Most fiction is treated as entertainment and nothing more. You watch a movie for two hours, maybe talk about it a little with your friends afterward, and that’s it. There are some works here and there that are so dazzling they make a more lasting impression on you. Really spectacular special effects in a movie, or a particularly good line of dialogue, or a moving character death in a novel can do this.

This is as much of an impression as most fiction makes upon its audience. But there is another level on which a story can function. It is the most powerful, and also the hardest to achieve. That is the type of story that actually makes the audience look at the world differently, and act differently as a result.

This is, I think, pretty rare. There may be many stories trying to achieve it, but only a few succeed. And even those that do succeed probably only do so for a small percentage of their total audience.1

Note that when I say “act differently”, I’m not referring to the people who saw Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to start attending fan conventions in costume, or to name their children “Anakin” or “Hermione”, or to have themed weddings based on the stories. That’s fandom, and can happen with anything.

What I’m talking about is general knowledge that you can apply to a wide variety of situations. And it has to be something that wasn’t obvious or easy, at least not for you. Lots of stories try to have some overarching theme on the order of “You can do anything if you believe in yourself”. Which may be true, but is so obvious most audiences probably have heard it already.

Naturally, the idea for this post began when I asked myself, “What works of fiction changed how I act?” This is the list I came up with. Long-time readers will probably not be surprised by most of the entries:

  • Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II. (In a nutshell, the big takeaway is that every action has consequences, often ones we don’t foresee. So choose wisely and think about how your actions will influence others.)
  • Jane Got a Gun. (The lesson here is that you should never assume you know the whole story. You should listen to what other people have to say, even if you think you know better.)
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. (This one is pretty well known, but for me the lesson is that people try to seize power not only by force, but by controlling the thoughts of others. You have to resist them.)
  • Eating Bull by Carrie Rubin. (The point here is that what people eat is driven by a number of personal, societal and economic factors. Your diet is a more complicated business than you might realize.)

KotOR and Jane changed how I approach day-to-day interactions with people. Nineteen Eighty-Four changed how I read political news and think about government. And Eating Bull changed how I eat.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of fiction I consider “good”, though it is a sub-set of it.2 In fact, I was shocked at how short the list is, given how many works of fiction I enjoy in different genres and media.

I am a big fan of weird fiction, but I can’t say I did anything different after reading Lovecraft et al. (Other than trying to write weird fiction myself, I guess.) I love the movies Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown, but they didn’t change how I approach the world. And the works of Gilbert and Sullivan are also absent from this list, even though it was from a G&S critic, Gayden Wren, that I first learned how to analyze fiction in terms of “levels” of storytelling.

Now, it’s probably true that the stories I listed above weren’t the only way I could have learned these lessons. Maybe the reason I needed fiction to learn them at all is that I’m an especially unobservant person, or else I would have figured them out myself from observing the real world.3

But if so, that speaks to the power of fiction: it can teach people things they would otherwise never have learned.

NOTES

  1. To a degree, it’s a personal thing. The unique circumstances under which somebody sees a film, plays a game, or reads a book, probably play just as much of a part as the work itself.
  1. It’s important to realize that a story can also be pretty bad, from a technical perspective, but still change how people see the world. Many people seem to get life-altering epiphanies from reading Ayn Rand’s novels, but they still have many flaws as works of drama. This raises an important point, which is that some people  “cheat” and try to tell a story about big, powerful themes without first having a solidly-constructed plot and characters. If you do this, you usually just end up making something incoherent and pretentious.
  1. I guess this is the central difference between fiction and non-fiction. Fiction is entertainment, and it’s a bonus if you learn something from it. Whereas every work of non-fiction should teach you something new, or it’s a waste of time.

[See it at Scott’s website here.]

This is a good example of video game analysis done right. Scott’s description of the different levels of Deus Ex‘s story reminds me of (you guessed it) Gayden Wren’s style of analysis. You know how I love that.

As I’ve mentioned before, Deus Ex is one of my favorite games, and its atmosphere–which the game’s creator Warren Spector called “millennial weirdness”–was one of the major influences on my novella. I recommend watching this review for anyone who doesn’t play games to see what I mean.

Coincidentally, Spector tweeted this today (The embed tweet code isn’t working; sorry):

“When is a game going to win a Pulitzer Prize? Are we ready and deserving of such an honor? Can we at least TRY to be worthy of that? Please.”

Before watching Scott’s video, I probably wouldn’t have said Deus Ex deserved it, but having seen it, I realized that as a piece of “entertainment pseudo-journalism”, I decided it was.

51ojcxq47jlThis book is probably the single most significant and influential book for my intellectual development.  It changed the way I thought about fiction.  When I talk about motifs and  imagery and thematic coherence in my reviews of novels, movies, TV shows, and yes, even video games–that is Wren’s influence.

Without this book, I might not have ever learned the critical skills needed to appreciate dramatic art the way that I do. I’m not saying everyone’s reaction to it will be the same–it’s probably just a function of it being the first piece of critical writing I ever read–but nevertheless, I can’t overstate how much it shaped my thinking. It influenced me tremendously as a writer of fiction as well–after all, you can’t criticize fiction if you aren’t willing to put your ideas into practice, and hold yourself to the same standard you hold others.

But enough about how it completely altered my life.  You’re here because you want to know if it’s any good.

Answer: yes, it is very good, although I disagree with Wren on a few points.

A Most Ingenious Paradox is a critical analysis of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wren’s thesis is that each one contains a central theme, usually about Love, that is supported by all the lyrics, dialogue and music.  Wren argues that this underlying thematic element is the reason for the incredible staying power of the operas.

For example, the conflict of Love vs. Duty is a theme that occurs in at least 9 of the operas, and Wren argues that it is not fully realized until Yeomen of the Guard. (The only G&S opera with an unhappy ending.)

Wren’s thesis is that the endurance of the operas is due to their powerful central themes rooted in human nature.  Wren points out that scholars have long given the same reason for the longevity of Shakespeare’s plays. He makes a good case, offering extensive examples of how all the elements in each opera tie together to reinforce a thematic point–or don’t, in the case of less successful operas.

Still, there are some objections that can be raised to this idea.  For example, if Ruddigore is vastly more thematically coherent and developed than H.M.S. Pinafore–as Wren argues it isthen why has Pinafore been more popular, from its original run to the present day? Wren makes some effort to explain this, but never quite does.

(For the record: Ruddigore is my favorite of all the operas, and Pinafore among my least favorites, even though it was the first one I ever heard.  But while I agree with Wren’s analysis, there is just no way to argue Ruddigore is more popular. This suggests that perhaps the thematic element isn’t what determines a G&S opera’s fortunes.)

Then there is the problem of The Mikado, which is Gilbert and Sullivan’s all-time greatest hit, and Wren has to admit it is not as thematically sophisticated or emotionally deep as the operas either before or after it.  Wren writes: “The opera has something of the charm of a clever clockwork… [T]he ingenuity of the machinery is so remarkable, so flawlessly meshed, that it remains a source of joy on many repeated viewings.”

He’s right; and it would be hard to find any G&S fan who didn’t like The Mikado. But where does that leave Wren’s central argument? If the most enduring of the operas doesn’t contain the things he says make an opera endure, the whole thing looks shaky.

Re-reading it now, for the first time in about a decade, I realize I don’t–and never did–know if Wren’s main thesis is right or wrong.  And I don’t care.  What I do know is that it is an absolutely brilliant piece of critical analysis.  Wren’s masterful critique of what went wrong in Utopia, Limited should be required reading for all authors and dramatic critics. It is worth learning about the opera just to be able to understand that chapter.

Of course, if you don’t know Gilbert and Sullivan at all, you have to familiarize yourself with their work before the book will even be intelligible.  Obviously, I can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t love G&S, but if it’s not your cup of tea, you won’t understand this book.

For anyone familiar with the operas, however, I consider it a must-read.

ballad of black tomThis is a little unorthodox: Before I start my review of this novella (short version: it’s very good), I first need to discuss H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Horror at Red Hook, upon which it is partly based. Spoilers for both are ahead, obviously.

Red Hook is H.P. Lovecraft’s work in microcosm; showing both his best–his tremendous talent for creating a chilling weird story–and his worst–his extreme and vicious racism. It’s both one of my favorite Lovecraft stories for its plot and its atmosphere, and also one I hate the most for the way he despises all the non-WASPs at every opportunity.

The plot follows police detective Malone, who is investigating the suspicious activities of a wealthy and mysterious old man, Robert Suydam. Suydam purchases tenement buildings in the immigrant district of Red Hook, New York.

As is often the case in Lovecraft stories, the foreigners populating Red Hook are depicted as sinister, inhuman figures, controlled by the corrupted “Aryan”, Suydam. (Even the bad whites still outrank the non-whites, in Lovecraft’s world.)

Malone’s investigations of Suydam leads him to join the police in a raid of the tenement buildings, where they stumble upon inconceivable cosmic horror that nearly drives them mad. (For those unfamiliar with his work, this is the underlying concept of all “Lovecraftian” horror.)

The denouement consists of people thinking the menace is over when the buildings collapse in the police raid, but Malone, one of the few survivors, knows better; and evil foreigners in Red Hook are still heard murmuring diabolical chants.

I love the atmosphere and pacing of Red Hook–Lovecraft did a good job insinuating  occult machinations to create a powerful sense of dread. Malone is also one of his most complex and carefully-drawn protagonists. (Admittedly, that’s not saying much–more on this later.)

But I loathe calling it one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, simply because of the many paragraphs just dripping with violent racial hatred.

This is the issue LaValle’s novella addresses. The first half of The Ballad of Black Tom is told from the perspective of Charles Thomas Tester, a black man in New York who hustles to support himself and his father.

Tester is tasked with delivering a book of magic to a mysterious woman in Queens, Ma Att. This sets off a chain of events that includes a run-in with Detective Malone and his associate, an ignorant officer named Howard. Both Malone and especially Howard treat Tester with extreme racism and cruelty.

Additionally, Tester also encounters Robert Suydam, who hires him to play his guitar at one of the gatherings at his mansion. Though Tester senses something odd about the old man, he cannot refuse the pay to support himself and his father.

When Tester goes to the mansion, Suydam speaks to him of “the Outside”–meaning, essentially, other dimensions–and demonstrates his ability to move the house at will through space and time while a shocked and frightened Tester plays his guitar.

(While most of the story and characters are derived from Red Hook, this particular scene had shades of The Music of Erich Zann–one of Lovecraft’s best stories. I don’t know if this was deliberate or not, but I loved it.)

Suydam concludes by speaking of “The Sleeping King”–it is not clear to Tester what this means, but all the Lovecraft aficionados will know. In a panic, Tester tries to flee, but opens the door only to see Detective Malone standing in a completely different room than the one that should have been on the other side. Suydam’s manipulation of space and time at work.

Ultimately, Tester is allowed to go home with his pay, only to find that Howard has murdered his father. The policeman saw him with a guitar, which he claims to have mistaken for a rifle, and shot him dozens of times. Malone backs up Howard’s story, and they leave Tester broken and furious. This drives him to work with Suydam.

The second half of the story is told from Malone’s perspective. He learns that Suydam is taking over tenement buildings, and that he has a new lieutenant–a man called “Black Tom”.

Malone then returns to Ma Att’s house to track down the mysterious book. When he arrives, Ma Att’s house has vanished–a witness reports that it was seemingly through the supernatural power of a man matching the description of “Black Tom”.

Terrified by the power Tom and Suydam apparently possess, Malone quickly organizes a raid on Suydam’s buildings.  Being well-versed in the occult, he is able to find a hidden passage to a secret chamber that the other police miss, and there he confronts Suydam and Black Tom.

LaValle shows us more explicit horrors than Lovecraft ever would, but the real difference between the climax of Black Tom and Red Hook is that the former balances cosmic horror with personal motivation–LaValle never loses sight of what draws Tom (or Suydam, or Malone), to the weird and the sinister. In the final chapter, Tom makes it clear it was the cruel racism he experienced that drove him to become a monster.

Lovecraft rarely bothered to explore motivations. It was a deliberate artistic choice–he said in some of his letters that human concerns bored him, and so he preferred to focus on the horror of cosmic indifference.  That’s a legitimate storytelling decision; and many of Lovecraft’s successors have gone too far the other way, and overemphasize human emotions, to the point where it dilutes the cosmic horror. (Even the great Stephen King is sometimes guilty of this.)

LaValle gets the balance just about right, in my opinion.  The characters are human enough that we are interested in them, but the cosmic horrors are bizarre enough that we never lose that “dread of outer, unknown forces”, to quote Lovecraft himself.

I bought this book expecting it to be a “critique-by-way-of-story” of Lovecraft’s work and attitudes. And it certainly was that, but what I frankly did not expect was that it would also be a cracking good weird tale in its own right. Good cosmic horror is rare, and good cosmic horror balanced with other genres and techniques is even rarer.  As such, I highly recommend The Ballad of Black Tom to fans of the genre.

Philip Eil, writing in Salon, has a good article on “the genius and repugnance of H.P. Lovecraft”. It’s an issue that I think every Lovecraftian author has had to face at some point: how can we reconcile admiration of the “cosmic horror” genre that Lovecraft did so much to pioneer with his horrifying racial views?

It’s the old dilemma of separating art from the artist; similar to having to come to grips with the fact that Richard Wagner could on the one hand be enough of a genius to write “Ride of the Valkyries”, and on the other be an anti-Semitic bigot.  There are too many examples to count of cases where somebody is an absolute genius in their field, but a wretched person otherwise.

But there’s another, even more troubling question in the case of Lovecraft: what if the reason for his racism was also the reason for his talent for writing horror?

Racism, after all, is inherently based on fear of “The Other”.  Lovecraft was afraid of any and all non-WASPs, and it was probably that same xenophobia that made him able to concoct weird and terrifying creatures like Cthulhu.

Before anybody decides to quote me out of context: no, I’m not saying you have to be a racist to write horror.  I’m just saying Lovecraft’s racial fears and his horror often seem inseparable.  “The Horror at Red Hook” is, technically speaking, a good horror story,  but it also turns into one of Lovecraft’s most appalling racial screeds.

S.T. Joshi, the prominent Lovecraft biographer, is quoted in the Salon article as saying “There are perhaps only five stories in Lovecraft’s entire corpus of 65 original tales (‘The Street’ ‘Arthur Jermyn,’ ‘The Horror at Red Hook,’ ‘He,’ and ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth’) that have racism as their central core.”

Well, let’s not forget that in Lovecraft’s best-known story, “The Call of Cthulhu”, the evil cultists are invariably swarthy, unlike the Anglo-Saxon or Nordic “good” characters.  I don’t know how you define the “central core”, but racism is certainly present in huge swaths of “Cthulhu”.

However, while Lovecraft’s general fear of everything that wasn’t born and raised white and in Providence may have sparked him to be a horror writer, I do think his best stories (“The Haunter of the Dark” and “The Music of Erich Zann”) are the ones that don’t have racism.  (“Haunter” has a little bit of condescension towards Italians, though they are ultimately proven right in their superstitious views.)

Whenever Lovecraft’s racial views crop up in his stories, it has the effect of bringing the reader “back to Earth”–sometimes literally, since it puts the focus on the transient prejudices of a 20th-century writer, rather than on the timeless, cosmic sense of alien fear Lovecraft sought to evoke.

So while it may be that Lovecraft’s xenophobic mindset put him on the road to writing horror, I take comfort in the fact that his most effective stories were the ones that he didn’t corrode with his racism, and stuck to exploring universal human fears of unimaginable and unearthly monsters.

For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis.  The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.

It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes.  Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.

It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it.  That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them.  Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill.  It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.

One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”.  This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless.  And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”.  I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out.  The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs.  Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.

I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people.  I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.

Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.

A friend of mine told me about the great themes of literature. The idea is that most great books, movies, etc. all have at least one of the following  themes.  She and another friend had come up with two of them–they suspected there was a third, and I’ve included the suggestion I cooked up. Here are the categories:

  1. “Love Conquers All”–Pretty much all happy endings fall into this category. The Harry Potter series practically had this embossed on every page. In Star Wars it’s a little less obvious, but it’s still there.  It can be different kinds of love–romantic, familial, platonic.  I’d say To Kill a Mockingbird is a “love conquers all”, in the sense of a sort of universal, fraternal love between all people (Yeah, that makes the book sound way more gooey than it really is.) Jane Eyre also falls into this category as an example of romantic love conquering all. And for the record, every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta except Yeomen of the Guard and The Grand Duke is in this category also. I’m not sure how bittersweet love stories like Casablanca fit in here–the love story doesn’t wind up exactly where the leads get what they want, but it’s not really a tragedy, either.
  2. “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall”–This is the category for tragedies.  In Greek tragedy, “The Gods” or “Fate” are “City Hall”, and the stories end badly when people try to fight against their will.  Chinatown, one of my favorite movies, is almost the epitome of the “ya can’t fight city hall” genre (e.g. the line ‘He owns the police!” at the end.) Dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four usually end up being in this category as well.  I think your really good horror stories–like Lovecraft’s best–fall into this as well, with unexplainable, powerful supernatural forces standing filling the role of “city hall.” But the concept can be extended psychologically–in Macbeth, city hall could be either the supernatural forces of the witches or Macbeth’s own failings as a person.  I guess this is because tragic stories have a feeling of inevitability about them, and that’s what makes them feel tragic.  Most of Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category.
  3. “The Cake is a Lie”. Most thrillers and twist endings fall into this category by default.  (I took the name from the famous line in the video game Portal.) This is the category for stories where things aren’t as they seem.  The Repairer of Reputations, as well as most unreliable narrator stories–e.g. The Turn of the Screw–are in this.  But also any story where a major element is that characters are deceiving others, or themselves.  This is where I think The Grand Duke fits as well, because everyone is pretending to be something else.  Most “meta” narratives fall into this category, because they are about illusion and deception.  I’d argue that the game Spec Ops: The Line has one foot in this camp, and one in the “ya can’t fight city hall” camp. Works with ambiguity and room for multiple interpretations fit in this category as well.

What do you think, readers? Any suggestions for things that fit these categories? Anything that doesn’t fit any of these categories?  Are the categories themselves nonsensical?

 

P.M. Prescott’s comment on this post reminded me about the concept of “fractal” structure for a piece of literature.  I was about to write a post about it, but then I remembered–as with the vampires a few weeks ago–that I’d already done so, two years ago, almost to the day.

He’s right that there’s a limit to how much complexity you can give a character before people will get bored of hearing about it.  That’s why the best character development is done through “showing, not telling”, as the old adage says, and having their complexity displayed through the plot-driving actions they take. And maybe best of all is having characters who are ambiguous–that way, the audience will start to make up their own explanations for their motivations–provided you give them enough material to work with.

It’s also true that you don’t need complex characters to have a good story.  The characters in Animal Farm, for example, are largely just allegorical caricatures of political figures and parties from the first half of the 20th century.  But it’s still a great book.

I guess the real key, whether your characters are nuanced and complex, or simply cut-outs who represent something else, is to make sure it all works together as part of the story you are telling. The characters and incidents need to somehow reflect or represent the larger story.

For example, one of the major of themes of the book Of Mice and Men is loneliness.  To quote the Wikipedia article:

Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for —- she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch…  The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”

Each of the characters and their major issues are somehow related to that theme. That’s what makes it a theme.

Another example of what I’m talking about–not so much with characters, but rather concerning the idea that the individual pieces reflect the whole, is in the Sherlock Holmes stories.  Many of them start out with Holmes and Watson talking about some minor curiosity.  Holmes then explains it to Watson by using his deductive powers, and shows how he was able to figure out what Watson (and everyone else) would miss.

Then the actual plot of the story, the central mystery, is introduced. It will be resolved in exactly the same way; with Holmes making deductions to solve the case.  This is called “foreshadowing”, but it’s just a matter of the micro-elements of the story resembling the macro-elements.

Needless to say, as P.M. noted, this is all really, really hard to write.

I know I’m in the minority on this, but me and a friend happened to be talking about our disappointment with the Harry Potter series.  I think talking about J.K. Rowling’s new book was what started it.  We agree that 6/7 of the series is quite good.  But the last 1/7 is a different story.

The series starts out magnificently, the first 60% or so being among some of the finest adventure epics I’ve ever read.  In the second half, it gets weaker, but still very, very good.  But it culminates in an inexplicable and unforeseeable disaster that tarnishes the whole thing.  It is the 2007 New England Patriots of Y.A. fiction.

The first four books combine adventure, humor, horror and mystery into an excellent package.  The climactic scene in the fourth book where Voldemort rises again gives me chills every time I read it.  The next two books are not as good—they have more pointless teenage angst, and seem less tightly-plotted and well-edited than the previous ones.  But they’re still quite good.

And then, alas, we come to book seven.  The best thing about it is the cover.  (In fact, the quality of Harry Potter books is inversely proportional to the quality of their cover art.)

This book is a mess.  There is no gentler way of putting it.  Early on we have the inexplicable alteration in Remus Lupin’s personality.  Why he would suddenly become so reckless makes really no sense for the character, except, I guess, to set up a tearjerker fate for him and Tonks.  It doesn’t work for me; it feels like the character just wildly altered his personality for no reason.

Then there is there is the posthumous destruction of Albus Dumbledore’s character.  Now, I like the idea of a seemingly generic, stock character (kind, wise teacher) turning out to be more unique and interesting.  Theoretically, it sounds like a good idea.  But it doesn’t work with Dumbledore, because it comes too late in the story, and moreover it takes too much time away from developing other characters.  Which leads me to my next point…

The marginalization of Severus Snape is another weird error, compounded by the fact that he got all the advance hype, and yet was barely in the book save for one flashback chapter.  Snape is by far the most interesting and complicated character in the series, but he gets largely ignored and instead we get “The Dirty Life and Times of Albus Dumbledore”, or whatever it was.

This is all pretty bad so far, but I might have liked the book despite it all.  What ruins it for me are the following catastrophic things.

First and foremost: The pointless introduction of the Deathly Hallows, which just confuse everything and add even more MacGuffins on top of the already hard-to-keep-track-of Horcruxes.  The first six books were spent setting up the Horcrux plot thread; the Deathly Hallows just show up out of left field.  They are a magical device too far.

This is closely related to the problem that the Deathly Hallows, particularly the Elder Wand, are governed by a set of byzantine laws that seem designed arbitrarily for dramatic effect.  And even for dramatic effect, they fall short.  The entire book  hinges on Dumbledore’s “final plan” going awry, Voldemort not studying his Wizarding law, and Potter just happening to disarm Malfoy at the right moment.  Not on Potter learning something, or having courage; it’s just sheer luck.  Realistic, I guess, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the series.  (Jenny Sawyer wrote a review when the book came out that addresses this in a bit more detail.)

Finally, in the atrocious epilogue, I don’t understand how it is that no one seems to have learned that Slytherin house creates vastly more problems than it solves, and that it really should be abolished.  Here they are, with the old rivalries still maintained, despite the fact that Slytherin’s Founder buried a giant monster under the school, his “heir” tried to conquer the world, and all but two of the people who are known to have attended Slytherin have been evil.  (Even Snape and Slughorn aren’t exactly model citizens, but they keep it from being uniformly bad.)

But no, nobody cares, and they are still admitting people into Slytherin, effectively sorting all the little maniacs into one isolated group, cut off from the rest of the school.  I would have tweaked the Sorting Hat’s algorithm to distribute the evildoers into the other houses, where they might be reformed, or at least restrained.

There are other flaws as well–the extremely dull camping trip (and the attendant return of pointless teenage angst), the comical ineptitude of Voldemort and his minions, the unbelievable ease and speed with which the entire Ministry of Magic converts from being a liberal democracy into an authoritarian regime.  (Did all Ministry of Magic employees get a memo “You’re all going to be Nazis now”?) but these could be overlooked, if not for all the major flaws mentioned above.

All this adds up to a disaster.  The characters are inconsistent, which makes them hard to care about.  The MacGuffins and plot devices pop up everywhere, and are not really connected to each other in a meaningful way.  The climactic battle between Potter and Voldemort is resolved by a quirk of wizard law, an ending which would be very well in a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, but not so good in an epic high-fantasy novel.

Star Wars fans moan endlessly about how “the prequels ruined Star Wars“.  Putting aside that I like the prequels, I never understood how the creation of a new movie could somehow retroactively ruin previous ones.  But I can sort of feel that way with Harry Potter thanks to Book Seven.  It sort of dulls the appeal of the whole series for me.  It probably shouldn’t, because I can still go back and read the brilliant Chamber of Secrets and it is every bit the tightly-plotted magical thriller that it was before Deathly Hallows was even written.  But, the fact remains, I have not bothered to revisit any of the other Potter books since Hallows, and I suspect my lack of motivation to do so is because of the awful finale.

When you criticize something popular, people usually respond with: “could you do better?”  Fortunately, I don’t have to.  The good people at “How It Should Have Ended” have already supplied an answer to that question:

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.