Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter and Harold Bloom - Harry Harold and Hunka

When even George Hunka is writing a post about Harry Potter, I thought I might post something also.

Isaac Butler at Parabasis the other day posted a link to Matt Yglesias, a blogger at the Atlantic, who said this:

The publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows might be a moment of opportunity for a literary critic. A chance for someone with the requisite chops to publish in the popular press an article that said something about the Potter books as literature, something smart and insightful that made me think "hey, this guy has smart things to say about books!" Something that would situate the books in some kind of context vis-a-vis the much larger cultural sweep of the novel. Something that might get an intelligence person who enjoyed the Potter books interested in some larger, more highbrow segment of the literary enterprise. Instead, the publication of each Potter book seems to herald the publication of a bunch of stuff like Ron Charles whine in The Washington Post which, to me, makes Charles -- and through his role as a stand-in for the larger enterprise, all the literati -- look like sneering losers who've decided to elevate their idiosyncratic hobby above everyone else's in order to look on the rest of us.

There are interesting comments on Isaac's thread, but really the call for a critical stamp of approval on popular entertainments is nothing new. But I have to say, the request Matt Yglesias issues seems bordering on absurd. In a comical way it is almost like some type of hostage negotiation: "All right highbrows, there are millions and millions of Harry Potter fans that could be introduced to all of the great literature that you deem worthy,'s the catch,... you have to tell them that Harry Potter is one of those works!" It's the Kobayashi Maru test for the "literati."

If somebody with the "critical chops" starts mentioning works of literature in "the more highbrow segment," such works, more than likely, would always be positioned within comparative situation in which Harry Potter would not fare that well.

Harold Bloom, gasbag to some, but certainly somebody with "critical chops," has written twice about the Harry Potter books. In 2000, he wrote the following:

The ultimate model for Harry Potter is "Tom Brown's School Days" by Thomas Hughes, published in 1857. The book depicts the Rugby School presided over by the formidable Thomas Arnold, remembered now primarily as the father of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian critic-poet. But Hughes' book, still quite readable, was realism, not fantasy. Rowling has taken "Tom Brown's School Days" and re-seen it in the magical mirror of Tolkein. The resultant blend of a schoolboy ethos with a liberation from the constraints of reality-testing may read oddly to me, but is exactly what millions of children and their parents desire and welcome at this time.


One can reasonably doubt that "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" is going to prove a classic of children's literature, but Rowling, whatever the aesthetic weaknesses of her work, is at least a millennial index to our popular culture.


Perhaps Rowling appeals to millions of reader non-readers because they sense her wistful sincerity, and want to join her world, imaginary or not. She feeds a vast hunger for unreality; can that be bad? At least her fans are momentarily emancipated from their screens, and so may not forget wholly the sensation of turning the pages of a book, any book.

His tone is sufficiently snobby throughout, but not as harsh as one would expect. He treats the novels influences with some degree of seriousness, but really can't be bothered. The idea that there are better things somebody, child or not, could be reading, (including himself at that moment,) really gets under his skin. But he does at least try to conform to the template laid out in the above request, and tries,( looking down his nose though he is,) to be understanding.

However, after Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation's annual award for distinguished contribution in 2003, Bloom went bananas. This time not only pissing off the incredibly huge Harry Potter audience, but also the massive King fanbase. Taking aim at the horrormeister, Bloom also revisited his review of Potter from 2000, this time describing the experience in less understanding terms:

I was incredulous. Rowling's mind is so governed by cliches and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing. But when I wrote that in a newspaper, I was denounced. I was told that children would now read only J.K. Rowling, and I was asked whether that wasn't, after all, better than reading nothing at all? If Rowling was what it took to make them pick up a book, wasn't that a good thing?

It is not. "Harry Potter" will not lead our children on to Kipling's
"Just So Stories" or his "Jungle Book." It will not lead them to Thurber's "Thirteen Clocks" or Kenneth Grahame's "Wind in the Willows" or Lewis Carroll's "Alice." Later I read a lavish, loving review of Harry Potter by the same Stephen King. He wrote something to the effect of, "If these kids are reading Harry Potter at 11 or 12, then when they get older they will go on to read Stephen King." And he was quite right. He was not being ironic. When you read "Harry Potter" you are, in fact, trained to read Stephen King.

Well, Mr. Yglesias, there you have your suggestions for further reading, but not quite positioned as well as I think you want them. J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King, needs no defense, no stamp of approval, yet we feel like we need it.

The highbrows appear to be shoring up their defenses, but can you blame them? In the "Everything Bad Is Good For You" moment we are experiencing, the rush to anoint things as genius or high art can sometimes seem very dizzying, if not eventually dulling. A good example can be found in the blog post of local reviewer Thomas Garvey. He was examining the critical rush to embrace the movie Pan's Labyrinth as on a par with certain other great films:

I knew somehow that one day I’d grow out of comics - and whaddya know, I did. In fact (dare I say it?) I found in the realm of genuine art a depth and power that made comic books seem obsolete. But today, that assumption – in fact, that reality – is seen as somehow false; if I’d been true to myself, I would have resisted the siren calls of literature and drama and cinema, and clutched Doctor Doom ever closer to my chest. Or better still, I'd have made comic books with pretensions to art. I have a sneaky feeling this cultural current is what the critics are doing obeisance to; surely none of them (not even Stephanie Zacharek) really believe that Pan’s Labyrinth is up there with The Spirit of the Beehive, much less Forbidden Games. But the idea of a comic book movie masterpiece, a “graphic novel” with the depth of a real one, has become a kind of holy grail of our cultural assumptions – so when one doesn’t really come along, we have to invent one.


Scott Walters said...

Because "Everybody Knows" that Rudyard Kipling's racist books are SO much better than Rowling. Argh! It makes me see red. The educated elite, which includes most of those who do theatre, and certainly those who share my profession of teacher, have been inculcated with classist nonsense that positions certain values as "universal" that are, in fact, exclusionary and ideological. They look down their noses at The Masses, and sneer about their unwashed preferences for art that is visceral, emotional, and -- dare we say it? -- morally clear. John Carey, in "The Intellectuals and the Masses" does an excellent job showing the fascist roots of this modernist concept of what counts as valuable, with its disdain for the "common man" exemplified by Ortega y Gasset's "The Revolt of the Masses." Theatre is plagued by this snobbery, as is any of the "high arts," such as literature. I just got an appeal concerning a TCG effort to score a big American Express grant to "Take Young People to See the Theatre." Gee, I wonder what kind of theatre they'll be taking young people to see? It wouldn't be something like, say, Shakespeare, would it? Let's make sure that we keep it far out of reach of all but the most "educated" student. I can't even wriote coherently about this, it makes me so angry!

Art said...

Hey Scott,

Maybe this quote from Elizabeth George, via Andrew Sullivan's blog will help your agita:

"Novels were designed to entertain, and those of us who wish to keep the art form alive need to keep this in mind. To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting that's brought to life is to go at the art form, like putting the varnish on the canvas first. I attempt to write a good novel. Whether it is literature or not is something that will be decided by the ages, not by me and not by a pack of critics around the globe."

Thomas Garvey said...

Really, I can't help but point out that anyone who's opposed to "snobbery" but then opines, "John Carey, in The Intellectuals and the Masses does an excellent job showing the fascist roots of this modernist concept of what counts as valuable, with its disdain for the "common man" exemplified by Ortega y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses" has some serious 'splainin' to do. But then, what's more fun than an "anti-snob" snob - especially one who vehemently opposes taking schoolchildren to see Shakespeare?

Oh, and by the way - yeah, Kipling's a helluva lot better than Rowling, racism or no (tell it to Gunga Din, btw). The first Harry Potters were fine, even heartening - they were droll, lightly literate, and yes, referenced Tom Brown, but in a good way (and isn't the "anxiety of influence" big bad Bloom's bailiwick?). Best of all, Rowling understood how to write about, and for, boys, with her quidditch matches and easy grasp of the dynamics of masculine friendship, hierarchy, and rivalry.

Sadly, though, the books got bloated, and Rowling, never much of a plotter, had no idea how to sustain momentum over hundreds of pages. Of course, once hooked, the kids read on - just as people hung on to "The Sopranos" long after it was any good. But it's no use pretending the series is some kind of masterpiece.

Anonymous said...

"They look down their noses at The Masses, and sneer about their unwashed preferences for art that is visceral, emotional, and -- dare we say it? -- morally clear."

Did it never occur to you that Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen, Dickens and Dostoevsky are NOT "morally clear" in the sense you mean? They aren't "morally clear" because high art exists to make us reconsider, re-think, and re-imagine things we assumed were already settled. The original Hamlet tale just automatically assumes that revenging a dead father is right and just, but Shakespeare makes us question what exactly is the right thing for Hamlet to do. He doesn't provide any "morally clear" answer i.e. he does the opposite of what someone like Rowling or Stephen King does.

But if you want "morally clear," just take a look at Nazi art or Social Realist kitsch. Or bad Hollywood melodramas like Love Story and Titanic. "Morally clear" leads to the sort of smug, self-righteous attitudes that put a thug like George Bush into power (who, by the way, certainly never had any moral qualms, but rather the sort of blithe certainty you seem to approve of in art).

Incidentally, we who refuse to climb onto the Harry Potter train are not "snobs" who "look down our nose" at "average" people (whoever those are). We simply recognize that not everything that is "fun" is great art. I'm not at all ashamed or embarrassed to enjoy myself on a roller coaster, or riding a Ferris wheel, or eating cotton candy, but I also know that a day spent at an amusement park is a different experience than immersing myself in the plays of Shakespeare. One is an aesthetic experience, the other isn't. A lot of popular art (not all, but much of it) has more in common with amusement park rides than Mozart or Tolstoy.

Ortega y Gasset's "revolt of the masses" concept, far from being outdated, is more relevant than ever - and it is also true that many of the most horrific events of the 20th century, like the rise of the Nazis, were directly attributable to this revolt. Nazism was a MASS movement, and only truly makes sense when understood as a consequence of the mass man's "ressentiment".

Snobs like Harold Bloom are not the problem. The real snobs are the Potter-ites themselves, since they refuse to respect any tastes or sentiments but their own.

As for Ms. George's statement....

"To aim for lofty literature instead of aiming for a good story with real characters who grow and develop and a setting that's brought to life is to go at the art form, like putting the varnish on the canvas first..."

Well duh, who the hell doesn't know that? But not everyone can or should be a "good old-fashioned storyteller". Dickens was, and he did a damn great job of it. But that wasn't the nature of James Joyce's talent, or Chekhov's. They did not tell a good story, but they did create enduring and great literature. And besides, the whole thrust of Bloom's argument is that Rowling and King do NOT create compelling characters or storylines.