Taking the blame
OK, I’ve finally finished Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and I promise I won’t say anything about the ending. Well, I will say this: Janet and Nick (who finished the book a few days ahead of me) believe that Things are Not What They Seem at the end of the book. Their theory is somewhat more well-developed than that, but I can’t divulge the details until everyone on the planet has finished the book.
Not long after rereading certain scenes in order to assess the plausibility of the Janet-Nick theory, I realized that Ms. Rowling’s plots do, in fact, reward careful rereading. She’s not a brilliant or even a very good writer, sentence by sentence, by any means; but you know, I never understood the “sentence by sentence” branch of literary chitchat anyway. (And it is chitchat: it calls itself criticism, but it avoids things like “plot” and “ideas” in favor of hauling out one sentence after another for praise and blame. Where did this sort of thing come from? Does anybody know?) But her narratives are compelling in scope and in execution, and easily complex enough to withstand close scrutiny a second and third time around. I wonder whether her under-15 readers are discovering the same thing—and if they are, then that seems to me a phenomenon as worthy of commentary as the stupefying sales figures. Millions of kids not just reading but rereading? Goodness, what will happen to their attention spans? Do you suppose that J. K. Rowling, all by herself, can undo the effects of every other mass cultural medium known to humankind? Jamie and I reread Sorcerer’s Stone and Prisoner of Azkaban while waiting for Half-Blood Prince, and I was stunned to see him recall plot details over the course of two-three years. Just imagine if the Washington press corps had that kind of long-term attention span!
Anyway, after finishing this latest installment I stumbled across A. S. Byatt’s “bitter, party of one” response to the series, which appeared just after the publication of Order of the Phoenix two years ago. I remember thinking, when I first read it, how clever Ms. Rowling had been to place the Supercilius Curse on her work, so that her most stringent critics would reveal themselves to be insufferably pompous. But I’d completely forgotten that Ms. Byatt had blamed cultural studies for Ms. Rowling’s success:
It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the levelling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists. It’s fine to compare the Brontes with bodice-rippers. It’s become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called “consumable” books.
Roland Barthes is adduced here by way of a little legerdemain, actually: people familiar with his work will remember that he was as willing to interpret magazine covers, detergent ads, and wrestling matches as the work of Balzac. (I’ll leave aside that strange complaint about the substitution of celebrity for heroism, since Ms. Rowling’s books do a fine job on that subject all by themselves. It’s too bad Ms. Byatt missed that part of the series. Maybe she should read the books again.) And for the record, I do believe the Barthesian passage Ms. Byatt has in mind is this one:
Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us “throw away” the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors). (S/Z, 15-16)
It’s not clear that this fun little passage affords anyone the license to give J. K. Rowling a hard time. But more importantly, if indeed cultural studies is partly responsible for making it respectable to read and discuss work like Harry Potter, and I do believe it is, then surely someone like Janice Radway deserves a cut of the action. And maybe people who point out that people like Radway deserve a cut of the action could put in for a cut of a cut of the action? Just asking. We cultural studies types have to take our mass-cultural triumphs where we can, you know.
So the cornerstone of the Janet-Nick theorem is that, um, you-know-who is not truly you-know-what at the end of this latest installment?Posted by on 07/25 at 02:36 PM
No, Alek, it’s not about you-know-who. It’s about that other guy who may or may not be working for him.Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 02:43 PM
My wife has the same theory. I really like what Rowling does here, it’s sort of a test of faith or a demand to grow up depending on where you fall in the debate.Posted by on 07/25 at 02:45 PM
We’ve been <A HREF = “http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/?p=61">talking about the other guy a lot over at my blog</A>, with boatloads of spoilers.Posted by Timothy Burke on 07/25 at 02:57 PM
I agree with Janet and Nick. Completely. Of course, that just makes it even harder to wait for the final installment.Posted by Elise on 07/25 at 03:01 PM
Count me in among those who agree with Janet and Nick.Posted by on 07/25 at 03:14 PM
Perhaps the tendency to do sentence-by-sentence criticism (or chitchat) is actually the result of creative writing workshops? I agree that Rowling isn’t a great sentence-by-sentence writer, but I’m not sure that Dickens is, either.Posted by on 07/25 at 03:18 PM
Ah, yes, the dismissal of Rowling because she’s “popular”. I ran into a lot of that when I set up my little project “Nobel Prize for Jo” after OOTP came out. My argument was that she’s done more to promote literature worldwide (the ostensible reason for the Nobel) than just about any living author, by virtue of her popularity. Of course it went nowhere…Posted by Jim on 07/25 at 03:23 PM
Betsy, that’s exactly what Janet told me when I asked her this question. She was originally in the MFA program at Virginia, and had done many a workshop as a talented undergraduate writer too; she suggested that the “sentence school” was primarily a short-story writer’s phenomenon. And thanks for picking up the Dickens thing—I’d actually started a whole paragraph on Rowling and Dickens, but deleted it just before hitting “publish.” Weird.Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 03:25 PM
At the risk of sounding obnoxiously self-promoting, I will refer you to my blog entry on Byatt’s column when it initially appeared. Since I think that what I wrote then nicely complements what you have written here.Posted by Steven Shaviro on 07/25 at 03:31 PM
The thing is, the whole book is one big head-fake in the direction of Things Being Not What They Seem, and then they turn out to be What They Seemed. (Is that circuitous enough to be unspoilered?) Which lends credence to the notion that They Am What They Am.Posted by on 07/25 at 03:39 PM
So? There’s as much to learn from bad art as from good art. Sometimes, a perfect gem (The Maltese Falcon comes to mind) appears amongst the drek. For that reason (and many, many others), I don’t rate what I study, but look to what it can open up for me. I wrote my dissertation on Philip K. Dick. He wrote a lot of trash. So? He’s a more interesting writer for study than are many who wrote (or write) much better. So I’ve never claimed to be a student of aesthetics. So why should I have to pay attention when Harold Bloom says Harry Potter isn’t “literature.” So?
This is no spoiler, but, as to #6, let me stake my claim (on no real knowledge) that the note in the locket, signed R.A.B., comes from Ron Beasley--just, he doesn’t know it yet and won’t, until #7.Posted by Aaron Barlow on 07/25 at 03:47 PM
(And it is chitchat: it calls itself criticism, but it avoids things like “plot” and “ideas” in favor of hauling out one sentence after another for praise and blame. Where did this sort of thing come from? Does anybody know?)
a lot of insecure people who know nothing about art but had to find a way to stay in literary criticism despite their shortcomings?
Of course cultural studies is interested in hype and popularity. The tiniest fraction of the human population has read Moby Dick. Billions of people read the Harry Potter books. Which one has more relevance, more potential for impacting society? I foolishly thought that the snootiest of the snooty intellectuals had recognized this fact by now. *sigh*
STPosted by on 07/25 at 04:04 PM
It seems to me that too much of contemporary fiction is of the “creative writing workshop” school of writing. I know those workshops are helpful to writers, and I have many friends and colleagues who have attended them and written wonderful stuff, but I’ve read quite a few novels that seem crafted for a workshop rather than an audience. Readers want stories, not sentences.Posted by on 07/25 at 04:05 PM
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
I was recently mocked and dubbed pathetic and sad by my insufferable pompous coworker for re-reading the Harry Potter books. Of course, this young woman is a pseudointellectual ivy league graduate with delusions of grandeur and a great love for AS Byatt.
Thanks for making me feel better about something I never knew I was supposed to feel bad about in the first place.Posted by on 07/25 at 04:33 PM
I’m also gonna have to agree with Janet/Nick.
I discuss it on my (pathetic) blog, but I spoil.
Totally.Posted by Ms. Not Together on 07/25 at 05:06 PM
Well, everyone certainly seems happy. (And, yes, I’m with the Janet-Nick-Alec-Anthony’s-wife-et-al school of things as well regarding the end of the novel.) But can’t we celebrate what is great and fun about Rowling’s work – plotting and above all, a density of detail, from magical technology to bureaucracy to authors’ names – and still talk about how certain aspects of the book fall short? (Michael did.)
Can’t we acknowledge how frequently her well-constructed plots have to be spelled out and explained by villains who “monologue” their plans as clumsily as any James Bond or comic-book bad guy? Or, in the new book, can’t we wince just a bit at the way in which Dumbledore has to explain what we have learned from each visit to the Pensieve? Can’t we pause at the way in which most all dialogue has to be there to “advance [or discuss] the plot” – or the way in which each book tosses in new teachers, new plot twists, new devises?
Book 6 was a energetic piece of writing – a real page-turner, although mostly set-up. My daughter loved it. I loved it, even if it did turn into Spider-Man at the end.
Still, can’t we love the book without smirking snidely at those who still love and value Moby-Dick even more – regardless of whether Melville ever “impacted society” in the way that Rowling’s series has? Who cares about popularity and societal impact per se? And can’t the very nature of popular fiction and/or “interesting trash” help one to make, as Jonathan Rosenbaum and others have said, a decent case for the existence of so-called canons?
And, BTW, I think that Dickens has great sentences. And Rowling’s are getting better, too.
PeterPosted by on 07/25 at 06:01 PM
Very restrained of you not to mention Michel De Certeau along with Radway (or, for SF-nal folks, Henry Jenkins’s Textual Poachers), or you’d have to figure out how the heck “HMS Pumpkin Pie” is related to the Potter universe (not that I agree with those folks, you understand). My own commentary (with plenty of spoilers) is safely on my personal blog. There is much to be said for Janet and Nick’s idea.Posted by Sherman on 07/25 at 06:03 PM
All of this, of course, just leads me to want to leave work early to finish the damned book.
That aside, I think there’s a bit of validity in the sentence by sentence approach. Not the ONLY validity, but validity nonetheless. Rowling in my mind is a great storyteller, not a great writer. Now, it just so happens that I love stories. Most people love stories. Especially interesting stories. And I love the Potter books, as stories seperately and as part of the larger epic-like story she tells. I don’t love her writing. And more particularly, I don’t think she’s a very good writer. But I don’t give a hoot because the stories are great.
There ARE writers, however, who are at best mediocre story-tellers who I read just out of sheer amazement at their talent and writing skill. No plot. Crappy character development. But God. The way they can turn a phrase. Each sentence so finely honed you can split a whale-hair on it. I tend not to whiz through those authors’ books quite so quickly, and they sure as hell don’t make the best-sellers list, but it’s still art and worth my time.Posted by on 07/25 at 06:40 PM
When it comes time to stand up for what you believe, I’d like to be counted in the Janet & Nick column too. And yes, I agree with Peter Sattler that the Spider-Man bit at the end was a little too obvious.Posted by on 07/25 at 06:40 PM
>Where did this sort of thing come from? Does anybody know?)
I certainly don’t know for a fact, but I bet it has a lot to do with the desperation involved in trying to get tenure from a field that has been plowed by many bright people for a very long time.
But I probably don’t have to tell you that. I quite wisely signed up for the Engineering Department.Posted by on 07/25 at 07:02 PM
OK, I’m back from serving as the goat on the English graduate students’ softball team, having walked in the winning run with the score tied 3-3. Steven Shaviro: good to see you here, and thanks for the link! And slolernr, just you wait. The things that seem to be as they seem—they’re not. If this thread goes over 50 comments I’ll toss out a few of the Janet-Nick details just to make the dang point.
Peter, you’re right about the expository quality of much of the book, and I think the same could be said of numbers 2 through 5: after all, explanations must be had as to how Ginny Weasley was involved in the Chamber of Secrets, why Sirius Black is an innocent man, how Barty Crouch Jr. could have masqueraded as Mad-Eye Moody for a year, etc. And the Pensieve sessions read like Voldemort’s Progress delivered by a creaky narrative apparatus (though I loved the idea of Slughorn modifying his memory of the horcrux conversation with fog and a voiceover). But then, to say this is only to acknowledge that almost everything about Rowling’s writing works to advance the plot; there are extended sections in which the book reads like a screenplay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Remember, Mark Bauerlein and the NEA are right about the decline of reading in the U.S. So, getting back to Byatt, we shouldn’t be so damn ungenerous to the most widely-read children’s author of our time. These books aren’t the work of James Joyce, folks, but they are so, so far above the level of mindless diversion or routine genre fiction that there’s no call whatsoever to read their popularity as a sign of the decline of anything.
And Sherman, I have to admit I never really loved the whole de Certeau moment in cultural studies. It produced rafts of assembly-line essays in which the good guys had tactics and the bad guys had strategies, and there was much invoking of the “everyday.” What made (and makes) Reading the Romance so fascinating, I think, is Radway’s juxtaposition of her own training as a narrative theorist (influenced by Proppian structuralism) with the readings of the fans. Cultural studies took a wrong turn a bit later, I think, but the question of how to do an ethnography without simply ceding interpretive authority to the ethnos is still with us. I will, however, save this larger point for a future Theory Tuesday.Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 07:04 PM
Another vote for the Janet-Nick theory, whatever its details are. Thanks, Timothy Burke, for the discussion on your blog (it’s on the blogroll). Very helpful.
Regarding exposition: Yes, definitely a drawback, but I forgive it. I suspect Rowling gave in to some of the pressure to keep the page counts down, and used more shortcuts than in GoF and OotP. The folks over at the Neilsen Haydens’ (Making Light on the blogroll) called chapter 2 the biggest “as-you-know-Bob” of all time; after reading that, I noticed every time Dumbledore uses phrases like “as we know,” or “as you know, Harry.” There’s even an “as you know” from Snape in chapter 2.
I have my theories on the motives of the character about whose motivations everyone is theorizing, but they are mostly summed up by the Janet-Nick school of thought and the discussion at Timothy Burke’s. Motivations: idiosyncratic sense of honor, and saving the life of a student. Possibly it was an advance plan for this contingency in cooperation with the character who gets killed.Posted by on 07/25 at 09:37 PM
Byatt’s main point is to compare Rowling with other people - Alan Garner, Susan Cooper and Terry Pratchett. She finds that whereas Rowling deals in narrative based on phantasies (and corresponding reader-responses) the others and manage to create a world in which for the space of reading we become again believers in mystery as a dimension of being. Byatt doesn’t say O altitudo! or even Wow! astutely noting (Cultural Studies point BTW) the cultural nostalgia in wanting to feel that bushes are alive.
She says these two ways of writing are different and that one represents a more significant literary achievement than the other. Discuss.
Byatt, citing Auden, also believes that Rowlings’ is a ‘secondary secondary world’. Discuss.
Cultural studies is maligned by old farts and it’s always fun to point this out, but Michael’s reading of Byatt’s article is slick, opportunistic and grabby in just the way we farts object to in the CS brigade. And that’s a pity because Michael’s in general a wonderful writer and someone I recommend to CS sceptics.
On the sentence question, dip-and-taste aestheticism has been around forever, breaking out now and again like a mutating virus. Try e.g. ‘Cher maitre, I admire unspeakably your use of the pluperfect subjunctive.’ (Hint: did not attend a creative writing school.) Or try any book written before 1970 about e.g. Balzac or Thomas Wolfe, typically (then) called great novelists who wrote lousy sentences.
Would the person who doesn’t get the Dickens sentence please, please read the first page of ‘Great Expectations’ out loud to a child?
Authentication: wife and no 1 son have read #6; no 2 son and I will read it to one another.Posted by on 07/25 at 09:44 PM
I await the De Certeau SLASH! Fanlit Theory Tuesday edition with baited breath. (Please, oh please, let it illuminate my thesis. That’s all, thank you.)
My major worry, finishing this volume, is about the seventh: how on earth does Rowling expect to tie all the threads together? I found this volume to be rather heavy on the set-up (spoilers), and the promised pay-off will take at least a thousand pages, if her previous work is to be any marker. She is, as MB says, a story-teller rather than a sentence-writer, but her story goes through curious cycles of compactness and expansiveness. The next--and last, according to the original promise--volume will have to be incredibly disciplined.
Or will Scholastic encourage Rowling to expand her originally plotted plan?Posted by Jackmormon on 07/25 at 10:03 PM
What’s wrong with paying close attention to sentences? It’s part of the deal. There’s that wonderful sentence in one of Hemingway’s bullfight pieces where Hemingway’s syntax mimics the cape-work that he’s describing.
That’s worth thinking about.
As are all those opening lines that got catalogued last week or whenever it was. How do they work, in detail?
* * * * *
As for why give serious attention to Rowling (or Osamu Tezuka, who wrote comic books, ewww . . . .!). I like to take the position of a Martian ethnologist trying to figure out what these earthlings are up. I’ve got to pay attention to whatever one’s reading. And, yes, I’ve got to pay attention to the canon too, because that’s part of the behavioral and institutional repertoire of these creatures, While I’m doing that, I’ll worry about why some of them seem to think only that canon is worth their time, etc.Posted by bill benzon on 07/25 at 10:15 PM
I enjoyed the book and think Rowling’s a very good storyteller, but those comma splices! I’m not usually that nitpicky, but they were just so all-pervasive that they really jarred me. Wherefore art though, semi-colons?Posted by Bourgeois Nerd on 07/25 at 10:26 PM
** Michael’s reading of Byatt’s article is slick, opportunistic and grabby in just the way we farts object to in the CS brigade. **
Hem. OK, then, please explain to me just what Roland Barthes is doing in that essay. (Ms. Byatt mis-cites Gatsby pretty badly, as well.) Then explain why the world would be a better place if it were not “respectable” to read things like the HP series. And then, if you would be so kind, explain to me what Ms. Byatt means by writing that “Ms Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous.” Because this seems to me precisely the kind of vague, undiscussable assertion on which the entire essay is built. ("But what about the thestrals?” “No, dear child, the thestrals are not numinous enough. They are still mere phenomena. Other writers have created far more numinous beings.") Byatt pulls this move when she’s comparing Rowling to Cooper and Garner:
There was—and is—a real sense of mystery, powerful forces, dangerous creatures in dark forests. Susan Cooper’s teenage wizard discovers his magic powers and discovers simultaneously that he is in a cosmic battle between good and evil forces. Every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance. Alan Garner peoples real landscapes with malign, inhuman, elvish beings that hunt humans.
Apparently, a world in which every bush and cloud glitters with secret significance is superior to a world in which magic, too, has its own bureaucracy, its own forms of routinization and instruction, and even its own course in Muggle Studies. But why? And why are malign, inhuman, elvish beings that hunt humans superior to genealogy-obsessed Uberwizards who talk to snakes and split their souls? Because Rowling, you see, encourages the wrong kind of regression:
Reading writers like these, we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures—from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil—inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled. If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for.
This really is fatuous, question-begging stuff. There seems to me no reason to take at face value the proposition that being “put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture” involves a higher fictional standard than Rowling’s deliberate refusal to offer us a world of Ancient Elvish Delights, where we can mourn for some lost sense of significance. And the followup line—“Ms Rowling’s magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is”—is just foolish. The person responsible for it should be chased by centaurs or fed to Aragog.
Finally, as to the line about Rowling’s secondary secondary world: “Ms Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature—from the jolly-hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from Star Wars to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper.” This is simply a cheap shot; Rowling’s debt to Dahl is obvious and unremarkable. (Are we supposed to tsk and shake our heads that Rowling has been a good reader of children’s literature, now?) But the mention of Star Wars seems wholly unwarranted. That tiresome Joseph Campbell knockoff is hauled out here in a weird form of literary guilt-by-association.
So no, I don’t buy the argument that Byatt’s main point is to compare Rowling to other people. Her main point is that the HP phenomenon is a sign of adult readers’ immaturity and the general cultural decline of the West, as evidenced by the reading of comic books and the emergence of cultural studies. And yes, it’s a bitter, insufferably pompous piece of work.Posted by Michael on 07/25 at 10:28 PM
Janet and Nick are, of course, correct. Me personally, I think they are so correct that Dumbledore might as well have been wearing a “Janet and Nick are correct” t-shirt.
HM, who initially was uncertain about this, has since re-read it twice and has been telling people at camp that she can’t believe anyone thinks that Janet and Nick are not correct.
So I’m voting with Janet and Nick.
Just saying.Posted by julia on 07/25 at 11:15 PM
oh, I forgot Byatt.
Harry Potter is a wish-fulfillment fantasy?
Has anyone read Possession?Posted by julia on 07/25 at 11:19 PM
Most fairy-story writers hate and fear machines. Ms Rowling’s wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport
I remember reading that essay in a hurry when it first came out and thinking how silly it was that someone was complaining that the magic in HP wasn’t anti-modernity enough.
This is the serious great complaint about Harry-mania? That Harry taking the train to school, and has a magic car, when he should be in a land of Elves hunting him for sport? Lame.
Personally I think the worlds that defiantly unrecognizable, and foreground things that are impossible for us to place (when supernatural and inhuman creatures roamed the earth!) that are overtly immature and, to use Byatt’s terms, fall under “latency-period fantasy.” But whatever.Posted by on 07/26 at 12:49 AM
Okay, I want this thread to go over fifty because I want to hear what Janet and Nick have to say. (No fair extorting us for comments, really.) (I mean, first of all, we’re all being so decorously vague here—which is good! and considerate!—we might not even disagree about the things that Seem but Are Not. It’s a question of which Seeming you’re talking about.)
As for Byatt, I recollect clearly (though not necessarily accurately) that she’s cross about nearly everyone and everything that isn’t AS Byatt, and particularly that it’s now been a long time since she won the Booker. I hope Rowling ignored her.
You can complain that Rowling’s plot machinery shows. You can complain that she doesn’t display much craft with the English language (though I’m not sure I would; she does quite nicely with names, slang, etc.). But you can’t, seriously, complain that she lacks imagination, tenacity, or a keen instinct for narrative. Nor can you credibly complain that she doesn’t understand the teenage mind—for that, if I recall my own teenage mind correctly (and it’s not so distant to me as Byatt’s evidently is to her) she has a superior talent.Posted by on 07/26 at 01:52 AM
On a more positive note, I enjoyed (most of) Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories, though I honestly couldn’t say whether it had anything to do with its numinosity (numinousness?).
Perhaps the moral here is that a lot of fine writers of fiction are not very good literary critics (and vice versa). Anyone remember Jane Smiley’s bizarre attack on Mark Twain?Posted by on 07/26 at 01:53 AM
Byatt sounds more than a little like David Brin. They both sound like they’re competing for the gold in the Sour Grapes championship.
I [think I] agree with Nick and Janet, if this is the same theory that some of us have come to ourselves (though if it is, it’s not universally accepted as yet, and tends to depend on how you’re pre-primed in re the characters in question, and how you regard various revelations in OOTP).
What I find most interesting - and this is something I was waiting for, just like the screams of pain from the neo-imperialists of conservativism at SW:ROTS - is the constant talk of it being *obviously* post-9/11. It reminds me of all the efforts to explain away the differences, at the time of its release, between Branagh’s Henry V and Olivier’s Henry V, by saying well, this is *clearly* a disillusioned post-Falklands reimagining of HV, the way everying US was called “post-Vietnam” at one time - now all forgotten as the wargasm crowd has adopted it uncritically with Braveheart and The Patriot as their own (ignoring all the messy ethical bits and the angst and all).
Knowing this was going to happen, I went and found GOF and reread it, until I found the bit that hit me so hard when I read it in July, 2000, very shortly after it hit the shelves…Posted by bellatrys on 07/26 at 08:14 AM
Also, when the snobs talk about how Rowling is derivative, and contrast unfavorably with particularly the Narnia books, it makes me laugh: they don’t seem aware of how much Lewis is borrowing and riffing off an older bunch of British childrens’ books, particularly E. Nesbit.
Quite openly, as an homage to his favorite kids’ books - but there’s no way that you can avoid the fact that The Magician’s Nephew, one of my favorite in the whole series, is a pastiche of The Story of the Amulet and Sewell’s Black Beauty.
There was for me, when I finally got round to reading Nesbit, that same “aha!” moment that I had when I read Beowulf at last, and recognized where I knew that story about the frightened serf stealing the gold cup from the dragon’s cave…Posted by bellatrys on 07/26 at 08:20 AM
I remember Smiley on Twain, which I thought appalling at the time, although in retrospect it seems to me opportunistic attention-getting. (Look at me, I’m bashing one of your idols! Look! Look! Hemingway was a macho creep.... is this thing on?)
But it doesn’t mean good writers per se make lousy literary critics. On the contrary: Gore Vidal, Louis Auchincloss, Salman Rushdie, George Orwell, TS Eliot.
Anyway I’m firmly of the “really, you should at least try to imagine what it might be like to write a book before you go critiquing one” school.Posted by on 07/26 at 09:01 AM
I agree with the Janet and Nick and everybody else’s theory.
I think the more interesting question is where Malfoy turns out on. Perhaps he becomes Gollum, in some sense, helping Harry out despite his intentions.
Has Neville not been metaphorically marked his whole life by he-who-must-not-be-named? And Harry will succeed because of his friends. So in book 7, I think Neville is the one who delivers the final blow to V.Posted by Robert on 07/26 at 09:33 AM
While I agree that things are probably not what they seem, I think they are less not what they seem than people suspect.
I reread the books, specifically to look for clues about who the half-blood prince was. I kept getting caught up in the stories again, and forgot to look for the clues!Posted by on 07/26 at 10:11 AM
I was gratified to learn that in one of the earlier books the author has a “Professor Marchbanks,” who is an elderly wizard (though female)?
The name Marchbanks...does anyone know?...a curmudgeon character invented by a Canadian author in the 1940s. Said curmudgeon’s collected letters were often signed “Samuel Marchbanks, Wizard,” and the author was Robertson Davies.
The best parody of astrology I know is *Samuel Marchbanks’ Almanack*. This was from the 1960s. If you see it, get it--it’s hilarious.
Along with my paternal grandmother’s Sunday School Bible (which I still use) I inherited her Samuel Marchbanks books, which were a great laugh-inducer.
David McIrvine, wizard
Marchbanks TowerPosted by on 07/26 at 10:14 AM
Rowling makes up for any artistic sins in Book 6 with her chapter where Dumbledore tells Harry that tyrants make their own destroyers out of ordinary people, who rise up against them. That’s the kind of thing that I’d think it’s important for my kids to read. It’s overly individualistic because it’s still focussed on Harry as Champion, but it counters the whole you-were-born-as-the-Chosen-One messianic thing that is so oppressive in fantasy.
As for RAB, speculating on the initials isn’t a spoiler, is it? I’d put my money firmly on Regulus Black.Posted by on 07/26 at 11:42 AM
All the Marchbank books have be re-released. I got them for Christmas a few years ago.Posted by julia on 07/26 at 12:03 PM
What I enjoy about Rowling’s work is that the sixth instalment is as good/credible as the first. The arc of the story remains. The complexity of good vs. evil reveals itself as the children grow older.
Either she lucked into this or she is a genious. The plot thickens as Harry et al are able to understand more...and I would assume that this can be mirrored in much of the primary audience for these books.
I think they are great fun. I will read them again and again.Posted by Tripp on 07/26 at 12:47 PM
1. I would argue that the “sentence by sentence” school of literary criticism has its roots the “close reading” school that dominated literary studies in the postwar period. MFA programs likely have something to do with it as well, but a lot more people get BAs in English lit than MFAs in writing. I know when I was an undergrad, 15 or so years ago, “close reading” was still the dominant approach at my school, although the younger profs were well-versed in literary theory and tended to downplay close reading in favor of more eclectic, theory-driven methods.
2. I devoured Half Blood Prince in two days and am dying to hear the specifics of the Janet-Nick theory. Michael, can’t you just post a big-ass, all caps “spoiler alert” and then spill the beans?
3. I am fascinated by the politics of Potter. As Michael pointed out in a previous post, the Potter books strongly suggest that Rowling is liberal. Yet amusingly, conservatives keep trying to appropriate her as one of their own. Earlier, they had the nerve to argue that Rowling of course must be a supporter of the war on Iraq, because obviously Voldemort is Sadaam, and the wimpy Cornelius Fudge and his hapless cohorts at the Ministry of Magic are stand-ins for all those spineless, treasonous, freedom-hating liberals, etc., etc.
Well, interestingly, they haven’t been pushing that line this time around, perhaps because the new book includes a thinly veiled but pointed critique of Patriot Act hysteria. Yet some on the right are still attempting to claim Rowling as a conservative. A review in the Wall Street Journal, for example, praised the Potter books for their espousal of traditional values and for the moral clarity of Rowling’s depiction of good vs. evil.
As if liberals don’t have any moral values! And don’t make distinctions between good and evil!
The sad thing is, I think a lot of (American) conservatives - maybe even most! - really believe this - i.e., we liberals are all a bunch cynical moral relativists.
But what’s truly pathetic about the conservatives trying to attach themselves to Rowling are their desperate attempts at appropriating anything that’s popular. It’s the same way a lot of them, 40+ years later, pay homage to the civil rights movement. Or pretended, for 15 minutes or so before we invaded Afghanistan, to give a rat’s ass about women’s rights. They know these ideas are resonant and hugely popular, so they clumsily try to adapt them for their own purposes.
The best political ideas, and much of the best art and culture, come from the left, and always has. There are large and powerful swathes of culture, popular and otherwise, that have nothing to do with conservatism, that may in fact explicitly oppose it. But the right, in their pathetic way, will try to co-opt it. Because pretty much the best they can do are the Left Behind books, and they know it.Posted by on 07/26 at 01:17 PM
I think you are on to a topic worth exploring: why/how art (literature here) can be co-opted for a group’s agenda. In this case, Christians pick both sides...we want to say that there is a deeply Christian theology in this tale or we want to say that it promotes witchcraft.
Go here (http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/home.php?page=docs/pope) for some good insights to Pope B’s comment. The author of the site gives a very convincing argument that Pope B said nothing like he is supposed to have said.
I think that the Potter books do not need our help, our added meaning, our agenda foisting in order for them to be good, entertaining or even important. Michael said it well. “Millions of kids not just reading but rereading? Goodness, what will happen to their attention spans? Do you suppose that J. K. Rowling, all by herself, can undo the effects of every other mass cultural medium known to humankind?”
It does not get much more important than that. Does it need to compete with Christianity? Does it need to augment it? As a pastor, I do not understand the hysteria...in either camp.Posted by Tripp on 07/26 at 02:14 PM
I’ve missed all the HP books, since I generally stick to lighter fictional fare.
But hey, it’s Tuesday and I came here for some serious punishment! What th’ fluff? You feeling OK today, Michael?Posted by on 07/26 at 03:05 PM
Roland Barthes is adduced here by way of a little legerdemain, actually
I wonder if Barthes isn’t adduced here by a little bit of Oxbridge intellectual laziness. In a recent NB in the TLS, we find this item:
the Modern Review ‘forever wiped the high-cultural smirk from the face of Britain’s critics’.... ‘Inside its inaugural issue, published in autumn 1991, a two-page mission statement ("Mass culture may offend against good taste ... but that’s what’s good about it") was accompanied by images of Bart Simpson and Roland Barthes’.
Posted by on 07/26 at 03:07 PM
along with byatt’s a very irritating voice re: potter is harold bloom’s (ok, his is an irritating voice about most things, or has been since the mid-80s at least). and he, too, hitches the wagon of his tendentiousness to the star of “reading,” arguing that rowling’s work neither calls out nor repays READING in the sense of scrupulous, sceptical, and yet Heepishly humble sifting of the sands for grains of gnosis. but my 12-year-old daughter has been conducting her own long-running analysis of the novels (they marshal their generic bits and pieces and their wordplay—spellotape, eg—to manage social tensions ranging from race and class to the everyday carnivorous destruction wrought in junior high schools everywhere; most of these are her own words, but suggested ‘generic’ and ‘manage social tensions’ to replace her ‘you know, like other books you’ve read that are examples of specific types’ and ‘work crap out’ and my 8-year-olds are rereading like crazy, not only numbers 4 and 5 to prepare for 6, but also 4 and 5 again to see what’s newly visible in light of 6. this may not be READING for bloom, but it thrills me no end (except that i’m still awaiting MY turn with the sixth book because they won’t let it out of their cult-studs-exegetical clutches).
by the way, the 12-year-old was halfway thru ‘jane eyre’ when ‘half-blood’ came out and set it aside for the day it took for a first read of the latter, but has been nattering on since about all the ways “charlotte’s” book reminds her of the potter novels even tho the sentences are longer and the language makes her think more. be still, my english major heart.Posted by on 07/26 at 04:43 PM
Oh, come on now, am I going to have to push this over fifty comments with sheer filler?Posted by on 07/26 at 04:55 PM
It seems to me that Rowling’s genius is her ability to play fair. Even in the sixth book of the series, we’re still examining seemingly throwaway lines from the the first chapter of the first book. While she uses misdirection a lot, she doesn’t waste much. She’s also one of the few writers I’ve read who can set up a visual joke without having to explain a lot of details (think of Hagrid’s line in Prisoner of Azkaban about how people are sometimes stupid about their pets while Buckbeak pukes up some weasel bones on Hagrid’s bed).Posted by on 07/26 at 05:13 PM
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!
Nick and Janet here, with some bare bones.
Nick: Now it’s called the Nick-Janet theory because we synthesized our independent theorems. Dumbledore is far too clever to let himself be duped by Snape. He ORDERED Snape to kill him. Snape must have been reluctant, as evidenced by the Snape-Dumbledore argument that Hagrid relays to our heroes. Go reread the death passage– Dumbledore is asking “Severus” to kill him, not spare him (and live up to his promise). Some motivation? Snape is repentant for his role in Lily Potter’s death, as she often stuck up for him.
Janet: In fact, he’s still got a thing for Lily. They probably shared Snape’s potions textbook, and perhaps she even had a hand in annotating it. Slughorn always references Lily’s expertise in potions and notes Harry’s similar skills. Snape’s Lily-driven obedience to Dumbledore puts him in terrible danger, which is why he goes nuts when Harry calls him a coward.. As for Draco: he’ll go to the good side. The guy’s a terrible snob, and the Death Eaters are as grossly lumpenproletariat as you can get. Much cooler to be in the DA. Plus the power of love and all that. Now, why does Dumbledore need to die in the first place? It’s under review.Posted by on 07/26 at 06:00 PM
Janet: Oooh, that’s good. I guessed something similar to Nick’s theory (after I recovered from my shock and tried to calmly reread the novel), but the possibility of a Lily connection to the potions textbook hadn’t occured to me (although I did wonder why Hermione kept insisting that the annotation handwriting had to be a girl’s).
Now I’ll have to go reread (again). Anyone think that Harry himself is the last Horcrux?Posted by on 07/26 at 06:25 PM
O - the Lily/Snape thing is very, very good (a connection we could not have had without Slughorn)! I am wondering about Fawkes - he mourns, but where does he go? Also, it’s a phoenix feather in both Harry’s and Voldemort’s wands - and whatever happened to Ollivander’s? Hmmmmm.
And if Harry is determined not to return to school this next year, he has either to a) return to the Dursley’s, for safety, until his birthday and then b) repair to 12 Grimmauld Pl, which I am sure contains a wealth of interesting stuff. R.A.B., anyone?Posted by grishaxxx on 07/26 at 06:27 PM
grishaxxx—My guess is Sirius’ brother, Regulus (Rich also mentions this in the comments above). Look in Book 5. Harry and the others are cleaning out an old armoire at the Grimmauld Place house, and come across a heap of old junk—including a big old locket that none of them can open.Posted by on 07/26 at 06:31 PM
I should add that Byatt and her peers who so disapprove of these books are like playground monitors - not too much fun, kids! Michael is right about the shortcomings in style, in eloquence, but they do not matter. The compensations of wrestling with the plot (and the moral world - immediate and concrete, if not always numinous - that underlies it) outweigh any mediocre writing.
I could have said, “infelicitous rhetoric,” but that would have made me a jerk.
I only wish some bright, but fatally turgid, SF writers would take lessons from Jo.Posted by grishaxxx on 07/26 at 06:50 PM
Mina - that was a tease on my part! LOL
Remember that tapestry at 12 Grimmauld, with names burnt out, from disgrace or .. whatever? And yeah, Regulus....this is when you want to go back and pick thru the 5 other volumes - Curse you, Rowling!!! Homework!Posted by grishaxxx on 07/26 at 06:53 PM
Further to Nick and Janet’s theory,
As to why Dumbledore (DD) had to die, apart from DD dying so that harry’s character could grow, insofar as the scene goes, it all seemed to be virtually planned by DD and Snape. Perhaps DD knew he was going to die from the stuff he drank (querry: why not try simply dumping out cups of the liquid first instead of drinking it – maybe they discussed this and I forgot) so why not help Draco in the process (DD said “Only Severous can help” when they returned to diagon ally). Why would DD allow himself to be disarmed by unnessarily freezing Harry – we know that DD has been perfectly willing to fight multiple enemies—note the scene in book 5 in his office where he battled several aurors, then took flight. Why fly back to ostensibly fight, then do that? And disarmed by a novice, Draco? Surely not. So it sure did seem like Snape and DD, or at least DD, had something similar to this pre-planned. DD allows himself to be killed by Snape in an attempt to save Draco and, in fact, Snape who had that unbreakable vow hanging over him. Hence, I certainly think it’s possible, if not probable, that DD begged Snape to finish him off. of course that last bit begs the question—why did snape agree to the vow knowing the plan ahead of time, a bit of a chink in the Snape’s-still-a-good-guy armor.
it also seemed that mcgonnigal (sp) was awfully quick to take up the headmaster’s office upon learning of DD’s death. Was she privy to DD’s deal with Snape, or knew he was about to bite it and go to the big castle in the sky?
as for Lily having a hand in annotating the potions book, I seem to recall that Hermione indeed told Harry and Ron that the hand writing looked like it could be from a girl.
snape’s possible ‘thing’ for lily would also help explain why he switched to DD’s side after Vold. kills Lily.
I thought it was very peculiar that Snape identified himself as the HBP by way of an almost throwaway line, not explained to any significant degree. Perhaps more will be revealed in book 7, but it was a rather unfulfilling for me, particularly given that it was the title of the book and all. i.e., ok, he’s the HBP. and? why should the reader care all that much? maybe it’s just me….
The “RAB.” Did anyone else note the peculiar style of the handwriting, especially the R and B forming what appears to be a “V”? at first blush it looks like RAB, but is it? could the A be the last name, as is the case on some initialed items? While Regulus was foreshadowed a couple times in book 6 as well as the locket-that-couldn’t-be-opened-at-the-Black’s-home/HQ-for-Order-of-the-Phoenix in book 5, and Regulus would have motive to destroy a horcrux (sp?) if he knew Vord was going to kill him, I have to wonder if it’s someone other than Regulus. I read the book while on vacation, and am re-reading book 6 by way of listening to the CDs while driving to work, which if you haven’t done, I highly recommend – jim dale does an absolutely wonderful job. We’ve bought the CDs/tapes for each book. I actually like listening to the Cds/tapes better than reading the book. he adds so much flavor. but I digress….anyway, I’ll be interested to see if there is any description of the note and initials. It’s probably just RAB and I’m trying to read too much into it.
oy, sorry for the length of this post.Posted by on 07/26 at 07:08 PM
I’ll be disappointed if Snape turns out to really be evil, for two reasons. One, that I hate to think that Rowling would simplify his character that much. Before, he was a not-nice guy who was nevertheless on the side of the good. And two, because it drives me crazy to think that Dumbledore might have been wrong for trusting Snape, though Dumbledore makes much of his own fallibility in the book. I guess like Harry, I’m Dumbledore’s man (or woman) through and through. But perhaps like Harry I need to grow up, and stop looking for the wise infallible old man to tell me what’s right, and who?
I think Snape may well have had a crisis of sorts at the end, because with the Unbreakable Vow, it was kill or be killed. And it is just possible that he failed that test.Posted by on 07/26 at 08:24 PM
Janet and Nick may well be onto something, and they’re not the only ones who have that theory.
You can visit this site:
for some very interesting readings and speculation. The site’s author seems a little more overwrought about Dumbledore than is healthy, but he does zero on what seem to be some very telling passages. The “Dumbledore Clues” section is particularly tantalizing.Posted by on 07/26 at 08:50 PM
Well, I admit that I came away from a first reading thinking that Snape had declared himself as a Death Eater at last, and my wife and son convinced me otherwise. So I went back and read chapter two, and yep, Rowling is much more equivocal than it appeared at first. Snape’s argument to Bellatrix is simply that Voldemort trusts him, and Voldemort is the greatest Legilimens . . . but that leaves open the possibility that Snape is, in fact, an even more accomplished Occlumens. As for the Vow, Snape uses it as a proof of his trustiworthiness (catch the look of astonishment on Bellatrix) but knows that he is doing no harm in “helping” Draco. At the very end, Snape is hustling Draco off to safety, not to the Dark Lord.
But mina, I don’t think Harry can be the last horcrux, given what happened to Voldemort when he performed the Aveda Kedavra on him. Unless the crucial Seventh Horcrux backfires on the wizard who tries to create it, because of the power of the number seven?Posted by Michael on 07/26 at 09:16 PM
Dumbledore had to die, I think,
a) to motivate Harry
b) to put Voldemort off guard
c) to get Snape in tight with the death eaters
d) to keep Draco from going over to the dark side
e) to leave Narcissa and Draco owing him something (remember what Dumbledore told Harry at the end of Goblet of Fire about letting Peter Pettingrew go back?)
f) (I think this is the big one) Dumbledore has said in every single book that the greatest protection Harry has against Voldemort was that Lily willingly died to save him.
Since Harry has to be the one to fight Voldemort (although I still haven’t entirely given up on Neville - he’s certainly been more than a bit marked by Voldemort), the best way Dumbledore could help him was to die willingly to save him.
Now, as to Dumbledore being dead, we have Sir Nicholas’s word on it that wizards don’t necessarily have to leave when they’re dead.
Of course, there was that phoenix in the flames at the end, too.Posted by julia on 07/26 at 11:38 PM
Oh, about Snape freaking out at Harry - keep in mind that Harry gets to be the hero who avenges Dumbledore, when technically speaking, by making him drink the stuff in the goblet, Harry is actually the one who killed him - or rather he would have been, if Snape hadn’t had to kill him first (see above).Posted by julia on 07/26 at 11:42 PM
The supercilious curse is too funny. It also seems to me that they have to return to school. First, the central 3 clearly don’t know nearly as much as older wizards against whom they will be fighting. But second, it doesn’t seem like the author would spend 6 books developing a setting and minor characters so thoroughly and then not use them.Posted by MommyProf on 07/27 at 02:15 PM
Another bit to add to the “Snape loved Lily and that’s why he turned” theory: that might be why Voldemort would have spared Lily, for Snape’s sake (surely otherwise letting a witness go was counter to his general MO?).Posted by on 07/27 at 02:25 PM
That so many people are discussing the books, the role of the books, the plot of the books, the passages in the books and parsing the literal meanings (and possible hidden meanings) of sentences themselves completely obliterates any question in my mind that Jo Rowling has written anything but not only one but an entire set of masterpieces.
What exactly is a “simple” sentence? One that doesn’t meet up to someone’s expectations? Doesn’t meet up to standards set before them? They’re books written largely for an audience that does not yet have a full grasp of the English language. Yet, at the same time, they positively entice the readers to learn more about the language.
And anyone who is bored by the amount of time spent on characters and their romantic interests and on-and-off friendships must have suffered a large bump on the head that made them forget about their adolescence. Leaving these important issues out, or not spending as much time on them as Rowling does, has not learned that Love (agape and eros) are the most powerful forms of magic.
Most powerfully, at the end of the books we see Harry try to shed his friendships in order to save them. I very much doubt we’ll see the last of Ginny and she’ll be no “adornment” on the sleeve of Harry Potter. Ginny is by far and away one of the strongest characters in the entire series. She has gone through more growth than even Harry (who I am constantly frustrated with as he never *seems* to go through much growth, yet, he really is and I think people are just missing it, as I all to often do).
Maybe I just don’t understand what is meant by “sentence by sentence” branch. I’ve never gone to university (at least, I wasn’t successful at it the few semesters that I was there) and in my work, I’ve often worked with people who did, who constantly derided my work as being that of an “outsider artist” while they looked down on me as being so very quaint. (Not that my work in my own field ever reached the prominence of Rowling’s, not even [redacted, as it tells too much about me, but yes, you’ve heard of it and you probably read it regularly] is *that* well known.)
Which, I guess is to say that I have little respect for their view that one must have book-larnin’ in order to be respectable. Even though, I’ve internalized all of their sneers and shame.
They really need to get over themselves.
HannaPosted by Hanna on 07/27 at 04:14 PM
Glad to hear that Nick and Janet are on the side of the angels and that you have had a conversion experience. A bunch of us have been trying to budge Timothy Burke and Russell Arben Fox at their websites, with some positive results.
I was pleased that Ayjay noted over at Tim’s blog Rowling’s affinity to mystery novels, because it underscores her craft at planting clues. Part of the fun of this discussion is that Rowling has written her clues so well that both interpretations really are still possible, another sign of both her skills and her audacity. After all, her outside the text penchant for dropping additional clues risks giving away the game before the story is completed at the same time that it ramps up the discussion about what it all means. As of right now in her interviews, Rowling seems to be putting her thumbs on the scale in favor of the reading that things really are as they seem. It’s hard to say whether that is to even the teams (since more people seem to be on Nick and Janet’s side) or to steer us away from false conclusions.
The most notable new insight in the discussions that I have seen is by Scott, over at Russell Arben Fox’s blog. http://inmedias.blogspot.com/2005/07/half-blood-prince-review-up-to-next.html#comments
One of its virtues is that it “works” no matter which side of the Snape side you stand.Posted by on 07/27 at 04:46 PM
I’m late to the party, but here are my two cents:
I really hope Snape has not truly gone to (or been on) the Dark Side, because I think he is one of the best characters in the series, at least if his role is someone who has many personality traits that would lead one to think he is allied with Voldemort and which attracted him to the Death Eaters in the first place, but which he is able to overcome to be an imperfect force for good. And count me among Dumbledore’s men/women, because I have a hard time bearing the thought that he was wrong about Snape.
I definitely agree that in Dumbledore’s Plea, he was unlikely to be begging for his life and was instead probably urging Snape to do what he had to do. With Dumbledore out of the way and Snape as a double agent with Death Eater cred, Voldemort might get overconfident, which might help Harry and his friends in the next book. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is some further way that Dumbledore’s death helps Harry.
I will be disappointed in Rowling if Dumbledore’s death turns out to be illusory, and am not sure whether I think it would fit with what I perceive to be the spirit of the books if Dumbledore becomes some sort of Blue Glowie Guy by being available to give advice through his portrait in the Headmistress’s office. And I’m also looking forward to seeing what role Ginny Weasley and Neville Longbottom play in the next book.Posted by on 07/27 at 05:19 PM
I’m definitely in agreement with Janet and Nick on this one!
Indeed, I’ve posted a detailed account of my own particular Half-Blood Prince Conspiracy Theory over at my blog, in case anybody’s interested. (It’s hidden in the comments field so those wishing to avoid spoilers won’t stumble across it unawares.)Posted by Ancrene Wiseass on 07/28 at 03:25 AM