The British and American publishers of the Harry Potter series have revealed the design of the cover for the final book in the series, to be published this July. Having read this series as a parent to a now-13-year-old son whose imaginative world has been massively influenced by Potter's fictional universe, I'm both excited to see how it all turns out and dreading the end. There is a generation–or several generations–of kids who have not only been made readers by J.K. Rowling's roman fleuve, but have become part of a great shared experience. It's a stunning achievement and one worthy of respect and understanding.
Take a gander at the U.S. cover for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which looks pretty much like most of the other covers in the series (though it's different than the Brit one; it's also a wraparound cover that apparently shows Voldemort on the inside flap).
The Harry Potter phenomena continues some of the issues I raised in my post below about how critics of popular entertainments (and sometimes unpopular ones) often scoff at works without even trying to understand why they win great audience appeal. Or worse, such critics reflexively dismiss something as unsophisticated, aesthetically deficient, etc.
This is the role that, for many years, the critic played in our society–the arbiter or guardian of taste, who typically attempted to draw hard social-class lines based on very soft criteria. Which isn't to say that you can't say something is "good" or "bad"–we do that all the time–but that it's incumbent upon critics to explain their aesthetics, which are always heavily embedded in context and are never really transcendent. And, more important, that critics who fail to account for why certain audiences respond to certain works are just lazy and, I think, ultimately uninterested in the very cultural phenomenon they seek to valorize and demonize.
The treatment of the Potter books often exemplifies this tendency. Consider, for instance, Harold Bloom's dismissal of a series that has created millions of young readers who will, almost certainly, graduate from Hogwarts to that most loathsome of categories (and the one that pays the ursine Bloom's Mallomars bill), "serious literature." Writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2000, Bloom huffed that J.K. Rowling "feeds a vast hunger for unreality," "makes no demands upon her readers," that her books will not "enrich mind or spirit or personality," and that her "prose style…[is] heavy on cliché."
"In an arbitrarily chosen single page…of the first Harry Potter book, I count seven clichés….At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes. The cultural critics, soon enough, introduce Harry Potter into their college curriculum, and The New York Times will go on celebrating another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies."
More in that jugular vein here. Esteemed critic Bloom–definer of the definer of "the Human"–shares with law student Eshelman below an amazing disinterest in how actual people use culture to create identity, take pleasure, and negotiate their relationship to the world. It's a lot easier, after all, to dismiss that which you don't like than to understand why others might enjoy it. Which should be the starting point–though certainly not always the end point–of cultural criticism. It's a move that often leads to stunning insights.
For instance, in a 1997 symposium called "Creating Culture: How to cultivate the arts when the old rules don't apply," Reason Contributing Editor Charles Oliver reports on the book Men, Women, and Chainsaws. Lit prof Carol J. Clover actually talked to teenage boys who consume vast amounts of slasher films. She walked away with a very different sense of their engagment with the material than is commonly asserted:
What she found were not mindless zombies passively absorbing bloody images, but viewers who were aware of the conventions of the genre and who made watching such films ritualistic group activities: They talked to the screen and commented to each other on the action. Clover theorizes that such films offer moviegoers a way to deal with primal fears, especially their fear about the weakness of their own flesh. By identifying with the victims, viewers are engaging in empathy, not objectification.