In defence of adult readers of Harry Potter

I had promised myself not to get drawn into the debates that seem to have taken over almost every medium (radio, TV, online) about whether adults should be reading the latest Harry Potter book. It seems to me the height of arrogance for anyone to tell me what I should or should not read.

But then, of course, we have to remember that this prescriptive (and indeed proscriptive) attitude is being adopted by arrogant pseudo-intellectuals. Perhaps they still think that reading should be restricted to the literary elite and not wasted on anyone who didn’t go to the right Oxbridge college. They are no doubt still mourning the invention of the printing press and the expansion of education beyond clerics and aristocracy.

Hang on though. Aren’t the bulk of these gainsayers also authors themselves. Benefiting from the very same printing presses and concomitant wider potential audience? Of course they are. They claim they’re writing literature, while scornfully dismissing anything that is a commercial success as mere storytelling. But I think we can see the nub of the problem in those words potential audience and commercial success. How many copies of a typical literary work are sold? How many of a Harry Potter novel? The difference is measured in orders of magnitude. So, is envy the driving force behind their disdain? Undeniably.

I’m an author – I write stories and have had one published so far (more to come…!). I would love to have sales figures that are even a fraction of those enjoyed by these literary snobs (let alone sales figures like Ms Rowling!). Am I envious? Of course. I’m envious of her talent to tell a story in such a captivating way that it appeals not just to her original intended audience of pre-teens but to readers of every generation, nationality and background (apart from that handful of literary snobs who are too busy participating in pointless debates to actually read her books).

But leaving motivation aside, these critics’ arguments are specious. While some people may read a literary novel and gain an insight into the undoubtedly earth-shatteringly important opinion of the author, the majority of readers won’t. In fact the majority of readers won’t touch a literary novel with a barge-pole because they are looking for an entertaining story, rather than to be subjected to a pompous didactic exercise in literary self-abuse. I’m sure that many readers of the final Harry Potter novel (adults and children alike) will, as a result, have thought about the significant issues that are at its core including death, love, vengeance, forgiveness, tyranny and the evils of bigotry. Even if only a tiny percentage of them are thinking about these issues for the first time, or are coming to their own conclusions, then it will have had a more important effect than the whole oeuvre of most literary writers.

Does literary style matter if the reader is engaged, enchanted even enthralled? No. There have been plenty of so-called literary books that have been complete and utter drivel. Rubbish written in the style of Shakespeare is still rubbish (“Drivel by any other name will smell as bad!”). Conversely there have been many books written in a more down-to-earth style of prose that are masterpieces of writing. Anyone setting out to write a book ostensibly for children will want to make sure that it is accessible to their intended audience. Ask 100 children if they prefer Harry Potter or Shakespeare, I think we can all predict the result! Does that demean Shakespeare? Of course not. There are children’s books that have, over time, come to be regarded as classics. Some may even occasionally have had the demeaning literary epithet applied, but surely none were written with that intention.

Two last points to make, then I’ll shut up ;-)

Many of the critics admit they haven’t actually read the book – thereby completely undermining their claim to be able to make any sort of objective comment. Will Self said on Radio 4 this week that he didn’t need to read it as he’d read some of the earlier ones to his children. That’s like a critic of Christianity dismissing it as a religion of vengeance not love, despite not having read any of the Gospels, because he’d read a couple of books of the Old Testament. J.K. Rowling’s writing has matured in theme and style along with her heroes – helped no doubt by the fact that they are so successful and appeal to such a wide audience. There is a marked and obvious depth in the final book that wasn’t there in the first. Writing is a skill that is improved by practice, as even a mere literary author should know.

The subject of themes brings me neatly to my last theory about the hidden agenda behind many of these critics. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is, ultimately, the culmination of a story that reflects many of the most important issues that face society. In the past we have had religious institutions to act as a bulwark against moral decline and the advance of evil. But they have been eroded and exercise little authority, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world in which, it seems, the intellectual elite are determined to make the rest of us eschew religion as fast as possible. They revel in a new anti-religious trend, treating morals as confections on a pick-and-mix stall, even denying the existence of evil (never mind God). They are terrified of a successful novel that encourages people (especially children) to think for themselves about moral issues, in case they realise that these proponents of anti-religious thought are themselves every bit as bigotted as He-Who-Must-Not-Named and would prefer anyone found guilty of independent thought to be sent to the Death Eaters in Azkaban.

Postscript: Just as I was finishing this post I saw an objective review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in the Times Literary Supplement that’s worth reading.

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