Aprapos of the new J.K. Rowling novel HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, which has sparked the usual backlash from self-appointed guardians of cultural standards, Los Angeles Times’s Charles Taylor pokes a pin into the gasbags full of hot air who despise the POTTER books because they do not measure up to some elitist standard of “great literature.’
Because literary culture is so insular and defensive, it’s no surprise that the out-of-nowhere success of Rowling would be taken as a threat. But I think that anyone who has a stake in seeing literature not just survive but thrive is a damned fool not to rejoice in the success of the Potter series.
Not because the books are popular but because they are popular and good. The kids for whom the Harry Potter books are the first big books they’ve embarked on will start off with a belief that books must engage them, must make them feel swept up in something bigger than themselves, must make them feel the joy and the pain of having an emotional stake in characters and in story. For adults, the books may make them remember why they read in the first place — and make them less tolerant of the arid cult of the beautiful sentences that has turned so much literary fiction into a show-and-tell exercise of polished, bloodless craft.
Taylor wisely acknowledges that there is inevitably an element of elitism to all criticism (that’s what happens when you try to separate the good from the bad), but that elitism should not blind us to the joys of popular art just because it is popular.
Taylor makes his case in his final paragraph, citing the ending of RATATOUILLE, in which “The Grim Eater” rediscovers the joy that drove him to become a food critic in the first place:
He … has a speech in which he suggests that the critic’s great function is to be the most egalitarian of elitists. In other words, to remember that good work can come from anywhere. In the case of the Harry Potter books, an unemployed single mother, working in a cafe where she could linger over the one cup of coffee she could afford, has reminded much of the world of the adventure of discovery that literature is meant to be.