Saturday, July 21, 2007
Who’s Afraid of Harry Potter?
After the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the magical saga of J K Rowling comes to an end. Nothing would be same any more. What follows? But before that, would it be possible to recreate the magic of ‘Pottermania?’ Dibyajyoti Sarma seeks the answers
I remember reading a Harold Bloom article that cut J K Rowling’s literary credential into pieces, calling her a mediocre writer, saying that she used the same expressions over and over again and all her ‘imagination’ was borrowed from other fantasy writers, J R R Tolkien et al. It was this article that prompted me to check out who this Harry Potter guy was, even thought the first Harry Potter film was already out, and the ‘pottermania’ was already brimming. I finished the first book in the span of a single night and the next day brought the next three Harry Potter books, pirated copies, of course.
You agree with literary critic Bloom at most places, but did you mark a tinge of jealously somewhere? Rowling is, after all, a bestseller, every writer’s passionate dream.
The question is not why Harry Potter is so popular. The question is, what after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is released and done with? The question is who have the potentials to replace Harry, if such a thing is possible, especially when Harry Potter seems to be the epitome of what bestsellers mean, a publishing phenomenon. Who can recreate the magic of Harry?
“What magic?” Asks Raguveer Pathak, a self-confessed fantasy junky, which includes books, movies and video games. “Tolkien is the supreme fantasy that ever was,” he continues, stocking a hardbound copy of The Children of Hurin. Everything after Tolkien is the copy of the master, in one form or other. Harry Potter included. Probably, the best after Tolkien is Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials.”
Pathak’s argument is sound. If you look closely, Rowling did not say anything new. Her world of magic and magical creatures is all borrowed from other fantasy literature, from Beowulf to Ursula Le Guin to Tolkien. The parallel world of the wizards in Harry Potter is not a new concept. All fantasy writing begins with the concept of a parallel universe, like Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Yet you have to give it to Rowling what she deserves. What she adds to the existing world of fantasy was a modern outlook, combining 21st century with the realm of utmost fantasy.
Ursula K Le Guin of the Earthsea series argued that fantasy literature should use archaic language so as to establish the credibility to the plot. JKR ignores this completely and writes in a language which is very urban and very modern. This is one of the main reasons why she connects to her reader, young and old. Apart from that, everything is ‘old wine in a new bottle.’ Even the dynamism between Harry and Voldemort is the classic struggle between dark and light employed in all forms of art, from novels like Night Watch and to films like Matrix.
Then why everyone’s after Harry, not the others? “Tolkien was unlucky,” Pathak rues. He had to wait for more than ten years before the public accepted his little hobbits. But it was the Peter Jackson movies that sealed Tolkien’s popularity.
JKR was lucky. She chose to tell her stories in a media-driven, publicity-frenzy world. Everything about Harry Potter and Rowling, including her wealth, worth of a queen, made news. The Werner Brothers movie franchises also helped. You are stuffed by Harry to such an extent that you do not have any options other than to love him. Rowling brought fantasy closer home.
Despite all these, it’s surprising how a book for the children caught the fancy of the reading public of all ages. Why is Potter so popular among people who may not have even heard of Enid Blyton and other books for children?
The answer is little tricky. It’s dangerous to place Harry as pure children’s literature, the way Famous Five is. Deepak Dalal, a write of children’s fiction himself, argues: “Harry Potter was pure children’s literature for the first 3 books.” Then things began to change, as the protagonist grew older. “What you are getting now is fiction for older children — what with all the deaths and the dark episodes. The new books are not your typical sunny children’s books, but in a sense, because of the school setting and also the youthful characters, they are still children’s books.”
So, it’s for the teen protagonists that we can say the books are for children, or, shall we say, young adults. But it was the adults that made Harry Potter a success. Dalal reasons: “The books have a universal appeal because of sheer power of narrative. Also, it is a fallacy to say that adults don’t read children’s books. Deep inside adults want to and Harry Potter is the opportunity for them to relive their youth.”
Take a close look and you’ll see that the recent books are targeted to the adult readers, not the children — look at the sheer bulk, more than 800 pages and an obscene price, more than thousand rupees. (With every Harry Potter book, the length is increasing, to such an extent that you wonder if the books were edited at all. The point is, the fatter the book, the more expensive it becomes, and there are fans who are ready to pay any sum of money. It’s a very good business equation.)
Despite everything, Harry Potter is a publishing wonder. Can any future book replace this kind frenzy? Dalal doubts: “The frenzy has been fuelled by astute marketing and a fair amount of hype. I somehow doubt that this kind of hoopla will ever be generated again. There are so many other brilliant children’s authors — Eoin Colfer, Eva Ibbutson — but very little is known about them. It sounds highly unlikely.”
One reason may be, the other books remain children’s literature. The adults have not taken them as their own and hence the popularity quotient is less.
The other issue is, there is no logical explanation as to why Harry Potter became so popular. Hence we can’t follow a systematic method of popularising a work of art. But one thing is sure, another story of wizards is not going to work. Take the example of the Inheritance Trilogy by Christopher Paolini. The first book, Eragon was made into a film, which sank ingloriously. The series also deals with a parallel universe involving a dragon. But readers were not enthusiastic of another dragon saga. Same goes to Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, a story of another magician Nathaniel, also set in London.
So what after Harry Potter? Are we going to windup our book reading habits and revert back to television and Internet, or someone else is coming to fill our imagination? But, one thing you have to agree, JKR brought reading back into fashion. Dalal agrees: “Rowling’s books have certainly brought millions of readers back into reading. There is certainly a rub off effect and many of these kids discover reading to be a pleasurable pastime. In a sense her brilliance helps to sell other children’s books too, so yes she has increased the audience for children’s literature.”
But what are the options after JKR? There are quite a few names making the rounds — Cornelia Funke (The Thief Lord), Eoin Colfer (Artemis Fowl), Michael Scott (The Alchemyst) — all fantasy for young adults. There are other non-fantasy authors like Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) or Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries). Robert Jordan The Wheel of Time series was always there. There’s also Pullman and His Dark Materials.
But who’ll take the mantle from Harry? No one can be sure, not even the publishers and booksellers. “No one knows why a particular book sells,” says the young man at a roadside bookshop in Deccan. But he sells at least two copies of Harry Potter each week, which according to him is a very good number.
But what do the fans read in the interim period, between one Potter book and the other. “I enjoyed Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, both the book and the film,” says Nandini Nayak, an avid potter fan. But most fans don’t read anything. They return back to their TV and video games. And those who read, a very few of them are interested in fantasy, and would not go out of their way to find one. Yet few writers are thieving.
“Pullman has potential,” says Pathak, “provided the film on the first book, The Golden Compass, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig proves its mettle.
The point is, you cannot copy Harry Potter and expect to winner again. The next bestseller has to be something else, something with a very good story. That’s the key.
But what about our own children’s literature? Deepak Dalal has a series of novels that trail the adventures two young boys Aditya and Vikram. But they aren’t fantasy, but deals with hardcore reality. His books are quite popular, but we haven’t reached that stage yet: “Indian children’s literature is still in a very infant stage. For us to have a vibrant Indian children’s market we need more Indian children’s authors. The Harry Potter books have fascinated a whole generation of Indian kids... maybe these kids will be inspired into writing their own stories... then we might have a viable body of Indian children’s literature...but that is way in the future.” Yes, there’s hope.
No doubt, Harry’s popularity has boosted the nascent market in a big way. Scholastics, the American publisher of Rowling’s books has made their presence felt in India with an assorted lineup of books for children. There’s Navneet Publications. Another publishing house contributing to children’s literature is Tulika books. And there are several others as well.
The rise of Harry Potter was just magical, and we sure do not know if there’s someone else waiting in the wings to wear his big shoes. But one thing is sure, Potter’s party will continues, and if nothing else, it’s good news for the book lovers everywhere.