Harry Potter and the Traditionalist English Professor

Last week in Scotland, there was an academic conference on the Harry Potter series. The Guardian reports:

Billed as the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text [as opposed to what?–MM], almost 50 lectures are lined up, with academics taking on issues including paganism, magic and the influence on Rowling of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Shakespeare. Seminar titles range from “Moral development through Harry Potter in a post-9/11 world”  to “Harry Potter and Lockean civil disobedience”.

The article goes on to quote Prof. John Mullan of University College London as saying: “[The participants] should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.”

Well, I’m sure the world will manage to struggle on despite some professors not reading their Milton and Tristram Shandy for a few days. Somehow, I don’t think those works will change much over that time frame, so I don’t think there’s a lot of urgency.

It is not that literary analysis is a useless pursuit–I have often engaged in a bit of it myself, in my amateurish way–it is just the rather odd, almost arbitrary mechanism by which things are deemed worthy of it (or not) that annoys people.

Why shouldn’t our friendly neighborhood professors spend a little time reading the adventures of Harry Potter, in lieu of another go-round with Paradise Lost? Is it because they are not as good as the works of Milton? Perhaps they are not. But how can you claim that, without first having subjected them to the same scrutiny that has been applied to Milton’s work? They could give their profession a much greater reputation for academic rigor if they did that, I think. Prof. Mullan’s idea is somewhat akin to astronomers continually proving to this day that the Earth does in fact orbit the Sun, and smacking down any loose talk about this “Sloan Great Wall“.

Not that Potter is as good as the classic Great Works–it isn’t, in my opinion, but who is to say that they won’t one day come along with something that is better than those old books? It could happen, you know, but academia won’t find out about it unless they analyze them. And even if they never actually do get surpassed, you don’t need to keep reading and writing about them over and over to be sure.

This conference is, nevertheless, a bit ridiculous. I know I sound like a Tea Partier saying this, but there is a vague touch of elitism about the whole thing: “We are academics! We can discuss this book series better than you (dare I say it?) ‘muggles’ can.”

I don’t mean to imply it isn’t worth doing, because they’re professional critics. The ridiculousness of the situation derives less from the fact that they’re discussing Harry Potter and more from the fact that academic literary criticism in general is fairly ridiculous. It is for this reason that so many people think the entire profession is useless and stupid, when in fact it is only that they are using the wrong techniques. And the reason they are using the wrong techniques, I suspect, is that they are mostly analyzing old texts, and consequently have to reach further and further for new topics that haven’t been addressed before. There are only so many ways you can say “Hamlet is really quite interesting.”

Unfortunately, the techniques honed by critics for doing this are the only tools available to those critics who would write about something slightly newer such as Harry Potter. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s assessment of the United States: “critical analysis of Harry Potter went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” (There was, I am sure, a “Golden Age” of Shakespeare analysis. It was probably in the 1700s.)

I don’t really know why it’s such a big deal, all told.  Amateurs on fan sites were analyzing the Harry Potter books well before this and will continue to do so. Academics may join in if they like, or not. It doesn’t much matter.

2 Comments

  1. The importance of literary criticism is that it teaches in depth analysis and critical thinking. Why should that be confined to Don Quiote and Moby Dick? I like the idea of using those skills on contemporary works and the fact the blogosphere and facebook are letting students put into practice the skills their teachers have been trying to teach them.

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