J K Rowling and the Cauldron of Critics

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J K Rowling and the Cauldron of Critics

Postby caliban » Thu Jul 19, 2007 12:45 am

J K. Rowling and the Cauldron of Criticism: An essay

The last Harry Potter book is almost out—and so are the critics’ knives, such as this blog denouncing Rowling for “toxic” prose, following in the footsteps of A S Byatt who in 2003 declared adults who read the Potterverse as having “stunted imaginations.”

Oh come on.

I can sypathize the impulse, given the juggernaut of Potterpalooza, to want to take Rowling down a notch or two. But the psychology of the critics is one of displacement. Although the attacks all begin on Rowling, her prose, characters, and plots, sooner or later it veers, sputtering venom, onto the true source of their ire: these books, and certainly not some struggling underemployed single mum from Edinburgh who never attended a proper writer’s workshop, don’t deserve to be so popular, and it’s just so unfair that Potter is so popular.

I read the Potter books. In fact, my wife and I read them aloud to each other, as we have many other series. (I also read a huge and varied list of other books, from high literature on down. So there. Nyaah.) I also am a writer and so I am keenly interested in what Rowling does and does not do write.

So let’s dispense with hysteria for the moment and take a serious look at Rowling.

She is not a great prose stylist. Reading Rowling aloud makes this clear. Her sentences ofter suffer from adverb poisoning; she frequently violates the dictum “show don’t tell,” or does both show and tell, not trusting the reader to get it. Frankly, she makes a lot of “beginner” mistakes, such as in the early books she frequently had characters “hiss” sentences without any silibants. Until, that is, the actor Stephen Fry, who read the British version of the audiobooks, gently took her to task for this. Rowling immediately took the hint in her future books.

Which leads me to what I think the real problem is. Rowling is not being edited. She’s the goose laying golden eggs for her publisher, her editor, and her agent, and I suspect they are too scared to give her significant feedback.

This is a more general problem—editors don’t edit anymore. Behind many great writers were great editors, shaping the work and slicing off the fat. One of the most famous was Maxwell Perkins who worked with Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, and Thomas Wolfe. There are no Maxwell Perkins today. And what Rowling really needs is hard advice, such as, Kill your adverbs, darling, and, This book is about two, maybe three hunded pages too long.

The critics also are shocked, shocked to discover a bestselling author who is not a great prose stylist. Uh-huh. When I was in college, twenty plus years ago, I earned spending money writing book reviews for the university paper. A huge fraction of the bestsellers were really badly written. In fact, many of them were significantly worse writers than Rowling. Jeffrey Archer. Paul Erdman. Andrew Greeley. Clive Cussler. They were so bad I can’t remember anything about them except that they stank.

And it’s still true today, both in adult and children’s fiction. Consider Lemony Snicket, which my wife and I also read aloud: the books are so full of bad syntax as to make Rowling look like Proust.

Which leads me to what Rowling is doing right. Too often critics approach successful books with a prescriptive lens: this or this is how a bestselling book ought to be written, as if it were part of a syllabus. Instead I think it is more instructive to be descriptive: why is Harry Potter so successful? What about the books appeal to us?

First, Rowling writes vivid characters. I don’t mean to debate whether you think Harry and pals are good moral exemplars or prats, they stick in the mind. Some even surprise us. Neville Longbottom has moved from being the butt (sorry) of a joke to a tragic, sorrowful character. Dolores Umbridge is the most memorable example of the banality of evil I have read in a long time. And although some of the characters are one-note, that is not much different from the one-note but vivid characters in “literary” fiction—Rushdie’s Booker-winning Midnight’s Children comes to mind.

And I think many adults read Rowling and other young adult fiction because they are rediscovering narrative. The first four books in particular crackle with plot—the last two have drowned somewhat in the arc the final showdown. This shares in common with other “young adult” writers. Phillip Pullman is a better writer, sentence by sentence, than Rowling, but what stays with you are not his chiseled phrases but the characters of Lyra Silvertongue, Iorek the armored bear, and his vast, grand narrative.

Don’t forget that other “great” writers have their faults as well. A standard convention in American “literary” novels is to write about neurotic, self-absorbed twits you couldn’t work up tears for if they were run over by a bus—for example A S Byatt’s Possession. Or any book written by John Updike. And Henry James.

You could go on. Moby Dick is one of my favorite novels, but it has vast sections languish in the doldrums where Melville murmurs endlessly about maritime minutiae. Dickens is full of unbelievably absurd coincidences and people acting like utter idiots. Shakespeare, my God, Shakespeare is Dickens cubed. Genre books are no different: C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books were constructed with great slapdash. Tolkien’s prose, particularly his dialog, is frequently so wooden you could get splinters from it. Asimov’s dialog is even worse. The Sherlock Holmes stories have some of the hokiest plots in the English-speaking world—just how many criminals with wooden legs are there?

And these are books I love.

No book is perfect. The best novels have some flaw. Popular novels generally have something that works well. I remember reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. His prose was clunky, his dialog stiff, his characters cardboard—but he, like Rowling, cooked up a compelling narrative that was difficult to put down.

As a writer I pay attention to what annoys me in Rowling—and what works. In my own writing I have moved away from the earnest but boring character to more sharply drawn and memorable characters. I have banged away at my usual dreamy, amorphous plots, working to put in the little hints and red herrings Rowling is so fond of, and discovered new and powerful metaphors that make my work better. I don’t take Rowling as my model, but neither will I cast stones needlessly. (And as far as I can tell, Rowling is far less full of herself than many authors—see, for example, Byatt.) And when the book is delivered on Saturday, I’m turning off the computer and the TV and the radio in order to rediscover the joy of the journey of narrative.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby Windwalker » Thu Jul 19, 2007 2:03 pm

A pithy, witty essay that hits many marks and is bound to make all brows (low, middle and high) wrinkle in thought! I must confess right away that I read none of the Potter books and I saw only the first three films. In terms of the other authors that you mention, I started Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, which forever turned me off him, I agree with you completely about Tolkien (besides the wooden dialogue, he also shamelessly plundered the Icelandic sagas for much of his Silmarillion) and I consider Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials a great and unique (if uneven) achievement.

As a reader, I think that the Pullman trilogy along with the YA books of LeGuin, McKillip, Lynn and Dunsany form the pinnacles of this genre for precisely the reasons that you list: content and style are seamlessly fused into creating exciting, vivid plots and characters. The stories linger in the mind, even if details are forgotten, like a far-off melody. We care for the fates of the people as if they were real. There is no condescension, and the back-breaking labor of honing the work appears almost effortless.

As a writer, I can only join your lament about the total extinction of editors. Nowdays, editors are called “property aquisitors”. If willing or able, the author’s literary agent or writing group act as the editors of yore. It is definitely true that bestsellers are usually terribly written because publishers don’t want to touch a winning formula (this also explains why so many bestseller “clones” tank so abysmally).

It is unlikely I will read the Potter books… although my mind is open on the issue. I may end up doing so, if the seventh book is the last. Three is the usual number in a set of sequels that I will tolerate ( I haven’t gone past #3 of Zelazny’s Amber series or #2 of Martin’s Game of Thrones projected heptalogy, outstanding though the first two were). Again, LeGuin is the exception. I read all the Earthsea books, five novels and the story collection. It is characteristic that I liked the latter the best, perhaps because it came as a distillation of all that came before it.

Regardless of age and sophistication, people are hungry for meaningful stories, for absorbing narratives that do not reek of blasé malaise. There’s plenty of that in people’s cubicles (and in critics' columns and fashionable authors' stories, sf or mainstream). And if enjoying this type of art makes us middlebrow, that's ok. Nobody's footprints last in the sands of time.
For I come from an ardent race
That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

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Harry Potter and the 10,000 page finale

Postby caliban » Thu Jul 19, 2007 2:37 pm

Much of the problem lies in the geometric growth of the books. From the first three books alone I drew a curve and projected book 7 to be between ten and thirteen thousand pages in length. Of course, Amazon.com would have had to level to original Amazon forest to print such a text....

In retrospect, I think it is a pity that Rowling become so popular before finishing her series. Books 1 and 3, before she become a phenomenon, were the best, while books 5 and 6 in particular sagged under the weight of the Grand Narrative Arc. It was only after she became a hit that her novels started bloating up. I can't help but wonder if she'd remained relatively unknown if the publisher would have refused to print 800 page monsters, she might have been forced to cut drastically--and I think the books would have been better for it. Cut down to their essentials, they would have retained their basic strength: vivid characters and ripping good yarns.

It's not that Rowling is intrinsically evil, or a bad writer, for writing longer and longer books. When I am writing a story I find it expanding too, and it is not easy to beat back the tackle of words and the thicket of phases. There have been several cases where books were later re-released in their "original" or unedited form. Same for movies. Usually the longer version is not better, the Lord of the Rings movies being a rare counterexample. (But Jackson's King Kong suffered exactly from this syndrome; it too needed a good hour cut out of it.)

To be honest, I am not sure I would have the discipline to resist either. In the unlikely event that I suddenly write a huge hit...and start churning out bloated sequels...please be sure to e-mail me a copy of this note to remind me of my own words!
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Re: Harry Potter and the 10,000 page finale

Postby Windwalker » Thu Jul 19, 2007 7:26 pm

caliban wrote:When I am writing a story I find it expanding too, and it is not easy to beat back the tackle of words and the thicket of phases. There have been several cases where books were later re-released in their "original" or unedited form. Same for movies. Usually the longer version is not better, the Lord of the Rings movies being a rare counterexample.

I couldn't agree more. Knowing what to spare and what to pare is critical to writing (to the visual arts as well, of course). Writing is equal parts painting and sculpting. When I write a story, chapter, etc, I remove at least one third after the first polished draft. My readers have complained that this makes the writing so dense that if they skip a sentence they miss something vital... so I may lean too far to the lean side!

caliban wrote:In the unlikely event that I suddenly write a huge hit...and start churning out bloated sequels...please be sure to e-mail me a copy of this note to remind me of my own words!

Consider the reminder chiseled on the stone tablets of memory! (*laughs*)
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That has subsisted on defiance and visions.

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Colonoscopy

Postby caliban » Sat Jul 21, 2007 7:24 pm

We've got the last book. We're reading it aloud.

No spoilers here.

And again there could be trimming. I notice Rowling frequently feels the need to dramatize each step of a journey when she could just cut to the chase by the Death-Eaters.

But the most irritating thing is here punctuation. Almost every paragraph contains at least one semicolon or colon. I'm not a fanatic about punctuaction, and have been criticized for my use of commas. But colons and semicolons should be used very sparingly: overuse means sloppy construction of sentences. :)

Otherwise it's quite thrilling.
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Re: Colonoscopy

Postby Windwalker » Sat Jul 21, 2007 8:06 pm

caliban wrote:We've got the last book. We're reading it aloud. // No spoilers here.

I'll venture one guess... the ending leaves room for more books! Hard to argue with billions, but equally hard to let go of beloved characters, for both the author and the readers (the resurrections of Gandalf and Sherlock Holmes come to mind).
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Re: Colonoscopy

Postby caliban » Sun Jul 22, 2007 11:18 am

Windwalker wrote:I'll venture one guess... the ending leaves room for more books!

Don't know yet. Haven't finished. I won't spoil it either. That's the fun of the books--the narrative drive. I think Rowling understands that. She doesn't seem to see herself as a Great Artist, but a writer of a Jolly Good Read, save that by the last book it isn't so jolly.

The punctuation is maddening and inconsistent, however. The publishers appears to have bluelined hiring a copy-editor. Not only does she overuse semicolons and colons, after colons the following word is arbitrarily capitalized or not, e.g. (and these examples are made up)

Harry goggled at Hermione: she had not not a stitch of....

The Dark Lord stopped abruptly: A "no-trespassing: sign...

For a while, given the irregularity, I wondered if there was a message hidden, and so we started writing down all the words and first letters following colons. No message so far. Sigh. That would be a far better explanation for the chaotic punctuation. Unfortunately Occam's Razor wins: the (or The) answer is simply sloppiness.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby intrigued_scribe » Mon Jul 23, 2007 8:15 pm

Wonderful essay! I admit that while I've gotten through the first four books (and seen all five films), I have yet to catch up on the latter novels.

Windwalker wrote:

Knowing what to spare and what to pare is critical to writing (to the visual arts as well, of course).


Absolutely. :) And I agree; including too much can indeed be a detriment.

Heather

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Harry Potter and the Parodic Titles

Postby caliban » Tue Jul 24, 2007 1:03 am

Half-way through, a bit punch-drunk from randomly scattered punctuations (but brush them away and there are occasional bits of beauty as well as truly surprising plot twists), I came up with a parlor game: make minor revision to the titles of the Harry Potter books that totally deflate them:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Kidney-Stone

Harry Potter and the Chamberpot of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Love-Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Giblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Take-Out-Order of the Phoenix (this is Donna's)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood-Sausage Prince

Harry Potter and the Deathly Vowels

The last one I'm not satisfied with. Any suggestions? Suggested plot summaries?
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby rocketscientist » Tue Jul 24, 2007 9:30 am

Although the attacks all begin on Rowling, her prose, characters, and plots, sooner or later it veers, sputtering venom, onto the true source of their ire: these books, and certainly not some struggling underemployed single mum from Edinburgh who never attended a proper writer’s workshop, don’t deserve to be so popular, and it’s just so unfair that Potter is so popular.


Hark! Methinks I hear the sound of a nail being driven home!

:wink:

More anon. Need to finish reading... [/i]

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REVIEW (No significant spoilers)

Postby caliban » Sun Jul 29, 2007 12:37 am

Whew. We finally finished reading the last Harry Potter book. And it will be the last book.

(In what follows I will not have any significant spoilers. I will make a couple of allusions that will only whet your appetite but tell you nothing of significance. Much of the draw of Rowling is her narrative drive, which I will not undercut.)

People who did not like Potter previously will not be charmed by this addition.

People who enjoy the Potterverse will find this a stunning, richly satisfying conclusion.

The book wanders a bit, suffers from erratic and maddening punctuation, and some long-winded (if necessary) exposition right before the final confrontation. It does not contain as much of the whimsy and humor of the first few volumes, although some still remains--for example (teensy spoiler) Harry Potter, on the run, tunes into a pirate wireless program, "Potterwatch," which brought a much-needed smile.

On the other hand, the long-expected, final confrontation, contains as many twists and thrills as one has come to expect from Rowling. Fans will cheer and cry, often in the same moment. The Potterverse takes on additional complexity and shades of grey. Many characters are shown to have unknown depths--some heroic, some the opposite. Rowling's major themes resound here, right down to the epilogue: the saving grace of love, the importance of family and friends, and the turning away from the temptations of power and glory.

Interestingly, Rowling takes on a theme discussed elsewhere in these forums. The Death Eaters seek for a kind of blood purity among wizard kind, while Harry and his friends learn (again) that compassion, not purity, is more important.

I have no idea how they will cut this down to size for a movie. There is a line, however, that I will relish seeing Alan Rickman do. I can quote it, slightly paraphrased, because it spoils nothing; the context is everything; the context will change everything:

"Would you like me to kill you now," said Snape, "or would you like a few minutes to compose yourself?"


Oh, but if you only knew the context in which Snape says this. :)
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby Windwalker » Sun Jul 29, 2007 10:17 am

I liked Snape's character in the films, he is dour but has the strength of his convictions. And when he does something against the grain, it's particularly effective -- for example, the scene in The Prisoner of Azkaban, when he instinctively interposes himself between the three children and their adversary.

It seems increasingly likely that a marathon read of all seven Potter books looms in my future... but then I managed not to see a single episode of The Sopranos! This is what comes from having a TV set that only works as a DVD player!
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Postby caliban » Sun Jul 29, 2007 11:20 am

Windwalker wrote:It seems increasingly likely that a marathon read of all seven Potter books looms in my future... but then I managed not to see a single episode of The Sopranos! This is what comes from having a TV set that only works as a DVD player!

It'll be a marathon, especially the last four books which, to be honest, get increasingly bloated. As I have said repeatedly, if Rowling had been forced to keep the books to the length of The Prisoner of Azkaban, which itself is a long book, they would have improved measurably.

The key may be to make it through book 4. Book 4 retains much of the charm of the first books, but some of Rowling's bad habits push themselves to the front. By the end of Book 4, you will either (a) feed the need to read on to find out what happens or (b) be so annoyed and distracted by JKR's bad habits that further reading would be pointless.

The last 3 books are really one huge story arc finishing the the series. This gives the series narrative impetus but also drains away some, though not all, of the charm. For adult readers, some of the most interesting bits are Rowling's political satire in books 5 and 6, where she portrays a nanny state whose incompetent governance, lurching from one position to another, only makes things worse.

Reading the last 3 books is somewhat like watching episodes 1-3 of Star Wars: you feel you must to complete the cycle, although in both cases the creator's talents are at wars with their faults. I would give the nod to Rowling over Lucas, however. Athena has wittily deconstructed Lucas elsewhere: I'll just steal from her the point that Lucas' narrative has the somewhat incoherent idea that true growth demands starving oneself of affection and connection. Rowling takes the opposite tack: it is only through love, compassion, and connection that her characters ultimately triumph.

And I haven't seen a single episode of The Sopranos, either.
"Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work." --Thomas A. Edison

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Postby Windwalker » Sun Jul 29, 2007 11:54 am

caliban wrote:I'll just steal from her the point that Lucas' narrative has the somewhat incoherent idea that true growth demands starving oneself of affection and connection. Rowling takes the opposite tack: it is only through love, compassion, and connection that her characters ultimately triumph.

Someone might argue that this is the division between the traditional "feminist" and "masculinist" stances, with a bit of religion thrown in (ersatz Buddhism in the case of Lucas, recycled Wicca in the case of Rowling). But this is too simplistic. I prefer to think of it more as the division between adolescence and adulthood, the eventual ability to not only appreciate the nuances of connections, but also tolerate the complications and compromises they force, including the pain of irreversible loss.

From the biological viewpoint, several studies have shown that connections are beneficial: as people get older, their emotional and mental integrity depends on having a network of friends.
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Postby intrigued_scribe » Sat Aug 04, 2007 12:46 pm

There just might be a marathon reading session in the not-so-distant future for me as well (the other recs I'm catching up on notwithstanding). That aside:

caliban wrote:

I'll just steal from her the point that Lucas' narrative has the somewhat incoherent idea that true growth demands starving oneself of affection and connection. Rowling takes the opposite tack: it is only through love, compassion, and connection that her characters ultimately triumph.


I agree with the point describing the opposing stances as the divide between adolescence and maturity; to me, (as it ties into the comparison between the implications of Lucas' narrative and those in Rowling's) it stands as the contrast between uninformed blindness and the lessons leaned that lead to genuine wisdom. And this:

Windwalker wrote:

From the biological viewpoint, several studies have shown that connections are beneficial: as people get older, their emotional and mental integrity depends on having a network of friends.


Wonderful and highly fitting observation. :)

Heather


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