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Potter losing his magic?

Now call me a big kid, if you will, and Stephen Pollard certainly doesn’t pull any punches in his article, on the topic, but I used to really enjoy reading the Harry Potter novels, even in public, even on trains, and even in preference to Murray N. Rothbard economics textbooks. (No, I hear you cry, how can you say such a thing?) But not any more.

For me the magic is either dying, or has already died. And it seems I’m not alone, for a Booker-winning author, A S Byatt, has also just slated the latest tome. Which is a relief, because I thought it was just me. First of all, let’s get a few shibboleths out of the way. When I bought the book, a few weeks ago, I knew the plot would be the same as the last four episodes (Harry would crush a re-emerging Voldemort); I knew I would find the spoken language of the main characters excruciating (“Yeah”, “Dunno”, “Nah”); and I knew the whole plot would revolve around the Dark Arts teacher, in this case, Dolores Umbridge. It always does.

But that didn’t prepare me for the sheer ball-cracking tedium of the first 250 pages; it was like watching Geoffrey Boycott and Chris Tavare open the batting, for England. Virtually nothing happens. And I mean as close to nothing, as you can get, without persuading a load of magic inky-footed spiders to crawl all over the pages, filling them with their latest hate-filled thoughts about middle class suburbia.

Still, I ploughed on, at 30 bedtime pages a night (we live quiet lives, up here in Henley-On-Thames), and tried to force myself to like it. But to no avail.

With the first three Harry Potter novels, I think I read each of them in about 2 days, or less, and even the fourth, much thicker one, lasted just a weekend, creeping into an early Monday morning. But this one I’ve found an absolute struggle; 30 pages a night is the most I can manage, before passing out.

However, as a life-long insomniac, there is a silver lining to my night-time pillow; the book has proved quite a blessing in disguise. Because it used to take a Murray N. Rothbard-style libertarian block-buster, to knock me out most evenings, describing the whole of economics, or some other super-dull topic, in a 1,000 pages, or more.

Nothing better, for shutting down a tired man’s visual cortex. But there have been some evenings, when faced with a choice between either the Rothbard, on the shelf, or the Potter, I’ve plumped for the Rothbard; for the sake of pure interest!

(That’s an attempt at a very poor Rothbardian economics joke, BTW! :)

And now, I don’t know whether I’m ever going to finish the banana. I have this creeping sense of torpor, similar to the one I last encountered reading an economics textbook, by John Kenneth Galbraith.

So why? I think it’s because Harry’s energy levels are down, his passion is down, and his stupidity levels are way up. This last point is what has brought me to the verge of a complete dead stop. He’s just too stupid. He keeps being told to do various things, to protect himself, and he keeps ignoring this good advice, out of idiocy, anger, and all-round block-headedness. Which therefore lets the enemy in, yada, yada, yada.

It’s the old ‘idiot in the attic’ syndrome, beloved of all the crummiest horror films, where the idiot wanders around in the attic, holding a candle, and saying ‘Are you alright, Josie?’. Meanwhile, the outer-space monster lurks behind him, holding Josie’s head, in a basket…

Whereas any sensible person would be in the car, on the freeway, and rocketing towards the nearest army base. Or in Harry’s case, would be following the advice he is given by Dumbledore.

It’s quite, quite maddening.

And then there’s the writing style, too. Which in the first three novels, was tight as a pair of Corr’s lead singer cycle pants. And here’s the really surprising thing, because Stephen King loves the new Potter novel!

So why’s that surprising? Because in his own seminal book, On Writing, he gives us several golden rules.

Get rid of all passive verbs; get rid of as many adverbs, as you can stand; get rid of all “growleds”, “yelleds”, “whispereds”, and all other steroid-ised speaking-related verbs, and replace them with the divine “said”.

He tells us, in On Writing, that if a book doesn’t follow these rules, for even just a few pages, he puts it down, because his life is too short, and there are plenty of other books to get through. So how did King get through Order of the Phoenix, which is full of King’s own rule-breakers? Because:

…minor flaws in diction are endearing rather than annoying; they are the logical side effect of a natural storyteller who is obviously bursting with crazily vivid ideas and having the time of her life…

No, sorry Stephen. I know you’re my fiction hero, and I love most of your work, and you’ve published 15 squintillion novels, and I’ve published none. But I’ve handed over my tenner, to Tescos, for The Order of the Phoenix, just like you did, in your local bookstore, which gives me the right to pass my comment, and I find these minor flaws in diction annoying, not endearing. They really break it up, especially all those adverbs, popping up spontaneously, like daisies, all over the place. And then there’s all that Ministry of Magic stuff, like living in an undemocratic police state. Who elects the Minister of Magic anyway, and why does he have so much power, over schools, hospitals, and life in general? But that’s more of a libertarian rant.

I suppose you are Stephen King, one of the more major of my minor lifestyle Gods. And I suppose you do know a thing or two, about writing. So, I’ll persevere, just to see if you’re right (I’ve got about 150 pages to go). But hells bells, it’s hard work Stephen, and I hope you’re right!

No, please don’t tell me what happens. Let me guess. It turns out Dolores Umbridge is taking direct orders from the Dark…

No, come on, okay, yellow card to Duncan. We knew that, before we visited Tescos, clutching a tenner in our sweaty mitt. And it is a children’s book, and maybe I’m just getting too old, for such things.

Which may prove Pollard’s Law. Always do what Uncle Stephen Pollard tells you. Don’t read Harry Potter novels. Go racing, instead.

13 comments to Potter losing his magic?

  • Perhaps she’s reached the “Too popular to edit” stage, which afflicts too many successful authors.

    (Not that’s I’ve read anything of hers; Currently reading H.P.Lovecraft)

  • Kevin

    Actually, I noticed the same thing in book 4. I loved the first two books, thought the third had a slow beginning, but the fourth positively dragged through the first 150 pages. I feared the same would happen when I heard how long the latest book was. I haven’t read it yet, and I find I’m just not in that much of a hurry to.

  • Tom

    Actually, she isn’t.

  • Stephen Pollard

    I’m not sure ofthe efficacy of Pollard’s law. It applies, I grant you, to Master Potter. And to most things in life.
    But not when it comes to racing itself. Yes, I had a good day today and backed two winners at good odds at Newmarket. But doing what I tell you is, on most days, the quickest way to debtor’s prison…

  • T. Hartin

    I gave up on Stephen King when he got too popular to edit. Many years ago I devoured whatever he wrote. Then he published a couple of bloated tomes, and I thought, “Well, that’s it, he’s gotten full of himself and now his editor is afraid of him,” and never read another word.

    You can see this happen to author after author (it happened to Robert Jordan, too), and you can generally tell when it happens just by looking at the books on the shelf. The author starts out at a relatively svelte 300 – 350 pages per book, and suddenly ballons up to twice that number. If, in contemplating your favorite author’s new offering in the bookseller’s, you notice that it is considerably heftier than their previous standard, odds are that they are a lost cause.

  • Richard Garner

    Thats odd; I was reading Lovecraft just before I read the new Potter book, and King likes him too! I actually enjoyed the book, but there we go. It was a little slow, but I got hooked eventually… especially as I wanted to know who died!

    Doesn’t really compare with Lovecraft’s poetic style, though:

    “In my tortured ears there sounds unceasingly a nightmare whirring and flapping, and a faint distant baying as of some gigantic hound…”

  • Toulson Caffrey

    First off I don’t think enjoying the odd kids’ book is necessarily a sign of creeping infantilisation (to which I am sensitised and I do despise) but there are children’s books and there are children’s books, and Rowley stuff is firmly in the inferior heap and I find it bloody unreadable. The dialogue is excrutiating, and her attempts at what I think is sub-Terry Pratchett humour are leaden and inept. One critic described her prose as “mumsy and artless” which describes exactly what I feel about it, but in much less space than I could manage.

    None of this would matter if the HP books could have just stuck to being kids’ books. Not having any children myself I would probably have never heard of them, let alone have read three of the buggers!

  • YES YES YES!!!! The lazy reliance on adverbs is what I have been carping about myself!!!

    HOWEVER….I think you, Mr. Pollard, might want to take a look at what the following critics had to say about Tolkien AND what Tolkien and Lewis had to say about children’s literature and mythology and fairy tales. There’s something very perverted about worrying too much if one is acting adult enough and wishing to purge the child away.

    “I presume it is meant to be taken seriously, and am apprehensive that I can find no really adequate reasons for doing so…And yet this shapeless work has an undeniable fascination: especially to a reader with a cold in the head.” — Peter Green The Daily Telegraph, 27 August 1954

    “…an extraordinary book…Yet for myself, I could not resist feeling a certain disappointment. Perhaps this was partly due to style, which is quite unequal to the theme.” — Edwin Muir Observer, 22 August 1954

    “All the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes…and will never come to puberty…Hardly one of them knows anything about women.” — Edwin Muir Observer, 27 November 1955

    To the last, Tolkien commented, “It might do him good to hear what women think of his ‘knowing about women’, especially as a test of being mentally adult.”

    Natalie Solent also has some very wise words.

  • Teri

    Harry is now fifteen. Yes, he’s inordinately stupid and doesn’t do incredibly reasonable things but he’s a FIFTEEN YEAR OLD BOY. I have a fourteen-and-a-half year old boy, and although thoughout the book I too was gritting my teeth and saying “why can’t you just behave yourself”, I essentially say the same thing to my son every day.

    I love the setting that Rowling has created, and I was sorry when the book ended – all 870 pages of it. My kids and I listened to the audiobook of the 4th book while on a trip last week, after we had all just finished reading the fifth book. After four hours, Harry still hadn’t even made it to school yet – he was still at the Quidditch World Cup. But we had tremendous fun, and it was the most peaceful such trip we have ever made. We’re saving the other sixteen hours for future trips.

    Quite honestly, if you think about it, Harry’s suffering from post-dogmatic stress disorder. At the end of book four, he saw his friend killed, and a few days later got packed off to his aunt and uncle’s house, where he couldn’t talk about what happened with anyone. He gets back to Hogwarts, and no adult seems to even have a clue that he could use some guidance or comfort. I think he’s entitled to be a bit of a grouch, frankly. Maybe it’s just a convenient plot device of Rowling, but it rings very true to me.

    But then I like my grumpy little teenager as well, so perhaps I’m just completely nuts myself.

  • Dave O'Neill

    Like all authors who reach certain income and sales levels she is now beyond the editing she so desparetely needs. From a literature perspective she is certainly no Pratchett or Pulman, however…

    Its children’s fiction and its amazingly good at getting kids used to reading. For that alone I am prepared to put up with it. My nephew is 15 now and until Harry Potter hadn’t read a book he wasn’t forced to in his life. He’s desparately waiting for his birthday to get the new one.

    That’s where she makes up for bad writing.

  • Russ Lemley

    Just two quick comments:

    1. I’m reading the 4th book to my 6 year old right now, and I’m in total agreement with what Andy said about the first 150 pages. She spent waaaaaayyyyy too much time reintroducing central concepts of the Harry Potter story. This is the FOURTH BOOK for Christ’s sake! If I haven’t figured out who the hell Hagrid is by now, and what he looks like, that should be MY problem, not the author’s!

    2. Having said all of that, my 9 year-old absolutely loves those stories. She pre-ordered the book at the local bookstore two months before it was released, and we went there before midnight to take in the festivities. (The sacrifices we make for our children.) She was positively out of her skull in excitement. And she’s read that damn thing twice! If she’s excited that much about the Potter series and reading in general, I’ll gladly overlook the bad writing. I’ll just make sure that when she writes her own stories that her characters don’t hiss or groan.

  • Chris Goodman

    As a child I had the temerity to go to bookshops and buy what I wanted to read. I understand that this still happens. Needless to add there are people who do not approve. Rowling has written some very entertaining children’s books, and to her (and her publishers surprise) she has become very rich. Naturally this has caused other writers to attack her. Her prose style is straightforward, but this is a desirable quality in a novelist who writes for children. Maybe her last couple of books could have benefited by being edited down in size, and the similarity in the structure of the plot is getting a bit “Scooby-Dooish”, but her books are popular because unlike most fiction in the last fifty years you care about the characters, and reading about them is a pleasure. Maybe the good versus evil struggle has some resonances for our times but if you do not enjoy reading them [shrug] well that is fine. Go and do something else with your life. Visit the cinema. Embrace a tree. Eat a huge bar of chocolate. Say a kind word to a vagrant. Put your fist in your mouth. Have an enema. It is a free country.

  • I’ve commented on your (most stimulating!) post at A TCS Blog