Saturday, July 7, 2007

Something's Coming

If you've never read this interview with J.K. Rowling, I would recommend it. People still spread ridiculous rubbish about Rowling encouraging little girls to practice witchcraft. Conservative Christians can be so gullible and boorish.

But note especially the hint she gives of some resolution to the controversy about Harry Potter's story and the Christian faith in book seven:
E: You do believe in God.

JK: Yeah. Yeah.

E: In magic and…

JK: Magic in the sense in which it happens in my books, no, I don't believe. I don't believe in that. No. No. This is so frustrating. Again, there is so much I would like to say, and come back when I've written book seven. But then maybe you won't need to even say it 'cause you'll have found it out anyway. You'll have read it.
And don't forget this gem from her published interview with the Vancouver Sun (October 26, 2000):
Are you a Christian?

“Yes, I am. Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books.”
Draco dormiens numquam titillandus!

21 comments:

Douglas Jordan said...

The Rowling Satanism thing got a lot of momentum due to an article printed a few years ago in a serious new journal: The Onion. See http://www.snopes.com/humor/iftrue/potter.asp

Jeff Meyers said...

Thanks, Doug. That's a helpful link!

Andrew McCallum said...

Jeff,

One of my favorite literary critics is Harold Bloom who has spent his life defending the classic literary works (as he does in the _The Western Canon_). He is definitely not writing from a distinctly Christian standpoint but he does defend those works which we as conservative Christians generally think are important. When he was asked to comment on Harry Potter he wrote some editorials such as this one:

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/

I would be interested to know what you think of this. I have to agree with Bloom. I find Harry Potter to be very tedious. For those who have read Dickens or Kipling or someone of that quality I don't understand the attraction to Harry Potter.

Andrew

Andrew McCallum said...

My link got cut off. Second try at pasting the link

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/
articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/

Jeff Meyers said...

Oh crud. I just wrote a long comment and lost it trying to publish. Arggh.

Real quick: Alan Bloom was an elitist. He could not on principle like anything that more than 5% of the American public enjoyed. When I was younger I liked his Closing of the American Mind. But then I went back and re-read it and was repulsed by most of it. Perhaps by then I knew too much about Bloom.

Anyway, a much better literary analysis can be found in Amy Sturgis's Harry Potter is a Hobbit.

Andrew, have you read all 6 books in the series?

John said...

Andrew writes: "I find Harry Potter to be very tedious. For those who have read Dickens or Kipling or someone of that quality I don't understand the attraction to Harry Potter."

That's a bit like saying, "For those who have had filet mignon, I don't understand the attraction to a cheeseburger."

Well, sometimes you want filet mignon. But other times, you (or at least I) want a cheeseburger.

I don't think appreciating great literature (and, incidentally, I don't know that Dickens and Kipling are really at the top of the heap when it comes to great literature) means that you can't appreciate other stuff.

You can enjoy Dickens and also enjoy Agatha Christie. You can appreciate Chaim Potok and also enjoy Dean Koontz. You can enjoy Gene Wolfe and also enjoy J. K. Rowling. Why not?

Andrew McCallum said...

Jeff,

Like I was saying I can't get through one of them let alone six! The silliness of the infighting of the school boys and the predictable pranks - ugg!, it's just so trying to read. And I am the kind of person who really appreciates a good tale. The trite cliches of Rowling and the brilliant character descriptions of (for example) Dickens just stand in such stark contrast to me. Maybe this is just a purely subjective thing but I just don't see it. I started reading HP and watching the movies just for cultural literacy.

Yes, Bloom is a cultural elitist. He has spent a lifetime refuting feminist, existentialist, Marxist, etc etc outlooks on literature and so has gotten the reputation for being an elitist. He comes from a humanistic standpoint, but when there is something that is good in literature he is generally able to recognize it and recognize the characteristics that are identified with quality literature. His outlook on life and the way he treats those who disagree with him may be less than Christian, but does that reflect on the substance of his criticisms? What interests me in the responses I have read to Bloom is that his critics don't address his points he makes about the HP books. They attack him for his audacity at questioning the quality of literature of an author who is getting children to read.
John - I'm OK with the filet/cheeseburger analogy. I'm OK with my kids reading junk food type of stuff. The problem can come when the junk food displaces the nutritious stuff.

Cheers,

Jeff Meyers said...

Andrew: you really need to read past volume one. The story is quite rich and insightful. I think you're reading HP through Bloom's curmudgeonly perspective. They really get MUCH better. You have no right to judge the whole series not having even finished the first volume.

Andrew McCallum said...

Jeff,

After my last post I figured I wasn't being very fair with words like "trite" to describe something you appreciate - sorry. And you are right that I need to read through all of at least one of these novels. But I was trying to underscore what I thought was a good point about Bloom's comments. That is, that there is something characteristic of good literature that jumps out at you. People should read all of Pride and Prejudice but you only have to read the first chapter (maybe just the first few pages) to feel the genius of the prose. The converse is true for not so well written literature and what Bloom is trying to analyze is this difficult to define quality that separates well written literature from that which is not so well written. An analysis of the structure and verbiage of the typical stuff children are reading versus let's say something out of McGuffey's Fifth Reader is night and day. You don't have to read far, just a few paragraphs will do. Bloom remembers the mental development that the classic texts forced on him and he bemoans the change that has occurred with children's literature. Then when folks get excited about HP he reads a little of it and wonders why he is supposed to be excited. It's just like everything else out there. And then he puts his thoughts in print and folks get angry with him. I think on this matter they have missed his point.

Cheers,

T. Chris said...

Jeff,

Alan Bloom wrote _The Closing the American Mind_. Andrew is referring to Harold Bloom, a different fellow (but still an elitist?).

Best,

Chris

Andrew McCallum said...

Chris - That's funny! I did not catch this. I read Bloom and heard elitist and I thought yes, Harold Bloom has spent his whole life telling folks that much of modern literature is inferior and they need to read the classics so in that regards he is an elitist. For those of us who are interested classical pedagogy we are used to being called elitists. It just comes with the territory.

Rachel said...

I APOLOGIZE NOW FOR THE LENGTH OF THIS POST.

The problem with limiting your reading to the classics that Mr. McCallum named is that we have culturally lost the ability to respond viscerally to those works. Certainly, the works' contemporaries could respond in that fully-emotive way because they shared the same culture space and time as the works in question. As much as we can research and learn of the cultural setting in which the classics were written, reading them and relating to them will still always be a mostly-intellectual exercise for us.

Not to say that intellectual exercises are a negative thing--Mr. McCallum is completely correct in wanting his children to be disciplined mentally by reading the classics. I, for one, am very grateful for my early and continuing exposure to true literature in its highest sense.

However, to confine the reading of fiction to the realm of the cerebral is to eviscerate the art, and to discount the worthiness of our emotions and our "guts" as part of God's good creation. Evoking those higher senses of nobility, honor, passion, and righteous anger is part of what literature is all about. The HP series does that, and throws in a little pulse-racing action for the bargain.

Teaching your kid to do the right thing in the face of opposition is one thing, but giving him/her the opportunity of tasting what that feels like, before actually having to do it in real life, serves as an enticement to the nobler sensibilities. Besides, every generation of children since the beginning of the 20th century has been inundated with emotionally-manipulative media. Teaching children that emotions themselves are wrong is not an option--we must encourage a hunger for the nobler feelings, and the rejection of crass emotional manipulation will naturally follow.

If the classics could encourage such refinement on both an intellectual and an emotional level, that would be ideal. But it is the nature of culture to constantly be changing and evolving. Otherwise, what would be the point of creating new media at all?

Besides, having spent all my childhood in a legalistic, Christian school, I have to attest that the pranks, meanness, and infighting that Mr. McCallum derides is all too realistic. It definitely resonated with me, anyway.

Also, why are we talking about Dickens and Harry Potter? Why compare apples and oranges? HP is obviously a gateway drug to the sublime China White that is The Lord of the Rings. HELLO.

And look at LOTR! Tolkien takes those marvelous classics of Sir Gawain and Beowulf and the Red Book and essentially creates a masterful paean to the old tales. He made a new world that was firmly rooted in the dim history of our own, but that was communicated in a style that 20th century readers could understand. If this is wrong, or worthless, then God should have taken away our creative gifts back in the 1890s or so, as he did the other gifts of the Spirit at the end of the early church.

timmmdogg said...

that's my wife! cool! :-D

Andrew McCallum said...

Rachel, I’m not sure I understand exactly where you are disagreeing with me but I will try to address a couple of things you said. Firstly, the classics are foundational but they are not all that we should read. Bloom’s problem is that modern folks don’t read them at all. Secondly, I think you can compare HP and Dickens in that they are both literature. The point being made is that some literature is particularly effective at molding the mind while some is not. Dickens and Austen were just two of a host of examples I could have drawn from. Austen (again just an example) is illustrative because the genius of the style and form of her work jumps out at you from the opening pages. It’s not the story as a whole that is so brilliant but the way in which it is told. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the specifics of what I’m trying to communicate here. Conservative literary critics often complain that modern readers are loosing the salutary benefits of reading such works. They are not reading books that have the characteristics of great literature. Bloom (Harold that is!) does not see that HP will do anything for young people in this regards and so he thinks the excitement that young folks are reading HP is misplaced. Again, it’s not the story so much as it is the way the tale is told.

nickg said...

First, Rachel: that was beautiful.

Second, Andrew: in addition to Rachel's points, one of the reasons it's difficult if not illegitimate to compare HP to Dickens or Austen and the like is that HP is written for children. Are your conversations about current events, morality, the faith, etc., that you have with your spouse and peers carried out in the same manner as those you have with your children? Of course not. The writing in HP can't be as sophisticated as that of Dickens or Dostoevsky because they are written for different audiences. It is actually a mark of Rowling's genius (yes, genius) that so many adults (those who share her Christian worldview and those who don't) are so greatly moved by her writing that is aimed at a pre-teen audience. In fact, a compelling and likely convincing case can be made to any fair judge that HP may be the greatest work of children's literature ever written. And yes, I'm aware that the charge of chronological snobbery is now in many minds. But tell me: what else is in the running? MacDonald? Carroll? Lewis? As dangerous a statement as this may be, Rowling is clearly a superior storyteller to Lewis (and I've read the Narnia books 20+ times). And it's hard to even say whether MacDonald and Carroll could even be children's books these days.

p.s. I haven't read Bloom's critique yet. I'm just responding to your overall critical view of Rowling.

Jeff Meyers said...

Alan or Harold? I've made that mistake before. Sorry. Both are snooty elitists - one a philosopher and another a literary critic.

Andrew McCallum said...

Nick - When I speak of children I’m not just speaking of very young children but extending this to even teenagers. With teenage and some pre-teen folks Dickens and Austen are great. But at every age there are works that really stretch the mind and those that don’t. The modern popular work of fiction is generally popular because, no matter how engaging the story as a whole is, it is easy reading. Do you know what I mean? You can often pick this up in the first few pages when you compare it with something which does challenge the mind. When I read a classic tale to my kids I sometimes have to stop and explain something in the text to the younger ones. The complexity of the sentence structure, the use of a particular vocabulary, the vividness of various metaphors, the juxtaposition of competing literary devices, the use of historical and literary illusions, etc all combine to paint a picture in the mind of the child. But it takes some time and discipline to get the material to penetrate. The kind of thing that Bloom complains about is when authors remove anything that stretches the mind of the child so that the book sells. Big publishing houses want children’s literature that is consumed by the masses, not stuff where children have to work to get the meaning. Is that elitist? By today’s criteria, sure it is. Does that make it bad? I hope you would say no. Note that what Bloom is complaining about is that for the typical child, this kind of easy-to-consume stuff is their sole literary diet. It is possible to be a very convincing storyteller and still use the dumbed down methodologies that Bloom and other conservative critics speak of. But the skill of the storyteller is not what Bloom is speaking of.

Jeff Meyers said...

Andrew: read the books first. The HP series is not "easy-to-consume stuff." The only way you can possibly claim that HP doesn't "stretch the mind" of children is because YOU HAVEN'T READ THE BOOKS.

And when you hold forth for literature that has "complexity of the sentence structure, the use of a particular vocabulary, the vividness of various metaphors, the juxtaposition of competing literary devices, the use of historical and literary illusions, etc." you might as well be describing the HP books, especially as the story develops in later books.

READ THE BOOKS before you pontificate about their quality and status as literature.

Andrew McCallum said...

Well that is a little harsh, Jeff, especially since I did not mention HP in the post you quoted from. I was trying to make a point to Nick about children's literature in general, something I think he was missing in his talk about story telling. That is, the fact that an author knows how to tell an engaging story may not say much about the overall quality of a given work.

But as I said to you before, you are right, I do need to read them in more depth than I have before, even if it's just for cultural literacy's sake.

Jeff Meyers said...

Sorry about the "pontificate" language, Andrew. Didn't mean to be harsh, just blunt. I do loose my patience (and some sanctification, I'm sure) with people who criticize and warn people off of books they have not even read. I apologize.

nickg said...

We're probably pretty close to the point of spinning our wheels in this conversation. But, I'll offer a few more points.

Children's minds are stretched by ideas, not by hard words. And ideas are communicated by stories. I think that was one of Rachel's best points. Allowing a child to engage at his own level with ideas such as nobility, honor, passion, righteousness, and sacrifice is more important than expanding his vocabulary. Let him learn about those ideas as a youngster, and then he can spend his life learning new ways to talk about them.

In HP 1, Harry is 11 years old. I think we can reasonably assume that is the target age of the book. If/when you read that book, read it first through the eyes of an 11 year old. I guarantee that if you give it a fair reading you will find more in it than that 11 year old could.

You (Andrew) will get no quarrel from me over the statement that most contemporary fiction doesn't have the characteristics of great literature. It's just that this whole discussion is about HP and HP is very very different from most contemporary fiction.

Andrew said, "It's not the story so much as it is the way the tale is told." I cannot agree with that. It is basically saying that form is more important than content. That is a wholly modernist notion. It is the idea of valuing art for art's sake. At the same time, we ought not value content at the expense of form. There are songs in our hymnals with God-honoring lyrics that we never sing because they are set to tunes that are offensive to our ears and mouths.

Rather, we should see form as part of content. The poetic beauty of the Psalms underscores their content communicating the glory and struggle of life in God's household. In Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" the rude mechanicals speak in rough prose but the fairies speak in rhyming iambic pentameter. The form fits the content, but we shouldn't dismiss the parts with a less refined form, because if the story wasn't good, then it wouldn't be worth it to me to read the poetic parts any more than the prosaic parts.