fiction equals crap fiction" argument is insulting, because it means that any mainstream genre content isn't worthy of being studied for its literary value. Stephen King has faced such criticism, and believe it or not so have Edgar Allen Poe and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The mysteries of Sherlock Holmes were pulp fiction stories, and so were the science fiction tales of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, and the fantasy stories of Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and others.

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit was viewed as "just" a children's story, but then his Lord of the Rings trilogy struck a nerve with college students in the 1960s and 1970s, and suddenly people accepted The Hobbit as "literature" worth analyzing.

Criticism that the Potter books have no literary validity are similarly without basis.

(2) The second argument is equally absurd. There IS moral substance to the Harry Potter tales. What that morality actually is can be debated, but to claim that it doesn't exist is ridiculous. Almost every story has some moral underpinnings. I disagree with the moral anti-religion theme of Pullman's Golden Compass stories, for example, but I can't deny that it exists.

Harry Potter is a a character who faces childhood issues of isolation and trying to find his purpose in life. We see the character age in book after book, facing new challenges that other adolescents face.

The magic is all arguably metaphoric, but the underlying crux of the whole saga is Good vs. Evil, and choosing sides even if it means battling popular cliques at school or authority figures who are not always right.

At the same time, it shows how kids, even the heroes, can be flawed and make mistakes and can be blinded or swayed by their own emotions. It shows the importance of studying and how we get (or are supposed to get) better with age as we learn from life's experiences.

Rowling uses her story (as Star Trek did, as Lord of the Rings did, as other genre classics do) as a metaphor for some things happening in our society today. How can you read the scenes of the British Prime Minister facing Dementor attacks on Muggles and the hunt for the evil Voldemort, and not see a parallel to the societal fears of the last decade?

Even C.S. Lewis was criticized for his Christian themes in Narnia -- some said his story went against the very moral message he was allegedly trying to tell.

So let's look at what Kyle Smith has to say and break it down:

"J.K. Rowling gives millions of devotees exactly what they're looking for, every time. So do James Patterson, Days of Our Lives and Hormel."
Comparing the Harry Potter books to Patterson's MAX series is nonsense -- Potter is much better and much more of a literary masterpiece, and it shows by the readers' response and by the sales figures. Comparing Harry Potter to soap operas like Days of Our Lives is equally ludicrous, (but my sisters like Days of Our Lives, so I'll refrain from trashing it too much.) And who the hell is Hormel? The food company? Comparing a writer to food recipes? Give me a break.

"Rowling is frequently classed with Roald Dahl, L. Frank Baum, even Dickens."
All of whom have faced their own critics, as I mentioned above.

"But her writing is dreary,"
Millions of readers disagree.

"her jokes terrible,"
Another opinion that many people would disagree with.

"her characterizations mostly one-dimensional (the Dursleys are swine, Slughorn a suckup, Hermione a teacher's pet, Dumbledore the wise old font of plot exposition)."
He obviously shows his ignorance here, because there is obvious depth to almost all of Rowling's characters.

"And Harry might be the blandest superhero ever conceived. He simply follows the trail, learns the spells and saves the day. Kids love to be in Harry's shoes: all zapping bad guys, no taking out the trash."
I've seen plenty of bland superheroes. Harry Potter is not one of them. Bland characters do not inspire millions of kids and adults to passionately read their stories over and over again. It makes no sense. Kyle might not get it, which is his prerogative, but he just makes himself look foolish by saying millions of fans are wrong and he's right.

"Compare Luke Skywalker, who has to conquer his own vanity, laziness and anger in order to earn his powers."
Good lord! Many critics originally labeled Luke Skywalker as a lame, weak, cliched, bland superhero. Skywalker was likely one of the models for Harry Potter, with his daddy issues, his seeking mentorship with Kenobi and Yoda, his trials and redemptions on his hero's journey. Harry's coming of age saga deals with similar tribulations. It's like Kyle read the first Potter book and gave up. How can any reader who has read the whole series not admit that the characters grow and evolve? Harry conquers self doubt, teen angst, anger, temptation, hormones, etc.

"Harry, like many of his generation, is the Cosseted One from an early age. He's told that he's special, that he's got awesome gifts, that those who don't understand this are blind to the plain facts. Deploying his powers involves no more character or soul-searching than following a recipe."
Now he's disrespecting the kids who read and love the Potter stories. Give me a break. And again, the books make it clear that even though Harry is "special" and has powers, he has to LEARN how to use them, and then use them wisely. Responsibility, like in Spider-man (who like many superhero characters was criticized along with comics in general for corrupting and seducing the young), is key to using the powers for good.

"The whimsical creations and the narrative pull -- making readers beg to know what's going to happen next -- are all Rowling offers. The great kids' works strike deep, satisfying chords. The Wizard of Oz would be just a Technicolor fun ride without Dorothy's discovery that everything she always wanted was right there at home. Willy Wonka isn't just a funny freak-out. It's also a near-biblical catalog of sinners and punishment. The Potter tales are built on nothing. Inside them is a deathly hollow."
Maybe he's just comparing the movies here and not the books. Because to say that Rowling's books are built on nothing is just mind-boggling.

"Is there any children's writer more dismissive of morals? A Rowling kid starts learning at an early age that principles are adjustable depending on convenience. Rowling ignores ethics to the point of encouraging dishonorable behavior. Harry spends Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince -- the film version of which is raking it in this weekend -- cheating out of a textbook that has all the answers written in the margins, causing him to fraudulently win a luck potion that he uses to solve the central mystery. And his punishment for this is . . . nothing."
This is the basis for his whole "Potter is immoral" thesis. Using notes in a book to gain an advantage. No discussion about the deeper moral issues of having kids fight in wars started by adults (Narnia, Middle-Earth, Oz, Potter), or having to resort to murder and violence to win in the end. Didn't Charlie break the rules in the Chocolate Factory? Didn't the kids in Peter Pan do something far worse and leave their parents homes in the middle of the night to go on an adventure with a strange boy?

"Harry's taking advantage of the annotated textbook is depicted as simple resourcefulness, and Hermione's protests seem mere whining. Rowling's readers will conclude it's OK to go on eBay and buy a teacher's edition of a textbook."
But it wasn't a teacher's edition. A better comparison is going to a library and doing MORE research and finding an annotated copy of the text book with MORE information than what is being taught in the school books or by the teacher. The Half-Blood Prince doesn't just give the easy answers in his book margins, he writes questions, jots down ideas. It's a plot device, yes, but as Kyle admits, Hermione also raises the ethical questions that Harry is facing. But using this as an example that the whole book series is without morals is just incorrect.

"Consider the worst line in Star Wars, the one at which even guys who went to their prom dressed as Han Solo laugh derisively: 'But I was going into Tashi Station to pick up some power converters!' Rowling's baby beach reads are thick with such gummy technobabble. She piles on the silly names, magic incantations, 'dark revelations' that aren't dark, and a daytime-television litany of explanation and repetition: 'Neville and Professor Flitwick are both hurt, but Madame Pomfrey says they'll be all right. And a Death Eater's dead, he got hit by a Killing Curse that huge blond one was firing off everywhere -- Harry, if we hadn't had your Felix potion, I think we'd all have been killed.' Petrificus totalus on all that exposition, please."
Silly personal critiques. Even Oz and Narnia and Wonderland have their cheesy lines and contrivances. At least Rowling is encouraging kids to use pseudo-Latin, bringing a dead language back to life!

"There is one funny satirical gag in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" -- which doesn't arrive until p. 634. The French chick Fleur"
French chick? Kyle is now a xenophobic misogynist.

"announces she's found a bright side to her boyfriend turning part werewolf: Now he likes 'very rare steaks.' 'Eet ees lucky 'e is marrying me,' Fleur says. (Hagrid's pidgin is even more unbearable, by the way). 'Because ze British overcook their meat, I 'ave always said this.' Nice: The fantasy mirror is reflecting reality. Dickens is not without his flaws -- sentimentality, plot contrivance. Martin Chuzzlewit could do with a wee trim of about 250 pages. As for Edwin Drood -- what's the deal with that abrupt ending?"
I'm glad Kyle admits it.

"Yet when Dickens' writing wasn't grandiose, it was frequently touching, beautiful or funny. His characterizations were amazingly deft and enduring, his endings frequently devastating as they unveiled not just plot twists but revolutions of the soul."
Again, millions of Potter fans can say the same thing about Rowling's story.

"Gulliver's Travels and the Alice in Wonderland books are comedic sociopolitical satires. Winnie the Pooh has been used as a teaching aid to introduce Nietzsche, Descartes and Taoism. Superman (born in 1938, as Nazis marched) meant truth, justice and the American way."
See my comments above. Rowling also has metaphorical social commentary, and all the examples he provides also had their own critics in their day (and today as well.)

"Rowling, sensing that her readers would think her corny or un-PC if she (for instance) dared to make Harry stand for the transcendent appeal of British civilization and culture, is no more interested in principles or resonance than Desperate Housewives is."
He's making a false assumption here. He's also shooting himself in the foot, countering his own argument. First he says that Potter has no moral undertone, and then that Rowling writes stories that have no literary merit. Yet then he argues that Rowling does immerse her story with some messages after all, not just a simple frivolous tale. The messages, however, are apparently ones that Kyle Smith disagrees with. So rather than spell out those messages and offer his opinion on why Rowling is wrong (which would be a valid critique, whether you agree with Kyle or not), he attempts to marginalize the stories and imply that they have no literary or moral merit, and by implication, should not be read or cherished or be perceived as classics.

"If the Potter books are about nothing except childish good vs. childish evil (and they are), then they amount to a cosmic quidditch match."
But they're not. They're actually about much more complicated good and complicated evil, which is maybe what frightens Kyle so much.

"There's not a lot of suspense about who will win, why they should, or what it all means. All the pleasure for the reader is in the how -- the vacuous, disposable, inconsequential how."
How can he say there's not a lot of suspense about who will win? There was serious debate among fans about whether or not Rowling would actually kill off Harry. Why they should win? What it all means? Maybe Kyle should sit down with a bunch of ten-year old Potter fans who might be able to explain it all to him and educate him a bit.

Carry on.


Robert said…
"As for "Edwin Drood" -- what's the deal with that abrupt ending?"

-- Kyle Smith

The deal with that abrupt ending was that Dickens died while in the midst of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. That Smith doesn't even know this is the most obvious example of his utter stupidity.
Anthony said…
J.R.R. Tolkien was viewed as a cheesy writer of children's fiction with The Hobbit

So cheesy, they made him the Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.
Nick said…
Robert, in defense of Kyle, I believe he was trying to make ajoke about Dickens and Drood but it obviously fell flat.

Anthony, thanks for the comment. I'll make the correction to my poorly stated sentence. I meant that Hobbit was perceived as "just" a children's story until the Lord of the Rings books came along.
Anonymous said…
Lovely piece, Nick. I agree with you wholeheartedly.
Robert said…
I don't think he was trying to make a joke. He's trying to be a serious literary scholar in that section. But if it was an attempt at a joke, it didn't fall flat, it got sucked through a black hole before it ever had the chance. And when you take into consideration the totality of the piece, it seems likely he really is that dumb. Just look who he writes for.