Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter and Classist Nonsense

I admit to being late (again) in responding to Isaac's post about a plea from Matthew Yglesias that a "literary critic" with the "requisite chops" might find a great opportunity to write intelligently about the Harry Potter books in a way "that said something about the Potter books as literature, something smart and insightful that made me think "hey, this guy has smart things to say about books!" Something that would situate the books in some kind of context vis-a-vis the much larger cultural sweep of the novel." Yglesias' heart is in the right place -- he likes the Potter books, and wants them to attract more readers -- but I knew some variation on the following sentence was coming, and he doesn't disappoint: "Something that might get an intelligence person who enjoyed the Potter books interested in some larger, more highbrow segment of the literary enterprise."

What is it about people in the arts that they see everything in terms of missionary work? Like somehow the great unwashed need to be "saved" from popular art in order to be inducted into the vastly superior world of Harold Pinter, Howard Barker, and William Gaddis? They get these ideas from higher education, which teaches the students that certain characteristics are "better" than others, and that these things are "universal" values. Ideological, classist hogwash.

John McGrath, in A Good Night Out, outs one of these so-called universal values (and yes, I've quoted this repeatedly, and it deserves to the repeated): "mystery."
For example, mystery - or mysteriousness as it so often becomes. How often has this 'all-pervading air of 'mystery' been praised by critic and academic alike, from Yeat's Purgatory down through Beckett to our own cut-price product, Harold Pinter? Mystery, the ingredient that leavens the loaf - or should I say makes the dough rise? But many audiences don't like mystery, in that sense of playing games with knowledge, and words, and facts. They become impatient, they want to know what the story is meant to be about, what is supposed to have hap­pened. They wish a different order of mystery. But because we have universalized the critical response to 'mystery' that proclaims it as a truly wonderful thing, we now have to dismiss those audiences as philistine, as outside true theatre culture, as - and this is the Arnold Wesker refinement - in need of education. My belief, and the basis of my practice as a writer in the theatre for the last ten years, has been that there are indeed different kinds of audiences, with different theatrical values and expectations, and that we have to be very careful before consigning one audience and its values to the critical dustbin.
J. K. Rowling has no need of a highbrow literary critic to explain her work, because her work speaks for itself, powerfully and vividly. That's why people like to read her novels. She mixes excitement, spectacle, and fantasy with a clear moral message: evil is always out there, it always is trying to take over, it requires constant vigilance by good people to keep it at bay, and sometimes people who don't see themselves as heroic are pressed into service and must shoulder the responsibility and carry the pain that it entails. (Yes, it IS Hamlet's problem -- so damn what?) And she gets this message across through action, not through obscure cogitation and "mystery." Maybe if more Democrats had read Rowling, they might not have let George W. Voldemort turn the US into the Dark Kingdom. Or maybe we might not have. I'll bet our kids wouldn't have, if we let them actually participate in anything resembling life.

I was at a conference where some NEA flak gave a presentation about how horrible it was that Americans were consuming less and less art, music, drama, literature, amd museums than in the pass. The outlook was especially dire for young people. As I said, it was a conference on the arts, and I suspect that this putz thought this was a slam dunk audience of people who would rise as one and chant huzzah at his call for more arts in America. Boy, was he surprised, because while it was a conference on the arts, it was a conference devoted to the arts for social change, and every one of the people in the audience immediately grasped the elitist definition of the "arts" that the NEA was using. If it was music, it was symphonic or jazz -- certainly nothing like rock, rap, or country western. Novels and short stories only counted if they were read on paper -- anything read or experienced on the internet, for instance, wasn't counted. Movies, TV? Forget it. Look at how the NEA is spending its money -- on national tours of Shakespeare, for Christ sake. Let's make sure that the theatre isn't seen as being anything immediate and pertinent -- it is "culture," after all.

We shouldn't be writing about Harry Potter as a way to get people to read more highbrow stuff -- according to Harold Bloom, Potter is valuable only if it leads young people to reading Kipling's racist 19th-century Jungle Book or Just So Stories. Anyway, we shouldn't be writing about Potter as a gateway to high art, but what we ought to bedoing is combing every word of Rowling's books to figure out where the magic is -- how does it work? And then we ought to be figuring out how to create similar magic on our stages.

I come from a working class family. I read like a fiend when I was growing up, everything from The Executioner series (sort of James Bond for the Average Joe) to Taylor Caldwell to Thomas Tryon to whatever I could get my hands on. And then I went to college, where I was taught about high art, important art, and given all the tools and the words to value those things, and my brain was scrambled and rearranged. And now I can't get back. Now I can't open a mystery novel without getting turned off by the two-dimensional characters. Now I can't get swept away in an inspiring film like Pay It Forward without some part of my educated brain going "Kind of maudlin, ain't it? And isn't it significant that the good kid had to die at the end?" We ruin kids with our insistence on things being difficult, and obscure, and morally ambiguous, and narratively complex. We take away the pleasure of art, and substitute some pale imitation called "intellectual stimulation." And it is damaging. And now over at Parabasis poor Isaac is feeling puzzled and maybe a little bit guilty because he is too tired to get into Don DeLillo's latest novel. He wonders whether he has failed DeLillo, or vice versa, because he experiences "a certain resistence when reading for pleasure to really embrace difficulty in prose styling."

And I want to cry out: "It's not too late, Isaac! Turn back! Your resistance to the work involved with deciphering DeLillo's "prose styling" is a sign that you haven't yet lost your heart, your ability to appreciate a good, rip-roaring tale well told! You don't want to end up like me when you're in your 40s -- unable to read a novel just for the buzz of it without insisting on some sort of message, some sort of puzzle! Run down to your grocery store or wherever they only stock the top 20 bestsellers and buy the latest mystery and read it as fast as you can for plot only -- hell, skip the description parts, just read the dialogue. But as Jacob Marley said to Scrooge on his deathbed, 'Save...yourself!' It's not too late."

And please, please don't any chop-heavy literary critics explicate the significance of the Harry Potter series -- I actually experienced some of the old excitement when I read the first two volumes, and if somebody writes about it's deeper meaning, I'll have to read it, and then the lights will go out forever. My heart hangs by a thread!

19 comments:

Alison Croggon said...

Now Scott, surely you'll agree that I am hardly a literary snob. But I think you are being a bit of an inverted snob here. What you're denying is that complex and profound pleasure that comes from complex and profound works. And yes, it is a pleasure, one of the most enduring there is.

I also think that by claiming that populist literature is "two dimensional" or maudlin, you're selling it short and buying into the hierachical snobbery you seem to be decrying. Read any Cormac McCarthy, Dick Francis, Phillip K Dick, Jane Austen, Stephen King or China Mieville lately?

Scott Walters said...

Allison -- Why did I know I would be visited by you when I wrote this post? It's like I never hear from you unless I say something that touches on things George Hunka writes about. Are you the Hunka police, or what?

I believe I did, in fact, say that I had been corrupted by my education, taught to separate all art into high and low. And so yes, I buy into it because it has been drilled into me, and I must find a way to disconnect myself from it in order to appreciate unself-consciously the pure joys of popular culture. That comment about two-dimensional characters was actually the voice of the high art training I have had. Apparently, that wasn't clear?

Secondly, I am not denying the pleasure of complex art; what I am denying is that it is somehow superior to the pleasures offered by popular art.

Alison Croggon said...

Grrr. I comment more on Isaac's blog than George's (and your post actually stems from Isaac's blog). And I disagree with George as often as I agree. But hey, never let the facts get in the way of a good insinuation, eh?

It was predictable I should comment here because I like popular literature. And high art. And much as I adore the best manifestations of both these things, I would never do either the disservice of claiming that they are or should be the same thing.

If some literary demon appeared in a cloud of flame and said I had to choose between Rowling and Beckett (or Rilke or Celan or Pound or whoever) and that if I chose one, I could never read the other, I'd not think a second before choosing Beckett. Yes, I do value these artists in a way that means I think they're "superior". To say this is about class is bullshit: I have some working class friends who would take deep exception to the assumptions behind such a statement. Yes, some works are more significant than others. Arguing about how and why this is so is not only another pleasure, but one of the ways in which we learn about ourselves and our relationships to the world we live in.

Luckily, these literary demons do not exist and so I can read both. As do, I think, most sensible people. And in both cases, with pleasure.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Just to clarify, I think some popular art is high art as well, and vice versa. There are no hard and fast boundaries; and very often the greatest high art is that which uses vernacular forms, as Dante did - not only in the language, but in the form - of his Comedy, which plagiarised the medieaval equivalent of pulp novels. Which is why I think snobbery in art - as opposed to discrimination, a specific and thoughtful response to individual works - is self defeating.

Scott Walters said...

Then we are in agreement, yes? I mean that we should not view one type of art as a gateway to another? That there should not be some hierarchy of value that privileges one type of art over another?

But I don't think we agree about "significance" and "discrimination." I see these terms as ideologically loaded, and therefore dangerous at least as long as the values remain hidden behind vague claims to "universality." More often than not, these claims have been used in support of ruling class values. In the case of the arts, the ruling class is centered as much in education as in economics.

danielle wilson said...

In one respect there are no gateway arts. If a piece of art is good, it's good and it will be popular.
The best theater experience I ever had was seeing "The Lion King" in London. I was on an educational trip and went into the theater planning on paying attention to the technical aspects of the show so that I could learn something. In less than five minutes I was caught up in the magic of the piece. What I learned was the power of real, good art. The five year old, the MFA student, the retiree all sat down and were delighted together. If art can do that, it doesn't need to do anything else.

Anonymous said...

Scott, the quote from McGrath sent me to my bookshelf to dig out Flannery O'Connor's collection of essays, "Mystery and Manners." The title comes from the following (in the essay entitled "The Teaching of Literature"):

"It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind. About the turn of the century, Henry James wrote that the young woman of the future, though she would be taken out for airings in a flying-machine, would know nothing of mystery or manners. James had no business to limit the prediction to one sex; otherwise, no one can very well disagree with him. The mystery he was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery."

Which makes me think that perhaps the arguments over high culture/low culture/pop culture/mass culture/whatever-labels-we're-using often come down to arguments over whose conventions are best suited for revealing that "central mystery."

"Mysteries," really -- as a good Catholic like O'Connor (or even a fallen-away Catholic like myself) can tell you, mysteries come in many varieties: Joyful, Luminous, Sorrowful, and Glorious.

Cheers,
Kerry Reid

parabasis said...

To suppot some of what Alison was saying, I guess my fear is not being able to appreciate those complex (not necessarily superior) pleasures anymore, because appreciating a certain kind of work is not automatic for me, it takes work and exercise. Consistently reading work without challenge to it is a way of dulling that muscle.

Does that make any sense? There's actually a pretty cool Harper's essay about this(And the reverse snobbery of Jonathan Franzen)... i'll see if i can dig it up.

Oh, and to clarify... Matt Yglesias is a political blogger who doesn't read *fiction* outside of Harry Potter, and it was fiction that he was referring to as a niche product.

Alison Croggon said...

Scott, if I have done one thing consistently on this blog, it is to argue against "vague claims to universality"! You should read my definition of "discrimination" again.

I just think it's a false war you're setting up here. I see no conflict between different kinds of culture: I think they need each other. And if kids can, say, get excited about William Blake or John Milton because they get excited reading Philip Pullman, I think that's an excellent thing. Not out of "improvement", but because Blake and Milton are fantastic, exciting reads. Discovering a great poet like Blake can open up and articulate desires that otherwise shrivel or lie dormant, and can be tremendously liberating - maybe especially for young people. But some educators want those poets in chains, and some people want young people to behave themselves, not to think or feel or desire. I think better of young people. The business about "gateways" seems to falsify that whole possibility and that whole process, which is partly just about growing up.

I'm sure Pullman would agree with me that Milton and Blake's achievements overshadow his own. Nor would he feel any shame in admitting it. He clearly admires them as much as I do.

Oh, I was also saying that - even with my high art glasses on - a lot of popular writers (like those I mentioned) write very dimensional characters. Lots of subtext. Intelligent writing. I simply don't understand why the pleasure of their writing is inhibited by an appreciation of their skill and imagination. It's exactly the same with "high art". It makes me think that you can't enjoy "high art" either.

I bow out now.

Abe Pogos said...

You trash Matthew Yglesias by saying:

"What is it about people in the arts that they see everything in terms of missionary work?"

Then praise J.K.Rowling because:

"She mixes excitement, spectacle, and fantasy with a clear moral message: evil is always out there, it always is trying to take over, it requires constant vigilance by good people to keep it at bay, and sometimes people who don't see themselves as heroic are pressed into service and must shoulder the responsibility and carry the pain that it entails."

This would imply that you don't mind art that has a missionary aspect to it as long as it's consistent with your worldview.

In fact you seem to have a real existential dread about your worldview being challenged when you say in your concluding paragraph:

"And please, please don't any chop-heavy literary critics explicate the significance of the Harry Potter series -- I actually experienced some of the old excitement when I read the first two volumes, and if somebody writes about it's deeper meaning, I'll have to read it, and then the lights will go out forever. My heart hangs by a thread!"

Perhaps you were just trying to be funny, but ultimately, as with the rest of your post, it struck me as a plea for a certain kind of ignorance.

danielle wilson said...

What I got from Scott's post is that art doesn't have to "mean something" or be "high art" enjoyed.
All it has to do is be art. That's it. It's sole purpose can be the pleasure of its audience at their most basic level. It can be, *should* be pure fun. And that fun can be lost when we over-analyze. Or analyze at all.
If you ask a 10 year old what they like about Harry Potter they will tell you the child version of Scott's praise of Rowling: "Harry has great adventures and good friends and does cool stuff with magic. Voldemort is scary and evil. I hope Harry wins."
That's really all anybody needs to know about art to enjoy it. The gut reaction of what they like about it. Sure you can go deeper, but that surface level is in some respects the most important because it is the part that everyone can identify with.

Abe Pogos said...

(Hopefully this hasn't come through twice. It's overwritten as is.)

I don't think Scott makes a clear enough distinction between what is an appropriate level of analysis and what is over-analysis. My concern is that he implies that everyone who takes art seriously enough to analyse it and put it in a broader cultural context is dangerous and threatens everyone else's pleasure. There is good and bad art, there are good and bad critics, and there are good and bad teachers. And while I'd agree that bad teachers are dangerous and can ruin a student's appreciation of art for life, I don't think taking a serious intellectual approach is what necessarily makes them bad.

My other concern with his post is that it's contradictory. I mentioned one in my previous comment. Here's another:

Early on Scott says:

"J. K. Rowling has no need of a highbrow literary critic to explain her work, because her work speaks for itself, powerfully and vividly."

Later he says:

"...we shouldn't be writing about Potter as a gateway to high art, but what we ought to be doing is combing every word of Rowling's books to figure out where the magic is -- how does it work? And then we ought to be figuring out how to create similar magic on our stages."

So though her work "speaks for itself" he still thinks we should "be combing every word to find out where the magic is--how does it work." Why should we do this if the work speaks for itself? And isn't this simply another form of deconstruction and analysis that is just as likely to destroy one's experience of the magic of art as the kind he takes issue with?

And when he says "we shouldn't be writing about Potter as a gateway to high art...we ought to be figuring out how to create similar magic on our stages." he is in fact arguing that Harry Potter should be treated as a gateway to high art. Unless of course Scott doesn't think theatre should ever be high art.

Scott Walters said...

OK, a few clarifications.
1) McGrath uses the word "mystery" not in the spiritual sense that I think O'Connor is using it, but rather in the sense of something that is obscure, that intentionally masks its meaning and requires "explication" to be understood. That is how I am using the word, at least.

2) When I write, ""we shouldn't be writing about Potter as a gateway to high art...we ought to be figuring out how to create similar magic on our stages," I am suggesting that theatre artists, or artists in general, who as creators of art must understand the craft of art, might learn valuable things from Rowling's technique. So while Rowling's work speaks for itself, it does not explain how it works at the same time, because regular readers don't really want to see behind the curtain while they read the book (postmodern artists to the contrary).

3) Allison, I totally agree. What I object to is an instrumental view of popular culture -- one that says it is OK as long as young people eventually "graduate" to "better" art. I am not suggesting an abandonment of Blake and Milton, simply an appreciation of Pullman. Sure, Blake is brilliant, and if anyone, young person or otherwise, discovers and falls in love with Blake's work, that is great! But if they don't, and stay with Pullman all their life, that's fine too.

4) Abe: There is a difference between missionary work (by which I mean actively trying to convert people to your beliefs) and communicating a message. IN order to communicate, you have to communicate something. My post was about seeing something like Rowling's work as a stepping stone to so-called "higher" art -- it was not a call for moral emptiness.

Tony said...

Note: This will probably sound like a wishy-washy flip-flopping politician byte.

I go back and forth on the idea of stepping stones to "higher art."

For example. If Rowling gets people to read Milton that is great, though I think that's a bit of a leap. I know I didn't jump right from pulp baseball novels to Milton.

If I want that step to happen because I love his work and want more people to share that experience it because it can be a great experience, that is great. Great things are great.

If one wants it to be a stepping stone to Milton because his work is intellectually superior, and therefore more important in a elitist sense--eg,if reading crap gets kids excited about reading worthy works, then it's not great.

Ben Kessler said...

It's extremely difficult to get people to read what they've been told is "higher art." In my Joyce colloquium in college, there were students who didn't bother to read Ulysses. If English majors in a Joyce class don't read Ulysses, chances are that the average Harry Potter reader isn't going to find the time.

But ultimately it's simple: Critical standards apply to all forms of art. At all levels, it's never okay just to "tell a rip-roaring tale." The story has to speak to the subconscious. In my opinion, Harry Potter does not. It's willed whimsy. So is Star Wars. Boorman's Excalibur and Spielberg's E.T. are examples of "children's" art that does stand up to adult scrutiny. Even the youth-sleuth stories such as Encyclopedia Brown are closer to literature in their conception than Rowling's novels.

Scott Walters said...

As one who has taught a course on the hero's journey in film, drama, and literature, I would say that "Star Wars" and "Harry Potter" falls well within the traditional hero's journey structure -- in fact, that may be the source of its power. I would argue that "children's art" is where we tend to but our most hopeful and profoundly moral beliefs, because we see ourselves as too "adult" to put them into stories for grown-ups. Regardless, I'm not certain that standing up to adult scrutiny is exactly the yardstick I would use to judge something like Harry Potter. Adult "scrutiny" is exactly the kind of analysis that kills a good story well told.

Tony said...

@ Ben "At all levels, it's never okay just to "tell a rip-roaring tale." The story has to speak to the subconscious."

Why do you feel that is the case?

Ben Kessler said...

Because that's the difference between a work of art and a mere diversion. I'm not dissing those who like Harry Potter and Star Wars. For example, I like the occasional game of Monopoly. With the right partner(s), it can be a fun way to pass a couple hours, but I wouldn't call it art. Still, there's nothing wrong with it.

There's a rote, game-like quality to some of this Joseph Campbell stencil entertainment. I suppose one can start to make sense of much of Western culture using the "hero journey" as a template, but if a work of art has no value that cannot be assimilated into the Campbell scheme, then what good is it? Any work of art has to address deep-seated fears and desires. In doing so, a "kids' movie" can become worthy of a self-aware adult's attention. For example, E.T.'s meaning becomes even richer when considered in the context of the Reagan era and the political conflicts of that time. Cobbled together from faded myths, the Harry Potter stories can claim no similar relevance.

Danielle Wilson said...

Ben, have you read Harry Potter? I find it very much deals with deep-seated fears and desires. Harry's deepest fear is of the dementors who represent fear itself. He deals with the feelings of loss and abandonment when he longs for his parents who were killed when he was an infant. He has to deal with the struggles of being a leader, with the desire for companionship and love, with the choice of life or death (I'm not quite done with book 7, and he hasn't killed anyone yet but he has made the conscious decision *not* to kill several people.)
Harry isn't even the most well-developed character. He just happens to be the hero.
Yes, the prose style is simplistic. All the sentences are subject-verb-object and short. But it does have a great plot and it does have quite a bit of the emotional elements that you seem to want with your stories too.
Give them a try. I actually prefer the audio books. Jim Dale's vocal characterizations are outstanding.