And May I Just Add, Harrumph!

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A.S. Byatt? V.S. Pritchett? V.S. Naipaul? M.F.K. Fisher? J.R. Ewing? Am I the only one who can't tell any of these people from the others?

No more! From now on, I'll keep in mind that Byatt is the one whose seat on the great throne of literary pomp has been nicely warmed by Harold Bloom's copious gluteus. Witness Byatt's distress over the craze for these blasted Potter books, whose fans (victims of "dumbing down," natch) leave her not angry, just disappointed:

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

It is the substitution of celebrity for heroism that has fed this phenomenon. And it is the leveling effect of cultural studies, which are as interested in hype and popularity as they are in literary merit, which they don't really believe exists. It's fine to compare the Bront?s with bodice-rippers. It's become respectable to read and discuss what Roland Barthes called "consumable" books. There is nothing wrong with this, but it has little to do with the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's "magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn."

To which I think the only suitable response is, Indeed!

Curses to reader John Luther for bringing this to our attention.

NEXT: Ministry of Funny Squawks

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  1. Wow, your scathing attack on pretentious literature has left everyone breathless. Impressive TC. Have you seen Magnum?

  2. Best “intitials” name ever: C.K. Dexter Haven. As portrayed by Cary Grant in “The Philadelphia Story.”

  3. No way. The prize has got to go to Dr. B.J. Hunnicut. What could be better than a name that’s synonymous with oral sex?

  4. There’s a certain class of bully intellectual that makes a big show of picking on the weak and literarily defenseless. Often they are coincidentally authors of books themselves; “serious”, “important” books that are lucky to sell 0.1% in their lifetime what HP5 sold on day one…but surely snobbishness has no trade with professional envy.

    If Shakespeare were alive, publishing, and wildly popular today, these same critics would be deriding the Bard: “Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, “only personal.” Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond [Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo&Juliet, etc] and his friends and family.”

    Newsflash to interested parties: most people just don’t want second-rate academic politics served with their fiction.

  5. Byatt et al. to me like one of those nose-in-the-air pseudo-intellectuals who tell me that they “don’t read fiction.” I dispise anyone who thinks that the only kind of literature that’s worth reading has to dry, dull, and “realistic.”

    Take my bookshelf: I’ve got J.K. Rowlings, Robert Heinlein, L. Neil Smith, F.A. Hayek, David Drake, Ludwig Von Meiss, Ayn Rand, Ellis Peters, Thomas Sowell, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, Sun Tzu, P.J. O’Rouke, Thomas Paine, David Weber, William Shakespere, H.L. Mencken, Benard Cornwell, Miyamoto Mushashi, and Murray Rothbard all snug and cozy. I would wager that I have a much broader sense of liturature and life than any of these Ivory Tower Assholes.

  6. While the excerpts on Hit and Run certainly make it look like A.S. Byatt is leading a crusade against all fantastic literature, that doesn’t seem to me to be the case. Byatt simply thinks the Harry Potter books aren’t as good as other fantasy novels. Byatt admits to reading Tolkien; she showers praise on Terry Pratchett; she’s familiar with the work of Susan Cooper, Ursula K. LeGuine, and Diane Wynne-Jones. Once you get past all the psycho-babble, A.S. Byatt’s main point is that Hogwarts is for children and that adults should be seeking out fantasy that’s less derivative and more sophisticated.

    I like Harry Potter, and I dislike people who condemn all genre literature as being garbage. However, Byatt seems to be a fan of fantasy novels, and the books she suggests reading are good ones. Unless you believe J.K. Rowling’s work is above criticism, what’s the point in getting worked up over this?

  7. Forget Harry Potter. Read Xanth. Before there were Muggles, there was Mundania. Adolescent fantasy never had it so good.

  8. Yes, if you are a sexually frustrated old man who is obsessed with young girls’ panties, by all means, read Xanth. I think that series started out well(well, I did when I was 14), it’s gotten so horrible I don’t think I would give those books to my worst enemy.

  9. I’m not sure what an epistemological relativist is, but Mr. Carson’s comments are well taken. I prefer chess to checkers, jazz to hip hop, Wittgenstein to Foucault and Morton’s Steakhouse to MacDonalds, and what’s more, I think other people should, too. Still, the question occurs, who cares (or should care) if you don’t? Certainly not I. I don’t begrudge Rowling her royalties and I enjoy her books, but I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that she should be favorably compared to Austin or Shakespeare or even P.G. Wodehouse. But so what? Sometimes you just feel like having a Big Mac.

  10. Personally, I got curious after hearing about all the adults that love Harry Potter and read two of the books. They weren’t all that good, in my view, but heck I don’t blame people that like ’em. And I’ve read much worse (including a few of the Xanth books — a series that was already putrid at #4). And I will say that Rowlings is at least unassuming. To quote: “Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids!” There is a reason we don’t hand 10 year olds “(insert title of favorite heavy book — mine is Moby Dick),” and vice versa.

    But Mark S.: Unless you’re reading Sunzi in classical Chinese, don’t brag about your bookshelf — it’s annoying to us Ivory Tower Assholes who spent a lot of time and effort learning to read classical Chinese.

  11. Well said, DA!

  12. “But Mark S.: Unless you’re reading Sunzi in classical Chinese, don’t brag about your bookshelf — it’s annoying to us Ivory Tower Assholes who spent a lot of time and effort learning to read classical Chinese.”

    Well… it’s there… 🙁

  13. I happen to know that J.K. Rowlings stole most of her ideas from Biggles. Which is an eminently unworthy comic book, though very popular in its day.

    Who the hell is Sunzi? Is that some kind of revisionist spelling of Sun Tzu?

  14. A.S. Byatt ruuuuules. I’m almost done with Still Life right now and will go to The Babel Tower next. The Potter books (and I mean Byatt’s four books about the crazy and beautiful Potter family) are wonderful things, set in a world where novels and paintings are just another part of the world–natural objects, I guess. It must gall her that I can’t say “Potter books” without saying what I mean. Hey, it galls me.

  15. Douglas Fletcher: there are two generally-accepted systems for romanizing Chinese. One is the Wade-Giles system, one is Pinyin. Wade-Giles produces “Sun-tzu” and Pinyin produces “Sunzi” from the same Chinese characters (Chinese has no alphabet, see). The current official system in China and at the Library of Congress is Pinyin; most people in Chinese studies use it, and so do I. This isn’t revisionism, just the official system. It makes no difference — for me, it’s just habit to use Pinyin. Potato, potahto; tomato, tomahto.

    Anyway, my point for Mark S. is that people shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss all Ivory Tower Assholes. Chances are, the person who translated your Sunzi learned classical Chinese in the Ivory Tower (if it’s that popular Cleary translation, he came from Harvard, the Ivoriest of Ivory Towers). There are lots of losers in academia, but a fair number of decent folk too (or so I like to think).

    (If you want a quick introduction to Chinese romanization and pronunciation, check out John Derbyshire’s note: http://www.olimu.com/Notes/ChinesePronunciation.htm)

  16. Kevin and D.A., valid points. Not everything that appears in Reason is a libertarian policy recommendation, however. In this case, it was fun at the expense of a writer who is expressing herself in a pompous manner: If ASB merely wanted to point out that certain books are better than the Potter books, she could have done so without the crackerbarrel psychoanalysis of Rowling’s readers. I don’t think it’s faux populism to smell a rat when somebody starts in on the dumbing down of our culture or scolds readers of popular fiction for showing insufficient reverence for all the best that’s e’er been thought.

    Of course, I also think she’s seriously undervaluing Rowling as a writer. While it’s undoubtedly true that literary hipsters have been herniating themselves trying to be down with Harry Potter, I also believe JKR deserves high marks as a stylist, a storyteller and a creator of character; the books also have some pretty good comedy, which we all know is harder to do than dying. If nothing else, the expansion of vocabulary and sentence structure from one book to the next, which Julian noted in his article the other day, shows a degree of stylistic control that is laudable.

    Puzak, it’s true I cherrypicked the most pretentious passages from the essay, and I recommend folks read the essay for other recommendations in the genre. However, what is the point, other than peacocking, of complaining that Rowling readers are incapable of appreciating Keats? Was Keats a fantasy writer on the side?

  17. For obvious reasons, I respectfully demur on the question of what negative connotations the use of initials may or should convey.

    Of course, literary criticism itself has precious little room for the numinous these days, so I find any “learned discourse” on the reading habits of the masses whimsical at best.

    In any case, isn’t a discussion about the relative aesthetic merits of narrative literature (broadly construed) a rather glaring example of the folly of comparing personal utilities and a topic better left to the likes of, oh, say, The New Criterion?

  18. That’s right D.A. Culture and literature are totally distinct things, distinguishable from dicussions libertarian philosophy.

    Besides, Tim is right mock critics and their puffery. Ivory Tower criticism is just one more form of oppression, never moreso than when it comes from an arch conservative like Bloom.

  19. Frenk:

    Thanks for posting that link on Chinese pronunciation. I’ve often seen Chinese names in print and wondered how all of those X’s and q’s were meant to be pronounced.

  20. yeah, cuz you’re all gonna be speaking chinese in a few decades.

  21. Next up, we find out that Tom Clancy doesn’t have the same feel for the tyrannies of English social structure in the 19th century that Tess of the Durbavilles has.

    I’m shocked, SHOCKED to find out that the ineffable mysteries are far too effable in adolescent literature. Shocked.

    Did I mention I’m shocked?

  22. Euprhosyne:

    Faux populism is a little hard to swallow. Poor, “defenseless” J.K. Rowling is not in line to get handouts from the Christian Children’s Fund any time soon, I don’t think.

    If holding to standards of quality and state that aren’t subject to popular referendum make you an “elitist,” we need more elitists.

    Being a libertarian doesn’t mean being a moral, epistemological and aesthetic relativist. It just means not using the state to force your absolutes on others.

  23. ” It just means not using the state to force your absolutes on others.”

    time to throw out “Thou Shalt Not Murder”

  24. Yeah I know about pinyin & all that. The wholesale adoption of it in the media in the last 15 years is kind of annoying when the subject is historical figures, since they never include the old spelling of it. One day they were calling him Mao Tse-tung, the next it was Mao Zedong, with no helpful hint that it was the same old bastard they were talking about.

    The old system really is bogus though, a lot of those spellings aren’t even close to what the the actual sounds are.

    Zai jian

  25. Oh, and as regards all those ” X’s and q’s” and how to pronounce them — you can’t, without intensive study of the language. There are quite a few sounds in Chinese that are outright alien to an English speaker’s ear. If you tried to say some of those sounds you’d probably sound something like Elmer Fudd to a Chinese speaker.

  26. Tim, (not that anyone is still likely to be reading this thread) I think I basically agreed with you in my posts. And I didn’t mean to suggest that Reason be 100% policy wonkery — that would be, well, unreasonable.

    My eight-year-old enjoys the Potter books and shows no interest whatever in the Romantic poets, Chinese pronunciation, the collected works of Ayn Rand, Austrian economics or literary criticism. He seems to be an emotivist when it comes to normative matters, while his older brother is more of a prescriptivist. I suppose I’m a failed parent.

  27. D.A. et al:

    I’ve got no beef with anyone who likes Rowling. I like Steven King and Ramsey Campbell myself.

    I just thought Euphrosyne was laying it on a little thick with the spurious “chivalry.” Rowling is getting persecuted all the way to the bank. This falls under the category of kicking somebody when they’re up.

    I once got chidden (chided?) for talking “mean” about Oprah Winfrey. My response: by definition, you can’t be mean to a billionaire. Every night she goes to bed with her head still attached to her body, she should thank God for a good day.

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