July 29th, 2008


Harry Potter

Last week, I finally started reading Harry Potter 4. Steph will, inevitably, drag me along to see the next Harry Potter film in a few months, and this time I'm determined to have read the book before we go. I've got some way to go, of course, with books 5 and 6 still to tackle by then, but at least I'm on my way.

I read the first Harry Potter book last year (yeah, I'm late to this, I know), and to be honest, I could have left it or taken it. It was okay. The second and third books, I couldn't get into at all, so I skipped them and started the fourth.

I think that, finally, I get what the fuss is about.

Book 4 is where I can really see the difference between Harry Potter and other children's books, in the characters, the depth of the world, the magic, the humour.

I think my problem with books 1, 2 and 3 was that I had seen the movies first. Those movies weren't really that great. I suspect that, unless you had read the books first, you might have found the movies no more than mundane.

Books 1, 2 and 3, however, don't have much more in them than the movies; if you've seen the movies, you know what's going to happen, in fairly full detail. There are no surprises. That makes them hard to read, particularly if you've got the movies in your head.

With book 4, the difference between the movie and the book is much, much greater. There is loads in the book that didn't appear in the movie. And that let's me really enjoy it. I can sink into the world, because it isn't the movie (yeah, I didn't really rate the movie of book 4 either).

One thing that has always surprised me is that JK Rowling is sometimes critised for the quality of her writing. This makes no sense to me at all to me.

JK Rowling is a fantastic writer. If she wasn't, she wouldn't be able to generate characters that readers care for so deeply. She wouldn't be able to show a world that gives readers a genuine sense of wonder. Her writing wouldn't be so funny and engaging and warm.

It seems to me that much of the criticism of Rowling comes from other writers. The problem is that we, as writers, are not always looking for the same thing when we read as other readers are.

Many of us writers have learned 'rules' about writing and have absorbed them. When someone violates those rules, we can easily think that they must, therefore, be writing badly. Even those of us who understand that the 'rules' are not rules at all; they're not even guidelines. They are just techniques that can help in certain circumstances. Because we've absorbed them at a level that's hard to overcome, particularly if we've read to many 'how to' books or been to too many workshops.

I think that the best writers, those who connect with their audiences most powerfully and have such a spark, are often those who have never taken any notice of the 'rules'. Not those who, in that cliche, have learned them so they know how and when to break them, but people who just aren't aware of the supposed rules at all.

I have no idea whether JK Rowling, or any other particular writer, is one of those people. She may well be aware of these 'rules' and have decided that her writing works best by ignoring them.

I remember when the final Harry Potter came out. Some other writer (can't remember who, I'm afraid) rather arrogantly took a paragraph or two of the book and decided to rewrite it to show how it 'should' have been done. And their rewrite certainly fit with the idea of good writing. By the conventional idea of what was good, this must have been better than Rowling's original.

Except it wasn't. It was cold. It had no character, no warmth, no spark. The 'rules' ruined it.

JK Rowling is a brilliant writer, not because she sells lots of copies (a fairly irrelevant fact) but because she connects so strongly with so many people. That's what good writing is and should be.

Now, I'm not saying that everyone has to like the Harry Potter books. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with anyone who doesn't like them. I don't think it's a problem if your taste runs to what is conventionally considered 'good writing'. What I am saying is that any definition of good writing that doesn't include the JK Rowling, that excludes the Harry Potter books, is a meaningless definition. It is simply wrong.