Richard Abowitz on Pop Culture

I should be doing other things but all I am doing is thinking about the next Harry Potter book. I won't say last. I can't say last. The world of Potter's story will exist in my head as I live out my days as a Muggle. I am such a geeky fan that I even have a pet theory that Albus Dumbledore did not really die in the last book. I am very excited to find out if I am right. But I am probably not. One of the joys of Rowling's plots is how she has outwitted all of my guesses and continued to surprise me. For all their recycling of familiar myths and themes and symbols, Potter books are the product of an imagination that never is predictable.

I don't know exactly when I got caught up in the Potter craze. I think it was after I was assigned to write a story on the eve of the release of the third book in the series. I am certainly an unlikely Potter fan. Even as a child I never read children's books. In fact, I am a snob about reading, and the few times I have tried not to be a snob have been unrewarding. When I read Anne Rice, under pressure from a friend, I found her novel a forced march through bad prose to a stupid and predictable conclusion. That said, long ago, in theory, I got over my basic genre snobbery. I believe great art happens where it happens and takes the form it takes. If the form is too original or the context too common, the critical establishment tends to take up arms against the sea of iniquity. This sea at different times has included Dickens' novels, Gershwin's compositions and Dylan's songs. All were at first denounced as not sufficiently sophisticated for the true aesthete.  What the original critics dismissed the serious scholars now study. Certainly this has been the case with the Potter series.

Perhaps, the most prominent literary critic alive, Harold Bloom of Yale, has expressed repeated hostility to the writing of Rowling. In fact, reading Bloom you would think the Potter books aren't just bad but a pestilence. In 2000, Professor Bloom wrote of Rowling's books in the Wall Street Journal: "Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring be wrong? Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter." 

In 2003, Professor Bloom returned to his experience reading Potter like a man dealing with Post Traumatic Stress: "I went to the Yale University bookstore and bought and read a copy of 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.' I suffered a great deal in the process. The writing was dreadful; the book was terrible."

That actually makes me laugh. Frankly, for all of Bloom's brilliance, Rowling kicks his ass as a prose writer no matter how much he huffs and puffs about her supposed banality from New Haven. If you doubt me, at your own risk, pick up Bloom's "Anxiety of Influence" and give it a glance. You will get off light. I was required to study all of  Anxiety of Influence (a sort of grand Freudian theory of artistic process and accomplishment) in graduate school. I suggest you just trust me that making his readers suffer seems to be one of Bloom's primary goals in "Anxiety of Influence."

Of course, on the subject of the Potter books, Bloom's voice is a distinct minority. Bloom is characteristically fearless and extreme in his opposition. I almost wish I agreed with him. Frequently, I do agree with Bloom's criticism and I consider him a real giant of our time (for his work on Blake and his championing of Pynchon and James Merrill). Yet, with the Potter books, I find myself joining the choir, jumping  on the bandwagon or whatever other bad cliche you want to use.

Being a snob has its elitist pleasures, yes; but when it comes to the Harry Potter books I am ready to give them up and run with the masses awaiting the joy that I know will wash over me in a few days when I open Rowling's new Potter book and return myself to Hogwarts.

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