Yesterday I challenged the view that J. K. Rowling’s series of Harry Potter books could be considered “public novels,” the first “Zeitgeist-defining cultural objects” (to borrow a phrase from my friend Mark Athitakis) in a quarter century. I also admitted that I hadn’t read the whole series. (I gave up after the first volume, which did not leave me wanting more.) And I ended by saying the literary greatness of Rowling’s novels, where greatness is defined by Joseph Bottum as “deep explorations of the human condition,” is open to question.
Not, apparently, for the legions of Rowling’s fans, who have risen up in hysterical defense of her reputation. Although I didn’t mean to suggest the novels are bad, the heat generated by the merest criticism of Harry Potter makes me wonder. To describe the books as “children’s supernatural fantasy of sorcery and witchcraft,” as I did, is not at all to condemn them. That’s simply what they are: audience (children), genre (fantasy), subject-matter (sorcery and witchcraft). Nor does anyone need to have read all seven of the novels to know that much about them. What does it say about them, though, that their passionate readers cannot even admit these basic facts about them without angry protest?
Some of the best novels ever written were written for children (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Jungle Book, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, John R. Tunis’s sports novels for boys). As a literary classification, “children’s literature” is not an insult.
It’s true that I have a mild allergy to fantasy, although C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is, in my opinion, one of the fifty best works of English-language fiction written since 1880. (So is Wilder’s Little House, for that matter.) But it was not the genre to which Harry Potter belongs that disappointed me in the first volume of the series, and those of her defenders who overhear a disdain for fantasy in what I have written are only hearing what they want to hear.
What I wonder is this. If the hysterical defenders of Harry Potter are right that it really is a multi-volume public novel — a literary event that defines the literary age — and if Rowling’s books are fantasies (obviously), then hasn’t an epochal change occurred while no one was watching? Harry Potter would be the first work of fantasy since, say, the Odyssey to occupy the center of culture. Along with the increasing reliance upon the supernatural in Hollywood, this might suggest many things (the devaluation of realism, the loss of moral structure in human experience that is subject to physical law), but one thing it does not suggest is that J. K. Rowling is the lineal descendant of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and James Joyce.