Tuesday, 14 October 2008

I think JK Rowling is a narrative genius

Garrghh! The internet… Or rather internet service providers… Or, more specifically, BT telephone exchanges…
Thanks to one or more of these factors we won’t be getting a new ISP anytime soon, so all my hard work changing my email address and letting everybody know was a waste of time.
I say again, Garrghh…

I shall not vent my spleen a la Marcus Brigstocke on the Now Show (excruciatingly funny on the subject of his internet service provider’s shortcomings – can’t remember who they were but never mind, best not anyway [sorry to those who aren’t avid BBC Radio 4 listeners who will be baffled by these references.]
Instead, I shall pick up on a theme from a recent post on Tim Stretton’s blog. J K Rowling. What has the poor woman done to provoke such animus? (Not from Tim, I hasten to add..) Not to mention resentment and envy.
All it seems to me that she has done is write the most extraordinary series of children’s books since Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series.

A commenter on Tim’s blog is a prime example of the kind of thing often said about the Harry Potter books; not – one suspects – always by people who have actually read the books.

He is representative of the kind of thing Rowling is routinely criticised for.

Sample criticism 1: The Harry Potter books are a success because they are based on a clever idea, it’s just a shame JKR can’t write.

This implies that the person levelling the criticism thinks ‘writing’ is nothing more than prose style, the putting of one word after another into well crafted sentences; that inventing a unique setting, an internally consistent and believable world in which the great struggle between good and evil is satisfyinglyplayed outwith emotional realism is nothing more than cheap trickery which anybody could manage after breakfast and before lunch.

Sample criticism 2: The books’ popularity is entirely down to the unfeasible attractiveness of Hogwarts and the japes which go on there.

OK, Hogwarts is a wonderfully seductive place – no bedtimes, wonderful meals, competition between houses, freedom from pretty much any rule outside the classroom, Dumbledore’s twinkly wisdom at the helm - what’s not to like? But I think this criticism completely ignores the fact that the Harry Potter books are actually far deeper than simple boarding-school-with-magic stories. They’re full of archetypes which, as any storyteller knows, is the best way to ensure that your books hook the readers in ways they don’t understand; and they’re about the eternal battle between good and evil. Neither archetypy nor the eternal verities are typical elements of most school stories. And, let’s face it, Hogwarts is not what has hooked hundreds of thousands of adults on the books, is it? [No, it’s not. At least not this adult.]

Sample criticism 3: JKR can’t write, has a dreadful prose style and so many other variations on a theme of ‘how can she have made this much money when we think our prose is far more deathless?’ that it makes me sick.

Style. Hmmm. OK, it’s not going to win the Pullitzer prize and the Man Booker judges haven’t troubled JK much. But let’s not forget something fundamental – these books are aimed primarily at children. Personally I think that’s something other YA writers of series have lost sight of in their rush for the 'crossover' market. I found at least one other highly successful 'children's' trilogy so bleak by the final volume that, had I read it as a child, I would have been deeply troubled.

Sample criticism 4: She just bolted lots of winning formulae together. To whit school story, magic story, cinderella story.

There are elements of all those things in the Harry Potter books but, for me at least, the narrative which makes up the series is far more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think JKR has just done a literary cut-and-shunt. I think she’s created a consistent and believable world. Magic is an excellent and ancient symbol for power and the witting misuse of magic is – in the Harry Potter books – always a misuse of power. The books are about power and its moral/ethical use to a far greater extent than they are actually about magic. That’s why they work for adults. If they were just about magic, they’d only work for small children who are OK with inconsistency and things happening improbably and without consequences.

Sample criticism 5: Her editors must be doing some of the writing because the books are a lot better now than they were at the beginning.

Are they?
Personally I don’t see the Harry Potter oeuvre fundamentally as a series of 7 books. I think they have to be seen as a continuous story, much like the Lord of the Rings (Nobody ever says, Oh, I really liked the Fellowship of the Ring but I didn’t go much for Two Towers or the Return of the King, do they?)
JK Rowling knew how the whole series was going to pan out from the very beginning and I think that shows. So I don’t see one book as better than another and I think those who think the later books are better than the earlier ones are just reflecting the fact that they have been progressively drawn in to Harry’s world. Those of us who found the world vivid and compelling from the beginning find locating our favourite HP book quite difficult.

The blog commenter on Tim’s blog also comes up with a less representative gripe as well:

To my mind the greatest sin Rowling commits is the clumsy and inappropriate juxtaposition of the cutesy and the deadly serious. It seems like she either couldn't make up her mind, or couldn't come up with a story that worked one way or the other.

That would be like Shakespeare in Hamlet, then. Gravediggers with laboured jokes… obviously the man didn’t know he was writing a tragedy.
Would we care about Harry if it wasn’t for the ‘cutsey’ elements with his friends and, presumably, the Weasley family in the Burrow? If the whole series was ‘deadly serious’ wouldn’t we be a bit tired and harrowed by the end of Philosopher’s Stone, never mind the rest of the series?
For me the juxtapositions of high and low drama are not clumsy but well-thought out, the ebb and flow of the heartbeat of life, pathos and bathos, tragedy and comedy.

I’ll come out and state my position with absolutely no embarassment at all – I think JK Rowling is a narrative genius.


Tim Stretton said...

Good stuff, Alis! As writers we have to admire someone who's made such a sustained and compelling imaginary world.

The only area I don't fully agree with is on the relative strength of the books - I do think they move up a notch from Book 4. The nature of Voldemort's evil is explored more fully as the series unfolds. In the first couple of books, although JKR clearly has a conception of how Voldemort will develop, he is essentially a cartoon antagonist.

The Tolkien comparison I'd make is that the early books play like The Hobbit and the later ones The Lord of the Rings. In both cases the later works seem to me to have more strata of moral complexity. A character like Boromir, for instance, could never have been accommodated in The Hobbit, and in the same way the Snape of the later books moves well beyond his early characterisation.

David Isaak said...

"Sample criticism 4: She just bolted lots of winning formulae together. To whit school story, magic story, cinderella story."

So? Anyone who thinks doing that in a way that entrances millions of readers is an easy task ought to go give it a try.

"West Side Story" is just "Romeo and Juliet," and that was just "Pyramus and Thisbee." Even if that criticism of Rowling were true, I don't think it matters.

It is really difficult to make a formula story work. Hollywood tries it all the time without success. I say that anyone who thinks writing to a formula is 1) easy or 2) a sure road to success, ought to give it a shot. I think they would come back much humbler.

KAREN said...

I have to confess to not having read any Harry Potter - though my daughter loved them all - but you make some great points, as always.

In the commenter's own words, JK Rowling's books are also "based on a clever idea," "popular," "have a winning formula" and her writing's "better now than it was in the beginning." Sounds like a winner to me!

Must be envy.

Juxtabook said...

I think this is a great post Alis. I don't understand the Rowling detractors either. I also agree that prose style is just one element. Even her prose is not that bad: I always say she works best at word level and book level, it is her sentence level that is a bit ropey. But then so what! Two out of three is pretty good. Her plotting is brilliant, as is her use of suspense. Her themeatic explorations are superb. She handles complex abstract ideas really well. And best of all, just as you say, is the consistently believable world.

Alis said...

No TV here in the Cevennes, so I am reduced to the internet! However, it means I actually have time to tend to the blog.
Tim - I wondered a lot about this point and I'm not sure it's not a case of the reader just being shown more and more and therefore understanding more, through the series. I need to read books 1-4 again as it's a few years since I did. I have a HP marathon in mind for the Christmas holidays..
David - you're so right about making formulae work...
Karen - do give HP a go - I think they're wonderful but beware, those of us who really like them find them almost too difficult to put down - dinners go uncooked, eyes become red-rimmed from lack of sleep...
Juxtabook - hi, great to see you again. Glad you're also a fan - sometimes it feels as if all 'literati' are anti-Rowling.

Tim Stretton said...

Alis, I agree that JKR knows much more in the early books than she lets on: there is a deep narrative structure which connects the whole. But I still think she improves over the series in terms of being able to integrate the big thematic stuff.

As you say, it would be very interesting to read the whole series again - and I hope in time to do so!