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Young Geoffrey

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Lost Weekend - Young Geoffrey and The Curse of Harry Potter [Aug. 1st, 2005|04:44 pm]
Young Geoffrey
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Harry Potter, Harry Potter, Harry Potter ...

For the past few weeks it's been impossible to unaware of the name. No amount of Madison Avenue hype could have created the genuine fascination, the very real enthusiasm, that has been evident online, onstreet, onsubway. Adults and children, carrying the thick, colourful sixth volume; people on my friends' list saying "goodbye" for 2 or 3 days; Laura reading as I have never before known her to read, drowning for hours between the covers of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

So, at last, I decided to find out what all the fuss was about.

Enjoyed the first two as entertaining childrens' books with just enough meat to keep an adult curious to find out what happens next. Waited a couple of days and entered into the third volume, to find myself reading it every free minute I had.

I don't have anything to say about the series that hasn't been said before, so I'll keep this brief and do my best to avoid any important spoilers, since J.K. Rowling has written a very old-fashioned kind of book(s), in which plot and twists their in are important.

As a prose stylist, Rowling is no threat to the memory of Virginia Woolf, or even Isaac Asimov. She has a number of amateurish bad habits, the worst of which is the entirely unnecessary use of adjectives applied to the word, said. Unnecessary, because her dialogue is more than good enough to make it clear when a character is angry, or sarcastic, or surprised. These should have been caught and corrected before she was famous enough that no one could edit her without her permission - but now is not the time to bemoan the decline in the field of redaction within the publishing industry.

Another flaw is that it is clear she is making things up as she is going along. Harry Potter's world is not a fully-realized "secondary creation"; there are times one can see the backgrounds being moved quickly into place. Her secondary characters (particularly the grown-ups) are often thinly-sketched, though that is at least in part due to the story being told from the point of view of a boy largely cut-off from the adult world.

Judging by the first 6 volumes, the Harry Potter series will not take a proud space on the shelf of Great Books. It may well, however, find a permanent spot on the shlf just below, where sit the Flawed But Still Wonderful Books; certainly it will remain among the Great Childrens' Books for a very long time to come.

Rowling's strengths are strong indeed.

The world of Harry Potter is told from a child's point-of-view, and Rowling never lets us forget it. During the first 3 volumes, I found myself constantly siding with Hermione, wishing that Harry would put his faith in Dumbledore and tell (or McGonagall, for that matter), but it made sense that Harry, an orphan long mistreated by his adoptive family would not be quick to trust any adult.

Rowling brilliantly shows us a child's world, where interclass rivalries and sports are far more important than the goings-on in the outer world. For most of the series, Qiddich is in Harry's mind at least as (and much of the time, more) important than facing Lord Voldemort. In the emotionally complicated friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione, particularly as they enter their teens, Rowling shows a master's touch in her depictions of jealousy, crushes, and the teenagers terror at revealing what is in his or her heart.

Though the Harry Potter books are almost as heavy on plot and surprise as an Agatha Christie mystery, there is a great deal more there than just mystery (and adventure) to hold our attention. I cared enough about Harry and Ron and Herminone to be sad when they were sad, happy went things went well - I even managed an interest in Qidditch, a game whose 150 point Snitch bears far too much resemblance to barroom pool's 8-ball for my taste.

Rowling also knows how to show - without telling - kids growing up, changing. A review of The Half-Blood Prince I read complained that Harry had become too much of a complainer, too bitter, to be a fully-sympathetic character.

Well, of course Harry was bitter. He was 14 years old! He was under enormous pressures, he was (as Dumbledore would admit, near the end of the 6th volume) wrongly kept in the dark about the reasons for his involvement in matters far beyond his experience.

Beyond the characterization and the plot-driven mysteries of each volume but the last (the only one that doesn't come to a satisfactory conclusion of its own), Rowling brilliantly keeps the reader wanting to find out what happens next. Not interested in pleasing academe or theoretions, she is instead intent on telling a tale on its own terms. Like Tolkien, another author largely despised by academics who want an artist to footnote his or her own work with roadmaps to their metaphors and symbolism, Rowling instead has created a world (and never mind that her puppet-strings occasionally show, that makes sense on its own logic.

There are clear parallels (or so I choose to believe) between Rowlings world and our own - government more keen to promote the public's confidence in itself than to do its job, unconcerned about "mistakes made" or the innocent men and women who sometimes take the fall for the real villains' deeds; uncomfortable, but not really concerned, about its alliance with the Dementors, creatures whose only pleasure is to suck all joy - all life - from the living. It is easy to sea political parallels with Rowling's New Labour England - but it is clear to me that Rowling is only using her experience from the times in which she lives to tell an entirely different story. Should the reader choose to draw those parallels, he or she is free to do so (and I suspect Rowling would not object if he or she did), but she is not writing allegory, she is "only" telling a story.

And that story is almost all that a good story should be. Engaging, exciting, frustrating, relieving, even moving.

I have spent almost every waking hour of this long weekend immersed in a wonderfully-realized story and I can hardly wait until the 7th volume appears, so I can visit it again - and find out what happens in the end at last.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: karinablack
2005-08-01 09:34 pm (UTC)
In not as eloquent language:
What you found flawed with her writing, is what I liked about it most. Tolkein was ... in a word TEDIOUS to read. Rowling doesn't require the use of a dictionary or english degree to keep up with what's going on.
I don't really enjoy reading prose stylists. I don't have enough interest or patience with even my own native language to fully appreciate or enjoy piecing words together as a work of art. I like a story for story's sake. Details and authors trying to hard to create new and interesting turns of phrase just weigh pieces down for me.

I rather enjoyed her use of "said" synonyms... The use of "said" just gets so darned repetitive. I especially appreciated "uttered silkily" in regards to Snape's character :) Mm... yes, can picture that, could even HEAR that. heehee! :)

These weren't meant to be childrens' books, I believe. I think they are appropriate to the age Harry is, and above, for each book... but I won't be reading them to my toddler any time soon. I won't even let her watch the movies- I think they're a bit intense for her to process right now, and hopefully for a long while.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-01 09:50 pm (UTC)
What you found flawed with her writing, is what I liked about it most. Tolkein was ... in a word TEDIOUS to read. Rowling doesn't require the use of a dictionary or english degree to keep up with what's going on

I don't find Tolkien tedious at all (though I can understand, I think, those who find his travelogues so). I was talking about really basic stuff, such as (my points in bold:

  • "What are you talking about?" Harry said angrily....

  • "No," Ron said flatly.

  • "Excellent!" said Harry happily.


I noticed the flaw while I was reading from Book 5 aloud to Laura, and suddenly realized that, while her dialogue told the reader all that was necessary to know, she underlined it with completely extraneous adjectives.

In other words, I think adjectives following "said" are (almost) always not only unnecessary, but in fact insulting to the reader. If your dialogue doesn't make clear how your character is saying the words, there is something wrong with your dialogue.

These weren't meant to be childrens' books, I believe. I think they are appropriate to the age Harry is, and above, for each book... but I won't be reading them to my toddler any time soon.

I think she wrote the first one - and maybe the second - as children's books - amateurs often think that writing for children is "easy". First, because she needed the money and, only second, because she realized she had a great Story struggling to be born within her. Tolkien had a decent income and (more important) a wife to care for his children, so he was able to indulge himself for more than a decade in building the background for his story, where Rowling was a single mother, having to raise her children, support them and churn out what will prove to be (at the least) a minor classic.

As for not reading the later books to your toddler, I agree. Making the writing more sophisticated as Harry becomes more sophisticated is a very neat trick indeed. (I note that even a few swear words popped into the most recent volume - as well they should, for a book about a boy now nearly 16 years old.)
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[User Picture]From: karinablack
2005-08-01 10:03 pm (UTC)
I'm anxious for book 7, but I'm kind of sad to know it will be the end of the series.
...though on the other hand, I hope she doesn't just keep churning them out for the sake of continuing things...
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-01 10:12 pm (UTC)
I am too, but - from what I've read about the series and what I have read of it - I have confident that the next book will be the last, as it should be. I will be more than shocked if Harry and Voldemort don't meet for a final confrontation.
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[User Picture]From: karinablack
2005-08-01 10:14 pm (UTC)
After they do, I could see some sort of evolution- Harry fighting remaining Death Eaters, or a new arch-enemy ;)

Just from having seen what some of the other sci-fi/fantasy authors have done.

I really hope she doesn't quit writing, I just hope it doesn't devolve and start to suck :)
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-01 10:17 pm (UTC)
After they do, I could see some sort of evolution- Harry fighting remaining Death Eaters, or a new arch-enemy ;)

Yes, it certainly could happen, but I don't believe it will. If nothing else, Rowling sure as hell no longer needs to write for the money. Of course, we can only hope that she doesn't anyway.
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[User Picture]From: karinablack
2005-08-01 10:18 pm (UTC)
haha that's true. I'm so glad for her too :)
I heard she bought a castle!!
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[User Picture]From: tacky_tramp
2005-08-02 04:33 pm (UTC)
There are some points where her adverb-abuse works. I love, for example, that Dumbledore usually says rather shocking things "conversationally." That "said"-modification develops his character.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-02 10:06 pm (UTC)
Pending an example, I stand by my complaint. Dumbledore is always so calm, cool and collected that I think the adverb is still unnecessary.
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[User Picture]From: colinmarshall
2005-08-01 10:58 pm (UTC)
My girlfriend also spent the week after release wrapped up in The Half-Blood Prince. I'd be lying if I said I don't wonder what The Big Deal is re: the Harry Potter series (or, at the very least, why it continues to galvanize veritable armies of lonely girls who like to write about rough gay sex between popular sci-fi/fantasy characters), and there have been times I've tried to figure it out.

... you know, without actually having to read the books. I've got enough on my literary queue as it is.

So I've had a rough go at this. There have to be other childrens' series out there whose concepts are vastly more imaginative, and I know there are series with much higher-caliber writing, so why J.K. has eaten their lunch continues to puzzle me. My best hypothesis has to do with the books seeming tailor-made for a bored young tot to envision him/herself in the title role, though said girlfriend reckons that it has more to do with Rowling's creation of the illusion of a vast, highly detailed world, only some of which details are selectively doled out the reader.

Still, I'm kinda stumped.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-01 11:16 pm (UTC)
There have to be other childrens' series out there whose concepts are vastly more imaginative, and I know there are series with much higher-caliber writing, so why J.K. has eaten their lunch continues to puzzle me. My best hypothesis has to do with the books seeming tailor-made for a bored young tot to envision him/herself in the title role, though said girlfriend reckons that it has more to do with Rowling's creation of the illusion of a vast, highly detailed world, only some of which details are selectively doled out the reader.

Still, I'm kinda stumped.


It's pretty simple, actually (in the same sense that "evolution" is a simple answer to the question, "Why am I here?"

Rowling tells a good story. Like Og, sitting 'round the campfire 100,000 years ago, Rowling takes us out of the complexity of the present and introduces us to a new world, new enough that we feel alive as only a small child - or maybe an astronaut - can feel. As if we are walking where no one has gone before, where every dog dropping, every bent blade of grass or vanity license plate may have a meaning we have never before imagined.
Harry Potter is
[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<fun</i>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

<i>There have to be other childrens' series out there whose concepts are vastly more imaginative, and I </i>know<i> there are series with much higher-caliber writing, so why J.K. has eaten their lunch continues to puzzle me. My best hypothesis has to do with the books seeming tailor-made for a bored young tot to envision him/herself in the title role, though said girlfriend reckons that it has more to do with Rowling's creation of the illusion of a vast, highly detailed world, only </i>some<i> of which details are selectively doled out the reader.

Still, I'm kinda stumped.</i>

It's pretty simple, actually (in the same sense that "evolution" is a simple answer to the question, "Why am I here?"

Rowling <i>tells a good story</i>. Like Og, sitting 'round the campfire 100,000 years ago, Rowling takes us out of the complexity of the present and introduces us to a new world, new enough that we feel <i>alive</i> as only a small child - or maybe an astronaut - can feel. As if we are walking where no one has gone before, where every dog dropping, every bent blade of grass or vanity license plate may have a meaning we have never before imagined.
<i>Harry Potter</i> is <i><fun</i>. Creative fun, escapist fun, imaginative fun, escapist fun.

Not escapist in the sense of distraction, but in the sense of "getting away from it all" (though that is part of the appeal), but in the sense of, "Here is something you haven't thought of before, imagined before".

Rowling doesn't ask you to analyze (though, a little, I couldn't help myself), but to <i>experience</i>. No more and no less, she is telling you a story, the sort of thing - if you were lucky - your parents told you after they wrapped you tight in your bedclothes before sleep. She isn't <i>teaching</i> you something, nor is she explaining to you why it is wrong to judge people based upon their genetic background or whether a liberal government, or a conservative is better able to protect you from evil (though I - I think - her opinions happen to roughly coincide with my own).

She's just telling a story. Which activity, I believe, may be that which is most important toward making us human.

As my friend Heath Johns once put it, "We were put on this earth to tell each other stories."

J.K. Rowling is almost finished telling us a very good story indeed.
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[User Picture]From: colinmarshall
2005-08-01 11:23 pm (UTC)
Nor is she explaining to you why it is wrong to judge people based upon their genetic background or whether a liberal government, or a conservative is better able to protect you from evil (though I - I think - her opinions happen to roughly coincide with my own)

Woah. J.K.R. has politics? Do tell.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-01 11:42 pm (UTC)
Oh Christ ... Forgive me, I've had too much wine, so my coherence (and spelling) may not be what they should be.

It's unclear whether Rowling's "magical" world (which lies, hidden but connected, to our own) is a democracy, but it is clearly one in which the government is assumed to be benign.

The government is definitely a part of her world, a beaurocratic overseer over the magical realm, run by politicians holding the portfolio of Minister of Magic (who also interface with the (British) Prime Minister). The governing body - with an analogue of police and army at their service (however munitinous parts of those may be) - is (a) subject to some kind censure (she doesn't make it clear whether or not the ballot is part of this) and (b) makes mistakes.

Rowlings vision of a beauracracy is one of an organization that mistakes its own status with that of the Greater Good. Her beaurocrats are not (mostly) "evil", rather they are too narrow-minded to remember their primary duty, to serve the greater good. Instead, they seek to pass the buck; they worry about public approval ratings; they convince themselves that innocent men sent to the dundgeons are the foes they seek.

Living as I do in the year 2005, I could easily (though wrongly) claim she is writing an allegory for my era. But, I think, what she is doing is telling a story applicable to any era.

Harry Potter's world is a complex one, where the government is often wrong and, even, where his hero and saviour - Dumbledore - is a man, who has made more than one very important mistake.

Her politics are not allegorys, though they are connected to the real world. But she is clear that truth is better than lies; that love is better than hate; that trust is better than paranoia.

Yes, J.K.R. has politics. But she knows better than to turn a story into a Manifesto.
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[User Picture]From: sabotabby
2005-08-01 11:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, totally.

Some things I can mention offhand:

There's a very good critique from the third book onward about how governments deal with the threat of terror -- beings called Dementors (think the Nazgul in Lord of the Rings) that suck the joy out of people are employed to guard a fairly medieval prison. As threats to the school increase, the wizard government gets the bright idea of using the Dementors to guard the school as well -- essentially cracking down on everyone's freedom and happiness in the name of security. Predictably, it doesn't work well. By the fifth book, the Dementors are clearly more threat than security, and instead of actually fighting the threat, the authorities are rounding up innocent people, interrogating them, and throwing them in prison.

On a lighter note, there's a lovely satire of white liberalism in the fourth book, with one of the characters trying to unionize the house elves.

JKR doesn't have an overt political agenda (there's a lot of mushy, feel-good, anti-racist, anti-classist stuff that often gets subverted by fantasy conventions), but there's probably enough there to spark a good discussion if, say, you were reading the books to a child.
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[User Picture]From: tacky_tramp
2005-08-02 04:36 pm (UTC)
You should listen to your girlfriend!

My theory is that Harry Potter, like a lot of other works around which huge and rabid fandoms develop, is different, intriguing, and incomplete. Its hints and imperfections invite speculation and, most significantly, involvement. Hence discussion communities and fanfic and slash.
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[User Picture]From: tacky_tramp
2005-08-02 04:31 pm (UTC)
Another flaw is that it is clear she is making things up as she is going along. Harry Potter's world is not a fully-realized "secondary creation"; there are times one can see the backgrounds being moved quickly into place.

This is what separates her from Tolkien, in my view. Tolkien rewrote entire chapters because he realized the moon would have been in a different phase at a certain point in the plot; Rowling is changing the rules of magic -- if, in fact, there are any she knows of -- with every book.

From one newbie to another, welcome to the fandom. If I catch you on some Harry/Draco community, I'll know you're a goner.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-02 10:18 pm (UTC)
Er, no offense, but I don't plan on joining the fandom - I have too much of my own fiction already not being written for that type of engagement.
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[User Picture]From: stolen_identity
2005-08-03 10:50 pm (UTC)
hey geoff, completely off topic, but did i see you walking down queen st. w. around ummm 3:30-4pm yesterday? if not, you have a twin walking around the city. LOL.
i tried to catch your (his?) eye, and smile, but you (he) weren't (wasn't) paying attention ;)
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-04 12:23 am (UTC)
I think you did. I did a (very slow) mental double-take, but by the time I stopped and turned around you were a quarter-block away and I wasn't sure enough to start shouting, "Katie! Katie! Katie!" like some dirty old pervert.

Next time I will.
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[User Picture]From: stolen_identity
2005-08-04 12:29 am (UTC)
LOL dammit! i was gonna say "geoff!" but as soon as i opened my mouth, i thought you looked at me, and then looked away, so i didn't want to sound like a dumbass just in case it wasn't you. and then i walked away and said to my friend ursula (another intern at the studio - we were handing out flyers to different shops on queen yesterday) "i think that was my friend geoff, but he didn't recognize me!"
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2005-08-04 12:33 am (UTC)
A lesson for both of us: If we'd been wrong, it really wouldn't have been a big deal. I work right around there (Richmond and Spadina) - we could actually arrange to meet up if you are too.
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[User Picture]From: stolen_identity
2005-08-04 12:37 am (UTC)
haha, you are absolutely right.

i'm actually out at eastern & leslie, i just happened to be down on queen st. handing out flyers, because my boss had nothing better for me to do that particular day ;) LOL

but we should do drinks or something again. last time was fun :)
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