There are three points I want to make right at the start.
First, I don’t begrudge J. K. Rowling her success. She earned it. Writing is hard work, and there’s a healthy word count in the Harry Potter series. While I certainly don’t subscribe to antiquated notions of the artist as isolated genius, and the Potter books have many obvious influences and owe some debts, Rowling put those words on the page. No literary theory can say what proportions of intention, instinct, labor, and luck produced a phenomenally popular formula, but she deserves the credit for her work as much as any author. Good for her. And there’s something to be said, too, for seeing someone realize the dream of writing novels that are fabulously popular.
The second point follows from that popularity. Rowling’s books led a huge number of people to reading: reading for pleasure, reading novels (the later ones quite long) for pleasure, reading fantasy novels for pleasure. Many of those people would likely never have voluntarily read a fantasy novel. For that alone I’m grateful to her.
And, third, a confession: I can’t write about the Potter books with any authority, because I’ve only read the first two and half of the third. Some day I may finish them, but only due to my dislike of leaving things unfinished.
Because, frankly, the books are not, by many reasonable metrics, very good. Those I read weren’t, and I’ve read enough reviews and analyses of the others to believe some of those faults appear in other volumes in the series. Plot elements are telegraphed, and often depend on magical contrivances which are grossly overpowered and therefore can’t be used to anything like their obvious potential without disrupting the narrative. At least in the early books, Rowling litters her prose with wordplay that’s neither particularly witty nor relevant (“Diagon Alley”); and while aptronomia—character names that reflect personality—is a longstanding tradition in English prose (Dickens could rarely resist it), Rowling trowels it on awfully thickly. Seriously, “Draco Malfoy”? Was “Naughty McEvilFace” taken? These are often excused on the grounds that Rowling was writing for children, but I don’t see any reason to write down to children. I think they’re capable of dealing with reasonably sophisticated plot structure and a more subtle prose style. (Of course, I haven’t written any fabulously popular novels, so I may be wrong about that.)
And the appeal some of Rowling’s most famous Potter inventions bypasses me completely. Why are adults taken with quidditch, for example? Rowling is far from the first to suggest some sort of sport for flying athletes, and quidditch makes no sense. Its payoff matrix is so horribly biased that the Seeker position is hugely disproportionately important in the game; the other players are almost negligible. And that could be fixed so easily, with one simple change to the rules…
But if I’m not here to praise Harry, I’m not interested in burying him either. Like Slavoj Žižek, I urge you to enjoy your symptoms, even if those symptoms are loving Harry Potter. What I do hope, though, is that you won’t stop there. There are thousands of Young Adult fantasy novels, and many of them are a bit, or a hell of a lot, better. And that’s the point of this blog: to point readers to some of the terrific novels beyond Potter.
A quick procedural note
I’m going to categorize the books I review here as “pre-teen” or “teen”. That’s based solely on what general age group I think will be most interested in the work. I started reading adult novels at age 11, and I seem to have survived; and I still enjoy reading children’s novels. What I probably won’t do is mention any novels that I think a really most appropriate for adult readers, not because I think children should be kept away from them, but because I’ll let parents make those decisions.