Harry Potter and the Publishers’ Holy Grail II

In my previous post I suggested that the most successful publishing reflects back to us – at some level – our deepest preoccupations, perhaps ones we don’t even know about; perhaps there are some we don’t want to know about. Perhaps those are the most interesting and important. Perhaps this, in the end, is what Harry shows us.

En route I would like to start to look at a ‘theory of publishing’ or an industrial hermeneutics – a term I have used elsewhere on this site to suggest a combination of prescriptive explanation and commercial purpose. This is not an aesthetic analysis – I am not interested in comparing the Harry Potter series with, say, Joyce’s Ulysses as ‘great art’ or ‘superb writing’. I (sort of) know what these words mean but I don’t want to go down that route. This is not a historicist analysis either. For example, for more than a hundred years I presume the sales figures, so to speak, of the poetry of William Blake were disastrous. So his adoption into the canon of ‘great’/popular/bestselling poets becomes more interesting because it says as much about the twentieth century as it does about Blake.

Some analytical tools: from the academic world I like the openness of Reader-Response Criticism, that credits readers en masse with intelligence and multiple purposes, creatively subverting authors’, makers’ or publishers’ intentions to new and different ends. Publishing Studies is attractive – if unknown in Wikipedia – because it recognizes that any text, no matter how literary or ephemeral, commercially successful or disastrous, must incarnate as part of Marx’s ‘material conditions’ of ‘production and exchange’. At a deeper level I also believe in a universal and transhistorical human nature, a core, ingenuous and (in the very best sense) child-like human identity that responds to the representations of ourselves in culture. I am particularly interested here in the nature of these representations in the Harry Potter series.

This is, in more detail, a restatement of ‘being-in-the-world’ that I mentioned in my last post, an attempt at a connection between human nature and Nature, individual and society, inside and outside, reason and energy, subject and object – pick your own dualism. Even if any of this is not true, it is at least more interesting and gracious than arid objectivism or solipsistic intra-subjectivism, because quality is now something we see that we bring to any and every possible object of our perception; the beauty is behind and (as it were) beams out from the eye of the beholder. We see ourselves – if we want to – in what we see ‘out there’. Modern art in general and conceptual art in particular is a revelation that starts off from this point; this is also the basis for the so-called Kantian turn: ‘all knowledge […] is occupied not so much with objects as with the mode of our knowledge of objects’ (Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Werner Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996, A 12/B 25). Another well-known example is from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Authorized Version 13:10, 12): ‘But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. […] For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ I confess I find the conventional interpretation (a prefiguration of resurrection) insufferably dreary, and wonder if this passage’s meme-like status in weddings (as well as funerals) owes more to its electric imagining, beautifully expressed, of a moment of revelation in this world, a revelation of an other but also of self. Anybody else feel this? (Harry Potter coming soon, I promise …)

Any answers we think we find are necessarily mirrors of the questions we think are worth answering. This is the essence too of any reader’s – particularly a child’s – response to any book. We find what we are looking for. Dr Johnson’s ‘Preface to Shakespeare’ quotes Shakespeare (Hamlet III ii, 21–2, ‘hold the mirror up to nature’) to describe his subject when he said that Shakespeare ‘is the poet of nature; the poet who holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life’. Part of Shakespeare’s astonishing genius and box office success was to design open-ended projective imputation into his plays, from the revealingly titled As You Like It onwards. Perhaps the truest faithfulness of Shakespeare’s mirrors – as Borges suggests in his superb but cold ‘Everything and Nothing’ – is their perfidious multiversality.

I wonder if J. K. Rowling was thinking of this in her framing of the Harry Potter series. By ‘framing’ I mean the author’s design of the relation of reader to narrative. The Mirror of Erised (‘desire’ backwards/in a mirror, geddit?) in HP and the Philosopher’s Stone reflects back to those who look at it those things they wish to see. What Voldemort and Dumbledore see will help readers with amazingly absorbent memories (most 10-year-olds?) prepare for what will happen at the very end. This important symbol derives its power from its truthfulness both within and outside the narrative. In other words, the stories are also mirrors that reflect back to us what we want to see. If we are a child, we see ourselves growing up, our powers increasing, acting confidently in the world. If we are an adult, we see our children growing up, learning about loyalty and love, making mistakes but learning and becoming better and stronger. What does Harry see in the Mirror of Erised? His dead parents now alive. Every child (and adult?) will wish to re-experience the fullness of parental love, whether as a memory or just as a fantasy. The ‘magic of Harry Potter’ is to show us the most ordinary things in the world – including corny words that seem to have lost their meaning – and to make them feel new and wonderful.

Please notice the repeated ordinary–special trope here. One of Rowling’s most banal but brilliant innovations is that the stories were written in real time, one per year, the characters growing older exactly one fictional year every real year. If this is not an entirely original literary device, please post a comment to let me know. This device is perhaps even more expressive in film, where the characters manifestly physically change year-on-year. Probably only adults would articulate this observation but children are extraordinarily observant of age differences, for the simple reason that they too are continually looking for different mirrors to help them renegotiate their own changing experience of being-in-the-world. At that time of first publishing, then, children needed to have no sense of time to have the experience of growing up alongside Harry Potter. Younger children have little inner or outer sense of time and sequence – as most parents watching their child ‘get ready’ for school will know. Yet on their behalf Rowling holds together the rich detail of a complex narrative; like a good parent she rewards their sustained attention and shows back to them the pleasures of integration, structure and organization. The coherence of the narrative, though, is jarred by the ending of each book (‘But what’s going to happen next?’) and can only be resolved by buying and reading the next one. Some parents will speak movingly of how their children, particularly boys, learned to read ‘big’ books because of this series’ gentle but strong narrative pull. The progression from the first book (223 pages) to the fifth (766) is like a sympathetic graded teaching exercise.

Note the implied care that the big ending doesn’t lose any of the narrative threads and doesn’t let us down. There are surprising revelations of great generosity that teach us we are sometimes wrong, and that we should be less arrogant in our critical judgements of others. The re-establishment of ‘the good’ is entirely predictable but still has to be hard won. This, from Dumbledore, gets to the heart of the books:

That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, London: Bloomsbury, p. 568)

I hope this doesn’t seem trite out of context. Happiness, innocence and truthfulness tend to ‘write in white ink on a white page’ (Henry de Montherlant); the triumph of the books is to make the ordinary special. Harry is clearly a cipher for everyone who feels ordinary. As a publishing/marketing tactic this could not be targeted to a wider audience. Compared with the exotic names of other characters such as Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore, for example, his name is positively Pooterish – see Diary of a Nobody. His scruffy appearance, lack of academic abilities and thick glasses are his badges of ordinariness. One of the mounting perils for the telling of the story is when Harry’s arrogance puts our identification with him in jeopardy – will he ever believe he is ‘the one’, will he turn into his enemy? Yet he is redeemed by the sincerity of his regret for his mistakes, his trust in his friends, his generosity towards his enemies and his respect for those who have less power than him.

Apparently 11 million copies of Deathly Hallows were sold in 24 hours; this was mass hysteria, a social phenomenon, a virtuous circle, a perfect storm of medium and message that offered each individual child and millions of children at the same time an experience of a profound comfort: you are not alone.

[to be continued]

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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1 Response to Harry Potter and the Publishers’ Holy Grail II

  1. Jeyna Grace says:

    I think rowling did frame most parts of her stories.. that’s what makes it interesting.

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