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, but...here'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.