Monday, July 25, 2005
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.