Why do adults love Harry Potter? Readers respond to Charles Taylor's essay "A.S. Byatt and the Goblet of Bile."

By Salon Staff

Published July 14, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read the story.]

I always look forward to reading Charles Taylor, but this was a special pleasure. When did the ability to tell an excellent story with fascinating and complex (yes, complex, Ms. Byatt -- you think only adults are complex?) characters remove one from consideration as a "real" writer? Narrative skill is magic. Ms. Byatt's bias seems to have blinded her to the logical possibility that many of us are devoted Rowling fans because we read widely and well and are excited by literary excellence in any genre.

-- Suzy Shedd

In response to Byatt's recent New York Times editorial regarding Harry Potter, "culture" and the literary audience for children's books, I would like to point out that many adults, including myself, are devoted readers of the Harry Potter series not because we are enamored of "mall culture," but because we find the narrative captivating and delightful. Not that it's relevant, but Byatt fails to recognize that Harry Potter readers, like myself, are very educated, read Salon, listen to NPR, and enjoy the pleasures of both high and popular culture. We are not so easily categorized; is it possible that I can be familiar with Byatt's work and Rowling's? Not in Byatt's estimation. I am most certainly not a "childish adult" and I appreciate Taylor's editorial that refutes this core argument. Salon does not disappoint.

-- Eleni Dimoulas

Thanks to Charles Taylor for representing the Ministry of Harry Potter. You know, regardless of the perceived miraculously culturally resonant qualities of these books, there is no requirement on the part of children or adults to be in love with them. Byatt's review was a little condescending, but to those 15 or 20 of us who are indifferent to Harry Potter, it was a welcome antidote to the dozens of treacly reviews and feature articles breathlessly hyping the publication of the fifth book. And there's nothing wrong with reminding readers that the fantasy bookshelf has room for more than Rowling's.

A.S. Byatt calls the Potter universe a "secondary secondary world, made up of intelligently patchworked derivative motifs from all sorts of children's literature," driven by "derivative narrative clichés." She's got the chops to make these statements; her own work as a careful and inspired crafter of fictional worlds gives her criticisms authority.

-- Jen Stelling

As someone who put a bookmark in George Sand's very enjoyable novel "Consuelo" to spend three days reading the "Order of the Phoenix," I thank Charles Taylor for his rebuttal of A.S. Byatt. I have spent my bookworm life being accused of being part of some imaginary illiterate TV generation (I see the next generation is wearing that crown as well), and at 36, I'm good and tired of it. Novels and poetry sell more now than they did when I was in high school -- does Byatt think we use them to raise the level of the TV stand?

It's the emotional intelligence, verbal wit and adventurous imagination in an author that keep me turning pages. There is far too little of those qualities in current "adult" fiction. Byatt is an example of the reasons I dropped out of the formal study of English literature, and went back to enjoying it.

-- Sara Catterall

Charles Taylor has misunderstood Byatt's mention of the dark wood on Hogwart's grounds. Byatt claimed the woods are dangerous only because J.K. Rowling said they are. Meaning we, the reader, never see any danger. The few times the children venture into the wood, they are just fine -- the dangers are imagined by the children (because they were told the wood is dangerous) or easily driven off (like when Harry meets Voldemort in an early novel). Most important, the dangers, like all the real dangers in the novels, are driven off by some undescribed force inside Harry.

There are a few times they fight creatures (e.g., giant spiders, trolls), but these creatures are not evil. And there are a few puzzles they figure out on their own, but most are solved by someone else guiding them or giving them the answer (e.g., gillyweed in Volume 4). The are not active, instead they are passive heroes. Their knowledge and abilities don't get them through tough challenges. In every encounter between Harry and Voldemort, triumph is achieved magically. "Magic" here not referring to spells or flying carpets, but a kind of deus ex machina that resides inside Harry.

Byatt's use of the term "ersatz" magic is precisely this latter case. Magic in Rowling's world is unlike magic in Tolkien's or Cooper's worlds where its use (like the use of any tool or ability) has consequences -- people tire or have to deal with the effects of their magic, regardless of the intentions of its use. For Harry Potter, it is enough to point his wand and say at most two words. And quite often, his spells prove ineffective.

Given all this, J.K. Rowling has created five novels that are the best depiction of childhood I've ever read. The children never understand what's happening in the world around them, they are plucked from danger without knowing how, and they continue to make the same mistakes over and over. Looking back, this was my teenage years in a nutshell.

-- Matthew Radcliff

Following A.S. Byatt's undressing of Harry Potter hysteria in the New York Times, a reader wrote to disagree, and it seems to me that Charles Taylor's response in Salon.com is just a bloated version of that shorter and more candid reader's rebuttal: "Perhaps the Harry Potter series is simply the newest of the shilling shockers. But even a centuries-old tradition of intellectual snootiness can't extinguish such pure fun."

Byatt wasn't disputing the fact that the Harry Potter books provide "fun" to the average reader; she was trying to explain why that's the case (not the task of an average reader). Taylor never concerns himself with that question; the crux of his argument is that "the increasing darkness of the books" somehow confers greater depth to them. Like an excited "Star Trek" fan, or an unswerving devotee of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (which I'll admit I am, to forestall the accusations of snobbery), Taylor marshals the books' plot developments as evidence that Harry Potter deserves to be taken seriously -- i.e., Harry comes to grips with death and has a greater burden to bear, and, well, therefore these books are psychologically complex.

All Taylor does here is reveal he is one of those adults, nimbly deconstructed by Byatt, who feed the Harry Potter industry. He never attempts to persuade anyone that J.K. Rowling's prose has merits of its own. If suggesting that it should is a snooty thing to do, then why don't we just close up the nation's bookstores now -- if there's no greatest value, in terms of literary worth, for writers and readers to aspire to, there seems little point in writing or buying books at all. That's not saying you can't enjoy a "shilling shocker" in the privacy of your own taste, but you shouldn't level accusations of snobbery at those who take the time to defend Keats from comparisons with Rowling.

Moreover, Taylor doesn't admit to reading the classic children's literature that he puts on par with Harry Potter ("The Secret Garden" or "The Black Stallion" and so on), perhaps because they are not on his cultural radar at the moment and -- most important -- their subject matter just isn't a grown-up's cup of tea.

So why's he reading Harry Potter? Because it's being sold as grown-up fare, and because reading about magic and evil wizards does provide comfort to adults (as Byatt said), and because so much of our cultural landscape is being trimmed to accord with childish proportions: Disneyland is marketed as a fun place for grown-ups, the Farrelly brothers ensure that a new generation of comedies can be understood by 6-year-olds, celebrity gossip mags have become indistinguishable from teenybopper rags of one's youth -- being of age never felt so silly! All of which, I think, makes Harry Potter and its overwhelming popularity more a cultural phenomenon than a literary one. Which is all that A.S. Byatt was trying to say. Thank heaven for snobs like her.

-- Jana Prikryl

Salon Staff

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