So I finally finished reading the Harry Potter series. I started reading when it first came out, gave up around book five and went back to it last month because I had a long plane journey ahead of me, they seemed like an easy read for that environment and I’ve felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to read them or either justify why I hadn’t finished them (apparently ‘they were getting boring’ is not good enough). So I know I’m late to the party on this one and the internet has already flogged this horse to death but I’m gonna jump in and help give the old nag a good send off.
First of all, to be absolutely clear: I don’t hate the Harry Potter books. Really, I promise I don’t. A lot of fandoms seem to think that “This is not for me” = “I hate the things you like, they’re stupid and you’re stupid for liking them” and this provokes anger. I don’t hate them, initially I really liked them, the attraction just wore off after awhile. This post will probably be dry and uninteresting so I’ve added a load of Harry Potter memes to help lower the tone. Needless to say, spoilers are incoming.
Why I gave up the first time round The plots were getting repetitive and formulaic – quirky stuff happens with the Dursleys, school starts, lots of catch up and plot threads teased, go to school for hundreds of pages and conveniently learn the exact spells you’ll need to defeat Voldemort when he shows up again with some overly complicated plot in the last few chapters.
By the time the fourth came out I could tell she was succumbing to one of the symptoms of publishing success – your books turn into cinder blocks. They just get longer and longer. It happened to Stephen King, Iain Banks and George R Martin as well. While the fourth book was actually quite good in terms of pacing the series overall gets really drawn out and there’s an increasing number of scenes of angsty teenagers dawdling about, doing nothing relevant. Then the fifth book was just abysmal.
Part of what annoyed me is that they’re all going through a selfish angsty teenager phase which is fine and realistic but there was no counterbalance, everything got angtsy which can wear on you after several hundred pages. Then they faff about just going from class to class to DA to class and oh my god I hated school and even I wasn’t this angsty and don’t get me started on the end [SPOILER – a certain character fell through a curtain, a bloody curtain, and then a few pages later everyone was talking about how he was dead? I had to re-read the chapter to see what I missed] So I gave up after book 5. These pacing problems get so much worse in books 6 and 7
there’s not much I can add to the reasons why the time turner was a universe breaking device. But apart from that the whole creation of the wizarding world is a bit slapdash with each book clumsily rewriting and contradicting what went before. For example, why didn’t Peter Pettigrew show up on the mauraders’ map when he was basically living in Ron’s pocket? Also, Harry saw his parents die so why can’t he see thestrals until book 5?
Now please don’t get me wrong, again, some of the details are really good and some of the ideas and spells and devices etc etc etc that she comes up with are really inspired but the world is quite patchy and wizard society as it’s described doesn’t seem sustainable.
The thing that bothered me most is that this is a world where wizards co-exists with humans, except you wouldn’t know it. Surely one of the muggle born kids thought to bring a pen to school? Why do they all use quills, why does no-one have a phone, why does nobody think of using muggle weapons against Voldemort? Why oh why has nobody ever heard of technology? Presumably a lot of these kids have been using it prior to arriving at Hogwarts?
Also, a lot of the concepts had been done before, just as well or even better, magic schools, time travel, ringwraiths (sorry, I mean dementors) weren’t exactly new concepts. This isn’t inherently a bad thing but it meant that when the writing and the plot failed to keep my interest the world itself had to work triple shifts to do so and it didn’t always succeed.
Problems with Hogwarts
This is a pretty dangerous school to be in (forbidden forest, Peeves, troll in the dungeon, a never ending queue of horrific injuries for Madam Pomfrey), health and safety should shut it down and the board would be sued for all they’re worth. It also fails to provide a well rounded education, this is explained a lot better in the Cracked video below but think about it, these kids are removed from traditional education at age 11 and never again learn history, maths, sex ed, anything. Also, the house system is really messed up. Does anyone else think that telling an 11 year old that you’re basically evil and now go live in the basement and talk to snakes might be a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Business Genius In fairness to Rowling, she’s a business genius. But that is one of my problems with the books. It seemed like often she was doing things to sell books rather than to make them better. Telling people that characters are going to be killed off became a bit of a gimmick, I know dozens of people who bought every book at launch just to read the last chapter and see who would die this time. Also, fair play and all for making Dumbledore gay, we need more positive portrayals of gay people in fiction, but she didn’t do that. She didn’t portray him as gay. She mentioned it afterwards in a press conference and not once in the books is he ever openly gay, in fact he’s basically asexual. I know lots of people started to read a lot into his friendship with Grindelwald but that’s just it, they were reading into it, it wasn’t necessarily there. If people didn’t cop it when reading the books before the announcement then you didn’t write it well enough, simple as, I’m all for subtlety but this is not that. If you’re going to make a character gay at least have the courage to show it, don’t shy away from it. At this point she was untouchable, I think having it confirmed in the text would have sent a much stronger message.
“How can you call yourself a writer/fantasy fan/human if you haven’t finished Harry Potter?” On a lesser scale is the ‘But you like Lord of the Rings/Star Wars/Insert Media Franchise here, how can you not like Harry Potter?’ This got really wearing after awhile, as if people were questioning my judgement and my very ability to write purely on an issue of personal preference. And if you haven’t figured it out by now I’m stubborn and occasionally pig ignorant so I dug in my heels and decided if that’s how everyone felt about it then I bloody well wouldn’t finish them. Then you have to deal with equally annoying problem of people demanding you justify that decision or that fact that your world doesn’t revolve around these books.
The message I know they’re kids books but the morality is fairly one-dimensional until the last two books where she makes the same attempt at course correction she did with her world building. having a hat tell an 11 year old their destiny is a bit messed up. The good characters are always good, the bad characters are always bad (except for Snape) and the writing kind of ends up very lazy on this part. Also the ‘chosen one’ narrative can be tedious, predictable and boring. It’s a great excuse for Harry not even trying to learn things that can help him defeat Voldemort and getting away with being a dick for much of the time. And the mother’s love thing is nothing short of deus ex machina.
But it’s getting people reading! I’m not wholly convinced about the Harry Potter as a gateway drug to books argument. Sure, a lot of people read Harry Potter who didn’t usually read. Then they stopped. Then maybe years later they picked up Twilight or the hunger games or whatever the YA media darling of the moment was. The people who read a lot growing up and happened to read Harry Potter are the people who would have read a lot anyway without reading Harry Potter.
Also, as much as I love reading and want kids to read more just because it’s popular doesn’t give it a free pass from criticism. See the Twishite series to understand why.
The romantic subplots I was never convinced by any of the romance in these books. They’re badly written and Ginny is a non-entity. She doesn’t have much of a personality, she seems to just exist as nothing more than a love interest, there’s no chemistry between her and Harry on page or screen. the only time she almost becomes a character in her own right is her function as a plot device in book 2
I liked the books up to a point, I even really enjoyed some of them. A lot of the preceding will sound really bitter but it’s not meant to be. These books just aren’t for everyone, but I did enjoy the first few growing up. I learned a lot about what I do and don’t like from reading them which in turn has helped my own writing. For nostalgia’s sake (and hypocrisy’s sake, while we’re at it) I did one Harry Potter tourist thing in London. Maybe I should be a bit easier on a series that just didn’t live up to it’s hype but it’s hard to stop reading critically if you’re a writer. Having recently finished the books I know I was right to stop when I did. They’re a good story but they have a lot of problems and lets just leave it at that.