What Matters

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Abby Moskowitz
Prof. Anne Dalke
The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories
5/15/09


What Matters

How Harry Potter Simulated the Process and Rewards of Successful Literary Analysis and Reveals what Warrants the Status of “Canon”


There was something about the waiting. My generation didn’t read the next Harry Potter book when they finished the one before; they read it when it came out, which for some of us meant as soon as it came out. It’s one of the rare times when the most devoted fans of a series aren’t those who read all the books in the week, but those who read them over the course of a decade. People do that all the time with television; you watch the new episodes each week, and then you wait for the new season after the finale. While I’m someone who generally defends television against such criticisms as “opiate of the masses”– something is not mindless just because it incorporates visuals- everyone knows reading books is different. If nothing else, it is a more personal experience: no one is ever truly reading the same thing even if you’re both sitting in a room with identical, brand-new books, gasping and shushing as you race through chapters.
When you’re guided only by the words on the page, more of the fictional reality is dependent on the readers. These reader-generated contributions to the story, whether automatic or deliberate, are all the more influential when years pass in between the novels themselves. My experience with the Harry Potter series, as well as what I have seen within the fan culture, emphasizes for me that what makes a text important is how people relate to it on an individual level. This feeling of interacting with a piece rather than approaching a static text is crucial for enjoying and benefiting from reading, whether you are doing solely for pleasure or for the express purpose of furthering your education through literary immersion and analysis.
I did not just read Harry Potter when I was growing up; I grew up with it. I was nine years old when I read the first three, and eighteen when the final installment was released in 2007. I remember, excited as I was as I stood in line for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, poignantly considering the symbolism of the timing. It seemed in a sense as though my childhood and Harry Potter were ending at the same time, that this was a milestone equal to graduation from high school. The years of Harry Potter, and, interchangeably, the years of my adolescence, were at that moment half of my life, and from that year onward would be a smaller and smaller percentage as I got older. I almost didn’t mind waiting the forty-five minutes it took for my place in the line to reach the counter simply because I knew this was the last time I would get to experience the emotionally-charged midnight release.
It was also, of course, the last time for a new Harry Potter book itself as well as for the release, and new material is particularly exciting after years of extrapolating from what already exists. The new story always felt somewhat unreal in a way that the already accepted aspects of the fictional reality no longer did. The years in between the books consequently contributed to making each new book a reading experience, an active process as the new character developments, story arcs and surprise reveals interacted with an otherwise established mental conception of the stories. Once it’s read, and, depending on the reader, read again and again, you incorporate it into your understanding of the fantasy world it describes; it becomes what fans call the “canon” of the series. That understanding of it last forever, but experiencing it as new and surprising only comes once.  
As I began by saying, there is something about the waiting that helped these books become an experience more than just stories. When I was younger, I would name Harry Potter as my favorite books, but it stopped being true years ago as I became more attuned to all the different elements worth appreciating in literature. However, even as I was able to recognize that, my interest never waned: I was still just as excited for the last book as for the fifth, and I’m as eager for the movie being released this summer as I was for the second. I will still join, and probably end up monopolizing, any intelligent conversation about the series. Harry Potter is important because it leads to a particular reading experience: I personally value them because of the many different ways I have been able to connect with them over the years.
The timing of the release of the Harry Potter books in my lifetime made this connection easy and natural, but I feel some similar relation to text is what makes anything worthwhile to read. In a line we often quoted during class, Whitman asks the reader rhetorically “have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poem?” I propose that a successful approach to literature is instead getting at what they mean to you more than any kind of singular, definitive intention. The significant pieces we read are those that we do not experience as stagnant, but instead as those that affect us or challenge us. These “living texts” provoke us to reconsider our understanding, either of the world outside the text or simply of the text itself; they do something rather than just existing. Various elements of this idea of interacting with a “living text” have been supported in my more successful English classes since high school, and the theory as a whole is confirmed by my own and what I have seen of others’ mental interaction with the Harry Potter books.      
The first tenet of this theory, that we do not benefit from attempting to identify what any piece is supposed to mean, is universally understood by many who approach literature or other art forms. Whitman notably identified it as a flawed approach, and Sontag in her essay Against Interpretation argued similarly against limiting a work of art by defining it according to a simplified or formulaic understanding of what it is supposed to be. It is for this reason that my AP English Literature teacher in high school emphasized that we should say that the text did something, not necessarily the author. Any piece of literature or art has potential beyond what might have been originally intended or consciously incorporated. We were encouraged instead to understand the completed work as its own entity, and to analyze what we experienced the text to be doing rather than what it might have been intended to do.
I have also used a similar argument as a way of describing how literary analysis and science are different. Essentially, while both include and benefit from different interpretations and conclusions, science ultimately holds that there is a correct understanding of the physical reality. The contrasting summaries of observations contribute to this, perhaps impossible, but nevertheless desired goal of knowing what is right. The equivalent goal for literary analysis is uncertain, one of the reasons why some go so far as to consider it useless. There are in literary analysis, depending on how you look at it, either no or many right answers, either way it is all about how you argue it. Another English teacher of mine once defined as good thesis as one where the opposite would also be arguable.
In a way, then, different theories about Harry Potter developed by fans throughout the years are an example of literary theories with the satisfaction of definite proof that comes with the sciences. Supporters of different theories gathered textual evidence and formulated arguments as to whether the couple was going to be Harry and Hermione or Ron and Hermione, whether Snape was innocent, and if Harry would survive the final novel, and then after the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had the satisfaction of learned if they were right or wrong. Their speculation was intended to be predictive and could, to a degree, eventually be tested. It was a situation where the gratification usually connected with the sciences encouraged plenty of non-English majors to do some albeit cursory textual analysis.
I find a particular categorization used by my tenth and eleventh grade Humanities teacher to be useful for understanding the differences between analyzing something like Harry Potter and, for instance, Whitman. She outlined the basic elements of literature with the mnemonic: Please Tell Carol She’s Late (apparently in reference to an aunt of hers who could never be on time, or else who was always punctual and would be scandalized to hear that she was for once late, I can’t remember which.) PTCSL stands for Plot, Theme, Characters, Setting, and Language, and since they were first introduced to me as the pillars of any literary piece they have helped me understand that different works are stronger in particular areas. Harry Potter is primarily successful in plot and setting, two areas where Rowling’s inventiveness, planning, and attention to detail are evident and effective. The themes are well defined but relatively common and simple, and the language is informative but hardly intricate. Characters are an interesting case, not particularly developed within the story, but unique, interesting, interconnected, and endearing, and therefore imbued with potential for expanded personalities and histories.
For the most part, pieces considered great literary works worthy of academic pursuit are those where language is highly developed; and thematic elements are far more frequently discussed than plot moves. The plot versus theme dichotomy is parallel in many ways to the low art high art distinction, with the functional aspect understood as more crude or rudimentary. The difference between the two so far as I can understand is a matter of analytical complexity: intricate plots are an immediate area of interest that people can offer insight into regardless of their background of literary study, whereas analyzing language and all the literary moves that construct complex themes requires a more developed understanding of the subject. While more advanced study should therefore provide the opportunity to investigate elements of texts associated more with theme and language, it should not preclude appreciating and sometimes focusing on the more “basic” aspects of the story such as plot. (For an example of a piece strong in all five areas, I would personally recommend The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Certainly read it if you haven’t already; it’s excellent).
Speculating about the upcoming books, then, offered an opportunity for people inexperienced with the work of an English major, children, for instance, to understanding searching for clues and intimations in the text as something interesting and rewarding, something that it can be hard to help a classroom of elementary students understand otherwise. It was a situation where students, including myself, were actively reading rather than just passively appreciating and without it being assigned to them. To this day, I feel like literary analysis done properly should feel like reading through the sixth book of Harry Potter yet again and figuring out through the scenes in the potions classroom and your memory of countless other instances that Snape had been in love with Lily. In other words, the feeling that the text provokes insights and connections in your own mind and then leads you to want to enumerate and codify your theory so that you can share it with others.
Of course, in the case of true literary analysis, this realization of connections and the potential of the text is not brought on because you are looking for the right answer that will be revealed in the future books. In either case, however, the piece becomes important and enjoyable because you have had, in a sense, a mental interaction with it. Not only is it transmitting information to you, but you yourself have taken what it makes available and understood something new and unspoken about it from its inspiration. It becomes an intellectual exchange that animates both the interpreter and that which she interprets. I still find Harry Potter interesting and important because it has provoked me to see it as such in my own mind.
It was because of an unconscious understanding of this crucial relationship with the text that so much of our class related their frustration with being told what literature meant, or were supposed to be about. Reading is about what the material inspires in you, and what that inspiration leads you in turn to do with the text itself. I never thought I would quote Glinda of The Wizard of Oz twice for one class, but her final pieces of wisdom to Dorothy prove once more relevant to understanding how students or anyone else benefit from analyzing literature. We have to learn it ourselves, not because we won’t “believe” it otherwise, but because the meaning won’t actually mean anything unless it has been filtered through by our own intellect.
The parallel here between successful literary interaction and making predictions about Harry Potter or the future of any series becomes flawed. When the point of your analysis is to be right about what has yet to happen, the understanding of a text’s meaning as something you determine lasts only as long as the time before the next release date. It is important to realize, then, that plenty of individuals’ forays into the books including my own focused not on guessing what was coming but on expanding one’s own understanding of the information already available.
I mentioned earlier the relative development of the characters throughout the series; many of the secondary characters in particular are extremely intriguing outlines that remain relatively unexpanded within the text itself. With regards to characters, my friends and I have often agreed that J. K. Rowling, as much as we respect her, does not and probably never will realize the extent of what she created in her books, proving that it is what is in the text not what the author put into it that matters. Different readers disagree on what the unrealized potentials for the characters are, but active readers generally agree that there are unacknowledged truths about the characters provided for but mostly ignored in the books. My personal favorite is the argument for a romantic history between Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. (If you care to go back and read for it it’s quite interesting and, at times, illuminating). I won’t expand on the argument, but the point is that I could, with good textual evidence to back it up like any good English student. I would emphasize also, as I always to do my sometimes unwilling, sometimes intrigued listeners, that I am not proposing a hidden agenda inserted by Rowling into the series, but simply arguing that, when understood a certain way, the text allows for a theory that I consider interesting. That is, after all, what most English papers end up doing, and I consider that worthwhile as well.     
The timed release of the novels, then, did not invite textual interaction solely by tempting people to figure out what came next, but also simply because it was exciting, defying the stagnancy it can be otherwise tempting to associated with literature. The yet unfinished-ness of the series mimicked the quality of a “living text;” it never seemed like a fixed literary piece but rather something that we knew for a fact would continue to change at least until the release of the final installment. Particularly for those at certain impressionable point in our lives, Harry Potter felt like something that was happening not just something that existed. We felt involved in a cultural process developing as we did, and thus able to mentally interact with it. And it gave numerous young readers and writers a natural space to supply details and parallel stories of their own in often dreadful, occasionally worthwhile, and always interesting medium of fan-fiction.
While I never myself got past the first page of writing fan-fiction, I have read my fair share, enough to recognize the hard and often successful effort that many amateur writers put into their pieces. True, this is not always or even often the case, but even the poor stories reveal efforts to interact with the books which, regardless of the result, is an example of one more reader inspired to delve into what they are presented with and re-imagine it in a way that holds meaning for her. And while fan-fiction is not generally the most impressive creative result, it can be the formative stage of more original writing. After all, Wicked by Gregory Maguire is openly fan-fiction even though it is widely-circulated in print form; it’s the result of someone inspired by the meaning and consequent potential he saw in another series.
Creative pieces evolve out of others, including those that do not explicitly name or even consciously develop from other works. It is these books and other literary pieces that we experience as actively affecting us rather than passively, stagnantly existing, that deserve a place in the canon and our bookshelves. Those that inspire different types of access to the text that in turn lead to different interactions, that further breed new works from those who found something in the original that inspired them.    
We should canonize those works that are likely to have, in a sense, sequels of their own, albeit sequels written by their readers any number of years later. Books and poems whose stories, characters, language, themes, etc. will be continued by those whose connection with the works helped them realize and create stories and art of their own. As in any evolutionary theory, something’s legacy is its offspring, what it gives rise to, and in the case of canon the human selection should favor those that lead to the strongest generation of new works. I don’t pretend to know myself which pieces are the best literary parents, but I know that it’s not just those works that directly inspire creation that matter, but also those that teach a generation of children to think for fun about literature. And perhaps some of those sequels will come from the almost-adults, always-children who waited outside Borders for what they thought was the end of something but really only showed them how to begin.          











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