Saturday, July 16, 2005

Apathy Jack writes:

So, the new Harry Potter book hits shelves today.

If you are at all excited about this, you are a child.

Of course I don’t mean that as an insult, I simply mean that if you are looking forward to reading Harry Potter and the Emotionally Subnormal Arrested Development or whatever it’s called, then you are not a grown up. I have students who refuse to read these books because they are for kids.

Ah, hell with it, I’ve said all this before. Just go and read this thing I wrote a while back.


HORansome said...

Your irrationality on this is quite astounding and increasingly insulting. It is akin to saying that no adult should ever read Norman Juster's 'The Phantom Tollbooth' because it is a kid's book and kid's books are not fit to be read by adults.

Which is absolute rubbish.

People read for fun and profit. Just because your students are arrogant and/or stupid enough to dismiss a book because a ten year old might enjoy it doesn't give you the literati credentials to condemn those of us of adult age and temperment who will.

(Nota bene: The attitude displayed in your recent post actually seems to be a step back from your Mutopia post, which was simply an angry young man annoyed at people saying that these books are for adults to (which, despite your arm flailing, was as true then as it is now. Your new attitude is that if you read this material you are a non-adult, which, if true, is a startling new theory in Ontology and will need research. Except that it isn't a startling new theory; it's just more rubbish.)

Fiction is fiction; some of it is aimed at particular age groups, for sure (but who is another matter entirely), and some of it isn't. At the age of twelve I was reading Enid Blyton and Umberto Eco; at the age of twenty-five I was re-reading Enid Blyton and cursing myself for reading yet another Poppy Z. Brite novel. No one told me that Eco was an adult author and that I should wait until I was sixteen or so to experience him, just as no one told me that, at age twenty-five that my Famous Five novels should have been given away years ago and that cracking them open would cause a change in state. Why? Because a) they would be wrong in every important respect and b) I'm willing to concede enough ground in post-modernism (in re literature theory) to admit that authorial and marketter's intent is irrelevant to the person reading the text.

For example, you read comic books; if there is any market of 'books' on Earth that a vast majority of people believe are suitable only for children it's comic books. Are you, the proud holder of the title 'adult' now a child again?

(Which I might add, I'm not endorsing, although if the letter 'X' or 'Fantastic' prefixes your comic book title then you might well be unsuitable for a proper conversation...)

I think the main problem with your, for lack of a better word, 'argument' is that you whilst you may know that any artistic endeavour can function on more than one level you do not seem to be able to assign this conception to children's literature.

Take 'The Phantom Tollbooth.' One one level it is a traditional travelogue with the conceit of saving someone from certain doom. As a child I found this tale enthralling because the characters were all so well formed. It wasn't until my late teens that I realised that there was a second plot carefully laid over the first, which was a whole set of issues in Mathematics, Grammar, Language and Philosophy. Some of these issues are rather complex (but, like most good writers, you only notice that after the fact.

Now I'm not saying that the Harry Potter books are of the quality of Norman Juster's work or Michael Ende's ('The Neverending Story' should be a must re-read; it's probably the most accessible work on Hermeneutics available), but there are qualities in Rowling's work that operate on a level that will pass a child by but interest an adult.

Take Shakespeare (and after this paragraph do whatever you like with him); the 'Canon' as we know it, ranges from history to whimsy to fantasy (fantasy and whimsy, of course, being quite different). Most of his works have dialogues that work on different levels; 'King Lear,' for example, has a mass of fart jokes occuring in the very same scene that is a harrowing description of a man going mad. The traditional view on these matters was that the Bard was writing material that was accessible to the broadest possible audience. But does that make his work simply for the hoi polloi (everyone enjoys flatulence humour)? I think not.

Fiction is simply fiction; publishers apply their propaganda machines to books according to perceived 'markets' but few authors actually start writing thinking 'I'm going to write for the 8-13 year old market.' Even if they do you can't escape the fact that it is (almost always) an adult writing the work. Some of these adults will be writing material that will appeal to more than one market. Such as J. K. Rowling. She knows that a great percentile of her readers aren't actually children and she accomodates those readers in the stories she writes. Yes, perhaps the Harry Potter books aren't merely children's book nor are they merely adult novels, but reading them does not render your adulthood null and void.

Ben Thomas said...

HORansome raises an interesting point.

To which I would reply: the Harry Potter series is a collection of books about wizards.

And I would add: If you read the Da Vinci code, you may not be infantilised, merely a sub-normal adult. "Rollicking" is not a term of literary recommendation.

Krimsonlake said...

You beat me to it. I'm completely irrationally opposed to reading Harry Potter myself. It's the hype. I got so sick of everyone banging on about Harry Potter that I just can't bear to pick up the books.

My Mum adores them though. But she also really loves Playstation. She's an interesting 54 year old.

Eric Olthwaite said...

I would second the sentiments of HORansome, although I have not and don't intend to read Harry Potter.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with an adult liking the same things that children like. I have a collection of "MAD" magazines for example, as well as Asterix comics, Roald Dahl books. I even played Hide and Seek while looking after a six year old a little while back and enjoyed it. All of these are fine in moderation for a bit of light relaxation.

But I do think they should plant explosives in the Da Vinci Code.

HORansome said...

To say that Harry Potter is a book about wizards in pointy hats would be to say that 'The Name of the Rose' is a murder mystery and that Iain M. Banks likes to write about robots. All these statements are true but are only merely true. None of these statements is in any way an accurate description of the content of said texts.

Apathy Jack said...

I could write a tiresomely long refutation of your points HOR, but they are all voided by one occurance: Wandering therough the throngs in Borders today, I saw people dressed as wizards.

With that image in my head, I'm going to go ahead simply restate: People who read Harry Potter books are infants.

HORansome said...

Your point being? As the photograph record shows you have dressed as a hillbilly; does this make you an inbred yokel with the IQ of an eggplant? Presumably it does.

People dressing up as wizards is no more childish than my dressing up as an American gameshow host; it's all contextual. Some will have dressed up as wizards because it is their job (Borders does have staff, you know), some because it amuses their children, some because it's an excuse to wander around in public in something other than their normal duds, et cetera.

Context is important. Even if some of the people you saw where adults that do not fit into the categories above to label readers of a series of books infants because of these people is infantile in its own right.

Xavier said...

As Ian McKellen said, when he turned down the role of Dumbledore "I only play real wizards". Not only is HP about wizards, it's about *pussy* wizards. 'Nuff said.

Apathy Jack said...

I've always worn my inbreeding and hillbillyness on my sleeve with pride. And the people dressed up as wizrds at the boopkshop were all adults. Legally speaking, anyway.

And of course context is important: The context in this case was that grown people are reading childrens books and dressing like wizards.

HORansome said...

I wish I lived in your simple middle-class world.

Actually, no I don't. I'm off to shoot people with lasers.

In the back.

Blair said...

I love it how THIS of all posts is the one that people are arguing about.

I don't care. Pass me that bottle of Shiraz.

Apathy Jack said...

That's simple LOWER-middle class world.


Eric Olthwaite said...


That's a children's drink...

dreamer said...

I've read the previous HP books, and I quite enjoyed them. I read them last year, actually.
They're far less infantile than a very great deal of "fantasy" writing, and really rather dark. I kept thinking "this is meant to be a kid's book?" sure, it's about kids.. but kids in a dark adult's world for the most part.

The PM said...

Nice rant there Apathy Jack.

I was far too excited about the release that within the hour it was released I had my copy and finished it 6 hours later.

I am a child, yes. And proud.

RSJS said...

Books is fer burnin' dagnabbit. Reading causes brain bubbles.

Psycho Milt said...

Of course, some of us don't get much of a choice. I've read every one of them to my son and will probably have to repeat the process with my daughter within the next couple of years. This is however far preferable to when he wanted me to read Animorphs 1 through 115987.

Also, the little bugger kept falling asleep after a few pages of Potter and I'd end up reading the rest of it to find out what happened. So they've definitely got something that works.

Blair said...

Jack, have you ever read CS Lewis's essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children? It pretty much eats everything you said for breakfast and feeds the scraps to Aslan.

Blair said...

... should explain if you have not:

It makes several points the best of which is: If you are really worried about what is "adult" then you are not actually an adult at all, because only children actually worry about acting "adult".

Conversely he makes the point that if a book does not entertain adults as well as children, it is probably not even good enough for children.

HORansome said...

When Blair and I agree upon a point you can guarantee the world comes close to its unnatural end.

Some members of my Department ended up discussing writing last night and we all agreed that there really is no epistemic difference between a supposed children's book and a supposed adult's book other than covers. Take the 'Gormenghast' trilogy; on one level it has all the features of a children's novel but you'd be hard pressed to find a child (possibly more now than then) who would appreciate it.

It's also confuses several other issues; the sextet of 'The Lord of the Rings' was clearly written for an adult audience and 'The Hobbit' was written for Tolkien's children, but they are part of one greater story (which really takes place in 'The Silmarillion'). So which story impacts the other(s), all seemingly written for difference audiences ('The Silmarillion' is a history narrative, for example).

'The Wizard of Oz' is another good example; a book with witches, elves, munchkins, et al, and yet whilst amusing to children may not be children's literature at all.

Which brings us back to Harry Potter. Wizards? Yes. Trolls? Yes. Dragons? Yes. Kid characters? Yes. Adult characters? Yes. A school narrative? Yes. None of these things indicate that the book should only be read by children, though. If that were the case then 'Titus Groan' should only be read by one year olds, since the titular character is that old at the end of the story.

All stories tend to hang on fairly archetypal conceits; the plot of the Harry Potter books are, once stripped of their characters and settings, journey narratives and bildungsromans. That J. K. Rowling decided to set the story at an English Public School, and that this school is a school for wizards is just trappings on the story of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Draco, Snape, Voldemort and Dumbledore. Each of which is an interesting character in their own right and have shown considerable development in the cycle.

Which is the essence, to my mind, of good writing. Characters. That the stories are accessible to a fairly large audience of adults and children is not in itself a bad thing. and certainly doesn't make the stories suddenly fall into an ontological category of 'child's fare' or 'adult's fare.'

It just makes them stories. Like every other book.

Basically, Jack, you are now going to need to furnish us with an actual argument to show some degree of support for your view.

Apathy Jack said...

Lord of the Rings is a childrens book - It has elves in it.

Of course no child should want to read it, for much the same reason that no adult should: It is overly long, remarkably boring, and mostly written in Welsh.

Josh said...

Harry Potter is for kids. Just like Star Wars.

Precisely why you lot are attempting to engage Jack in reasoned debate instead of taking his statements for the curmudgeonly soapbox rant they clearly are is somewhat perplexing to me -- the man curmudges like a pro, and should be allowed, if not encouraged, to do so.

And Babylon 5's a big piece of shit.

Krimsonlake said...

"And of course context is important: The context in this case was that grown people are reading childrens books and dressing like wizards."

This made me choke on my ToffeePop! I'm still giggling.

I want photos. Where are they?

HORansome said...

I reacted against it because I didn't think it up to the standards of Jack's usual... curmudgeoning. I usually expect some substance to rale up against, but in this case his substance was a previous post that actually seemed of a different bent to his malformed conditional statement of the 'Brainstab' material.

Thus I raled.

Because this is what I do. And to have expected me to do otherwise is, in itself, bewildering.

Anyway, this all shows that our traffic is, at least, slightly bigger than what I thought it was.