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Jun 28 2014

Of Mollison and Muggles

I’ve just read J K Rowling’s novel for grownups Casual Vacancy. It was gripping at first and then got more and more unpleasant to read, but the basic story – about a pleasant village near a city and the tensions between the two, in other words about class – was interesting enough that I read the whole thing. (Usually I stop reading novels I don’t like. I know lots of people who seriously think that once you start a book you’re somehow obliged to finish it, no matter how much you hate it. I think that’s entirely and comprehensively wrong.)

I dislike her mind. It makes me feel dirty. Reading the novel made me feel dirty much of the time. She’s full of disgust, Rowling is, and she isn’t embarrassed to let it hang out. Lashings of physical disgust for many of the characters, renewed every time she mentions them. She piles it on, and as you turn the pages, it starts to mount up, and you feel dirty – at least I did.

The plot is – sort of – on the side of the lower orders, but the way she writes about them is the very opposite of that. The middle class characters who live in the village are all written in ordinary English, while the lumpen characters who live in “the Fields” – a housing estate between the city and the village, and loathed by most people in the village – are given a ludicrous dialect which consists of leaving out a great many letters. I thought novelists had stopped doing that in about 1905. It’s incredibly alienating, and it’s also silly – it pretends the middle class characters have no dialect and say all the words exactly as they are spelled. Yeah right.

This kind of thing is why I never liked Harry Potter, along with Rowling’s extremely uninteresting way with language. I went off Harry Potter early in the first book and never read more. I disliked her attitude to “the Muggles” and I disliked the simple-minded polarization of the houses at Hogwarts – and that’s when I closed the book and never went back.

You?

 

88 comments

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  1. 1
    johnthedrunkard

    Just in case you want an antidote:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDC_557_D8Y
    ‘Muggle’ was an old term for splif/reefer.

    Some ghastly trombone and clarinet after Earl Hines, but Louis starts around 1:35.

  2. 2
    jenBPhillips

    I just started to read it–done with the first two chapters.

  3. 3
    aziraphale

    Now that you mention it, fictional magicians quite often look down on non-magical people and think in rather simple categories. Since I have a taste for fantasy I often just ignore those aspects, as one ignores some bits of Tolkien, for the sake of the story. I did read all the Harry Potters – skipping over the Quidditch and a few other things – and got some pleasure from them. But she can’t compare with Diana Wynne Jones or Philip Pullman.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    I look forward to learning what you think, but now I’ve probably poisoned the well!

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    aziraphale – or, more crucially for me, with T H White.

  6. 6
    Nathaniel Frein

    I’ll have to give it a try.

    I don’t like giving up books I’ve started, but I will do so if I find the writing too frustrating (for whatever reason.) I think that’s the reader’s right.

  7. 7
    mcbender

    My partner reviewed it here: http://pointstick.wordpress.com/2014/04/09/lets-start-reviewing-jk-rowling/

    Let’s just say she was not impressed, to put it mildly. (She and I both have a bit of a preoccupation with Rowling, because we like a lot of the core concepts in Harry Potter but the books infuriate us more often than not… nevertheless, we feel some compulsion to read her stuff even though it makes us angry.) I’ve not read it myself, but the impression I get is that it’s primarily a paean to middle-class chauvinism and a stew of unexamined bigotry.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    Gonna quote from that review, because yes, exactly.

    SPOILER ALERT. SPOILER AT THE END OF THE PARAGRAPH.

    Poor people are just horrible, and she hates them. (No, not the Weasleys. They’re a separate issue to be discussed some other time. We’re going to ignore Harry Potter here.) On the edge of this village is an estate of social housing. About a quarter of our recurring cast come from here, including a main character – the slutty illegitimate daughter I mentioned in the previous paragraph, named something like Krystal or Kristal, I forget. My calling her slutty is no reflection of my views, by the way; it’s how she’s portrayed in the book, along with her mother, and every single character we meet from this estate under the age of about sixty. I’m not exaggerating, all of them sleep around indiscriminately, and are looked down on by the middle-class characters for it. They are all ugly in some way, most of them are overweight and have poor hygiene, a lot of them use drugs, deal drugs or both, and every last one of them speaks with Hagrid’s terrible accent because they’re all stupid. And not stupid like the loveable friendly (brainwashed) half-giant, either; just stupid. All the children either just don’t attend school (which is illegal) or play truant most of the time, they swear indiscriminately at everyone, and generally act like every stereotype the tabloids rant about. There are no exceptions. All poor people are ugly, stupid, unwashed moral cesspits. There is exactly one attempt by Rowling to make one of these characters – probably-Krystal – redeem herself, via a very popular trope she abused to death in Harry Potter – that of sacrifice. A noble death is the only thing that can compensate for the fact that probably-Krystal is such a terrible poor person. Except it wasn’t particularly noble and was partly her own fault, so maybe it’s just further hating on her.

  9. 9
    Gordon Willis

    I, well I think that Rowling is brilliant. I enjoyed all the chapters of the first book, including the first and second. And I enjoyed all the others right up until the end of volume 7. I also thought that her later book, “The Casual Vacancy”, was excellent. I don’t know what you are concerned about.

    Though I hate to disagree with you, Ophelia, I think that Rowling has dealt very well with issues of child neglect, bullying, slavery, human rights and lunatic pretensions to grandeur. Her concern that selfish preoccupations destroy lives suits me very well, as I think the same. The notion of how selfishness induces complicity, and how complicity then takes us further than we as individuals wish to go, and how we go that distance because we are forced to accept our complicity, and how we come to ourselves when we perceive our self-interest, and how all this is opposed by simple honesty and love of truthfulness… It’s all there. Her grammar is rotten. I only began to realise what has happened to my language (ignoring American, of course) when I read her books. I can’t forgive her for that: she’s a classicist, after all…

  10. 10
    Omar Puhleez

    “…while the lumpen characters who live in ‘the Fields’. … are given a ludicrous dialect which consists of leaving out a great many letters. I thought novelists had stopped doing that in about 1905. It’s incredibly alienating, and it’s also silly – it pretends the middle class characters have no dialect and say all the words exactly as they are spelled. Yeah right.”
    .
    Spot on, Ophelia, though it might be a bit hard for many novelists to write themselves much of a distance out of their books. And most novelists I think are middle-class.
    I don’t have much time for the fantasy genre myself, and have long held the attitude that if a writer can’t grab and hold my attention inside the first ten pages, then why bother continuing? To read one book is to leave inevitably aside a hundred others. Life is too short to do otherwise. So the books I have not read would fill the Boeing factory in your home town of Seattle, which I believe is the biggest building in the world.

  11. 11
    Gordon Willis

    @8 Your spoiler alert is bullshit. Ophelia, you have completely misunderstood everything in the book, and I wish you would shut up. Never thought I would say that to you, but I do. You have not understood anything at all. Rowling’s book is compassionate and heart-rending and sympathetic while making clear that the problems lie not in simplistic morals but in the muddle of personal will which drives social dynamics and destroys innocent lives. Please get a grip and start again or otherwise just talk about something that you understand.

    Thinking about it, maybe you don’t understand her language or her use of language. It’s entirely British. I spend most of my time on B & W misunderstanding American. Please think about that.

  12. 12
    stevebowen

    My daughter just gave me the book for fathers day. I’ll let you know…

  13. 13
    Pen

    I don’t particularly like the way Harry Potter is written. I think the hatred shown for the Muggles by some characters is something JK clearly disapproves of bur then, there’s the whole separatist thing – hardly believable when you have mixed families. And I agree that the thing about the houses where some are clearly ‘better’ than others and it’s very deterministic is freaky.

    I’m more conflicted about this:

    the lumpen characters who live in “the Fields” – a housing estate between the city and the village, and loathed by most people in the village – are given a ludicrous dialect which consists of leaving out a great many letters.

    Dialect is no longer popular in writing and we’re encouraged to leave it out – out of respect – because it will be disrespected, and we’re doing our characters/interviewees an injustice by including it. But what does this say? That the way some people speak is unacceptable? That their speech is degraded and we must cover it up for them? You just called a representation of a working class dialect ‘ludicrous’. I would like to think that’s because you think it’s an inaccurate representation. Only I’m doubting it. I haven’t read it myself, but there are quite a lot of British dialects and several sound like they would fit the bill. If it’s accurate, you wouldn’t want to say those people sound ludicrous I think? You wouldn’t want to disrespect the speech of a person you heard speaking in that way on video for example? Or assume that they must be ‘thick’ if they speak like that?

    A different and perhaps better argument against too much dialect is that it’s hard to read. Some argue that it’s better to give the ‘colour’ of a dialect with a few touches of variant spelling and the colloquialisms and forms of expression used by the people in question. A reader who is familiar with the dialect will fill it in from there. I don’t know what happens to one who isn’t.

    … it pretends the middle class characters have no dialect and say all the words exactly as they are spelled. Yeah right.

    This is complicated because part of class (or regional) privilege is having your dialect be the neutral standard. Letters don’t directly represent sounds except by convention and at the moment, the convention in Britain corresponds to middle class speech. With some room for regional variation, that is the standard against which all other spelling/pronunciation combinations are judged (at the moment). Because of this, it may well be that it’s virtually impossible to represent English middle class speech as a variant spelling. You can still have different registers of middle class speech of course.

  14. 14
    mcbender

    Truthfully, I think the problem is actually that Rowling likes the idea of progressivism, and thinks she’s a progressive (or wants to be thought of as one), but has a lot of unexamined privilege, biases, and such that come out in her writing and end up rendering it not progressive at all, and quite often precisely the reverse. (I also suspect that her particular rags-to-riches story has biased her in favour of the “bootstraps” mentality our conservatives love so much, which may be why she paradoxically seems to look down so much on the poor when she used to be herself.) Whatever else Rowling is – and I won’t deny she has some talent; her writing clearly speaks to lots of people – I don’t think she’s a thoughtful or reflective person and I suspect a lot of the unpleasant messages in her book are exacerbated by careless writing. That’s about as charitable as I’m willing to get.

  15. 15
    Pen

    This… now this is horrible.

    My calling her slutty is no reflection of my views, by the way; it’s how she’s portrayed in the book, along with her mother, and every single character we meet from this estate under the age of about sixty. I’m not exaggerating, all of them sleep around indiscriminately, and are looked down on by the middle-class characters for it.

    JK forced me to see them as slutty, because look at them, sleeping around all the time like that, what else am I supposed to think! — So we do slut shaming now?

    They are all ugly in some way, most of them are overweight and have poor hygiene

    We won’t take any notice of the way poverty is linked to poor access to beauty treatments, health diets and hygiene products, we’ll just go ‘Eeeewww!’ – Okay, body shaming too.

    a lot of them use drugs, deal drugs or both

    And they’re so damn stupid they use illegal ones, not like us nice middle class people who only pick up cheap booze and cigars on our trips abroad. And when we get some for our friends we give it away. What’s wrong with them? – Ignore the way the system is stacked in favor of the middle classes.

    and every last one of them speaks with Hagrid’s terrible accent because they’re all stupid.

    Okay, let’s do accent shaming as well. Accent = Uneducated = Stupid.

    And now, let’s blame all our prejudices on JK. It’s all her fault for not making the housing estate people act and sound like us so we could love them.

  16. 16
    mcbender

    There are sympathetic ways of portraying those things, and then there are unsympathetic and judgmental ways of portraying them. The narrative attitude toward things is not neutral, and it’s often quite clear in what sorts of judgments it makes of the things it depicts even if it does not explicitly say something like “look at the sluts being slutty let us slut-shame them”. It doesn’t need to say that because it can be implied by the way it’s depicted.

    That’s what I think my partner was trying to say in pretty much every one of the quotations you’re taking issue with, Pen. Truthfully, I think somebody other than Rowling could well have approached the same content (or very similar) content and portrayed it without the subtext being that the reader is meant to disapprove. But a depiction is not always neutral or positive just by dint of its existence, and I think it’s granting too much to presume it is so by default and proceed on that basis.

    Come to think of it, I think it’s a similar issue to the question we need to ask ourselves regarding Poe’s Law: “Is the attempted satire something that someone who believes the criticised beliefs would nod along and agree with? If so, it’s not effective satire.” Likewise here – if you depict something in a way that a person holding e.g. classist bigotries would be nodding along with and thinking “yes, this is exactly how those people are”, you have a problem as a writer.

  17. 17
    Ophelia Benson

    Pen – have you read the book?

    You have it completely backward about the passage from the review. I assure you, the review gets it right: Rowling conveys disgust toward the characters, her disgust.

    You got the bit about dialect wrong too. You too seem to be assuming that middle class people don’t speak a dialect and do pronounce all words exactly as spelled. That isn’t the case.

  18. 18
    Ophelia Benson

    Pen (again)

    You just called a representation of a working class dialect ‘ludicrous’. I would like to think that’s because you think it’s an inaccurate representation. Only I’m doubting it.

    Well how insulting of you. Thanks for sharing.

    It’s so inaccurate it’s ludicrous – it corresponds to no UK accent I’ve heard, and I’ve heard lots. Yes I know I’m an ignorant American (thank you Gordon), but not quite as ignorant as that.

  19. 19
    Gordon Willis

    “Yes I know I’m an ignorant American (thank you Gordon), but not quite as ignorant as that.”

    Well, in this case, it seems to me that you are missing something, and I said that I am an ignorant Britisher, so you have no right to take exception to a reciprocal possibility being pointed out.

  20. 20
    Eamon Knight

    I really enjoyed the HP movies. The I read the first book, and decided that, sans the studio FX department, it was just another English boarding school YA mystery. I understand the later books get edgier (as do the movies), but I’ve got lots of other reading to do that’s higher up the priority list.

  21. 21
    Pen

    Well how insulting of you. Thanks for sharing.

    I am doubting that the representation is inaccurate, not doubting that you think it is. No insult to you was intended.

    And no, I haven’t read the book, but there’s obviously a mix of opinions with people who have on what the author/narrator thinks. As for the review, you see how easy it is to misinterpret an author? I have rarely read anything that shocks me more, you you tell me that what the author said in the review is not what s/he meant? I’m supposed to understand that it’s everything s/he intends to criticise instead?

    You got the bit about dialect wrong too. You too seem to be assuming that middle class people don’t speak a dialect and do pronounce all words exactly as spelled. That isn’t the case.

    I explained my position on that in the last paragraph of my comment @13. Certainly, English middle-class people don’t pronounce words as spelled according to the rules of American phonics, but they do, almost by definition, according to the rules of British phonics. This is because class privilege makes their dialect the standard way of pronouncing spellings by convention.

  22. 22
    ramirofernandez

    I went off Harry Potter early in the first book and never read more. I disliked her attitude to “the Muggles” and I disliked the simple-minded polarization of the houses at Hogwarts – and that’s when I closed the book and never went back.

    This is a shame, because these are two important themes in the books and it’s clear that you are on Rowling’s side with this. If you had stuck through the books you would have seen the shift away from the very points you mention you dislike.

    It’s like saying you dislike Star Wars because you don’t like the idea of a dystopian empire killing off all opposition, and so gave up partway through the first movie.

  23. 23
    Gordon Willis

    Pen, I think you’ve got a bit muddled about spelling and middle class speech. Spelling doesn’t exactly correspond to anyone’s speech, because it’s a convention that abides for generations while everybody talks as they please and the young adopt their own styles, and so on. Our spelling is a fossil, mostly Middle English with a few changes, such as a preference for i over y and an often erroneous stand on etymology. We have spelling conventions, and we have an assumption that convemtion is middle class. I don’t think that these should be taken seriously, except to the extent that people do take them seriously, if you follow me.

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    Pen, no, they don’t. Nobody speaks English the way it’s spelled. It’s full of words that break the rules of pronunciation that we have to learn one by one – like “doubt” for example. It’s full of silent letters, like “example” for example. That’s a big reason writing “dialect” is so stupid in English.

    If you’d read Casual Vacancy you would probably understand the review I quoted (but I’m still surprised you get it so backward).

  25. 25
    Ophelia Benson

    Gordon @ 11 – don’t tell me to shut up.

  26. 26
    Gordon Willis

    @Ophelia

    I apologise, unreservedly. I got very cross with your comments and your CAPITALS!!!. I am still very cross. But I apologise for being rude.

  27. 27
    Gordon Willis

    In extenuation, I found this book harrowing, and its analysis of everyday social dynamics seemed to me to be brilliant. The comedy of Krystal’s funeral is the ultimate tragedy. No, the ultimate tragedy is that all that happens are the normal things of daily life. It’s a superb novel.

  28. 28
    Pen

    @16 mcbender – if you depict something in a way that a person holding e.g. classist bigotries would be nodding along with and thinking “yes, this is exactly how those people are”, you have a problem as a writer.

    The problem here is that it’s very hard to give an accurate description that will also bring round classist people. Their contempt attaches to the markers of class difference like accent, clothing, behaviour, the problems society imposes on the working class, even names. If those are present, that person will show contempt. So what do you do, disguise them? Possibly, this IS how those people are, what then?

    In addition, the middle class classist bigot is necessarily going to identify with the middle class classist bigots in the book and nod along. Maybe this is what is really putting your partner off, the presence of those rather nasty people who might draw the identification of most readers. But it would also be a mistake to misrepresent the middle-class classist bigots.

    I think your test is unfair. A better test would be whether someone who’s familiar with this particular cultural situation, both the middle class and working class sides and isn’t a classist bigot agrees that it’s a fair representation. So far our best hope seems to be Gordon. I’m familiar (very familiar) with a situation like the one described but I haven’t read the book. I can honestly say that the most notable thing about the dialect of the group of working class people I’m thinking of isn’t so much the absence of letters as the ubiquity of swear words. And the middle class people nearby don’t so much worry about their sexual conduct as hold them responsible (perhaps correctly) for every piece of scrap metal that goes missing. You see, the mines shut down some time ago, there’s no jobs and isn’t going to be, all the people who were ‘presentable’ enough to the middle classes to get jobs elsewhere have already left, so what does anyone expect? And on the other hand, how do you make that look good to a classist bigot?

  29. 29
    Pen

    @ 23 & 24

    We have spelling conventions, and we have an assumption that convemtion is middle class. I don’t think that these should be taken seriously, except to the extent that people do take them seriously, if you follow me.

    This, in fact, is exactly what I’m trying to say. Thank you.

    That’s a big reason writing “dialect” is so stupid in English.

    What Gordon said above is why, when you don’t write ‘dialect’ everyone ‘sounds’ middle class.

  30. 30
    Gordon Willis

    My last comment on this subject: I like books that tell me how to be a decent human being. Rowling writes that sort of book. Women generally write books like that. It’s Rowling’s subject, and she is good at it.

  31. 31
    RJW

    @29 Pen,

    ” when you don’t write ‘dialect’ everyone ‘sounds’ middle class”

    That’s OK for middle class readers, suppose that the person reading the text speaks ‘dialect’, would the text be interpreted as middle class, or would the reader be annoyed by the condescending author’s attitude?
    Or perhaps those people who speak dialect don’t read books?

  32. 32
    mcbender

    Gordon, it’s interesting that you say that, because I would rather have books that show how decent human beings behave. Rowling has a very severe show/tell problem – she may be able to tell you how to be a decent human being, but what she shows in her books is quite the opposite.

    I wish I had read the versions of her books that her fans seem to have read, but as far as I can tell they exist in some universe other than this one. (The example of the depiction of ‘Muggles’ in Harry Potter was mentioned, and I think it’s a very telling one. On the surface, she condemns outright bigotry, e.g. of the sort practised by the Malfoys and Death Eaters, the explicitly violent, etc. But by the same note, she turns a blind eye to the more subtle paternalistic sort of bigotry that is everywhere – look at Arthur Weasley, for example, who basically views ‘Muggles’ as curiosities to study at his leisure; compare human zoos. Look at the casual abuses committed by the wizards in order to hide themselves from view – e.g. casually erasing people’s brains without a thought of the consequences, when it’s heavily implied to cause long-term brain damage if done too often. What the book actually encourages, despite its protestations to the contrary, is the Dear Muslima attitude: ‘oh, don’t worry your little Muggle heads about the brain-erasure, at least we’re not out there slaughtering you in a thinly-veiled fusion of Nazis and the KKK!’) It baffles me that more people don’t see it.

  33. 33
    Ophelia Benson

    No, she isn’t good at it. (And no, women don’t generally write books like that.)

    She wants to be good at it, she apparently means to be good at it, but she isn’t. She’s not at all in control of her material, or her feelings about it.

    She hates Howard Mollison – viscerally, passionately. She makes him physically repellent and then wallows in the result. She’s almost as vicious about Maureen. Ditto Terri.

    She’s not a skilled writer, she’s not very thoughtful, she’s totally unself-conscious about her own loathings, she’s terrible at differentiating her characters, and she’s mean.

    I did say that the plot is sort of on the side of the lower orders. She opposes the snobbery of the Pagford people toward the Fields and its residents…but she also shares it, and is completely unable to conceal that fact. If you want a writer who did what she wants to do, I recommend George Eliot or Elisabeth Gaskell or Dickens…or Margaret Drabble’s The Needle’s Eye; that’s a good one. This? No way.

    And about being an American and thus baffled by English English – well maybe but among my favorite novelists are Fielding and Austen and Eliot and Dickens and Emily Bronte and Forster and Amis K and Drabble and Barnes and McEwan to name a few. Also, I write regular columns for 2 UK magazines and have written for several others, and they’ve never told me i was writing incomprehensible American gibberish.

  34. 34
    mcbender

    (Also, for the record – my partner, who wrote the quoted review, is English and lives in the UK. By all means attempt to write off my own or Ophelia’s criticism as being that of ignorant Americans, but you don’t have that same excuse where she is concerned. It’s one thing to write in dialect; it’s another to do so ineptly and condescendingly.)

  35. 35
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh and one more thing – Gordon you said you got cross with my capitals, and before that that they were bullshit. I used capitals because Jen has just started reading the novel (and other people could be intending to read it for all I know) and I wanted to make sure the warning was noticeable. Maybe you don’t understand “spoiler alert”? It doesn’t mean “I’m sorry I’m about to spoil this novel for you by not liking it” – it means “I’m about to reveal how the novel ends.”

    But it can’t be that you don’t know that; they talk about spoilers all the time on Saturday Review, on Radio 4. BBC Radio 4 – in the UK. It’s not an American exclusive.

  36. 36
    Ophelia Benson

    Yeah, well, Gordon can attempt to write off my criticism as being that of an ignorant American, but it’s complete bullshit.

  37. 37
    quixote

    Well, bit late here, but just to contribute to the poll. HPotter are kids’ books. That doesn’t mean they have to be simplistic, but let’s face it kids’ books often are. And that’s okay for the adults reading them. (I’m less sure it’s okay for kids.) There’s a place for what we science fiction fans label “space opera.” Also, for that matter, real opera, which is also mostly simplistic, stereotyped, etc., etc.

    I enjoyed Book 1. Book 2 was okay. Book 3 was great fun. And then it all went downhill. I managed to force myself to finish Book 4. Never got past page 2 or so of Book 5.

    This latest effort at a “grownup” book sounds like the same pattern you see now and again in space opera. Someone who writes potboilers decides they’re going to try being Dostoevsky and succeeds only in showing how far away they are.

    Sounds like Rowling would have done well to take on board the point of My Prestigious Literary Novel. Small sample: “This family has a lot of issues,” I said. “Let’s talk about them for forty pages, and then go on a vacation where nobody has any fun.” (Read the whole thing. Roll-on-the-floor funny.)

  38. 38
    Pen

    Gordon, it’s interesting that you say that, because I would rather have books that show how decent human beings behave.

    Ha, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the root of the disagreement between you. I’m getting too tired to analyse that statement much but I actually prefer books that show me things I don’t know about what”s happening in intercultural situations without rose-tinting it. I go to books for greater understanding rather than a moral boost*. Not saying I would expect to get that from JK, but who knows…

    * Except when I to to them for a bit of escapist fantasy.

    That’s OK for middle class readers, suppose that the person reading the text speaks ‘dialect’, would the text be interpreted as middle class, or would the reader be annoyed by the condescending author’s attitude? Or perhaps those people who speak dialect don’t read books?

    This is why it’s called class privilege. Those people who speak dialect and read books know that middle class English is the one represented by standard spelling. Because it’s a system based on convention we can all recognise the dialects, including our own. How we feel about it varies, depending on our views and how it’s done. Terry Pratchett has used dialects associated with my grandparents and I love seeing their speech in print. Maybe he did it better than Rowling. One of my sets of grandparents did not read books. The other grandmother wouldn’t have liked to see her dialect in print because she had internalised the contempt felt for the working classes. She agreed that only the things that pertained to the middle class were worth paying any attention to and tried to ‘elevate’ herself by immersing herself in those classics which are sanctioned by the middle classes.

  39. 39
    Al Dente

    I didn’t care for the Harry Potter books. I was halfway through reading the third book when I realized I was reading the same book for the third time. So I didn’t bother to finish the book or start any other books in the series.

    The basic plot of Harry Potter is a boy discovers a power he never knew he had, and a world he never knew existed. He’s taught how to use said power by a wise, kindly, bearded, olc man who becomes a father-figure to said boy. Meanwhile, a dark evil is gathering power and said boy is only hope in defeating said evil….

    Mindblowingly original and subversive, I’d say. George Lucas should sue, she ripped off Star Wars!

    Actually there are very few original ideas around, what counts is excecution and style. I was unimpressed by Rowling in these regards.

  40. 40
    Gordon Willis

    No, it’s the reverse. You see Arthur Weasley being a nice bloke but bigoted. The point is that nice blokes can be bigoted. They don’t get it, but they’re still bigoted — and they’re still nice blokes. We (the readers) can see that, because we’re all muggles. So we are made to see how we must look to some other species of human which has powers we can only dream of. “Oh look they have escapators, poor little things; oh, aren’t they clever…” And at the same time he thinks that plugs are the ultimate mystery. The point is his bigotry and his ignorance, and that his ignorance is cultural, and his bigotry derives from his culture. We readers can be offended, but Rowling’s point is that though we may think ourselves superior, this is how we would look to an alien species — so she tries to make us look at ourselves — and yet an alien species would have the same difficulty of understanding themselves. An interesting point — not made in the books, I think — is that we don’t understand ourselves except in the context of something new and difficult.

    So when you say that “she turns a blind eye to the more subtle paternalistic sort of bigotry that is everywhere” she is actually making this very blindness a central point of her characters. They are opposed by Harry and Hermione, and also by Dumbledore (and later by Ginny). Harry and Hermione come from the muggle world and, though young, have some understanding of how it really works, whatever the true-blue wizarding community may think.

    Other examples of her not turning a blind eye would be the trial of Harry for fighting Dementors (actuality versus political opportunism) and the plight of house elves (slaves). And she even manages very cleverly to bring in species-prejudice (against centaurs) in the context of a sustained attack on astrology.

  41. 41
    Ophelia Benson

    quixote – well yes kids’ books are often simplistic but, as you say, they don’t have to be, and the best ones of course aren’t. I demand ones that aren’t!

  42. 42
    Gordon Willis

    Yeah, well, Gordon can attempt to write off my criticism as being that of an ignorant American, but it’s complete bullshit

    Oh stop it, Ophelia. I disagree with you, and if I have hurt your feelings I am very sorry. But I will relieve you of my presence. I owe you a great deal, and I have to thank you for your honesty and perception and courage. You have been been a great inspiration to me, and I wish you every success. Please let me give you my best wishes for your future happiness.

  43. 43
    mcbender

    Gordon, I don’t think there’s textual support for what you’re suggesting. The narrative never once disapproves of Weasley’s behaviour, and you’re basically saying that the reader should intuit a positive message from the fact the bad behaviour is being shown in a character who is otherwise presented as likeable. To the contrary, I see his bigotry being used as comic relief and presented as a charming quirk. (And, interesting that you mention Dumbledore, as he too displays a ludicrous level of anti-Muggle bigotry himself; I’m thinking in particular of a scene in book six where he essentially barges into the Dursleys’ home and uses magic to physically assault them with wine glasses for the amusement of Harry. That’s far from the only example, merely one of the most obvious. And for another matter, the house-elves: whatever Rowling may have been trying to do, “they love to serve and don’t want to be free!” is straight out of slavery apologetics from the antebellum American South.)

    But by all means, you keep your rose-coloured glasses and I’ll keep my jade ones; I really don’t think we’re going to reach a consensus any time soon.

  44. 44
    RJW

    @38 Pen,

    I’ve never read any of Rowling’s books, but the films are really tedious, I just don’t understand their appeal.

    I’m a total fan of Terry Pratchett, his novels are marvellously witty and humane, they’re the only books that have made me laugh, apart from “The Book Of Heroic Failures”.
    The English middle classes seem to have an irritating tendency to sneer at other dialects ( Australians seem to be a favourite target) and they rarely get the accent correct, perhaps that’s not the intention.

    The world would be far more civilised if the Patrician were in charge.

  45. 45
    John Morales

    [meta + OT]

    Gordon @42, I think you’re indulging in passive-aggressive sulking. Ophelia has not indicated she is unhappy with your presence on her blog, rather she has disputed your claims.

    (It seems to me more like it is you who has hurt feelings)

    … and to be on-topic, I found the first Potter book to be silly and annoying—not just derivative (as noted above) but with a tendency to rely on informed attributes)—and haven’t bothered to read any of the rest of her corpus, but since I make it definitely to be a book for kiddies and it was wildly successful as such, I must grant she has skill at that type of story-telling.

  46. 46
    Ophelia Benson

    I should try sometime to write a few lines of English-English as it’s pronounced and American-English ditto.

    Ok let’s try this sentence from Al Dente’s @ 38:

    The basic plot of Harry Potter is a boy discovers a power he never knew he had, and a world he never knew existed.

    E-E:

    The basic plot of Harry Potta is a boy discovas a powa he neva knew he had, and a wuld he neva knew existed.

    A-E:

    The basic plod of Harry Potterr is a boy discoverrs a powerr he neverr knew he had, and a worrld he neverr knew existed.

  47. 47
    RJW

    @46 Ophelia,

    Yes, with one exception, the American pronunciation of ‘plot’ often sounds like ‘plahd’ to non-Americans, also some English dialects use the postvocalic ‘r’.

  48. 48
    ibbica

    I’m glad I’m not the only one out there who finds Rowling’s style… lacking. A bunch of my colleagues were all a-twitter about the Potter books when they came out, so yep, I read them all. Didn’t take much time, stories were interesting if full of missing bits that I would have liked to see filled in, but her writing style… well, they’re kids’ books, and it shows, and I’d be alright with that, but there’s also a grating entitled attitude that also unfortunately shines through.

    I must confess that I had the same difficulty with Tolkien (!). I mean, sure, his stories were arguably more complex, the history more detailed and the language style used made for a more challenging read (I’m including here the whole of his writings, not just the Hobbit/LOTR which were both comparatively simplistic and more engaging), but still very white-euro-centric and full of all sorts of obvious, and at times outright grating, biases and stereotypes.

    Anyone here read Guy Gavriel Kay? There’s someone who I feel comfortable saying writes prose… and he does it while writing historical fiction and fantasy, as well as poetry. He’s not perfect I’m sure, but at least he gives a reader words, phrases, thoughts to be chewed on and contemplated. I don’t remember seeing those oddly-spelled “dialects” show up either, although he does sometimes invent words or “steal” words from languages other than English ;) He also has the audacity (!) to write from the perspective of characters who are of origins different from his own – he’s Canadian, and while most of his novels have been loosely based in historical various-European-countries, he has written one based in Constantinople and another couple in historical China.

    Actually, I’d be very curious to know what others from those countries especially have to say about those stories and characters and style. To me they seem wonderful and beautiful, but since I can only read English and French I couldn’t realistically compare them to local works on my own :/

  49. 49
    Alex SL

    I haven’t read this book, but as for Harry Potter: The first three were well written but starting with the fourth they stopped making sense. Her strengths are world bilding and bringing characters into funny situations. But her take home messages or ethics are confused at best, or reactionary if one were to take a less charitable view.

  50. 50
    RJW

    @48 ibbica,

    Got about halfway through “Sailing to Sarantium”, which is based on Justinian’s Constantinople, I agree with Ophelia, life’s too short to preservere with boring books. It’s better for an author to write a real historical novel than a thinly disguised historical fantasy, books like Kay’s are neither one thing nor the other.

    2/5 stars.

  51. 51
    Al Dente

    Joe Abercrombie’s fantasy book The Heroes describes a battle fought between Celtic-like barbarians (Northerners) and a High Medieval country (The Union). There are six point-of-view characters and each chapter is seen from the perspective of one of these characters. Abercrombie doesn’t use dialects to differentiate these characters but instead uses different speech patterns for each. For instance one character, Colonel Bremer dan Gorst, is a well educated Union noble who speaks and thinks using a large, precise vocabulary. Another Union character, Corporal Tunny, is a long-service NCO with a much rougher style filled with curses for his subordinates and fawning for his superiors. Curden Craw is a Northerner warrior who thinks and speaks in a quite matter-of-fact fashion.

    Abercrombie gives each POV character a distinct voice that isn’t based on dialects. He respects both his characters and his readers, which makes his book enjoyable to read.

  52. 52
    Omar Puhleez

    RJW@#44:
    “The English middle classes seem to have an irritating tendency to sneer at other dialects (Australians seem to be a favourite target) and they rarely get the accent correct, perhaps that’s not the intention.

    “The world would be far more civilised if the Patrician were in charge.”
    .
    Reminds me of the immortal words of Hyacinth Bucket (nb: “it’s Bouquay. From the old French…”). To wit: “I do wish some people would not pretend to be superior. It just makes life so much more difficult for those of us who are.”
    .
    If you have an ambition to be represented in a book of quotations aimed at English-language readers, William Shakespeare is still the act to beat. I wonder how many in those English middle class audiences who enjoy the Bard’s work on stage, cinema screen or TV screen would know that whatever the accent was that he spoke with, London to a brick it was not Oxbridge, standard or ‘Received Pronunciation’. Unfortunately, we have no recordings of him speaking (I have it on good authority that they were all destroyed in the Globe Theatre fire of June 29, 1613) but he almost certainly spoke with the accent of his native Warwickshire. The closest modern recorded representation of that to be had as far as I know is the speech of comedian Pam Ayres, who hails originally from the county next door: Oxfordshire. (See youtube url below.)
    The Bard’s adored Queen Bess probably spoke with a Cockney accent, like her tyrannical father, King Henry VIII. The latter has been played by many actors, including Sid James. (Blimey! That ain’t ‘arf somethin’.)
    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4oydSZTAns.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/majesty_menace_01.shtml

  53. 53
    Omar Puhleez

    I made a bit of an understatement in post 52 above. Where I said ” …The closest modern recorded representation of that to be had as far as I know is the speech of comedian Pam Ayres…” . (See youtube url below.) On second thought that should have been: ” …The closest modern recorded representation of that to be had as far as I know is the speech of the outstanding comedian Pam Ayres…” . (See hilarious youtube url below.)

    .
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4oydSZTAns.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/majesty_menace_01.shtml

  54. 54
    John Morales

    [OT]

    Omar @52 & 53, since you have not referred to it, I think you might find this of interest: Shakespeare: Original pronunciation

  55. 55
    RJW

    @52, Omar

    Interesting in regard to the bard, and bad King Hal, I wonder when the posh accent as a class marker first appeared, possibly with the rise of the middle class.
    A few days ago a I was talking to a neighbour who speaks with a posh English accent, she mentioned that Australians sometimes couldn’t understand her. Searching for her dog that had wandered off, she asked some builders if they ‘had seen her puppy’. “No thanks” they replied, we’ve got coffee”.

  56. 56
    John Morales

    [erratum]

    Shakespeare: Original pronunciation

    (Obviously, I forgot to actually include the link! :| )

  57. 57
    anat

    To ramirofernandez (#22)

    This is a shame, because these are two important themes in the books and it’s clear that you are on Rowling’s side with this. If you had stuck through the books you would have seen the shift away from the very points you mention you dislike.

    No, Ophelia did the smart thing. Rowling totally fails to deal with these issues, though she somewhat pretends she did.

    The culture in the Harry Potter books is bigoted against people, non-magicals, us (Rowling’s own readers). And the bigotry is not limited to the villains, everyone, including the supposed ‘Muggle-loving fool’ Albus Dumbledore and the supposed Muggle-enthusiast Arthur Weasley, display this bigotry. Nobody thinks non-magicals are really people. They invade our homes, erase our memories, transplant made-up memories in our heads, for dubious reasons. And no, Rowling does not see it as a problem – which is why she lets her self-insert Hermione Granger get away with modifying the memories of her parents – all for their own good of course (spits). (And Ron’s hexing of the driving examiner is played for laughs.)

    The House relations are ridiculous. In a school so small that an entire year is the equivalent of a single class in the schools I attended, cross-House friendships are so rare because of the silly rivalry that the administration encourages. The Sorting Hat, who knows the origins of the divide, calls for unity but is ignored, and 19 years later nothing changes. Also, I am supposed to admire Gryffindor, House of Jocks. Sorry Rowling, that is my least favorite House. Other than Percy and Neville, Gryffindors are bullies of one kind or another.

    The only way the Harry Potter books make sense is as a dystopia.

  58. 58
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    I haven’t read Casual Vacancy yet, but I agree with everything mcbender has wrote about Harry Potter books here.

    Another example of either casual dismissal of muggles or just bad writing:
    Herminone and her parents

    As far as I can remember, Weasleys get informed when their kid suffers a serious injury. Hermione’s parents when she’s be-statued? Nope.

    I can understand that we don’t have to be informed that Penelope Clearwater had her family visit, but Hermione is a major character. Besides, it could have been interesting to see a couple of muggles dealing with Hogwarts, and their daughter’s attack.

    Some counterweight to the Dursleys would also have not gone amiss. The Grangers’ could have been that. Shown, that is. Not just implied.

  59. 59
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    has wrote has written

    Well, at least I didn’t criticize her grammar. ;)

  60. 60
    anat

    To Gordon Willis (#40)

    So when you say that “she turns a blind eye to the more subtle paternalistic sort of bigotry that is everywhere” she is actually making this very blindness a central point of her characters. They are opposed by Harry and Hermione, and also by Dumbledore (and later by Ginny). Harry and Hermione come from the muggle world and, though young, have some understanding of how it really works, whatever the true-blue wizarding community may think.

    Not so. Hermione’s treatment of her parents shows how she absorbed the bigotry. Albus criticizes the Dursleys for rudeness while barging into their house, and when they refuse the drinks that he summoned magically (no wonder – they have already been attacked twice by supposedly ‘nice’ wizards) he knocks them on their heads with said drinks. Also, he is supposed to be into chamber music, but we never hear from him appreciation for non-magical musicians. Apparently the only thing of worth us non-magicals can contribute is knitting patterns. Not sure where you see Harry opposing anti-Muggle bigotry by the ‘nice’ guys. Why doesn’t he get Arthur a children’s book about airplanes? Or a library card? Also not sure where you see Ginny standing for anything of worth. Her first incarnation (books 1-4) was a little girl who fell to pieces from her infatuation with Harry and her later incarnation was all about Quidditch, hexing students who looked at Harry the wrong way and kissing harry.

  61. 61
    anat

    Beatrice, non-magical folks are too boring to write about. We do boring things like being accountants, dentists, or run factories that make drills. Our stuff works as intended, doesn’t explode, doesn’t excessively injure everyone present and doesn’t involve bodily fluids unnecessarily.

  62. 62
    anat

    To Al Dente (#39) – The difference between Harry Potter and standard hero-arc stories is that Rowling is so bad at thinking from the POV of anyone but her protagonist that the only way to make sense of the actions of other characters is to invoke conspiracy theories. Supposedly, with the added ‘complexity’ in the last book, I am supposed to see Dumbledore as dealing with remorse and lessons he learned from flirtation with power in his youth. But it is very easy to see he failed to learn his lessons, and he remains a stunted human being who fails at the most basic requirements of his job (looking after the students in his school), nor has any idea how to perform the task he took upon himself (of fighting Voldemort) – success is due to a pantheon ex-machina conspiring to help the hapless hero.

  63. 63
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Usually I stop reading novels I don’t like. I know lots of people who seriously think that once you start a book you’re somehow obliged to finish it, no matter how much you hate it. I think that’s entirely and comprehensively wrong.

    My gran would read books she’d been given as gift even if she utterly disliked them, because the person who gave it to her might ask how she liked it, in which case she would lie anyway.

    As for Harry Potter, I liked it, but I was much younger then. What I noticed back then is the weak world-building. Seriously, there’s ONE school for all of Britain, there are about 50 kids each year who enter said school but there’s a population big enough to sustain an economy? There’s a whole Quidditch league out there but only 4 house teams where the best of each generation train and one of their best players gets a job on the bench of a team?

    But that was not the worst. What IS the worst is how she plays fast and loose with sex and consent. Love potions are fine and dandy, people can be bewitched, memories messed with.
    We’re all supposed to hate Tom Riddle senior, right? He’s being portrayed as an arrogant rich snob, totally unlikable. And then weR’e supposed to hate him for what he’s done to Riddle’s mother and Riddle himself. We’re supposed to feel sympathetic with Adriana. She’s introduced as the poor neglected and abused daughter, she lifts the love-spell out of love, she sells her last posession for her child.
    Let’S look at this for a moment from a “realistic perspective”: She’s an abusive rapist who magically shackled her victim. She’s the magical pendent to the guy who abducted and incarcerated those women in the US.
    Tom Riddle senior is a rape victim and he’s blamed for running away from his tormentor at his first chance.

  64. 64
    sacharissa

    I actually enjoyed The Casual Vacancy. It’s a while since I read it though. I agree that you can feel Rowling’s disgust for certain characters. I didn’t think Howard Mollison was portrayed as completely loathsome. He has some good points, he regrets the death of his opponent even though he benefits from it, unlike his wife who is delighted. He’s also perfectly pleasant to his young employees and supportive of his family. I found his wife Shirley the most viscerally loathsome character, although the abusive husband and father Simon was by far the nastiest character.

    I didn’t see the disgust as a problem. My mother commented that it is hard to like any of the characters and its true to some extent because even characters who are mostly good people have their flaws. The doctor, for example, is deeply concerned with the cause of “The Fields” and but horrible to her troubled daughter for not being a high achiever. The most likable character is the man who dies in the first chapter. His death leaves a hole that no-one can quite fill because his friends are just not as good.

    It is true that the deeply dysfunctional Weedon family are the only representatives of the “lower orders”, although Barry came from that background. I’m not sure Rowling has disgust for them though especially Krystal. Other characters write her off as a no good slut and the sad fact is that none of the other characters ever learn her reasons for what she does and so never change their opinion of her.

  65. 65
    Omar Puhleez

    John @#56: A most interesting link. Thank you. Bookmarked.
    .
    I don’t think is was very far off the mark. I spent some time here in Australia years ago with a native son of Northamptonshire, and I have travelled a bit in the Northamptonshire-Warwickshire-Oxfordshire triangle. My favourite pastime was going into a pub, ordering a beer and just sitting and listening to the conversations around me. One would need an ear more highly trained than mine to find the differences between those three County pronunciations (assuming they were local). But they were a long way off received pronunciation, poshtalk and aristobabble..
    ..
    As for the latter, it is curious that ever since 1066, the ruling class in Britain has spoken with, if not a different language, then a markedly different accent from that of the people of the commons (ie ‘commoners’.) Received pronunciation (John Cleese: “Have you any idea what it’s like to be English?”) is the ideal vehicle for precise communication while staying aloof; ideal for say, communication with social inferiors, particularly in the army and the colonies. The English middle classes tend to ape this, with a sense of entitlement thrown in, and I think this explains a good deal of the grass-roots friction between Poms and Aussies. (An England-Australia test series has ever been a polite form of colonial war.)
    .
    In France, the aristocracy has had a rougher time historically than have their still-powerful British counterparts. Their remnants keep very much in touch with one another, and also keep alive the memory of their more glorious days, in defiance of the legacy of 1789.. Though they have been shorn of just about all of their seigneurial rights, they have retained a fair bit of land, and their ancestral chateaux. Part of my wife’s ancestry is French aristocracy, and some years ago we went to France and stayed for part of the time with the contemporaries of the French extended family. I found them to be most gracious and unpretentious people, and was surprised to learn that a French aristocrat speaks no differently from anyone else in France..

  66. 66
    anat

    To Gilliel (#63): We are meant to despise Merope, Tom Riddle Jr’s mother. We are told so by Dumbledore. But not for raping Tom Riddle Sr (who cares about him, he’s just a Muggle anyway), we are told to despise her for daring to die in childbirth. After allowing herself to be homeless and penniless – she did not raise her wand for the sake of her future child!!!! Which translates to – she didn’t use magic to steal from Muggles or engage in mental coercion to make them give her stuff. (And then in an interview Rowling claimed Riddle Jr was messed up from birth *because* he was conceived by rape. No problems with that message either….. )

    And then in the following book the Trio, under the de facto leadership of Hermione Granger, is just as helpless, wandering starving in the countryside. Until Hermione starts stealing from farmers and stores. (All completely needlessly – all she ever needed was to get one balanced meal and multiply it magically indefinitely.)

  67. 67
    leni

    anat:

    And the bigotry is not limited to the villains, everyone, including the supposed ‘Muggle-loving fool’ Albus Dumbledore and the supposed Muggle-enthusiast Arthur Weasley, display this bigotry.

    You could also read this as well-meaning people getting it wrong. That has been known to happen.

    I enjoyed the series, but I see it more as an incremental improvement in the next generation, not as a successful struggle to end all stupidity for ever. No, it doesn’t make me want to stand up and cheer and it won’t make my top ten, but it doesn’t strike me as cynical either.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do think it’s good to talk about and people have certainly brought up things I hadn’t considered. So criticize away, but I have read Terry Goodkind*. Perhaps that has forever blackened my soul, but compared to him JK Rowling could be the patron saint of social justice.

    (*The worst writer of the worst stories I have yet encountered. He wrote the only book I have actually thrown in disgust. I believe it was during a ~20 page rant about the Randian majesty of art. I don’t know. I page flipped to get to the point, found it and just fucking threw the book at the wall. Eventually it found it’s way into my garbage can. I wouldn’t even recycle it.)

  68. 68
    Latverian Diplomat

    The first Harry Potter book is the weakest, IMO. One interesting thing about the series is you can see her grow as a writer over the course of it. Whether by this accident, by design, or by some of both, the series progresses well for young readers who are also growing in sophistication as they work through the series.

    I can see not thinking Rowling is the whole package, as an author. But she does have some skills, and what works, works very well. For example, many authors have attempted to invent a fairy tale. The story of the Deathly hollows is the best one I’ve seen.

  69. 69
    Latverian Diplomat

    Sorry, that’s Deathly Hallows. Technically, it;s the Tale of the Three Brothers.

    Here’s the animated version (itself a nice bit of animation):

  70. 70
    Omar Puhleez

    @#69: “Sorry, that’s Deathly Hallows….”
    .
    I have it on good authority that Rowling by that stage was sick and tired of the whole HarryPottery and wanted to terminate it with a book in which young Harry gets hung. Hence ‘Harry Potter and the Deadly Gallows.’,
    .
    But she was persuaded out of it by a varied consortium of moguls.
    .
    ;-).

  71. 71
    Latverian Diplomat

    @70. I know you are just making a joke, but the best humor has a point to it.

    Rowling had a huge, unanticipated success with the Harry Potters, but she never failed to take it seriously or respect her audience. She could easily get more money than I will ever see in my lifetime to do just one more Harry Potter book as a cheap cash in, but she has so far resisted the temptation.

    In a world full of anythin- for-a-buck hacks, I think she deserves a little credit for that.

  72. 72
    anat

    Latverian Diplomat – Rowling only ‘respects’ those readers who agree with her. She called Harry-Hermione ‘shippers delusional (though later came to realize they had a point). She makes commentaries about how to interpret her characters correctly and disses readers who like characters she doesn’t. She doesn’t get that people find aspects of those characters she didn’t expect to be there. Or perhaps some readers are reacting to how ridiculously the fictional universe revolves around her favorites.

  73. 73
    anat

    Also, the message of the Tale of the Three Brothers is – be passive, hide from the world, you can live a safe, long life until you choose to die – ignoring the fact that such a person would be good as dead all along. It’s a terrible story.

  74. 74
    anat

    leni (#67): I don’t see any improvement. There just happens to be no Dark Lord around(*), but since nothing in the wizarding world was resolved it is just a matter of time until the next one shows up and starts another war over the same issues. Notice Harry doesn’t call James out for taunting Al with the possibility of being Sorted into Slytherin, and notice that it is news to Al that Harry disagrees with the view that Slytherin is a terrible House to be Sorted into.

    * – Not an overt one anyway. If Hermione is rising in the Ministry I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up as a well-meaning Dark Lady, perhaps with Harry as her unwitting front.

  75. 75
    Daniel Schealler

    I also couldn’t get into Harry Potter, but for different reasons.

    I managed one book from the middle of the series just out of sheer stubbornness.

    But I never went back.

    I couldn’t buy into the way the adults treated the kids in the novels. It just made no sense to me that the adults would fail to fill Harry in about so much critical information regarding his past and what’s going on, as well as that they should fail so abysmally at keeping their students safe from harm.

    Completely killed the immersion for me, so I struggled with the whole thing.

    Also, Quidditch is a fundamentally poor game design. Nothing matters except catching the Snitch. It only makes sense if you want to make one player in particular feel like an amazing hero, so in terms of the narrative it makes sense. But without that basis it’s just a silly game design because none of the other activities by the other players matters.

    Basically, the world-building aspect of the Harry Potter series was very very lacking to me. Harry’s behavior made sense from Harry’s point of view. But everyone else felt like cardboard cut-outs that only existed to bolster the story of Harry-as-hero.

    Just couldn’t get into them at all. Which is really saying something, because whimsical fantasy is my genre of choice.

  76. 76
    Ophelia Benson

    The whole Harry-as-hero aspect was off-putting to me as well. T H White was so much more subtle and interesting about it.

    I could never not compare HP to White’s book, which of course made it hopeless.

  77. 77
    Daniel Schealler

    Ah, T H White.

    The One and Future King was one of those books that I initially really struggled to get into just because of the author’s style. But I was very, very glad that I did. :)

  78. 78
    Daniel Schealler

    For what it’s worth: No, JK Rowling doesn’t compare favorably to T H White. But that seems to me like an unfair comparison. :P

  79. 79
    Omar Puhleez

    @#71:

    “Rowling had a huge, unanticipated success with the Harry Potters, but she never failed to take it seriously or respect her audience. She could easily get more money than I will ever see in my lifetime to do just one more Harry Potter book as a cheap cash in, but she has so far resisted the temptation.

    “In a world full of anythin- for-a-buck hacks, I think she deserves a little credit for that.”
    .
    Agreed. She is producing books that people want to buy, and good luck to her. She is not trying to exclude others from her market or monopolise the field of fantasy. As I have only a passing interest in that genre, and do not read it, I have nothing more to add. But personally, I have long had a policy of doing what I believe to be worthwhile and enjoy doing, and then finding out afterwards how much money I have made from it.
    .
    If she was into income for its own sake, which I do not believe she is, it would reduce her in my estimation. I assume that many ‘anything-for-a-buck’ people are either financially desperate or just obsessive. Such obsession is a terrible trap to fall into.

  80. 80
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes, it’s an unfair comparison, but it bugged me that so many people went so berserk for HP when they could have had T H White instead. It seemed (and seems) such a waste.

  81. 81
    aziraphale

    On the other hand, Rowling did get a lot of young people interested in reading – and quite long books, too. Some of them have asked me “What do I read next?” I can’t remember if I mentioned T. H. White – he’s a very different author, telling a different kind of story – but I certainly will next time.

  82. 82
    RJW

    @81 aziraphale,

    I’d also recommend TH White’s Arthurian stories, although perhaps cat lovers should avoid ‘The Queen of Air and Darkness”.

  83. 83
    Minnow

    along with Rowling’s extremely uninteresting way with language.

    That has always been the main problem for me, she just can’t do half-decent prose. Try reading it aloud. Even worse. I prefer CS Lewis and that is saying something.

  84. 84
    Minnow

    well yes kids’ books are often simplistic but, as you say, they don’t have to be, and the best ones of course aren’t. I demand ones that aren’t!

    I strongly agree with this too. Because I have to read so much of this stuff it goes deep with me. Compare Rowling to, say,Joan Aitken or Alan Garner and, well, there is no comparison.

    She nicked a lot from the incomparably superior Ursula Le Guin as well, whose Earthsea novels tell the story of a poor boy who leaves home to go to a school for wizards where he conjours up a malevolent spirit that hunts him through the remaining books until the final showdown. Le Guin really respects her readers and imagines a coherent magical ‘economy’ that explains how and when magic can be effective rather then relying on whim and arbitrariness as per HP. And she isn’t a snob like Rowling neither.

  85. 85
    katybe

    I’d be very careful recommending T H White – there are 2 different versions of The Sword in the Stone floating around, because by the time he got to the end of the series he’d finally identified the message he wanted people to take from the series (basically, War is Bad, Might isn’t Right and Women Can’t Be Trusted) and went back to rewrite the earlier books. Unless you’re going to lend people your own copy to make them read it, they could easily end up reading a totally different book, and being completely unable to understand why you suggested it. From what I understand, most of the US editions are the original text, but it’s pot luck what you get in the UK, although the 5 in one volume is the revised version – he insisted they all be published together. The two tests I know of to work out which version you have is that the original has the shape changing battle with Madam Mimm, and a conversation with a snake, which tells the boy Arthur that “There is nothing sad…. except History”, whereas the ‘director’s cut’ version drops the entire encounter with Madam Mimm as being too light-hearted and moves the snake into the final book instead of the first – I’m sure there’s a lot more, if you try to read the 2 versions together.

    I run an online reading group for children’s classics and this one came up last year, to very mixed reviews. One person who’d enjoyed it as a child had to give up after an hour because it was too cute and sentimental, and several others found it too silly, and Disneyish, then I started reading it and found the odd silly episode to be useful light relief because the bulk of the book was so obvious about trying to preach a message. If you want Arthurian stories, we concluded after reading a few others that the best version we could find was Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Sword at Sunset (although it does follow on from her Roman trilogy, The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers, all three of which I’d thoroughly recommend.)

  86. 86
    aziraphale

    Minnow, I don’t think you can say Rowling “nicked” much from Le Guin. The idea of a school for magic was not original with Le Guin, see

    http://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/18437/what-was-the-first-school-of-magic-mentioned-in-modern-fantasy-literature

    Rowling is flashier than Le Guin and Garner, but for that very reason appeals more to a certain kind of child. Her magical system is not invented like Le Guin’s but is a grab-bag of earlier traditions. Much like most systems of magic, in fact.

  87. 87
    katkinkate

    I quite liked the Harry Potter books, but I haven’t read “The Casual Vacancy”, probably never will. I agree the Potter books were quite simplistic, with stereotypical characters and full of plot holes, (a bit like fairy stories actually) but the universe she built is fantastic. I’ll probably never bother to re-read her stories again, but amongst the thousands of fan fiction writers in the Potter fandom, there is some absolute jewels. They have taken her stories, or just her universe and characters and produced some fantastic stories: exploring and expanding on issues, characters and situations, plugging plot holes, correcting things they don’t like, re-writing the stories in ways that make more sense (or less), and writing totally new stories. In a way I think that is a big part of her popularity, the world she built that is. She used a broad brush to paint a glimpse into a new exiting universe and left lots of room for other people’s imagination to fill in the detail.

  88. 88
    aziraphale

    PS. Le Guin’s school for wizards was all-male. One thing we haven’t given Rowling enough credit for was providing girls with a role model.

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