29 October 1999
Harry Potter -- the Protests
In the past couple weeks the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling have been in the news in the US, not for their phenomenal publishing success, but because some parents have objected to the books and have petitioned school boards to have them removed from classrooms.
I have been struck not so much by the protests themselves -- the idea that there are mundanes (our traditional SFnal term) or muggles (which can be our new fantasy equivalent) out there who view imaginative fiction with suspicion and fear is hardly surprising -- but by the prolificacy of reports about the protests. A small item on CNN became a paragraph in Time and then an interview topic on the Today Show and then a special report on the NBC Nightly News, for instance -- and they all repeated that sound-bite from one parent about the books having ''lack of respect and sheer evil''. No doubt the story has been covered in many places that I've missed. But is there really much of a story here?
To a large extent I think the coverage of this story illustrates an insidious trend of our media-saturated culture: the way the media feed upon themselves. News stories propagate outwards from special-interest sources to general-interest, upwards from local to national, and back down again. Newspaper and magazine editors and TV producers are all looking over each others' shoulders for material they can adapt, spin, or steal. (Local TV news shows seem to be the most shameless.) The effect is to exaggerate the significance of events that are really anomalies, not trends. A few weeks ago there was a similar rash of stories about an isolated telephone booth in the middle of the Mojave Desert; at least no one pretended that was anything other than an amusing 'fringe' story.
(To some very small extent, I suppose, Locus Online might seem to be part of this media proliferation, except that LO is more of a meta-news service that points to its sources rather than a news service itself.)
So do the protests over the Harry Potter books represent more than a tiny, insignificant proportion of reactions from among many millions of readers?
Last week's Los Angeles Times article mentions incidents in California, Michigan, New York, Minnesota, and South Carolina, as well as an anti-Harry website put up by the conservative ''Family Friendly Libraries'' group in Virginia. That's half a dozen. Possibly there were others we didn't hear about, but it's also likely the ones we did hear about didn't arise independently. Just as enthusiasm for the books has spread via word-of-mouth and through media coverage, so probably has alarm over the books spread among those given to alarm (thus that website). I can't help but wonder if those same concerned parents also restrict their children from The Wizard of Oz and Grimm's Fairy Tales, but none of the reports I saw pursued such questions.
I don't think these protests are anything to be concerned about to us in the SF/fantasy community. They're not a sign of some new backlash or crackdown against imaginative literature. There has always been a minority of people who regard fantasy fiction as subversive and dangerous; the total number of Harry Potter readers has grown so large that these few have, just barely, registered on the news media's radar screen. But they're still a tiny blip.
Harry Potter -- the Classics?
Should fantasy writers and readers resent the success of the Harry Potter books because they've captured the attention of millions of readers when so many other, perhaps better, books have not?
You don't see the Harry Potter books getting a lot attention from within our field. The first book was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award this year, for instance, but lost (to Diana Wynne Jones' Dark Lord of Derkholm). The books haven't been widely reviewed in genre magazines; they've only been briefly reviewed in Locus Magazine. Of course, they are children's books, which puts them at a disadvantage. Still, does this lack of attention amount to negligence of books that so many general commentators are comparing to classics by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien?
One possibility is that these commentators don't know any better, and the Harry Potter books aren't anything special. (I've enjoyed the Harry Potter books myself, but I'm not well read enough in fantasy or Young Adult literature to judge whether the books are typical or extraordinary.) The LAT article mentioned above cites one dissenter, the editor of children's literary journal The Horn Book, who calls them ''likeable but critically insignificant''.
On the other hand, there's an entertaining Slate dialogue between A.O. Scott and Polly Shulman about the books. (It appeared in August, but I missed it at the time; I must have been packing for New Zealand.) Their discussion examines in some detail the appeal of the books and the series' development and growing sophistication. At the same time, they ask Why Harry? and Why now?, and have no single answer. (Scott also draws an interesting parallel between being a wizard and being gay -- discovering oneself as different in a world full of people who don't understand or who are hostile -- an analogy that resonates with other SF and fantasy themes.)
We might for a moment consider what is meant by 'classic', a frequently abused term. Short-term popularity doesn't ensure becoming a classic, of course; nor does simply being old and fondly remembered, like the books or movies that thrilled you as a kid. But long-term popularity helps a lot, even for works without much critical cachet (e.g. the Sherlock Holmes books, or Gone with the Wind). Other works are regarded as classics for being innovative and influential within their genres, whether or not they ever achieved much popularity (e.g. Olaf Stapledon's books or Ingmar Bergman's films). Literary history is full of forgotten bestsellers and prize winners; it takes a mix of popular and critical recognition to make a classic, and the proportions can vary. A functional definition of what it is to be a classic may be the most useful: classics are works that over the course of time come to define their field. The classics are what new works are compared to and are measured against.
In SF, most books regarded as classics (at least those published since 1950 or so) came from within; they were published as genre SF by writers regarded as SF writers. This has been less true of fantasy, with its shorter history as a distinct publishing genre and its lesser stigma as a form of interest to literary writers. But even in SF, once in a while a work achieves such wide popularity with a general audience that it becomes regarded as a classic of the genre even though it didn't come from there. The example that comes to mind is Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, a book by a non-genre writer that attracted virtually no genre attention (Hugo and Nebula nominations, etc.) when it was published, but which after two decades routinely ranks among SF's most popular works. You can resent the imposition of such a pop fave on our refined genre (as many in the field resented the success of Star Wars), but in the long run that attitude is irrelevant. The meaning of a genre or an art form is determined as much by how it interacts with the greater culture -- what people not involved with it think it's about -- as by what its fans, or critical guardians, declare to be important.
I suspect the Harry Potter books will become regarded as classics of fantasy in a similar way. It doesn't matter if sophisticated fantasy readers find nothing particularly special about them. What matters is that in them the appeal of fantasy has been discovered by an enormous number of new readers -- both juvenile and adult. For them, fantasy will be defined as books like Harry Potter's. Whether the books are eventually embraced by the fantasy field depends in part on whether these new readers move on to other books and grow up to become the next generation of fantasy readers. The reports on that possibility are encouraging. On an NPR story I heard just this morning, a boy said the first 300-page Harry Potter book was the longest book he'd read in his life -- but now he's reading a 600-page book, by Orson Scott Card.
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