Running With Scissors

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Harry Potter and the Disgruntled Writer

OK, this has been bothering me for the last month, so I'm going to depart from my usual science-and-silliness format and deliver a mild rant.

AS Byatt: get over it.

Last month the New York Times published an article written by Byatt, author of such novels as Possession and The Whistling Woman, in which she bemoaned the limited imaginations of adults who read the Harry Potter books. Of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the latest book in the series and published this past June, she wrote:

'It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.'

Not our sort of people. Sniff, sniff. Well, I read and enjoy the Harry Potter books. I also enjoy watching the movies. I look forward to the next installments of both. So you know what Byatt thinks of me.

It would probably distress her to know that I read and appreciate her work as well. And I read her books by choice and for pleasure, not because they have been assigned to me in a literature class. I have never watched a soap opera or so-called 'reality TV' programme - a bout of food poisoning is more appealing. I find celebrities dull and tedious. OK, I like TV cartoons; d'you suppose Wile E Coyote will ever catch that bird? And I think some comic strips, such as Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, are works of art.

In The Order of the Phoenix Sirius Black tells Harry that the world isn't divided into good people and Death Eaters. Nor is it divided into intelligent, complex persons with interesting things to say and mediocre duffers who aren't worth listening to. Byatt is guilty of the same lack of imagination of which she accuses adult Harry Potter fans when she views them as a homogeneous lot of benighted and benumbed souls who can't see beyond their television screens.

And if the fandom includes some of the TV-addled, is this such a bad thing? Isn't it possible that these people are seeking out the books as a relief from the world of 'soaps and celebrity gossip'? Is it far-fetched to hope that this may be their first step toward the works of Phillip Pullman and Ursula LeGuin, writers noted by Byatt as producing vivid and complex imaginary worlds? This seems like a good thing to me.

I learned something when I was quite young: most everyone has a story to tell and it's worth my time to listen them. Inspiration and delight can turn up in what seem at first glance to be unlikely places. Clearly many people including adults are finding something of interest in the Potter universe. And if this something is nothing more than balm to their bruised souls and an escape from a world that's gotten too complex and confusing for them, what's wrong with that?

For the most part I agree with Byatt's assessment of the Harry Potter books. I don't think they are great literature, nor do I think the movies are great films. So what? It's intellectual snobbery to think that they are somehow beneath my notice or not worth my time simply because other artists have covered the same ground in more depth. And while a literary work is fair game for criticism, it's mean-spirited to criticise those who love the work or to speculate on their intellectual abilities because of their alleged lack of taste. I have more sympathy for the viewpoint of fundamentalists who try to warn us off the books for what they feel are moral reasons. And I have almost no sympathy for that viewpoint whatever.

So I will continue to enjoy my excursions into Harry's world. And I will continue to read and enjoy AS Byatt's work. I don't choose my reading material based on an agenda, unless it is to learn and experience as much as I can of this world while I'm here. If that makes me a mediocre duffer in some people's estimation, so be it. I'm still in good company - company that may have things to teach those of us who listen.

And since I've been judged and condemned by the company I keep, let me just add as a parting shot:


Running With Scissors


21.08.03 Front Page

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