The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Blooming stop them! They’re reading!

By Tamara Lee

So I’m reading a novel, which shall remain nameless (I know, that’s lame but there it is) and I am supposed to think this novel is the bees knees. I’m supposed to appreciate it; failing to do so makes me a heathen/illiterate/simpleton. But the thing is I think this example of The Great Novel is just okay. Why I think this, though, is irrelevant here.

And, no, I am not referring to the new Harry Potter book. Potter, though, is relevant.

Recently I read such know-it-all critics like the mighty Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt think the whole Harry Potter series is not only poorly written, but bad for literature, and bad for the future of our children.

‘What? That’s a bit over-the-top, isn’t it?’ I thought, as I read the Wikipedia version of the story (Wikipedia, of course, being the online version of crib notes, but there it is). Anyway, reading this criticism made me curious, so I decided to look further into their arguments against the Potter-phenomenon.

Now, let it be said, I have not read a single Potter book, but then, I’m allergic to mania. It’s how I roll. This last Potter book, though, intrigues me, mostly based on J.K. Rowlings’ comments that this is the book she'd always meant to write. So I thought I’d see about catching up with the Potter-plotline. Enter Wiki-crib-notes.

What I discovered is there’s rather a lot of criticism against the books. Where have I been? Me, I’d always assumed it was well-received by all. I should have known better.

Certainly, initially, the book was hailed and compared to Roald Dahl, but eventually, as with most things that become highly successful, the detractors set out to curb the enthusiasm. Enter snotty lit-crits.

What Bloom, Byatt and Faye Weldon argue, in general, is that the series is pap and children should not be reading pap, lest they learn bad reading habits, and not learn how to appreciate real literature. Jeez-louise, people who say stuff like this make me embarrassed that I read ‘real’ literature.

Okay, so Bloom’s an old man, raised during a time when TV and Gameboys and Internet weren’t a distraction. I sympathize with his frustration as a teacher, or in his case a Professor of Literature, but it is, despite his huffing and puffing, a different world. Hell, he’s 80; it was a different world, even, when I was growing up.

When I was a kid, I read S.E. Hinton and Judy Bloom (surely, no relation to Harold), as well as ‘classic’ literature. Reading was never a problem for me; I started at four and never stopped. I read anything. But then, I was encouraged to read. And the more I read, the more I was curious to try other flavours.

Encouraging people to broaden their reading tastes is the domain of parents and teachers. That anyone, and least of all a teacher, would discourage reading (even reading mediocre fiction) is incomprehensible to me. It’s rather like teaching folks how to ride a bike by telling them how not to do it. Lesson: Don’t bother getting on one in the first place. There, that’ll learn ya.

Bloom’s history as a notable critic and booklover is undisputed; attend one of his Ivy-league classes or read one of his tomes and you’ll surely believe it. Meanwhile, there are the rest of us.

The history of privilege and admonishment about reading choices is long and subjective. Early novels were primarily about love and adventure, and when they weren’t being slighted by the Brits for their ‘French’-ness, thus inferiority, they were name-called ‘women’s’ books. That is, until men got hold of them and made them ‘respectable.’ (That J.K. Rowling was asked by her publisher to use a gender-neutral name in order not to frighten off the boy readers just proves how far we’ve not come.)

No doubt Bloom would call me a few choice names for not appreciating the novel I’m reading-but-not-enjoying. I feel as though he’d judge my working-class upbringing; my gender; my blogging activities as lacking.

Happily, I wasn’t raised by Dr. Bloom, and I can carry on reading and disliking whatever classics I choose. And maybe pick up this last Harry Potter, to finally see what all the fuss is about.


Blogger Bernita said...

Oh, WELL said!

Mon Jul 23, 08:02:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Surely, the point would be to discuss the books with kids- whatever books they are reading. Get them to think critically.

And surely a sophisticated literary critic should be able to discover what IS working in the Potter books and just have a knee-jerk reaction and cast them into the 'unworthy' pile.

Personally- I read them aloud to my children until they were old enough to read them on their own- and while I didn't care for them at first, she had won me over by book four. Book five is actually a first rate political satire for kids. My kids can't be my excuse so I'm going to have to go into the bookstore and get this new last one on my own, all by myself. Because I'm eager to read it.

Thanks, Tamara, for this thought provking post.

Mon Jul 23, 08:58:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I meant to say 'not just' instead of just in my comment- but it's impossible to go back and edit them. I'll have to be more careful before pushing that publish your comment button!

Mon Jul 23, 09:00:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

The question is: to buy the adult cover or not?

I love it when negative criticism inspires reading.

Mon Jul 23, 09:21:00 am GMT-4  
Anonymous Colin said...

Thanks Tamara. I haven't read the J.K. Rowlings Potter books, but I did read "Harry Potter and Philosophy: If Aristotle Ran Hogwarts". It was my philosophical shortcut to reading the books after I'd seen a couple of the movies and I enjoyed it. I agree with your comment Andrew about the point being to get readers to think critcally.

Mon Jul 23, 01:05:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

And I agree with the point that whatever kids choose to read is a good thing. My grandson was not interested in reading until he discovered the "Captain Underpants" series of books. Good grief, I thought. Bathroom humour. But he was engaged and now he reads all manner of things. Last term his seventh grade classed tackled "Midsummer Night's Dream" and he thought it was "fun."

Mon Jul 23, 02:06:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks for reading/commenting, folks.

Andrew, I agree with you. Your kids' intellectual development hardly seems stunted by Potter :)

Colin, I will seek that book out; it sounds intriguing.

Tricia, that underpants series, I remember it from working at bookstores. Kids would get so excited and giggly when they'd buy it: their outstretched arms, and scrunched bills and nickels falling from their hands while parents watched with proud amusement. So cute...

Mon Jul 23, 03:32:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger MelBell said...

Another amazing post, Tamara. This is just great.

Mon Jul 23, 04:01:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Chumplet said...

A very good post. Why should we criticize what our children are reading, as long as they're reading?

My daughter just finished Potter #7, and I'm going to read it, too.

Her bookshelf is full of Rowling, Pullman, Gaiman, Kipling, Sewell and a smattering of Manga. She read 'em all.

My son managed to get through the first few Potter books, but now he leans toward Clancy and Crichton. Again, as long as he's reading I'm happy.

Mon Jul 23, 07:09:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Thanks, Mel & Chumplet.

Chumplet, your daughter just finished? In what, two days? That's amazing! Nice selection of books she has, too. Is it tougher to get boys to broaden their horizons? Is it a gender thing or peer pressure? I don't know any young fellas.

Mon Jul 23, 11:21:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

I've seen two of the movies, but I still haven't read the books, partly because I steeped myself in mythology as a kid, and Rowling's books regurgitate much of what has been written before.

Anything that gets kids reading is good, period! I'm not sure what sort of literary legacy people like Bloom are lamenting, but I can't recall anything of substance being taught in North America for the longest time. Get the kids started on reading and they will go as far with it as they want to. It's better than the alternative and with clever teachers using the Potter books to stimulate critical reading, we just might get a literary renaissance underway.

Tue Jul 24, 03:13:00 am GMT-4  
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