Harry Potter and the Publishers’ Holy Grail III

Does it matter what an author or publisher intends? What about how their work or product is received? Perhaps the most interesting question is the combination of the two, the problem some authors and all commercial companies (including mine) try to solve: can we design or manage what we do to get the outcome we want? I am trying to get to the heart of what makes the Harry Potter series so successful, to see if there is a deliberate formula we can try to understand – repeat might be asking too much.

Deliberate management or design for success is a separate and distinct meta-activity from doing what we usually do. In a Darwinian world of competing products and messages none of us can make the world love what we do, but we can use all our courage, cunning, experience and intelligence to have a good go. It looks to me as if J. K. Rowling was thinking about this in her books – the philosopher’s stone [sorcerer’s stone for those Stateside] turns base metals (personal mediocrity) into gold. The stories of her hero, of astonishing publishing success, and of her personal triumph all converge and interweave to speak of ordinariness become amazing.

It looks as if some of J. K. Rowling’s narrative frames are subconscious or compulsive. The tropes of her speech to the Harvard graduates of 2008 repeat the same kinds of themes as her writing: catastrophe against triumph. For example, the terror of preparing for her talk has the benefit of helping her lose weight; completely forgetting all of Dame Mary Warnock’s speech at her own graduation is reassuring because she can hardly do any worse; and, on the edge of a public speaking disaster, she startlingly counsels the students at I presume one of the wealthiest educational institutions in the world – rather like a post-transformation Cinderella lecturing her ugly sisters – about the degrading pettiness of her previous poverty. Her search for outer truthfulness to her inner voice is full of the risk and danger of utter failure. Her story, at root, is like ours and everyone else’s – except she was amazingly successful. All this is very close to her fiction, isn’t it?

So, what framing has J. K. Rowling deliberately designed into the Harry Potter series? While the apparent naivety of these books is a core to our experience of them, I am claiming this is sophisticated and intentional.

Wilbert Vere Awdry (1911–97), Church of England vicar, pacifist and writer of the Railway Series

I mentioned in Part I of this series of posts that the Rev. W. Awdry’s original Railway Series (before it became ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’) has an elegaic notion of times past and a fearful view of the coming of the diesels and 1960s’ modernity; I said this was emotionally parallel to children’s fears of the ending of childhood itself. I suggested that this kind of recognition of deep childhood fears is unusually empathic. Within a psychoanalytic frame it is therapeutic that the analyst will take the patient’s deep longings/anxieties within him- or herself and reflect them back to the patient unharmed. (The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim, London: Penguin, 1989, is a particularly deeply considered investigation of children’s folk tales by a psychoanalyst and educator of severely disturbed children.) I also claimed that when authors can do this for readers there is a release of psychic energy that shows as fascination or – in the crude but nevertheless expressive terms I am studying here – as publishing success. The Harry Potter series re-presents back to us these deep kinds of children’s desires and fears: the wizard world perhaps reads as an evanescent childhood past, and the Muggle Dursleys and Privet Avenue are the dreary (diesel) world of future adult rationality and boring sensibleness. Please note that mythical and metaphorical complexity is richer and more fascinating than simple allegory, analogy, simile or a these few lines of analysis here. Good writing is always more surprising than we can imagine.

Bruno Bettelheim (1903–90)

Adults sometimes say – with an implicit critique or distancing – that the HP stories are old-fashioned or nostalgic, but notice the projective misinterpretation: how can a 10-year-old be nostalgic for something they have never known? How many HP readers have any idea about boarding school, Latin, or barmy and dangerous English public school games? If we listen ingenuously, like a child – a key HP experience – it sounds as if the adults here are talking about fantasies of their own past, their own childhood, maybe even that of their parents or grandparents. Notice there is no television – let alone computers – in the wizard world. There are steam trains and radio: Mrs Weasley listens to ‘A Cauldron Full of Hot, Strong Love’(!) performed by one Celestina Warbeck. A Ford Anglia 105 (my nerdiness here is researched, not wholly endemic) makes a star appearance in the second book; it is a Muggle car but note it stopped being manufactured in 1968 – and all the other cars parked along the film version of Privet Avenue are modern. Hagrid makes an appearance (in the first film) on what looks like a Triumph Bonneville T120, which ceased production in 1974.

My point is about deliberate framing: I suggest that, like all great children’s literature (and psychoanalysis), J. K. Rowling intended adults (and herself) to revisit their own childhood. Perhaps the author (born in 1965) remembered the rather startling ‘mouth’ grille of the Ford Anglia from her youth. The experience of being a parent always strongly evokes one’s own childhood; the evidence of the writing shows that Rowling has clearly been animated and quickened to empathy with children. I’m thinking of the squealingly delightful ‘immaturity’ of Dumbledore in HP and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chapter 17) as he soberly recollects eating one of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans as a youth and was put off for quite a while to find it was ‘vomit-flavoured’. Eventually he tried what he thought might be a ‘nice toffee’, only to discover the flavour was actually ear wax. And remember that Dumbledore is the touchstone for reality, the avatar of the author, the proxy for both the good parent and (in a different frame) the psychoanalyst. He is an adult who is neither scared of being like a child nor of children’s superabundant life-force; he offers a bridge of empathy from child to adult, adult to child. In publishing terms, of course, you get the benefit of increased sales, to adults as well as children.

1. The UK edition: naivety sublime. Featuring Ford Anglia and steam train. Illustration by Cliff Wright

2. The US edition. Illustration by Mary GrandPré. No film tie-in, although the HP lettering refers to it

3. For reference/comparison: the adult edition. Nice image, but over-literal and empty of people

4. The new cover. Not so naive, but still – even more deliberately? – no film tie-in

Please note the Ford Anglia gets star billing on the cover of the original book (#1) – but not for the US edition (#2). The Anglia, as the name suggests, was for the UK market. Just in case you think this is accidental, bear in mind that by the time a publisher gets to the 64th reprinting (as it says inside my son’s copy) they have had plenty of chances to make some changes. Most publishers would have done a ‘film tie-in’ cover – a normal response to increase sales. But in #1 there is Harry and Ron looking nothing like Daniel Radcliffe or Rupert Grint. Rowling has clearly had a highly unrepresentative (by normal author standards) amount of author control over her contract, for instance no abridgement of the audio books, the ‘no e-book’ policy (until her own Pottermore company!), the burgeoning page extents, the relative sobriety of the computer games and the fidelity of the films to the books. Here I’m guessing she or her agent might be forcing through a deliberately naive/old-fashioned look. Behind the scenes at the publishing company I can imagine some major marketing despair at this – as a sample of public consciousness do a Google image search by any HP book title and you’ll see 95 per cent of the images are from the films. The covers have now changed (#4) to something more obviously stylish if not so enjoyably naive, but note there is still no film tie-in. In my view this a clear privileging of ‘the book’ – as opposed to any other medium. This is a deliberate development of an intellectual property or brand. What other framing is going on here?

[to be continued – the next one is the last one!]

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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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4 Responses to Harry Potter and the Publishers’ Holy Grail III

  1. Adam says:

    You’ve looked a lot more deeply into the reasoning for HP’s success than I ever have, examining the psychoanalytic reasoning and everything else that you mentioned. I’m not trying to disagree with the aspects of looking back upon childhood and the fear of the future. The books were successful for two reasons. 1) They’re very well written, and 2) they were released at a perfect time to catch a market where they simply exploded. There are thousands of well written books, quite a few that are much better than HP, and good writing can be replicated. The second reason cannot be duplicated, the only thing you can do is capitalize on it if the situation arises (which Rowling has done).

    If you look at the themes you found in this series – specifically the ideas of a return to childhood and fear of the future – you’ll find that those are all over in good literature and in life in general. The future, simply by being unknown, is scary, and the past, as something that is known, is comfortable.

    • Propagandum says:

      Many thanks for this long and interesting comment, with excellent points. Yes indeed, these themes are all over literature and life in general – my general point is that the success of successful writing and publishing (two separate things) is at some level a reflection back to ourselves of what we see and what we want to see. This also has to be creative and surprising. The Mirror of Erised is exactly the right balance of insightfulness and naivety for Rowling’s audience – and in the HP series throughout there are many more kinds of reflections back to us. I was trying to look at deliberate framings/intentions in Rowling’s writing and the publishing from the start – the design in relation to audience response, the ‘well’ in what ‘well written’ means, and what was ‘perfect’ about ‘the perfect time’. I am publishing the final part of my analysis next week, which develops a general model of writing/publishing communication, a kit of parts that expands the excellent points you make. I’d be delighted if you’ll give it the same close attention as you’ve done with this one.

      • Adam says:

        Sure, I’ll check back on the next post. I read all the time and kind of by default with all my reading I check out a lot of posts involving publishing and the various aspects of it.

  2. Jeyna Grace says:

    I think the new covers are hideous. LOL.

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