*First of four articles I wrote this week; appears in the current issue of Tehelka*
A few years ago, walking around in King’s Cross Station, London, I saw a Japanese tourist family standing in front of the sign between platforms 9 and 10 – the sign for platform 9¾, where the Hogwarts Express sets off, taking scores of pimply magic users to wizard school somewhere in Scotland for another term of magic, mayhem and merchandise. The patriarch of this Japanese family hands me his camera, and I click away as the family pretends to be running through the barrier, Japanese-tourist smiles fixed firmly on their faces. ‘Harry Potter,’ says the father a little later, when I return his camera. I nod. I know. He nods too. He knows I know. It might be a world divided in customs, languages and ideologies, but on days like July 16th, 2005, like Thomas Friedman says, the world is flat. And initially available in hardcover at discounted prices.
It seems fairly ridiculous actually – gun-battles over smuggled copies, complex legal and security arrangements all over the world, feverishly circulated rumours, betting syndicates speculating wildly over who dies – all for a book?
But then, Harry Potter is so much more than a book – it’s a whole industry. Books, movies, games, merchandise – it runs rings around LOTR, annihilates Star Wars, and comes close to squashing the Beatles. The books are just how it all started. Harry Potter was adolescent literature, but it grew up before its time to become a mega-brand. Literature shapes minds. But brands shape the world.
HP6 became an international bestseller months ago on the basis of pre-orders alone, from 90 countries, Albania to Zambia. After anti-Potter campaigners threatened sales worldwide, making a variety of idiotic witchcraft-related claims (in the American Midwest, it was a popular theory that Rowling had made a Faustian pack with the devil) they’ve even made sure that the new book comes endorsed by the Vatican.
Heartened by second-hand divine reassurance, I bought my copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince around 6:30 in the morning on July 16th, and finished it that evening. And I wasn’t alone. Penguin India sold a lakh copies on the very first day, a phenomenon unheard of in a country where the English fiction market is tiny. Why does Potter work so incredibly well in India? Not because we’ve grown up on magical tales – children do that all over the world. It’s safest to explain it away by marketing alone, or by the desire of a newly globalized society to be with-it culturally, or by simple peer pressure. If there’s something more, it’s an indefinable factor that some call magic.
The problem is, as the Potter empire expands and diversifies, the magic in the books seems to be wearing increasingly thin. And the questions Harry’s critics ask are both real and relevant – is the Harry Potter phenomenon a success for literature, or for marketing? Is there any real value behind the hype? Rowling’s massive work has been accused of being elitist, conservative, unoriginal, unexciting, regressive and crassly commercial. How much of this is true, and how much pure envy?
This is where I lay my cards on the table. I’ve read the books, I’ve seen the movies, I’ve even played the games. I don’t own the toys, but that’s just an age thing. Which means I’m a Harry Potter fan. And when I say the books are nowhere as good as they should be, it’s an admission I wish I didn’t have to make.
I first embraced Pottermania before the release of Book 4, Goblet of Fire, and was immediately entranced – here was a brand-new and yet familiar world, crafted with skill and vigour out of many other well-loved worlds I’d inhabited as a child – myths and legends, classic fantasy novels, immortal school stories all packed together in a clever, inventive package. Engaging characters, fast-paced plots, well-placed jokes, monsters, magic and details – so many details. JK Rowling’s first three books displayed a truly fabulous ability to transform the mundane into the magical that left me, and millions of others as the word spread, hungry for more. These were award-winning books whose fame spread through word of mouth, and books as good as any in children’s literature. The critics were all gushing then, and rightly so – Bloomsbury’s surprise discovery had ‘classic’ written all over it.
And then Harry Potter became a celebrity, and something in him died. Like other children thrust into stardom, he grew up too fast, and became less loveable. The books became fat and unwieldy, the plots grew cumbersome, the details cumbersome and the tricks stale. The first three books just got better with each installment and were truly for readers of all ages – but as Harry’s world grew less innocent, the books strangely turned into children’s’ books that adults just happen to read – because other adults had turned a wonderful series of books into a Global Cultural Current Event. And as the Potter pie grew larger, a lot of people decided they didn’t want a piece any more – or at least that, while very filling, it didn’t taste quite as good.
The new books are just too fat to sustain the kind of dramatic tension that Rowling achieved earlier. This is easily explained – fans want more pages, sales teams want books out quickly, and editors are scared to cut anything the Phenomenon has penned. And Rowling’s vision and style have changed considerably since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Half-Blood Prince is, throughout, about JK Rowling’s struggle to Make It Contemporary, Make it Serious, and Be a Classic Children’s Author. The mood of the books has changed dramatically. While a lot of this is about adolescent angst, growing up, changing and finding the world isn’t magical any more, Rowling’s decision to fill the books with anger, gloom and desolation is a questionable one. Though the first three books had a fair share of grief and danger, the effortless ease with they were written, as compared to the heavy-handedness of the rest, will only lessen the quality of the series as a whole. Five years ago, the Potter books had the multi-dimensional quality that lets children’s books from Alice in Wonderland to Adrian Mole transcend the barriers of space, time, age and language. And no one could accuse Rowling of ‘dumbing down’ to feed larger audiences.
To be fair to Rowling, though, what other writer has ever faced this kind of pressure and survived? With all its flaws, the Harry Potter series is a tremendous achievement conducted in a short span of time under the harsh,unflinching gaze of media spotlights. Potter has been loved, hated, obsessed over, commercialized, stolen, recycled, rejected, reaccepted – and through all this, Rowling has maintained her impeccable command over the sprawling labyrinth that is her story. And as you read Half-Blood Prince, you can almost smell her exultation at having reached the last lap – unlike previous volumes, she does not even give herself a break between books by restoring any sense of order in the end. Half-Blood Prince is essentially a 600-page setup for the climactic seventh volume, where loose ends are tied up, the plot regains its focus and events hurtle towards what should be a spectacular end.
It’s been a week since the latest book released, and large sections of the world’s population are suffering from Post-Potter-Depression – that feeling you get when, having bought and read your Harry Potter in one day, you suddenly realize you’re going to have to wait about two years before you find out what happened next – provided, of course, you have the sense to ignore the teasers that keep appearing on her site to keep toy sales high. For the rest of the world, who must be thoroughly sick of the whole Potter nonsense, it must bring huge relief to know there’s only one book left in the series. And then the madness ends – hopefully. Harry Potter Book 8 is one thing the world can do without.
But what will Joanne Rowling do after finishing the series? Arthur Conan Doyle tried to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes without success. Tolkien died before he could complete the complete history of Middle-Earth. Will JK Rowling ever manage to emerge from the shadow of Harry Potter? She’s young, capable of undertaking massive projects, immensely talented and, most importantly, has a captive world at her feet. Perhaps the awful responsibility of helping the world move on after Harry Potter should be handed to her…
First, though, she should forget everything else and write that seventh book, because I can’t wait to read it.