On Harry Potter Studies

I’m a little bit late to the party on this, but thought it worthy of a quick post anyway. Last weekend saw the UK’s first academic conference on J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Alison Flood wrote a nice overview of the mixed reception of this event in the Guardian, see here http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/18/harry-potter-order-60-scholars. I thought there was quite a lot of food for thought in the article, particularly in the contrasting statements from John Pazdziora (who organised the Potterfest at St. Andrews) and John Mullan from UCL, about what a conference is FOR (see my last blog post for why this is rather interesting to me right now).

Pazdziora, a PhD student at St Andrews, said:  “These are the most important, seminal texts for an entire generation of readers. In 100, 200 years’ time, when scholars want to understand the early 21st century, when they want to understand the ethos and culture of the generation that’s just breaking into adulthood, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be looking at the Harry Potter novels. As literary critics, as academics, why on Earth wouldn’t we want to come to grips with these texts? There’s so much here to talk about, culturally and critically, that a two-day conference really can only get the conversation started. People will be reading and writing and studying Harry Potter for years to come.”

Mullan wasn’t convinced: “I’m not against Harry Potter, my children loved it, [but] Harry Potter is for children, not for grownups,” he said. “It’s all the fault of cultural studies: anything that is consumed with any appearance of appetite by people becomes an object of academic study.” He speculated about whether the conference was a result of those who enjoyed Harry Potter as children now reaching an age where they could apply academic criticism to Rowling’s work. “Perhaps that has happened,” he said. “But why do universities have conferences? It’s to attract attention to themselves as dynamic places. St Andrews has taken a bit of a gamble here. Is all publicity really good publicity? They will get attention for having a Harry Potter conference, but I don’t think it’s going to give them the reputation of cutting edge cultural analysis they might be hoping for.” He professed himself “amazed” that the academics participating had time to do so. “They should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do,” he said.

Now, I understand where John Mullan (an eminent scholar in my own field) is coming from, but I find two things he said a little worrying. Firstly, his assertion that universities hold conferences “to attract attention to themselves as dynamic places” seems to me a sadly superficial evaluation of what the conference is for. As I argued in my last post, I think conferences serve, or can serve, an incredibly useful function as furnaces for the refinement of ideas if participants approached them a certain way. To describe them as some kind of a box-ticking exercise in the promotion of a particular image doesn’t reflect their best side. Of course, it’s perfectly possible that Mullan sees this as simply one aspect of what conferences do, and focused on it in order to make his point that St. Andrews might actually be doing itself some reputational damage here. But it seems to me that, more and more, as academics we need to be articulating why what we do is important to the general public, and I’m not sure personally that framing conferences as a PR gimmick is the best way to do that.

Secondly, the children’s literature thing. “[Academics] should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.” Well, yes and no. Again, I can see where Mullan (who is a deeply respected scholar in my own period of study) is coming from: cultural studies has opened up the floodgates in a way that can be frightening and disorientating for any student, critic or lover of literature, and there is a constant fear that the most dazzling, inventive and significant texts (the ‘classics’) will be pushed aside in favour of bad quality ephemera that caters for some modish fad for the obscure, the fringe, the neglected. But personally I find it very difficult to argue with one key tenet of cultural studies, the idea that if something is widely read then it is worthy of consideration, because it gives us an insight into a cultural hunger or fascination that can help us understand our world a little better. This is an argument that I’ve used to push forward the case for my own pet writers (“do you KNOW how many copies Charlotte Smith sold in the 1790s? Do you KNOW when the academic world finally deigned to publish her collected works?” etc etc) and I think it holds water to a great extent, and without any detriment to giving critical attention to adventurous and interesting writing that DOESN’T sell.

Children’s literature is a particularly interesting sub-section of this debate. Personally I believe children’s literature to be more than worthy of academic study, partly for the reason that Pazdziora offers: it shows us the texts that are influencing and shaping readers’ minds during a deeply crucial formative period. One only needs to look at any ‘The Nation’s Favourite Book’ survey to see how deeply texts that are assigned to the GCSE and A-Level syllabi retain a hold over adult readers years down the line. Can we afford to let these kinds of texts slide from our field of view because we have a horror of being seen to be reading ‘children’s books’? I don’t think so, myself.

In the field of eighteenth-century studies in which I spend most of my time, ‘children’s literature’ is undergoing a real renaissance. Scholars are starting to articulate, with considerable force, the importance of this literature on all aspects of eighteenth century culture. It’s not my area, but one of my best friends works on how the children’s literature of Anna Laetitia Barbauld interprets and furthers philosophical theories of associationism (Locke / Hartley) in new and inventive ways, and I think it’s fascinating. There’s now no shame, it would seem, in admitting that you are a scholar of eighteenth century kidlit. So why should we be more sniffy about that of the present?

I’ve had my own brushes with a frustrating stigmatization of ‘children’s literature’ back in the day when my main focus of academic study was late 20th century fiction; I wanted to write my undergraduate thesis on Philip Pullman’s work, and found it very difficult to find a supervisor. Intrigued by this dearth of Pullman expertise, I then wrote a piece of graduate work about how the incomparable His Dark Materials books came to be marketed and reviewed as ‘children’s literature’ at all, and came to the conclusion that essentially, this happened because that’s how Pullman’s previous oeuvre had been marketed and received. Simple as that. Not much to do with the content at all, which still awes and challenges me every time I pick the books up.

Now as it happens, the HDM books are a very unusual exception to the rule in this respect; such has been their quality, appeal and impact in ‘serious’ reading circles, and so insistent is Pullman’s presence as a respected commentator on educational and civil liberties policy nowadays, that they have now been re-marketed in numerous ways for an adult audience and personally I wouldn’t feel at all ashamed to avow them as some of the best books I’ve ever read in any academic or non-academic circles. But these issues beg questions about the Harry Potter conference, which hasn’t managed to shed its ‘kidlit’ image quite as successfully as His Dark Materials. If it is the publishing industry – specifically in-house marketing decisions and, I suppose retailer decisions such as where to stock a book instore – that determine what is kidlit and what isn’t, do we want to give those arenas quite such a degree of power over how to canonize? Does the academic community have a role in not only resisting these commercially dictated boundaries and finding a voice to re-draw them based on considered textual analysis? It may well be that Mullan has done so; that his rejection of Potter is due to a considered conviction that the literary quality of these books is not worthy of study; this isn’t entirely clear from the article. But personally, I think Pazdziora’s initiative seems like a good, if brave, way to fulfil this objective. I’d love to hear from anyone who attended the conference and has thoughts on how it went and what, if anything, they think it achieved.

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2 thoughts on “On Harry Potter Studies

  1. Pingback: Do ya think I’m sexy?: Vanity, bravery and the Booker Factor | sophiecoulombeau

  2. Hello there! This post could not be written much better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous roommate!
    He continually kept preaching about this. I’ll forward this post to him. Pretty sure he’ll have a
    very good read. Thank you for sharing!

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