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HARRY POTTER – A LITERARY OR COMMERCIAL PHENOMENON?

June 17, 2012 · by mohammedashrafi · in Uncategorized · 3 Comments

There has much critical debate surrounding the canonical worth of literary texts; debates
surrounding what constitutes as commendable literature, who determines this, and why
certain genres should be disregarded from the list of valued texts. Being one of the greatest
selling book series of all time, Harry Potter stands today as a great representation of modern-
age children’s literature, and therefore concerns itself with the great modern literary
discussion concerning whether it has a place amongst valued literary works and reside within
the A-level canon of texts such as that of Shakespeare and Chaucer. It would also be valuable
to discuss whether its literary worth has been threatened by the “cloud of commercialism
which surrounds it”. In regards to philosophy, this discussion follows the philosophical branch
of aesthetics which deals with the factors determining the artistic pleasures and values which
come from literature and whether literature itself can be reduced to a single feature. The
essay below deals with the various discussions surrounding the worth of literature with
regards to Harry Potter and why I believe that J.K. Rowling’s successful books should reside
amongst the most valued texts despite entering the commercialized domain.

Harry Potter – A literary or commercial phenomenon?

A panel of scholars; one accomplished book, and a whole load of questions. The Children’s
Literature Association gathered in 2001 to discuss the literary merits of a book that has, since
day of release, managed to captivate millions and enthrall them into a realm of magic, conflict
and love. Harry Potter has since endured the scrutiny of various critics; some questioning
whether the successful children’s book can ever be measured against the canonically valued
adult novels and others fearing any serious discussions on the book being threatened by “the
cloud of commercialism that encircles it” (L. Whited). Either way, the industrial success of the
films cannot deny the original appreciation of the text as a successful piece of writing. This can
only be attributed to the aesthetic pleasure gained from Rowling’s eerie description and
intricate composition of ideas; elements which are argued to form the crux of commendable
literature. Essentially, children are unable to disconnect themselves from the artistically
pleasing world of Harry; yet critical analysis reveals Rowling’s exploration of more complex
themes such as philosophical challenges to body-soul distinction, feminism and the conflict
between reality and the supernatural. Her proficient handling of these elements means that
Harry Potter is more than a fantasy tale of magic; it is an accomplished piece of literature and a
valuable contribution to popular culture.
What criteria then, is used to measure the success of literature? If the value lies in the
complex unity of language, structure and subject-matter then Rowling’s ability to employ
sophisticated literary tropes with intense action is to be commended. The literary theorist W.K
Wimsatt followed this trail of thought; believing prominent canonical texts to be “chiefly
characterised by elaborate written expression”. Being a 20th century formalist, he disregarded
the intentions and personal effects of a novel and believed its achievement to reside solely
within the inherent features of the text. If so, then much of this is evident within the Harry
Potter novels: “Eyes glinting like black beetles as their shadows enclosed the entire floor. Next
moment: hundreds came pelting in like bullets, soon clamping their jaws upon the mouth of
the victim and…SWOOOSH. The soul had been swallowed. ‘Don’t scream. Don’t be afraid. And
DON’T MOVE’”. Associated with decay and predetorial behaviour, the image of the beetle is
not only used to reflect the supernatural appearance of the creatures but illustrates their
ruthless and savage attributes, which together with the shadow, creates a traditional sense of
foreboding danger. Furthermore, there is an abrupt change in pace indicated through the
colon as the immediacy of their entrance is heightened by the simile comparison to the bullet.
True gothic imagery is provided with the description of the elongated jaw as the ellipses
prolongs the highly charged moment; followed by the capitalised onomatopoeia which adds a
powerful auditory element to the action. The short sentence which follows draws an abrupt
climax to the action as we are left to contemplate as the device of anaphora concludes the
passage, the repetitive sequence amplifying the tense action as we await the next sequence of
events. This artistic description appears to echo the sinister description in Shelley’s
Frankenstein: “As he went on I felt as if my Soul was grappling with a palpable enemy. Round
he threw his baleful eyes”, as both successfully deliver a sinisterly vivid and striking narrative.
Although formalism has been displaced by other literary approaches, Harry Potter appears to
fulfil the demands of what they viewed as a literary phenomenon; where valued canonical
texts are primarily characterised by the: “texture of the novel, with lingo that is both stylish
and sophisticated in expression”.

However, Barthes took an alternative approach; believing readers to play a pivotal role in
attributing value to a text. For him, this value came from the “effects of the text” and the
French theorist distinguished between two types. To call realist texts “readerly” meant the
readers immerse themselves within the action of the play and get “caught up in the enjoyment
of the narrative” (M. Montgomery): “The tunnel turned and turned again as every nerve in
Harry’s body twang like an elastic band. He wanted the tunnel to end, yet dreaded what he’d
find when it did. And then, at last, as he crept around yet another bend and saw a solid wall
ahead on which two entwined serpents were carved, their frightening eyes set with great,
glinting emeralds”. Reading this, you are inevitably hauled into the frightened mind of Harry,
the description feeding into the susceptible imagination as you disconnect from the real world
and instead envisage this dismal and ominous setting. This epitomises Barthes readerly idea of
texts which are “pleasurable” in effect and in many ways supports the commercialized values
of literary establishment. However, he preferred the “writerly” texts which provide a “blissful
effect”, those which require “careful attention to the process of writing” and open themselves
to numerous interpretations. If so, then Harry Potter also appears to fulfil this ideology: “The
curtain had finally parted to unveil the scorching sun. That day he reflected upon
Dumbledore’s words: you would be very much alive, for part of the soul remains earthbound
and undamaged. His brain had diverted numerous times that day, and now a new thought
process commenced. That creature. The vulgar, enticing as a snake”. The first sentence can be
interpreted in its literal sense, however figuratively, the “unveiled curtain” can be read as a
metaphorical representation of the uncovered secrets which had moments before been
revealed to Harry, whilst the scorching sun may be used to externalise Harry’s intense
suffering and feel of isolation. Additionally, the description of the soul seems to illustrate the
central concern of the novel; the clash between the supernatural and reality as illustrated in
Scott Sehons’ The Soul in Harry Potter: “Materialism is the dominant view among philosophers
and scientists in our world today. But materialism is false in the world of Harry Potter who
follows more on the Platonic concept of disembodied existence and the sentimental view of
the soul associated with making us who we are. A key issue of debate in today’s society”.
Finally the idea of the snake opens itself to multiple interpretations: is it a reference to the
biblical account of the Original Sin, alerting readers of a sin he is about to be commit or merely
a simile comparison to depict the ruthless nature of the evil forces. Ultimately, Barthes
insisted, “the goal of literary work is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer
of the text and that by turning the reader into the writer, writerly texts can defy the
commercialization and commodification of literature. Harry Potter appears to successfully
demonstrate this in both the “readerly and writerly” respects.

Conversely, Ursula Le Guin disagrees, arguing the inability of Children’s literature to stand
against the canonically respected adult texts. For her, the true “phenomenon” of literature
resides in works deemed as timeless classics; one’s which have surpassed vast periods of
scrutiny and marked revolutionary changes in the world of literature. Take Shakespeare, for
example, and As You Like It which sits in the A-level literature canon. Throughout the whole
play, Shakespeare challenges his contemporary socio-religious and political beliefs such as
Elizabethan ideas on primogeniture addressed from the right beginning: “thy blood a
peasant?…The courtesy of nations allows you my better in that you are first-born”. Although
an issue particular to the 16th century, it serves a didactic and universal message for all
periods on fairness, voracity and ‘Just laws’; further demonstrating Montgomery’s views
where: “The subject matter of valued texts is supposed to give the reader an insight into
fundamental universal concerns such as the nature of evil, corruptive effects of money […]”.
Additionally, the play is seen as a revolutionary adaption to the Pastoral genre; his realist
depictions of Country flaws creating a whole new movement known as the anti-pastoral.
Furthermore, his written expression and style is amongst the most highly commended. “Now,
my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet than that of
painted pomp?”. Not only is he celebrated due to his skilful deployment of iambic pentameter,
but his arresting imagery, irony, and metaphorical language together with the intense plot
developments which makes his plays highly entertaining and highly accredited. A final
determinant Guin draws upon is “the fair amount of special attention and criticism which the
text manages to withhold”, and this most definitely applies to As You Like It; some arguing it to
lack the artistry that Shakespeare was capable of, whilst a critical majority argue it to be
another triumph; being skilfully devised and living up to its entertainment promise. These
qualities epitomised successful literature for Ursula Guin, stating children’s literature such as
Harry Potter being: “good fare for its age group, but stylistically ordinary, imaginatively
derivative, and thematically rather typical to constitute a successful piece of literature”.

For me, this debasement of children’s literature is unwarranted and wholly subjective.
Formalised as a genre in the mid-eighteenth century, the birth of Children’s literature brought
into the canon the inclusion of books solely aimed at young readers below the age of 14; and
since then, authors such as Roald Dahl and C. S. Lewis have stood amongst the most accredited
writers due to their artistic accomplishments to engross children in their enticing narrative.
Structurally, Harry Potter follows a rather simple and conventional pattern seen in most
children’s fiction, where a typically morose adolescent protagonist embarks on a magical
journey and in the end, emerges as a triumphant hero against the sadistic forces. However, it
has been skilfully crafted to the traditions of children’s literature: “They didn’t want Dudley
mixing with a child like that. The death of his parents marked a significant period of
change…locked up and verbally assaulted, “A wretched, abhorrent child”, Mr. Dursley
constantly reminded”. Contextually, this characterises the term “problem novel”, a sub-genre
of young adult literature which depicts “an adolescent’s confrontation with prevailing social
problems” (Isaac Gilman). The language tends to be simple than intricate, with regular
expression such as “wretched, abhorrent” used to depict realistic suffering; further
accommodating Ursula Le Guin’s “universal didactic nature of canonical texts” as Harry Potter
depicts the distinctive children’s literature themes of good over evil, the power of love and
mental liberation. J.K Rowling primarily wrote to target younger generation, yet her intricate
mix of plot and sub-plots along with the depiction of contemporary philosophical and social-
religious challenges: “Harry’s aunt Petunia disregarded anything strange or mysterious,
because they would rather avoid reality” means that the book has done something
revolutionary and truly phenomenal in terms of attracting readers of all age groups and
inspiring many other authors to explore the genre of fantasy and thriller, appearing in the form
of Twilight and the Darren Shan Trilogy. Harry Potter has become the greatest selling book
series of all time and stands today as a great representation of modern-age Children’s
literature.

It is clear: there isn’t a single decisive factor which influences the canonical worth of a text. As
a result, subjective debates arise from the inability to reduce literature to a single, concise
definition as the critic Michael Foucault rightly concludes every text to hold its own literary
worth, even if valued by “a solitary individual”. Therefore, Perhaps less intricate than
Shakespeare or Chaucer, Rowling’s ability, to captivate millions through her intensely
composed narrative, didactic meanings and intriguing plot sequence means that, despite the
discriminations against children’s literature and “undoubted comparisons to older, elite
writers” (Jacques Derrida), she can safely place herself as one of the most accomplished
writers of the 21st century. The commercial branding of Harry Potter has become a key factor
in reducing its credibility as a phenomenal piece of literature, however, in many ways this
industrial success has magnified the aesthetic pleasures gained from the text; its absorbingly
simple narrative yet complicated subject-matter for those willing to deconstruct the prose
justifying my classification of Harry Potter as an intriguing piece of fiction. If literature is
determined by elaborate written expression, then Rowling’s stimulating, tense and vivid
description is to be commended. If its based on intricate subject-matter, then Rowling’s ability
to highlight key philosophical concerns with didactic meaning of love and goodness is to be
applauded, and if literature is based on its “pleasurable effects” upon readers, then Rowling’s
skill in captivating her readers with arresting imagery and concentrate action is to be admired.
Ultimately, the principles of literature may never be fully comprehended as discussions of
what literature is and what determines its canonical worth remains at the forefront of critical
debate.

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