After taking in Joseph Bottum and me on the decline of the public novel, the journalist Kate Jones tweeted her disagreement. She cited J. K. Rowling’s series of seven Harry Potter novels as counter-evidence.
Coincidentally enough, Richard Davies of the the used-book site AbeBooks reported earlier today on a study of the book-buying habits of Harry Potter readers. As Davies put it, Rowling’s readers made “rather eclectic” choices for their next book after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the last book in the series. Their top choice was The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, followed by Portia de Rossi’s anorexia memoir Unbearable Lightness, and Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Or, in other words, there was no pattern.
The second commentator on Davies’s story got it about right:
This wide variation supports a different angle from the original intention. It isn’t about what Harry Potter readers subsequently read, but that ALL (or at least most) readers read Harry Potter. They simply went back to the things they were reading before/during Potter.
This certainly seems to corroborate Jones’s claim that the Harry Potter books were the “public novels” of the decade from 1997 to 2007.
But without descending into the snobbery of Pauline Kael’s wondering how Richard Nixon could possibly have been elected president since nobody she knew had voted for him, I wonder if the near-universal readership for Harry Potter (everyone but me, apparently) doesn’t prove, in fact, the decline of the public novel.
Instead of the socially conscious “message” novels of the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties — Strange Fruit, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Wall, The Caine Mutiny, Andersonville, Atlas Shrugged, Advise and Consent, To Kill a Mockingbird — the novels that “ALL (or at least most) readers read” from 1997 to 2007 were not public novels at all, but a retreat from the public square into a children’s supernatural fantasy of sorcery and wizards.
Harry Potter certainly seemed to bring nearly everybody together in a congregation of enthusiastic readership, but whether the novels provide (in Bottum’s phrase) “deep explanations of the human condition” is more doubtful.