(This post is part of the Once a Month Book Club link up over at A Permanent Flux. This month's theme is Harry Potter - "anything so long as it's Potterific".)
This month's theme in the Once a Month Book Club is Harry Potter, and I almost decided not to play. What could I, honestly, write that would meet the commandment that it be "Potterific"? I was stumped, and here is why:
I didn't really like the Harry Potter books all that much. I don't own them, have only read the first four to the end and half of book 5, and have only seen the first movie, and I don't remember much of it, to be honest.
Before you start telling me how wonderful Potter is, how seriously deluded I must be, let me tell you - I *tried* to love these books. I tried really hard. I quite enjoyed the first two books, actually; I thought the idea was a clever and vibrant riff on two of the great tropes of children's fiction, the school story and the magic story. I liked Harry and his friends. I thought the first book in particular had quite a Roald Dahl-ish feel about it, that sense of a resilient child's-eye view of magic and menace, humour and really grisly adult behaviour, that makes Dahl so everlastingly appealing to kids.
I have tried to pin down what it was about the Potter books that ended up feeling so blah to me. It wasn't easy, because these are not badly written books - Rowling is a better than competent writer with an engaging turn of phrase and a real gift for characterisation. I don't do well with prose that is turgid, flat, over-written or excessively descriptive (less telling! more showing and doing!) but I can't honestly say the Potter books are guilty of these sins. In the first two books in particular, the stories zip along, the dialogue is really well written, and the characters emerge (slowly, but it is kid's fiction - you're not going to get Madame Bovary style intricacy, and nor should you).
So if the books aren't badly written, what is my problem with them exactly?
I know it's not just a contrarian reaction to their popularity; I love the Hunger Games books passionately, for instance, and they are extremely popular. I consider popularity to be neither a recommendation nor a disincentive - some really great books are widely read and some really rubbish books are. It's not a useful filter, overall.
I don't think it's the school-story focus, although I'm willing to admit that may be part of it. With the short-lived exception of a 9-month crush on the Chalet School books when I was about 10, I never really took to school stories in a big way; as an older child and young teen, I was mostly reading sci fi, fantasy and crime fiction. Stories set in boarding schools didn't hugely appeal to me, and maybe they still don't.
I think, really, it's probably down to three things:
1. These books very quickly (in my opinion) started to suffer from the Too Many Characters and Too Many Sub-plots traps. As a reader, I can maintain interest in and connection to three, maybe four, main characters, with a suitably rich, but backgrounded, supporting cast. The more people I'm supposed to care about, the more side-stories I have to track, the harder I have to work, and the better the overall story has to be to justify it. I don't begrudge the effort when it's Tolkien, but Rowling, I would contend, is no Tolkien.
2. I really felt that the fourth book (which is noticeably fatter than its predecessors) showed a lighter editorial touch, and not to the book's benefit. Without having the slightest basis for this suspicion, I wondered if perhaps Rowling's increasing fame by that stage made her less vulnerable to editing. Whether that's so or not, I thought the fourth book was bloated, and it didn't inspire me to plunge ahead with any great enthusiasm.
3. I got tired of the master plot. This is what I call the X-files trap - collapsing under the weight of the expectations you've created, that nothing could ever really fulfill. It gets to the point that even if you Break All The Things, Reveal All the Shockingly Shocking Secret Businesses and Kill A Large Number of Sympathetic Characters Just to Show You Mean It, it's not enough. I understand that the final book did a bit of that, no doubt in an emotionally resonant way for those who had engaged fully with the characters and the story (ie not me).
Anyway, for better or worse, that's probably why I'm not a big Potter fan. There are certainly an ocean of worse books, I'm not claiming otherwise, but for me, these didn't ring my bell, and I can live with that.