Thursday, April 16, 2009

ByattBlogging Bonus: Potter vs. Potter

Well, not really. More like ‘Potter-maker versus Potter-maker’. In 2003, A.S. Byatt, creator of Frederica Potter (and family) wrote an article criticising the Harry Potter series of books, at that time five books in. I though it’d be worth looking at here, insofar as the piece got Byatt a certain amount of notoriety. Some commentators were eager to make her out to be a snobbish member of the literary élite, decrying popular fiction just because it was popular. This, of course, was a profoundly idiotic reaction. 

To begin with, in the same article in which she criticises J.K. Rowling, Byatt praises Terry Pratchett, not exactly the act of a dyed-in-the-wool snob. More crucially, the snob argument is an ad hominem attack, which is usually made by somebody losing a debate. Whether Byatt is a snob or not, it shouldn’t invalidate the critical points she makes either way. If you believe in the distinction between good writing and bad, then the article should stand or fall on the strength of the argument it presents. If you don’t believe in that distinction, then you have several thousand years worth of human aesthetic reaction to language to explain away; you’re also in fundamental opposition, I think, to several major elements of Byatt’s philosophy.

So what exactly did Byatt say in her Potter article? This, I think, is where the article becomes interesting. It’s uncharacteristically slipshod in its construction, and in its thought.

Byatt begins by asking why children like the Potter books so much, and then why adults like them. Her argument to the first question: “they are written from inside a child’s-eye view, with a sure instinct for childish psychology.” As will soon become all too clear, I don’t agree with this statement. But never mind that; Byatt believes that this answer precludes, for some reason, adult appreciation of the books — she doesn’t explain why — and that there must be another reason why adults read Rowling.

(I might as well note here that I can enjoy the Potter books, though I wouldn’t say that they’re particularly good except in certain specific limited ways. I think the plot mechanisms and riddles are ingenious and clever. I think the prose is weirdly readable in a way I can’t explain — it’s literally more difficult to lift one’s eyes from the page than to slide them sideways over the text. And I think that the structure of most of the books, following the school year through, is attractive; the seasons and holidays give Rowling a basic skeleton to follow for each book. For me, the last book, in which she abandoned the school and the school-year structure, was far and away the worst of the seven. If I had to say why I think kids enjoy the books so much, I’d say it’s probably a mixture of the easiness of the texts, the outsized characters — not unlike Silver Age Marvel Comics — and the way the common childhood experience of going to school becomes the whole basis for a fantasy and a magic world.)

Byatt tries to justify her statement about child psychology by the use of Freud, a difficult trick these days. Byatt complains that while the earlier books present a preadolescent “latency-period” fantasy, Order of the Phoenix fails to translate that fantasy into a convincing portrait of adolescence. Which is true enough, but is surely a problem in the earlier books as well; by fifteen, as Harry and his friends are in the fifth book of the series, most kids are well into adolescence.

Let me skip back a bit. Byatt argues that the Dursleys, Harry’s adoptive family, represent, in a Freduian decoding of the stories, Harry’s real family — the world of reality, as distinct from the fantasy-world of Hogwarts. “The Dursleys are his true enemy,” Byatt says. “When he arrives at wizarding school, he moves into a world where everyone, good and evil, recognizes his importance, and tries either to protect or destroy him.” 

It’s sadly ironic that Byatt, who mocked the metaphors of Freudian thought in her novels, sees no difficulty in applying its comfortable theories to another text. Probably more importantly, one is also uncomfortably aware that she’s misreading the text at issue in at least two crucial ways. One, the Dursleys have at least some clue as to Harry’s importance; they fear and hate him, for all that he’s effectively sworn to protect them — Marvel Comics, once again — and those emotions are explicitly tied into their actions and dialogue in the framing sequences of the books. Two, the Dursleys are as much a fantasy as Hogwarts; they’re caricatures. To treat them as in any way “real”, much less a “real” fantasy, is about as difficult as treating, well, Hogwarts as a real educational system. The idea of reality is embodied by one about as much as another.

Byatt goes on to say that “Ms. Rowling’s world is a secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children’s literature — from the jolly hockey-sticks school story to Roald Dahl, from “Star Wars” to Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper.” This is true, but so what? Every secondary world, including Tolkien’s, derives from pre-existing sources. Byatt seems to be trying to say that the patchwork in this case is unconvincing, or perhaps that it does not rise above its sources. It’s a viable point, but it needs to be supported. 

The closest she comes to this that I can see is to say that “Derivative narrative clichés work with children because they are comfortingly recognizable and immediately available to the child’s own power of fantasizing.” I can’t see why this statement would apply to children any more or less than it would to adults. In either case, it seems to me an issue of temperament — not everyone has the same “power of fantasizing”. “Derivative narrative clichés” (which sounds redundant) work with children because they don’t have the same experience with cliché that adults do; they encounter them for the first time.

“The important thing,” Byatt tells us, “about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman — trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines.” To me, this is where the article really falls down; the statement is not only untrue, it’s a howler. Or, put another way, it’s only true if you’re very selective about who you call a “fairy story writer”. If you’re prepared to eliminate many modern fantasy writers — Michael Moorcock, say, or China Miéville — then maybe you can make the statement work. Though I frankly have no idea how you get around Frank Baum. 

Byatt goes on to say that “Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.” This is a hell of a statement to make, but set it aside for a moment. “Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family,” Byatt continues, again displaying a breathtaking ability to ignore the text she’s supposed to be analysing — by Order of the Phoenix it’s very clear that the whole magical society’s in danger — and then goes on to say “So, yes, the attraction for children can be explained by the powerful working of the fantasy of escape and empowerment, combined with the fact that the stories are comfortable, funny, just frightening enough.” If this is so, the question still remains as to why Rowling happened to hit that combination just right when no other author in recent decades has managed the trick. What is it that makes the Harry Potter books so different?

Not only do I think this is a poor analysis of Harry Potter’s appeal, but it also seems to me logically confused; Byatt seems to be arguing that children who like Potter follow “soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip”. Which seems unlikely. That’s without even getting into the question of what she means by “TV cartoons” — I can easily think of a number of Japanese cartoons, and even some American cartoons, which seem to me to be more valuable and imaginative than the Harry Potter books; whereas Byatt’s implication seems to be that the Potter books work because they’re more imaginative than the cartoons. (I would agree that there’s a lack of the numinous in the Potter books, but I think that’s a function of the limitation of Rowling’s writing talent, not necessarily of the nature of the story.) 

Weirdly, Byatt claims that “These are good books of their kind.” Her problem is a suspicion that people derive from them mainly comfort, with none of the “compensating seriousness” of writers like Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, or Ursula K. Le Guin. This seems to me to be an odd way to read books, and not much to do with what Byatt then goes on to find in these writers: “a real sense of mystery, powerful forces ... we feel we are being put back in touch with earlier parts of our culture, when supernatural and inhuman creatures — from whom we thought we learned our sense of good and evil — inhabited a world we did not feel we controlled.” This is I think a good sentence, and a good assessment of the experience of reading Cooper, Garner, and Le Guin. What she’s talking about is, basically, numinousness again. 

I’d agree that there isn’t much of this in the Harry Potter books, but, again, I think that’s a function of Rowling’s lack of talent, not of something inherent in the structure of the story or in the nature of Rowling’s invention. “Ms. Rowling’s magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds,” argues Byatt. “It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.” But had Rowling more of a knack for atmosphere, that patch of forest would have the danger, the resonance, Byatt is missing; I think that’s what Rowling was trying for in her depiction of the forest. Put bluntly, I think Byatt is talking here about something caused by a lack of skill, and ascribing it to a defect of invention.

(Before I continue, I also have to express my disagreement with Byatt’s opinions about “regression”. She observes that “In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 ‘best reads,’ more than a quarter were children’s books,” and concludes from this that “We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I’m ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.” Restful for some, perhaps; for others, it’s perhaps not particularly noticeable. The idea of returning to a preadolescent state as “regression” seems problematic; who’s to say that it’s not actually a healthy step up? In up and down worlds, up and down are equivocal; one person’s regression is another’s growth. Byatt seems to recognise this herself: “If we regress, we regress to a lost sense of significance we mourn for.” But then, part of my dissatisfaction with the article is this sort of equivocation. For example, the BBC survey she cites seems to me to be undermined later in the article when she observes that “A surprising number of people — including many students of literature — will tell you they haven’t really lived in a book since they were children.” There’s no need to go on about “comfort” when this characterises common reading experience. If people haven’t lived in a book as adults, of course they’ll pick their childhood favourite as their best read.)

Parallelling her comments on reality shows and the like, Byatt goes on to say that Rowling “speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.” I don’t agree with these statements. It seems to me to be fatuous to suggest that a basic human experience is not present in the current generation of adults. It seems even more fatuous to suggest that “inhabitants of urban jungles” are in some way emotionally stunted because they live in cities instead of ... well, what? Deep wilderness? Farmland? The “real wild” has been dwindling in Britain for centuries; I don’t know how much of what a Canadian would think of as wilderness was present in that island even a hundred years ago. Finally, the statement about the ersatz seems logically unfounded to me — if your imagination only has the ersatz to work with, won’t that strengthen the imagination? More crucially, the kind of sense Byatt’s talking about here — of numinousness, of mystery, of magic — seems to me not to be dependent on external training, but on inborn nature; this, though, is a position that seems to me incapable of proof or disproof.

Byatt’s next-to-last paragraph seems to me to simply be incoherent. Adults reading Rowling revert to a childlike state in so doing, she tells us, then switches topics to note that many people haven’t “lived in a book” since they were children, a sad side-effect of English classes. If adults are able to live in books, one might reasonably ask, doesn’t that say something in favour of the books that do draw them in? Rather than answer this question, Byatt says: “But in the days before dumbing down and cultural studies no one reviewed Enid Blyton or Georgette Heyer — as they do not now review the great Terry Pratchett, whose wit is metaphysical, who creates an energetic and lively secondary world, who has a multifarious genius for strong parody as opposed to derivative manipulation of past motifs, who deals with death with startling originality. Who writes amazing sentences.” I will say that Byatt mentioned Blyton and Heyer previously in the article. Beyond that, I cannot see how these statements logically follow any point Byatt’s made. I’m not sure they even follow each other — she seems to be saying ‘once, nobody reviewed Blyton or Heyer, who are bad writers, just as now they don’t review Terry Pratchett, who’s a good writer.’

Byatt begins her next, final, paragraph by saying “It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon.” I presume she doesn’t mean Pratchett writing amazing sentences. It seems that she doesn’t mean the lack of reviews for him either. It’s hard to see what she does mean; the paragraph is simply an attack on relativistic cultural studies, except that it’s not. Cultural studies are said to have a “leveling effect”, and to be “as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don’t really believe exists.” But then: “There is nothing wrong with this,” she says. But then again: “it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's “magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”” 

It’s as if the incoherence and equivocation that’s been at work all through the article bubbles to the surface here, and the conclusion of the essay is lost in a swamp of dithering. It’s a pity. Had the article been as denunciatory as Byatt’s critics suggested, it could have been genuinely interesting on a critical level. Had it been more interested in what the Harry Potter books really were, and how fantasy really worked, it might have been a useful examination of fantasy fiction. As it is, it seems only confused, unsure how to really grapple with its subject, slipping away whenever it gets close to a definitive statement.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.

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