Tuesday, July 26, 2011

This is how I know I'm old

(image source) I bought the first Harry Potter novel for my oldest daughter last Thursday (she finished it yesterday, & now Linda is reading it).  I am convinced that my feelings about this book series mark my age better than just about anything else in pop culture today.  I have no patience for the books.  My ex-husband read them all, and I picked up one that he had and tried to read it, but I could not get past the first page.  It was just...bad.  Poorly written.  Simplistic sentence structure, cliched-as-hell dialogue, that sort of thing.  I closed it up and shuddered and never willingly touched another JK Rowling book until I bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone for Bobbie at Half Price.

And yet, I realize that this series is phenomenally popular and influential to people at least a decade younger than I.  It's a Young Adult novel, after all, and in practice those are aimed at pre-adolescents and adolescents.  I was an actual young adult when the first one was published here in 1998, and frankly hadn't had the patience for YA novels since I was in elementary school.

Were I to list novels that influenced me as a writer, I'd give you names like Pet Sematery Graveyard Shift (yes, I know it's a short story collection), Guilty Pleasures, The Great Gatsby, Children of the Night, Oath Bound, that sort of thing.  I pay enough attention to what's going on around me to know some of the elements from the Harry Potter universe--well, that and I have actually found the movies enjoyable, although not particularly memorable--but none of them make me think of JK Rowling's creation.

I managed to piss someone off a short while ago by declaring that Rowling's primary strength was in copying a lot of other people.  Nothing in the Harry Potter books is particularly unusual.  I can see how you might think otherwise, were these novels your introduction to fantasy, but if you've read Tolkien or Jane Yolen or Tad Williams or Dennis L McKiernan or Marion Zimmer Bradley...basically, if you've done any reading in the genre before her you'll realize that's not the truth.  "Orphan boy turns out to be the one to save everything" is a classic plot, okay?  A mysterious scar, tattoo, or birthmark to signify importance is probably at least as old (and is often a key component of Lost Important Child stories).  If you've ever read any of Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar novels, you're familiar with the concept of a school for magical people, and if you've ever watched Dr Who you realize that scarves aren't exactly a new fashion statement either.  I'm actually a-OK with borrowing elements from everywhere; my frustration comes with people who honestly seem to think Rowling thought of it first.

I will confess I've never quite understood the novels' popularity with those who were adults when they came out, either.  I know for a lot of people it was a matter of reading what your kids were interested in, but again, I found the writing to be far too simplistic to do anything but grate on my nerves.  There are some incredibly well-written books out there, both old and new, for parents who want to share reading materials with their kids.  I bought the girls a copy of A Wrinkle in Time a few months ago, having vaguely recalled reading & enjoying it as a child, and wound up reading part of it Saturday when Erik and I were at lunch (I forgot my own book); it is a startlingly good novel.  Very well-written, and not insultingly simplistic.  It is the only book in quite some time that either older girl has had to ask me to define a word from the text.  Were kids really that much smarter in 1962?  I'd like to think not, but stuff like Harry Potter makes me wonder.  Both novels are aimed at the same age group, unless I miss my guess, and they're both genre fiction.  It's not wholly an age of the book issue either; Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was published in 2008 and I snag it from the kids whenever I see it lying around.  Gaiman's writing is smart (it always is) and it's a very good book. 

I frequently see the claim that Harry Potter "saved" children's publishing and got everyone reading again, but I've yet to see evidence for it.  There may have been a temporary bump among a certain demographic, but I can assure you most of my parent friends still have a hard time getting their kids to read.  Most people seem to have read the books because everyone else was reading them, and then maybe skimmed Tolkien long enough to decide Rowling was better before subsiding until Twilight was published.

Still, every time I bitch about this, someone looks at me as though I'm drowning kittens, so I've decided it's easier to just say "Oh, I guess I'm really too old for it."  Arguing that the books really aren't that good never gets me anywhere.


Gil Garza said...

Try reading them in the Queens English. Scholastic dumbed them down to make them thoroughly Americanized children's books. The British editions published by Bloomsbury are marketed to adults.

greg said...

If I had started reading them when they first came out, I'm not sure I would have made it. I didn't start reading them until the 4th one was already out, and only the trusted opinion of my wife that 'They DO get better' is what kept me reading...and I found that they do...both the writing, AND the darkness of the story-telling improve.

Heresy it might be, but I would compare the 'darkness' of the last half of the series favorably to 'Eye of the Dragon' by Mr. King...

That being said, wild horses couldn't make me tackle that Twilight stuff...

Ross said...

Oh, thank G-d. Someone else who doesn't worship at the altar of Harry Potter!!

Personally, I think that JK Rowling took a lot of the idea for HP from Diane Duane's "So You Want To Be A Wizard" books.

I've read each HP book - once - and gone to see each movie because my wife dragged me to see it. Once. I don't watch them if they're on teewee.

I've read everything from Tom Swift (the originals) to the very latest David Weber (and I'm eagerly awaiting my delivery of Monster Hunter Alpha). I won't say HP books are the WORST I've ever read (I reserve that for Dahlgren and Dune) but they're right up there. Your criticism was right on target.

Albatross said...

Rowling's writing may be simplistic, but I was impressed that she could keep up such a large story arc over seven books with very few plot holes. And I liked that she followed classic dramatic structure and put the climax, or turning point, of the series in very middle when the main bad guy became flesh again in the fourth book.

Rowling may not be a "great" writer, but she knows form, and she knows how to use it.

TOTWTYTR said...

I know a good number of adults, older than you by several years, who are hooked on the books and the movies.

I think of them as children's books, but that's just me. After all I still read Heinlein's "juvenile" novels even though other than being a delinquent, I'm far from being a juvenile.

OTOH, even his dated novels are better written than most of what passes for literature these days.