Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Has Harry Potter boosted novel reading?

Because I've been out of the country (read: vacationing in Texas) for two weeks, I just now got around to reading a July 15 Harry Potter piece in The Washington Post. No, don't yawn. The article makes several thought-provoking points. Check out this bit about adults reading Harry Potter books:

I'd like to think that this is a romantic return to youth, but it looks like a bad case of cultural infantilism. And when we're not horning in on our kids' favorite books, most of us aren't reading anything at all. More than half the adults in this country won't pick up a novel this year, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. Not one. And the rate of decline has almost tripled in the past decade.

That statistic startles me, even though I hear it again and again. Whenever I confess to people who work for a living that I'm a book critic, I inevitably get the same response: "Imagine being able to sit around all day just reading novels!" Then they turn to each other and shake their heads, amazed that anything so effete should pass for a profession. (I can see it in their eyes: the little tufted pillow, the box of bonbons nearby.) "I don't read fiction," they say, suddenly serious. "I have so little time nowadays that when I read, I like to learn something." But before I can suggest what one might learn from reading a good novel, they pop the question about The Boy Who Lived: "How do you like 'Harry Potter'?"

Of course, it's not really a question anymore, is it? In the current state of Potter mania, it's an invitation to recite the loyalty oath.

Every time I tell someone I'm a writer, I get the Harry Potter question: What do I think of the books? My answer is invariably, "Nothing at all, because I've never read any of them." I'm a busy woman, and my novel-reading isn't determined by popular vote. I'm not very interested in juvenile literature and fantasy stories, so I've never been curious enough about the Harry Potter doorstops to pick up one and read the back-cover copy, let alone actually open the book.

We commonly hear that J.K. Rowling's work has motivated kids and even adults to read fiction. But where's the evidence for that? From what I can tell, nobody's been reading anything but Harry Potter books. If the series has truly whetted our culture's appetite for novel-reading, we should have already noticed an upswing in non-Harry fiction sales. After all, it's been ten years since the world first met the young wizard. And we should be hearing talk of other novels at kids' soccer games and at our office water coolers.

But that's not happening, is it?

Have your say about Harry in the Comments.


tara said...

I've never read one either. I tend to avoid the things that *everyone* is doing, especially when it comes to fiction. ;)

I find it very sad how few people sit and read a book anymore. I get the same reaction to reading fiction around here as you do. As if it's empty entertainment. And CSI and the latest big movie in the theater is quality? ::confused::

Nell said...

I've read them and enjoyed them. For my eldest daughter the books opened her imagination and she has since gone on to read a host of other books that previously she almost certainly wouldn't have considered reading. The big thing I feel it's done is that's it's made talking about books acceptable to everyone. It's no longer just a topic for literary or high browed readers but Harry has been a leveller.

jeanjeanie said...

I've read all but the final installment (it's on order from Amazon), and I enjoy them. They're not great literature by any means, but that J.K. can sure weave an entertaining yarn. I must travel in different circles, because all those I know who have read them were avid fiction readers to begin with. And the few I know who don't enjoy reading fiction don't read HP either -- they're content to watch the movies instead.

Shelley said...

I think the motivation of kids and adults in reading is merely in the Harry Potter books themselves. They like one book, so they are motivated to buy the next one when it comes out, and so on down the line until they buy all the books. It will be interesting to see what "they" say after all the Harry Potter books are finished (with this latest enstallment) and the kids and adults don't have any more Harry Potter to look forward to. What then? Will they still continue to read?

Becky said...

I think that buying into only the books that are the latest fad is supporting a movement in the wrong direction in the publishing industry. It's getting to where it seems most of the money is being spent on the latest 'craze' books. Which begets a rush and a focus on finding the next simlar type book in a competitive publishing market, instead of keeping the floor open for all the wonderful variety. There are countless other talented authors out there besides Rowling! Lots of other topics and genre besides fantasy fiction!

Anonymous said...

My take on Harry Potter specifically is that, the books promote the wrong message. As a christian and I have heard several reputable pastors comment on the books, I would not like to encourage kids or even adults to read them. The message in the book is repackaged, sublimated in a very attractive way. It is simply witchcraft which is not pleasing to our Lord and Master. That is my two pence thought.

The Goddess said...

While I don't 'do' fad books as a rule, I did read one of the HP books, and I feel that JK Rowling is a story teller, not a great author. I don't think that they come near the standard found in classic fantasy (Lloyd Alexander, CS Lewis etc...)

My brother has read most if not all of them, and he does not read. Have they made him read more- well, yes, in that he would have read nothing otherwise, but they haven't been a 'gateway drug' into other authors or genres.

I once saw a mom proudly watching over her son while they waited out another child's skating practice. He was reading a HP, and she said to her friend "Look how thick a book he's reading!" Now there's a good way to choose literature!

Laurie Breton said...

Glad to know I'm not the only one who hasn't read them (and probably never will). I have nothing against Harry, it's just that, like you, I don't have much interest in reading that type of book. I prefer realism in my fiction. That's just a personal preference, and no reflection on the books themselves. My husband is a big Star Wars fan. As are zillions of other people. I've seen several of the Star Wars movies, primarily because he was watching them. Bored. Me. To. Death.

Guess all I can say is, to each his own!

Anonymous said...

I believe it was Sue Grimshaw who said HP is in a large part responsible for the current popularity of paranormal and urban fantasy. So she did (if she was the right buyer) attribute the new popularity of those genres to HP.

Cindy Rio

Kristin said...

One, I don't see how reading a fictional book about fictional magic and fictional wizards is testing anyone's Christianity or promoting paganism. I'm a from-birth Lutheran, but I always enjoyed reading books about magic. The wonderful Ruth Chew comes to mind. Plus the "Wizard of Oz" and any number of other harmless children's books that did nothing to rattle my Christian faith. They were *books*... fantasies for children. Why not demonize all fiction that includes magic...for example, the VERY Christian-based Chronicles of Narnia. Written by a Christian man who has also written some great works of non-fiction about Christianity.

Two, I don't think we can see yet how Harry Potter has affected book sales overall. Because the series is just now over. Wait a few years and see if children's books increase in popularity as the kids looking for new reading materials go for the next big thing. Do we know if the sales figures for children's books has increased or decreased since the intro of Harry Potter? Looking at overall book sales is not really targeting the right data.

What I do know is that there are many, many more interesting children's book series than there were 10 years ago. The appetite is there for more of these types of books b/c of Harry Potter. No doubt.

pacatrue said...

I've read 6 of the 7, I guess. They aren't high literature, but they are rip-roaring tales at times, and they really do have some good moral "meat" to them for a child -- finding and doing good in a complex world where little is what it seemed to be when you were younger.

I have heard anecdotal evidence from booksellers that their sales on non-Potter stuff do go up when a new Potter book comes out, but it's anecdotal and I cannot swear to it.

I think what Potter has done for books is restore them to viable popular culture. We are all used to people lining up for two days for the midnight showing of a new movie. But here people are doing it not for a rock concert or a movie, but for a book. There was a time when books were popular culture as well as high lit, but I don't think we've seen it in years. Sure, romance is very popular, but I don't think you could grab someone random off the street and discuss what happens in Nora Roberts' Born in Fire like you can the Harry Potter series.

Unless one thinks that nothing good can come from popular culture or that, unless books are high art they are not worth much, then this is a good thing for reading.

~~Olivia said...

I've seen my son, who read slow and painful, become a better reader because of the Harry Potter stories. We have LOTS of books in our house and continually buy more, children's adult, fiction, nonfiction, you name it. It was very gratifying to see ANY book improve his reading skills.

I will praise any good story that makes readers out of children and adults.

I must agree that Rowling's book are not great literature, but she is a great story-teller.

I dare anyone to read the first chapter of the first book and not be hooked. (Okay, you might prove me wrong, but try it anyway.)

Hornblower said...

She is a great storyteller.

I like to think that kids who have spent years being excited about books will carry that to their adult lives. My sense is that many children got hooked on other authors & reading in general while waiting for the next HP installment. I know our libraries have displays of 'liked HP? try these!' books.

I actually think books 1, 2 & 3 (after that I think there are some problems in the writing though the story continues to compel) should be read by fiction authors. There is something to learn from Rowling - esp. her pacing and fluidity of language.

I 2nd Olivia's challenge :-)

Brenda Coulter said...

Interesting comments, all. Thanks for chiming in.

Adam "Luke" Luther said...

Steinbeck was a pretty good storyteller too.

Twain, Orwell, and John Bunyan wrote a pretty decent "fantasy" christian book.

I like the previous comment about whether or not the Harry Potter series is increasing fictional novel reading as whole. Probably pretty hard to nail that answer down, and when I see kids in line at midnight it kinda makes me wonder about the whole "caught up in the craze/fad thing".

Mix in a classic once in a while, after your post-secondary education days are done.

Douglas Cootey said...

Even if Harry is a fad, I can't think of a better fad to see happening in this day of blockbuster movies and video games than kids lining up to read a book.

In my experience, my children read more because of Harry. Yes, my oldest read the books over and over and over again, but she moved on to classics like Little Women and other novels in between HP releases. HP opened her world to reading and now she's hooked.

I can't see that people only reading Harry is Harry's fault. I blame their parents. ;)

I also grow tired of other authors bad mouthing the Harry Potter books (I'm not referring to you, Brenda). The books are written off as mere marketing ploys, as if all Scholastic has to do is pick which magazine to run an ad in to sell 12 million copies. Disney would LOVE to be able to market so well. Most of their movies these days are bombs.

There is more to Harry Potter than marketing. Authors should analyze these books to see how the phenomenon came to be. There is something there that resonates with people - even people who don't usually read. Figure that out and you can have another hit for yourself. (I don't believe it has much to do with magic and monsters, btw, though they don't hurt! ^_-)

Tracy Montoya said...

Actually, Brenda, I spend a lot of time in bookstores and habitually give books as presents to the children/young adults in my life, and I've noticed that since Harry Potter, the YA sections have become A LOT more robust. They used to be filled with pretty much the same books I read when I was in YA's target demographic. As any good book addict knows, once you experience that high of reading a book you can't put down, even to eat or sleep, you're always looking for the next one that can create that kind of magic. I think/hope Harry's fans are going to be searching for their next fix for years to come.

The books really did develop as the series went along, and the last one was marvelous fun. I was amazed by how intricately she must have plotted all seven books, right from the get-go. There are hints about what's going to happen in book seven in book one.

As for their being great literature or not, Tolkien and Dumas wrote popular fiction that is now considered part of the literary canon, but neither one wrote perfect prose. I think a ripping good tale that excites imaginations for years is destined to be part of the literary canon, whether the prose is perfect and poetic or not.

Brenda Coulter said...

I think a ripping good tale that excites imaginations for years is destined to be part of the literary canon, whether the prose is perfect and poetic or not.

Ob, absolutely. I won't make any comment on the quality of writing in the HP books because I haven't read any of them, but even if they're awful, they've ignited kids' and even adults' imaginations--and how can that be a bad thing?

Anonymous said...

Well, I don't think I'd call it just a fad. I've worked the last three Harry Potter event booksignings..and watching the 18- 20 year old young men who come in and participate in all the games and crafts and fun is touching.

What's it been, ten years since the release here of the first book?

This is the first generation to know Harry and to get to read the books in 'real time' as they grew older.

It was pretty poignant, watching them.

They came in solemn groups..some wearing home made t shirts, some not. They purchased multiple copies for the family or told me as they were waiting for their numbers to go up and get the book that they had first dibs on the first read before it went to their younger siblings.

They also knew the answer to all the clues in the trivia hunt/challenge.

Take a look at the top fan websites for Harry Potter. and The leaky cauldron are both run by young adults. They were the two given a three hour interview with JK Rowling just before the release of Half Blood Prince.

Those two websites have formed an impressive online community using podcasts and meet ups. They decided just recently to fundraise to help end the genocide in they designed and printed t-shirts that are currently being sold in the website.

Take a look. It'll make you proud.