Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Why I Love Harry Potter and Y ou Should Too

Mad About Harry

First of all, when I say I love Harry Potter, I am not referring to the, um, wand that is currently on display in London at Equus. Nor am I referring to the scene in last year’s movie version of Goblet of Fire, in which the 16-year old Daniel Radcliffe crawls into the tub in the prefect’s bathroom and begins to soap himself off. And I am absolutely not referring to his buff young body, and the almost-glimpse we got of his butt as he sunk into the bubbles in that scene. Or of the almost certain glimpse Moaning Myrtle got of his wand (which leads us to ask, why does Myrtle Moan?) No, no, no. I am not even talking about the creepy feeling I got as I realized that I, a 39-year old woman, was now lusting after 16 year-olds. We cannot talk about that on the internet at all. [Because Big Brother George is watching!]

No, I am talking about the fact that I was sitting in that movie theater in the first place. Me, a so-called adult, among all those children in the audience. Me, who has no child. (I had asked a friend if I could borrow her 15-year old son to take to the movie with me, as a sort of walker or beard, but said he was busy that night. And much too cool, he added in that mumbling way teenage boys have, for Harry Potter. Maybe he just meant he was too cool to be seen with me.)

For the record: I still fit into the same leather pants I wore in high school, and sing back-up in a rock band, so you can’t say I am totally uncool. But I am also happy to say that I am well past that age when I care whether I am thought “cool” or not. That is one of the rare advantages of growing old. You just don’t care anymore.

One disadvantage of being this old, however, is that I did not have Harry Potter when I was growing up. As a product of public school, my classmates and I were asked to read Hamlet, and Herman Melville, and the wonderful Catcher in the Rye. But I must confess that I felt the majority of these texts by old white men were not magnetic page-turners. These books were--and are--“classics” meant to turn us into all well-rounded citizens, who will learn that it is wrong to kill your father, noble to annihilate a whale, and really quite fun to spend a week in New York City. Whatever.

I’d have to say that none of the books I read in high school changed my life or world view. Nothing I read taught me how to tap into my own personal power. No, I just left high school worrying about how horrible it would be to have to spend the rest of your life wearing a scarlet “A” on your frock while Reverend Dimmesdale got to skip off into the sunset scott-free. Sexist. Totally sexist.

Anyway, I feel in many ways that, in missing out on Harry Potter in my youth, I missed out on something wonderful that could have changed my miserable adolescent life.

The other day, I heard a discussion on an early episode of Mugglecast (#43) about what you do if your peers make fun of you for reading Harry Potter. (Yes, I listen to Mugglecast weekly, and read Mugglenet.com daily, even though I am supposed to be acting like an adult, and promoting my first book (a memoir called Rex and the City) and finishing my second novel, and stacking firewood for my woodstove, and getting new snow tires for my car because it is supposed to snow two feet, like, tomorrow. But how can any of this practical stuff really matter, in this year 2007, with the fifth movie and the seventh book coming out? Cold harsh reality or kick-ass fantasy? Which would you choose?

Anyway, back to Mugglecast: I think the caller was thirteen years old, and she wanted advice from the wonderful, knowledgeable team of teenage Mugglecasters regarding how to respond to her tormenters.My first thought, as I listened to this discussion, was fuck them. The nay-sayers, I mean, not the Mugglecasters. Fuck the people who make fun of people who read Harry Potter. Fuck the bullies, the Cretans, the illiterate, the realists, the non-magical. Why should a reader who loves a book care what some non-reader thinks? Why, for that matter, should Harry care what Malfoy thinks? Let’s be ourselves, people! Let us love what we love and stay true to our truths.

But this is not an essay about being oneself. And “fuck them” is not the sort of thing one can say on a teenage podcast. One point I want to make is that one is never too “old” to read Harry Potter. I am not the first person to say this, of course, but consider this story:

In the summer of 2003, Order of the Phoenix came out, and I was still an ignoramus. I was also jaded, having worked as an editor and writer in the publishing industry for over ten years. I knew hype, and I knew how it works, and how it is manufactured, and I knew, that 99% of the time, the well-hyped book never meets up to a reader’s expectations, and the resulting disappointment is, because of the high expectations, crushing. And maddening. Hype gets people to buy books. Hype meisters don’t care what happens after the book is sold. If the reader is disappointed, who cares? The money has been deposited into the bank accounts of the giant publishing houses: Bertlemann's and the like.

Thus, jaded beyond my years, I tiredly assumed that the hype about the Harry Potter couldn’t be true. As a serious, hungry reader, I just didn’t want to be set up for such disappointment again. But then I saw, on a New York city subway, two sights that changed my life.

One was a young boy of about eight, wearing a Rudolph Steiner school uniform, reading Sorcerer’s Stone. He had a look of such rapture on his face I got teary-eyed, because I remembered what it was like to get so excited about a book. I remembered the abject thrill of getting lost in a fictional world. Then, three seats down, I saw a man in a business suit with that same look of rapture on his face. He too, was reading Sorcerer’s Stone.

It was one of those moments, one of those New York City moments, when you realize not much really separates us. We may be old young black white rich poor, but all of us—all of us riding that subway, all of us on this earth—just want to experience moments of rapture in our daily lives. So I got off at the next stop and bought the first book.

Now, I can honestly say, without being pseudo dramatic, that Harry Potter changed my life. My writing life, I mean. And my reading life. I was an avid reader as a child, an English major at college, and a creative writing major in grad school. Last year I published a best-selling memoir called Rex and the City. I don’t profess to be an expert on all books, but I can certainly spot a stellar one. Me and 300 million other readers.

So. I was in the middle of writing my second novel at the time—an ordinary story about ordinary humans experiencing ordinary things like loss and heartbreak called Nothing Keeps A Frenchman From His Lunch (forthcoming from Random House in 2008). I was actually living at an artist’s colony when I bought the first book, and working under a tight deadline to hand in the manuscript within a month.

But oh my, Harry Potter! The hype delivered one hundred fold. Every night, I stayed up until 4 in the morning, pouring through Book I, Book II, Book III. During my waking hours, I thought about young Harry. I worried about him. Why didn’t he just tell Draco to fuck off? Why didn’t he tell Dumbledore about the abuse at the hands of Snape? All I could talk about with friends, with my shrink, was Harry, Harry, Harry. Ron, Hermione, Harry.

Friends, already converts themselves to the Fellowship of Rowling, would nod and give me knowing, beatific smiles as I prattled on about the books. My shrink suggested we schedule extra sessions when I finished Book IV. “Why?” I asked. “Someone dies,” he said mysteriously. He refused to tell me who, citing patient confidentiality or some such shit.

I read that book cover-to-cover in about three days and spent the next two weeks in shock. How could Jo Rowling just kill off the dreamy Cedric Diggory? He was good, handsome, kind, smart--everyone's image of an ideal big brother (and, good Lord, did you see him in the movie? Total, total, young, illegal babe). Anyway, after Cedric's death, and Harry's torture, I was no longer certain that the good guys always win. And I marvelled at the fact that a so called "children's" book could inspire such "adult" emotions.

My own novel, the one I was supposed to be polishing off, seemed like drivel in comparison to HP. Who cared if so-and-so broke up with so-and-so, and left a rift in so-an-so’s heart that seemed impossible to mend? Who cared if I had Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom in mind for the film? After finishing Book IV, my perspective about writing had changed so much I had to set my novel aside for an entire year.

In grad school I studied creative writing, and read many, many wonderful stories and novels—all of them falling into the publishing category of “literary,” most of them beautifully written, and all of them meant to “shed light on the human condition.” Thus I learned how to write and craft stories that addressed human emotions and personal journeys, domestic conflicts and crises of faith. But we did not learn, for whatever reason, how to entertain. I think this might be because we--at the serious writing programs such as the one I went to--feel that an entertaining book falls into the category of genre, and genre books, in the minds of us literary writers, have no soul. Daily life, we argue, does not move at the pace of a page-turner or a pot boiler. Life is a series of quiet conflicts, that force us to become either better or worse human beings. With this aim in mind, I wrote a series of quiet novels and short stories, with tender, thoughtful characters who simply wanted love, and comfort, and to find their places in the world.

Reading JK Rowling was like getting struck with a celestial two-by-four by the god Hermes, who is the protector, they say, of poets and writers.

My book, I realized, was not a page turner. My life, I realized, was not a page turner. I was weak and non-magical. Suddenly I craved wizards and magicians. I wanted to write an epic of good and evil, not another low-pulsed version of what they call “domestic fiction;” what the New York Times would call a “quiet and thoughtful book on the minutia of heartbreak.”

Accio, plot!

For years I was a literary editor in New York, and helped judge an annual competition for the best literary novels published by writers under forty years old. After reading Harry Potter, I had to retire, because I just wasn’t enjoying contemporary novels anymore. Where was the Voldemort in the novel about the adulterous couple? Wouldn't it have been much more interesting if the character (in that American bestseller) who goes to Russia to search his roots could have flown over there on a broom? I started reading fantasy. Devouring it, is the word librarians always use. I started reading all the books I never read as a child: Lord of the Rings, Narnia, the Pullman series. And while I enjoyed those worlds, nothing, nothing, nothing ever compared to Harry Potter, and I wonder now if any book ever will.

Sometimes I think adults might need fantasy fiction more than children do. Our need

for escapism, these days, is dire. What adult wants to read literary novels about

husbands and wives, dirovrcees and disease, when we ourselves are diseased and

divorced? The best books allow us to escape, and what better place to escape to then


What will happen to us HP fans when the series ends? I think we're talking about like one-sixth of the entire human population. Imagine the collective shock! Will the energy of the earth literally shift with our seismic sorrow? Will it be like the day JFK was shot, when schools closed and the entire nation wore black?

My shrink was right about scheduling extra appointments. I hear that bookstores in England are already setting up special support groups and bereavement hotlines for readers who complete Deathly Hallows. And I don’t think only children will need these support groups.

I’ve read the series three times now, and I swear my moods change based on what is happening with Rowling’s characters. As I read further and further into the series, and the plots turned darker, I kept finding that my thoughts get darker too. When I witness the cruelty and injustice of Snape and Malfoy, I start to believe that the entire world is cruel and unjust. Each time Sirius dies I feel as if a dementor has sucked out my belief that goodness can prevail. I literally get depressed. I didn’t even realize this was happening—that my fantasy life was having a negative impact on my “real life.” But then my second go-round with Professor Umbridge nearly sent me over the edge. I walked around during the day raging. I was mad at Umbridge; mad at the whole world. I hated the injustice of the Bush Administration, of slavery, Hitler, female genital mutilation. I hated the people who were cruel to me in my past. I could not stand the fact that people like Umbridge could exist in this world – people who will inflict cruel punishments and get away with it.

One very good but insensitive friend (who has never read Harry Potter, I might add) actually suggested I take a break from Harry and “get on with my real life.” But then my shrink pointed out that perhaps the books were helping me “release old issues from the past.” And he had a point I guess. Reading Harry Potter was conjuring up real feelings in me as few books ever had: anger, joy, triumph, rage, sorrow. I always wanted to save Harry. I wanted to swoop in and kick all those Slytherin asses. I imagined all the ways i would have handled the antagonists: ignoring the asinine taunts of Malfoy. Telling Dumbledore about Umbridge. Dismissing Snape. And imagining ourselves as heroes can be truly fun. And empowering. You start to believe that each of us is capable of magic.

So there I was: thirty-five years old and wishing I was a wizard. My patronus, I knew, would be an eagle. I would be a Gryffindor. Ginny. I wanted to be the girl Harry Potter loved.

So does this bring us back to the Wand of Equus again? Or am I simply trying to say, in a long-winded way, that no one is too old or too young to love Harry? All I know is that I will never write, or read, in the same way again.

It is now February of 2007 and the final draft of Nothing Keeps A Frenchman From His Lunch is due in June. I started working on it again twelve months ago, and I am happy to say the plot has changed. There are no witches or wizards, alas, nor any epic battles between good and evil, but my characters do have to find within themselves some inner strengths, and to recognize what is good or evil inside themselves. You might say that they are able to discover what is magical about this world. And I thank JK Rowling for that.

My book is one year late, due primarily to the fact that I read Half Blood Prince while trying to complete the first draft (and decided, once again, that there was no point in trying to be a writer). But much good has come of this delay. Had I been on time, Frenchman would have been published on July 16th--four days after the HP film release and five days before the book.

Can you imagine? As Ron might say, “Bloody hell.” I probably would not have even gone to my own book party. I’d be too busy waiting outside the Union Square Barnes and Noble, dressed up like Professor Sinistra, waving a silver wand.

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