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Registered User
(7/7/03 12:17 pm)
A. S. Byatt on Harry Potter
Hello everyone,

I just thought I would post this link to Byatt's essay on Harry Potter appearing today in the NYT.

Any thoughts?

Richard Parks
Registered User
(7/7/03 7:05 pm)
Byatt on Rowling
Some folk whose opinions I respect say it's a well thought out and reasoned article. Me, I am simply in awe of the casual way Byatt insults not only Rowling but her readers, and in practically the same breath.

I sometimes wish there was some mechanism other than censorship (common sense? Never been tried, apparently) that would dissuade a writer (any writer) from commenting on another writer's success. They invariably come out sounding foolish and petty no matter how objective they think they're being.

Registered User
(7/8/03 8:55 pm)
Harry Potter
Personally i am a huge fan of the harry potter series. i think that Rowling has done a wonderful job in creating a loveably and realistic (if you can call it that) world of magic. when i read the books i truly feel as if i am walking through the corridors with harry or wherever he goes. Rowling is a terrific author and Byatt, i hate to brake it to you but i have never heard of your book A Whistling Woman, and im sure it doesnt come close to harry. theres a reason she has had so much success and i dont see any of that with A Whistling Woman

Registered User
(7/8/03 9:26 pm)
Re: A. S. Byatt on Harry Potter

I don't think that she's completely off the mark. Nonetheless, it's the haughty, pretentious attitude in this article that really chaps my ass, and, frankly, I can't get past that (admittedly somewhat visceral) reaction to see the entirety of the argument's merits. I don't know about the rest of y'alls, but I don't take kindly to being called a simpleton.

Byatt apparently takes pity on us poor souls who aren't from "the real wild" (whereever that is) and who "don't have the skills" to recognize "ersatz magic" (whatever that is). Please. Neither I, nor most readers of commercial fiction that I know, need her sympathies. My imagination is working overtime and I can stand on my own two reader's feet just fine, thanks.

I wonder if Ms. Byatt has ever found herself in the middle of a Maine snowstorm.


Registered User
(7/9/03 2:06 am)
Re: A. S. Byatt on Harry Potter
It's nice to see children reading with such enthusiasm but I do wonder why adults read Harry Potter (the latest instalment is even longer than the New Testament so you have to be pretty committed to crack it open). Given that JK Rowling recycles (rips off?) so much from Star Wars, perhaps her series is simply playing on our warm and fuzzy feelings for the summer of 77 and its popularity is a result of nostalgia? The sad part is that as George Lucas serves up fun, no-brainer movies so Rowling serves up one riff novels, and what tends to be overlooked is that bookshops are now devoting so much shelf space to Harry Potter & The Order Of The Phoenix that genuine classics like The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are being relegated to the mail order catalogue. I, for one, agree with AS Byatt.

Registered User
(7/9/03 9:25 am)
Re: Stephen King on Harry Potter

Heidi Anne Heiner
(7/9/03 11:25 am)
Re: Stephen King on Harry Potter
The irony is that I enjoy reading Byatt more than King but preferred King's review of Harry Potter infinitely more.

To oversimplify things, Byatt has forgotten something about reading that most of the world has also forgotten, albeit for different reasons: Reading can be fun. Not all reading necessarily, but a good healthy percentage of it should be fun. No need to review well-known psychology, but pleasure is a great motivator even when choosing reading material. It's summer and kids are reading for pleasure. Novel concept, forgive the pun.

Byatt comes across as highbrow, intellectual, and snobby. If I didn't know anything else about her work, this article would almost insure I never read her work. I would think that all of her books were full of dense, heavy writing, certainly not entertaining, intended for the university classroom's dissection only. Fortunately, I discovered her years ago, so I can let one unfortunate article have little effect on me.

Is Harry Potter 5 the best book or a perfect book? Certainly not. Is it fun to read? Yes! Should literature be ageless in regards to age of the reader? The better stuff is. Byatt also suffers from the elitism of JUVENILE literature categories, which I find offensive, a personal sore spot when I have finally reached an age of not often being offended. I have to use the term in my work as a librarian since it is the term used in the cataloging system, but I wish I didn't.

Many Harry Potter readers of all ages are also embracing C. S. Lewis, Robin McKinley, Patricia Wrede, Edward Eager, J. R. R. Tolkien, Donna Jo Napoli, Gail Carson Levine and countless others. (You, too, Jane!) This is a blessing to libraries, bookstores, publishers, and authors. Children's literature and fantasy books are not as marginalized as they have been. It's most unfortunate for the historical fiction writers actually. I can't bribe most kids to read anything but fantasy right now.

Sure, the Harry Potter books are flawed. Big deal. They are still charming. The world of Hogwarts is fun. The characters are lovable. Harry Potter is a traditional hero and despite my age and cynicism, I still like to have a few of those around. The characters are growing and changing. Ginny Weasley is growing into an interesting female character, one to balance out the problems with Hermione as the sole main female so far. We have good vs. evil. We have battles against the bureaucracy. Surviving school or holding a 9 to 5 job makes you appreciate those frustrations at Hogwarts. Even Dumbledore is flawed; he allows his love and sympathy for Harry to lead him to bad decisions. This is a world that we can touch and feel, even before it was in a movie. Rowling's strength is her world creation. Diagon Alley and Hogwarts loom large in my imagination. Order of the Phoenix is long and full of fat--the descriptive, world building fat that the fans are hungry to read about. Not every event furthers the story. Much of it just relishes the atmosphere which has become a second home to readers. These books are richer than most video games, movies and television programming. They require imagination. They show kids fending for themselves.

Yes, the book uses stereotypes and common themes. They are universal, much like the fairy tales and folklore embraced here on the boards and the SurLaLune site proper. They are drawn out more extensively than when the same themes are used in other types of media. Heaven knows Cinderella is much more overused than even the themes found in Harry Potter. Familiarity breeds contempt for some, but I find it comforting and interesting when it is done well enough.

I avoided Harry Potter for a few years because of the hype. I am not a hype motivated person. Then I read them and had a good time, pleasantly surprised perhaps because I expected the worst. Then I re-entered the world of librarianship and became a full-grown supporter. The same kids reading Captain Underpants are now reading Harry Potter. This is a blessing.

And if adults want to read these books, good for them. Just let the kids have the library copies first.....

I could say even more, but lunch time is over.


Edited by: Heidi Anne Heiner at: 7/9/03 6:08 pm
Registered User
(7/9/03 4:39 pm)
Re: Stephen King on Harry Potter
Wow, there were a whole slew of words I had to look up in that review...

Two impressions, one from a deep abiding mistrust of the media, its the NYT, the Great Grey Lady with the somewhat stained dress as of late.

The other, did anyone else get the slightest idea that Byatt might be a bit jealous of the success of someone not as qualified (seemingly in Byatt's mind) to be a writer?

Just my impressions.


Jane Yolen
Unregistered User
(7/10/03 1:52 am)
My 2 cents
1. Okay--first, since I don't have a NY Times secret password (and can't get on without it) I haven't read the Byatt article.

2. I am a big Byatt fan and not a big Harry potter fan.

3. I am appalled at anyone who says, "Well, it's just for kids and why should it be well written as long as it's fun." Phew! (You may think I'm setting up a straw man here, but I have certainly heard something very close to this, here and elsewhere.) This is Rowling's fifth book. I should think that--with an editor's help--she would have learned her writing craft a bit
better. She has a passion, an obsession with adverbs and, I understand, it hasn't gotten better. Someone whose critical skill I admire thinks that there are enough adverbns (those pesky -ly words) in the fifth book to make a complete middle grade novel.

4. Great praise (from King and elsewhere) for Rowling's imaginative and inventiveness? Well, all those amusing candies were done before in both Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Roald Dahl. The magic stuff in school was done by me in WIZARD'S HALL, Diane Wynne Jones in her Crestomanci books, all the WORST WITCH books, Edward Eager's books etc. I'll give Rowling the Quidditch game, though. I like the Quidditch game. It's original and fun.

5. Sour grapes? Bruce Coville, who sells awfully well himself, does a very funny routine which I will describe some other time.


Heidi Anne Heiner
(7/10/03 10:22 am)
Re: My 2 cents
I wish everything that came across my desk was well-written, especially children's books. I believe in well-written. However, I also believe in entertaining. Occasionally one element occurs without the other, especially in popular books. Well-written books are returned to me everyday with the complaint that it wasn't interesting and it will remain unfinished, unread, dead. I work in a small library and this is true with adult and children's books. If anything, I see more poorly written adult books with big sales, large marketing campaigns and long waiting lists at the library. Yes, it hurts.

Junk food books are abundant, but I am reluctant to label any Harry Potter book as the worst book published this year or any year. Yes, it uses cliches and way too many adverbs. But something about these books jumps off the page into imaginations for various people. I do contend that Rowling knows her world and portrays it well enough to inspire many of her readers. Her details are quirky, even if not original. Nostalgia, at least for the adults, seems to be blamed as the culprit. I don't consider nostalgia to be an evil or even the main reason why adults read the book. Many are interested due to the hype. Some are making sure they don't object to their kids' reading choices. Others are looking for escapist fantasy literature that keeps them reading and losing sleep into the wee hours. Harry fits the bill, adverbs and all. Yes, I wish Rowling would quit shopping at the Lolly's Adverb store, but unfortunately her credit is now so high that her account will never be closed there unless she closes it herself voluntarily. (Sorry, just had to belabor the School House Rock thing after watching the DVD this past weekend.)

I prefer Harry Potter to the gazillion Mary Kate and Ashley books, just one example, which I circulate every year. Pullman's Dark Elements have fallen into my "only give to the rare, appreciative reader" category after countless failures with it. On the other hand, Wrede's Enchanted Forest series is a surefire hit with the Harry Potter kids and the adults looking for more fantasy books. The new covers on the paperbacks have improved my book talking success, too.

I am weary of shamefaced adults asking for my permission or understanding when they request a Harry Potter book for themselves. It happened to me yesterday, minutes after I posted my original message. Byatt's article felt more like an attack on reading children's literature as an adult because I am sensitive to this issue. Although I sigh over all of the romance novels I move around in stacks everyday, I am happy that the pasttime of reading is not vanishing.

And believe it or not, I am not a huge Harry Potter fan. I do not read and reread these books the way I do so many others. I just feel the need to play Devil's Advocate for the horrible, berated Harry.


Unregistered User
(7/10/03 3:35 pm)
And mine
The first HP ... I stopped in the middle of the Quiddich game. I just didn't see the point. Harry is special, misunderstood, goes to school, and impresses everyone. Decent plot if you like school stories, which I understand are a British tradition, but I didn't see any reason to put it at a wizardry school, or put the soccer game up in the air.

I couldn't read the Byatt article w/o registering, so I can't speak to her tone, but yes, it didn't seem like the magic of Gandalf, or Ged, or any other kind that interested me.

oaken mondream
Registered User
(7/10/03 5:08 pm)
::puts two more cents in the pile::
I think that the public at large needs to remember that art and literature are not democratic. Just because you enjoy something doesn't mean that its "good".

Harry Potter is an okay book. Its not original. Its not thought provoking. It is clever at points and it is better than many books put out there for young adults, but it isn't one of the best. But that doesn't mean people shouldn't read it.

The problem with the article is its tone. From how I read it, Byatt was complaining that adults were reading shallow fantasy (and you know what, she's right, although I give Rowling credit for creating a fantasy that mocks our own shallow reality) instead of ones that are complex and full of awe. Not that they were reading children's books (in fact she compares Harry Potter to many others books intended for readers of the same age). However, Byatt comes off as condescending and elitist.

But maybe the tone couldn't be helped. She's pointing out flaws in a favorite book; no matter how she says it she's going to come off as a snob. It's like a movie critic who gives poor ratings to movies that deserve it, and alienates his audience because they all enjoyed (say) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Then they get upset because he's doing his job, looking at films objectively, instead of just going in for a good time.

The casual reader will enjoy Harry Potter, especially many adults who haven't read a lot of fantasy. They don't know that its cliche because they haven't read anything else. Likewise, the not so casual reader (or critic) will enjoy Harry Potter when they go in with the attitude that it's just a children's book, or just entertainment.

I wish Byatt hadn't published her opinion in the NY times. I have a theory that one of the reasons that Harry Potter is popular with adults is that they've been given permission to read fantasy without the stigma that's been attached to it. After all, it's Harry Potter. Everyone else is reading it, I'm part of a trend and didn't have to seek it out in the sci-fi section that's set aside from the mainstream, literary "good" books. I wonder how many other books, if given the same publicity, would have as many readers. Probably they all would.

sorry for that rant, but I've wanted to join in this discussion for a while now.


Unregistered User
(7/11/03 9:34 am)
::two ha'pence::
Ah, aren't books that foment discussion wonderful? I remember reading somewhere that the Harry Potter series has so far managed to use every "cliche": put-upon orphan, evil nemesis, etc., and that this is probably why it resonates so strongly with so many people. It certainly is a social phenomena, and a far more benevolent one than war, which is one of the few things I can think of that moves so many people so strongly.

And in response to a certain comment made earlier: Harry Potter is not ripping off Star Wars. If it is , then Star Wars was ripping off Lord of the Rings, and All of the Above ripped off Ring of the Nibelung, which we all know was ripped off the Volsunga Saga and possibly Beowulf. Thus all literature is connected in the great circle of rip-offs, so let's not begrudge the Wildly Popular Stories of Their Times their eternal themes.

Registered User
(7/12/03 7:49 am)
The Trouble With Harry
I agree that, in terms of story, Star Wars is derivative; If it seemed unique in 1977 it was because there had never been a spectacle quite like it before and it wasn't until the dust had settled that anyone really noticed. But that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and things have changed. As cinematic special effects have grown more and more sophisticated so plotlines - both in books as well as movies - have grown more and more one-dimensional, and this is the universe into which Harry Potter was born: A universe where authors write with one eye on the movie rights and where more means less. Rowling's books leave one with an acute sense of deja vu, and a feeling that this is not the stuff that dreams are made of, but merely the stuff of clever marketing.

Edited by: Mahlerfan at: 7/12/03 7:52 am
Unregistered User
(7/12/03 10:06 am)
God I'm tired of this subject
So why am I bothering to post here? Because HP is fun to read, has good characters, decent mysteries, and remind me in many ways of Roald Dahl's books for children. Hardly ANYTHING is original, EVERYONE borrows from everyone else, whether as inspiration or out and out lifting - I've read a lot of books in my life and it is a rare treat to see something completely original in genre-related fiction. Also, HP has made kids read, and read fantasy fiction, so that they are a ravening horde in demand of other similar books. As a result, many out of print books and authors are being thrown back into the limelight (such as Diane Wynn Jones), and new ones are being written. And there are many diamonds in the rough. The reason HP and Rowling get all this press is because of how big they are. If HP was a minor success everyone would be reading it and telling everyone else how good they are, as it was in the beginning, before the "phenomena." Now it's "trendy" to bash it. Ho-hum.

As for A.S. Byatt, she needs distemper shots. She is on the attack about most things, including classic novelists and those recognized as literary giants. Not that there should be any sacred cows, but she makes a game of bashing D.H. Lawrence and other "male" authors that don't fit into her revisionist idea of literature. Frankly, I'm suprised she attacked a female author. Guess she doesn't like her own overwritten tracts being bumped from the top sellers list. Her own works are sometimes nominally interesting, but can't hold a candle to many she tears apart. I would read John Fowels over her anyday. Her rants were interesting the first two or three times I read them, but now bore me as it seems obvious why she does it; PR.

Registered User
(7/12/03 12:06 pm)
alternative HP NYT review by John Leonard

Well, today there is a pro-HP review in the NYT

I prefer the Byatt review, which contains more ideas in fewer words, even while I like HP and dislike Byatt's touted alternatives. The important question in her review is not just "Why do adults like Harry Potter?" but "Why don't adults read other children's/genre literature?"

Until children's/ genre literature is scrutinized with the same seriousness that is applied to "literary" fiction, we cannot expect it to be taken seriously. I believe that it can stand up to the scrutiny, and am thankful that Byatt at least is willing to scrutinize it under those terms.


Rosemary Lake
Registered User
(7/12/03 1:25 pm)
cliches = classic
Yay for all these authors, getting new or non-readers to read the Good Old Stuff, rather well done, rich and sincere.

[[[ The casual reader will enjoy Harry Potter, especially many adults who haven't read a lot of fantasy. They don't know that its cliche because they haven't read anything else. ]]]

That's like what I thought when the LOTR books first came out in the US. The masses fell in love -- because it was their FIRST encounter with elves, dwarves, magic, poetic language, classic quest plot, etc. I had grown up on those things, reading Lewis, Alan Garner, Lang, Oz (to whom I kept contrasting LOTR).

I applauded, but couldn't really get into the books myself. They reminded me of Russian novels. The world was fatefully going downhill, and everybody had four names, at least two of which had to be used on every page.

First encounter with elves etc I'd thought about. It hadn't occurred to me that LOTR was some people's first clear encounter with some classic plot elements. That was talked about a lot when Star Wars came out, of course (which I loved!)


Unregistered User
(7/14/03 5:29 pm)
So that explains it.
I love Lord of the Rings because I love Russian authors, I guess. I don't mind being heavily involved in weighty material as long as it is about something. One of my main problems with fantasy literature these days is it isn't about anything, or is just immitating their betters. There are the exceptions of course, and fortunately I find those exceptions growing larger. Much of the time, however, I just have much more pleasure reading J.R.R. Tolkein, Clark Ashton Smith or Lord Dunsany than Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, or R.A. Salvatore, or even good authors. Maybe the older ones did more with the language than the modern ones. It was like drinking aged scotch as opposed to swilling cheap beer.

Registered User
(7/15/03 2:36 am)
byatt, rowling and others
I've always been a fan of (certain) childrens books, although I'm 30 now. For years, people laughed at my mixed-up reading choices - classics and thrillers and sci-fi and romance, interspersed with school and adventure stories. But I don't want to miss out on great stories, I don't care who they're written for. For me, HP's success with adults is great - I get a lot less stick these days!

I began reading HP a while back, and have got immense pleasure from all of the books. I've even re-read the earlier ones. I don't do that unless the book has something special.

In addition, the longish gaps between HP books led me back to the children's section of the bookshop, where I found Pullman's books, and then Artemis Fowl. Funnily enough, it was this combination that kindled my fascination with fairy tales and mythology, which led me to Byatt and Tolkien.

Over the last few months I've read my way through Byatt's Possession, LOTR, and HP-5. It's been a great summer so far! HP was an easy, enjoyable read, and went all too quickly. LOTR was not an easy read, but was inspirational. As for Possession. Well, it took forever, because I had to look up every other word. And I might well have given up if it hadn't been for the foundation laid by the children's books, which hinted that it would be worth the struggle. I'm just so glad I kept going. It is a masterpiece, and stretched my mind to it's limits.

I think I might give the Byatt article a miss. I have huge respect for her as a writer of "literature", but also for Rowling as a storyteller. I don't want to spoil things for myself.

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