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Thursday, 19 July 2007

There is no bloodless myth will hold

J.K. Rowling (pictured) is the most successful novelist in the history of the form, if one thinks in strictly commercial terms. She is, on the eve of the last installment of the Potter series, already a dollar billionaire (worth apparently between £500-600 million). She is, in terms of cultural impact, already, at least, comparable to authors now canonical, such as Mark Twain, Conan Doyle, and Agatha Christie - each hugely popular in their lifetimes - and each creating a character of near-universal recognition (Tom Sawyer, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot). And, she has maintained total artistic control over the American, Hollywood production of her films - a miracle, given that only, perhaps, Spielberg has more power in the domain - and even he couldn't imprint his own vision on the Potter franchise. In short, Rowling is a hyper-star - easily one of global popular culture's top ten figures for the start of the 21st century.

And yet, this very impressive, admirable and meteoric rise to prominence of the once-struggling young woman writer, has led to a sense of entitlement that is a stretch, even for her. Rowling's latest critique of America's free press - especially The New York Times - for instance - is unforgivable, especially coming from a writer, who must recognise the need for such freedom, surely. Rowling's basic argument is that reporting on, or reviewing, the new Potter book, before its contrived publishing date, will spoil the magic for younger readers.

Not so.

Kids do not, on the whole, read The New York Times. Those that do, can refrain from reading the review. The same for all Internet spoilers. I have had a copy of the book for over two weeks, as a PDF, sent to me by a fan, and decided to play by the rules. But others, equally reasonable, have not.

The question becomes - how complicit need we be, as a society, and as free individuals, in maintaining a commercial, profit-making venture's marketing hype - given that Rowling is a billionaire, and most of us are peons? For one of the Potter Juggernaut's main tricks has been - like all effective ideologies (see Orwell, or Dawkins) - to make it seem, and feel, as if our needs are identical to hers. That is, she offers a cheap, secular alternative to religion - feel-good entertaining magical stories set in a hierarchical world of black and white certainties - and all we have to do is show up and buy the books when she says we can. Period. While this seems a fairly decent exchange of goods and services, the difference is, we end up with seven bad books, and seven mediocre films, and she gets to be one of the richest people to have ever lived.

Okay, so blame capitalism, not Rowling, for that.

But still. How dare she presume to ask so much of us, we who have made her the legend, the powerhouse, she is? How dare she judge us for hungering for a bite of her apple, a little too soon (but, frankly, only a day or so too soon)? And is her vision - that all children, everywhere "experience the magic" of the book's ending not both naive and rather manipulative?

Naive because children read at different speeds - children dying of dirty water or malaria can't share in the fun - and also, why should there be globally-manipulated events, masquerading as "fun" and "magic" invented by corporations that are, ultimately, soul-destroying machines? How fun, really, is Pottermania? Is it Christmas, only less often?

Pottermania is empty, finally, because the Potter books offer a bloodless myth that cannot hold - though some characters may die. Astute readers will have noted the static structure of the series - each year, a new level at school, new teachers, and more conflict with the enemy. Potter is tested, but survives. Because Potter's world is somewhat aChristian (or irreligious) it has mass appeal, in a way that Narnia doesn't quite have - it doesn't threaten our secular worldview, but affirms it - there is a world of Muggles, and a fun, other one, in the imagination. Unlike true religious belief, though, Pottermania makes no demands on us - no demands to change. As Rilke observed, in perhaps the most profound observation ever on the true impact of art, "you must change your life" after direct confrontation of art's genuine reality. As Eliot said, we cannot take too much of that - and so, Unreal cities. Hell is, in fact, a world where we replace direct confrontation of the greatest moral and spiritual dilemmas for bloodless magic and ultimately safe "good reads". Give me The Waste Land - or other great Poetry now - over Potter - any later day.
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