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Harry Potter in The New Yorker: A Sad Tale

So I know that often, over the years, and for many reasons, people have asked the question, “What’s wrong with The New Yorker?” But seriously: What’s wrong with The New Yorker? Malcolm’s Gladwell’s piece on Jerry Sandusky goes to great length, though without adding one shred of previously unreported information, to teach us that child molesters can often be quite charming. That’s it. Nothing else there.

And then there’s Ian Parker’s rambling, incoherent, and pointlessly snarky profile of J. K. Rowling. You can tell where he’s headed with this in the first paragraph, when he quotes Ian Rankin saying that Rowling is “wary” of situations she can’t control — a claim not at all borne out by her evident willingness to talk openly with Parker about a wide range of topics — but if you don’t get the skepticism in paragraph one, not too much later Parker emphasizes that when he met her she “appeared to be wearing false eyelashes and rather heavy foundation.” This strikes him as somehow suspicious, I guess, as does almost everything she does or says: “We sat in the hotel lounge, in low red chairs. In a neighborhood full of coffee shops, she had brought me to an empty room.” Right. Who wouldn’t want to do an in-depth personal interview in a noisy and very public place? Only a control freak with something to hide. 

Parker clearly doesn’t understand what the Harry Potter books are all about; in fact, he doesn’t even try. He criticizes them for using too many adverbs and for too frequently saying that characters blush, apparently not realizing that criticizing children’s fantasies for their lack of stylistic sophistication is rather like criticizing Proust’s In Search of Lost Time for its lack of a fast-moving and suspenseful plot. He complains that “In the seven novels, Christmas Day always falls midway”; apparently he has failed to realize that the timeline of each book is governed by the rhythms of the school year, in which Christmas pretty much always falls, surprisingly enough, midway.

Parker quotes with evident approval a journalist disgusted by teenagers who read Harry Potter when they “should have been shagging behind the bike shed and smoking marijuana and reading Camus.” (As someone who at sixteen spent a lot of time trying to find a girl to go behind the bike shed with me and, failing at that, smoked a good deal of pot and repeatedly read The Myth of Sisyphus, I can only say that I would have been a good deal better off reading Harry Potter books, had they been available. The idea of reading Camus as a universal requirement of the adolescent passage would be comical if it weren’t just tragic.) Perhaps worst of all, for Parker, the books “validate the concerns of ordinary children.” Imagine! Once we start validating ordinary children’s concerns, what will be the end of it?

The only real insights in the profile come rarely, and from people other than Parker. Maria Tatar of Harvard shrewdly points out that the Harry Potter world is “‘a strange combination of both superficial and deep. That’s what people forget about children’s literature. It is very surface-oriented, but the great writers, and I include Rowling in them, manage to get the depth in, too’ — life and death, good and evil. ‘It’s not a psychological depth but a mythological depth.’” And perhaps the most literarily interesting comment in the whole piece comes from Rowling herself, as she shows just how deeply she understands the kind of character she was creating in Harry, and the kind of story she was writing, with its limitations as well as its possibilities:

When I asked Rowling if she’d ever regretted not being able to bring Harry back into ordinariness, she talked about him with surprising passivity: Harry was more a character with responsibilities than a person she knew. In the role given to him, she said, “Harry has that sort of Galahad quality. It seems that you can’t escape it.” Though it was possible to imagine Ron Weasley, Harry’s friend, embracing a Muggle existence, “Harry, as a character, can’t. The person who is leading the quest—it seems that they have to have this weird purity about them. And, after all, if Harry really had gone through everything he went through, he probably wouldn’t be mentally healthy enough to survive anywhere, would he?”

If Ian Parker had stopped to think about what Rowling is saying here, he might have realized that her comment didn’t reflect “passivity,” but rather a deep understanding of how the ancient and noble form of the Quest story works. He might also have realized that this is a woman rather harder to condescend to than he had been assuming. But he didn’t stop to think, and the resulting condescension fills every paragraph of his lamentable essay.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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