Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Harry Potter and the Decline of Literary Civilization

Is Harry Potter Dreadful, and does his popularity signify the end of literary civilization?

Chris Clarke linked to this piece, by Matthew Yglesias, about someone who wrote that people who read Harry Potter never read any real novels, and which -- the Yglesias piece, I mean -- had a long tail of comments. I found it all very odd. You see, the problem, for me, is that I'm far more snobbish and old fashioned than the person who didn't like Harry Potter. I don't think novels are high literature at all. To me the people fretting about Harry displacing real novels are just as off-track as the people who think that Harry Potter is as good as literature ever gets.

I enjoy novels enormously. But the novel is simply not a very important part of literature. It's been hugely, hugely popular for about a century and a half, and for a rather shorter time it's been taken seriously in universities. Of course I like them. For the same reasons you do. Because we share this odd historical moment. But that doesn't make them important.

Some novels are good. Some of them are thoughtful. Some are enthralling. But storytelling, though a fine and venerable craft, is not, to my mind, an art. Poetry is an art. I'm sure people will still be reading poetry five hundred years from now. Will they still be reading novels? I doubt it. Novel-reading is a peculiar activity, taken in a wide historical context, and literary novel-reading is more peculiar still.

I admit that I find "literary" novels -- the ones written since the 1920's or so, in conscious hopes of achieving literary immortality -- ridiculous and unreadable. I haven't read one in years: to me they're a waste of time. Even when they're mercifully short, they're horribly long winded and pompous, portentous and solemn, nervously clutching at a high seriousness that they can't quite keep hold of. Some people enjoy reading them, or do read them anyway, and I wish them godspeed. I'm not going to join them though.

I like the Harry Potter books a lot. I think they're a good series of novels. I don't think they're the modern equivalent of Aeschylus. But then, I don't think Don DeLillo -- or whoever we're supposed to take seriously nowadays; as I've already admitted, I don't read the stuff -- is the modern equivalent of Aeschylus either. I much prefer reading Harry Potter, because Rowling is not under the delusion that she's Aeschylus. She's a storyteller, and she sits comfortably in the storyteller's chair. I think that's nice. I like it.

High literature has, to me, one unmistakeable marker. You would memorize it, if you had the time, and not find it tedious to do so. It has that intensity, that richness of meaning and beauty of sound, that you're willing to etch it into your synapses. Nobody, I hope, is going to memorize the Harry Potter novels. No one is going to memorize Don DeLillo either. They're simply not worth it. Read and reread them, sure. Go to them for comfort and instruction. (I'm sure people do that with DeLillo, even if my imagination can't quite make the leap to picturing it.)

Five hundred years from now, should our species get so far, people are still going to be memorizing Aeschylus, Li Po, and Shakespeare. They will not even be reading Rowling or DeLillo. Or Conrad or Dickens, for that matter, unless they're scholars or antiquarians. Novels are ephemeral.

That doesn't make them worthless. And of course in a larger sense, all literature -- and the one species we know of that produces it -- is ephemeral. That's worth remembering too. So let's not get too het up about it all. Even high literature is not that important.

Well. I don't believe all that. Oh, I believe that the novel is a minor form and that its current vogue will pass. But the "high literature" and "art" stuff? Nah. It's just fun to get up above someone who thinks they've taken the high ground and take a few potshots.

Real novels are, and always have been, popular, longwinded, repetitive, and meandering. It's the genius of the form. I am entirely with C.S. Lewis, who snorted, "who ever bothered about style in a novel, until all else was lost?" Sure, you can write a concise novel with style coming out its ears, and excite critics into using words like "lapidary," and keep pulling the reader up short by leaving out the usual repetitions and redundancy of storytelling. But you haven't written a novel, really -- you've pulled off a party trick.

I like the Harry Potter novels. The theme of them is that it's better to be kind than nasty. It's a perfectly good theme -- it's the theme of most of Dickens's best novels -- and I'm a little bewildered by the dislike they seem to inspire, even in some people that I know to be very kindly. They're not challenging novels, for the most part -- they don't put you through a moral or intellectual wringer, if you're well-read, anyway -- but Rowling has in spades what most modern novelists lack: invention. She's very like Dickens, who was also defiantly lowbrow, stole plots and characters anywhere he could find them, and pandered shamelessly to the crowd. Both of them, you have the feeling, could go on pulling rabbits out of their hats indefinitely. An infinite wealth of throwaway character and incident. It's the sheer abundance that delights. They are, in every best sense of a much-abused word, liberal.

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