A lot of time and energy has been spent on the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling. I thought my 12-year-old daughter was set for the Guinness Book of records for reading the series, but she tells me that one of her classmates has read the books so often that her parents now regulate the time she can spend with the series.
Obviously the books are popular, but now that the immediate fuss has died down we can make a sober assessment of the likely continuing appeal of the series. Will the series continue to be read long after the author is dust, or will it start fading the moment the seventh film gets to DVD? Literary critics certainly hope that the series will fade, but I believe they will be disappointed. The series will survive for a very long time as part of popular culture.
There are plenty of precedents for extremely popular books fading entirely from public memory within a few years. One author of Jane Austin’s time, Ann Radcliffe, wrote a popular series of novels involving innocent heroines who end up in brooding castles, but escape the clutches of a dark villain to fall into the arms of a handsome young man of good family. They are remembered only as the first gothic romance novels.
Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, also wrote 15 or so other books which have dropped entirely from public memory. So why should we remember Dracula and not the other books? Why should we, say, remember Austin’s Pride and Prejudice instead of Radcliffe’s books, or Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest above the many other, worthy and very popular plays produced at the same time.
For that matter, and much closer to Rowling in time and genre, why are the bookstores still full of books by the English writer Enid Blyton, almost 40 years after her death? Her books continue to sell eight to 10 million copies a year worldwide (so says Wikipedia, and there is no reason to doubt the figure). Blyton never won any writing awards - the children’s literary establishment detest her - and her books are deeply marked by the English class system of her time. I remember, as a young boy, being mildly puzzled by references to “mother talking to cook”. Another story in which Noddy is “mugged” by a Golliwog had to be changed to avoid racial offence.
But her popularity endures. A few years ago I gave the aforementioned daughter one of Blyton’s Famous Five adventures, thinking that would keep her quiet for a while, and the next thing I knew she was scouring the shelves of the local library for more of the adventures.
One major point about Blyton’s books is that they are clearly written. By that I do not necessarily mean well written, but written so that they are easily understood. Second, they are strong stories with occasionally interesting backgrounds. They may be set on an island, say, with a ruined castle and caves. There may be a well with a secret passage, or the children may notice a light blinking in the distance at night and decide to investigate. All good stuff.
In addition, and perhaps almost as importantly, there is the occasional gleam of personality. Of the Famous Five - Julian, Dick, George, Anne and the dog Timmy - everyone thinks of Georgina first, as the girl who insists on being called George, who dresses like a boy and is occasionally mistaken for one. Nowadays, everyone wonders whether this behaviour is an indication of gender confusion when Georgina grows up, but it is highly unlikely Blyton intended anything more than to give one character a bit of interest. Georgina or George also genuinely owns an island in a Bay near her home, but no one they encounter ever seems to believe she owns it. Few of Blyton’s other characters stand out, but they do argue and lose their tempers, and occasionally have to put up with other, annoying children. They show personality.
One other possible parallel for Rowling’s work, although Rowling may not like it, is the work of Donald Duck creator, Carl Bark. Like Rowling, Bark created a fantasy world, which is also full of magic and where ducks and dogs dress as people. In a series of comic books he sent Donald, his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, and often the ultra-rich but miserly Uncle Scrooge McDuck, on a series of highly entertaining adventures searching for fabulous lost cities, or finding whole races of miniature people, or a lost tribe in the Andes which breed square chickens that lay square eggs. They were messing up ancient ruins long before Indiana Jones, and Steven Spielberg has said some of the inspiration for his films comes from the Duck comics.
Besides the strong stories the ducks and supporting cast are loaded with personality. Donald is occasionally klutsy and bad tempered, occasionally heroic; the nephews are smart, go-getters; and Uncle Scrooge, possibly the strongest character of them all, is extremely miserly. An occasionally dark, ironic humour suffuses all the adventures. Bark semi-retired in the late 60s and died in 2000, but comics he drew and scripted in the 1940s are just as popular as ever.
Bark’s work counts as popular culture, but there are plenty of other well-remembered or well-loved books that may be classified as light classic (the books of P.G. Wodehouse and C.S. Lewis), or full classics (the works of Mark Twain and Dickens) There may be some overlap in the list of well-remembered works, and the deep literature which arts academics teach to one another, but they remain different lists. It is not necessary to be deep or to meet the approval of the arts establishment to be long remembered, or well loved.
The requirements for lasting works of fiction are easily accessible writing; strong stories; humour, and characters with a least a little and preferably a lot of personality. The strength of these ingredients in the best-selling mixture can be varied. In Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, for example, the plot is dumb - there are claims of layers of meaning, but it’s still dumb. However, the characters shine and their lines are exquisite. At one point Lady Bracknell says, “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness” - a line that has become part of our language.
Another major requirement is timelessness, by which I mean no references to outside events or to the causes of the day. Anachronisms do not seem to matter so much - characters go still travel in steam trains, use dial telephones or make light use of dated slang - but political references lose all meaning within a few years.
Rowling’s Harry Potter series has all of the above ingredients. Her writing style is somewhere between pedestrian and workmanlike but it is accessible, and her inventive skills are top notch. Hogwarts may be a traditional English boarding school with magic, but it has heaps of charm and personality. It is the sort of school that children might want to go to. The characters are also distinctive and there is more than a touch of humour. As most of the books are set in quite another world, they cannot readily be dated. There may be none of the deep themes beloved of arts academics, but children and adults a century from now won’t care.