The Harry Potter Debate

My reading speed could easily be described as sloth-like. I lazily meander through each word and try to digest the sentence as if it were being spoken to me. I imagine the narrator’s intonation and cadence and, because of this, I’m not one to finish a book anywhere within the realm of “quickly.” In fact, for me, reading speedily through a novel takes about one week. On average, however, I burn through a book in a measly three to four weeks, but if the story doesn’t really grab me, I might spend months on it.

It’s no secret that I love Cormac McCarthy. His style and voice are very distinct and his process, as I’ve heard him describe it, is quite organic and unstructured. As a writer, my goal is to be able to do what he does in a similar fashion. But as a reader, holy lord almighty does some of his prose bore the ever living shit out of me. According to my Goodreads, his All the Pretty Horses took me four months and seven days to laboriously crawl through. In contrast, my second favorite, No Country for Old Men, took me twenty days, while, prepare yourself, my favorite, The Road, took a scant 12 days. Compare this to the first two books of Rick Riordan’s horribly composed Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, which each took seven days, and it makes me wonder if something within me is horribly askew.

I want to make clear that whenever prose takes me a long time to get through, it’s not that I think it’s poorly written. The Pulitzer Prize winning book Tinkers, which is just 191 pages, took me a full month to finish, and it’s one of the best written books I’ve ever read. The problem with these books is that not a lot happens. Nothing grabs me. It’s almost as if the author has spent more time creating something written well than creating a captivating story.

Now this brings me to what I call “The Harry Potter Debate.” I’ve got a couple friends who argue that J.K. Rowling is not all she’s made up to be. She’s a formulaic writer who created a fantastically entertaining world, but her writing leaves something to be desired. One of my friends, a buddha-resembling, Jiujitsu studying, self-described philosopher that I’m going to call “Tom,” once looked at me with his serious face and said, “Dude, she’s a shit writer.”

“Well, Tom,” I said. “I disagree.”

My argument is that it takes talent for a writer like Rowling to create a world and a story that is so intriguing that anyone from children to adults can read and enjoy it. Sure, her prose isn’t Shakespearean, but it’s very good. If the recession hadn’t come in like a hurricane and I’d pursued my PhD, I’d have loved to have taught a Harry Potter seminar. Not only can writers learn a lot from her, but her novels certainly have literary merit, even if they aren’t difficult to get through. And I think that’s the point a lot of pinky lifting literati would only concede in secret: that complexity is a sign of “high” literature. As if the ease or difficulty of reading something somehow signifies its literary value. I certainly am guilty of this line of thought. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to purposely make my prose complex with the final goal of appearing more literary.

But of course, let’s not oversimplify the modus operandi that establishes the status quo of today’s literary author. Often, a complex thinker creates complex writing. Pick up any philosophy book written in the last hundred years and try to to get through a paragraph without having to reread it to fully grasp its meaning. But imagine conveying a complex idea by using simple writing. To me, that is an art far more difficult. And that’s something J.K. Rowling has down with her epic series. Indeed, it’s difficult to read and not see her raging against prejudice and inflammatory gossip. She paints the media as a hyperbolic ratings machine, which very accurately mirrors the media of today. Not only has she done this, but she’s done it in a way that is accessible to just about anyone who knows how to read.

So, what have we learned today, class? Less importantly, that I’m a slow reader (and, by the way, I’ve read the HP series twice and each books takes me about a week). And that complexity does not signify a complex concept, but it also doesn’t not signify it. Simple writing isn’t better, but perhaps it can be better if it conveys a complex concept. Philosophy may have influenced the popular but ultimately erroneous thought that complex prose is more literary, but literature itself is not philosophy. So really, just like in philosophy, we’ve raised more questions than we’ve answered. Most specifically, I think, is this: What, truly, does it mean to be a “good writer”?


Steven E. Athay is an aspiring story designer and connoisseur of all things awesome. Follow him on Twitter at @steveneathay, or read his blog Afflatus.

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One thought on “The Harry Potter Debate

  1. Rowling’s prose is not luminous (a word I despise when used to describe writing), but luminous prose doesn’t make a reader want to turn the page. I was complaining to a friend who is a writer of many decades’ experience about how badly written “Twilight” is, but that I couldn’t put it down. She pointed out, correctly, that getting a reader to turn the page is a skill all its own, and one that the marketplace values far more than luminosity. It doesn’t make Meyer a brilliant writer, but it is a skill that people who aspire to be excellent writers shouldn’t turn up their noses at, I think.

    I aspire to both (okay, not luminosity. That bores me). I want to write gorgeous sentences that tell a complex story, but with enough narrative propulsion to make the reader desperate to know what happens next. Okay, desperate is too much to hope for. Curious. That’s it. My favorite authors do both.

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