Monday, August 05, 2013
Opening Line: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
This blog is undergoing revision; a temporary archive of Opening Line posts can be found here.
So, a break from the usual choices of book: I put up a two-post series about critical terminology, mentioned J.K. Rowling by way of an example, and everybody abided by my request not to derail the discussion into a Harry Potter fan thread! Thank you all very much. By way of appreciation for anyone who had to restrain themselves, here: an Opening Line post on Harry Potter. Which is, in fact, an interesting subject. No slagging off Rowling as a person, please, we don't do that here, but I hope you'll enjoy the analysis of her style...
Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.By now the Harry Potter books are hardly books any more: they're a cultural phenomenon, a modern myth both in their actual story and in the rags-to-riches tale of a penniless single mother lifted to fame and fortune by the books she somehow managed to scrape up time to write. J.K. Rowling is a known philanthropist and public figure, the books have been transmuted into films, video games and theme parks; so famous an export is this story that Britain chose to include it as part of the display of national pride that began the Olympic games. And why not? We have a proud history of children's fiction, being the nation not only of J.K. Rowling but Edith Nesbit, George MacDonald, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman and C.S. Lewis (some of whom I personally cannot abide, but that's another question). Books for children are one of those things, like nature documentaries and ornamental gardens and losing on penalties, that we do well. But this, the behemoth children's tale that reshaped the market, making common the sight of an adult commuter with a colourful volume of children's fiction in their hands, is so famous that it's easy to forget a few basic things about it. It was a minor venture when it first came out: J.K. Rowling's initial advance from Bloomsbury was £1,500, an extremely cautious amount. Its initial print run was five hundred copies, of which the majority were intended for school libraries. It is, no matter how many adults read and enjoy it, a children's book, written by a parent and intended to be read by kids. And as such, it comes out of a cultural tradition of British children's writing. Whether or not you care about the book, it had a big impact on publishing, and it's interesting to consider, aside from all the hoopla, what kind of book it actually is.
So, what do we have in this first sentence?
Straight away we can see some fictional influences in the character names. 'Dursley': beige-sounding, thick on the tongue, utterly unpoetic; it is a real surname, actually, but like the other names in these books, sound rather than realism is the name of the game. Harry Potter, our eponymous hero, has an unpretentious name, friendly-sounding and determinedly ordinary - 'Harry' itself is traditionally a diminutive of 'Henry', meaning that his name feels informal and amiable right from the outset. Dursley, though, with its stupid-sounding 'dur' and its assonance with 'worse', carries a quick aural introduction: the Dursleys are unintelligent, uninspiring, unappealing as cold porridge.
Now this is a recognisable tradition in British fiction: the great champion of it was Charles Dickens, with his Grandgrinds and Gamps and Pecksniffs and Micawbers, energetic names that don't just suit the characters, but somehow summarise them. But if you go down through children's literature, Dickens had a major successor in Roald Dahl, the reigning monarch of children's fiction until Rowling knocked him off the shelves. Dahl was a passionate admirer of Dickens - his genius child Matilda starts her adult reading with Great Expectations, his villainous headmistress Miss Trunchbull in the same book cites Wackford Squeers as a role model, Dahl's autobiography Boy describes reading 'the entire works of Dickens' passing time in a cold school lavatory as a child, his short piece 'Lucky Break' in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar begins by describing the writer's life thus: 'Charles Dickens found it easy. At the age of twenty-four, he simply sat down and wrote Pickwick Papers, which became an immediate best-seller. But Dickens was a genius, and geniuses are different from the rest of us': to Dahl, Dickens practically was literature, and he adopted Dickens's use of colourful names with glad inventiveness: Willy Wonka, Miss Honey, Boggis and Bunce and Bean, all tell us what to think of them as soon as we hear what they're called. Dickens wasn't strictly a children's author, but he was a popular author with children as long as adult books were all they had to go on; Dahl was immensely successful, fond of boasting that he could enter any house in England as a welcome guest as long as there were children within, and he wasn't far wrong, either. Most authors at least think carefully about their characters' names, of course, but there's a particular tradition of outlandish, emphatic, character-delineating names in children's books that a name like 'Dursley' immediately invokes.
Rowling, then, knew what she was playing at. There's another implication, actually, if you hear the echoes of Dickens and Dahl; a child might not pick it up consciously but it's certainly there: energetically extreme names evoke a sense of anarchy. Dickens was on the side of the little guy; Dahl often worried adults by the lavishly rebellious punishments he showered upon the bad adults of his books. Children, of course, loved them, because he tapped right into the sense of outraged justice that besets every child sometimes when they run up against the endless power adults hold over their lives, and by refusing to give adults serious names - by refusing to give them concealing names, rather, but slapping on them labels in letters clear enough for a child to read - Dahl appealed directly to a child's desire for some power in a world so very much bigger than themselves. Comedic names cut characters down to size, and so it is with 'Dursley': they immediately sound mean, but also ridiculous, nothing serious to worry about. In fact they make Harry sleep in a cupboard under the stairs and allow their son to beat him up all the time and generally subject him to the kind of Gothically awful childhood that would traumatise a real child past repair, but they occupy the realm of fairy-tale, not reality, albeit fairy-tale in a modern setting, and that's what we get in this first sentence. They boast of their normality, but the author is poking fun at them through their very names. Outlandish names in children's fiction tend to be the province of the wackily inventive, and wacky invention sits ill with authority. Straight away we know there will be no pieties about respecting your elders here. If elders do not earn respect, they will not get it, and Rowling is on the children's side about this. Ordinariness and reality are themselves fairy-tale fictions, and with them manners and decorum.
Equally evocative - or rather, equally satirical - is the name of their address, a loud warning that this house will be ostentatiously dreary and conventional. For those not familiar, privet is a soft-leafed evergreen shrub, sometimes green and sometimes 'gold', bearing negligible flowers and popular in British streets as a front-garden hedge. Privet is fairly quick-growing, dense enough to form a barrier if you want, leafy in all seasons, and above all easy to trim: use your clippers on it a few times a year and it'll take on any shape you like. It's not small-leafed enough to make the finest kinds of topiary, though you can train it if you want to: what privet normally ends up doing is crouching in front of houses in a neat little box shape. It's a perfectly nice plant in itself and an excellent choice if you want something low-maintenance, but as far as gardening goes, a privet hedge is not exactly imaginative. In the streets of Britain that have front gardens, probably the majority of those streets have at least some privet somewhere.
Naming a street 'Privet Drive' isn't necessarily a slap at privet itself, of course, but what we do notice, whether consciously or not, is that it's not just a feature of the place, but its name, its identifying characteristic. This unimaginative plant choice isn't just background in Privet Drive. And this is relevant because it's Privet Drive, not Privet Street.
While Rowling has had international success, the Harry Potter books are very much of Britain, and to a British ear the word 'Drive' signals something immediately: this address is a new build, post-war and almost certainly suburban. It's a curious feature of British geography that the older addresses tend to have the plainer names, and a rather sad feature that the newer addresses tend to be a little charmless. Better insulated, probably, and more mouse-proof, and generally more practical, but they're also liable to be boxy in their architecture: Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian houses go for higher prices because their proportions, facades and general design are likely to have what estate agents refer to as 'character' - by which they simply mean a layout that feels friendly rather than just functional. British citizens who can afford it often choose a smaller old house over a bigger new build, and if you live in a pre-war house - especially in those cities that got battered in the Blitz - you get regular fliers through your door from the local estate agents pleading with you to relinquish your sought-after residence into their dealership. While there are certainly nice new builds in existence, the prestige is on the 'period' places: those are the houses associated with taste and art - and they don't stand in streets called 'Drive'. 'Privet Street' or 'Privet Road' might be pre-war, and maybe 'Privet Terrace' - though they wouldn't have the name 'Privet' if they were unless there was a person called Mr Privet somewhere in their history; 'Drive', like 'Close', is a more recent name. The usual rule of thumb is that the more expansive the name of a place sounds, the less gracious it will actually be; the most poetic-sounding names are 'Heights' and 'Gardens', and they usually mean an estate - or what American readers would probably call a housing project; even 'estate' is a bit of a euphemism, as it used to mean the land and holdings of a great house. 'Drive' is the name of a recent suburban development - not an urban estate, but middle-class residences, probably with off-street parking, and quite possibly with limited shops or buses so you need a car to get you anywhere useful. While plenty of interesting people undoubtedly live in a 'Drive' or a new build - the catastrophic housing boom hadn't quite hit Britain when the first Harry Potter book was written and houses weren't quite so impossibly expensive as they are now, but you still have to take what you can get - as a name in a book like this, it's a clear signal: this is a soulless suburb, with no history, no intricacy, no magic.
And when you add 'Drive' to 'Privet', you get something else about the character of this place: if we pretend for a moment that Privet Drive is a real place, we must suppose that it was built recently, built by design, and whoever named the road thought that privet, that uninventive gardening choice, was an attractive feature worth making part of the address. A new-built suburb is built with an eye to sales, and names are chosen to make it sound good to potential new residents. A town planner calling a place 'Privet Drive' is either the kind of person who thinks privet is a reason to move to an area or is at least bidding for buyers who do: people who think that the most boring garden plant in the country sounds like a tasteful frontage for a des-res. As I said, lots of houses have privet - there's plenty around my neighbourhood, for instance, and I live in an area with a lot of artists - but only a truly dull person would consider privet anything to get excited about. If we imagine Privet Drive to have been named by a town planner, they must have been the crashingest bore you could hope to avoid; if we remember that Privet Drive was named by J.K. Rowling, it's a very mischievous little poke at suburban gentility. Privet isn't a 'feature', as estate agents would put it; it's just kind of there. Calling a British street 'Privet Drive' is more or less on a level with calling a park 'Grass Common' or a body of water 'Reed Pond'. Like 'Mr and Mrs Dursley' - no first names given in this first sentence - the flavour is strongly, ferociously generic.
Uninventive to the nth degree, in other words, and also short on history. If you wanted to name a street for the other common garden plants in Britain, your first choice would probably be ivy - but ivy is absolutely out of the question here, because it has a magical ring to it, echoes of druidism and Christmas and festivity. Flower names would at least sound picturesque; going on the common garden frontages of Britain, you'd expect the Dursleys to have some neighbours in a Clematis Drive or a Laurel Drive or a Hydrangea Drive or even, pace Desperate Housewives, a Wysteria Drive, but all of them sound at least a bit more stimulating than Privet, that spiky word for those boxy hedges that never bear flowers or fruit worth the notice. It's as if the Dursleys live in the dullest street of a dull suburb. And that, evidently, is how they like it.
Because here's the other thing about privet: it's controllable. Ivy can pull down houses if you give it a chance; clematis and wysteria wind wildly all over the place and drip with petals in spring; hydrangea has its colourful seasons and needs responsive care to look its best. Privet, on the other hand, is planted specifically to be cut back. If you don't trim privet it gets leggy and tree-like, but it doesn't do you any harm, so it's not like a wild plant you have to keep in check for your own security; the worst you can say of untrimmed privet is that, like buddleia without the butterflies, it looks untidy. And that, of course, is what the Dursleys oppose: the untidiness of nature, of free development. They like a street where the plants exist to be cut into line, where it's a regular expectation that the hedges are square shapes never found in the wild. If you want to conquer nature, privet is a soft target, easily defeated and submissive to the shears. As parents, the Dursleys favour their natural son over their adopted one, letting the former run wild and trying hard to prune the latter into a more respectable appearance, but they don't succeed in either case: the pampered son doesn't run to vibrant wildness but to small, mean foolishness, and a magical force will soon sweep into the neighbourhood and transplant the neglected child into richer soil. Privet is what the Dursleys want to make of the world, but what they have on their hands is ivy, about to run rampant.
But that hostility to magic is clear throughout the sentence. Even though there's no dialogue, the Dursley voice rings through it: 'perfectly normal, thank you very much', is an indirect quotation, and in it one can hear the prim diction of the solid middle-class. We can hear, in fact, the Dursley accent. That irritable, emphatic rhythm, heaving with curt little commas and snapped mini-phrases, is the speech not of a cultured family, but of a respectable one: full of unnecessary emphasisers, it's not an elegant way of speaking, but instead a bundle of social quotations. 'Thank you very much' is a common addition when implying that someone was rude to imply otherwise; 'perfectly' is, again, a conventional adverb used under pressure, a kind of verbal ruffled feather. The tone isn't just 'proud' but defensive, a recognisable attitude from people privately sure of their own class but not entirely sure that other people will recognise it. The Dursleys actually send their son to an old-established boarding school, which implies aristocracy, but the primary purpose of that detail is to emphasise the difference in how much money and attention are lavished on their natural son versus their adopted one; in most of their lifestyle choices they are a thoroughly recognisable type: the respectable, monied, complacent middle class, aggressive, but only in a law-abiding way, and vulgar, but only in a boring way. There is nothing linguistically original at all about the phrase 'perfectly normal, thank you very much,' but it's something that the Dursleys are 'proud' to say. It's as if opinions and sentences are things they acquire in the same way that they'd purchase a car or a television: the brand needs to be familiar if they're to be admired and envied by their neighbours.
What's interestingly absent from this sentence, though, is the hero himself. Even for the first readers of the book before it hit the big time, the title makes it clear that the Dursleys are not the heroes: the title is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone*, a good old pulp title in the tradition of The Famous Five and Asterix and all the other classic children's series where the main selling point, the hero's or heroes' names, are the first thing you see on the cover. Nothing could signal more clearly that Harry Potter, whoever that may be, is not just the hero of this book, but (sales and publishers permitting) the hero of a possibly limitless number of others. By the end of the book it's clear that the goal is seven novels, one for each school year, but on the opening page, Harry Potter could be another Billy Bunter, permanently at whatever age most suits the plot. Either way, when a character name leads the title, clearly he's here to stay for a while. What this sentence does, then, is set up a sense of anticipation: there is a hero called Harry Potter waiting in the wings, and whoever he is, he is hopefully worth waiting for.
What the first book does, in fact, is begin with an antonym. Harry Potter is the hero of this promised series. Harry Potter has not appeared yet. What we have instead are characters who are, we can assume, unlike him. We can assume it for two reasons: first, it's more structurally satisfying if the hero enters a situation that he then changes, and so a sentence that begins with the hero not present is the starting point, the place where change will be worked. And second, this is a children's book: we expect to like the main characters, and Rowling makes it impossible for all but the most perverse reader to like the Dursleys. In other words, we begin in a state of Dursleydom that the promised Harry Potter is going to change - which means that even before we meet him, we are on Harry's side. We begin trapped with the Dursleys, and they are written to attract our contempt and dislike: Harry is the breath of fresh air we wait for, and when we find he begins life trapped with them as well, we entirely sympathise. We like Harry Potter before he ever appears because, the book promises, he will be everything these dislikeable Dursleys are not. It's a neat and effective way of directing the reader to root for a hero who will, by the nature of the story, have to wait a certain amount of time before he has the opportunity to do anything heroic. Even having a different personality from the Dursleys is, from a reader's viewpoint, rescuing us from some kind of dragon.
Writing seven books is a massive undertaking, and writing them while they're in the process of publication, rather than writing all seven before committing to press, is a tremendous risk: no matter how large or intense the project becomes, one cannot go back and revise the earlier volumes. To publish a first book in a planned but unwritten series is a leap in the dark. Rowling's style, as any writers' does, evolves and changes as the series progresses: the kind of broad comedy that begins Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone moves more to the background as the conflicts intensify; satire and the skewering of certain 'types' remains a feature, but this is Harry Potter at its lightest and simplest. It's also Harry Potter at its most breathtakingly efficient. Reading is a slower business for children than for adults, and if you bore a child within the first page you're likely to lose a sale. Rowling, though, gives her children the most compelling of all hooks: a maddening set of antagonists that you earnestly want to see set at naught. Not so frightening that a nervous child might decide the book is too much - the real horrors of the story only emerge once the reader is well and truly ensconced - but irritating, dislikeable, smug, a set of turned-up noses badly in need of tweaking. Rowling isn't and doesn't pretend to be the kind of complex stylist I usually discuss in these posts, but by golly she gets the job done.
*Yes, I know it's the 'Sorcerer's Stone' in the US. That's not the title Rowling chose, though, it's a marketing compromise.
I was one of the people who read the first Harry Potter before the the Potter phenomenon took off. You have done a good job of capturing exactly what it was like to read that book without knowledge of what the rest of the series would be like. As someone who grew up reading the 'classic' British children's books my first encounter with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone suggested that this author was working comfortably within the recognizable rhythms and expectations of the genre. At the same time it struck me as surprisingly deftly written for a first time author with a nagging undertone of more serious issues generally centred around the treatment / abuse of children and the fairly rigid essentialism of the British class system.
One reason for Rowling's potency, I think, is the way the series slides smoothly over the course of a few books from the cosily traditional feel of children's books to the crisis and drama of adolescence - both the characters' ages and the sense of grand struggle, high ideals and unreliable authority that tend to chime with adolescent readers. She hits higher notes of drama than writers starting at that pitch usually do.
Add to that the fact that they're essentially Bush-era books when any sensitive writer could feel the increasing desperation in the atmosphere, and I think there's an unusual degree of movement from the classic tradition of children's stories to something more experimental. They're deeply preoccupied with death, for a children's series, for instance, and while there's an argument that fairy tales are often about deliverance from death one way or another, but there's a sense that as the books get 'older', they move away from structures that are simple and effective - the first two are basically cosy whodunnits, and rather well-structured ones - into something that's more ambitious, more imperfect but seriously grappling with something difficult.
Which is something you wouldn't necessarily anticipate from the first book. It's rather fascinating watching a writer experiment and develop like that, especially with such a horrendously challenging problem.
Kit, how much do you think the fact that Rowling had a child who aged at roughly the same rate as Harry helped Rowling to firmly ground her books in 'what works for a child' at the same time as she explored her voice and skills as a writer? I also wonder if having a 'real' child to read to and interact with kept her from overly sweetening or taking the edges of childhood.
For example, children are aware of death and do worry about it. Children do struggle to understand the unfairnesses of the universe.
I would also venture that Rowling has been very much underappreciated as a writer. NOT as a writer of children's books (a category people tend to hold separate.) One could see her grow as a writer across the books. One sees her attempts to experiment technically. Did you have a chance to read A Casual Vacancy and if so, what did you think of it?
To take the last first - no, I haven't had a chance to read The Casual Vacancy, so I'm afraid I'm a non-starter on that one for the moment. I've heard that her Robert Galbraith book got good reviews, though, and I do like a good mystery (which Rowling has already shown herself well able to structure), so The Cuckoo's Calling is higher on my to-read list at the moment.
As to the effect of motherhood ... well, I wouldn't like to speculate too deeply about Rowling's personal life, as it's really not my place. As a writer, I don't get the impression that she needed to be prevented from 'sweetening' by anything: from what I can gather, The Casual Vacancy is dark and tragicomic and The Cuckoo's Calling involves violence and drugs, so soft-focus never seems to have been her vice. (Apparently she defended the former book against critics saying 'But what if children read it??' with the admirable reply: 'There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.' I do admire that woman.)
What I would say is that I'm grateful to her, as the mother of a son, for writing epic children's stories in which the figure of a mother is taken so seriously - in which the mother's identity, both as an individual before becoming a mother and as a mother who sacrifices herself for her child, are treated as important. Heroes of Harry Potter's kind - quasi-mythic heroes with a quest to fulfil - very, very seldom have mothers or mother-figures as an important part of their background. It's lamentable, but when it comes to fictional representations of mothers and sons in popular art, I can think of almost no positive examples; mothers tend to be either conveniently absent or Hitchcockian smotherers, either provokers or ennablers of instability in a sexually ambiguous man. In far too much popular fiction, the mother has to be destroyed for the son to reach maturity, either before his journey begins so he can start uncontaminated, or to be rejected and silenced in the Mrs Mitty style. The idea seems to be that manhood and mothers are incompatible, and it's nice to see a writer of a modern myth take the line that no, a mother is a human being too and a son probably gains more than he loses by remembering that she existed.
I found The Casual Vacancy a book well worth reading. Rowling's writing skills have continued to mature and she uses the experiences that she went through while struggling to survive as a single mother to good use.
'Sweetening' is a bad word for what I was trying to capture--I should have found a better one. One of the problems that people have who write about children and/or teenagers is that they lose touch with the reality of what children/teenagers and like, how they talk, how they think and what they are interested in. Strangely, given the magical setting, Rowling in her later Potter books seemed to be speaking directly to my first year undergraduate students. They had grown up reading Potter and as they became more mature (and more hormonal) they continued to find the books engaging. I don't think being a mother is the other way to keep one's finger on the pulse of the reality of adolescent life but I think it is unavoidable for Rowling.
The Casual Vacancy is very tied to the examination of parenting and families and communities and how they work. There are a number of the reasons that people found it somewhat uncomfortable. Rowling does a really good job of capturing just how emotionally miserable (and without hope) teenagers and young adults can be. She explores a variety of different forms of abusiveness. And she eschews easy morality.
I admire Rowling for continuing to work at the art of writing. She is incredibly wealthy, very involved in philanthropy and could easily slide along on her reputation publishing knockoffs of her earlier work.
"Dursley" always sounds to me like a "hard parsley." And, as Ogden Nash would tell us, "Parsley / Is gharsley."
I rather like it myself, culinarily speaking, but a lot of people don't. Or find that spring of parsley, not used for seasoning the food but just sitting at the edge of the plate, to be pointless, silly and affected.
For that matter, I believe parsley has some fairly uncomfortable folk-tale and historical associations-- but that's really stretching.
I tend to think of "Streets" as urban blocks, "Avenues" as Important Streets, "Roads" as country or suburban links from here to there, and "Drives" as the upscale versions of winding country lanes. But you can't depend on that; I grew up on a Road that was merely three blocks long, dead-ended at both ends. And the cross street was an equally short and completely unimpressive Avenue.
I also appreciated the way Rowling took Harry's connection to his dead parents so seriously. But I also admit to a soft spot in my heart for Molly Weasley. Like so many of us, she manages to be both over-involved in her children's lives-- including Harry as a kind of foster son-- and completely ignorant about much of what's important to them. And yet, when it counts, she's there. Harry acquires a number of surrogate fathers over the course of the books, but without Molly Weasley, living motherhood would remain a complete abstraction for him.
Somehow Harry Potter has passed me by. I don't really know how I succeeded in missing it: it certainly wasn't intentional, and I have for a while had a vague plan to read them one day. Seeing them here on your blog has made that more likely to happen. I will get around to these books.
Request: You mentioned, back in the Opening Lines index post, that you might be open to the idea of doing some bad literature. So how about the quintessential bad opening line? It was a dark and stormy night. Could be fun.
One of my favorite romance blogs has a post discussing the way in which hardcore genre fans (in romance, specifically, but I think it may be true of all genres) are constantly SAYING that we want something "new", "different", that "takes romance in new directions"; but what we BUY indicates just the opposite: a hankering for the familiar and comfortable.
I'm the last person to deride comfort reading, of course; heckopete, I'm still suspicious of poetry that doesn't rhyme. Still, I'll admit it's a fair cop.
The question was raised, how do authors (and publishers) best respond to this contradictory data? It was suggested that the boundaries of the genre be best expand by "stealth" -- that is, slipping something genuinely trope-busting under the guise of the familiar, even the cliche.
Some would argue that this is exactly what such break-out hits as TWILIGHT and FIFTY SHADES OF GRAY did, greatly abetting in the popularity of new subgenres such as paranormal romance and BDSM romance (although I'd personally argue the opposite, that the success of these books lies in their appropriation of something that seems "new" and "edgy" to re-package a tired old trope of the virginal (idiot) submissive heroine and the billionaire (a$$hole) Alpha hero).
Nonetheless it seems to me that is in many ways what Rowling has done. She tugged together so many threads from beloved old comforters, so familiar and cozy, that readers hardly noticed that she was weaving something ... well, not new exactly, but certainly rejuvenated.
constantly SAYING that we want something "new", "different", that "takes romance in new directions"; but what we BUY indicates just the opposite: a hankering for the familiar and comfortable.
Sort of like how people say they want a rich, full-flavoured coffee but actually buy mild and milky?
The question was raised, how do authors (and publishers) best respond to this contradictory data?
Well ... my honest view is that the kind of author who 'responds to contradictory data' is probably not the kind of author who's going to come up with anything very new. In my experience, people who are trying to be new just for the sake of it are ... reactive writers. If you're being new because that's what other people say they want, or because you think it's what other people should have, then you're thinking about what other people think rather than what you think. From what I've seen, a reactive writer tends to look at what's been done before, and then just tries to do not-that - or else, often, tries to imitate last generation's revolutionary. A writer like that almost always ends up being far more derivative than they intend, because they aren't looking further than what's already there.
On the whole, the refreshing stuff often feels as if the writer wasn't particularly trying to rejuvenate a genre, they were just trying to do a good version of whatever they were doing. Being good is a much higher ambition than being different, and once a good book gets underway, there's enough energy in it that it can naturally start growing in some interesting directions. By its nature it'll have some stuff that's just itself, and following the internal integrity can lead to some good places.
I'm no C.S. Lewis fan, as you know, but I do think he had a point when he said "No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." Everyone's experience of the world is slightly different, and authentic books are often full of vitality even if on the surface they seem familiar.
I reckon if authors want to expand the boundaries of a genre, they're best off worrying less about the genre and its boundaries and deepening their focus on writing what excites and moves them. Sometimes that'll produce something new, sometimes it won't, but all art is experiment, and at least with that method there's a better possibility of success ... and the books that don't break boundaries will probably still be a lot of fun.
I tried reading this book when it first came out, but I found it dreadfully heavy-handed. What you can regard favourably as lots of meaning to be unpacked, I found reminiscent of being struck round the head with a sock full of cold porridge. Look! says the author. These are Boring People! It's all terribly black and white.
When a couple of chapters later I was spotting the generic child's wish-fulfilment list out of every psychology textbook I gave up in disgust.
hapax, I've met fantasy publishers asking authors for a book "just like the last one, only different".
Kit, I trust you are familiar with the Flanders and Swann song P** P* B**** B** D******? It's awfully easy to look edgy and revolutionary if your target audience has never met the real thing. (Indeed, one could argue that such appropriation is often how the revolutionary becomes the mainstream.)
I'm not regarding it as meaning to be unpacked, I'm regarding it as implications that are very easy for a child audience, especially a British child audience, to pick up. I'm 'unpacking' it here (mostly to thank Rowling fans who refrained from derailing the last couple of posts), which means it has to be spoken of at length, but what takes many words to describe can be perceived in a flash. Film fans are fond of saying that a picture is worth a thousand words, but when it comes to fiction, there's a variant of that: a fictional sentence can be worth a thousand words of explanation. The fact that you can tell the Dursleys are supposed to be dislikeable at once is exactly what the opening chapter sets out to establish. What I'm praising is not its subtlety but its efficiency. This is a story with heroes and villains, and it gets them set up in good order from the get-go. It may not be to your taste, but I don't think it's a failing of the book on its own terms.
Of course it's clear and simple in how it sketches things out: it's a children's book dealing in comic stereotypes, especially in its early stages. I simply don't see anything wrong with comic stereotypes, if they aren't mean-spirited, or a children's book having a story involving wish-fulfilment, as long as the wishes aren't ignoble. And as far as the comic stereotyping of the first chapter, Rowling's ear for class is very precise indeed.
As to the issue of whether it's 'edgy and revolutionary' ... I don't think it sets out to be. It did revolutionise the publishing industry, that's just a fact, but as a work of art, I don't think it's revolutionary. I think it's interesting, especially as a chance to watch a writer develop, but artistically it's just an series of children's adventures that manages to combine exciting plots with issues that can provide jumping-off points for discussion between parents and children. I'm planning to read it to my son when he's old enough, but I'm not considering it equivalent to Beloved and Middlemarch and all the other books I've reviewed here. It's just a nice series of kids' books.
The purpose of these analyses is to approach books from a close reading perspective, and in order to do that, they have to be read, as I say, on their own terms. The Internet's heaving with snarky reviews, but personally I'm more interested in how books achieve the effects they do. Not all of those effects will be to everyone's liking, but there's little to be be achieved in blaming a book for not being a different kind of book from the one that it actually is.
As a result, I'm making a point of commenting as 'favourably' as I can on a wide variety of books. You can find me defending Twilight elsewhere*, a book I don't personally like. Very early on in the series you can find an Opening Line analysis of Gone With The Wind**, a book I admire artistically but politically ahbor, and you can also find me Opening Line on The Collector***, a book I respect technically but whose quality I simply dislike. Books deserve a fair assessment by the standards they themselves choose, as well as by any other standard readers may choose to apply.
You think I'm being over-favourable here, just wait till you see what I've got prepared on 'It was a dark and stormy night.' ;-)
Firedrake -- remember that the first Potter book was written for readers who would be around the age of 11. Since it was aimed at children who hadn't had at least a decade of reading simple books in the genre it had the hard work of establishing quickly for those children the parameters of the in-book universe.
And, of course, in the first few chapters one runs across the, in your words, 'generic child's wish-fulfilment list' -- that is because those are the things that children (the intended audience of the book) actually want. Freud referred to a bundle of those wishes as 'the family romance' fantasy that many children/young teens express. Rowling is directly writing to real anxieties in her readers in a way that does not talk down to them. There is a good argument to be made that over the course of the seven books Rowling actually subverts many of these desires (she fulfills them in unexpected ways or demonstrates that the course of happiness does not require them to be fulfilled.)
As for being 'heavy handed' whenever I feel that a book is applied an anvil where a nuanced indication might do I remember my friend (with post secondary education) who read The Lion, The witch and The Wardrobe without ever realizing that Aslan was a Christ figure.
"Rowling's ear for class is very precise indeed. "
And now I really would like to hear what you think of The Casual Vacancy, if you ever do read it.
As for "reactive" writers, I can't say much about the romance genre, but spare me from the epic-fantasy novelist whose main idea seems to be that Tolkien Did It Wrong (and here's how to Do It Right).
Ah, Amaryllis! Side note here, but if anyone can answer this, you can: is it Donne who described flames as being 'dishevelled'? I want to make the comparison in a forthcoming post but for the life of me I can't find the quotation...
Kit, in a popular translation of Dante's Donna pietosa e di novella etate (A Kindly Lady in Her Youthful Years) that includes the passage.
Many a doubtful object then I viewed / in the strange nightmare that my fancy kept.
It seemed to me I was I know not where,/ and ‘long that road I saw a multitude
of women, who, disheveled, wailed and wept, / making a flame of sadness round me glare.
Was it this one? (An August poem, at that)
TO THE COUNTESS OF SALISBURY.
Fair, great, and good, since seeing you we see
What Heaven can do, and I what any earth can be;
Since now your beauty shines, now, when the sun,
Grown stale, is to so low a value run
That his dishevelled beams and scattered fires
Serve but for ladies' periwigs and tires
In lovers' sonnets, you come to repair
God's book of creatures, teaching what is fair...
I'm not trying to devalue anyone else's reading of it, but observing that one reader's "hey, this is good clear stuff that works for children" is another's "why don't you put in some curlicues and a big box labelled 'Author's Message'?". I've always, even as a child, preferred children's books that were complex enough to be interesting for adults too, like the works of Diana Wynne Jones, and by the time I met Potter I'd already read stuff for children that was rather more subtle.
No one's saying you have to like it. The point of these discussions, though, is to promote close reading rather than just comparisons of what people personally prefer. The idea is to talk about books, not ourselves. Any book I mention is going to be liked by some people and not by others, and if we go down that route, discussions are liable to turn into 'Well I like it/Well I don't', which is not very interesting.
What I don't want to promote or encourage is snark or sniping. There's far too much of that on the Internet already, and feeling sick of it was one reason I began this series.
This is me employing my Mod Voice here. A critical, negative or dissentient opinion based on close reading is absolutely fine. If all you have, though, is 'Yes, I agree it works that way, but I don't enjoy it', then probably this is not the thread for you. There will be others.
I don't particularly like OR dislike Potter. I read the books as they were published because: a) I wanted to be able to discuss them with someone who studies children's literature and b) because they created a marketing phenomenon which was relevant to courses I was teaching. Close reading is an aid to understanding why the books became popular just as studying media/internet law helps one to understand their economic impact.
I would note that there are many adults who did, in fact, find the Potter books complex enough to be very interesting. There were a number of panels at Political Science conferences devoted to the political, social and cultural (not literary) aspects of the books as well as scholarly publications. For example see Harry Potter and International Relations published by Rowman & Littlefield and edited by Nexon & Neumann. Nexon is teaches International Relations at Georgetown and Neumann is a research director at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
Amaryllis - I don't think The Casual Vacancy's high on my list right now, for various reasons, but having a quick look at the first sentence:
Barry Fairbrother did not want to go out to dinner.
... You can tell it's the same writer, but in a different vein. To do a potted opening line:
1. Interesting choice of first name, especially in context. 'Going out to dinner' sounds like a quintessentially middle-class activity, but 'Barry' is a traditionally working-class name. There's a slight comedy-of-manners tension between the two.
2. Interesting choice of surname; while it obviously has a 'nice' ring to it, it also has echoes of the amiable cleric Mr Farebrother in Middlemarch. Mr Farebrother is a good and intelligent man who honestly admits that the stresses and strains of his life, especially his poverty, sometimes lead him to act worse than he'd like. In context, it's suggestive of the issues the book will address, as well as being a nod to Eliot's book which, like this, is all about a small town and features many characters.
3. Put in such simple language, and especially with a name like 'Barry' that sounds like a diminutive even though it isn't, there's something childlike about it. It makes Barry sound like an innocent, subject to the greater power of others - which the next few sentences about his wife tend to support. He's being positioned as victim-hero, at least at this moment.
4. Rowling is possibly taking a sly poke at her readers by beginning with a hero whose name rhymes with 'Harry', as if to say, 'Okay, you're reading this because it's by me? Fine, we'll start there, but after that I'm going to move you on...' - especially since Barry dies on the first page. (It could of course be a coincidence, or she just might like the 'arry' sound, but I wouldn't put it past her.)
5. In general terms, the language is simple and the situation is arresting and accessible. 'No fiction without friction', as a writing teacher of mine used to say, and there's friction in the first sentence: different people want different things, it's implied that Barry is not going to get his way, which immediately leads us on to anticipating a difficult experience for him. The story gets underway at once. It's signalled that this is going to be a story at a human scale, not an epic one. It's also got her ability to put us naturally in sympathy with characters, because everyone has been in Barry's situation. Like the Harry Potter books, she directs reader identification with great fluency. (Only to pull the rug out more or less immediately.)
6. Since this is supposed to be a book about complex social and political pressures, including some painful and difficult issues, it's clever to begin with something so palatable. It sets the reader at their ease so she can smack us with the difficult stuff before we think to put our guards up.
So looking at just the opening pages, I'd say it's a crafty piece of audience direction. The style is accessible, but the events will become disorientating almost at once.
Kit -- thanks!
I didn't mean to be demanding, so I hope you enjoyed writing that as I enjoyed reading it.
It's been awhile since I read Middlemarch, and I never picked up on the Farebrother association. If Barry Fairbrother had lived, things might have been different... a little. But only a little. Even a good man, in his situation, can only do so much.
a name like 'Barry' that sounds like a diminutive even though it isn't, there's something childlike about it. It makes Barry sound like an innocent, subject to the greater power of others
which makes it a good choice of name for the teenage hackers who post damaging material on the town website under the name of "The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother." They're "innocent," in a way, certainly naive, certainly subject to the power of their parents, capable of acting with malice but unprepared for the disastrous results.
(Side note-- "Barry" in English isn't a diminutive, but Barak Obama was know as Barry in his childhood. Which gives his opponents double ammunition: when they want to accentuate his perceived foreignness, he's "Barak Hussein," but when they want to take him down a peg or imply inexperience and naivete, he's "Barry," as in who does he think he is, calling himself by that fancy name? He can't win.)
Anyway, thank you again.
Great job as always ^^
I noticed another hidden layer in that opening line. The Dursley’s are proud to call themselves “perfectly normal.” That seems a bit odd. They don’t call themselves “perfectly respectable” or “proper” or anything like that, but rather “perfectly normal.” And the “thank you very much” adds a very defensive feel to it. Add in the street named after a plant known for the ease to which it can be controlled. All this hints at what the reader shortly sees, that there are very abnormal and uncontrollable things (from their perspective) in this world that they’re forced to coexist with because of their family connections. And they really don’t like it, they’re perfectly normal, thank you very much, not the sort who go flying off on broomsticks getting up to who knows what awful mischief.
“Now this is a recognisable tradition in British fiction: the great champion of it was Charles Dickens, with his Grandgrinds and Gamps and Pecksniffs and Micawbers, energetic names that don't just suit the characters, but somehow summarise them.”
I think the ultimate example in Dickens is probably the Tite Barnacle clan and the Circumlocution Office. Really, those names are all you need to know.
Graham Greene also partakes. There’s Thomas Fowler and James Wormold (Fowler is often in a fowl temper and ends up having duel motives which end up fowling his conscience, with Wormold it comes as no surprise that he is a very unreliable spy), and then there’s ‘The Comedians’ with the trio of Brown, Smith, and Jones. Brown and Jones are both stateless wanderers with largely invented pasts/identities. Brown though is a rather self-absorbed and melancholy man while Jones is a cheerful trickster and annoyingly persuasive con artist (for some reason I imagined him sounding like Eric Idle). Smith is an idealistic American activist of the Progressive mold, simple and unrealistic but with great personal integrity. You pointed out the play with names in ‘Brighton Rock.’
I’ve read ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ (in school) and while the characters names didn’t strike me all that much, the great house names stood out very much as summaries of their character/nature.
So I’m sort of wondering about this now. When did such a literary tradition begin? Did Dickens start it? Do you think it has any equivalent in the US? What about the Commonwealth countries?
That's an extremely interesting question. I imagine you could invest a long and enlightening session of scholarship in answering it properly, but my immediate answer is that I suspect we'll probably never have an authoritative 'first instance', because it's just one of those things writers do. Certainly it predates the novel in the form we understand it now: Shakespeare's full of characters with names like Pompey Bum and Benvolio and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, after all. While a children's writer now would be aware of a specific recent tradition, every writer is going to choose character names that sound appropriate - I once spent an entire evening working out a character's first name before settling on the unremarkable 'Paul' - and I suspect the main difference is that they have to be appropriate not just to the characters, but to the tone of the novel. Parodic names suit broad comedy and satire, whereas a more delicate novel needs subtler echoes. But in the end, I think it's a continuum rather than a really different tradition.
That said, I'd be most interested to hear other examples from anyone who's got some.
And yes, you're right, 'perfectly normal' does imply that they fear their normality might be open to question: it brings up the promise of the extraordinary. I don't think anyone would call themselves 'perfectly respectable, thank you very much' - it sounds a bit off, and 'proper' is a bit declasse for the Dursley accent, but it certainly frames the adjective in a way that signals it's going to be thematically important. It implies that being not-normal is a possibility they're rejecting and fear being associated with, which again tempts the reader with the promise of some misrule.
And Amaryllis - don't worry, it was an interesting exercise. Looking it up, I see that 'Barry' is like 'Gary', a name with a Gaelic origin - traditionally spelled Bairre. According to thinkbabynames*, it's a short form of 'Fionbharr/Finbar', meaning 'fair-haired', which would make it a diminutive of sorts, but not to English ears. Aurally it's very similar to 'Harry', but etymologically very different, 'Harry' coming out of the French 'Henri' or the Scandinavian 'Harold'. 'Harry' is a naturalised-sounding name - it came in with invaders and we worked on it until it shaped to fit our mouths - whereas 'Barry' is more resistant, closer to its original language; even if you take it as a diminutive of 'Finbar', it's far less natural to make a pet name out of the second syllable rather than the first in English, especially with male names. So 'Harry' has a softer sound to it than 'Barry', even leaving aside the aspirant-versus-plosive issue. Despite the 'abnormality' of witchcraft, 'Harry Potter' is a charmingly normal-sounding name. 'Barry Fairbrother sounds a little more ... hapless, awkward. The first and second names don't quite match - they come out of different language groups, their tempos don't quite match. It's a name that sounds like an ill-fitting suit.
I didn't know Barry's Gaelic origins; that's interesting, because it seems to me to be such an English name. It also strikes me as a little bit old-fashioned, not old enough to be charmingly antique, but out of style. Stodgily middle-aged, in fact. But not so old that he shouldn't have expected to survive his dinner date!
(I once worked in an office where there was a Harry, a Gary, a Larry and a Mary-- and one shared telephone. Nobody ever knew who was being called to the phone. But even we didn't have a Barry.)
As for meaningful character names, surely Trollope is the go-to guy for that, with his country practitioner Dr. Fillgrave, and his Mr Quiverful the father of many children, and the brash young reporter John Bold, and the great lord His Grace of Omnium (Plantagenet Palliser-- now there's a name for you!), and so on. And Phineas Finn and Madame Goesler, the outsiders whose names are not quite right to Victorian English ears. Then there was the young heroine of No Name who vacillated between her "better" nature and her "worst" self, and was given the daring name of "Magdalen." And her sister, the conventionally good woman called Norah, which is derived from Honora, honorable.
Magdalen is the protagonist, but Trollope's most broadly obvious significant names tend to be given to his minor characters. His county-family leading ladies and men tend to have what I think of as the geographical kind of name-- it works for either a family or a town; in fact, they usually are the name of a town. Which is, I suppose, the result of all those centuries of places being named after people and people taking their names from places. Rowling is also firmly within this tradition; "Dursley," besides being a real name, is a real place. So is "Snape."
We don't have that so much, here in America. At least, where I grew up (East coast, mid-Atlantic states), place names may be named after some English town, but they're equally likely to come from one of the languages of the original inhabitants. And one is not likely to meet a Mr. Parsippany or a Miss Manasquan either in daily life or in the pages of an American novel. Let alone the Western-flavored, Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat kinds of names.
Samuel Clemens gave himself a significant name when he became Mark Twain, but his character names are resolutely ordinary, Sawyer and Thatcher and Harper, Wilson and Robinson.
I'll have to think about other American novelists. But that's probably enough nattering about names from me.
Names: I like to think about them.
Oy. Of course, No Name is Wilkie Collins, not Trollope. And of course, I realized that I'd left out mentioning that change of author as soon as I'd hit Post.
I was acquainted with a Dersley a few years ago. To the extent that I considered the name (and I do have a fairly keen interest in surnames), it struck me as solidly (perhaps slightly resonantly) Anglo-Saxon, but not especially remarkable. The difference between Dersley and Dursley is interesting though - it amounts to perhaps a quarter of an inch in terms of the height of the vowel, but on the page Dersley is significantly lighter and livelier than the slovenly dead weight of Dursley.
The last three Potter books can and probably should be described as Bush-era, but the first three were written well before Bush even emerged as a likely candidate for the presidency (although an attentive observer would have been aware of the likelihood of a PNAC/neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party from the mid-1990s or earlier). At the risk of straying too far off-topic, in hindsight the period between the end of the Cold War and 9/11 increasingly resembles a mini-golden age for the world and as time passes I find more and more reflections of this (arguable) reality in much of the popular culture of the era.
As for mother-son relationships in popular art, Sarah and John Connor in "Terminator 2" merits some comment. An ordinary woman is forced by circumstances to raise her son to be a warrior and leader, becoming one herself in the process but raising him with love, devotion and wisdom nonetheless. Her parenting ultimately gives humanity a chance of survival against steep odds. Neither Hamilton nor Furlong is a particularly strong actor, and typically for a Cameron film it lacks any subtlety at all, but it is an authentic and quite interesting positive depiction of a mother-son relationship.
Cameron explored (perhaps more interestingly) aspects of mother-daughter relations in "Aliens".
The film "Mask" is also features an interesting if hardly everyday mother-son relationship.
[Sorry to diverge into film-talk on a literature blog.]
The last three Potter books can and probably should be described as Bush-era, but the first three were written well before Bush even emerged as a likely candidate for the presidency (although an attentive observer would have been aware of the likelihood of a PNAC/neoconservative takeover of the Republican Party from the mid-1990s or earlier).
True. I'd see Rowling as a likely such observer, given that she's an acknowledged socialist who was, at the time of beginning, a broke single mother - a member of the impoverished and overstrained class that the conservative advances of the last two decades have considerably enlarged and strained still further. But you're right; the series as a whole has a Bush-era feel because of its descent from optimism into desperation, but perhaps Clinton-to-Bush would be more accurate.
As for mother-son relationships in popular art, Sarah and John Connor in "Terminator 2" merits some comment. An ordinary woman is forced by circumstances to raise her son to be a warrior and leader, becoming one herself in the process but raising him with love, devotion and wisdom nonetheless.
True, but I'd say it was a problematic portrait of motherhood - or at least, it's a perfectly decent portrait of a mother-son relationship on its own, but considering how few alternatives there are, it's a limited cure-all. By the second movie Sarah Connor is heavily 'masculinised': physically muscular, emotionally withdrawn, socially disconnected and aggressive, and the way she relates to her son has much more to do with leadership than nurture. She's specifically been prevented from doing the work of motherhood at the beginning of the film, and the relationship between them reaches its resolution when John comes to appreciate that her love is expressed in sacrifice and protection rather than in hugs and warmth. All of which makes her heroic, yes, and it's good to see acknowledged that motherhood is fierce and sacrificial as well as warm and fuzzy, but in terms of gender values and social constructs, her role is in many ways closer to that of 'female father' than 'mother'. Children need the warm and fuzzy part - they sustain severe emotional damage if they don't get it - and it has its own kind of heroism that the movie doesn't recognise.
Added to which, she's unable to save John on her own, and the entire plot is driven by the arrival of an explicit father-figure. One that acknowledges her authority as the primary parent, true, but still, she's much more dependent on male figures in the film than heroic fathers depend on female figures. Even morally: consider the sequence in which Sarah goes to assassinate the scientist, leading to the big shoot-out in the lab: her decision is presented as wrong and needing to be reasoned with because, while violent and not traditionally 'feminine', she's making the wrong decision because she's too emotional. In this instance, her lack of traditional femininity means that she loses the mother's traditional authority as conscience, and instead it's her son who has to dictate morality to her. Terence Real's comment in I Don't Want To Talk About It comes to mind: 'The mother's higher authority as a parent is counterbalanced by the son's higher status as a male.'
Sarah Connor as a mother has some definite fictional virtues, yes, but she doesn't resemble the heroism of normal motherhood. Of course, no action hero resembles normal manhood very closely, but he is, at least, enacting traditionally 'masculine' qualities that a male viewer can experience as validating. Sarah has only one such equivalent, which is the willingness to sacrifice herself, physically and emotionally, for her child. Which mothers do have to do, of course, but the Terminator plot enacts it in such a way that it completely excises the most demanding aspect of motherhood, which is patience.
Motherhood is a marathon, not a sprint, as they say, and Sarah is more positioned as a sprinter. She has to sprint repeatedly, but the story as far as she goes is all about her son's coming to terms with the ways in which she's failed to sustain an emotional relationship with him. As sustaining an emotional relationship with your child is the central challenge of motherhood, Sarah Connor is ... an outlier, I'd say, when it comes to representation. John's acceptance of her failings and recognition of her love despite traditionally unmaternal qualities is much more like the way an adult relates to his mother than a child.
Going by the auteur theory for a moment, we might say that the mothers of Cameron's work are a love-letter to his own individual mother - and if that's the case, well, that's nice. It's good to love your mum. In his handling of Ripley in Aliens, I'd say he presents a more complete picture of motherhood, in which protection plays one part but so does relationship, emotional connection and understanding. The fact that it's also an adoptive mother supplanting a real mother - and a victim mother who's died through no fault of her own - creates its own set of problems.
Don't get me wrong, Cameron's mothers are some of the few examples of mothers in popular fiction having significant roles, and I'd rather have them than not. If there were lots of other examples, I'd be perfectly happy with them. As they have so few counterbalances, though, their more complicated aspects stand out more. They tend to turn up once the child has already been raised to an 'age of reason' and enact roles that are often closer to the traditional father than the normal mother, and speaking as the mother of a son who isn't yet at the 'age of reason', there are some major gaps that they don't fill.
Not, of course, that filling gaps in the history of popular fiction is any one artist's job. It ain't.
Oh, and don't worry about diverting into film-talk. I like films. And anyway, I was talking about popular culture, and films are entirely relevant. :-)
(This is very late but I have only just read this article.) There is one more nuance to "Privet Drive" - to this American, it is a pun on "Private Drive", a term used on signs to indicate that no outsiders are allowed to use what looks like an ordinary road.
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