Sunday, March 12, 2017

In Defense Of Kidlit: Why "Harry Potter" Qualifies As Great Literature

Over the weekend, my college-age brother had a rousing discussion on his Facebook page responding to the question "is Harry Potter 'great literature?'" The bulk of the questions were from his fellow college students, dryly opining about how Harry Potter couldn't possibly be considered great literature because it wasn't as "intellectually stimulating" as Shakespeare. 

Needless to say, after 24 hours of reading those posts, my little kidlit-writing, Harry-Potter-loving self was getting kind of steamed.

Yesterday afternoon Mahon took Kate to run a bunch of errands. Background info: I've been sick, really sick, for two weeks, and done almost nothing but lay on the couch in that time. So the combination of sick + alone + stir-crazy and bored led to something that could be interpreted as foolish: I spent twenty minutes writing an 1100-word manifesto in response to that Facebook thread on why I'm willing to bet that Harry Potter will, in time, be remembered as a classic.

Here are the six points (all of the other titles alluded to were works, or authors, previously brought up in the discussion), plus one added for the purposes of this blog post because I didn't think of it till just now:

1) You cannot compare Harry Potter to Shakespeare or even to Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson. Those are ALL DIFFERENT CATEGORIES. Harry Potter is children's fiction; the others are all adult (and one is adult stage plays which is completely different also). The only sorts of classics to which you could reasonably compare Harry Potter would be things like ALICE IN WONDERLAND or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA; both considered classics just as much as THE SCARLET LETTER is considered a classic. Trying to be like "Harry Potter is no Bronte!" is like saying "Man, my sock really doesn't make a very tasty sandwich." Children's literature has different rules, goals, and things that make it great than adult fiction does. End of story. Even adult genre fiction (Sanderson, Jordan) are very different than children's genre fiction.

2) Classic literature wasn't "classic" when it was being published. In fact, most of the greats we read in English classes today were the pulp popular fiction of their day. Jane Austen? Read far and wide by people who were slightly embarrassed to admit they were reading books about a woman instead of "important literature." Shakespeare? Many of his contemporaries scorned him as an intellectual lightweight who just pandered to popular opinion. (And they thought that the things we recognize today as innovative were just stupid.) The ones who weren't in this category were, by and large, overlooked. In other words... people said the same things about most of our "classics" that people say today about Harry Potter.

3) JK Rowling is no slouch. Her "single mom rags to riches" image—which, by the way, is part of book marketing; people are more likely to read something by somebody with a fantastic Cinderella story than by a savvy classical scholar—aside, she was an extremely well-educated woman who'd been practicing writing for awhile when she finally got her big break. (On average in creative industries it takes, like, a decade to become "an overnight success.") The symbolism and classical scholarship in her books goes MILES deep. Few modern children's authors have such a subtle and masterful grasp on using symbolism and fine-detail-work as Rowling does. People rag on them for being long, but there are pretty much no wasted details in the series: think about how many "huh?" moments there were in the movies when they removed a bunch of the smaller, "unimportant" moments from the book. For an example of the kind of mind-blowing meanings hidden in microscopic details that I'm talking about, check out this link, which got shared during the Facebook conversation.

Also, few authors in any genre have as good a handle on long-form series; think of how many trilogies kind of fizzle out before they even get to the end, and yet Rowling managed to craft a behemoth of a series without a lot of dull, lagging spots, and with each book having its own strong story arc while playing perfectly to the arc of the series as a whole. The themes in Harry Potter are also incredibly deep as well—layers and layers of different themes that touch on some of the biggest questions literature can touch on (death, afterlife, loss, handling grief gracefully, friendship, imperfect people in positions of authority, the frailty of the wisest, prejudice, classism/racism, the supernal nature of good vs evil, etc). So I'd argue that Rowling did do a lot structurally that was meaningful—done in both a way, and to a degree, that most writers have not been able to pull off.

4) At the end of the day, people hate on both genre literature (ie, fantasy) and children's literature ALL THE TIME. In the children's lit world, we sit around and vent to each other about the incredibly rude things people say to us (like, "Oh, that's nice—do you think you'll ever write a REAL novel?"), because it's such a prevalent attitude in society. But make no mistake: just because a children's novel is more accessible and quicker to read than an adult novel doesn't mean that it's automatically less-than. There's a reason that children's novels tend to be the ones that many adults remember and speak of most vividly, and it isn't (as much as we English majors might sometimes like to think it is) because the general population is too stupid to comprehend HEART OF DARKNESS. It's because children's literature is a profound part of what shapes us and makes us who we are. Good children's books inform our opinions, our empathies, our deep thoughts. Good children's books are also universal in nature, tapping into deep themes and emotions from people all across the age spectrum, which is why adults often still gravitate towards YA and children's fiction plenty of the time. Just because something is written for children doesn't make it either childish or Not An Important Book. Likewise with genre fiction; just because something involves magic, or a funny best friend, or dragons, doesn't mean it can't also contain deep and important reflections on the human condition.

5) Even if all the above were not true... things can be great literature even if they're not replete with deep symbolism and statements on the nature of mankind. There are plenty of books that are considered classics today that are classic just because the author was very witty, or because she was terrific at creating characters, or because it was the kind of book that people just genuinely enjoyed reading. And particularly in children's fiction, great literature can take all forms; what makes it great is the two-pronged effect of resonance and endurance—i.e., how much it resonates with people, makes them question what they've believed or come to know themselves or the world better, and also whether it's a "passing fad" kind of book or a "stands the test of time" one. There are certain books that have had almost as much popularity as HP which I'm willing to bet won't be remembered as classics, because they lacked one or both of those elements. But, by the same token, I'm willing to bet that Harry Potter will be one that endures, in the vein of Lewis Carrol or C. S. Lewis or any other classic children's literature.

6) Things also don't have to be Great Literature to be worthwhile (though, as I said at length in my overly wordy essay above, I think HP falls into that category). Particularly with kidlit, not all books are going to have that resonance or endurance, and that's OK; at the end of the day, the sacred responsibility of children's literature is creating readers

7) In the English literature world, we sometimes fall into this false dichotomy—assuming that something cannot be both enjoyable and meaningful, that if we're not working rigorously to access a piece of literature, then that means that it, in turn, is not rigorously challenging us. Likewise, we often have a false dichotomy about other things that are "good for us", like vegetables: our culture is filled with this idea that vegetables are something that we have to suffer through in order to grow strong. Personally, I don't know about you, but I think vegetables are divine. Properly cooked, a bowl of green beans or steamed broccoli stands up there with dessert, as far as I'm concerned. The idea that healthy foods can't also taste good is patently false, and I think the same holds true for the idea that Meaningful Works of Literature can't also be accessible, enjoyable, or fun. Quite often, the works of fiction that have the most wide-reaching and transformative effect are also the most exciting—the kinds of books that we want to dive into and stay in, while simultaneously having our worldview challenged and our empathy deepened. Something can be both fun and important, both delicious and healthy. It's not a zero-sum game, where only the Really Smart People can access Great Literature. 

In fact, I'd say that the truly greatest works of literature are the ones that draw regular people into them, inspiring them to engage with a book even if they're not really the "reading type," while subtly challenging their worldview, their sense of self, and forcing them to reevaluate and recommit to a meaningful life. Great literature does all of this while also masterfully using literary techniques and creating the kind of narrative that lingers with readers for the rest of their lives. By all these metrics? I'd say Harry Potter succeeds very well, indeed.


  1. *slow clap*

    I'm glad there are people like you in the world.

  2. Amen sister!! To each point, a resounding Amen!