Rowling, J.K.


This is either just a curious coincidence . . . or . . .

I happened to notice that three blockbuster works of fantasy all got published, at least according to the stories told by their own publishers, when a young reader of the manuscript (or self-published book in one of the cases below) happened to recommend the work to an adult parent who was influential in the literary world.

One somewhat recent case was the acquisition of young author Christopher Paolini’s first book, Eragon (the first in an eventual four books in his bestselling Inheritance cycle).

According to the UK’s The Guardian:

Novelist Carl Hiaasen was on a fishing holiday in the area; his stepson saw [Paolini’s self-published] book in a shop, read it, loved it and showed it to Hiaasen who immediately contacted his publishers [Knopf, where it ended up on the desk of Michelle Frey, who ended up making a mega-offer to Paolini]. Paolini’s feet have barely touched the ground since.

A similar young-reader-as-advocate story is told about the publishing of J.K. Rowling’s first Happy Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.). According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

It’s not every exec who turns to his 8-year-old daughter for advice. But that’s what publisher Nigel Newton did when he received a manuscript from an unknown children’s author in 1997. The founder of Bloomsbury Publishing PLC handed Alice a sheaf of papers and asked her to read them. “She came down from her room an hour later glowing, saying: ‘Dad, this is so much better than anything else,”‘ says the 49-year-old Newton.

The third example: the decision to acquire J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was similarly influenced by a very young reader. Here’s the story, from the New York Times:

Rayner Unwin took charge of the publishing house George Allen & Unwin in 1968 after the death of his father, Sir Stanley. The senior Unwin paid his son a shilling when he was 10 to write a reader’s report on a manuscript by J. R. R. Tolkien called ”The Hobbit.” The title, published in 1937, became a classic. . . . ”My father still has a copy of that reader’s report,” said Merlin Unwin, who noted that it included observations in schoolboy handwriting like: ”This is an excellent book. This will appeal to all children between the ages of 7 and 9.”

Out of the mouths of babes . . .

I do suspect this is more than just a coincidence. It says a number of things about how fantasy novels (and many other works of fiction) are chosen for publication. First, for the work of new, unknown authors, it’s a non-scientific, somewhat random process of luck. Many good works, undoubtedly—and perhaps some great ones—never make it out of the slush-pile oblivion for lack of an enthusiastic and well-connected advocate.

It also says something about the basic appeal of fantasy and how it often crosses the “intended recommended age-categories” often assigned to books. The Harry Potter series and The Hobbit are preeminent examples; both were marketed at first as children’s books, but have achieved a devoted readership among adults.

And of course, good works of fantasy (like many good works of genre-based literature) are much-loved by readers, who appreciate a good story and the richness of adventure, magic, and all that . . . but this may be under-appreciated by acquisitions editors seeking more “literary’ (i.e., non-genre-tainted) standards. (In the case of Tolkien, The Hobbit helped to established its genre. But at the time, many literary reviewers did not know what to make of this strangely appealing tale.)

Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from these three bonanza-blockbuster tales of publishing serendipity.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

My favorite description of what makes a classic comes from magical realist Italo Calvino: “A classic is a work which has not yet finished telling its story.”

My question: will the Harry Potter books endure and become classics of literature?

First, let’s agree that “great storytelling” and “literary quality” are often found together, but not always. A well-told story is not necessarily great literature.

Yet it seems obvious that great works of literature – the classics – generally have both literary quality and good storytelling. And of the two, skill in storytelling comes first and lasts longest in the minds of readers.

The skills of superb storytellers like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, despite being disparaged for their suspicious popularity, are undisputed and often under-recognized for their complexity. Great storytelling is not something that anyone can do. To believe that misses the skills that writers at the tops of their fields – especially in genre areas like fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels – have mastered, skills which lie beyond the reach of most graduates of creative writing programs.

The debate over storytelling versus literary quality in popular novels like the works of Rowling or King reminds me of the comment about why Dickens wrote popular novels. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Dickens didn’t write what the people wanted, he wanted what the people wanted.”

The criticism of being a popular writer, not a literary great, was also leveled on Rudyard Kipling — who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English-language author to win that prize established in 1901. In the presentation, Kipling was praised by the Swedish academy for his great “genius in the realm of narrative.”

So the classics speak to readers for a long time. It might be useful to consider the Harry Potter series in light of the Narnia books, which fifty years after their publication are still beguiling hordes of readers, young and old.

Will the Potter books do the same?

The only fair answer: time will tell.

I don’t happen to believe, by the way, in the term “instant classic.” It’s like “jumbo shrimp” – an oxymoron that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.

I’m inclined to give the series the benefit of the doubt . . . and wait to see. In the meantime, J.K. Rowling and her immensely successful Harry Potter series is doing just fine as a decade-long run of contemporary and popular books.

And movies! Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about to leap, magic wands ablaze, potent spells spouting, onto the silver screen next week.

[Coming next week . . . further thoughts about Pottermania and the role of the series in fantasy literature.]

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Is Harry Potter a decent person?

Okay, we all know that the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling has been the subject of Christian concern, some criticism, and occasional outright attempts at banning by certain factions.

On that subject, I enjoyed reading and recommend to you this article:

Harry Potter vs. Gandalf: An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis
A booklet-length essay by Steven D. Greydanus

The piece is posted on DecentFilms.com, a site of “film appreciation, information, and criticism informed by Christian faith.” It’s run by Mr. Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register. He also writes for Christianity Today Movies and Our Sunday Visitor.

The (long) article compares Harry Potter to C.S Lewis, Tolkien, and modern occult-based stories like the Buffy series, The Craft, etc.

What, then, defines morally acceptable use of good magic in fiction? Where, and how, do we draw the line? How do we distinguish the truly worthwhile (Tolkien and Lewis), the basically harmless (Glinda, Cinderella’s fairy godmother), and the problematic or objectionable (“Buffy,” The Craft)? And where on this continuum does Harry Potter really fall?

The article is fascinating, well-informed, and well-nuanced. Worth reading!

It’s particularly interesting as Greydanus looks at the cautionary limits to magic (what he calls “Seven Hedges”) that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis implanted in their works, as essentially Christian writers. These “hedges” are:

seven specific literary characteristics common to Tolkien’s and Lewis’s fiction — above and beyond the fantasy nature of the magic itself — that have the net effect of limiting and restricting the role of magic in their fantasy worlds, essentially acting as barricades or hedges between magic and the reader, in effect saying: “Magic is not for the likes of us.”

The “hedges” that Greydanus outlines and then examines are things like how open or secret the magic is (more secret in Rowling’s fictional world, less in Tolkien’s or Lewis’s); how central the role of magic is to the main events; how dangerous or corrupting to the users; how much the acquisition of magic is portrayed as a practical process rather than a mysterious one; and so on.

It’s an interesting look at the use of magic in fantasy fiction. I don’t agree with all his assumptions about which is better or worse, but I found the analysis interesting.

Greydanus concludes fairly reasonably that Potter books have fewer “hedges,” and could be “potentially problematic”  . . . but probably aren’t. “The key,” he says rather fairly, “in my judgment, is balance and context. ”

. . . [It isn’t necessary to rewrite who God is in order to imagine a world, like Narnia or Middle-earth, in which the order of creation includes powerful forces, good or neutral in themselves, that some inhabitants of that world are able to engage or control by means of such paraphernalia as incantations or wands — some using this power for good, lawfully, while others for ill, unlawfully.

And this is in fact what’s going on in Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention The Wizard of Oz, Cinderella . . . and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter stories.

While the article is well-nuanced, I don’t agree in particular with his view of dark fantasy. He tends to object to the dark fantasy of works like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Craft as bad because they are realistic enough to possibly encourage young readers to consider dabbling in actual occult practice. He differentiates between “séances vs. flying broomsticks” (with the latter, or similar magic found in Hogwarts, Narnia, and Middle-earth, being so imaginary as to be impossible and unrewarding to try to implement in real life.)

As I discuss in my own book, A Guide to Fantasy Literature: Thoughts on Stories of Wonder and Enchantment, in a chapter titled “Types of Fantasy: Five Rings of Tradition,” dark fantasy and high fantasy are to great degree just different styles of a common genre, with their own interests and approaches. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily believe in different standards of good and evil.

Although some may not see it, dark fantasy doesn’t embrace evil things as good; they are more often just cautionary, scary, often humorous tales. Yes, they focus on those dark powers – their allure and sheer power to scare and grab us . . . physically, emotionally, psychically – and our primal fears of all things dark and different. (Of course, the best dark-fantasy authors do that with more more insight than the hacks in the field . . . as is also true of high fantasy and its weaker vs. stronger works.)

And yes, for fictional power, dark fantasy typically adopts a realistic setting, which high fantasy doesn’t as often.

With dark fantasy, you need to understand the humor and practical catharsis (literally, a purging) implicit in the genre. Stephen King isn’t an evil person. And the Twilight Saga examines issues of real significance (romance, physical attraction, morality, abstinence), in an interesting, fictional way.

And I’ll point out that a blind swallowing of all aspects of high fantasy can lead to a weakness of insight about how easy it is to split the world into black and white, and how goodness will always triumph through conviction and pluckiness and persistence.

In his article, Greydanus concludes:

For my part, I don’t see any one hard and fast answer: no one line in the sand, no one litmus test capable of distinguishing all acceptable uses of good magic in fiction from all unacceptable ones.

I agree with that statement!

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)

Our young but rapidly maturing friend, Harry Potter, is coming back to the silver screen, on July 15, 2009, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth of seven movies, based on the seven books of the series by J.K. Rowling.

The film’s synopsis, from IMDB (the Internet Movie Database):

As Harry Potter begins his 6th year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, he discovers an old book marked mysteriously “This book is the property of the Half-Blood Prince” and begins to learn more about Lord Voldemort’s dark past.

Ratings for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, per IMDB:

In the UK, the film has been given a 12A rating by the BBFC . . . for “Moderate Threat.” In the US, however, the MPAA have given the film a PG rating, for “scary images, some violence, language, and mild sensuality.”

In general, I’m a fan of Rowling’s books. But I do have some some doubts how well the Harry Potter series will fare as the years go by.

In view of that, here’s a review from the Washington Post of the final volume in the 7-boo0k series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, reviewed by Elizabeth Hand. Ms. Hand is an award-winning, brilliant author of books of dark fantasy for adult readers (Winterlong, Waking the Moon, Glimmering, Mortal Love, and others).

In the review (she too is a fan of the series), she hits a number of nails on their heads. She points to the likability of the series and its protagonists, drawing in adult readers like her as well as many millions of young readers.

She points to the delightfully Dickensian nature of Rowling’s secondary characters, with goofy names and little side stories woven into the big picture.

And she notes the great element of the books, how the human heart triumphs over the magic, an essential ingredient (in my opinion) for truly great fantasy.

But Hand also points to what I see to be the major flaw in the series as a whole: the shift of the latter books into grim, dark, more mature themes.

For Elizabeth Hand, as a writer of dark fantasy, this is appealing. By and large, the legions of young fans who grew up with the series (published over ten years, from 1997 to 2007) also agree, finding this development appropriate to their own maturing interests.

But what happens as new young readers are introduced to the completed series? The gap between the maturity level from the first to the last Harry Potter books is quite large and of legitimate concern to parents and educators, as well as to younger readers who want to be able to sleep at night without visions of Dementors and such. (Dementors are flying creatures in dark, hooded cloaks, showing only gray, decayed hands, blind, eyeless, and a large hole where the mouth should be, floating silently toward their victims . . . to suck out all the happiness from their souls.)

While interesting to older readers, portions of the later books are unsettling, scary, and inappropriate for younger ones.

For instance, the movie version of book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was rated PG-13 for “sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images.” Here is a partial list of the warnings (again, from IMDB)

Action scenes involving Harry fighting dragons, water demons, other competitors and him being trapped in a violent maze.

Harry’s nightmares begin in this film, which are very intense.

Several violent scenes at the beginning of an old man being murdered by Voldemort.

Overall, 3 onscreen deaths.

The events involving the Death Eaters at the Quidditch World Cup are violent and extremely intense.

Lord Voldemort is shown for the first time . . . and is violently portrayed by actor Ralph Fiennes

One main character is murdered in front of Harry with the Avada Kedavra curse.

Harry is violently tortured by Lord Voldemort and is forced to duel him.

Harry brings the body of his dead friend back to Hogwarts, and the scene is rather intense with Harry crying hysterically.

Harry’s wrist is cut open with blood shown and Harry screaming in pain.

Hand compares it to the differences between Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The latter started as an intended sequel to The Hobbit (per his publisher’s request), but developed into something far greater and mature and dense in its mythic themes, in part with the guidance of his fellow Inklings, including C.S. Lewis. In Tolkien’s case, LOTR was released in the 1950s long after The Hobbit (1937) and packaged as a separate trilogy.

In the case of the Harry Potter books, there’s not much from the publisher to differentiate any maturity levels from Books 1 to 7. The descriptive text, for instance, on the Scholastic website just refers to things like “thrills and adventures” in the later books.

The problem: a logical person might well think the Harry Potter series was like most series, where book 1 and book 7 are intended for the same audiences, albeit with a natural maturation of the central characters.

In comparison, the Narnia series, also 7 books, keeps a pretty uniform tone, although the final book, The Last Battle, does turn darker and less light-hearted, with the killing of friendly animals in the final battle. But this occurs with a less drawn-out build-up with all the terrifying creatures, nightmares, super-scary enemies, etc., found in the Potter series. (More often, the foes in the Narnia series are beguiling, like the White Witch who offers sweet words and treacle; although evil they are less frightening, less likely to cause young readers to have their own nightmares.)

Myself, I lost a bit of fondness for the Potter series in Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where Harry is a cranky, uncooperative, very angry teenager, lashing out at long and true friends who are clearly trying to help him. Check the number of time phrases the words angry or angrily are used. He spends a lot of the book in an unlikable funk, and I found it most of it unnecessary. Although he grew out of it, I was a little disenchanted.

To me, it ends up being a set of mostly great books, but a flawed series. A terrific series for those who grew up with it over ten years, who embraced it as a true touchstone for both their social and literary lives.

Less terrific for those youngest and newest young readers who might be relishing reading the whole series after reading the first few books. They (and their parents) have a real problem avoiding the later books until those young readers mature.

(Blog post on the Creeping Past Dragons blog by Philip Martin, director of Great Lakes Literary and author of A Guide to Fantasy Literature.)