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Twenty years of Pottering

It’s difficult to imagine a Harry Potter-less world.

This is not simply because since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997 the numbers attached to the franchise have become increasingly eye-watering, but because, quite unintentionally (perhaps), what began as a modest fantasy for children has helped to turn the literary world upside-down.

What these high- or highest-profile books have done is to hammer another nail into the coffin of absolute (and undefined) literary value, and to reinforce the point that children’s books and adult books do not necessarily belong to the same literary system. Back in 2000, there was the curious spectacle of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban coming head-to-head with Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf for the British Whitbread Literary award. One judge declared that it would be a “national disgrace” if Rowling won (she didn’t). Today, Joanne Rowling (OBE) is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the most prestigious British literary body, established to “reward literary merit.” How times change.

The literary establishment’s problems in the face of Harry’s success were summed up by the sad plight of the New York Times. When Potter books held the top three places on their hardback bestseller list, the editors started a children’s list, and when Potter dominated that, they started a series list. Not surprisingly, they came in for a good deal of satire for muddled, if not muggled, thinking.

What made it all the more tricky was that the Potter books revived the idea of the “crossover” book – a book read by children and adults equally. There was nothing new in this – before, around 1900 the distinction between children’s books and adults’ books was much vaguer – everyone read Henty and Alcott (and in the 1970s everyone read Watership Down). With Rowling’s books now issued simultaneously in different covers (and at different prices) for the adult and the children’s market, what was a listmaker to do?

But perhaps most of all, what to do in the face of those figures?

In terms of books, this is the best selling series ever, selling over 500 million copies in more than 70 languages (including, for the first few books, American English). However, should we become over-excited, it is only the third biggest entertainment franchise (after Pokémon and Star Wars, but ahead of James Bond), worth about £25 billion; and the movies – well, only seven of the nine are among the top 50 all-time earners.

J.K. Rowling reads from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the Easter Egg Roll at White House by Daniel Ogren. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But then, the bestselling children’s book of 2016 in the UK was, of all things, a playscript, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This sold around 850,000 copies in the UK in its first week – which made it the fastest-selling book since … shall we guess … the all-time fastest seller Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) which had shifted 11 million copies in the USA on its first day, and broke the record set by its predecessor Half-Blood Prince (2005), which broke the record set by its predecessor Order of the Phoenix (2003) which broke … and so on. The Cursed Child, as we might expect, is the biggest-selling playscript of all time, while its production in the West End of London gained a record nine wins in the prestigious 2017 Olivier Awards. For all of this, Ms Rowling has received her just reward: it is estimated that book sales alone brought her £8.3 million in 2015 to add to her fortune of around £600 million.

If some critics have seen Warner Bros’s iron grip on the franchise as exploitative, J.K. Rowling comes across as a hard-working, principled author, with more than her fair share of good sense. One of my favourite stories is that when confronted by a heckler claiming that her books encouraged witchcraft (and they have been widely censored and banned, notably in the USA Bible belt), Ms Rowling paused, and then said, levelly, “You’re mad.”

To some, all of this is merely evidence that popular (and especially adult) taste is going to hell on a broomstick, but the Potter franchise has neither corrupted a generation of child readers, nor revolutionised children’s reading – although it may have helped to hold the line: literacy figures remain stubbornly static.

Similarly, it did not save children’s publishing, which has never been in need of saving. Between 1920 and 1939, in the UK, children’s books accounted for 25% of the book market (by volume); in 2016 the figure was 33%. Even factoring out the direct Harry Potter sales, this is a healthy situation. But it would be idle to deny that Rowling’s books helped to focus publishing minds on the potential of this sector, and the franchises that followed, such as Twilight or The Hunger Games have raised merchandising and commodification techniques to a new level.

The series is undeniably, even unashamedly, derivative: the idea of the school for wizards was not new, and many of the characters are in the English school story tradition. At the centre we have a conventional trio: the flawed and ultimately sacrificial hero; the archetypal comic sidekick; and, the token (clever) female. Where the series surprised the early sceptics was the way in which Harry, Hermione, Ron and the rest inhabit an increasingly ambivalent and uncertain world, riddled with surveillance and dubious truth. If the whole series is ultimately a hero (and female-hero) tale, firmly on the side of goodness and decency, its (generally) happy ending has to be earned and paid for with tragedy. Magic is not easy.

But, after all that, are the Potter books any good? That, of course, depends on what you mean by ‘good’, and one of the refreshing aspects of the Harry Potter affair has been that it has caused a lot of people to re-think (or think about) what they mean by ‘good.’ Thanks to Rowling, many are more aware of the distinctive virtues and characteristics of texts for children, and many prejudices (as well as Death Eaters) have bitten the dust.

Featured image credit: Day 124 – September 13, 2012 Collection of Harry Potter books by Sonia Belviso. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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