18 July 2007

Harry Potter as Literature?

I love Dickens.
I love Milton.
I love Thomas Hardy.
I love Sherlock Holmes.
I love Harry Potter.

Perhaps you say, "Harry Potter? Harry Potter doesn't belong in such a distinguished list, does he? Come on", you might say, "is Harry Potter really literature?"

That is indeed what this article from Inside Higher Ed asks. Emphasis on the word higher, for the author really does seem to take a high art road in his analysis. As example:
It seems as [Matthew] Arnold and [Theodor] Adorno would prefer that kids learn to appreciate forms of cultural creation that will not in any way ever come to the attention of a cable television network.

Come on into the 21st century.
Sure, the book is always better than the movie. Yes, your imagination and the connections drawn from visualization and independent thought is unparalleled. But come on. Are all of my beloved authors to be discredited because a movie or TV executive found the story compelling enough to be shared on a mass scale?

What I think it so obviously missed in this article is that despite the creation of the films, the books have not lost their appeal. Thousands of children and adults are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the BOOK. Thousands of children have been introduced to to the likes of CS Lewis, Philip Pullman, and JRR Tolkien because of Harry Potter (all of these authors are heavily indebted to Milton, by the by). Children, and adults who might otherwise say they are "too busy to read," are reading and finding it enjoyable. Could that not lead to reading more and all that it entails?

Perhaps I am missing the point. As I asked initially, is Harry Potter literature? How do we define it? The Oxford Literary Dictionary takes a crack at it:
literature, a body of written works related by subject‐matter (e.g. the literature of computing), by language or place of origin (e.g. Russian literature), or by prevailing cultural standards of merit. In this last sense, ‘literature’ is taken to include oral, dramatic, and broadcast compositions that may not have been published in written form but which have been (or deserve to be) preserved. Since the 19th century, the broader sense of literature as a totality of written or printed works has given way to more exclusive definitions based on criteria of imaginative, creative, or artistic value, usually related to a work's absence of factual or practical reference (see autotelic). Even more restrictive has been the academic concentration upon poetry, drama, and fiction. Until the mid‐20th century, many kinds of non‐fictional writing—in philosophy, history, biography, criticism, topography, science, and politics—were counted as literature; implicit in this broader usage is a definition of literature as that body of works which—for whatever reason—deserves to be preserved as part of the current reproduction of meanings within a given culture (unlike yesterday's newspaper, which belongs in the disposable category of ephemera). This sense seems more tenable than the later attempts to divide literature—as creative, imaginative, fictional, or non‐practical—from factual writings or practically effective works of propaganda, rhetoric, or didactic writing. The Russian Formalists' attempt to define literariness in terms of linguistic deviations is important in the theory of poetry, but has not addressed the more difficult problem of the non‐fictional prose forms. See also belles‐lettres, canon, paraliterature. For a fuller account, consult Peter Widdowson, Literature (1998).
---Oxford's Literary Dictionary

Perhaps difficult to swallow for some but I think clearly indicative that Harry Potter, who deals with terrorism and political corruption as well as the never tiring woes and wows of intellectual and emotional development, is perhaps the greatest representative "meanings within a given culture."

Finally, let's remember that both Dicken and Conan Doyle were serialists and their characters, especially Holmes, were popular figures that might have been discredited if we were to apply these criteria. Where would we be without Holmes? Surely lacking popular phrases and iconic imagery. Where would we be without the muckraking literature of Oliver Twist and Bleak House?

Dickens, Doyle, Rowling: Popular, accessible, influential, essential literature.

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