It’s a good time to be a reader. Social media allows book lovers all over the world to swarm together and swap opinions and recommendations, with virtual communities forming over a shared love of literature. New releases are waited on anxiously in comment threads, and forget waiting for a bookstore to open to get the next book in a series, Amazon will ship it to your doorstep the very next day if you haven’t already downloaded it immediately to your tablet. Young people are reading more than ever before—in fact, millennials are the most likely of any age group to have read a book in the past year.
But does this heyday have a dark side?
For as long as literature has existed, someone has claimed that it will soon be dead. And while all these naysayers and rabble-rousers may have just been crotchety-hearted complainers, each and every one of them had a point—because literature is powerful, and one book, one author can change the course of culture, can change a generation.
Because literature is a phoenix, constantly dying and being reborn.
It sounds pretty, right? But it’s not always a good thing. Language is constantly evolving, with all the most prominent authors and influencers creating words, redefining words, and subtly changing the English language as we know it. And recently, these evolutions seem to be trending toward a less intelligent, increasingly tasteless society.
I am all for the fact that we no longer speak like Chaucer. Or even Shakespeare. Words are always added to the dictionary, grammatical structure is constantly evolving. In a social-media-saturated world, language undulates frantically, flailing about in a way it couldn’t before mass publication was as easy as hitting “send.” Even publishing a book is as simple as signing up for an Amazon account.
It should come as no surprise, then, when the most popular books of the millennial generation spit in the face of great literature.
This misguided popularity could be in part due to a common misconception regarding the nature of language and linguistics. Language is more than just where to put a comma and how to spell there. Like everything ruined by the internet, social media grammar nazis have given all of us language-lovers a bad name, pushing the general public farther away from a correct use of language. Putting aside the fact that ignoring the rules of grammar is an easy indication of a lazy person, how we put our thoughts into words affects how we think. Plato devoted much time to linking language and philosophy, as have many after him. An experiment in linguistic relativism—the idea that language affects thought—showed that Swedish-speakers and Spanish-speakers had different concepts of time, one as length and the other as volume, respectively. And those who spoke both languages thought of time differently depending on which language was being spoken. In another study, Japanese-speakers weren’t as able to remember agency in accidental actions as English-speakers were due to differences in linguistic construction.
No matter to what degree you hold that that language determines thought, there’s no denying that it affects thought. Just look at the concept of untranslatable words. Language is one of the many tools we use to interact with the world, and as such it plays a role in how we interact with the world and, consequently, how we understand the world.
By reducing language to Strunk and White’s rules of grammar1, we lose the vitally important concept that language can shape a culture. When we lose our understanding of the nuance and complexity in a language, we begin to lose our ability to interact with the world and each other in a complex and nuanced way.
Our culture, at the moment, places very little importance on a full and robust grasp of language. Anyone can be writer. All that matters is that you like it. Read what makes you happy. Statements like these are nice and encouraging and affirming—values our culture esteems more highly than growth and competence and success or those values which come from stretching yourself beyond what makes you happy to what is objectively good. But perhaps the problem goes deeper than imbalanced values. Perhaps these platitudes are given in lieu of actual linguistic instruction because instructors don’t feel competent enough themselves to critique. As the ideas of self-esteem and individuality became more important, writing instruction became less important. Generations later, we’re left with many educators who don’t feel comfortable with their own writing abilities, much less their ability to teach others.
And so correct grammar falls to the wayside, and anything written with a diction not of Facebook or Twitter becomes stuffy and pretentious, the reader’s attention lost after the first 160 characters. This is the generation of instapoets and graphic novels. This is the Harry Potter generation.
Now wait a second, you say, Harry Potter is like a bajillion pages long. And I read all of them. Multiple times. And they’re good! They sold more than a bajillion copies. They have to be good. And I like them. A lot.2
The worry with this argument is a simple one: I like it has become synonymous with good which has been extrapolated to become good literature. It’s a book so it’s literature, I like it so it’s good. Therefore it has to be good literature.
That’s the equivalent of saying, “I like my toddler’s macaroni art project, so it must be museum-worthy art.” And while I’m sure you could, if you were so inclined, make a convincing case for putting it in a museum, most people would know that this statement is something akin to insanity.
Much discussion and argument and finger-pointing has happened around the topic of “what is good art/literature/etc.?” Is it mass appeal? Is it intention? A general critic response? An objective quality? Is it something that follows convention? Or something that breaks from it?
Arguments can be made for any one of those reasons, and all of them lay claim to something that’s considered good by critic and societal standards both. But the general consensus seems to be that good art or literature needs to make you think. Needs to make you feel. Needs to be fresh and new and engaging, with at least some level of objective quality. Most importantly, it needs to be revelational. It needs to create in you a thought or feeling that wasn’t there before and most likely wouldn’t be there any other way.3
So is Harry Potter good literature? No. There’s no denying that it has produced irreplaceable feelings in an entire generation, but those feelings are nothing that wouldn’t have come from any childhood favorite. The story and characters are derivative, the worldbuilding is shoddy, the prose is weak4, and the story is written in such as way as to make you not have to think about anything. In fact, if you start to think about the story or world, it begins to unravel. Quickly and spectacularly.
But if it’s so bad, why is it so popular? And if it’s so popular, can it really be that bad?
From much research both theoretical and anecdotal, there seem to be four main reasons why these books are popular:
• the characters
• the community
• the fantasy
• and finally, it’s just a really easy read
Every character in this series is either an archetype or an audience surrogate character, having no traits except those that are either necessary to the plot or something the reader can identify with. It hits every personality type, too, so every reader can find a character who’s just like them.5 This isn’t a bad thing—it worked very well for the story in fact, and most likely developed empathy in many a child. But it’s not widely recognized as truth. Most Harry Potter fans hate Twilight for the reason that Bella is an audience surrogate—a character with minimal personality traits that a reader can project his or her own feelings onto. Which, as you can see, is a bit of hypocrisy.
But Rowling takes this identification with characters even further, adding in the ability to identify with a Hogwarts House. Milking it for all it’s worth, she created Pottermore, an online forum where people can actually be sorted and learn their patronuses and be privy to every thought she ever had about her own series. And in an increasingly lonely society, people latched onto this sense of quasi-community, making friends6 with people who had been sorted into the same house, or had the same patronus, or identified with the same character(s).
They latched onto the fantasy that people can be distilled down to their basic personality traits, that magic can solve all your problems, that breaking the rules doesn’t have consequences. They hold onto the idea that friendship is more important than schoolwork, that adventure is more important than respecting authority.7
It’s good to introduce children to these concepts—with caveats. People are complex, but most of them have the same basic makeup when you’re eleven and looking to make friends. Sometimes what’s right isn’t always easy. Friends will get you through hard times. Etc.
The problems occur later in life.
In his short philosophy book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis says of a textbook:
The very power of [the authors] depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who […] has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.
Rowling couches her good life lessons in ideas that are equally as appealing, but less apt to be part of a functioning society. Harry Potter, the hero of our story, rarely does his own schoolwork. He’s constantly cheating, because he has more important things to do. Hermione’s growth over the series includes her eventually condoning cheating, in the name of loosening up, and doing Harry and Ron’s schoolwork for them. This is all presented as a good, admirable thing. Harry and Ron constantly ignore school rules and professors’ authority, and again, Hermione’s character growth is her eventually condoning this, too. Again, all presented as good and admirable and right.
The books are full of small ideas like those, ideas I didn’t pick up on until I read them all for the second time as an adult. Not only are these books teaching our children to stand up for what’s right and to fight for love and friendship, they’re planting the assumption that cheating is okay, that lying can be beneficial, that ignoring the rules is fine as long as you know better. And now, as the Harry Potter generation is coming into adulthood, we’re seeing the results of these unrecognized assumptions.
Deeper even than the content of the books, however, is the language.
Every time I mention the fact that I don’t like the Harry Potter books because of the prose, without fail, someone will tell me, that’s because they were written for children! First of all, no. Writing for children does not mean eschewing good grammar and creative sentence structure. Look at C. S. Lewis. Look at Madeleine L’Engle. Look at Lewis Carroll, Kelly Barnhill, Lauren Wolk.
I know that for every one wonderful children’s writer, there are three or four who write like J. K. Rowling, and it does make for an easy read for a child. But again, the problems occur later in life.
Children who grew up reading these books over and over and adults who continue to read these books over and over are continuously exposed to a simplistic form of language, one they come to unconsciously expect from other books, one that leaks into their own writing, and one that, in essence, hinders them from engaging in higher forms of critical thinking.
In the same way that Spanish-speakers view time as passing in large and small increments (as opposed to long and short increments), those who know intimately the language of Harry Potter will think in short, clipped sentences, making it harder for them to string multiple ideas into the same coherent thought. They’ll think in straightforward adverbs, wondering why they can’t read the subtleties of body language.
Obviously someone who switches between Harry Potter and Shakespeare or Austen won’t have this problem. But for an attention span conditioned to the pacing and prose of Harry Potter, both Shakespeare and Austen would be unreadable. As a result, diehard Harry Potter fans read more drivel8 written for the stunted language acquisition of this generation, and the problem just continues to get worse, resulting in adults who lack the drive and discipline to learn because Harry Potter subconsciously taught them that schoolwork wasn’t important, and who lack the comprehension and attention span to read anything that might help them conceptualize the complexities of existence or form cohesive arguments around such.
So we’re left with the cesspit that is social media, populated by an irrational postmodern generation that equates personal preference to the objective good and bad and lacks the necessary language skills to even begin to think about the theories they subconsciously ascribe to, much less express those ideas in a way that would result in a productive argument. Altogether we become a base and nonsensical generation whose fingerprints will soon be erased from the annals of time.
This isn’t, obviously, entirely the fault of one book series, and Harry Potter has its merits, too. That one book series is just an example of (and arguably a catalyst for) a larger societal trend. As language understanding trends downward, we as a culture begin to lose our ability to understand each other in any kind of nuanced way, or express ourselves in a way that takes readers and listeners into account. Have you been on Twitter lately?
As Oscar Wilde famously said,
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
So I beg you: Read a book. Look up at the stars every once in a while. And not the ones over Hogwarts, the ones right above your head. Dream bigger than the pages of Harry Potter, dream of a future where this generation is remembered for its great contributions to society and culture, lest we sadly, quietly, angrily, with grim looks on our faces, fade from the pages of history.
1I adore The Elements of Style and think every person who claims to be a writer or dares to publish something on the internet should have it at least sitting on his shelf, don’t get me wrong. Just making a point here.
2I didn’t make this up. This is the summation of every basic argument for Harry Potter being good literature that I’ve ever heard or read. That and the fact that it got kids to read.
3This is an amalgamation of everything I’ve read, so obviously I can’t cite all of it, but this article is a nice summation of opinions on the matter.
4To shorten a lengthy argument: adverbs are lazy writing, she spends more time recapping previous books than moving the plot forward, the pacing of her sentences drags, her wordsmithing is uncreative and pedestrian, magic can do anything unless the problem is necessary to the plot (and it’s often used as a crutch)…the list goes on. A lot of it can be attributed to telling rather than showing, but it’s also just poor style.
5You’ve got the impulsive, adventure-seeking, not that great at school Harry; the reluctant, reasonable, loyal Ron; the smart, know-it-all, insecure Hermione; the prankster Weasley twins; the shy, awkward Neville; the spacey, sweet Luna; the confident, laid-back Ginny…and that’s just the main students. And each and every one of them is considered a hero. There’s not a personality type that wouldn’t be able to identify almost totally with a main character in these books.
6Internet friends. Which, studies have shown, are less satisfying, uplifting, and all-around quality than real, in-person friends. Which isn’t to say that relationships can’t start online, just that, generally speaking, to keep a relationship online is to keep it inferior.
7Most Harry Potter fans have a solid grasp on reality. Obviously. But subconscious beliefs can take root in childhood, affecting decisions later in life without conscious acknowledgment or approval.