So. Here we are now, nearly a year down the road from the release of the final book of the series.
People’s reactions have mostly sorted themselves out, sometimes at a glacial pace, and people have been increasingly able to articulate just what those reactions actually were. Unfortunately, although one might have expected that the worst of the shock would be over by now, and everyone would reasonably be beginning to move on, from what I am observing, that expectation seems to have been grossly inadequate to the actual results.
The worst is not over at all. In fact, as time goes by and people become progressively more articulate about just what and how they are reacting to the series as a whole, the general dissatisfaction among a significant minority (or maybe it really is a majority) of the older fans only seems to be increasing.
And as if that were not awkward enough, a counter-reaction appears to be gaining a groundswell, too. Some of this groundswell lot didn’t even like the book all that much themselves. But the initial whinging annoyed them — which was reasonable enough — and the steadily growing articulation of the sustained dissatisfaction has prompted them to make a determined effort to smother it. I do not know whether these are mostly people who are simply being pushed out of shape by the general lack of “nice”, or whether it’s the fact that having now expressed our dissatisfaction, we have not simply gone away leaving the field to the “JK Rowling, right or wrong”, fans that offends them.
Yes, I said “we”. You are all welcome to add me to the ever-growing list of fans who do not regard ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ as a fitting conclusion to the series.
It isn’t. On the strength of some of Rowling’s earlier performance, I think we had a right to expect better from her.
And, frankly, being perfectly capable of coming up with no shortage of snotty rejoiners of my own, I find myself tempted to tell the “groundswollen” to “just go away” themselves if they are so perfectly convinced that there is nothing more to be said on the subject because Rowling’s word is law. If there is nothing to be said, why are they still hanging around.
If that were the case, clearly, no one would feel any need to say anything, whatsoever.
Including the writing of fanfic. However, that reaction does not seem to be my experience, and neither does it seem to be a lot of other fans’ experience, either.
And I think one might as well get used to the fact that the dissatisfied are NOT necessarily going to be going away any time soon, so the whole thing is all just bound to get worse for a while. We, the disappointed, indeed, the offended, have just as much invested in this series as any of the Rowling-worshipers. And permit me to point out that to think that the final book was a train wreck doesn’t mean you retroactively reject the whole series.
For my own part; I’m still not altogether convinced that the “carpet book” isn’t a hoax on at least some — perhaps unconscious — level, after all. Although I am fully aware that the Carpet Book is all we are likely to get. Short of writing our own.
Frankly, I find it difficult to regard DHs as even being a part of the rest of the same series, as things now stand. Even the style of the writing in it (to say nothing of the style of the reasoning) does not line up to that of the previous six books, and it hardly connects at all to the two books that preceded it, and with which one would have reasonably expected it to have been most closely intertwined. Rowling may not have ever been a “brilliant” writer from a purely technical standpoint, but much of the storytelling (let alone the grammar) dumped on the reader in the final book is barely even competent. HBP was widely accused of “reading like fanfic” when it came out, but this was a truly jarring downward transition even from HBP. This was no “controlled descent,” this was a flat-out “crash and burn”.
I find myself still trying to determine just where it all went wrong. It’s irresistible. Like picking at a scab.
• • • •
It wasn’t until after I had already uploaded the whole revised collection back at the end of October 2007 that I finally came to the conclusion that the reason Book 7 doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the series, is because it really doesn’t fit. It really isn’t a part of the same series. You can make a fairly good argument that with Book 7 Rowling simply stepped outside of telling us a fantasy adventure story, and engaged in a bit of “therapeutic” writing.
In the course of which, after six books of “displacement activity”, she at last braced herself, rolled up her sleeves, set Albus up as a punching bag, set Harry up as her own avatar, and finally came to grips with the psychodrama of bringing herself to the point of being able to forgive a god who remained out of reach, wouldn’t answer a question directly, wouldn’t explain his plans, and had just sat back and let her mother die.
Which, considering that the whole Potterverse project is where she hid out during a time that she could hardly bear to deal with a world in which her mother was unfairly, and far too early dead, makes a certain kind of emotional sense, but psychodrama doesn’t always make for very satisfying stories for anyone but the person directing them. (Note: I am the one directing this one, and you are thereby warned.)
It also doesn’t necessarily blend that well with all of those “other things” that you have been using to distract yourself from coming to grips with the main issue, either.
The main problem of course, is that therapy is a field in which one size manifestly does not fit all, and the average reader did not need to take an active part in JK Rowling’s private grief therapy, but found themselves dragged into it whether they wanted to be or not. For Rowling, the experience may actually have been a resounding success. But the exercise wasn’t exactly a story. And it certainly wasn’t the same story we thought we had contracted to read.
• • • •
One thing, at least, is evident. This is the kind of place where the average fanfic author has a tremendous advantage over JK Rowling.
Most fanficers use betas. In fact they are strongly encouraged to use betas.
Fanfic betas discuss the story’s development as it is being written. When effectively deployed, they can help the author identify potential dead ends or plot holes, and they can suggest solutions. If you’ve got a good beta (or more than one) they can help make the story so much stronger than it would be if you just locked yourself in a room and wrote until you finished it.
Rowling couldn’t do this. The wizard locked up in his tower with a Great Work in train had nothing on JK Rowling.
My understanding (which is admittedly inexpert and at 2nd-hand) is that professional editors usually only deal with the manuscript after it is finished. They might discuss things with their authors while a work is in progress if the author asks them to, but generally they deal with finished manuscripts rather than works in progress.
When your series of seven novels has morphed into a mega-media event, and people are wagering large sums of money on the outcome of the story, any potential leaks have become a major issue. So you just do not discuss the story with outsiders. And I am not convinced that you can rely on someone in your editors’ office not to leak information. Leaks can be well-paid, either in legal tender of the realm, or in notoriety, which to some people is just as valuable. So you just don’t take chances.
Which right there may say something about the source of the veritable inundation of readily-fixable problems that we’ve had in the last three books in the series. Rowling didn’t have a beta.
Unfortunately, she also claims not to reread her own work after it has been published. And I think we can probably take that statement at face value too. Even if it does make her come across like a zip-damn fool.
Lack of a beta surrogate could also account for the increasingly shallow and melodramatic tone of the last three books. And the increasingly confused rendering of their climaxes. Good editors (or betas) also help to steer an author away from excesses of tone. Rowling apparently needs a firm editor, and she didn’t have one.
She did have an editor (possibly more than one) for the first four books. We know this to be the case. She described various editorial changes to the first four books on her first official website. But I didn’t see any mention there of any editorial changes made to the last three.
And, for that matter, I don’t get the impression that either HBP or DHs were edited at all. Proofread, maybe, but not edited.
Once you start viewing the last three volumes of the series as un-betaed fic, many of the problems a lot of us have with them fall right into place.
• • • •
Not that I hadn’t a fair share of misgivings before the last book came out. HBP had a lot of problems. Many of them readily avoidable. OotP undoubtedly did too, but they weren’t quite as noticeable, since the story hadn’t veered so far off track yet. In retrospect, the overriding problem with OotP is that virtually nothing we were given in the course of it turned out to be of the slightest significance later. And there was no way of knowing that until we got our hands on the last two books. Much of that book turns out to have been a colossal waste of our time. You cannot say that of any of the earlier books. Particularly the first three books. Each of those books gave us something to build upon.
OotP just gave us a lot of distractions that kept us occupied us until HBP came out.
And HBP compounded that problem in spades. That book was disgracefully padded. I find it hard to decide whether it even *had* a plot. Really. The only plot in that book appears to have been Draco’s.
And, as anyone might have predicted: with the announcement of the title of the 7th book, the internet exploded in speculation.
The forthcoming final book of the series was to be entitled: ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
As I say; I had misgivings.
For one thing, do you think she could have come up with something tackier if she tried as hard as she could with both hands for a week?
I was so not impressed.
Not that I thought it was likely to really matter. When you take a clear overview, Rowling’s books had stopped being “about” their titles after PoA.
PoA came out in 1999. It also was the last of the series to escape before the media blitz became international and really kicked into top gear. Even though GoF came out only one year later, by the time it saw the light of day the fan community had grown into an entirely different environment. Where the first three books were run-away successful children’s books, the 4th was a media “event”.
That was also the point at which the amount of necessary background information required by the story threw the page count out of control. And it was also the point that the editors lost their grip on their purpose. There were indeed edits in GoF, but already, meeting the release date had become paramount, and the book escaped with some real problems. In retrospect, I think this is probably the point at which the series really began to go off the rails.And also when I think that Rowling just plain burned out.
Plus, Warners had already started courting Rowling, and she was beginning to “write for the movies”. It was not a beneficial influence to the quality of the story. One is supposed to tell the story, not describe camera angles and the special effects you want to show off selected scenes with.
And there was so much going on inside the series by that time that I think it slipped notice that the books were no longer about their titles.
A widely-known working title for GoF had been ‘HP & the Doomspell Tournament’. That must have been a fairly late working title, because that one actually went public before the book was released and the final title of; “Goblet of Fire” came as a bit of a surprise to everyone. A title of “Doomspell Tournament” would have been at least as central to the story as “Prisoner of Azkaban” had been. It would have also been every bit as tacky and melodramatic as “Deathly Hallows”. (I think we can probably take it that the tackiness and melodrama are native to Rowling herself. I doubt that any editor would have come up with something like that.)
Goblet of Fire was not. The Goblet also didn’t have a whole lot to do with the story. The Goblet of Fire played the role of an inanimate Sybil Trelawney. It was carried in, got confunded, spouted something that tossed Harry into the soup, boogied off, and we never saw it again. We didn’t need to. Everyone just had to deal with the mess. It was the McGuffin. It wasn’t the story. In fact, looking back, it was one of a far too extensive series of disposable plot devices; use once and discard.
The Order of the Phoenix was the same thing. Harry was escorted from the Dursleys to Order Headquarters by a group of the Order’s members. He was introduced to them and spent the rest of the summer under their protection.
Did he join the Order? No. Was he asked to join? No. Did he take part in their plans? No. Did he interact with the members of the Order in the course of their duties in any meaningful manner throughout the entire book? Nope. Not even that. He spoke to his Godfather and Remus a couple of times, but he’d have tried to do that if it had been possible anyway, Order or no Order.
The Order was just about totally irrelevant to the course of Harry’s own story — until they finally showed up like the 7th cavalry to rescue Harry and his friends when they had disobeyed their instructions to stay out if it and not meddle with Albus’s scam du jour. The Order was some bright, shining promise of inaccessible adventure out on the periphery. It was not the story. It never became the story.
• • • •
I will have to concede that the Half-Blood Prince was a somewhat different proposition, and at least he was with us throughout the whole book, but he wasn’t the story either. Or not the main story.
He surfaced early in the year and was Harry’s little helper, very much as Tom had pretended to be Ginny’s “friend that she could carry around in her pocket.” Except that the Prince wasn’t pretending anything; the fellow scribbling in the Potions book didn’t interact with Harry at all. He didn’t know that Harry existed. And, indeed, at the time “the Prince” was recording his findings in that book, Harry didn’t.
And while Harry was happy to take the Prince’s potions advice and use his spells, once he realized that there was no way that the half-blood Prince could have been his own pure-blooded father, he didn’t much care who the Prince might have actually been. Although he couldn’t help being a bit curious.
Not nearly as curious as he was over what Malfoy was up to, though.
It was Hermione who got the bit between her teeth and was determined to prove to Harry that the Prince was not the splendily clever fellow that Harry thought he was, and kicking up a continuing mystery over his identity. And that was primarily because the Prince had her nose thoroughly out of joint. (Hermione seems to have gone through the whole of Year 6 in a jealous snit over one thing or another.)
And by the time we got our noses rubbed in the Prince’s true identity, it didn’t really matter. It was a nice little slap in the face for Harry — who one rather wanted to slap by that time — to discover that his mysterious Prince was only a teenaged Severus Snape, but Harry had already learned his lesson that the Prince was just as dangerous as any other wizard, and that to blindly follow anyone is likely to prove to be a mistake (a lesson he did not think to apply to Albus). We were never even told whether he took the trouble to rescue the potions book from the Room of Hidden Things later in hopes that it might reveal some of his “enemy’s” secrets. The impression one is left with is that once he found out who the Prince was, he couldn’t care less about him or his secrets.
Unlike the Order, however, the Prince himself did take an active (if unconscious) part throughout the book which bears his name. Ron would not have survived if Harry hadn’t had access to the Prince’s book. Nor would Harry have won the bottle of Felix that enabled him to retrieve the critical memory from Slughorn, and to get his closest friends through the first “Battle of Hogwarts” unscathed.
But the story wasn’t really about the Prince the way PoA was about Sirius Black. It was about Malfoy’s mission, padded with the gaudy distraction of the official Riddle backstory. The Prince, scribbling away in the margins of his own textbook back in the 1970s, had nothing to do with either of those.
In fact, by the end of the volume it was clear that the whole Half-Blood Prince subplot was completely irrelevant to the story of what was going on during Harry Potter’s 6th year at Hogwarts. Harry had desperately needed access to some of the information in the Prince’s old potions text, but he never needed to know the Prince’s identity. If there was any reason at all for Harry needing to know that the book was Snape’s old potions text, that was a shoe that had yet to fall. In fact, it is a shoe that never did fall. The whole issue simply didn’t matter.
So, I thought that we might be putting way too much emphasis on the Deathly Hallows of the final book’s title. We would encounter them, certainly, (whatever they were), and they would probably be pivotal in some manner or other. But the story would probably not be primarily about them. Either they would be the McGuffin that kicks off a major part of the adventure, or they will be some gaudy peripheral issue that Harry cannot access, until the final showdown.
(Boy howdy, did I ever call that one correctly.)
• • • •
As long as we are playing around with the books’ titles, maybe we ought to make a list of the titles we’ve got and take a capsule look at them all before moving on:
All of 3 (the first three) out of the 7 titles were of things that Harry legitimately needed to find, or find out what they were, or confront, in order to discover how they related to what Voldemort, or whoever the enemy du jour was up to.
Philosopher’s Stone: it was the target/bait. Harry had to find out what it was before he could know that Voldemort was after it. Then he decided that he had to personally keep Voldemort from getting it. He ought to have followed orders and just kept out of the whole business, since his interference only made a bad situation worse, but he did not realize that. Many readers still don’t.
Chamber of Secrets: Harry needed to find out what it was, find out where it was, get into it (for which he was uniquely qualified), and then neutralize the monster in it that was attacking people. Until he found it he couldn’t do anything to put an end to the situation.
Prisoner of Azkaban: Harry thought he needed to keep Sirius Black from finding him. Actually he needed to confront Black in order to learn the truth about his parents’ deaths.
Goblet of Fire: the Goblet was the McGuffin that pitched him into the action. I suppose you could say that he needed to find out who had rigged it. But mostly he just needed to rise to the challenge it threw at him and keep from getting himself killed. The Goblet was anything but central to the story.
Order of the Phoenix: Harry didn’t really need to do anything in Year 5 but keep his head down, his mouth shut, and pay attention to his schoolwork. Later, he needed to learn to block out Voldemort’s interference with his mind. He didn’t do a focused job of any of these. And ultimately (as in PS/SS), he exceeded his authority and made a bigger mess of matters than necessary, even though it did put an end to an ongoing situation which had been ongoing for far too long. But the Order just showed up like the 7th cavalry to pull him out of the mess he’d managed to get himself into.
Half-Blood Prince: Harry needed to ignore the distractions and pay attention to Albus’s assignments. Yes, he was fascinated by the novelty of the Prince’s secret spells and potions instructions, but he had comparatively little interest in finding out who the Prince actually was, once he realized the Prince couldn’t be his own father, James Potter. It was Hermione who was determined to follow that thread.
What Harry was running after in Year 6 was the question of what Malfoy was up to. From where Harry was standing, Malfoy had no connection to the HBP of the potions book whatsoever. And, again, this was a situation Harry had been told repeatedly to keep out of.
Interestingly, when he finally got his nose rubbed in the answer to the mystery of just who the Prince was, it was the last thing he wanted to know. So the whole big mystery of who the HBP was eventually just boiled down into the punch line of a rather ironic joke on Harry.
Deathly Hallows: the Hallows were Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald’s little obsession nearly a century earlier. They had absolutely nothing to do with the underlying problem of Tom Riddle, although, interestingly, Tom had managed to get hold of one of the “Hallows” without having any idea of what it was. Albus, who in the last year of his life now knew where all three of the Hallows were, convinced himself that they might give Harry an edge and made a half-arsed effort to see to it that Harry should find out what they were, and to try to make them all accessible to him.
He couldn’t be bothered to do the job in a straightforward manner, of course, and that Harry finally ended up in possession of them at all owed far more to authorial fiat than to Albus. I’m not convinced Harry, or any of us, needed to actually know about them, although Harry would still have needed some plot device or other form of assistance to get him past the Dementors to keep his suicide appointment with Tom. And it seems in the cards that he was always going to be escorted to that meeting by his parents.
• • • •
That said, during the final waiting period before DHs came out, the more I re-examined things, the more I committed to the probability that the expected Snape confrontation would have to be traversed successfully before the showdown with Voldemort. The longer I considered the matter, and the more the specific example of PoA was examined, the more likely it seemed that Snape was going to be the one to give Harry some key element or information that Harry was going to need before he would be able to face Voldemort with any hope of success.
And I called that right too. Not that the issue was ever really in doubt.
• • • •
Permit me to make a pause, and state here and now that J.K. Rowling is an aggravating writer. She never comes right out and tells you what you think you need to know. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s deliberate to some degree. And it does certainly engage the reader more than the passive “sit back and I’ll tell you a story” approach.
By the spring of 2006, my respect for Rowling’s skills in plotting was gradually recovering from the shocks of HBP. It never quite reached its former high point, before DHs blew it away altogether, but then I always have been quick to point out that we were, after all, dealing with a new, basically inexperienced writer who had yet to manage to finish telling her first story. And since at least what at first appeared to be two of the most egregious contradictions in HBP’s storyline, on closer examination turned out to look like they could be fairly major clues to fairly major issues, I was once again inclined to recommend extending her the benefit of the doubt.
I was even willing to entertain the notion that she may have actually had a convincing reason for spending five and a half books setting up the contention that you cannot Apparate or Disapparate anywhere in Hogwarts Castle — which Dumbledore confirms on pg. 60 of the U.S. HB edition of HBP — then underscoreing this by informing us that the Headmaster personally lifted these restrictions for the Apparation class in the Great Hall — and only in the Great Hall, and only for the duration of the lesson — and then turns around and claims that Montegue, who hadn’t even managed to pass the Ministry’s test for an Apparation license, somehow managed to Apparate into Hogwarts from the cabinet. (No such luck.)
However, we already had some clear signs that she isn’t as good at tying off a tale as she is at spinning one out. This is not an uncommon problem for a reader to encounter, and one that even outstanding authors may be prone to.
But she did now appear to be stacking the deck against herself.
• • • •
Imho, neither of the previous two books had really been all that satisfying, and the endings of the previous three (#s 4, 5, & 6) were all unnecessarily muddled and melodramatic. Rowling does not have a sound touch for drama. She keeps going for flashy when she would have a far more powerful statement by sticking to simple.
Plus, a lot of her imagery is right out of video games, which, I’ll admit that at my age I have a hard time regarding as a legitimate art form, regardless of how clever the special effects or sophisticated the animation. The fact remains that the printed word is not animated.
For that matter, computer whiz-bangs do not constitute a story, dammit. And, when irrelevant, they do not improve a story either. They are distracting, they are annoying, and they are the kind of cheap shot that even very good writing would have a difficult time pulling off. From a purely technical standpoint, Rowling’s writing skills are not up to that.
The previous three books were also where the series spun completely out of control. And the balance seems to be somehow off in all of them. GoF has problems (largely due to its ludicrous premise, and the fact that in retrospect, virtually nothing which was originally assumed to be jumping-off spots for future action turned out to be anything of the sort) which may or may not be partially due to the major retrofit that Rowling claims she had to perform in the middle of it, on a deadline, after a fairly grueling 1 year = 1 book schedule which had gone on for 4 years.
OotP was so thoroughly out of balance that every time Dolores Umbridge showed up I just wanted to quit reading, and had to push through a wall of resistance. Encountering one of the villains of the piece ought not to make the reader want to quit reading a book! When this happens, something has gone badly wrong. You need to keep track of villains. They are what drives the story.
HBP was much easier to get through than OotP, which was a relief, but then it drove me nuts with all of its contradictions to earlier canon and the persistent failure to build anything on top of any of the foundation of new information that had been laid in OotP.
And the book itself was disgracefully padded. However offended I may have been at the discovery that I’d been sold a series of school stories about a teenaged dropout, by the time DHs was pending I had finally concluded that by HBP Rowling seemed to have been fed up with the whole school story framework herself.
The school story framework no longer really served the story she was trying to tell, either. The subplot of HBP does not have anything to do with the central plot, and the plot, subplot, and background information which she seemed to be trying to give us over the course of the book all appear to have been arbitrarily stretched out over the framework of a whole school year, stapled down in the few places where a handful of key incidents were allowed to happen, and the gaps filled in with Quidditch woes and chest monsters.
Neither of which advanced the plot At All.
Dumbledore could have shown Harry the whole Pensieve presentation of the Life and Times of Tom Marvolo Riddle by Halloween, certainly by the Christmas break. Instead he drags it out until about what, April? Rowling is presumed to have had a story to tell us, and she made it fit into one school year, but she really didn’t have enough *story* to fill a full school year — given the amount of information she still wanted to keep holding out on us. We ended up spending much of the book spinning our wheels and being bored to death by ’shipping developments. All of which were played strictly for laughs, when they really weren’t at all funny.
And having the Half-Blood Prince turn out to just be Severus Snape did nothing but please the Snape fans by giving them an “überSnape” to play with for a couple of years. At the end of which time Rowling snatched him away, and wouldn’t let them keep him, when they really wanted to.
Instead, he got replaced somewhere in the middle of in DHs by clueless!Emo!Snape, who came out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to even have the potential to develop into the “half-blood Prince” — who we are now supposed to believe was the *same person* writing his clever little spells and brilliant potions procedures in his textbook at the very same time that this gormless new iteration was being nagged and browbeaten by a “best friend” who was looking for an excuse to dump him. I’m sorry, but the Snape of ‘The Prince’s Tale’ is simply not the same person as the Half-Blood Prince of HBP at all.
And, after the fact, it really doesn’t even turn out to matter what the true identity of the Half-Blood Prince was for the purposes of the story. The whole discovery serves only as the punch line of a protracted joke on Harry. (And just possibly to underscore the fact that when the subject is Snape, Harry never seems to get it right.) It’s the tail of a shaggy-dog story. If there ever was a purpose to it, it never managed to surface. Once that sinks in, the whole exercise becomes just plain annoying.
We can tell when we are being palmed off with fluff.
• • • •
Smoke and mirrors.
There is just way too much smoke and mirrors in this series. I was finally beginning to be relieved by the prospect of Harry not returning to class in Book 7. I hoped that maybe without forcing the final segment into the artificial frame of the school year, Rowling would finally settle down and tell the story without the kind of dreary time-wasting that she subjected us to in HBP. And give us some decent pacing for heaven’s sake.
(Oh, if only, if only. Instead, she decided she had to string the action out over the time required to get us through Tonks’s pregnancy. It was only once little Teddy Lupin was properly born that she finally stopped farting around and finished the story off in a rush.)
By the beginning of 2007, I truly suspected that the whole 6th book was a massive piece of misdirection. Rowling had blindfolded us, spun us around, and pointed us in the wrong direction.
That much is allowable. But then she went farther, and got up our collective noses by ignoring or dismissing all of the issues that she had raised in OotP and had flagged as important. Metamorphomagi? Get over it, Tonks is just another silly, lovesick girl. The Locked Room in the DoM? Legilimency and Occlumency? The Veil?
Fuggedaboutit! Doesn’t matter. None of that stuff matters. At the end of the series it still doesn’t matter.
It OUGHT to have mattered.
We’d been faithfully following along, like good little fans, for anything up to a decade, gathering up all the clues and hints she dropped and trying to sort them out and piece them together into a coherent pattern, and she suddenly blew us a raspberry, mocks us with a deliberately silly teen lurve soap opera, and introduced a whole new storyline. (Which she then blew off in turn, and dragged us all off into a season of winter camping and grief therapy.)
We spent three bloody years of our lives waiting for Book 5 and now she tells us that nothing that was in it matters?! That what really matters is these new Horcruxy things? Of course we’re offended.
As readers we enjoy being tricked, especially if the trick is clever. Why on earth would people read murder mysteries otherwise? But this wasn’t even clever. It was insulting.
It took a while to recover our balance.
• • • •
It was during this interlude that I belatedly came to the realization that reading the Harry Potter series is rather like watching ‘Moulin Rouge’. Both are obviously cobbled together of predominantly recycled elements. Rather trite elements at that. Interspersed with intentional silliness.
So here we have a musical with songs that were never designed to relate to one another, dance numbers that never quite ever materialize, and the whole tied to a transparently thin and basically ludicrous storyline, with huge set pieces that are just sort of there without any really convincing logic to them at all.
‘Moulin Rouge’ is fractionally more cynical and self-consciously “ironic” in its presentation, and Potter a tad more conservative-minded and mean-spirited, but both are highly entertaining. And both are such awkward bundles of stuff that it is laughably easy to find a hook somewhere in there to hang a “meaning” upon.
Rowing has demonstrated a fine talent for assembling pre-existing elements into an entertaining package. Her writing skills unfortunately, are fairly rudimentary, which can be a bit frustrating. I wish that I could see what someone with really good writing skills could have done with the same elements. But that is something that none of us will ever see. Or not out where we can recognize it, probably.
But even all those years ago I was beginning to wonder whether the fact that Rowling was such a newbie may not be the reason she had managed to keep the balls spinning in the air so long. Her experience at writing wasn’t varied enough to be aware that it usually doesn’t work that way.
• • • •
I’m afraid I’ve come more and more around to the opinion that Rowling is the kind of author who simply doesn’t think. So to look for an analytical interpretation of anything in the series is probably an exercise in frustration. She paints what is intended as impressive word pictures — essentially vignettes — mainly on the basis of how they are supposed to push your buttons and make you feel, without ever considering how they are supposed to fit together. This sometimes produces a considerable emotional impact, if you are at all sensitive to that kind of jerking around, but it doesn’t necessarily make sense. And sometimes they just plain backfire. Such as when Snape and Yaxley meet in a dark lane, enter through a gate, cross a dark garden, are admitted into a dimly lit entry hall, and are ushered into a sitting room lit only by a roaring fire, and then pause for their eyes to adjust *to the “lack of light”* WTF?! Aren't their eyes already attuned to low light?
Quite a few of these issues are still slowly coming into focus. And one of the sharpest is the awareness that the world Rowling assembled is simply a lot bigger than the narrow-focused, smug, anglo-centric view of it she gave us.
Because when you come right down to it, it becomes clear that she never really intended to build a solid secondary world to put her story in. She simply didn’t do the groundwork. Instead, she has ended up with this weird amalgamation that she threw together — which is highly detailed in some areas, and only vaguely sketched in elsewhere with several great gaping holes where you least expect them, to fall right out of the story through.
But, back when she first assembled this pretend world, she used the best possible materials available.
She mined folklore, and classic (written) tales that have been pretty fully absorbed by the culture, as well as ancient myth, and symbolism that has been around for centuries, she mimicked the authentically traditional “tropes” of how stories are put together and how they work, and she did it with a free hand. But I’m no longer convinced that she did it all consciously. I think she slung a lot of them together because they just “felt” right together. Sure, sometimes she tweaked them before she deployed them, or renamed them, or trivialized the hell out of them (unicorns are NOT sweet, innocent one-horned horsies. They aren’t even equines. They’re monsters), but she hardly ever invented anything new. Most of her elements already existed. The only thing in the Potterverse that is really original are some of her combinations. And, of course, the Dementors.
Consequently, as I say, she ended up with something that is a lot bigger than she is. And which upon first encounter comes across as a lot more erudite than she probably really is too, because all of the elements she used to build it came already equipped with their own baggage, and a whole pre-existing collection of associations which all originally led someplace. And most of them are so widely known and/or so universal that even with a 2nd or 3rd-rate education, you are able to recognize them, and are at least somewhat aware of what those particular elements usually mean.
And the components are all thoroughly documented, so you can readily find out what the original source meant if you are at all curious. But that doesn’t mean that she ever intended to use any of that material. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is certainly bigger than the shallow, petty, and mean-spirited viewpoint that she keeps pushing into the foreground and expecting us to use as a lens.
And it’s very small wonder that — now she has invited the public to come and check it out by getting it published, a lot of the fans are determined to keep it for themselves.
It’s small wonder that — even as awkward and incomplete as her version is — once a lot of fans find their way into the Potterverse, they aren’t in the least bit ready to leave just because Harry’s story is told.
They want to explore this incomplete world, and have a go at patching some of the holes themselves. By that point, closing off Harry’s story was as welcome as being finally rid of an irritating docent who keeps going on and on about the glories of the accomplishments of one modern splinter group when what you want to do is to examine the base that the splinter group was building upon.
• • • •
But, then, I’m also noting that there have been any number of other writers in the past 45 years or so who break into the field and then settle down to writing series fiction, and it takes several books before it gradually dawns on you that they are just writing the same story over and over. In Rowling’s case, she’s still been writing the same story, and it really is the same story! Or at least it was supposed to be the same story. The acid test will be when she tries to write something else, and we then see whether that turns out to be the same story too.
• • • •
But the thing is that the story that we’ve now got does pretty heavily resemble the teen soap opera that a lot of the fans disparaged it as after working their way through HBP. This world is missing large chunks of the necessary foundation, and various of what looked like major elements have never been explained any more than Sateen’s elephant (i.e., why an elephant?) — until you have to wonder whether these even are real elements of the story, or just set-dressing deployed to serve as local color, or a vaguely looming threat in the background.
While the series was still open, we could still hope that there would be a payoff due regarding the inconsistencies. And we expected that there would be for at least some of them. But we knew there wouldn’t be for all. There were just too many of them by then.
And I think it was the fact that the series was so close to its recycled components that is why so many fans read it, were entranced by the character (stereo)types’ interactions, and decided; “Hey, I can do that!”. And in a remarkably high percentage of the time, they could. There is a reason why the Potterverse has spawned so much fanfiction.
But “story” in itself is not “literature”. Yes, it is an essential component of literature. Literature cuts and polishes story and deploys it like the central gem in a well-designed piece of jewelry. The Potter series is practically pure story, given just enough facets to make it sparkle, and then dumped naked into the marketplace. All of the veils of “literary meaning” that have been draped around it by its more serious-minded fans, most of whom were familiar with the components that Rowling built her world from, were just as likely as not to turn out to be hallucinations. And many of them have.
And yes, my respect for Rowling as a writer suffered a major hit after HBP, since it appeared that she spent most of the book contradicting everything that she had spent the previous 5 books establishing. Particularly things she had only just established in OotP — which we had waited for three years to get. I felt like I had been caught in a nasty little piece of bait-and-switch, and I was Not Amused.
After 2–3 months, however, I finally began to recognize that some of the most infuriating of these contradictions could just possibly have been clues. And if those were, some others may be as well. And some of the apparently irrelevant details dropped in passing might not be irrelevant at all.
I did suspect that not all of the maybe-clues that I was noting would turn out to be anything of the sort. But a few of them probably would. Up to that point I seemed to have had a 1 out of 3 track record for accuracy. Which isn’t all that bad, considering.
But while my respect for the overall planning of the series had mostly recovered, my respect for the handling of the material had not. The actual writing was clumsy and excessively melodramatic. And I thought her editors ought to be smacked. Hard. (Which goes double in spades after DHs. I don’t think anyone even tried to edit that book.)
But a story gem is still a story gem, even if it is badly cut and rattling about loose in a cardboard box painted with tacky seaside slogans.
• • • •
As rather more a point of concern; by the end of HBP Rowling appeared to have now evicted herself from an environment which she had proved that she could handle engagingly, and leaped into the middle of one, i.e., high quest fantasy, which requires an entirely different skill set, and is, moreover, a form that she was now publicly claiming in interviews that she didn’t particularly like.
Nothing in any of the 3300 pages that she had given us to that point suggested that she possessed the necessary skills to be able to bring off a piece of high quest fantasy with any kind of style or coherence, and while her tendency to “embrace the cheese” may work in film, especially in the sort of neo-“matinee movie” genre exemplified by George Lucas and early Spielberg, on paper, embracing the cheese is apt to come across as merely, well, cheesy.
Part of the problem, of course, is that Rowling is good enough at what she is good at, that it tends to raise expectations to a higher level than her purely technical skills can be depended upon to deliver. Fans keep getting taken up short by the fact that she simply isn’t good at everything.
And very little that I’d seen to that date suggested to me that she hadn’t finally bitten off more than she could chew. I simply did not quite have the necessary confidence in her technical ability to wrap this story up as well as it needed to be. Even if my respect for her skill at plotting was on the mend.
The problem is that plotting isn’t writing.
By then, however I had also recalled that when we finally got OotP into our hands, it had seemed to present a jarring shift of tone and story from the four previous books too — although the plot itself appeared to be a linear extension of the previous books.
So I began to wonder whether in OotP Rowling introduced us to only half of the problem, with the opposite half being what she gave us in HBP; the two halves scheduled to finally collide in Book 7.
I supposed that it was at least a viable hypothesis. It was certainly blatantly obvious that in OotP we weren’t getting the full story. And there was a lot obviously going on off the page in HBP as well. But I was reluctant to count on it.
Plus, in HBP we got a heavy dose of the down side of a grown woman spinning together a story from an outline that was originally hammered out over a decade earlier by a 20-something. The headings and subheadings may not have changed. But the infill appeared to have shifted.
We’d also been left with enough odd, dangling strings, and loose ends, and clues apparently pointing to nowhere to conclude that some of these may be artifacts of abandoned plot elements that simply never developed and that she would never manage to get back to. Which had injected unnecessary confusion into the story, and is untidy.
• • • •
As a theorist; sifting minutia is a large part of my standard approach to reading the previous six installments of the Adventure of Harry Potter and the Dark Lord (or; ‘Harry Potter and the Seven Riddles’, as it has been dubbed by a certain LiveJournalist, and is a title I rather like). Consequently I’ve stumbled across more than one of these suspected bits of flotsam, although there are undoubtedly plenty more of them that I have either dismissed or overlooked.
Of course not all fans are theorists, and not all fans are fixated on issues of misfitting minutia, or the lazy logic of claiming that the story is about choices, when your villain has been set up as a raging (and apparently hereditary!) sociopath who, from birth, was manifestly incapable of making proper choices, nor of the enshrined hypocrisy of just about every one of her protagonists.
No, unfortunately. Post HBP, many were convinced that any objections one might have to the direction the series was taking must be about the ’shipping.
Post DHs, Rowling’s dittoheads are convinced that any objections must merely be sour grapes because Rowling took the story in a direction the dissatisfied didn’t like.
Read my lips. ’Shipping bores me.
From all indications it isn’t all that high on Rowling’s list either.
Rowling can’t avoid it of course. She’s dealing with 16-year-olds. Even Percy had a girlfriend when he was 16.
But her handling of this “vital issue” was such as to suggest that she thinks that the whole subject is simply funny. Or at least every bit as funny as boring old History! And her jokes on each of these subjects are every bit as insulting as her jokes on the other.
(Why, oh why couldn’t Hermione have made her little beaded bag in HBP and given us a running joke that was funny.)
*sigh* And after she put in all that work in OotP to try to show us an essentially “gender-blind” society, too! (Fuggedaboutit! Doesn’t matter!)
(ETA: 2022 and isn’ THAT the truth! Taken your mask off, eh?)
Well, given that enacting the stereotype is the greater part of what Teen Love is all about, I suppose we ought to have considered ourselves warned. But then I also suppose that trying to write Teen Love in a way that will still be entertaining to 9-year-olds presents its own challenges.
(What? You forgot the small fry were still with us? Hey, just because you’re no longer nine years old...)
Having been creebing about Rowling’s dismissive and disrespectful treatment of History for years, I admit that when HBP came out I got a certain mean satisfaction by this practical illustration that it is all a question of just whose ox is being gored.
And, so far as I am concerned, she could have taken Book 7 in any number of even less promising directions than she did, and welcome, if she had made an effort to be convincing about it. But she didn’t.
• • • •
Although I will have to say that I think that publicly calling the Harry/Hermione ’shippers delusional was a bit in excess of the requirements. They had every reason to think that they were interpreting something that was actually in the text.
Even though that particular reading seems to have been largely due to movie contamination. A lot of the H/Hr ’shippers probably saw the movies first. Which set their underlying assumptions, and even reading the books later on has never shifted them.
I mean, really. How could anyone seriously “’ship” movie!Hermione with movie!Ron? Particularly if they haven’t read the books yet. It’s inconceivable. And the fact that Rowling had been generally stated (by fans and studio publicists alike) to have approved the screenplays (whether she actually reviewed them in any kind of depth or not) just makes the perceptions they bring in from the movies seem all the more legitimate, in defiance of the actual text. In the movies, Harry is the Hero. Hermione is the Heroine. Of course they belong together. Ron? Who’s he?
May I be honest here? I despise the movies.
The bottom line is that I heartily disapprove of the fact that the movies were being made before Rowling had finished writing the series. I was convinced that that was going to distort the story before it was even complete. And I was right.
And it’s not like they are immortal examples of cinematography, either.
The first two were hardly more than hackwork and the third, while it was a reasonably entertaining movie, was not the story. And while the fourth was even more entertaining, it isn’t really the whole story either. How could it be in only three hours, or thereabouts? (Haven’t seen the rest of them and don’t particularly intend to.)
And the films are doing nothing but skewing the perception of what is actually in the books. Even if someone goes back and reads the books.
And I am absolutely convinced that the excessive melodrama and sloppy execution of the last three books was largely thanks to Rowling knowing that whatever she wrote was going to be filmed. She was “writing for the movies” and forgetting that they needed to read as novels.
But, then, I am a theorist, not a film critic.
And if you’ve been listening to me for any appreciable length of time you already know that there are no “movie-based theories” to be found on this site. And probably not more than one or two references to the “celluloid things I try not to mention” in the collection, either.
Which one correspondent rather convincingly (and embarrassingly) pointed out to me is about twice the overall length of OotP. And that was even before the last books were released — which set off any amount of additional material. *sigh*
• • • •
One of the things that most put my nose out of joint over HBP, in addition to the above-mentioned canon inconsistencies, gender stereotypes, lazy logic, and enshrined hypocrisy, was the continuing lack of a clear distinction between Dark and Light magic and a continuing avoidance of anything that could be construed as a plausible history of her world.
On a second reading I found that she had at least finally given us *something* in the nature of a hint of what the nature of the Dark Arts presumably is in that world, but still no real distinction between the Dark Arts and “normal” magic. And we were still left stranded and trying to balance on the top of a “history” constructed of no more than a wobbly structure of variously silly jokes. She didn’t give us any kind of a clarification on that.
Book 6 was the point — or so it seemed to me — that Rowling really needed to get down to brass tacks and explain certain fundamentals like the aforementioned distinction between Dark magic and everything else, and the underlying structure of the series’ backstory. If you are presenting a story and dressing it up in the costume of being a tale of some eternal conflict between good and evil, you need to define just where, for the purpose of this particular story, evil starts.
And she didn’t. In fact, she didn’t so thoroughly that I finally concluded that she didn’t ever intend to. Which struck me as completely incredible.
The lady allegedly is not stupid. And for all her pose of not being a fan of quest fantasy, her knowledge of folklore seems clearly to be fairly broad, and she knows how this kind of story is put together. There is always a line drawn in the sand somewhere, distinguishing between what is classified as “Dark” and everything else. And she still hadn’t shown us where that line is drawn in her Potterverse.
Or even if it is drawn. And if she hadn’t done so by that time, the omission had to be deliberate. Either she was running an experiment of her own of telling a story in which there IS no line in the sand, and leaving it up to the reader to draw it, without prompting or clues, or she had held the information back because she had a bombshell to attach to it before she lobbed it at us.
And both possibilities looked about equally likely at that point. It seemed to me that such a fundamental omission could hardly have been made by accident.
But the continuing omission caused me to finally stop crediting her with having ever attempted to construct a viable secondary world to set her story in. Even if she had merely done it poorly.
It’s an attempt at a fairy tale. A very long and involved fairy tale, to be sure, but still a fairy tale. Her social mechanics are all pasted on. They do not support the society she presents, they decorate it. She’s tossed in various broadly-recognizable trappings as set-dressing because they evoke a mood and they looked “traditional” without any consideration as to whether they made sense in the context she was using them, or even of whether she had included the tradition which had originally produced them in her universe. There is no history here. And a functioning society does not just spring, fully-formed out of the void without one.
She didn’t even take the traditional low road of postulating that her world is “just like” our world — only with magic. Because her world is NOT like our world. There are just too many indications from what she does tell us that her world couldn’t plausibly have got to where our world is. It didn’t start from the same point.
Once you go to the effort of putting yourself into it, the Potterverse often turns out to end up being as uncomfortable, and irritating, as a cheap suit. The sort which only fits where it touches. And the seams always rub.
• • • •
Rowling admits some of this. Soon after the release of HBP a now rather notorious interview appeared in TIME — one which was clearly written with a quick-quotes quill by a Mr Lev Grossman.
The most objectionable statements, and there were quite a few of those, were put into Rowling’s mouth by the journalist — who obviously prided himself on not reading fantasy, and consequently wouldn’t recognize a valid work of fantasy if it bit him on the kneecap. He further chose to flaunt his ignorance by setting up a straw man to describe to his readers just what fantasy is; an example which was so ludicrous that it simply underscored the fact that he either is an ignoramus or was doing a determined job of pretending to be one. The fantasy genre is just plain not the “deeply conservative” environment of his imaginings (although the Potterverse, rather embarrassingly, seems to have turned out to be). And there is a whole lot more to fantasy than just high quest fantasy.
This interview drew some fire when the popular author, Terry Prachett publicly (and deservedly) mocked it in a letter to the editors. But one of the statements in that particular puff piece that really was Rowling’s was the statement that she doesn’t consider herself a fantasy author. She isn’t a particularly big fantasy fan.
And it shows. If the Potterverse was ever really intended as a secondary fantasy world she did not do her homework. In fact she appears to have been unclear on the concept of just what the assignment even was. Great swathes of the background are simply missing, and she seems unaware of the fact. There is no well-conceived and solidly constructed secondary world to be found here. Not even close. There is no solid foundation. The whole edifice shimmies in a high wind. This is not an Alternate Universe. This is our own world as reflected in a funhouse mirror. You are supposed to laugh at it.
Until you finally figure out that it just isn’t funny.
By then I was beginning to suspect that that just may be the point.
“I was trying to subvert the genre,” Rowling explains bluntly. “Harry goes off into this magical world, and is it any better than the world he’s left? Only because he meets nicer people. Magic does not make his world better significantly. The relationships make his world better. Magic in many ways complicates his life.”
Well, that’s what she is supposed to have said.
However, I was unsure as to whether even that statement could be taken at face value. As I point out above. Rowling’s wizarding world, once you look past the deliberate silliness spread thickly across the surface, really isn’t funny at all. And even its own best and brightest don’t seem to have that much of a grip.
...Even leaving aside the issue of how she can possibly claim that having magic “complicate the hero’s life” ought to be taken as subversive when that has ONLY been established as one of the fundamental defining principles of the whole genre of children’s fantasy since the mid-19th century, I don’t know.
But, truly, there isn’t any more of a “secondary world” to be found here than can be found in ‘The Rose and the Ring’. The Potterverse, when even casually examined, hasn’t much more order or continuity than the Land of Oz.
Well. Hey. Fans have spent the last 100+ years trying to come up with a “unified theory of everything” accounting for the myriad contradictions attributed to the Land of Oz. It’s totally irresolvable, but it’s still highly entertaining to the people who are still out there doing it more than a century later.
But somehow I’m not sure that they will be doing that for the Potter series in 2107.
• • • •
Speaking of which: over the course of the first four books Voldemort is stated as being “the most dangerous Dark wizard in a hundred years” on at least two occasions. In HBP Rowling seemed to be abandoning this reasonably balanced starting point in favor of painting him the most dangerous Dark wizard EVER. Frankly, this is beyond embracing the cheese. That’s melodrama. It’s overblown, and like a great deal of the information handed to us in HBP, it wallows in absolutes. It undermines whatever plausibility the narrative still had, which, considering that the narrative doesn’t have a solid foundation to begin with, looked a lot like shooting herself in the foot.
And it’s all of a piece with a far more general careening off into a hyperbolic, cartoon-like tone which had become pervasive over the course of HBP. By HBP, delivering the necessary plot points had become dependent upon the broad adoption of “idiot plot” devices and a general lack of balance that had gradually overtaken the whole narrative. This kind of thing ill-serves the moderately sophisticated message that Rowling claimed to be trying to put across, and it sells her audience short. It’s insulting. And it’s in very bad taste.
Unfortunately the problem was very definitely there. I wasn’t imagining it.
Nor am I the only reader to have registered it. This is the reason why so many of the readers of HBP who are in their later teens and older kept complaining that HBP “reads like fanfiction”. It does. It really does. The reasoning supporting HBP is just plain immature.
Not that the earlier books didn’t also have something of fanfic about them. Like I say, that’s probably why the series has generated so much of the stuff in the first place. But one might reasonably have expected the telling to be getting deeper as the tale went on rather than shallower.
• • • •
And then the final book finally came out, and that tore it.
There is a lot to complain about in the 7th book and you had better believe I intend to do it, too.
But I suspect that the most disconcerting factor of DHs is that the adult fans all got their noses thoroughly rubbed in the fact that Rowling absolutely wasn’t writing this story for them. And, indeed, never had been.
When looked at objectively, it has never been particularly clear whether Rowling was writing a series of children’s adventures, or a series of YA novels. I am forced to the conclusion that she may not realize that there is a difference. YA, after all, is a fairly recent classification of books intended for young people. But the level of reasoning required by the two styles of writing are very distinct from one another, and it is usually not at all difficult to tell which one you’ve got hold of. As one critic — I believe it may have been Orson Scott Card — put it, there are explanations that you can use in a children’s book that simply won’t work in YA (and vice-versa). One example, which may have been pointed out in Mr Card’s posting, or possibly in one that I encountered elsewhere online, was that of the four classic books of children’s stories about a certain Mrs Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald.
I loved the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books as a child. All three of them. And I was absolutely delighted when a 4th book finally came out years after I discovered them. The Mrs Piggle-Wiggle stories are all unequivocally children’s books with the sort of exaggerated story arcs, and over-the-top solutions which can be deployed without apology in children’s books, complete with a number of totally random, deliberately silly details, like Mrs Piggle-Wiggle’s upside-down house, which was never actually utilized for anything, but simply thrown in for fun. That sort of thing comes with the territory in stories written to entertain children. If you were going to be a pill and turn up your nose and point out that it wasn’t “realistic” you deserved to have people look at you as if they were wondering what rock you crawled out from under. “Realistic” quite obviously wasn’t the point.
YA, despite the temptation to dismiss it as such, is not, however, the same thing as the “teen” books from the same era as the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books. I read few of those. They appeared to be mostly concerned about being “popular” and were primarily defined by such things as reading levels and vocabulary lists. I found them terminally boring and went off to the adult side of the library to read Max Schulman or Agatha Christe.
YA, however, is not — it turns out — books that are merely for young adults, they are books about functioning as a young adult. Even as an overly young “adult”. (Sending a boy to do a man’s job, in other words.)
This kind of book does require a degree of plausible verisimilitude in any of its motivations or reactions, and to any of the explanations given if it is going to function as intended. It requires a high degree of emotional honesty at the very least. And it allows for a much greater potential for depth than what can typically be delivered in the classic “writing to entertain children”.
Despite the fact that there has been YA “content” scattered all through the Potter series, the first couple of books are clearly intended as children’s books. They are every bit as silly and as exaggerated as Mrs Piggle-Wiggle’s upside-down house, or her magical remedies for children’s misbehavior. But the next two Potter books genuinely aren’t a bit clear on who they are for, and the 5th and 6th were almost purely YA novels (despite the sudden attack of shallowness and the hyperbolic tone that overtook HBP).
I was convinced that the reader was being encouraged to grow up with the protagonist. I’m sure that I was not the only reader to get this impression. The concept appeared to be reasonably clever, and wasn’t too badly handled.
Instead, when we reached the final book, the level and verisimilitude of the explanations given in it abruptly threw us all back into the kiddie end of the pool, complete with the classic juvenile trope of rendering every one of the adults fundamentally stupid in order to more greatly empower the kids.
Who, frankly were no longer kids, although they behaved like it.
Which was further compounded by the problematic fact that Rowling had by then established the practice of repeatedly dumbing Harry down at the opening of every successive book in a Sisyphean attempt to keep him perpetually starting out from exactly the same place from which he had first entered the wizarding world. i.e., That of the ignorant outsider who, not being a part of the problem, supposedly can look at the problem with a clear eye, in order to solve it.
Essentially she seemed to be trying to repeatedly tell us the same story, over and over, despite the fact that she still hadn't finished telling it to us the first time.
This worked when he was 11 and 12. It has not worked as well since then. To the point that in DHs the very first thing Rowling did was to overtly erase knowledge and skills from Harry which she had depicted him using in HBP. And we noticed it.
Indeed, the whole premise she now suddenly appeared to be trying to establish was that after six years of a magical education, Harry Potter simply doesn’t know any useful magic. (Perhaps this was to keep it from complicating his life further?)
One thing that seemed to be evident is that Rowling had reached the point of believing the media’s spin on her place in the publishing firmament. That her fandom is composed of kids. Only the kids, and that she had no obligation to anyone but the kids.
She was wrong. So was the media.
Kids may certainly be fans, but they do not create fandoms. Nor do they perpetuate them. They do not have the focus, they do not have the time, and they certainly do not have the money or their own transportation, both of which are required if a fandom is to ever “take” and start moving under its own steam. It wasn't the kids’ money that bought all those books, or the myriad Potter-related products, nor did we suddenly experience a worldwide outbreak of blindly indulgent parents. Many, if not most of those kids’ parents had also become fans in their own right. This was something that they could do with their kids. But the fandom, as a fandom, was built by the fans who were in their later teens and up. Exactly the readers that DHs was not intended for.
Of course, the media has always pointed the camera firmly at the little kids, written glowing human interest stories about children and Harry Potter, and tried very hard to firmly ignore, dismiss, or mock the adults holding Potter Symposiums worldwide — to which young children are not typically admitted. But it is the adults who are the core of any fandom. And they are the ones who will stick around when the canon is closed.
If you haven't alienated them by then.
Much of this segment of the readership only surfaced with PoA. That seems to have been the watershed point for the series. If PoA had remained on the same level of lively juvenile adventure as the first two books, the Potter series would have still been a popular childrens’ series. But about the only adults that it would have attracted would have been the parents of the target audience and a few random adults who simply *like* to read childrens’ literature. The books would probably not have become media events.
But it didn’t. Rowling appeared to have something to say in PoA. And she evidently could not say it without managing to attain a level of depth which was largely absent from the two books that preceded it.
And of course the clever, and thoroughly unexpected reveal/reversal of PoA’s climax certainly didn't hurt, either.
• • • •
I personally have a problem in the fact that, over the years that I have been analyzing the series and trying to interpret what is going on in it, I have fallen into the habit of, wherever something appeared to make no sense, to assume that there was something that I’d missed. To conclude that there is some element that I simply did not know about, and that if I knew it, that would bring the issue into focus. That, in fact, there was an underlying order to this world even if the author was presenting it in a less than optimal manner.
But now, post-DHs, this really doesn’t appear to be the case. Where something appears to have made no sense, it all too often simply doesn’t make sense. There is no missing element that has been cleverly concealed. There is just nothing there. Even the Grand Contradictions are not necessarily cleverly placed clues. They may be only contradictions.
Not that one’s own reasoning may not simply turn out to be wrong. Regardless of however carefully one reads the material. I’ve certainly managed to do that. Frequently. I never had a higher average than one accurate guess out of three and I never expected to.
For example: I could not believe that Snape had managed to so completely win Albus’s trust in the period of the 7–8 weeks that he had been teaching at Hogwarts and spying for both sides before the Dark Lord’s first defeat. I felt that if Albus did really trust Snape, when he vouched for him before the Wizengamot, then the association must actually have gone farther back than that. Because, after all, such a level of trust is not so easily won.
So I built up this fine theoretical backstory of their association having been established much earlier than the date that Snape was hired as a teacher, in fact possibly before Harry was born.
And up to a point I seem to have been correct. While there is a good deal of question as to whether the meeting on the grassy knoll — excuse me, the windy hilltop — between Snape and Albus took place during the winter of ’79–’80 or the winter of ’80–’81, it would have hardly been taking place on a windy hilltop if it had happened at any point after Snape had already started working in Albus’s school. I mean, consider; is it reasonable to suppose that Snape would have been setting up meetings on hilltops and crying out; “Don’t kill me!” Once he had given Albus his penitent DE story and Albus had “forgiven him”, and taken him on staff?
And when we got the “Grand Contradiction” between Albus and Sybil’s account of the night the Prophecy was made, that looked like fairly convincing evidence that I was very much on the right track and that the association had possibly even begun before the Prophecy was made.
Well, um, no. Or at least, not according to Rowling.
It turns out that my “Grand Contradiction” was allegedly just another commonplace contradiction. It does indeed contradict, but that is all but totally irrelevant. That wasn’t the clue. Or, rather, that is not what that particular clue was about. The real clue was just yet another little pointer to Albus’s congenital habit of lying. The official story is now that Snape really did only go to Albus when he learned that Lily was at risk. The “likely story” of his repentance and Albus’s forgiveness (not that it looked much like forgiveness to me, and just what authority did Albus have to forgive Snape for falling in with a bad crowd? What responsibility had he ever taken for Snape?) was only a lie in that it had actually happened a few months earlier than they both were admitting.
And with that in mind, one can now see that Albus probably did not truly trust Snape when he vouched for him before the Wizengamot. Albus was merely lying to the Wizengamot about the value he had gotten from Snape’s assistance, because Albus knew that the problem of Voldemort was not solved, and that Snape was a tool that he wasn’t finished with yet.
All of which is just sort of... sleazy.
And it smarts. It really does. But one cannot say that the relevant clue wasn’t there. We watched Albus shave the truth to fit his audience all through the series. We knew that he lied, even when he did promise not to on one occasion (and then did so anyway). I just grabbed the ball and ran in the wrong direction.
But then all of my theories are the kind of theories that a grown-up would come up with. I still think that any of them might make a perfectly good armature upon which to build a YA novel. (I also tend to think that some of them had better real dramatic potential than what Rowling actually gave us.) But Rowling evidently never really intended to write YA novels and I now think the ones that she gave us, she gave us by accident.
Although I am still going to have to say that if Albus ever really did intend to suppress that Prophecy, how he ever let Severus get away un-Obliviated after he and Aberforth had him in custody is all but inconceivable. He knew who the boy was. He’d had the awareness of the kid’s existence forced on him after the werewolf caper and he knew what crowd the boy had run with while he was at school. The Machiavellian Albus that we got in DHs would have Obliviated him in a blink. But then the Machiavellian Albus we got in DHs would have also been perfectly capable of letting Snape go ahead and report it just in hopes of goading Tom into action.
And we all need to remember that he then hedged his bets by waltzing into the Ministry and oh-so-virtuously handing over a Prophecy record, labeled with the Dark Lord’s downfall, just in case that unprepossessing youngster wasn’t one of Tom’s, in order to make sure that somebody would start the rumors flying.
For the same boy to suddenly show up, weeks or months later, and voluntarily just hand him critical information on Tom’s decisions would have been the last thing he expected. And some of the harshness of his response may have been because he didn’t believe it wasn’t a feint on Tom’s part. But we will never know the truth of that.
But simply being wrong about an interpretation, or even a lot of interpretations, does not explain the thoroughgoing level of affront which is surfacing among Rowling’s fans in reaction to the handling of the final book of the series. Something rather basic has gone seriously awry in the underlying contract between the Author and the Reader.
• • • •
On one of the boards which I used to periodically follow, there is a moderator who lives in Scotland and has a fairly wide acquaintance in Edinburgh. Among whom is a fellow who was involved in an educational training course at the same time that Rowling was training for her teachers’ qualification.
The moderator relayed the information that when her associate had been helping to mark people’s work on a writers’ course in the early ’90s, and Rowling was doing the same, she had mentioned at that time that she was working on a book about wizards and the organizer, asked; “Is it a children’s book?” and she replied “Er — not really”, and had actually told them that her aim was to write a series which started off looking as if it was a children’s series and then got progressively darker and more adult. In a way which, according to the report, struck him and the organizer as kind-of creepy — something more than just the books growing up as the readers did.
As the moderator pointed out, her friend’s anecdote may owe something to 20/20 hindsight, but it does at least raise the probability that such an intent was always there.
And indeed, someone is hardly going to be raising issues like slavery in Book 2, introducing soul-eating monsters used to control the citizenry in Book 3, and unmasking a complete dismissal of due process of law in Book 4 by accident. Something of that intent probably was always there. But, if so, the follow-through was grossly inadequate to the requirements.
If you are determined to raise such issues you really ought to show that something has been done to address them by the end of the story. It’s your duty.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether after the burn-out of GoF she simply let half of her intentions for the series fall through the cracks.
And for all that Rowling was now dealing with increasingly “serious” themes, when it came to the final book, she dealt with them (where she dealt with them at all) as if she were dealing with them in a book for much younger children than those the previous two books (indeed, the previous four books) had been written for, and none of the explanations or the reasoning used to justify anything in it were the sort of explanations that someone would have come up with who was “thinking like a grown-up”. It was a nasty shock to the system and made a complete shambles of our expectations. For an author who claims that kids can handle serious themes and that such themes ought not to be sugar-coated for their consumption, she was certainly boiling up a large vat of syrup.
Because nothing in the final book was reasoned out in the manner of an adult trying to explain how the world works in a form that a child could understand it. It was reasoned out, and presented with a child’s unhesitating and narrow-minded judgement that there just are Good people and there are Bad people. And that the two are simply different, and that you don’t have to apply the same standards to both of them. Which simply isn’t true. And she is old enough to know better.
She is lying to us.
If the Good people aren’t perfect, she claims, it doesn’t matter. No matter what they do, they are still the Good people.
If someone isn’t one of the Good people, it doesn’t matter what they do, either, even if they aren’t “un-good” enough to be truly Bad. For if you only need to care about the Good people — and these are not the Good people — then no one cares about them. And if you do care you aren’t supposed to; they aren’t the Good people.
And the really Bad ones are irretrievable. You’re supposed to hate them because they are Bad.
And, what is more, she will tell you which ones are which, and tell you exactly what you are supposed to think about all of them.
She wasn’t encouraging the Reader to deal with a concept. She was laying down the law as to how they were supposed to deal with it. And has continued to do so in her interviews. Which is absolutely not according to Hoyle.
• • • •
Now, admittedly, the very last purpose of a functioning morality in entertainment fiction is to instruct. Surely its primary purpose is to reassure. Otherwise how on earth can you account for the overwhelming popularity of murder mysteries?
In fact let’s leave the whole subject of books designed to be marketed to children out of the equation, for a moment, and focus on the central issue of depicting a functioning morality in a fictional work. The fact that children are regarded as primarily standing in need of instruction is distracting us. The central issue, for the sake of this argument, is; what is the purpose of a consistent and coherent morality in a work of fiction. ANY work of fiction. Such a “morality” to be hypothetically identified within a structure made up of clearly-defined infractions and their consequences.
All of which does make mystery fiction a particularly good example for comparison purposes.
Mysteries are not written to serve the purpose of instructing readers in fine points of the law. The satisfaction delivered by an appropriate resolution of a mystery has nothing to do with having finally understood a fine point of the law. The satisfaction is from the underlying reassurance that Society upon the whole will protect its own. That whatever happens, the truth will ultimately come out, and that society will address wrongdoing. That, in short, Society, upon the whole is worth upholding.
An underlying hunger for “justice” appears to be a basic human impulse, and it permeates all human societies and it always has. I can assure you that “Not fair!” is a protest which the human “heart and mind” is capable of articulating at an astoundingly early age. (Recent studies postulate that this impulse however, is not present in the hearts and minds of the great apes.)
And of course it doesn’t always happen that way in real life. But the kind of things that happen in real life do not necessarily make for satisfying fiction. And no one really “needs” to be instructed of the fact that in Real Life, justice is not always served.
I am sure that anyone here who reads mystery fiction will at some point or other have got hold of one of those ringers where the author has decided to be “edgy”, or arty and has ended the book with the perpetrator getting away undetected, and the blame falling elsewhere. There are a fair number of these out there and sometimes they are very well written and cleverly done. But while they may make the reader think, they tend to not be at all satisfying as mysteries. The only time they do unquestionably succeed is when they were set up from the beginning as “Trickster” stories. In a Trickster story you quite literally can get away with murder. But those are not actually mysteries.
Which brings us to Harry Potter. Harry Potter is not a Trickster story. It is anything but. If it were, we would be rooting gleefully on Harry’s side as he Crucios his enemies and makes a hash of Voldemort’s plans. It would be written for humor, not melodrama, and Harry would not be dying for the sins of his world. (Which to be accurate, he wasn’t doing in any case. He was willing to die to weaken his enemy. The rest of the world could do as it pleased so long as he managed to stop Tom Riddle from messing with it.)
Rowling actually did a damned fine job of depicting a society which is profoundly broken, and truly does need to be rebuilt. But the members of that society never openly admit that anything is wrong apart from there being a self-anointed Dark Lord running about somewhere “out there”. And the only people shown to actually have ever tried to rebuild the society are the villains, who attempt to rebuild it in their own image.
Albus Dumbledore’s decision to guide and assist his BFF Gellert’s plan to rebuild society for the “greater good” turns out to be the most wrongheaded thing he ever got mixed up in, and he soon realized it. But he never managed to rid himself of the chimera of there actually being a “greater good”. Hermione Granger is shown to be at least equally wrongheaded in her intention to address the plight of the enslaved House Elves. The message, inside the story, almost appears to be “Even if it is broke, you aren’t qualified to fix it.”
And in the epilogue, there is absolutely not a clue that anything ever was fixed. Indeed there is every suggestion that it wasn’t. Ever. It’s the same world Harry first entered in Book 1.
It is, in fact, the perfect happy ending for the trio of 11-year-olds who opened this series, before even the author had a chance to properly get to know them. Even though they now have spouses and children, they are still only 11.
Rowling also seems to have entirely missed the whole point that if Harry is to be a useful member of this society, the whole society cannot be about him, even if the story was. She was better about this kind of thing earlier in the series. But by DHs, the whole universe really does apparently revolve around Harry Potter, without any convincing justification, and the whole thing is totally off balance.
• • • •
But, c’mon, if Rowling REALLY IS so clueless that she wasn’t even aware that she was trying to write a fantasy until she popped in a unicorn, what do we expect? I mean, yeah, right, it’s a story about a boy wizard who doesn’t realize he is a wizard. So what is it then? Social realism? Chick lit? Oh, of course, it’s naturalistic drama with gritty hyper-realism, obviously. How could I mistake it for anything else?
Of course the fantasy “world” doesn’t work. She never laid a foundation for a fantasy world that would. She probably doesn’t know how to. But you would have thought that someone who is throwing together an epic which pretends to be a story of the conflict between good and evil would take the trouble to at least define the terms, for the purpose of that particular story.
Because you have to do that when you are writing fantasy. Particularly the kind of fantasy that includes a system of magic that works. The underlying physical principles of such a world are different from ours, and that is going to affect the way its people think. Admittedly, most of the scale of good to evil overlaps from fictional world to fictional world to a major degree, but the details always vary. And the line dividing the two shifts. You have to draw that line and call it out to the reader or you are simply not all going to be on the same page.
And Rowling didn’t. Right down to the last, tacky “All was well.” (which one of the other posters on Lj cheekily — and accurately — rephrased by appending; “He loved big brother.”) Rowling never sticks her neck out and takes a stand on where the line in the sand is drawn for this world. So consequently we get all of the characters milling aimlessly about all over the beach, with the author arbitrarily kicking sand in their faces because they were once rude to Harry, or she doesn’t like the color or fit of their swim trunks.
So, yes, I’m miffed because I feel as if I have been deliberately cheated. It isn’t that she ended the series somewhere I didn’t predict. It’s that I’ve been robbed of the whole mirage of sense and order that appeared to be present and operative over the course of the 6 previous books.
Bait-and-switch is bait-and-switch whatever else you try to call it.
• • • •
And the inescapable fact is that none of those really serious social issues that she raised have been addressed by the end of the story. She also never laid a proper groundwork for half of what she threw at us at the last minute in the final book, and her whole vision is morally indefensible.
She has left us in a world which is wall to wall with Dementors, who have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted, and no one has uttered a peep about what they are going to do about that. House Elves are still enslaved (in fact, her hero now owns one of his very own), and you can, and indeed should slap a label of “irredeemably evil” on 11-year-olds for being sorted into the least popular House.
On the final page, we still have absolutely no distinction drawn between “Dark” magic and everything else. The hero succeeds in casting Cruciatus upon an enemy (probably because his author refused to let him know any useful magic) who was doing no more than shooting off his mouth, followed up with a tawdry little “action hero” one-liner, and is applauded as “gallant”.
The Ministry is corrupt from top to bottom, the press is subservient to whoever yanks its chain. Tom Riddle is evidently evil because he was born evil, indeed was conceived by an act which insured that any product of it would turn out to be evil, and the wizarding world is in the worst state it has ever been in living memory. But now that Tom Riddle is finally dead everything in the garden is supposedly lovely.
And I do not believe that this can possibly be true.
• • • •
The failure, and for me this book is an epic failure, is not due to any of the individual elements that Rowling actually put into the book, for almost nothing that is actually in the book would be irretrievable with better handling. But she did not give it better handling. Her lack of technical writing skills, compounded by the fact that her editors apparently didn’t even try to edit it, swamped the project entirely. It isn’t that I specifically disliked the book (well, by this time it is. I’ve grown to despise this book), so much as that I simply cannot believe it. I’m still half-way waiting for the real Book 7.
The basic reasoning over the course of this book simply does not make sense, and my disbelief can no longer be suspended. And, to me, that makes this book a deal-breaker.
I did not regard “Because I say so!” as a valid explanation for anything when I was six. I am no more inclined to accept that as a valid explanation from Rowling today. And I don’t bloody care what her dittoheads think. My opinion is just as valid as theirs.
What hurts is that I had expected the book to be clever, and it is not clever. And, by extension, much of what appeared to be so clever in the earlier books turns out not to have been clever, either. In far too many cases, we were not simply missing some final element that would bring it all into focus. It was just unfocused. There was no final element. It is unfinished.
There really was a great deal of cleverness expended on this series, but, in the end, not as much of it as first appeared was the Author’s. A great deal of it seems to have been the Readers’.
Rowling can no longer be excused by inexperience — one would have hoped that by this time her skills would have improved from what they were a decade ago — but I swear the opening chapter of PS/SS has some better and certainly more subtle writing than you can find just about anywhere in DHs.
It is also a cowardly piece of work. She has created this nasty little dystopia (which turns out to have been even worse than we had realized — and we are not imagining it, it really is there) which has spontaneously generated a looming threat, which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be merely one more of a long series of similarly looming threats. She lists the underlying causes, flaps them under our noses, and then in the end she removes the current looming threat, does nothing to address the underlying causes, and expects us to believe that everything is now as perfect as it ever needs to be.
And I flatly don’t believe that. And if I cannot believe her on that, then I am not convinced that I can believe her about anything.
Which runs us aground on the side issue of choices. Which really does turn out to be no more than a side issue. “Choose between what is right and what is easy”. Can anyone show me any point in the whole series up to and including this final book in which Harry has ever been offered a legitimate choice that was “easy”? I think the distraction of whether to go after the Horcruxes or the Hallows is the first time that Harry has been offered a choice of anything other than the either/or of trying to stop his enemy, or to keep trying to run away, or to simply roll over and let himself be killed.
Unless you want to argue that the hard choice would have been to stay out of things when he was told to. In which case, that was the choice that he never made.
And when he was given the distraction of possibly going after the Hallows instead of the Horcruxes it only really distracted him for a couple of chapters. And then he was simply handed the Hallows anyway.
• • • •
Which brings us to another issue, and this is one which ought to be, and in fact is, much easier to forgive. It is now abundantly clear that the series was structurally flawed from the beginning.
If this is really the conclusion that she has always had in mind — and I do think that she always had something like this in mind — then it is a very great pity that there was no one among her editorial team that she trusted enough to discuss her “Master Plan” for the series as a whole with beforehand. Because it now seems inescapable that she was working from a plan that was just too poorly strung together to be able to deliver a satisfying experience for the reader. And most of the problems would have been readily avoidable if she had thrashed it out with anyone with editorial experience beforehand.
The overriding flaw was built into that Master Plan. If, indeed, what we ended up with was, in fact, following any alleged Master Plan. The flaw was in the pacing, as dictated by the need to deliver all of the necessary information at specific points of the story. So long as she was determined to follow that plan, and to deliver the information where The Plan had placed the information being delivered, there was no way that the final book could help but feel perfunctory and rushed.
There was simply too much withheld information that had to be conveyed over the course of one final book for any of it to be given proper development, and we ended up wading through an infodump in just about every chapter.
For the first third of the book it was exhilarating just to finally be getting answers, but by the middle of the book this procedure started feeling altogether too easy. All of the details were simply flying into place, while the essentially passive hero appeared to be doing nothing more than wandering aimlessly about the landscape from station to station where the universe would then generously deliver the next shipment of information, upon arrival, usually unasked.
And none of the information we were handed in DHs wasn’t an answer. We no longer were forced to use our judgement and pick out what was relevant from what was not. Everything was suddenly relevant. We just had to figure out its proper order.
I really do think that it would have been far more effective if she had placed any number of these answers in earlier volumes.
If indeed, she did actually hold them back, and hadn’t just suddenly introduced them because she had only just thought of them.
Which, frankly does sound far too likely. And, in retrospect, calls the whole “urban legend” that JK Rowling has had this story planned out from the beginning into question.
• • • •
Because I no longer think I believe that legend. And I for one would be more inclined to respect her intentions if she admitted as much.
I flatly don’t think she did anything of the sort. She had “a” story planned out. Or half planned out, rather. But I doubt that it was this story. She had a vague idea of where she wanted to take her story. She may have even had a real outline to begin with. But she didn’t have the whole story planned out in any kind of detail. Not even as a rough summary. There are just way too many things dragged in by one hind leg at the last moment without any proper groundwork for them in the last half of the series to have been a part of any grand Master Plan. I suspect that she couldn’t place a lot of that information any earlier than she did, because she didn’t have that information any earlier. She hadn’t thought of it yet. And some of what she gave us were blatant attempts to cut corners.
For example: she could and should have introduced the tales of Beedle the Bard all the way back in PS/SS. The mysterious sigil of the Deathly Hallows was added to the specific copy of the book that Hermione was later given by Dumbledore, it isn’t in the story. She’d have lost none of the “surprise” factor about it.
Showing us from the outset that wizards have a bona-fide culture of their own, with their own culture heroes, and their own specific fables would have given away nothing, and it would have added immeasurably to the ambiance. It could have even turned into a running joke about whether Hermione had read Beedle yet whenever she started harping on whether the boys had read ‘Hogwarts, a History’. And it would have certainly have provided at least an illusion that she and Ron might have had something in common if they each were willing to read something. Even if Ron did primarily read for entertainment, and Hermione for information.
Grindelwald has been now presented as having not ever been that big an issue in Britain. Consequently, there is no reason for us not to have known at least that much of his general context earlier. There is no reason for the kids to have known he had adopted the sigil of the Hallows as his mark until Krum showed up to tell them about it, exactly when he did. And they would still have needed to find Xeno Lovegood to get the explanation of what the sigil meant, possibly even to reread the story of the brothers. But Xeno wouldn’t have needed to bring the whole narrative to a screeching halt in order to explain where it came from. We would have already had a context for it.
For that matter we really ought to have had a scene somewhere in the first five books where Professor Binns completely dismisses the existence of the Deathstick, exactly as he did the Chamber of Secrets. Perhaps even in the same passage in which he dismissed the Chamber. And, having dismissed it, let it come back to bite us when it needed to, instead of lobbing it in from left field, adding yet another WTF? moment to a book that already had far too many of them.
I mean, really, Gregorovitch’s name (first mentioned in GoF) was dropped into the opening of chapter 7. I recognized it, even if Harry didn’t. Would it have spoiled anything for us to have had the means of figuring out just which wand Tom was searching for a few chapters before Harry did? I think we’d have had much more fun watching him finally make the connection if we had all been waiting for him at that particular finish line.
• • • •
And when you stop and take a closer look, it is clear that this whole problem has been present in the series for a long time. It’s almost as if when Rowling returned to the project after the 3-year summer, she had forgotten half of who these people were and what they were doing. She certainly had lost momentum. I can’t say that she really ever got it back.
And given that the woman has actually been noted as claiming that she doesn’t reread her own books after they are published, I rather suspect that the above is no less than the case. (Q: what kind of an incompetent and vainglorious twit actually makes such a claim — or boast — in the middle of what is turning out to be a series of the length and complexity of Harry Potter, for ghod’s sake? Does the woman have any notion of the caliber of impression she is making?)
And as I pointed out above, even before DHs came out, the books no longer “connected” with one another.
This was not always the case. Books 1–4 flow in an unbroken narrative. Each one smoothly segues into the next with a feeling of the inevitable. You can look back from the end of Book 3 to the beginning of Book 1, and for all the surprises and plot twists that you will have navigated, you can now see that it is really all one straight line. There is no point at which you are even tempted to say; “But if they had done this, at that point then the story would have gone there.” One can raise no viable question about where Rowling had taken the narrative to that point. Even the persistent creebing about the faulty and ludicrous premise of suddenly reviving the whole TriWizard Tournament to no real purpose which underlies the central action of Book 4 does not add a great deal of resistance to where Rowling chose to take the story. For all the gaffes and glitches, the story was still *all one story*.
OotP starts with a lurch and then goes nowhere that anyone anticipated. I do not know about the fandom as a whole but I felt a distinct shift in direction between GoF and OotP. The story of OotP is not the same story as the story from Books 1–4, it reads as merely one of the directions that the story might have taken from that point. It’s a viable direction. But it is only one of many.
And this shift of perception only gets harder to ignore as we move on to Book 6 and, finally, to Book 7. Virtually nothing in these books was of any real, continuing use to us.
There were SO many things that seemed to be flagged with a little “Heads-up! This is important!” post-its in OotP which were summarily dismissed or ignored in HBP that it was thoroughly aggravating.
It took most of another year before I finally worked out a reasonably satisfactory hypothesis that the disorientation that HBP left a lot of us in was because in HBP Rowling had not continued the arc from OotP, she had finally introduced the other half of the problem.
So I suspected that in Book 7 she would be interlacing the two halves together. Or at least that appeared to be a plausible hypothesis, before we actually had to deal with DHs. HBP was disorienting because it was completely non-linear with the story arc as we had been (sort of) presented it in the first five books.
Well, no such luck. Book 7 came even more out of left field than Book 6. Either the whole thing had run away from her or Rowling was lying as smoothly as Albus when she told us all that Books 6 & 7 were two halves of one story. (Which she had.) For they certainly read as nothing of the kind.
Of course, she had also told us that close to a year before she actually sat down to write Book 7. So it may have gotten away from her in the process. Or maybe she just forgot they were supposed to be two halves of the same story. She hasn’t said anything about Books 6 & 7 being two halves of a whole lately.
I rather think that GoF was the last thing she wrote to the Master Plan. If, indeed, there ever really was one.
And at that, as a number of the well-known names in “meta” fandom, such as Sister Magpie, have pointed out, by the end of GoF she seems to have simply run out of story.
Can you name anything, anything at all that she brought up in GoF (apart from the Pensieve) which ever came back and served a real purpose?
Did the students of Hogwarts actually form any kind of meaningful ties of friendship with the foreign students? Hardly. Was anything advanced by reviving the TriWizard Tournament that particular year, apart from introducing us to a couple of characters who played minor walk-on parts later in the series? Nope. Was Hagrid and Madam Maxime’s mission to the Giants of any use to the plot whatsoever? Did the giants allegiances even matter in the long run? Even less. Did we learn anything in that book at all which had any more lasting consequences than to resolve the issues raised in the storyline of that same book?
Not that I could see, either. The book existed for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to bring Tom Riddle back into the material world. The only other things in the whole 734 pages that have any authentic resonance were the falling out between Harry and Ron, and the introduction of the news media and it’s impact on public perception.
That’s a hell of a lot of something that turned out to be empty padding.
But the fact is that, despite a couple of hints, after GoF it became a rarity for relevant information to actually be based upon something that Rowling had already introduced in the first four books of the series, either. And that just doesn’t sound like a comprehensive plan to me.
Rowling claims that she fell into a plot hole in Book 4, and she claims that she examined “the Plan” for 3 months before she actually started writing OotP, to make sure that there weren’t any other such holes in it waiting for her.
But, realistically, from what we’ve seen of her more recent conduct, her switching of stories as to what her main characters did between the great battle and the epilogue, and serial contradictions, does this really sound like a woman who is going to let herself get pinned down to anything. Particularly once she’s found a bug in her soup.
I think she threw the original plan out altogether. And I suspect it had already shifted somewhat from whatever it had originally been by then (hell’s bells, in one of her earliest variations James and Lily had stolen the Philosopher’s Stone. They stole it from thieves who stole it from the Flamels, but still…). And although she remembered bits of it, she’s been winging it ever since. She has certainly been winging it in her interviews.
Think about it. There really does seem to have been a coherent story arc over the course of books 1–4. Books 5, 6, & 7 have all referred back to various things that we first met in the first 4 books, but the action does not appear to lead directly from any of them. There was an inevitability to the segue from PS/SS to CoS. Those books read like a connected pair. It is blatantly obvious that PoA and GoF are also a connected pair. For that matter, even CoS and PoA appear to slide smoothly from one to the next.
But none of the 3 later books seems to start where things were left at the end of the previous one. They all lurch into action, talking about what had gone on before, but they don’t feel particularly connected to it, it’s as if with each of them Rowling started over from scratch with a checklist and a blank slate, and then each book goes off in a different direction. They don’t even try to follow an established trajectory.
The Frank Bryce viewpoint at the opening of GoF didn’t materially interrupt the flow of story, but ‘The Other Minister’, did. ‘Dark Lord Ascending’ certainly did. But even OotP with its Harry-centric opening ought to have given us a bit more information about what was going on, and what we were in for than we got. What on earth would have been lost if Harry had read the damned Prophet and noticed the smear campaign against himself and Dumbledore, instead of having to have it explained to him by Hermione?
Instead Harry, and we, got thrown back into cluelessness so Rowling could replay the plot from PS/SS.
If she did that on purpose — and it seems a bit much to claim that she did it by accident. But she certainly did it. And what did she accomplish by it? Other than to suggest a bit of cleverness about the overriding story arc that she had no intention of following through with? We certainly didn’t need to replay PS/SS. We’d already been told that story. But now we’d been told it again, and this time it pointed us in a whole new direction — one in which Rowling had no intention of taking us. The Veil? The locked room? Fugeddaboutit!
Indeed, what she has done with each of the last 3 books is to throw us (and Harry) back to square 1 and then to go roaring off in an entirely different direction until we hit the internal wall. And it’s annoying. None of these books actually fit into the same “arc” as the first 4. And nothing that we learn in any of them can be counted upon to be applicable anywhere but in those specific books. These stories are all essentially disposable, and filled with dispensable elements of no lasting relevance.
• • • •
We openly were getting only a fraction of the available information in OotP. And we never did get filled in on what Dumbledore was really up to that year, any more than we were about his first elaborate scam over the course of PS/SS.
There are chunks of background that are just as large missing from HBP. And each of the last four books in the series have included a major distraction to keep us from focusing too closely on the things that are missing.
In GoF the TriWizard Tournament was the appointed distraction. It was a distraction that the rest of the action was tied to, but it still was obscuring the issue of what was Voldemort up to this time.
In OotP Umbridge and her attempt to take over the school was the distraction, and it was a complete distraction, sitting squarely in the foreground. We have no evidence to suggest that the DEs sent her to Hogwarts to do that, although it certainly suited their purposes to let her go ahead and try. We never even learned whether her attempt to get Harry expelled was really an attempt to get one of the brother wands snapped and out of commission. It could have been. But we were never told so. The whole issue is still completely up in the air.
And the presentation was completely over the top.
If being completely over the top is a hallmark of a deliberate distraction, then the intentional distraction of HBP was the silly Teen Lurve sub-plot.
Rowling even brought up a Dorothy L. Sayers quote (that love interest has little place in a detective story apart from serving as a red herring), in the combined interview back in July 2005 when the book came out. She went on to say that she did not completely agree, but that hardly means that she couldn’t have slipped a ringer into the collection of overheated pairings on display over the course of the book. We evidently were being invited to think so.
But most of the new info in HBP really did seem to come out of nowhere. And most of it led nowhere too. And it threw us off track for months.
Or set us on a different track. Consequently, DHs hit us broadside and knocked us completely for a loop.
In DHs the overriding distraction was the personal history of Albus Dumbledore.
Which had absolutely nothing to do with the central problem of that book. It was irrelevant. Albus Dumbledore’s youthful errors made NO discernable contribution to the problem of Tom Riddle’s Horcruxes. Nor did it offer any illustration of what must be done to address that problem. The only thing it did was to finally clarify into just what context we ought to file the nagging detail of what Grindelwald had ever had to do with anything. (Answer: very little.)
And the whole purpose of all the navel-gazing over what did Albus mean and whether Harry should still trust him appears to have been to keep the reader occupied and distracted so they wouldn’t notice that the story was going absolutely nowhere for months on end.
• • • •
Which brings up another problem which, although tiresome, is also somewhat easy to forgive.
She kept trying to “do it again”. When it no longer worked.
She stunned and delighted us with the revelation/reversal at the end of PoA.
Then she turned around and did it again with PolyjuiceImposter!Moody and Animagus!Rita.
She may have wanted to surprise us all like that again, but by that time we were on to her. So, instead, she kept laying down all of those false threads which went nowhere, and withholding information which did not need to be withheld, in order to keep us from being able to figure anything out. It reached a point in DHs where these repeated minor “Ta-da!” revelations started coming across like a small child leaping out from behind the sofa and crying; “Boo!” (For the 42nd time.)
In itself it was relatively harmless, but all of those dangling loose ends still waving in the breeze at the end of the adventure are unsatisfying, and the unnecessary withholding of information contributed mightily to the train wreck of DHs.
(She really could have put Grindelwald in his proper historical context without bringing up his early connection with Albus. Or his connection to Bathilda Bagshott, which is just as intriguing, if not more so.)
• • • •
The crash and burn in the middle of GoF bought her the release from a deadline for OotP due to incipient burnout (which I no longer think was incipient At All), back in 2000. And that frivolous lawsuit bought her a bit more time. And I don’t doubt that she needed every bit of that time to regroup. But the 3-year summer broke the momentum for the series, and she never got it back, possibly because she has since taken at least one year off between each book. And to me it really does read to me that each book was a whole new project, not a continuation of the series as it stood.
But even though she allegedly didn’t have a deadline for OotP, I cannot believe that she didn’t have one for HBP and DHs. She was expected to knock each of those puppies out in a year, and her publishers set the release date for the tightest time physically possible for production after she turned in each manuscript. Regardless of what was in it. And I really suspect that by that time, given the media phenomenon, what was actually in the manuscript was the least of everyone involved’s concern. The final two books, indeed, possibly the final three books are neither plot-driven nor character-driven. They were market-driven.
And, really, all three of these last books truly needed more than a year each to “knock out”. (Yes, probably even HBP which is the simplest of the three.) And they should have been planned out as a set, not individually. I flatly DO NOT believe that these books were written acto any “Master Plan” from 1995. Regardless of how many elements from that alleged plan might have been eventually incorporated into them.
Yes, we should, indeed, all be grateful to JK Rowling for the opportunity for all the hours of entertainment that she and her publishers have provided. But if she had never written another word after GoF the fandom would have been just about as active. And the interpretive possibilities a good deal more varied.
And we can anticipate many more of hours of entertainment to come if we simply agree to dismiss the final 759-page “fuck you” note. Rowling’s attempt to rewrite the concept of Authorship and to maintain a stranglehold upon both the work and the Readers’ free interpretation of it is not in anyone’s best interests in the long run, least of all her own.
The Fanficers will dismiss it, and quite possibly her, eventually. They will have to if the fandom is not to stagnate. In fact any number of them already have dismissed the epilogue, or Snape’s death, or both. Heaven knows there are enough examples of fans rewriting the previous books. Telling the story from other characters’ viewpoints, or telling them from the PoV that Harry was Sorted into Slytherin, or what all. Eventually we will get others stating that with all due respect, one does not believe or accept the load the hooey that is DHs, and they are doing their own alternate 7th book, thank you.
They certainly aren’t likely to give us a weaker one.
• • • •
Frankly the whole 7th book reeks of burnout to me. No the whole thing didn’t completely go down in flames. There are a couple of decent bits of writing and a few sort-of good bits of action in there. Even some ideas that aren’t altogether contemptible, and would have been downright good if any time or effort had been expended on giving them any kind of proper development.
It is also evident that there were a handful of scenes in DHs where it was abundantly clear that Rowling has been dying to write them out for years.
But, in the main, the puppets were badly lit and are clearly made of wood. They’re too garishly painted, and their strings show. Everyone in the whole book turns out to be dumb as a box of rocks except in the rare cases when it was required by the plot that they generate some of their own information rather than just be sitting around and waiting for the universe to deliver it to them.
But in the land of burnout that all just greases the wheels for delivering us to the finish line as quickly as possible. For all that the book is some 750+ pages, I felt rather as if I was being given the bum’s rush.
Seventeen years is a long time to be on the same project, and I think that Rowling, as much as the fandom, was more than ready to have the canon closed on this one, by then.
• • • •
Which reminds me:
There is — or was — a mystery writer called Charlotte McLeod. She was very prolific. Did more than one series (and still others under the name of Alisa Craig, I think). One of her earliest was basically a damsel in distress marathon set in a Boston boarding house. Another was a series of wacky adventures among an ensemble of highly eccentric academics at a small Agricultural college in New England. These last featured a professor of Botany, I think, named Peter Shandy.
I’m not altogether sure but that she might have intended the first of the Peter Shandy stories as a one-off. In any case, she ended up making a series of it. I don’t know just how long it ran. After a while they all started blurring together and I stopped following them.
In any case, fairly early on, before I think she was fully committed to spinning out a series from this set-up, she produced ‘The Curse of the Giant Hogweed’. Now that was a bizarre experience.
I do not know what she thought she was doing. A friend of mine at the time, who wrote professionally, suspected that the book may have been intended as a contract breaker, and that the publishers had called her bluff and accepted it anyway. I can’t be sure she wasn’t right.
The book made absolutely no sense. Here we had a wacky, but basically mainstream detective series in the making with a cast of eccentric continuing characters, suddenly hauled over to a conference in England to address the problem of a variety of giant hogweed that has been making an invasive take-over of the landscape...
...and are then thrown into a time-travel fantasy. Not a particularly good one, either. I can’t even remember whether they managed to solve the giant hogweed problem. The book was that incoherent.
I got a strong sense of a curse of the giant hogweed about DHs. There is just too much in it that doesn’t add up for anyone connected to the project to have really been trying to do justice to the material. Nails in the coffin and wrestling matches above Richenbach Falls. The message is that Harry Potter’s story is supposed to end here. Completely.
And nothing much else seemed to matter.
• • • •
So. I admit to being something more than merely disappointed with DHs. Although I also have to admit that I cannot really say that I was surprised. I feel that Rowling had lost control of the story some time before and her attempt to corral it back into some earlier concept was a mistake. It felt like she was trying to cram it back into a box in which it no longer fit.
And this is not necessarily because of any one element that is actually in the book. As I say, so far as the actual elements and devices that Rowling deployed go, there is very little in this book that would be irretrievable in the hands of an author with even slightly better skills and a good deal more respect for either her characters or her audience.
In retrospect, it ought to have become obvious with OotP that Rowling had no real respect for her characters’ integrity. I am not referring to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a one of them who would recognize an ethic (professional or otherwise) if it jumped out of a bush and bit them. I am referring to the fact that when she returned to the series after the 3-year summer, she abruptly started giving them personality transplants from one book to the next in order to facilitate the whims of the plot du jour.
Apart from Sirius Black, there is not one hint of this kind of arbitrary re-characterization in books 1–4. Every bit of characterization if books 1-4 is absolutely consistent and spot-on. And I think that by this time we can safely dismiss any statements made in interviews regarding OotP in which she attempts to claim that so-and-so was always like that, you just didn’t notice. She shaves the truth with a fineness unmatched by anyone this side of Dumbledore.
So-and-so was not like that because you never showed us that, Ms Rowling. In fact, in far too many cases, you showed us something else altogether. And now you are simply trying to brazen it out, and I don’t believe you.
Rowling has already demonstrated during the post-release of DHs blitz of personal appearances that she cannot stick to one story for two days running, so I don’t know why I am supposed to trust what she told me four years ago any more than I trust something she told me yesterday. Particularly when what she told me yesterday contradicts it — and what she’s telling me today. From where I am standing, any credibility JK Rowling ever had with me, she had squandered over the first couple of weeks of DHs post-release appearances.
If the characters had still been “real” to her when she took them up again, or had ever truly been “real” to her in the first place, she would never have done that, because the characters would have been themselves, and to change them would have meant they were suddenly someone else. You do not substitute a different character in their place and claim that this is the same character if you respect integrity of “character”.
Admittedly, sometimes an author will make a false start with a character, usually a subordinate character, particularly in what is turning out to be (or was always planned to be) a series. But once you figure out who the character actually is, you leave them alone.
You certainly do not remove the first substitute and replace it with another one in the following book once the temporary needs of the plot have been served. To jerk them around at the demands of each individual book the way she has been doing over the whole last three books equates to something that looks amazingly like Rowling writing authorized fanfic of her own earlier work.
In DHs we definitely seem to have been handed the classic fanfic trope of; “Harry Potter had changed a lot over the summer”. He’s started listening to the voices in his head, and they have been telling him the answers.
Because no. It turns out that it wasn’t just Ginny, or Draco or Snape (or Sirius Black). DHs was character assassination of just about everyone it touched upon, as we thought we knew them, from the get-go. The only people who escaped this particular bloodbath were Neville (who won the sweep. We get to keep the “new” Neville) and Luna, who just calmly went on being Luna. Harry ended up inheriting most the benefits, but even he isn’t the same character we’d seen before, and while Hermione was written mostly favorably (i.e., Hermione-Sueishly) she wasn’t the quite same character we thought we knew either.
Plus, of course, every character we had been depending upon to perform some supporting function in the series was rendered stupid, weak, and ineffectual. No one was permitted to accomplish anything but Harry and the other exceptions. Or not unless Harry generously stepped back and let them (onstage yet!), or unless it was presented to us in a manner that was so totally implausible that we didn’t believe it anyway. Or it happened offstage and didn’t really matter because it was overshadowed by Harry’s suddenly monumental awesomeness. Whoever it was who first summed the formula up as; Rowling is to Harry as Petunia is to Dudley, was on the right track.
And Harry himself was eviscerated in DHs, forced to sit there like a lump agonizing over Albus’s motives (which frankly no longer mattered about anything) and do nothing but wait for his author to keep delivering answers to him. Just about every time he actively tried to take charge of his fate and do something toward his assigned goal, he ended up in a worse mess than before. Cumulating in Rowling’s post-release statement that Harry’s great victory in this book was in finally choosing NOT to act. Oh, well there’s words to live by, apparently.
(What’s that about getting the leaders we deserve? Role models, too. “Don’t just do something! Sit there!”)
The smoke is gradually clearing to the degree that I am coming to the conclusion that even if Rowling is not as clever as she thinks she is, that she really was trying to do a couple of fairly clever, if not altogether appropriate things with the series, and she ended up doing them in a half-arsed manner.
Even though she used to claim that they weren’t exactly children’s books, she seems to have forgotten just how naive kids can be and that they really need a nudge to give them the message that it’s okay to notice that there are things wrong with the Potterverse. That maybe it really isn’t such a wonderful place, even if Harry happens to think so. But instead she strews the dirt and leaves over the pitfall, wanders off and never checks back to see whether anyone has fallen in. Rather like Tom and his sea cave.
But the multitudinous continuity glitches (worse than in any other book in the series), numerical errors, blatant contradictions to the earlier books, internal contradictions with other things in the same book, morphing magic that suddenly behaves entirely differently from the way she had already set it up, years ago, and then shifts further every time she brings it up again, plot holes, logic holes, and all of the rest of the endless parade make me very cross, and convinces me once again that the editorial team never even bothered to actually edit the book at all. An author who respects the audience would not expect the audience to simply sit there and accept such a shoddy piece of construction. It’s insulting.
Unless, of course, it was intended to be a satire.
And as a satire DHs almost works. It just isn’t quite as over-the-top, in the proper directions, as it needed to be for everyone to figure out (and to be certain) what it was that the author was doing. But then, who writes satire as satire for nine-year-olds?
• • • •
I was in correspondence with a youngster in Greece for a month or so after the book came out, and in the course of it I did a pretty fair bit of grousing about the shoddiness of DHs. But the exchange forced me to think a bit more critically about what it is that really bugs me about Rowling’s so called “conclusion” to the series. This is part of what surfaced:
There is of course the minor problem which I went into above, where with each book Rowling kept laying out more and more potential threads for further developments without ever making a clear decision of which ones she was actually going to use. And by the end, there were simply far too many of these dangling threads for the story to feel properly “complete”.
A well-known and well-loved political columnist, the late Molly Ivins once wrote an editorial which explored this problem. I do not recall just what the main subject of her editorial was, but in it she brought up the example of people who keep deferring making any kind of a decision about anything, thereby “keeping their options open” and in the end, they find they have nothing to show for it but... unchosen options. They have ended up cheating themselves. I think that Rowling did a variant of this, but it ends up feeling a bit as though she has cheated us as well, even though I am pretty sure that the whole process was mostly unconscious.
And, at the point at which she had to finally buckle down and tie the whole thing off it all came apart on her, and on us as well.
Stringing a story out requires a rather different skill set than finishing one off satisfactorily. And Rowling is hardly the only writer who doesn’t quite have it. There are a lot of authors out there (and not just children’s or YA fantasy authors, not by a long shot) who can put together some perfectly marvelous stories and yet not be able to bring them to a really satisfactory conclusion. Some of my favorite authors fall into this category, too. It sometimes feels like the story simply didn’t want to end there, and the author merely wrestled it to the ground.
But the fact remains that the 7th book is simply not a worthy conclusion to the series as it had developed. And if DHs is to be taken as any indication, the series, as it had developed to that point, turns out not to actually be what we had always been led to believe the story was always supposed to be about.
I really do believe the series as a whole was far stronger and much more coherent at the end of HBP (despite all of the problems inherent in that book, and there were plenty of them) than it is now. With DHs, the whole story arc lost focus. All the more so in that Rowling suddenly chose to concentrate on a single issue, and one which although it had certainly been present in the series from the beginning, had never been primary to the story’s action.
She pretended for six books that this story was another classic tale about the eternal conflict between good and evil.
It isn’t. Ultimately the story is about coming to terms with death.
Coming to terms with death is not the premise upon which Rowling sold me this story. And if she had tried to sell it to a publishing house on that premise, I suspect it would probably have never sold at all.
That premise has nothing to do with either good or evil. There really is no “line in the sand”. The whole issue of good vs. evil is irrelevant to it, and neither Tom Riddle’s misguided goal to evade death, or Albus’s equally misguided desire to master it, have anything to do with either good or evil, either.
Albus was foolish for wanting to collect Death’s “hallows” (2 of which Death allegedly created expressly for the purpose of trapping people. Doesn’t Albus realize that? Well, no, obviously. He claims to think that the Peverill brothers invented the hallows. Although he doesn’t seem to offer any comprehensible idea for why) in order to master it. His goal was certainly not “good”. And Tom’s equally foolish desire to evade death is not in itself inherently evil. And to position either one of these goals as being anything like it, is totally bogus.
The story turns out to have simply NOT ever been about what Rowling spent years pretending what it was about. The story was NEVER about good prevailing over evil. It was never about making right choices over easy ones, or about tolerance, or questioning authority. It is about; do what you will, Death eventually comes to all. And, evidently, of learning to meet it with resignation
Both Albus and Snape ultimately managed that. Albus with a full year’s advance warning and preparation, and no other choice on offer, really. Particularly so long as he could stage-manage the whole production to his own satisfaction. Snape did so with no hesitation or reluctance whatsoever — once Harry miraculously turned up by authorial fiat, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, and enabled Snape to get Albus’s final message through to him. And Harry eventually managed the task as well, when given sufficient outside help and support (and no viable other options, either, or none which would allow him to save face), as well as the tacit promise that to permit his own murder really would help to take down Tom. Tom, predictably, never learned it at all. (“He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal”.)
But THIS is, in fact, what the whole 7th book was about, and all the lip service, grand gestures, and going through the motions over some supposedly eternal conflict between good and evil turn out to be just so much set-dressing and related hogwash. It’s now finally clear why Rowling never bothered to define the point at which evil begins. The issue simply doesn’t matter in the long run. Not in this universe.
In the end, Tom Riddle’s actual acts do not matter either. Nor does it matter whatever his philosophy might have turned out to really be. He could be the deepest-dyed villain or the most shining saint, and it wouldn’t make a bean’s worth of difference. His ultimate crime was to believe that he was so “special” that he could evade death, and the 7th book was where Rowling finally stopped farting around, took the gloves off, and proved otherwise.
The whole, overriding story arc of the 7th book was to bring death to Tom Riddle, and to force him to accept it. The whole DE set-up is no more than local color, the Battle of Hogwarts is sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing. Rowling doesn’t give a damn about this world, or the state she’s left it in. The minute that Tom’s AK rebounded, the story was over. Even Harry himself no longer really mattered, and throwing him a sloppy epilogue bone of tidy future domestic happiness cost the author absolutely nothing. It was completely gratuitous.
I’ve said it for years: the villain is the story. This time that observation seems to be true on a whole different magnitude from the way the matter usually works in a fantasy adventure, but it is absolutely true.
• • • •
And now I am going to be REALLY uncharitable.
If you cannot handle that I suggest you stop reading. NOW.
I do not feel that Rowling has done her job, which was to convince us that what she intended to convince us of actually happened in the books.
The thing that no one seems to be remembering is that just because the books have become a media event, it does not follow that they will remain a media event.
In point of fact they will not. Because that is the nature of the media. It has a phenomenally short memory. Once the hoopla is over, and the circus moves on, all we are going to have is the books. And the answers simply Are Not There.
The very caliber of the questions that Rowling has been having to field in the post-release interviews makes it absolutely unavoidable to realize that the answers aren’t there.
20 years, 30 years down the track, if a kid wanders into the library and picks up Harry Potter, he isn’t going to have access to the interviews. They may not even still be online. All it would take is one technological advance from magnetic storage media and *poof* there all the present online content goes. And where is that going to leave him?
Rowling’s job was to convince us of her vision over the course of the story, and she didn’t do it. The final installment as she presented it to us is not convincing and it drags the whole series down the hole with it.
It’s a damned shame to see so promising a project end up wrecking itself on a sandbar of inexperience and poor planning, lack of editorial support, and distraction by media hype, but that seems to be what has happened. The story of Harry Potter isn’t a self-contained piece of literature, it is a “product”.
The entertainment media produces products. It does not generate literature. And in the case of the Harry Potter series the entertainment media had overwhelmed the project by the year 2000.
But, that’s exactly what the marketing sharks wanted, isn’t it? Somebody involved in this production had the instincts of a true huckster from the very beginning. All the way back at Bloomsbury. That was obvious years ago. I don’t know whether this was Rowling herself, and in fact probably not, but she went along with it.
The earmarks of the essential shift in emphasis aren’t things like an inexperienced author letting Scholastic re-title her book for the American market. That has happened to a lot of authors, and not all of them were inexperienced. Nor was it even the agreement to sell Warners’ the movie rights before she had finished writing the story arc. Warners’ only came sniffing around once the books had already become a media event. And there was no guarantee that they would hang around and be back. It was make the deal now, or take the chance of missing the wave.
And most of the other decisions that were made were also made for other reasons than just building up the hype.
But falsifying her own name in order to sell the books to the parents of little boys is symptomatic of the huckster mentality. Not that Rowling is the only author to have ever agreed to do it. In fact it's a fairly common practice in some genres.
Stopping for the 3-year summer exactly when the story arc had reached it’s pivotal point, while the hype for the first movie could take up the slack, and the online fandom (and the fanfic community) took off like a rocket, simply couldn’t have been timed better than it was for “growing a following”. And when the production of the books resumed we were now given a full extra year between each book to grow it further. If the books had resumed the 1 year = 1 book schedule (assuming that it was even possible, which I do not think it was by that time) the market would have simply sat back and waited for the story to be finished for them. Not kept trying to roll their own.
But that was all after the fact. The really relevant decision that I’m thinking of was made farther back. Almost at the beginning. Between Books 1 & 2.
And it’s this: no one ever put a gun to Rowling’s head and forced her agree to use the financial circumstances under which she wrote the first book for publicity.
And the fact that she agreed to do so should probably not be overlooked. She and her publishers had every reason to know what kind of attention that would be drawing. They only underestimated the scale of the response.
She had already sold the first book. Bloomsbury paid her a pittance. She couldn't live on it. But the book was a moderate success. She may not have made a lot of money on that first sale, but the book had somehow managed to connect with a lot of “reluctant readers” so it was making a bit of a stir. There was no real question of her not being able to sell the next volume of the series. And she got the bright idea to go to the Scottish Arts Council to apply for a grant to help support herself while she wrote the next one.
So was it altogether necessary to make quite such a parade of being an unemployed single mother who made good in order to finish writing the next volume?
But it may very well have been necessary in order to turn the story of where the books came from into a cultural legend, make a grab for the big brass ring, and to turn her, personally, into a celebrity — even if she may have regretted doing it later, she certainly agreed to do it. And she knew that becoming a celebrity was a possibility.
In short, they didn’t market the book. They marketed her.
And I don’t believe they would have attempted to do that, nor, I think, would a series of supposedly children’s books have morphed into a series of media events without one critical factor.
In her late-20s/early 30s Ms Rowling was highly photogenic.
One rather wonders how many of the fans (let alone the media) would have had their attention caught by the Potter books at all, without the notoriety of that fine, romantic story of the pretty young divorcé on public relief, with her baby and her book.
And in the face of that, it’s very hard to completely accept that to “create literature” was really the primary purpose of the exercise, on the part of the publishers.
• • • •
I also keep thinking back to that Lev Grossman interview in 2005, which appeared to be such a clear case of the interviewer putting words in the interviewee’s mouth. I’m just not so sure of that any more.
Grossman clearly had an axe of his own to grind against fantasy literature in general, disparaging it as “deeply conservative” and apparently neither admitting nor realizing that there was anything more to the genre than High Quest Fantasy in the tradition of several decades of Tolklones. That Rowling’s work appears to be even more “deeply conservative” in its outlook than Tolkein’s ought really to be mildly embarrassing to all concerned by now. But I suspect that in this case the usual subjects are all effectively shameless.
But Rowling did make that one clear statement, quoted above, which was her own, about wanting to “subvert the genre.” Even if she did follow up that statement with the somewhat confusing example of Harry discovering that magic didn’t make the world any better, and that the wizarding world wasn’t any nicer than the Muggle one, he just met some nicer people there.
I couldn’t make any sense of that statement at the time. The trope of magic complicating the protagonist’s life has been around since at least the days of Mrs Molesworth, and it was certainly solidly-entrenched by the time of E. Nesbit, who is an author that Rowling at least admits to having read.
But downstream of DHs I began to wonder whether she may have meant exactly what she said, and, if that is so, she has certainly succeeded.
It looks like fantasy, and it quacks like fantasy, but it sure the hell doesn’t walk like fantasy, and it isn’t a bit watertight. In fact, it sinks like a stone.
There just is no properly-built fantasy world here, and in view of her statement above, we need to consider that there never was intended to be. And if there was not, what was intended?
C’mon, she somehow managed to never draw any clear line between Dark magic and all the rest? Never told us where evil begins? That just plain isn’t that easy to avoid. I stopped thinking it was accidental by the time we got to HBP. Fantasy damned well requires that demarcation in its setup. And she still was holding out on us, despite Snape’s little hint, which didn’t really settle the issue.
She also tap-danced past resolving just about any of the social issues that she had raised AND POINTED OUT TO THE READER, nor made even the slightest attempt at tying off three-quarters of the loose ends that she kept laying in and waving under our noses. She doesn’t explain why half of the things that suddenly got dumped into the final book even happened. She didn’t even bother to establish a moral center to the bloody thing. Just about the only promise she delivered on was to get rid of Tom Riddle.
After she spent 6 books making sure that we all understood perfectly well that Tom Riddle is not the worst problem the ww has.
Never mind the characters suddenly being dumber than their little sticks of wood and acting like a pack of fools, the whole reasoning behind what happens in this book doesn’t play to any sort of rules of logic or natural law. This is the book in which Rowling takes the world she built up over the course of six previous books and systematically breaks it, before she closes the canon and then, as the Author, turns it over to us. (Or was supposed to. She doesn’t seem to be clear on that concept either.)
That sure looks a lot like subverting the genre to me. In fact subverting the whole principle of Authorship, too.
So, either she is a very confused newbie who bit off more than she could chew, and was abandoned by her editors, or she is a total fool, and an incompetent writer to boot, or she has been stringing us along for years, told the editors they could all take the month off when she turned the ms in, and is laughing up her sleeve at all of us.
Factor in the kind of “excuse” answers she has provided in her post-release interviews, including the way that she doesn’t stick to one story for more than two days running, and I am coming to a highly uncharitable conclusion as to just which one of the three she is. She knows damned well that those interview answers are never going to count as a part of the books.
And I think it is a dirty trick to play on a generation of little kids who trust you. Even if they don’t realize that they’ve been scammed.