Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter, Hype and the Fate of the Free World

Harry Potter season is upon us. Everywhere I go, everyone is talking about that damn book! I swear, I tried to understand the appeal and I think, intellectually, that I do. The appeal is the same as with, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Veronica Mars, where teenagers coping with the struggles of growing up have to deal with these extraordinary challenges. But upon reading the actual Harry Potter novels -- I read the first five, caught up at my in-laws who lived in rural Indiana during a snowy Christmas season one year; I have read the first five -- I found myself . . . well, disappointed wasn't the exact word. The first and third were disappointing -- tho' I still think generally good things about Azkhaban -- but the fourth and fifth, and particularly Goblet of Fire weren't disappointing in the sense that they failed to live up to the hype . . . they were disappointing in the sense that they were deeply stupid. Everything good that was said about them is, really, in the category of a lie.

The character development wasn't believable, nor particularly interesting. As I have said before, the most fantastic element about the Harry Potter novels is how an abused child suddenly thrust into wealth, popularity and fame is such a nice kid; Rowling's inability or disinterest in having Harry, or any other characters in the books, face the reality of his abuse at the hands of the Dursleys simply invalidates the books as having real character development. And Harry grows up like a "real teenager" only in universes where the predominate occupation of fourteen and fifteen year old boys isn't sex.

The writing style was plodding and huge sections of the book were entirely extraneous, such as the interminable nonsense about what classes everyone is taking and the tedious details of what happens in each and every class. But, yet, there Rowling is, driving forward like the Juggernaut walking through concrete. She gets there, but you've got to have a lot of patience.

And then there's Voldemort! Now, as a person who likes comic books, I find him to be pretty flat and one dimensional. Seriously. Supervillains out of comic books have better described motivations than Voldemort. He makes Ultron seem positively three dimensional and can't hold a candle to the motivations of a character such as Magneto. But he's presented like he isn't high camp and we're expected to take this shallow supervillain seriously.

But, really, what is brutally stupid are the plots. If someone asks me, I will take the time to go on at great lengths about the plot of Goblet of Fire in particular, because that particular book is so intensely dumb, so brutally stupid, that I can go on about it at some length. But in general, the plots go forward only because of every damn year someone seems to forget that Voldemort is trying to kill Harry Potter, and every plot resolution happens only because of a deus ex machina. Something "magical" happens and Harry is saved! Yay! Except there is a difference between magical verisimilitude and deus ex machina, and time and again Rowling just has something illogical and improbable happen to save Harry through no effort of his own, in such a way that no one could really see it coming. In Sorcerer's Stone, at the end when Voldemort just crumbles to dust rather than killing Harry is such an example. Could anyone have predicted that a mother's love could make a person disintegrate? No. Yet, there it was, there it was.

Which is really just a preface to my point, however. A rant because every time I turn around for the past couple of days people have been talking about how splendid Harry Potter is, and he's not. The books are childish, not child-like with their love of whimsy and brightly hued sense of wonder and merriment, but childish with plodding writing combined with stupid plots mixed up with juvenile character development. My point is . . .

How have these books gotten to be the fastest selling novels of all time? They're not that good. Now, a fair number of people are going to say that they are good and my above statements and brief analysis of them is merely wrong.

Or, more generally, what is the mechanism through which any banal piece of media receives undeserved praise? Even if you don't agree with me that the Harry Potter novels are mediocrity that has achieved undeserved attention, I'm sure that if we try we can all think of media things that do (90210 or Brittany Spears albums, anyone?).

The short answer is . . . hype, in the sense of advertisement and media manipulation. Never in my lifetime has a novel been so intensely hyped as the Harry Potter novels. After each novel's release there's this media driven speculation -- often found in the straight news, so let us not doubt that it is media driven -- about what's going to happen in the next novel. Along the way, Rowling is sure to give carefully managed interviews (and always by extremely sympathetic interviewers) where she lets out hints that are then propagated through the traditional media to an audience of literally millions. Then there's the inevitable discussion of piracy and spoilers as a ramp up to the release of the book, and the deluge of traditional advertisement before it's actual release.

Part of what this does is also create, and this is a new development, an online community centered around the novels. You can see shadows of this with stuff like Martin's Fire and Ice books or Jordan's Wheel of Time novels, but Harry Potter kicks their asses hard. So, unlike virtually any other novel that a person reads, people will read a Harry Potter novel and then leap online to talk about it. And there will be talk, unlike, say, if after reading a good Captain Alatriste novel I jumped online to talk about one of them no one would say anything. (Indeed, that's the proximate cause of me writing this post. I can't turn around with someone mentioning that damn book! People, c'mon, if you're going to write about a book, write about a book that isn't the biggest event novel in history! Write about something that I might not otherwise hear about! Will no one rid me of this meddlesome wizard . . . oh, it was a bad idea to compare Voldemort to Henry II, who was played by Peter O'Toole in both Becket and A Lion in Winter. Sorta emphasizes the shallowness of Voldemort.) But because of the media exposure, it is particularly fruitful to talk about Harry Potter novels -- other people will listen far more intently than if you talk about any other novel. Which, of course, serves the hype very well. Not only are there conventional media sources bombarding us with Harry Potter, the formal and informal online communities will generate their own buzz, as well as being ideal for market research for additional advertising!

And, this is what amazes me, virtually no one sees it. Virtually no one sees that a key element to liking the Harry Potter novels is their participation in the hype. When you talk to people about it, and this is my reasonably broad experience, it will be defended first in terms of quality (the novels ARE that good, and your objections are WRONG) and then, and this is surprisingly common, that Harry Potter novels are responsible for improvements in literacy (hey, the news says so, and the news never lies, right? -- though finding a peer reviewed study that demonstrates such a thing is a little more difficult; suffice it to say here that the correlation between Harry Potter novels and improved literacy is both weak and tenuous and to buy into you've got to ignore alternate hypotheses such as the amount of time that children spend online engaging in, say, text messaging and reading webpages and writing emails). The notion that the hype is to some extent (and I think to a very large extent) responsible for their interest and appreciation of the novels is simply unthinkable.

(Admission and irony: I am clearly swept up in the Harry Potter hype. Obviously. The hype is pervasive and annoying in my circles and this is my reaction to it. My critique here is, furthermore, part of the hype. There's no such thing as bad publicity.)

And before rejecting my critique, take a second if you must to separate Harry Potter out from it. Think, instead, about the hype surrounding Hollywood blockbusters, particularly those in serial form, where bad movie after bad movie follows in blindly. Think of, say, Die Hard movies, or Star Wars movies, and how the quality of the second Die Hard movie didn't stop there from being made a third and fourth, or how the truly elaborate awfulness of episodes one and two didn't stop episode three from being made -- and then take a deep breath and realize that all the Star Wars and Die Hard movies have been financially successful. Think of all those Britanny Spears albums or New Kids on the Block or N'Sync. All I've said is just as true for Die Hard, Star Wars and N'Sync as it is Harry Potter, and it's true even if I'm wrong about the specifics of Harry Potter (tho' I'm not, hehe).

I think the importance of this goes way beyond Harry Potter, Star Wars or N'Sync. It has to do with how people relate to media. Not that we buy into the hype. If you want to buy into the hype, hey, knock yourselves out. Hype can be fun, interesting and cool. It is a way, after all, to meet a lot of people, to involve yourself in something. I sometimes like getting caught up in the hype! I find myself looking forward to the GTA 4 game, even tho' I strongly disliked San Andreas. So, my problem isn't even with the hype, per se. The problem I'm seeing is that most people are manipulated by the hype and refuse to acknowledge it.

If people can't recognize the hype that's being sold to them by Scholastic or Virgin Records, what chance do they of understanding the hype around the serious social and political issues of our time?

I feel that the ability to deal with media in America is one of the most important things we must improve. We live in a media saturated environment. We are being bombarded from all sides, almost constantly, with various narratives. Some of these narratives are much louder, more invasive and cleverly arranged than others. People will, naturally, be drawn to ideas that have been surrounded with these loud, invasive and clever narratives -- this advertising and hype -- than those that don't have equally good narratives. But, as I hope I've demonstrated, the advertising has only a tangential relationship to the actual quality of what is advertised. Sure, with books and movies if you buy into the hype of one and ignore another, you're just missing out on a book or movie you might have otherwise enjoyed much more than what was hyped. But when this is taken into the social sphere, the inability to recognize hype and ignore it to seriously examine the ideas behind the hype has dramatic effects for the country and the world. The issue isn't if Harry Potter dies or not, but if real people die or not. And I think that we all can think of situations where hype was used in preference to clear discussion of facts . . . and the consequences have been disastrous.

I will leave you with a quote from the great Chuck D: "Don't believe the hype."

Tomorrow I'll touch on this subject again, in a somewhat different way, as some meditations about the publishing industry.


L>T said...

I've been stymied myself about the appeal of Harry Potter & my conclusion is also, that it is mostly "media hype". I find the power of hype & advertising frightening. So I tend to always question it.

We live in a media saturated environment. We are being bombarded from all sides, almost constantly, with various narratives.
I think many of us have lived in this environment so long we really can't distinguish hype from real life. I've talked to many people(I hesitate to say it is the majority)that seem to have nothing in their brains but shallow thoughts based on hype) It's scary...

divabeq said...

hehe. I mean, I know you're basically agreeing with the post, but here's what stuck out to me. This line: "So I tend to always question it."

Because, see, NO ONE wants to believe it effects them. Even those willing to agree it's a problem often will say how overall it is a problem, but not with them, personally. This is because the idea that we are somehow being controlled, particularly by something we abhor, is *very* difficult to swallow. Difficult to live with.

But, true.

L>T said...

Honestly, I haven't really given it much thought beyond "yeah, these basturds are trying to trick me."

Now, I'm compelled to think more about it. As if i don't have enough to think about. *sigh* ;]

Anonymous said...

An old entry, but I came across it anyways.

First off, I'd like to say I like your blog title. It made me smile.

I came across this blog entry in hopes of finding something Harry Potter in relation to the Wheel of Time series, but I didn't quite kind what I was looking for.

Nonetheless, as a Harry Potter reader since I was about ten, I have to say that there is hype with these books. Of COURSE there is. Harry Potter isn't just about writing a book anymore, it's practically an industry in its own.

With amusement parks being created, to movies in the works, it's no longer just about the books. And with these books, comes advertisement. It's a good business thing to do.

So even if you didn't like these books, people do.