Tuesday, July 17, 2007

In defense of Harry Potter

I am looking forward to the last Harry Potter book. That's becoming the kind of statement to polarize those to whom it's delivered: either you'll be gleefully anticipating the release date and happy to be reminded that the wait is almost over, or you now think I'm a pathetic man-child and have stopped reading, shelving me with all the other Potter readers, between Peter Pan and Michael Jackson.

On Digg, the big debate is whether those looking forward to the last Potter installment are in for the time of their lives, or whether they should - I'm serious - grow up and read more Thomas Pynchon. (Don't these detractors even have a sense of irony?)

This then breaks into a sub-debate: should everyone be asked, in the nicest (or, failing that, most insistent) possible way, to FOR THE LOVE OF GOD not post spoilers for the last book, or should the Internet become the hotzone for an orchestrated campaign of willful noise, so as to drown the actual spoilers in a haze of erroneous static?

(The answer is obviously the second option. It's attainable, immensely fun, and it pays sly homage to Real Books like Pattern Recognition and Cryptonomicon. Which - hey! - is almost liking Thomas Pynchon, right?)

From Time to the Washington Post, there's a sense of resignation: well, the kids like their wizard-stories, are YOU going to be the one to tell them they're not written worth a damn? This whole "magic moment" of the worldwide release date detracts from the singular pleasure of reading as insular comfort, but whatchagonedo? Another nail in the coffin for Proper Storytelling.

(I'm sorry the Post's Ron Charles lost his enthusiasm some way through the distractingly bombastic Volume 4, I really am: it meant neither he nor his daughter got to experience the truly gripping subtle malice of the next volume, in which clandestine machinations replace brightly-signposted plot points and an air of conspiracy, counter-subterfuge and grinding torment permeates that wouldn't be out of place in James Ellroy's Underworld, USA trilogy. But I'm more sorry because it meant we had to suffer through his nauseatingly highbrow thoughts on the Death Of Reading, as delivered by the talented Ms. Rowling. Spare us.)

And here's the thing: We've heard it all, and we don't care.

Reading Potter for the writing is like watching Rope for the editing. Nobody who's given it a moment's honest attention is pretending like these are any masterpieces of style. The writing in Harry Potter is never outright bad, but it sure as hell doesn't sparkle. We know this; we're over it, and truth be told, it might be better that way. It remains to be seen whether JK Rowling has any kind of writerly flair with which she might illuminate the word-to-word experience of reading her books; if so, she's earned the right to give it a go. But the workmanlike composition of the Potter books (to be charitable) shows a dogged determination to hinge a book on plot and character, a resolute determination to take it back to the old school and write stories. The plainness of Rowling's literary technique is what gives the books their universal appeal. Lament if you will, but you're missing out.

And what are you missing? Why, you're missing the thrill of taking the book home at the ordained date and reading, and this is the other area in which the detractors will howl and cry: "but the hype is destroying what it means to read a book!"

I'm just as worried as you are by the suggestion that this unprecedented level of pre-release buildup will do for the literary world what Jaws and Star Wars did for movies: dumbly club them into a blockbuster-or-bust model of release practices. But I don't think that's going to happen, and the reason is very simple: we're not made that way.

Look, the human animal operates in ways that are hardwired into our being. We know this, just as we know that one of the main ways this principle manifests itself is in our capacity to follow and enjoy narrative. You can't cheat the deepest levels of the psyche: we can't help liking a story that resonates, and we can't help dismissing one that rings false. The degree to which we'll dismiss depends on just how egregious an offender we're dealing with (which explains the desperate desire for a followable story to emerge in lame-duck continuing narratives like Jericho or The Ultimates), but the bottom line remains: we like good stories, and if we connect strongly enough, we'll stay with it. The "blockbusters" that are going to destroy reading aren't going to work en masse because they won't all be very good.

Which is why the world will be filled, on Potter 7 Day, with adherents young and old, opening and reading the books for the first time: to themselves, to each other. We'll be sharing a narrative, but we'll also be engaging in it on a solitary level, just as we've done for as long as we've told stories.

And that much-ballyhooed "magic moment", that globally-shared first read that somehow unleashes a cosmic dark power to devour the solitary magic of reading? That's just a byproduct. We just want to get to it before someone spoils it for us.

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