Saturday, August 11, 2007

TimesWatch: Hitchens on Potter

The cover review of this week's New York Times Book Review is Christopher Hitchens's piece on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I'm not sure if this means that Itzkoff's remit is considered by the Times to exclude fantasy, or books for younger readers (or both); it's not that he's inadequate for the cover, since he reviewed Julie Phillips's biography James Tiptree, Jr. on page 1 some months back.

(And, of course, it's typical of my take on the NYTBR that my first thought is about how this relates to Itzkoff.)

Hitchens is best known these days for his loud and forceful opinions on various topics; he's gotten a lot of ink over the past few years for his pontifications on the Iraqi War, terrorism in general, and, most recently, the non-existence of God. So one has to suspect that the Times assigned him Deathly Hallows in the hopes that he would loathe it and everything it stands for in a few thousand carefully-chosen inflammatory words.

If that was their hope, the Times editors have to be disappointed today; Hitchens is mildly positive. He does ding Deathly Hallows for its obvious faults, particularly its horrible slump in the middle and the incredible number of unlikely last-second escapes, but he shows appreciation for Rowling's real strengths in language and in creating icons.

There's only one point I'd quibble with Hitchens on, and it's something that speaks to the vast difference between fantasy fans and the rest of the reading world. I was fascinated that he wrote
...Rowling also keeps forgetting that things are magical or they are not: Hermione's family surely can't be any safer from the Dark Lord by moving to Australia, and Hagrid's corporeal bulk cannot make any difference to his ability, or otherwise, to mount a broomstick.
Hitchens clearly has an image of fantasy as the realm not just where anything is possible, but where anything must be possible. Fantasy can no more have rules and restrictions to Hitchens than a proper world could have a Supreme Being.

Voldemort, to Hitchens, cannot merely be nasty and powerful and a nascent English magical-fascist dictator (which is Rowling's actual characterization); he must encompass the entire world with his evil. But a closer reading of the series than Hitchens's would show how intensely English it is. Harry Potter's society is a very 19th century one in many ways, and none so than in the sense that only England matters. (For the post-modern, multi-cultural-friendly Rowling, I should probably say "the UK," but I won't.) Perhaps Voldemort would try to extend his rule to the entire world, eventually, but, for the wizards of Potter's society, that would only happen after the Apocalypse -- after England, the real and true England, had already been destroyed.

So Australia probably would be safe; and the United States -- if Rowling deigned to allow it to exist in her world, which she evidently doesn't -- would be even more so.

Similarly, a fantasy reader wouldn't see anything wrong with broomsticks with weight limitations -- even in a fantasy world, we expect rules and explanations. But Hitchens isn't coming out of our tradition; he's one of those readers for whom "it's fantasy" is an explanation complete in itself, and one which shuts off all debate. (That kind of reader is often impatient with fantasy for exactly this reason; they're bored by the explanations they consider superfluous, and they also find every new fantasy element faintly childish and disreputable.)

I think Hitchens is reading Rowling in the wrong way, but he's not completely off-base. Rowling's novels don't come out of genre fantasy, but from the older English tradition of the school story. The fantasy elements, exciting and crowd-pleasing though they have been, are closer to set-dressing than to the essentials of the story. She isn't writing a fantasy about magic, but a school story, a coming-of-age story set in a fantasy world. And there is a strong sense that the magical setup of her novels is arbitrary, built mostly of off-the-shelf parts that she remembered from her own reading, and never consistently constructed or rationalized. That's one reason why the reaction to Rowling in genre fantasy is often "Yes, but...": she's using things as furniture that many of us consider more interesting and important than that.

So I think Hitchens missed one of the most important points here -- the divide between genre fantasy and what Rowling is doing -- but I don't think he has the reading background to properly map that divide.

I do wonder why the Times gave Deathly Hallows the cover; given the necessary delay, the Deathly Hallows hysteria is long over now, and the daily Times ran a review of Deathly Hallows (by staffer Michiko Kakutani) over three weeks ago. There's an inevitable feeling of yesterday's news about the cover, of a million Times readers stroking their chins and saying, "Harry Potter? Oh, right -- I cared about that in mid-July..." Perhaps this is another piece of evidence that they expected Hitchens to get out his knives and really go to town on Rowling. In any case, it's here, and I suppose the Times has bookended this book -- they had the first major review, and what they expect to be the last major review. As usual with the Times, they'd prefer to leave nothing for anyone else to say.

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