Saturday, October 02, 2004

Harry Potter as juvenile delinquent

The latest Touchstone magazine has a compelling feature entitled "Jump into Bedtime Stories" about the proliferation of literature for teenagers with very questionable content. (Sorry, the article isn't available from their magazine online, so if you're curious, you'll just have to pick up a copy.) The author, Sharon Dever notes:
This development is not going unnoticed. In a recent article for the New York Times titled "Summer Reading Blues", Barbara Feinberg laments the displacement of the magical and adventurous in juvenile fiction by grittily realistic "problem novels" in which adolescents are plunged into soul-crushing situations.

Ah, I remember it well. What a disappointment it was to enter the world of juvenile fiction and discover that the standard fare included books that were angst-ridden, whiny and annoying. Gone were the wonderful fantasy worlds of Narnia, the Phantom Toll-booth and the Hundred-Acre Wood, and after trying to like the grotty stories about teenagers dealing with mental illness, drugs and divorce -- none of which, thank God, had any relevance to me -- I reverted back to my favorites or went for the older classics by Dumas and Dafoe and Melville (pretty much insuring complete nerdiness, but that's another story).

So what's a parent to do? Well, these days there's Harry Potter, of course, but as Elizabeth observed in a comment to Huw, the latest book is very different. Harry isn't a wide-eyed 10-year-old anymore. He's a sullen, self-absorbed, irritable 15-year-old who's short on patience, self-restraint and gratitiude and big on HAVING BURSTS OF TEMPER IN ALL CAPS. You can hardly stand him.

And worse than what happens to Harry in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is what happens to the magical, incredible world that Rowling made us love at Hogwarts. The wonders that once amazed and impressed both Harry and the reader are now commonplace and unnoteworthy -- moving staircases, talking objects, classes in spells and incantations. Suddenly they're not just ordinary, they're often bothersome, annoying and sometimes downright malevolent. Anyone who can read "Phoenix" and find joy or happiness anywhere in it will have to let me know where.

If it sounds like I didn't like the book, that's not quite right. I have a feeling, though I don't know if I'm right, that Rowling is doing something very interesting. She's not only taking us through Harry's feelings as his age progresses, but through his world-view. There isn't really much to suggest to a discerning reader that Hogwarts and the magic world are any less magical than they were, but they turn out to be more subtle, more dangerous and more complicated. Ten-year-old Harry came out of a closet of innocent ignorance into the magnificence of a world that opened up new wonders all around him. Things were better than he ever believed they could be, and he had a place in it all. Gradually, that world has gotten smaller, darker and more truly dangerous, and the evil that has been gathering since the first book is coming closer, taking shape and taking better and better aim at him and at everything else that's good.

If I'm even right that Rowling is doing this on purpose, is it a good idea? She's doing a more sophisticated job of what the 'young adult' literature is trying for these days -- expressing the world as it seems at one of the most confusing and tumultuous times of a person's life in the interests of ... what? Being relevant to readers that age? Reminding old children like me what it was like? Selling more books?

In Rowling's case, of course, she manages all three. In the case of less-gifted authors than herself -- and there are many, many of them -- it may just serve to turn off most juvenile readers and drive some of the hardier souls like myself into books quite a bit over their heads. Though I can still name all four musketeers, if you want.


Blogger Matt said...

Hmmmmm. I hadn't thought about HPATOOTP as a sophisticated teen novel. I've never read a teen novel so that is propbably not an idea I never would have come up with. But when I read HPATOOTP I thought, "Well Harry is a bit self absorbed here, isn't he?" And that is about as deep as my thoghts went. But now, after reading your post I think there is something else that needs to be considered: Allegory. If Harry is an allegorical Christian (and I think that is debateable.) he is past the newness of the faith, and is hip deep in the hard work of slogging it through to the end. He might just want everything to be happy happy joy joy all the time; he might be having trouble coming to grips with the real contest he is in.

October 3, 2004 at 11:16 PM  
Blogger Grace said...

As far as I'm concerned, you didn't miss ANYthing by never having read a teen novel. I actually think they're more about cattharsis for neurotic adults than they are worthwhile reading for teenagers.

I think you're onto something with HP -- I hadn't thought about it being a Christian metaphor. I hadn't read any interviews with Rowling to find out if she had in mind that you could read the novel on different levels. (I still agree with Huw though that she easily could've cut 300 pages out of this beast.)

If we're right, I'm even more curious to see where she'll take the next three books (which I think is what she wants to do to finish the series). What I would love to see is that Harry's growth pains (real and spiritual) get worse and worse and then in the last book the Magical World is reborn to him. So in the end he sees all that Hogwarts et al is, but loves it all the same. Sounds way Christian, I admit, but have you noticed the way that given a big enough canvas, people will always paint the picture of salvation?

October 4, 2004 at 9:45 AM  
Blogger Abigail said...

Hi Grace,

Just stumbled onto your blog through a link from fellow blogger Katie (resplendentmango). I hope you have comments e-mailed to you, or you'll probably never find this comment, but here goes anyway.

I'm glad to see someone else who likes magical children's books! The Chronicles of Narnia are my absolute fave; I re-read them about every other year (I think I just finished reading #7 or 8). Real life is depressing enough; why would you want to read about adolescents suffering soul-crushing blows? Seriously.

At first I was annoyed at Rowling for making Harry so self-absorbed and whiny, and then I realized that... hey, he's a 15-year-old boy! Sometimes they get that way. I don't think she was necessarily trying to be more relatable; she just knows Harry inside and out and he happens to be whiny and self-absorbed. I think she did a decent job of making him still likable enough to be the protagonist, and I kind-of enjoyed seeing him stand up for himself a bit.

I too predict that something like "it gets worse before it gets good" will happen in books 6 and 7. She is also coyly not saying whether both he and Voldemort will die in the end of book 7, or just Voldemort. (If Harry doesn't defeat Voldemort, there will be a worldwide riot and it would violate all the rules of fantasy since before the inception of the genre and she just wouldn't do that because the reason we READ fantasy is so that we can see good WIN sometimes!) But I believe things will get better in the end.

Regarding your last comment: how true! She professes to believe in God (and I have no reason to disbelieve her) but I'm sure that a purposeful Christian allegory was at the bottom of her list of goals. It's just that the story of salvation IS the real story, and it's so ingrained in the very fiber of our being (I love that phrase, even if it's just a melodramatic way of saying "soul") that we tell it without even meaning to.

November 13, 2004 at 1:08 PM  

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