Monday, July 18, 2005

The Summer Of Our Discontent

Dammit, folks, it's my least favorite time of the year again. Why, you ask? Isn't Papa Rosen one of the world's principle avatars of watermelons, crawfish hunting, long nights on the porch with a fine cigar, reading voluminous and thought-provoking literature, drinking delightful, fruit-laden wines, and chasing after recent high-school graduates? Well, yes, after a fashion. When I say "least favorite time of the year", I'm not referring to a specific season. Rather, I'm referring to whenever a new Harry Potter book comes out.

It's Day 3 of the latest installment of mass hysteria, and there are no signs of a letup. Yesterday, the cover story on my local "newspaper", the Monterey Herald's, Living section proclaimed Harry Potter to be "the new generation's Bob Dylan." This is wrong on so many levels I don't even know where to begin, but, as I wrote to the Herald's editor within seconds of reading it, "to call him 'the muse of the new generation, its Bob Dylan" is like saying Britney Spears is the new Eleanor Roosevelt." Of course, the Herald merely reprinted this gem, as it usually does - this time from the Washington Post.

Today's Living section featured, in stark contrast...more Harry Potter. I am not electing to italicize the name, because it is really not a book, but an industry similar to McDonald's Happy Meal toys. The only problem is, unlike children's meals, you don't have to be below a certain age to purchase one. This brings me to my first gripe about this phenomenon: why is it that half the people buying these "books" are forty-five or older? And why aren't they embarrassed about it? Nowhere is the infantilization of our culture exemplified better than by the legions of "children at heart" reading this potboiler (or should I say cauldron?) for eight-year-olds.

And why does the media feel obligated to give these books so much free promotion? That's really what it amounts to - viewed from a distance, the lavish color illustrations invariably accompanying the countless tired articles on this "phenomenon" are indistinguishable from advertising. Maybe the success of the first book or two was based on some type of innovation and spread organically. But since the late 90's, the press has given Harry Potter more free advertising than any book in history, creating a reputation faster than any book could realistically do on its own merits. At this point, J.K. Rowling's publishers need not set aside any promotional budget, because the so-called "news" media has taken care of that for them.

Also disturbing is the lack of any critical insight whatsoever to temper the atmosphere of unabashed celebration. Nowhere in this equation does the ominous concept of literary merit enter in. Even "reviews" of the book are written as though the reader were automatically a die-hard fan, and the writing is judged only in relation to its predecessors in the series, as opposed to any meaningful contradistinction opposite a truly gifted "fantasy" writer such as Philip Pullman - who, sadly, is now being marketed as a sort of sidebar to Harry.

People often defend this menace by pointing out that at least it's getting kids to read. Well, no one bought that argument when I was caught distributing paperback porno novels to my fellow seventh-graders at All Saints' Episcopal Day School, and I don't buy it now. This line of reasoning may be correct, so far as it goes, but it does not tell all - namely, that Harry Potter books are getting kids to read...more Harry Potter books. One girl gleefully reported how she has read "each book at least fifteen times" - as though this were something to be proud of! What if she had read it once or twice, and had fourteen wonderful and different books left over for the other times? Of course, kids are known to have one-track minds, and little perspective on the cruel brevity of life. What is even less excusable is that for many adults, Harry Potter is their only foray into literature.

I'm not going to say more, except to mention that at times like these, I am even more than usually grateful for Rudyard Kipling, who taught that English boyhood is essentially grim and solitary, and that any magic that can be derived from it must originate in violent and cruel pranks against one's contemporaries.


Anonymous Moses Malone said...

What an excellent post. As I just finished Pullman's The Amber Spyglass the contrast between worthwhile children's literature and the monstrosity that is the Harry Potter phenomenon is on my mind as well.
I started to compose a reply presenting my own ideas on this scourge, but I had so much to say that I've ended up posting it on my own journal, which has been inactive for quite a while.
If you are so inclined, check it out here.

2:18 AM  

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