HP: Books for the Ages?

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HP: Books for the Ages?

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Editado: Jul 17, 2007, 12:25pm

(I'm cross-posting this in the groups 'Hogwarts Express' and 'English Majors' to see whether and how opinions differ.)

The question up for discussion is, are the HP books going to be popular a generation from now?

Some writers – notably A. S. Byatt and Harold Bloom – think, or at the very least hope and pray, not. Others, like John Granger, think so.

If Mr. Granger is to be believed (and I think he is), there is an astonishingly rich literary and symbolic structure underlying not just each book but the entire series. On the other hand, while I enjoy the books very much, I cannot deny that their style is fairly pedestrian.

It seems to me that many, probably most, HP fans enjoy the mystery of what will happen next. I submit that this is, in fact, the driving force behind their unprecedented popularity. But after Saturday, there won't be much left to try to figure out. I'm not saying that every mystery will be resolved and question answered neatly and satisfactorily. I do, though, expect that when most of the mysteries are gone and the big questions are answered and there's no next book to expect, most fans' interest in the things that remain will wane. (I noted during my pre-Deathly Hallows reading of books 1-6 that I'm actually fairly bored with books 1-3 now.)

Also, in a generation, the fate of Harry Potter might be part of general cultural knowledge, something that almost every Anglophonic child will grow up just sort of knowing, so that they won't experience the anticipation that we all feel. (Woe betide anyone who goes straight to the back of the book and yells out the ending in my local bookstore on Saturday morning. I have a big rubber mallet, and I'll use it, too.)

Mr. Granger has written that the dearth of academic commentary on HP is probably a result of academics waiting sensibly for the ending before lit-critting (although that he doesn't let that stop him from making snide comments about academic disinterest in HP), and I hope he is right, because as I say I agree that there is a huge literary structure behind the plot. But that kind of analysis doesn't generally appeal to the average for-fun reader.

Although most people know how The Lord of the Rings turns out, the story remains popular because its appeal lies as much, if not more, in how the story is told as in what the story is. I don't think that HP has the same narrative strength as LotR, though. Nor does HP strike me as having the coming-of-age interest of The Catcher in the Rye (although there aren't many who read that for fun these days) or of Judy Blume's oeuvre.

So my expectation is that the popular HP phenomenon will turn out to be limited to the past decade, or perhaps until the last movie comes out. What do y'all think?

Edited for spelling.

Jul 18, 2007, 6:02am

I haven't read any HP, just seen some of the films, but I could see it occupying a space along the same level of something like Chronicles of Narnia. It's arguably missing the religious subtext, but I imagine most people probably read Narnia when they're too little to notice that anyways.

Jul 20, 2007, 7:43pm

I'd argue against the Harry Potter series sitting alongside the Chronicles of Narnia in the canon of children's literature for the simple fact that it's adults and not children who determine the stature of a literary work, even when the work is aimed at children. Children, I suspect, couldn't care less about whether a book they like is considered a canonical text, they'll like it if it's entertaining to read. So even though children might not be able to discern the religious subtext of Narnia, their parents should be able to, and they'll probably consider the presence of such a subtext a virtue of the work which prompts them to continue purchasing the book and giving it to their children to read.

Jul 26, 2007, 2:46pm

#3 - I'm sorry, but I don't understand your argument. I see what you mean when you say that it is adults and not children who determine what will and will not be considered canonical. But to get to your conclusion - that Harry Potter will not be a part of the canon - you apparently assume that adults don't see many redeeming qualities in Harry Potter that they do see in The Chronicles of Narnia.

That assumption doesn't jive with my experience, so I'm curious what you've witnessed that leads you to believe it. My experience has been that most adults quite like the Harry Potter books.

Maybe you mean that Harry Potter is lacking something extra - since you point out that the Christian allegory in Narnia gives adults something to cite as "serious." Personally, I find allegory tiresome, and I don't think that a story's status as an allegory makes it any more eligible for the canon than a non-allegorical work. Most allegory is just fussy and boring. I think a lot of people share that view.

And besides, there are plenty of works in the canon of children's literature that make no pretensions to anything greater or more literary than to delight children and to instill in them a love of reading. I'm thinking now of one of my old favorites, James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl.

Jul 26, 2007, 3:16pm

Oh, and to respond to one of the concerns expressed in the original post, I don't think it will matter that in the future, all English speaking children may know, as a matter of common knowledge, how the saga of Harry Potter ends.

A true classic is almost never read without already knowing how it will end. To take indisputable examples, we know before we start reading that Oedipus killed his dad and married his mom and will gouge out his eyes before it's all said and done, and we know that Romeo and Juliet will each commit suicide in the Capulet family sepulchre.

Of course, all this only raises the question more forcefully whether Harry Potter will prove to be a classic. Only time will tell.

It may well be that adults and children read for entirely different reasons - children more to be delighted, and adults more to be educated. I'd be open to the possibility that a "children's classic" follows a completely different set of rules because of this difference. That is, a child might find it tiresome to read a story that he or she already knows, since it lacks the element of surprise.

Personally, I doubt it. I remember as a child reading and re-reading my favorite books. I had not forgotten the endings, I just loved them.

Editado: Jul 26, 2007, 3:40pm

Regarding the charges that the books are poorly written, when visiting my parents last Christmas I found an old box of books in their basement. Some of the titles were cherished ones from my childhood. I plopped myself down in my dad's comfy leather chair and tore through a few of them, becoming more and more disconcerted. This was what made my imagination run wild as a kid? Descriptions were scant at best. The prose was, to be generous, workable. I think we forget how much we bring to a book as kids that really make them come alive.

Regarding the fact that the series has concluded, and therefore the pull of mystery might be diminished: there is always a first time for a new reader. Books and films that make us groan "this again!" might be the first exposure for some child; the yardstick against which future "imitators" are judged.

Will they last? Time will tell, but when people describe the series to me (a lot of friends are rabid fans) it reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If the story and characters are especially memorable, it kind of trumps the style or quality of the prose (I wonder how well written the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys books are)? The accusation that the stories are repetitive in structure reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes stories, that I discovered at the local library as a teen and devoured over one long, happy summer.

Jul 28, 2007, 11:03am

Harry Potter goes well beyond "children's literature." The NY times had to begin a children's bestselling books list or else HP would have been at the top of the fiction list for years. They did admit that the readership expanded well beyond children. If it was only children and families reading HP the sales would never have been as high.

I think it will stand the test of time. All the children of this generation who fell in love with it will read it to their kids. But beyond that, the academic world not only reads books that are great works of literature, but also reads books that were important in their time and affected the culture. I think we can all agree that this is the case with HP. Maybe not a great example but I remember in college reading Pamela by Samuel Richardson. It was a huge success in its time period. I wouldn't say it was extremely well written compared to other works of its time, but it shows readers what was important to the people of that time. In some ways children's literature reflects cultures and time periods more so than adult novels, because they show what we want to teach our children through the characters. Even if the future academic world doesn't see HP as a great literary work for the canon I don't think they can ignore the cultural phenomenon it became, which still amazes many including JK Rowling. Also, outside of the literary world I think HP will live on for kids and adults.

Ago 3, 2007, 9:21am

ooops. i backed into this one. I thought HP meant HIGHER POWER. Never mind!

Maio 7, 2008, 3:25pm

Okay, so if the HP books lack the spiritual aspect found in the Chronicles of Narnia, how about comparing it to the Little House on the Prarie series or Anne of Green Gables? Granted, neither of these currently have the appeal of the HP series but these books have been in print for more than 50 years and are read by adults and children alike. Neither of them have the spiritual allegory that Narnia has either.

I think that it is indeed possible that the HP books will be read 50 years from now. I wonder what Tolkien thought about the longetivity of Lord of the Rings?

Jul 6, 2008, 8:29am

Personally, I don't think the books are all that literary, though I did enjoy them, but I think they'll survive in popular appeal. Maybe not for two hundred years, but certainly for the next few generations. If nothing else, they'll be passed on by the Parents who remain passionate. I know I never would have discovered Trixie Belden (my favorite series as a kid) or the Boxcar Children if not for my mom, but they were a big part of my reading as a child because of her. I think the true test will be if the next generation passes them on to their children. I'm still not sure how early I'll suggest them to my kids (when they come along--a ways away still), but it won't be until they're middleschool at least. Because of that, and others as reluctant as me to give them to smaller kids, they might not have the same effects as some of the books being discussed above.

Jul 6, 2008, 10:52am

Well, HP #1 has made it to the 10th anniversary edition which is selling like hotcakes. 99.99% of all books never get a 10th anniversary edition. I guess ten years is start on the ages.

Jul 15, 2008, 11:19am

Certainly, popular children's fiction has survived to become classic literature but that doesn't mean it's going to be taught in classrooms.

Pollyanna was a big bestseller at the turn of the last century and has survived as a classic, although I don't know how much it's really read these days. If Harry Potter had been written in the 1950s he would've been in a space ship. It's possible in a 100 years a teenaged boy with a magic wand might not seem terribly relevant (much like the boy in the space ship does now). Perhaps it may go the way of the Horatio Alger novels, so hot in the 19th century but not read by kids nowadays; perhaps not.

I think it will certainly last another generation, maybe two.

It would also make an interesting paper on how HP reflects the cultural beliefs of its time . . .but I'm not writing it:-)

Jul 16, 2008, 3:56pm

I think of "classics" as books that improve each time you reread them. By that standard, the early HP books (at least) would seem to come up short; they are simply not well written. Rowling did achieve the rather remarkable - she wrote a seies and actually got better with each book! By the end they are tolerable and I suspect they'll continue to be popularly read for several generations