7.17.2007

NoOne's Not Writing About Harry

First, a disclaimer: BookGirl hasn't read any of the Harry Potter books, so there's not much she can say about their content or quality. And since she's not a fantasy fiction fan, she's unlikely to read them in the future. Now...

Is there any newspaper on the planet that isn't running a Harry Potter story this week? The bigger question is whether we'll be reading anything different from what we read when the other books in the series were published. So far, I'd have to say that the answer to both questions is "no."

Last Sunday, Ron Charles, senior editor of the Washington Post's "Book World," joined the parade in his article, "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading." He cited some of the depressing statistics that we've heard regularly from others on his side of the Potter debate:
  • A 1994 study by Alan Sorensen at Stanford University reported that "in 1994, over 70 percent of total fiction sales were accounted for by a mere five authors." (It's hard to imagine that the statistics have improved since then.)
  • In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts released Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, which gauged the reading habits of America from 1982 to 2002. People were asked whether, over the past12 months, they had read any part of a novel, short story, poem, or play, excluding anything read for work or school. If they'd read the first two pages of, say, "Mandingo," (BookGirl refuses to link to this), the survey considered them literary readers. The results? The proportion of Americans reading "literature" declined from 56.9 percent in 1982 to 46.7 in 2002.
The Harry Potter phenomenon hasn't really changed this, says Charles. And although he doesn't mention it, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, federal tests administered every few years to students in grades 4, 8 and 12, seems to agree. NAEP found that "the percentage of kids who said they read for fun almost every day dropped from 43 percent in fourth grade to 19 percent in eighth grade in 1998, the year 'Sorcerer’s Stone' was published in the United States. In 2005, when 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,' the sixth book, was published, the results were identical" (read the full article in the New York Times here).

Understandably, Charles finds the diminishing number of readers of fiction discouraging, and he's equally disheartened by the people who tell him "I don't read fiction...I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." (Coincidentally, someone said virtually the same thing to BookGirl last week. One possible implication, with is so silly that BookGirl can't take offense, is that BookGirl, who reads mostly fiction, isn't interested in learning anything. The other, more important, implication is that one doesn't learn anything from reading fiction. This one does offend BookGirl.)

But Charles's main point is that the Harry Potter phenomenon isn't about reading at all, but about marketing. Being a Potter-Head, suggests Charles, is less about a gratifying personal experience with a book, and more about the experience of homogenization: becoming like every other Potter-Head:
"Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands -- and rewards. Consider that, with the release of each new volume, Rowling's readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another. Through a marvel of modern publishing, advertising and distribution, millions of people will receive or buy "The Deathly Hallows" on a single day. There's something thrilling about that sort of unity, except that it has almost nothing to do with the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves -- without a movie version or a set of action figures. Through no fault of Rowling's, Potter mania nonetheless trains children and adults to expect the roar of the coliseum, a mass-media experience that no other novel can possibly provide."
This was the only genuine insight in Charles's article, although his implication that a kid would want to "step out of sync with the world," rather than be just like every other kid, seems naive. And while I agree with Charles's premise, I'm also certain that there are those who read Harry Potter books not because they want to run with the pack, but simply because they're drawn to the genre and/or enjoy the characters and plot and want to see them develop.

Frankly, I don't understand why people feel that they need to take sides on Potter. I'm delighted to see kids pick the books up, and like many other adults, I bought one for a child whom I hoped to entice into reading more often. In fact, if the Potters get anybody -- including adults -- reading, I'm thrilled. Charles, on the other hand, is distressed that adults are reading Harry Potter instead of books he considers better entries in the fantasy category, such as "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell" by Susanna Clarke and Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials."

I appreciate Charles's point that there are many, many deserving books that sell many, many, many (add about 100 more "manys" here) fewer copies than the Potter series, and this makes me sad. Unfortunately, for those who read the Potters for the reasons Charles outlines, neither Clarke's nor Pullman's books would fill the need that the Potters satisfy.

So if folks want to dash down to their favorite neighborhood bookstore dressed as -- whomever --- to celebrate the publication of the latest Potter, more power to them! Who knows, maybe they'll walk out with another book in addition to the one they've long been anticipating (BookGirl is feeling particularly optimistic today).

6 comments:

Riverlark said...

HI BG,
You KNOW I have to weigh in on this. :-)
I really differ with Ron Charles on so many of his points. I remember reading the teenyest article in the NYT almost 10 years ago that said these books were really popular in England. NOT because of marketing, but just like so many good books, because the word gets out. (Thanks, Independent Book Sellers for helping!!!) So I called my friend with a son who I knew would love the story and she called back later to say I had to read them myself. My battered copy of the first book has the date December, 1999 and I remember (fondly!) being sick on the couch for about 4 days and reading the first two and somehow driving to the bookstore to get the third!
It was for HP4 that the marketing uproar started. And then the studies kicked in along with the critics. And then Ron Charles intellectualizes something that started with a writer telling a simple story about a boy who felt different from everyone else. What child (including this one) doesn't respond to that? (BTW, BG it's not really fantasy fiction per se. If you haven't picked up HP1, you might give it a try.)
So yes, like so much that we love, the marketing machines took over and the wags started floating theories about what it all means. I'm just glad the phenomena is about something that is pretty decent and good for kids (including, once again, this one).
Update on my friend: her daughter now loves the HP books more than anything. They're trying to decide if they want to get dressed up on Friday at midnight and drive into the city for a bookstore event or wait until morning. I've encouraged her to go as this will be a great memory moment for her daughter. Why not ride the marketing wave and have fun with it?

Riverlark said...

And another thing! ;-)
(Charles really is bugging me.)
I started sending the HP books to my nephew and niece when they were old enough and their mother read them to them each night. But after HP4 they lost interest. I have HP7 on reserve for them, but it may only be for tradition and not because they want it. And these are kids who are highly influenced by marketing and media. The oldest is already begging for an iPhone (so you can see he has good taste)! I just have never heard of a kid who has read the entire series just because of some marketing campaign.

BookGirl said...

I was counting on you, RL! I think the Potter phenomenom has been intellectualized to death. I, for one, and delighted that these books have captured both people's imaginations and their pocketbooks.

Beth Lee said...

I can't resist, even though I have a sneaking suspicion I'll just be saying something that's already been said. So much has been said ...

We love HP at our house. We also love Philip Pullman's trilogy (and were surprised that it wasn't in my son's elementary school library, until I thought about it a little), and his other books. And we love Mark Haddon, and Daniel Pinkwater, and Terry Pratchett, and C.S. Lewis, and on and on and on. Current and past authors -- it's such a feast!

There is so much good fiction being written today, "in spite of our current culture," as people are wont to say. But really, more people can read than ever, and more people can write books than ever, and the delivery systems are getting better and better.

Well, I'm sounding like Polyanna, which is so not me. Still.

Saucy said...

Oh my, Book Girl. You must read the HP series... I'm not a fantasy reader, but they enchanted me at any rate. Give them a go.

PS. We hit a launch party with the whole family on Friday night. So wonderful to see a frenzy over a book, not a movie.

BookGirl said...

Riverlark, Beth and Saucy, well, I'm persuaded. I just reserved the last book from my library.