My take on Harry Potter (and I’m sure JKR is really worried)

By , 27 July 2007 5:00 pm

That’s it, I’ve had enough. I’m going to retaliate. She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named made £1 million an hour on Saturday. I have held off on the HP series waiting for the dénouement but now, as my final blog before going on holiday, I shall give my take on HP7 and the series.

Now I have to make a confession. I gave up on the series two books earlier but I was so intrigued by the hype over the last one that I read the Wikipedia summary and then speed-read the last 50 or so pages of the HP7. Sorry guys, but life is short (and art is long and HP7 isn’t the latter). Anyway, if there are great plot spoilers below I apologise for offending the faithful.

Let’s get the praise out of the way first. JKR is imaginative, celebrates some good values, has some clever ideas and err… looks good on pictures.

1) Rowling was never a particularly good stylist, but she appears to have actually got worse. Perhaps now she is a megastar, she thinks she can dispense with editors. The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) review described her writing as ‘barely adequate’. And that’s generous. I know good writing when I read it, and this isn’t it.

2) Linked to this, is the fact that JKR she has no sense of what is best called ‘architecture’. We are running to the climax of an epic series so all the energy should be building up to be released in some final climactic confrontation. Instead, we get … well, she doesn’t deliver.

3) The plot is labyrinthine and often downright confusing. And no, I don’t think it’s because I had skipped about 1,800 pages. The websites seem abuzz with unresolved issues, and possible contradictions and superfluous characters.

4) I’m old-fashioned, but she is too ambiguous. The big question before the book came out was ‘Will Harry die?’ The big question now is ‘Did Harry die?’ I think she wanted to kill him off but couldn’t stomach it.

5) The book is pitched at an odd level. There are signs that Rowling is (sad to say) taking herself seriously and even aspiring to literature. So we get the portentous quotes at the start of the book. Yet the book inhabits two worlds simultaneously; the children’s story of sweets and spells and the black Gothic fantasy possibly saying something meaningful about life are uneasily intermingled.

6) There is an epilogue of unspeakable Middle-Class tweeness. ‘Nuff said.

7) The weaknesses in Rowling’s worldview are now exposed. There were those in the Christian camp who believed she was a Christian writer, albeit a very subtle one. I think that view is now impossible to hold. Those atheists who feared that God was going to walk on stage in the last book are doubtless relieved. He doesn’t: he’s gone missing. It seems plain that if Christianity exists for JKR as a writer, it exists as a set of ethical ideas and images merely to be ransacked for effect. For all the ‘superstition’ in the books, there is no overruling deity or divine powers. Despite the magic (which in most cases is little more than an alternative technology) it’s a bleak atheistic world out there. It’s sad. I had hoped for a clear redemptive death or the ‘Deeper Magic’ but no, it’s not there. Ironically, I think the American religious right were correct, but for the wrong reasons. The books are problematic, not because they promote Satanism but because they promote secularism.

Anyway, I’m on holiday for two weeks in Ireland. I will try and access the web, but I can’t guarantee it. For those who pray, do pray that when the manuscript of The Infinite Day reaches Tyndale on Monday it will be greeted with pleasure and a determination to push the book and the now finished series with all possible power.


Finished off!

By , 20 July 2007 9:15 pm

I hope you aren’t expecting any great words of wisdom from me today. I am written out – or is it written off? I have just finished the first decent draft of The Infinite Day and my good wife is anxiously reading it as fast as she can. So far, I am encouraged by the way that she tried to read it and eat breakfast cereal at the same time. Anyway, all being well, she will say that it works and that there are no major failings in continuity. And then with a few words here and there and a general tidy up it should be on its way to Tyndale very soon. I have also just written something for Speculative Faith.

I was tempted to write something on Harry Potter this week. You can’t seem to escape from him at the moment and I am constantly reminded that I have currently earned about one half millionth of She-Who-Need-Not-Be-Named. (At least in earthly terms; as a Christian I am paid into a bank elsewhere.) I would however mention an interesting article in a Time magazine piece on the books. It is called ‘Who Dies in Harry Potter? God’ by Lev Grossman.

In it, Grossman makes the point that Rowling has broken new ground by having God utterly absent in these books. Someone might point out that Tolkien never uses the word God in ‘Lord of the Rings’. True, but his active presence in events is assumed. It’s an interesting article.

Anyway I am off to clear my desk and find out where the rest of my life has gone.

Have a good week.

The three Cs of rewriting

By , 13 July 2007 7:14 pm

The good news for my fans is that I have now finished the first draft of The Infinite Day, and with college now over for the summer I am now working full-time on tidying it up. What does this involve? Well as a lay preacher, I tend to see things in threes, all beginning with the same letter. And here I am aiming for the three Cs.

1) Concision

Although we use concise a lot, the noun concision is not an everyday word, which is a pity because it is a useful one. The dictionary defines concision ‘as terseness and economy in writing and speaking achieved by expressing a great deal in just a few words’. Just so: in other words, it is the art of summarising something very complicated in such a way that the reader grasps it in a paragraph instead of having to wade through six pages. In writing things down for the first time you tend to be profligate with words. In rewriting, you try and boil your descriptions and dialogue down to the bare minimum. Sometimes concision requires that a prized bit of writing gets the axe!

2) Clarity

There are all sorts of things here. So, if you are describing a meeting, clarity involves making it absolutely obvious who is saying what. Or, if it’s an action sequence, where more or less everybody is and who does what to whom. The last thing you want is readers to pause with furrowed brow and backtrack for a couple of paragraphs until they are absolutely certain what is going on. (Incidentally, this is the real problem with experimental writing: it’s just too much like hard work.) Fairly obviously, clarity and concision can work against each other. Concision demands that something be described briefly, whereas clarity may require lots of words.

3) Consistency

I could use the more filmic word ‘continuity’. At one level, consistency is very easy, if hard work. It is to make sure that the facts match throughout the book. So at a simple level, it is to ensure that a character who has dark hair at the start still has dark hair at the end. But it gets more complicated. Do people speak in a particular voice? Is that consistent throughout? Or do they have similar mannerisms, likes and dislikes throughout? Or imagine A meets B briefly in chapter 1: the astute reader will spot the mistake if when they meet again, twenty chapters later, they have to be introduced. Needless to say in an epic trilogy such as mine, which must be heading for 650,000 words total, the question is not whether there will be continuity errors but how many will there be. (As another aside, my recollection is that there were a large number of continuity errors in the first version of Lord of the Rings, which were only tightened up in later editions.)

That’s all for this week. Hopefully, the manuscript will be in a fit state to print out and give it to my wife on Monday, who is anxiously awaiting it. Fortunately, or otherwise, the weather is so appalling at the moment that there is no temptation to hanker for the great outdoors!

A reality check

By , 6 July 2007 6:52 pm

I suspect one of the dangers that professional authors face is of living in the worlds they have created. This is probably a particular problem for those deeply immersive, all-embracing worlds that we fantasists love to conjure up. Has J K Rowling ever been in such a tight spot herself that her first reaction was to try to come up with the right spell? One of the things that authors really ought to do, particularly those who do not get out much from behind the keyboard, is keep an eye on the real world and what happens to real people.

There was a salutary lesson for us in Britain last weekend, with three possible terrorist incidents; none of which occurred and two of which degenerated into farce. In one case, the bomb car was towed away by that most mocked British figure, the traffic warden (eat your heart out, Bruce Willis!). In the other the villains raced their jeep at an airport terminal entrance, only to find that it wouldn’t go through the doors. The end result there was one badly burned bomber and a Glaswegian who has become a folk hero for doing what Glaswegians are so frequently condemned for: kicking the heck out of a stranger. The whole affair was so ludicrous that one paper, in a reference to a long remembered series of British farcical films, called it ‘Carry On up the Jihad’!

What has been interesting, though, has been the reaction to the revelation that the bombers were mostly medical people with intelligence and above average education. This leads to the problem of motivation. In secular Britain, the idea that people can have a religious motivation for acts that will lead to their own death and in the case of terrorism, the deaths of others, is beyond all fathoming. We are so much in love with sex, sport and shopping that we cannot imagine a higher motivation. The prosperity of these people: doctors, hospital registrars and the like, has thrown them. Good heavens, these people could even afford to buy a iPhone!

This undercuts the common socio-economic model for terrorism. You know the sort of thing: they had lost everything and so had nothing to lose by death; they had been so badly treated in life, that they decided to mete out death in revenge. Of course, it doesn’t work. By all accounts, they had been treated well by their host country. I even came across one desperate analysis which suggested that their anger might have been fuelled by the manifest monstrosity of the British NHS which takes doctors from poor countries, and gives them a living here and so deprives less developed countries of skilled medical labour. Frankly, anyone who has worked in the Middle East and seen the way that vast armies of Filipinos, Ethiopians and Sri Lankans are dragooned into what is little more than slavery will find that idea quite ludicrous.

You could of course invoke the brainwashing thesis but no one seems terribly happy about that. Maybe people are just going to have to seriously consider the idea that out of genuine religious reasons, men and women might decide that blowing up people was a good thing.

If the wealth of the would-be perpetrators has thrown some commentators so has as their evident intelligence. Many people believe the thesis of the Blessed Dawkins (who one gathers, would be very tempted to declare himself the ‘Messiah of Atheism’ and ‘God’s gift to the Sceptic’ were there not a few logical problems involved), that you have to be really stupid to believe in God. It ain’t so.

But these events in the real world are a reminder to us all, especially writers, that some of the deepest motivation in the human heart come from the very mixed world of religion. For good and bad.

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