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Potshots at Potter

June 24th, 2003

Jason Soon links to killjoy Jenny Bristow who says

For all the original artificial hype of Potter’s literary qualities, it is self-evident that their readability, not their quality, is what made them popular with children. Yet while Enid Blyton was actively resisted by school libraries in the past, on the grounds that it might distract from the better quality stuff, Rowling’s equivalent has all but formed the basis of English exams.

Even when I was a kid I thought the librarian jihad against Enid Blyton was pretty stupid. I read heaps of her trashy Famous Five books when I was in primary school (she wasn’t banned in our library). It didn’t do me any harm or distract me from better stuff – as I recall I read the Penguin translation of the Odyssey in the same years, for example. (Jason’s account of his own reading habits suggests a similar range, from absolute trash like Agatha Christie to the classics).

But at least the librarians of my youth had the excuse that a censorious attitude was part of the culture. In fact, such were the many grounds of censorship, I was never quite clear whether the ban on Noddy was because
(a) Blyton wrote trash;
(b) The portrayal of the golliwogs was considered racist; or
(c) The relationship between Noddy and Big Ears was considered ambiguous
I thought we’d grown out of that kind of thing these days. But apparently, according to Bristow, the demise of the Blyton ban shows that ‘Our expectations of children have plummeted’. I’ll bet she reads romance novels on the sly.

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  1. June 24th, 2003 at 22:26 | #1

    Blogtwin moment – you beat me to it. My six year old son is a big fan and Potter has been nothing but good for him. It has tied in with a general fascination with mythology and I’d put his knowledge of Greek mythology in particular against almost anyone. In other words, Harry hasn’t stopped him reading “better” stuff, or dulled his senses or rotted his brain. I’m no Harry fan myself, but this sort of attack just seems pointless and unsustainable to me.

  2. June 24th, 2003 at 22:38 | #2

    Nowhere has she talked about banning anything or endorsing some banning mentality either now or in the past. Read the whole thing. It is about taking down the hoopla associated with Potter and how this hoopla relates back to diminished expectations. She is trying to prick a bubble – see the last para:

    ‘So what?’ you might reasonably ask. ‘She’s writing a children’s story.’ My sentiments exactly. Rowling can go on writing the plot-driven page-turners, to the delight of her child readers and for no discernible literary or moral benefit. But let’s stop pretending that dealing with death makes Harry Potter good for you, or that Rowling’s value system has any relevance outside of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

  3. June 24th, 2003 at 22:49 | #3

    I’ve no interest in attacking the Potter books, largely because I’ve no real interest in them generally. The hype is what irritates the hell out of me, and what actively deters me from wanting to read them. I’ve seen the two films so I’m not completely bereft of knowledge of them, but I still can’t be bothered with the books and only saw the films because I had to review them. Probably wouldn’t have bothered with them otherwise.

  4. June 24th, 2003 at 23:05 | #4

    My favourite Blyton story was called “The Naughty Top” or something similar. It featured a bunch of toys who were bossed over by a golliwog who used to whip them when they were naughty. The top wanted to be whipped, so one day, he decided to be a very naughty top indeed (look, I’m not making this up – she really did write the thing). The happy ending was that once the golliwog sussed out what the top was up to, they came to new arrangement, where when the top was especially good, golly would give him all the whipping he wanted.

    Makes the whole Harry Potter satanism thing look tame, doesn’t it?

  5. John
    June 25th, 2003 at 06:24 | #5

    Jason, I did read the whole thing, and what’s striking is that she gives exactly zero examples of the hype she’s talking about. Who are these people who are claiming that the Potter books are literary masterpieces? I haven’t seen any.

    And while I don’t claim to move in hip professional circles, the adults I’ve seen lining up for the book were pretty clearly planning to read it to, or with, their children.

    The general discussion gives the correct view that the latest book is about 4 years more grownup than the first one, as are the characters and (except that Rowling is running a bit behind schedule) the original cohort of readers.

  6. Dave Ricardo
    June 25th, 2003 at 09:43 | #6

    Jason

    You must have been a crashing bore as a kid. Did you have any friends?

  7. June 25th, 2003 at 13:50 | #7

    Having just this morning finished reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, all I can say is that the people who think the Potter books are Satanic would probably have fits if they read Pullman.

  8. June 25th, 2003 at 16:19 | #8

    First of all, all the Adults I know bought the Potter books to read themselves. Kids aren’t a factor.

    Secondly I read all the Famous Five books at the age of 5 and 6, and I have to ask “What ‘better’ literature is there at that age?”

    It seems to me that people who regard Enid Blyton as too lowbrow for Children, are only considering the case of semi-illiterates who can’t read books that long until they are 10 years old.

  9. James Farrell
    June 25th, 2003 at 22:27 | #9

    You must have been a prodigy, Patrick.

    My six-year-old is the most advanced reader that any of his teachers have ever encountered, but I think he would struggle with the Famous Five.

    As for Tim’s son, I assume he is not reading it himself, or he is even smarter than Patrick.

    In any case, very few children under ten read this well. So unfortunately, John, even if the adults were ostensibly buying Potters for their children, if the children were under ten the adults were probably reading the Potters to the kids themselves. And I know at least two adults who were reading ahead because they became so engrossed.

    Furthermore, like Patrick I’ve seen plenty of adults reading Potters to themselves on planes and trains.

    But fortunately John’s other point is strong enough to support his defense of Potter. You can enjoy the inferior literature without compromising your ability to appreciate the superior. My favourite writer is Nabokov but I still enjoy Agatha Christie, P.G.Wodehouse and Ryder Haggard as much as I did when I was eleven.

  10. June 25th, 2003 at 22:44 | #10

    Let me take this mention of Harry Potter to engage in some “Marxist” analysing: is it just me or is the success of Harry Potter a clear example of the failure of capitalism to encourage creativity?

    Lemme explain:

    You have an unemployed mother who writes a book umpteen publishers reject, which becomes a huge success for the one publisher that dares to gamble on an unknown writer with an untested story, leading to a hype of copycatting amongst
    other publishers. The success of Harry Potter is
    expertly exploited (merchandise, movies, promo tie-ins, the whole kit and kaboodle), yet if it wasn’t for the vision of J. K. Rowling, none of it would’ve happened. Same thing with LotR.

    The system cannot create, only exploit.

  11. Joe
    June 26th, 2003 at 13:45 | #11

    My we are a nasty lot! Enid Blyton wasn’t censored by librarians, it’s just that they preferred to spend their budget on modern childrens books. Would you have your library buy Rex Stout or James Ellroy?
    During Blyton’s era, there weren’t many childrens books, now there are stacks and most much better. But it is typical Toryism to shout “censorship!” and call for a return of the good old days.

  12. Jill Rush
    June 26th, 2003 at 20:54 | #12

    My daughter discovered Harry Potter at the age of 8 when she was becoming disinterested in reading – no interest at all in Enid Blyton who formed a staple of my childhood when she had female characters of intelligence and purpose.

    My daughter has gone on to read many other things since but has reread the stories many many times and was so excited at the prospect of the new book that she read every newspaper article on the topic.

    She identifies with Hermione who is wise but a Muggle who through hard work, beliefs in fairness and the use of intelligence wins through. She identifies with Harry who has to cope with all life’s difficulties without parents (although she does have the support of 2 parents).

    I haven’t read the books but am very pleased that they brought my daughter back to reading and that she gets so much out of them. They speak to the children of our times. My son who can’t read loves the movies for their stories.

    Give the author credit – there’s not too many among us who can capture the imagination of a generation and produce 5 books in a series whilst raising a family.

  13. June 29th, 2003 at 03:54 | #13

    Martin wrote:

    >> if it wasn’t for the vision of J. K. Rowling, none of it would’ve happened. Same thing with LotR.

    In the case of LotR, none of it would have happened without the vision of Stanley Unwin. Or, at least, his willingness to lose a lot of cash publishing a book because he thought it was an important work.

    Not sure quite what this says about capitalism. Could be that the system can create, or at least encourage and promote creation, so long as the person making the financial decision has enough leeway to promote their own ideas of quality. When the system is set up such that the person with the money has their first responsibility to a quarterly balance sheet, and is kept in fear of mistakes, then copycatism and cowardice are the result.

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