By Jazmyn Taylor
There is a common understanding of what we mean when we say “literary fiction.” Names and titles come to mind: Dickens and Hemingway and Huxley, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. These books and others like them define the spirit of an age, envelope the reader in poetic and hardy prose, and evoke beauty. They’ve lasted through the years because of this recognition of literary merit. Literary merit is what defines literary fiction and it is primarily about the lasting quality of a book. But there’s more to this definition. As we begin judging books on merit, almost immediately following publishing, we also harp on their beauty, style, and investigation into the human condition, all of which we use to determine projected longevity. Socially, it is one of the lenses through which culture, past and present, is examined. Creating the parameters of literary fiction is to define literature and to, in a sense, define culture. We start talking about culture: how it looks and what we consider important.
On the other hand, there are books that are never given this chance, and are categorized as genre fiction: Romance, Crime, Mystery, Urban, Fantasy, Science Fiction—all of these are genre, stories that are of a similar overarching style. A romance will follow a love story, science fiction will happen in the future, and often the genres have tropes associated with them. In one sense, they are seen as more formulaic as they work within distinct boundaries. Those books that make up the brunt of genre fiction, literary fiction’s scorned twin, are cast off as simply a quick read, a good time, an escape from reality. Fun, but not beautiful.
While there are current disagreements over what qualifies as literary, also note that a similar, educated fistfight of a sort happened in academia in the 1980s, where the dilemma was not genre fiction being accepted, but fiction written by anyone other than dead, White men. Most agree that the argument began with Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of The American Mind (1987), where he says that diverging from the Western canon (Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton) would essentially dumb down education. Those who agreed supported the idea that old canon was the pinnacle of foundational knowledge in the humanities, and the longevity of works in the canon was proof enough that they should continue to be studied. The multiculturalists argued the opposite, that foundational knowledge was lost in denying works by women and people of color a place in higher education. Seeing that we can now read and take classes focusing on authors like Toni Morrison and Kazuo Ishiguro, we know those in favor of diversifying the canon won the fight. They did it. They expanded our horizons. So thirty years later, what do we have to whine about?
Culture. Expansion of culture, still. When we decide which books are worthy of scrutiny and critique, when we say that this book exemplifies this and that, we are in effect creating our culture. David Richter, in his book Falling Into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, reminds us the impact of our choice of books: “There is no such neutral stance, no knowledge that is value-free. Our view of the world is not given, but chosen. If we choose to read Plato and Aristotle and Hobbes, we are in effect choosing to reproduce in ourselves their view of the world. This may seem “natural,” but it is only traditional” (20). So when we leave things like The Shining or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo out of a literary definition it means something more than space politics of a bookstore or library. It means what we’re creating in ourselves (and our collective selves) outlooks that exclude a large amount of cultural fodder because some books “mean” more than others and, therefore, have more value, no matter how many people have read Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter series is wildly popular, and it may not seem like the crux of the issue because, well, does Potter need to be seen as literature to be taken seriously? After all, there are 450 million copies of the books in print, and it is currently the highest selling book series in history. Harry Potter is an anomaly; its wide dissemination and worldwide acceptance is so grossly in-your-face that one would suspect there is no choice but to acknowledge its significance. This has not been the case. Even with this success, critics like Vanity Fair’s James Woods, in a critique of the literary sphere’s most recent, Pulitzer-winning wonder, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, can still say things like: “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.” Harry Potter could very well be the most important book of the millennial generation’s upbringing, but because of its status still as only a children’s book and apparently a blight on the writing of “important” literature, it may not last in the way it deserves.
An author’s use of language is one aspect of literature that critics and readers are as quick to rave about as they are to condemn. Rich, full, robust language is lauded particularly in literary fiction because it can bring magic to a story grounded in realism. Rowling has been accused by Harold Bloom, defender of the canon, of writing with less than satisfactory language, that it has no richness, no magic, despite the subject. I would say that no, Rowling isn’t lavishing us with language fit to furnish palaces. I would also say that she writes for her story: her writing is clean, light, often drily funny and grounded. Her dialogue is where she finds her strength. While the point of Rowling’s prose not being comparable to, as one review suggested, Alice in Wonderland, I don’t think it is enough to disallow the Potter series literary merit. Her characters and themes, I’d argue, outweigh this aspect.
J.K. Rowling’s creation of complex characters—namely Dumbledore, Snape, and Voldemort—elevate her series from a simple children’s fairytale into the literary realm. While it is safe to say that each of these characters represents an ideal, we’re given multiple angles to view them from. Voldemort, as the villain, is most peculiar: Yes, you still hate him and cheer when he (finally) dies, but his backstory and the cool logic of his villainy is a fair and precise description of evil that is usually lacking in children’s tales and on par with the character complexity found in literary works. Dumbledore’s initial role as the good hero’s mentor is utterly complicated when we further discover his motives, and his manipulation of Snape disrupts Snape’s role as the shady side-villain, turning it on its head and presenting us with a human acting on relatable and telling convictions. What will one do for love, or power, or to avoid death? What will men and women do, and more perhaps more importantly, what can children do in the face of adversity? These answers bring Harry Potter into the profound, into the literary, and they are indicative of the books’ preoccupation with parsing out the levels of humanity worthy of merit.
In Chapter 35 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and Dumbledore reunite in an in-between realm, where Dumbledore is definitely dead and Harry has a choice. This chapter is a lot of Dumbledore explaining his plans and desires and vying for a forgiveness he feels is necessary. Here, we get insight into Harry’s Horcrux storyline and a line that can sum up the entirety of the novels, if not only why Dumbledore isn’t, in Harry’s eyes, as bad as Voldemort:
“True, true,” said Dumbledore, and he was like a child seeking reassurance. “Yet I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.”
“Not the way he did,” said Harry. After all his anger at Dumbledore, how odd it was to sit here, beneath the high, vaulted ceiling, and defend Dumbledore from himself. “Hallows, not Horcruxes” (713).
Hallows, not Horcruxes: or blessings, not curses, to translate. In the end, it’s not that Dumbledore was the opposite of Voldemort in motive—he, too, wanted absolute power, and it is worth remembering—but that he chose his path differently and in the end, diverted from it. While a children’s book can certainly deal with difficult choices, Harry Potter elevates this basic idea by making the choice that of power, of death, of murder. How do we choose when faced with dire situations? What is right in these moments, and what is best? Rowling complicates the ideas of right and wrong so that Dumbledore cannot be seen as a wholly benevolent character. He is, in many ways, like Voldemort and he refuses to deny it, but Harry is able to remind him that it’s not always so simple. This is also a scene between two dead people (Harry is dead enough for our purposes: he was hit with the killing spell) where later Harry is given the choice to stay and see what happens next, or to return to life and to the fight. Here we have the competition between what is easy and safe, and what is hard and righteous. Harry is an abused child who, for the last seven years, has fought odds that should have killed him. He’s been psychologically abused, continuously injured, and left to fend for himself. He should have PTSD (at least) by now, so death— in this case the white, pristine train station that could ferry him away from any more pain— is a tease. In the end he chooses to go back not because staying is wrong, but because returning is noble. This is not child’s play. The Potter series deals with issues of power and domination and consistently allows for nuanced representation of character and examination of ideals. Not every single character is fully fleshed out, but it is a rare book, literary or otherwise, that can claim this. The characters that are dynamic in potter are enough for the series to get the chance to rise from only children’s literature, or its apparent position as fodder for denigration of other, arguably “better,” novels.
What then, about the books that aren’t as big as Harry Potter but are genre fiction, those that imagine dragons (or romantic conquest, or murder mysteries, or The Last Frontier)? Those books that never hit 500,000 copies disseminated, much less 400 million? Literature. Still literature. Whether or not anything is good literature is another argument: the goal here isn’t to create a utopia where everything regardless of content is good, and thus all right with the world. I’m not trying to eliminate “good” and “bad.” I only want us to examine what we see as worthy of talking about at all because this is how we create our culture. For example, in the Western past white women weren’t able to write and have it seen worthy, even if men were writing the same kinds of stories women were ridiculed for. Not long after, people of color were in the same boat. And the full potential of culture was stifled, denied space to flourish. The canon wars of the 1980s were a success, but we can’t stop there.
If we are in the business of building culture—and better culture, if we are to do it at all—then we must constantly be in the business of re-examining categories. If Harry Potter is re-defined as Literature, it will still be Harry Potter. However, if the short stories of Ann Leckie or the novels of high-fantasy writer N.K. Jemisin, two authors who have been lauded on the speculative circuit of late, were allowed a chance at literary merit, then things have started to shift. The same goes for other long-loved staples of genre fiction; when we start realizing that “literary merit” and “genre fiction” aren’t mutually exclusive, we’re giving the latter the chance to be culturally valued. Because we are reading genre fiction, enjoying it, and taking things from its books to keep for years to come—all of that poetic reasoning as to why a book deserves literary merit is the answer to the many “whys” of reading genre fiction. Artistic beauty. Meditation on the human experience. Moral insight. Social commentary.
And as the cherry on top, they’re definitively bound to be a rollicking good time.