My book group is reading a Harry Potter book and discussing the book, and the series, and the phenomenon, on Sunday. I've read all six of the books, and for this month I re-read the ones that I have on my bookshelf: Book 1 (which was the official assignment), Book 5 and Book 6. I'm really looking forward to our discussion, because these are smart readers, and I know we will have some sharply opposed views about the Harry Potter phenomenon.
I think the Harry Potter series has three levels on which it can be evaluated. Level One is the particular storyline and writing contained in a particular book. Level Two is the magical alternative world that is created in the books. Level Three is the ongoing, larger story arc that is being played out in the series, across the six books. For me, thinking about the three levels separately is important, and I hope that we can use that framework to organize our book group discussion. I suspect that within our group, the fans and the detractors of the book and the series and the genre will find their different outlooks depend, largely, on their response to Level Two. And I think there's a larger conversation to be had, perhaps, about people's openness to genre fiction, or to novels that explicitly move into worlds that are not REAL. In other words, I think the people who are thrilled and delighted to read about Diagon Alley or the rules of Quidditch or transportation by floo powder or the other details and rules of the wizarding world in the Harry Potter books are the same people who are open to reading science fiction. And there are people who just don't want to go into an imaginative landscape in their fiction. I'm interested in why that is -- why those readers will happily go into Jane Austen's or Charles Dickens' world, in which the rules and opportunities governing how people live are not the same as those in our modern world, but they are disinterested in a novel (say, The Dispossessed) that takes place in the future, or on a different planet, or something like that.
Anyway, here are my thoughts about Harry Potter on each of those three levels.
Level One: the storytelling within each book. I think this is mediocre to good. I think J.K. Rowling's writing has gotten better over time, and the plotlines have gotten more complex and engrossing as the series has progressed. But she still relies on some pretty gimmicky plot devices: coincidence, overheard conversation, improbable flashes back and forward in time, the hero blacking out at the crux of the action and having the concluding story told to him after the fact, in Dumbledore's office or in the hospital, characters turning out not to be who you thought they were, Scooby-Doo style. It's kind of hokey and even formulaic, as storytelling goes.
In the books, there's a predictable story arc and a pretty consistent pie chart of the following ingredients: begin at Dursleys, adventures on the way to school, nemesis Draco, mean Snape, comic relief with the Weasleys, ominous and mysterious Voldemort plot, pinning suspicion on someone who will not turn out to be the culprit, Quidditch and Hagrid subplots, rah-rah-rah school loyalty intermural rivalry, intricate explanation of the various details of how the magical parallel world operates, some kind of interpersonal drama or challenge among Harry, Hermione, and Ron and their schoolmates, a new teacher at Hogwarts who illustrates some fallibility of personality in the adult world, flashbacks to the days when Harry's parents were in school, and a dramatic and suspenseful magical challenge to Voldemort that Harry and friends just barely win by breaking school rules and sneaking someplace they shouldn't be under the invisibility cloak. It's a formula that has popular appeal, obviously, and I'm a big fan of the series. But being formulaic isn't a particular compliment.
The writing is good, solid without being showy. It's not great, but I think it is a high compliment to say that it doesn't distract, and J.K. Rowling can build suspense extremely well, and make us care about characters, and show us a lot of quirks about human nature. So I give Level 1 a B or B+.
Level 2 is the magical world of J.K. Rowling's imagination. This is very rich and detailed. I hypothesize that the people in my book group who don't like Harry Potter simply are unwilling or uninterested in imagining the workings of an alternate world. The human beings in JK Rowling's world are motivated by the same fundamental longings, loyalties, resentments, and jealousies that all of us are. She doesn't posit that people are different, just that there are different gizmos and gadgets and critters available to them than there are to us, or than there have ever been in the "real" world.
I get a kick out of the Level Two world, and I'm willing to spend a certain amount of my time following JK Rowling through an explanation of the Tri-Wizard Tournament or the layout of Mungo's hospital for magical maladies or a review of Bertie Bott's beans, even if these diversions aren't central to the plot or the character development. But I think there are people who are simply thrilled by this, and for whom the ability to enter such a world is the best part of the Harry Potter series. These are, perhaps, the people who dress up like the characters and wait in line to buy the books at midnight, and have custom license plates that say "MUGGLE". JK Rowling excels here. She merits an A+, I think. I value that skill a moderate amount when I evaluate a book, but it is not, in itself, enough to really grab me.
Level 3 is the continuing storyline that is interwoven across the series: it's the Voldemort story -- how Tom Riddle came to be such a bad egg, and what he's after, and how the good guys are trying to stop him. It's also the coming-of-age story of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, and how they are growing and changing as they go from childhood through adolescence into adulthood. And it's the story of the surrounding cast, the Order of the Phoenix folks, who all have their own storylines, which are (largely) woven from their own adolescence, which included Harry's parents. And for me, that is the strongest level at which the books can be evaluated. J.K. Rowling has built an extraordinarily intricate plot, with dozens of multi-faceted characters, that spans a couple of generations and that plays out through this formulaic set of seven books. It's remarkable. Although there's not much character development of Harry, Ron, and Hermione within any one book, they grow up from one book to the next, and they even go through some pretty unpleasant moods and phases, just like most teenagers do. I think that's terrific. I think the foreshadowing and cross referencing across books is great. I think the intricacy of the storylines she's blending together across the series is amazing. As I re-read the three books, I was focused mainly on that feature. In Book 6 that seemed to be a much more explicit focus -- she knows that readers by now know the formula, and don't care so much about the in-book plot, and are working, with her, to root for or figure out the larger storyline. And it's done so very well.
I'm disappointed that the members of my book group who are least likely to enjoy Harry Potter are also the ones who are least likely to have read all six books. It means they're missing what is, to me, the strongest element on which Rowling can be evaluated as an author. Her project really isn't something that should be discussed on the level of a particular book. I think she's only so-so if you are only looking at that level. But the plotting and character development that takes place across the series -- it's truly remarkable.