Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Oh for god's sake, are you kidding me?

I am not, in fact, dead, despite my homicidal oven's best efforts. I won't go into details, but there was gas and a small ball of flame that blew open the oven door, blew out my pilot light, and tried to singe the skin off my finger. Also, I suspect my oven is conspiring with other elements in my apartment because not five minutes after the tiny fireball the blinds fell off my window for no other reason than to add insult to injury. I expect any day now for my fan to turn on me.

Murderous household appliances aside, I decided it was good a time as any to share some of my bitterness, because why be spiteful if you can't spread it around? (Note: this explains Alan Moore's existence.)

In a fit of boredom as I waited to counter the oven's latest attempt on my life, I was surfing the internet when, lo, I came upon this gem of complete and utter bullshit craziness. Go read it. No, seriously. I'll wait.

Back already? In case you're wondering, yes, Harry Potter just got turned into a religion. Everyone together now: what the fucking fuck?

All right, tiny little warning before I get into this. I'm actually going to discuss the Harry Potter series, something I've had really no inclination to do before because the series is finally concluded, it's been two years since the last book was released, and, to be honest, I care little for the series itself. Yes, that means I am going to be very critical (read: bitter) about the books and Rowling, so if you hold a deep love for the series you might want to go read Darcy's quite lovely review of the movie. You could also stick around and argue with me in the comments and that would be equally as awesome, because I love a good argument (I fully expect Darcy to take me up on this).

That out of the way, let's move on. I don't know whether to sit these people down and take away all pointy objects or perhaps buy them puppies and kittens and hope the cute little animals distract them from interacting with the world, because damn, people, damn.

Look, I'm not about to dispute that Harry Potter is a huge cultural phenomenon--at least it's less inexplicable then, say, Twilight--but it's not the pinnacle of children's literature, or any literature at all, actually. It started as a few series of books about a boy going to a magical school and having magical adventures and then spiraled out into Rowling's message bout Love and Death and other nonsense.

I am all for books that get kids excited to read, but people have been writing fantasy series with deep layers far longer and better than Rowling. Just off the top of my head you have Pullman's His Dark Materials and Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series (which a tragically few people know about and I have now made it my mission to introduce as many people to it as humanly possible). I didn't cite Narnia here because everyone knows Narnia, and, to be honest, the last book in the series is problematic if you're anything but a white, hardcore Christian.

I will admit that I quite enjoyed the first three Potter books, especially Prisoner of Azkaban, which took risks for a children's book. Goblet of Fire and onwards was just an increasing mess, not helped by Rowling's undeniable success and the fact her editors apparently just gave up. For example, is there anyone out there that thought it was vital to the plot of The Deathly Hallows for Harry and co. to sit around under a magical tent in some field for what felt like 900 endless pages? Anyone?

Not to mention that Rowling's writing itself started to decline, which became evident in the last book where the pacing was shot to hell, and we had gems like this: "The suddenness and completeness of death was with them like a presence." I'm sorry, but on what planet is that considered good writing?

A lot of people cite the sheer amount of pages of Harry Potter as a mark of the scope of the work. I won't deny that Rowling did put a lot of effort into making the series rather epic, and she did, arguable, succeed in that sense. However, the sheer amount of words you write doesn't making anything epic or deep.

For example, take Cooper's The Dark is Rising. It's only five books to Harry Potter's seven, and only a fraction as long. In fact, the third and fourth books, The Green Witch and The Grey King respectively, don't even break two hundred pages. And this is absolutely not at all a weakness. I'll be the first to admit that Cooper's writing is dense enough that so much can be packed into one page that I often find myself reading it to get everything. This is a strength, because Cooper does not waste one word. The same cannot be said about Rowling and the magical tent of pace killing boredom.

In fact, Cooper is such a master of making use of her space that one of the most important characters in the entire series only appears in the last two books, but by the end I knew him better than Harry, who I had spent seven books with, and Dumbledore of the interminable exposition back story dump of oh my god Rowling seriously.

And, for the record, killing off characters does not make one edgy or dark, especially when the characters you kill off only include secondary characters and an owl. It says nothing about Death other than that Rowling thought she was being dark and edgy. You killed an owl, Rowling. Shut up.

As seen in the article about Rowling's website, Rowling has an interesting relationship with her readers and with fandom. I'm not even going to get into Harry Potter fandom because it's a giant, frightening beast, but will discuss the way that Rowling and fandom intersect.

In this day and age with the internet making things so easy, fandom is an entirely different creatures than pre-iternet days where you had to go hunt down convention and 'zines to get your fanfic fix. Now you do a simple google search and viola! You can find porn for any pairing your twisted little heart desires.

Most authors and creators take a rather ambivalent stance to fandom and transformative works (i.e. fanfiction, fanart, and fanvids) and pretty much stay away from it. Some, like Robin Hobb, see fanfic as encroaching on their ownership of the work and destroying her carefully constructed novels (I do not agree with this, because people are going to take away different things from your work and you cannot control that or how they expound on those interpretations). Others, like Terry Pratchett, accept it but make no move to actively seek out transformative works based on their creations.

Rowling...is an interesting case. Harry Potter fandom is so prevelant that even if you are not actively seeking things out, you're going to pick up some idea of it via osmosis if nothing else. In Harry Potter fandom it's pretty apparent that one of the major pairings is Sirius/Remus. It may have no canon basis, but a lot of fandom extrapolates what they want from cannon and then runs with it.

I've mentioned up there in an aside about personal interpretation and how an author cannot control it. An author can, of course, guide it by suggesting and outright stating things in the text, but at the end of the day it is the reader who takes what they want from the work. Now I'm not about to suggest all interpretations have equal validity, because anyone who has ever sat through a freshmen lit course knows what nonsense that is. What I am suggesting is that two people can read the same text and take different things away from it depending on their point of view, and that is what makes books and the act of reading rather amazing.

Rowling appears to disagree and seems intent on doing the interpretation for the reader. Look, as a writing student I can sympathize that it's frustrating if your audience doesn't take away what you want, but that suggests the fault lays with you the writer and not the audience. Rowling seems to be of the mindset it's the audience's fault and will do everything she can to rectify it.

Take the Remus/Sirius fandom created relationship that I mentioned paragraphs ago (I did have a point in that). In whatever book, six or seven maybe, Harry goes into Sirius' old room and sees that he had up multiple posters of half-naked woman. This is pretty much Rowling telling those who create work advocating that Remus and Sirius were going at it like bunnies to fuck off because Sirius is completely and utterly straight, damnit! That's a real mature response to your audience, Rowling.

To make matters worse, in her latest book Beedle the Bard after every story there are Dumbledore's notes, which is literally Rowling telling you how to interpret her work. In doing so Rowling is actively taking away the reader's own interpretation, leaving nothing for them to interact with. That does not make reading fun. It makes it boring and dull and insulting. Well done, Rowling.

Out of this cultural phenomena, you get The Harry Potter Alliance. I won't deny that the Alliance has done some wonderful things, donating books to schools in Rwanda, but the fact that they decided to make their moral compass a character from a mediocre children's book series is worrying and infuriating.

Look, there is a long history of books raising social activism, which is amazing and awe inspiring. But, I have to tell you, Harry Potter isn't exactly on the same level as Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Jungle. Harry Potter is only a few steps up from Twilight: How to Get Yourself into an Abusive Relationship.

Slack is using Dumbledore as an indicator of right and wrong, the same man who sent a seventeen year old boy off to willingly die. And, yes, I know, Harry had to die because he had a piece of Voldemort's soul in him and so on, that does not take into the account Dumbledore spent much of the series being some God-like figure who wouldn't get off his ass to perhaps find a way to keep a young boy alive. Awesome.

And then there's this paragraph in particular:

"Slack relates all sorts of social issues back to themes in the Harry Potter books. Using the opinions of Harry's mentor Albus Dumbledore as a moral compass, Slack suggests Potter fans should fight prison torture because Dumbledore was against Dementors, and that they should support fair trade because Dumbledore agreed on giving rights to house elves."

I don't know whether to frame this paragraph or go on a week long bender. Again, books promoting social activism is a good thing, but Jesus Christ, taking something as complex as free trade and relating it to Rowling's rather patronizing and condescending attitude to house elves and social classes is fucking ridiculous.

And, of course, Rowling has her own say in this: "What did my books preach against throughout? Bigotry, violence, struggles for power, no matter what. All of these things are happening in Darfur. So they couldn't have chosen a better cause."

Oh my god, shut up, you stupid, arrogant, smug little woman!

It is evident that Rowling was trying to make big statements about Tolerance and Love and Death in her books but if you look below the shiny surface she pretty much failed.

Yes, Rowling, you preached tolerance in that you literally turned Death Eaters into Nazis. That's as deep and profound as saying, "You know what? Hitler was a crazy, horrible human being and genocide is bad."

And you definitely fought bigotry by making your protagonists any ethnicity beside Caucasian and any class other that, say, middle. Oh wait, you completely didn't. In fact, your text is pretty much a construct of bigotry.

Let's take the issue of race first, shall we? Harry is white from a (albeit abusive) middle class family. Hermoine? Well, she's female, but still white from middle class family. Ron: white, but from lower middle class. That's not really ground breaking. In fact, everyone in your books are pretty much white, aren't they? Accept for Dean, who is black, and Cho Chang, who is Asian. In the movies I think those twins in Gryffindor whose names I never bothered to learn because you never bothered to give them personalities are British Indian, but I'm not sure if that was ever stated in the books.

So your hero is a white, middle class kid who literally gets turned into a Christ figure. Way not to subvert anything but to completely uphold the idea that only heroes get to be white. God forbid Harry was Indian or Asian or anything that wasn't white, because he was the hero, damnit, and how would kids identify with him if he wasn't white as the driven snow?

And, yes, Rowling, you claim to be a feminist, but of your prominent female characters, mainly Hermoine and Ginny, both end up married to their childhood sweethearts. Hermoine is smart and way more capable than either Harry or Ron, but she's a girl and therefore couldn't be the hero either. Women are there to be the love interest or to help the hero, not to save the day themselves.

Moving onto a wider view point, the entire text is almost in support of bigotry and stratification. The wizarding world is presented as being better than anything else ever. Rowling pretty much outright said this in an interview, and while this is her creation and she can think whatever the hell she wants, I, for one, will take e-mail over mail delivered by owl any day.

Now the books, with one or two small deviations, are from Harry's point of view, and this idealization of the wizarding world makes sense. Harry came from a horrible family that abused him for years--anything would seem better after that.

The problem comes when Rowling widened the scope of the books. If this series were truly about tolerance and preaching against bigotry then it should become clear that the muggles and the giants and werewolves and all the rest were just as important and just as valid as the wizards. Sure, Rowling paid lip service to trying to bring together giants and werewolves to fight against Voldemort and his Nazis, but in the end were they important?

No. The day was saved by the white middle class Jesus, thus proving the wizarding world is still the best ever, no question, everyone else can just suck it and accept their status as second class citizens.

Except for house elves, because if we pretend you're people you'll get back in the kitchen faster.

Oh, by the way, that brings me to the houses of Hogwarts. Rowling made it damn clear that Gryffindor is the best and Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw are not even close seconds and anyone sorted in Slytherin is pure evil because ambition is the devil.

That's a really interesting theme there, because, let's face it, Harry Potter is the more passive character to ever passive in the history of passivity. He is the Boy Who Lived. All his heroics boil down to his ability to not die. If this were another writer I would suspect Rowling was subverting what it is to be hero, but since this is Rowling, I'm left suspecting that for her ambition is, by her definition, evil.

Take Philosopher's Stone for example. Harry gets the stone because he have absolutely no ambition or motivation to ever use it. Dumbledore said that if did have any sort of inclination to, you know, actually do anything the stone would be denied him. That's pretty much Harry's constant theme: he does these things because Dumbledore tells him to, not because he has any personal will or ambition of his own.

(Aside, Daniel Hemmens at FerretBrain.com has written a lot of really interesting articles about Harry Potter the themes in the book here. Be warned that he is way more harsh and critical than me, so you might want to proceed with caution.)

But I digress. Let's tackle the idea of tolerance, shall we? Harry Potter does preach tolerance, if by "tolerance" you mean that Voldemort is, in the words of Eddie Izzard, "a genocidal fuckhead." I think most people reading the books agree that wiping out and subjugating entire races is bad. Those that disagree are probably not reading Harry Potter and and are unlikely to have their minds changed by children's books.

You know what would have been a lot more striking about this book in regard to tolerance, Rowling? If everyone wasn't white and straight. Oh wait, Dumbledore was supposed to be gay, wasn't he? Even though you couldn't be bothered to state that in the actual text, because why would gay and lesbian kids out there need someone they could identify with?

Also, Rowling stated that Dumbledore fell in love with a man once when he was eighteen. We never know if it was requited, just that he became asexual afterwards. Um, Rowling? Yeah, that's not a basis of homosexuality. Asexuality is part of the human sexuality spectrum, but to be homosexual Dumbledore has to be sexually attracted to other men and have sex with them. What you've done is made an old man who wears robes (read: dresses) into a homosexual because any man that isn't married and dresses weird is apparently gay. Well done.

In fact, you know what would have been really interesting? If at the end of your book where everyone is happily paired off with their 2.5 children and the house and the fence and the dog if you had a happily in love gay or lesbian couple in there as well. You don't have to make a big deal about it. Actually, it would work a whole lot better if you presented it as being completely and utterly normal. Hell, you could make them childhood sweethearts to stick with the theme of you finding your true love at eleven. That would have said more about Love and Tolerance than your 9,000 pages about how Nazis are bad.

In short, I find the Harry Potter Alliance ridiculous not because of the work they do but that the fact they advocate these books as the be all and end all of moral guidance (for fuck's sake, Slack says it's "Talmudic." Fuck you, Slack.)

They ask What Would Dumbledore Do?

Based on my reading of the text, I would say he would find an eleven-year-old boy, who after years of physical and psychological abuse and neglect, would latch onto the first kind word from a father figure, and spend the next seven years shaping him into an unthinking sacrifical lamb he would send to the slaughter to end a war he can't be bothered to get up his ass for more than two seconds to do anything about. That's what Dumbledore would do.


Danicus said...

Now, I do like the Harry Potter books. Don't love them, but as far as 'shut my mind off and read' books go, I've had to put up with worse.

That said...

That was seriously the most coherent anti-Potter essay I've ever read. You managed to hit every point I've ever even briefly had flit across my consciousness (and many I hadn't), and place them on a page to be pointed out to others, and done so in a clear, concise way I would never have even attempted. Thank you so much.

It needed to be said.

Lady Lara Jones said...

Wow....there's a lot here. Um. I have to admit I only read the first four books. This isn't because I stopped enjoying them but because I went to college and was reading like nine billion pages of ethnography a semester and had no time for fun reading really. Also, the books just...kept getting longer. I quite like to escape for maybe 2 to 400 pages but beyond that the book had better be PRETTY DAMN AMAZING or I am not going to waste the time, at all, not even a little bit.
But yeah, on many points I agree with you. I'll get back to you someday when I read more of the books. Rowling as a person is pretty neat. I watched her Harvard Graduation speech on youtube and there was some good substance to it, but I agree that a loss of listening to your editors can be problematic in writing...in fact...in general.
Good for you for having the guts to write this and watch your back for crazy Potter fans on broomsticks.