Can 1 Critic Be Wrong About Harry Potter? Yes.
A Response to Harold Bloom, 18 Years Later
Harold Bloom is a famous English professor and literary critic. Although I haven’t read any of his books in full, I have become familiar with some of his views on literature after reading several of his essays and watching a number of his interviews on YouTube. I know two things for certain about Bloom: he adores Shakespeare; he loathes Harry Potter.
If you’re looking for a little more context before reading on, I suggest you go read Bloom’s turn of the millennium scribe against “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” published in the Wall Street Journal.
(Side note: it appears somebody created a “Harold Bloom” Goodreads account and posted the first half of the review on Goodreads, with a 1 star rating (it has an average rating of 4.46 stars from over 5.5 million people). This person has a sense of humour, given that they indicated that the book should be “Recommended For: children, the carrion-eaters of scholarship.”)
If you’re searching for a multimedia experience, take a break and watch this excellent interview with Charlie Rose.
Creation is antecedent to criticism. As such, the critic is in a sense a leech that needs both good and bad works to survive — in fact, some critics are ironically more indebted to awful works, because they often provide fodder for their best criticism.
Despite its inherently parasitic nature, I believe criticism is an art. Excellent criticism is a pleasure to read even if you’re unfamiliar with the subject. The best criticism offers insight into works that readers might not otherwise notice. So many books have been written that it would likely take one person tens of thousands of lifetimes to read them all — the critic is a necessary and useful guide; he or she does the hard work of identifying the works worth our precious time.
Harold Bloom is a great critic. In fact, his critique of Harry Potter is a good piece of criticism. But even Ptolemy’s offered a good astronomical model of the universe. It just happened to be wrong.
To prove my point, let’s see how Bloom’s Harry Potter piece performs in the rather incomplete rubric I’ve arbitrarily assembled:
1) Is it a pleasure to read?
Yes. Not only does Bloom open with a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet– flying his literary flag into battle, as it were — but he then goes on to take a shot at the New York Times “not very literate book review.” In an especially critical critique, shots need to be fired everywhere. Near the end of the piece, he offers a wonderful turn of phrase: “A vast concourse of inadequate works, for adults and for children, crams the dustbins of the ages.” This is good stuff.
When he finally gets to beating up the book itself, Bloom throws two hard jabs: Harry Potter is not only “not well written,” but it possesses no “authentic imaginative vision.” The only issue with these two claims is that Bloom doesn’t explain why he deems HP to be poorly written and unimaginative — he just assumes it’s self-evident. He identifies Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows” and the “Alice” books of Lewis Carroll as “superior fare,” but still doesn’t provide any substantive justification for the distinction. The only tangible piece of aesthetic criticism he offers is that Rowling’s “prose style, heavy on cliché, makes no demands upon her readers.”
As enjoyable as it was to read Bloom’s dismissal of the work, it’s still wrong. When the majority of the readership consists of pre-teens and teenagers, reading itself is a demand on the reader. We should celebrate any work that somehow manages to remain in the hands of a teenager when there could easily be a video game controller — or in the late 90s and early 2000s, a Gameboy. I vividly remember spending my 4th grade recesses reading the newly released Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire despite being tempted to join the majority of my peers who were playing road hockey, or trading Yu-Gi-Oh! Cards, or flicking Crazy Bones. Harry Potter is no Oddysey, but it undoubtedly helped inspire me with a love of reading.
2) Does it offer novel insights?
Yes. In merely 1200 words, he makes reference or comparison to 12 authors and/or their works. One particularly helpful parallel Bloom draws relates “Harry Potter” to “Tom Brown’s School Days” by Thomas Hughes (published in 1857), which he says Rowling has “taken … and re-seen in the magical mirror of Tolkien.” Here, perhaps, is his justification for the lack of authentic imaginative vision.
Bloom, to his credit, seems to anticipate objections to his criticisms that it might be better to read bad works than not to read at all. But he almost seems to refute this: “Why read, if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?” His question is rhetorical, but I have an answer: because you need to get better at reading before you can appreciate a work in a way that leads to a transformative effect. Sure, I could place Kafka in the hands of a schoolchild, but would they get anything from it? I doubt it. Worse, they might end up putting the book down and feel discouraged from reading altogether.
Another thread of criticism Bloom weaves disparages the fantasy that makes Harry Potter particularly appealing to young readers. Bloom’s apparent distaste for fantasy strikes me as bizarre considering his fondness for Shakespeare. Has he forgotten the conniving fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream? What about the spirits that do Prospero’s bidding in The Tempest? Does he take issue with the three witches in Macbeth? How about the paternal ghost that confronts Hamlet? Even if Romeo and Julietis is devoid of the supernatural, is the plot not extremely fantastical?
3) Does it indicate if it’s worth our time?
Yes. Well: yes, he makes it clear that he thinks it’s not worth our time. But Bloom, the good critic, goes even further to suggest that any enduring relevance Harry Potter might have will be indicative of a society wide failure in aesthetic appreciation. This seems a bit extreme. Reading, after all, is not a zero-sum game. If I had not read all of Harry Potter as a child, I’m not sure I would have been emboldened to tackle all of Shakespeare as an adult. Sure, time spent reading a bad book is time you will never get back, but I’m convinced Harry Potter has led people to go on to read more valuable works than it has distracted people into picking up stuff that was better off left in the dustbin. When it comes to offering a prescription for what to read, I tend to agree with William Faulkner:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read!”
What then, explains Harold Bloom’s strong distaste for Harry Potter? A cynical interpretation was that at the time he was selling a book (“How to Read and Why”) and attacking the most popular book of the day would offer the most publicity. But I’m not a cynic. Harold Bloom cared too much about literature — he was not a callous profiteer. I think the conclusion of his review offers a better clue, since it makes it clear that Harry Potter represented for Bloom only one malignant wave in a far turbulent sea of troubles:
“At a time when public judgment is no better and no worse than what is proclaimed by the ideological cheerleaders who have so destroyed humanistic study, anything goes. The cultural critics will, soon enough, introduce Harry Potter into their college curriculum, and The New York Times will go on celebrating another confirmation of the dumbing-down it leads and exemplifies.”
I hope he’s wrong about that too.