Friday, April 10, 2009


Several months ago I received an invitation to join an online group read of Ulysses
, by James Joyce. I accepted the invitation immediately. I'd read the book twice--once in college and once in a post-graduate course, both times with very different, and quite capable professors. We had read every word, examined every reference, every nuance of spelling and punctuation; each professor had devoted probably a third of the entire course to this book alone. But I hadn't read it in well over twenty years, and recently had only been reading thrillers, urban fantasy, and mainstream literary fiction. So, highbrow me up, I said to my cyberfriend, get me some culture! I am so in.

The group was formed six weeks or so out from the projected beginning of the read, and the discussion started immediately. Which edition to read. Which ancillary works to obtain. How fast shall we read. How will the discussions proceed. What fun! There were some members of the group who were obviously serious about their intellectual chops. These members suggested references, comparing the scholarship of the works and the credentials of the authors, as well as the relevance to the discussion to come. (Spoiler alert: I should have determined very early in the pre-read discussions what the tenor of the group was going to be, when a comment I posted regarding a desire I'd always had to read Re Joyce by Anthony Burgess was answered with a, dare I say, rather snooty comment regarding the focus of that particular book not being Ulysses, but rather Joyce's work as a whole. That comment was quickly deleted by the author, but the mood it set lingered, at least for me.)

The reading started, the discussion began, and for a little while it was a wonderful intellectual endeavor. And then...and then, occasional stray, seemingly offhand jibes at contemporary popular fiction began to make appearances. Worse, the jibes were often directed not just at the works themselves, but at the people who enjoy those works. The two multi-volume works--and their fans--that seemed most to attract the rancor of these protectors of the canon were the four books of the The Twilight Saga  and the seven Harry Potter books. Mind you, as a reader I have nothing but contempt for the Twilight Saga, and as a bookseller I've seen more than my share of its squealing fans. But I also work very closely with several of those fans, and I know them to be intelligent, creative, independent, strong women. So what if they love these books? And does it really hurt anything, whether it be another individual or the fabric of society, if an entertainment makes a person squeal?

Right around the time the preparations for the group read of Ulysses began, I also received a reminder from my friend Padric that it was time for our bi-annual reading of Harry Potter. I had, of course, accepted, as I consider the Harry Potter story to be among the most beautiful and imaginative ever written. It is a study and celebration of human nature, strengths--love, loyalty, bravery, friendship, intellectual endeavor, the quest for something bigger than ourselves--weaknesses, and all.

So what, I ask, is the issue with these books? Although most of the contempt our protectors of the canon in the Ulysses reading group express is rather unspecific, they do cite, among others, A.S.Byatt's criticism of Harry Potter as a work for people devoid of imagination. All I can say to that is, whatever, dude. Get a life and a sense of whimsy, while you're at it.

I can't imagine that it's the degree of their popularity as compared to that of Ulysses or The Man without Qualities or In Search of Lost Time. Seriously. If these works were as popular as the aforementioned two, wouldn't the intellectuals feel cheated, less-than-special, wouldn't they need to seek out something even less accessible, less readable? I don't dispute the fact that Ulysses is high art whereas Harry Potter is not...but that doesn't make Harry Potter any less art. In fact, if one believes that art's purposes are to touch people, to move them, to inspire them, to uplift them, to make them think, to give them something to talk about in the playground, at cocktail parties, around the water cooler, in online discussion groups, then Harry Potter is indeed art--to a greater degree than Ulysses will ever be.

Art isn't always about technique and style, it's about results, it's about the work itself and what it's done for the world. And if you don't think Harry Potter has done anything for the world, then you were not present in a bookstore on any of the release weekends of the last four books of the series. To see a child, clutching his book in his hand, throw his arms around his mother, saying, "Thank you thank you thank you thank you," punctuating every thank you with a kiss. To see a group of otherwise blase teens posing for a group photo, each holding their copy and beaming. To see people walking out to their cars, reading as they walk. To be the bookseller who works until 1:30 in the morning selling the book, has to be back to open early at 6:00 in the morning, but rushes home and reads until 4:00...that's not just pop culture, that's art.

1 comment:

EnriqueFreeque said...

That's a brilliant assessment of art, what it is, and what it isn't, and why something popular like Harry Potter doesn't automatically banish it from being defined as art. Quite touching too. What a bunch of self-important elitists the people in that group read - sound like Mow-rons to me - must've been!

Excellent piece on Harry Potter. Second time I've read it!