today this past weekend about an article on Harry Potter Fandom and its intersection with academia by Carole Cadwalladr. It was published last August (2006) in the British newspaper, The Guardian. I’d read it then and meant to blog about it, but forgot. When I started a reply to Alison, I realized that my reply was going to be several times the length of her own entry and I should, perhaps, do the writing here rather than blathering on her blog.
The short version is that this article (the Guardian one, not Deluzy’s) pissed me off to no end.
Why? Mostly because the author goes for the easy digs. Not just at academic jargon, which I would be the first to admit has a lot one can be critical of, but at the whole idea of cultural studies (though she doesn’t call it that). The author admits to having not read any of the books, except for part of The Philosopher’s Stone on the flight over, but feels since she has a degree in English and “has read Milton,” she’s somehow qualified to judge the papers at conference on the Harry Potter texts. Would the same work in reverse, I wonder? Would my having studied popular literature qualify me to write about conference and papers about texts I’d never read? It reminded me a bit of the wonderful line from the 1990 film Metropolitan — “You don’t have to read a book to have an opinion.” (1)
She makes a cheap shot, expressing the idea that something as popular as the Harry Potter novels have no place among a more adult canon of literature — ironically using the phrase at one point “it’s hardly Nabokov.” I say ironically because the phrase seems to betray a lack of cultural memory of what the reaction 30 years ago was to conference papers on Lolita.
Cadwalladr’s discussion of her background (or lack thereof) with regard to the Harry Potter books does raise the question of why The Guardian thought that she would be the best reporter to go over (remember, she went from London to Las Vegas — thank heavens it was such a long flight or one presumes she wouldn’t have gotten even the bit of reading done that she managed) and cover this convention / conference. Given how widespread the reading of this books has been worldwide (and in the UK specifically), they must have had to dig pretty deep to find someone who hadn’t read them. Perhaps the intent was to go for humor?
What mainly rang as false was her seeming belief that Rowling’s books were simply for / read by children, as though unaware of their large adult readership. I have a hard time believing she actually thought this was the case, but it is the way the article is presented. Why do I doubt her? Because in the UK there are so many adult readers that the paperback versions of the books are actually sold with two different covers, one for adults and another for children, so that adult readers don’t feel embarrassed when reading on the train. It’s hard to imagine a journalist being so unaware, especially of something that’s been reported on in her own paper.
This goes for the whole fanfic and slash fic thing as well, again something Cadwalladr presents as a subculture she discovered only by attending this conference. While hardly as widely discussed as the different adult / child book covers, this isn’t something new or even unique to the Potter-verse or science fiction and fantasy literature. Further, it was mentioned in big type on the announcement of this conference (I know this because the call for papers was sent to my academic listserv). As a journalist, if the term “slash fiction” was new to her, wouldn’t it be good journalistic practice to do a little research by, say, entering the unfamiliar term into Google? Doing a search for “Harry Potter” and “slash fiction” would have told her a great deal and, perhaps, saved her some of the shocks she [p]reports to have experienced.
It probably seems like I’m being a little hard on this one article. But I don’t think I am. While this isn’t my area of research (I do the much more boring field of Chicana feminist literature), there’s an extremely good reason for academics in literature and cultural studies to be interested in Harry Potter and JK Rowling. Leaving aside the importance of studying popular culture in general in order to understand about trends in our society, these are books that current undergraduates have grown up reading. If it isn’t already true now, it will be in the next five years. It’s a lot easier to introduce complex theoretical issues, whether Marxism, gender and / or race theory or whatever, when it can be taught using texts that students are very familiar with.
One of the most amazing moments of my life was standing in a huge line at the main Waterstone’s in London with thousand of people, many of them children, waiting for the store to open at midnight so they could buy their copy of the book. The crowd queued patiently (as one would expect of the British) but the excitement the kids were experiencing was an electric feeling. It was clear many of them had never been out so late, that for them this was better than Disneyland or Christmas. And I remember thinking at the time, how wonderful that one of the most exciting memories of their childhoods is going to be the collective experience of waiting in line to buy a book. It reminded me of nothing so much as the stories about 19th century crowds of Dickens readers standing waiting for ships from the UK to dock in Boston and shouting up questions about little Nell.
As a journalist working in the UK, how has Cadwalladr managed to miss this? Is there such a thing as a journalistic ivory tower?
(1) The longer version is even better. After listening to Tom dissing Jane Austen, Audrey asks:
“What Jane Austen novels have you read?”
“None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.”