J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All

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News Media Commentary
Title: J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All
Commentator: Lev Grossman
Date(s): July 17, 2005
Venue: print, online
Fandom: Harry Potter
External Links: page 1; archive link page 1 - page 2; archive link page 2 - page 3; archive link page 3 -page 4; archive link page 4
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

J.K. Rowling Hogwarts And All is a 2005 article by Lev Grossman. It has the subtitle: "As the much awaited Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince arrives in stores, J.K. Rowling talks frankly to Lev Grossman about fantasy, fathers and how the magic is almost over."

It was printed by "Time Magazine" (vol. 166, issue 4).

Some Topics Discussed

  • Rowling was not a fan of fantasy
  • Rowling feelings on wrapping up the series
  • Rowling's statement that she subverted the genre

From the Article

Here is a J.K. Rowling who lives in the hearts and minds of children everywhere. She has a fairy wand and hair of spun gold, and when she laughs her tinkly laugh, tiny silver bubbles come out of her mouth.

[...]

The real Rowling's hair is sort of gold, although at the moment it has about an inch of dark roots. Which is understandable, since in the past six months she has given birth to her third child--daughter Mackenzie--and completed the sixth book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which was released promptly at midnight on Friday. At 39, Rowling is a tall handsome woman with a long face, a slightly crooked nose and interestingly hooded eyes. Sitting at a conference table in a bungalow adjoining her stately Edinburgh home (neither her only nor her stateliest home), she talks rapidly, even a little nervously. She uses the word obviously way more often than the average person does, and she likes to say outrageous things, then break out into fits of throaty alto laughter to show you she's just joking. Rowling wears all black--a floppy black sweater, black pants. A glance under the table reveals shiny black leather boots with steel spike heels that are, at the very least, three inches long.

Fans send Rowling wands and quills by the bushel, but she admits, a bit shamefacedly, that she never actually uses them and that the wands go straight to her oldest daughter, Jessica. The most popular living fantasy writer in the world doesn't even especially like fantasy novels. It wasn't until after Sorcerer's Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one. "That's the honest truth," she says. "You know, the unicorns were in there. There was the castle, God knows. But I really had not thought that that's what I was doing. And I think maybe the reason that it didn't occur to me is that I'm not a huge fan of fantasy." Rowling has never finished The Lord of the Rings. She hasn't even read all of C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels, which her books get compared to a lot. There's something about Lewis' sentimentality about children that gets on her nerves. "There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex," Rowling says. "I have a big problem with that."
It's precisely Rowling's lack of sentimentality, her earthy, salty realness, her refusal to buy into the basic clichés of fantasy, that make her such a great fantasy writer. The genre tends to be deeply conservative--politically, culturally, psychologically. It looks backward to an idealized, romanticized, pseudofeudal world, where knights and ladies morris-dance to Greensleeves. Rowling's books aren't like that. They take place in the 1990s--not in some never-never Narnia but in modern-day Mugglish England, with cars, telephones and PlayStations. Rowling adapts an inherently conservative genre for her own progressive purposes. Her Hogwarts is secular and sexual and multicultural and multiracial and even sort of multimedia, with all those talking ghosts. If Lewis showed up there, let's face it, he'd probably wind up a Death Eater.
Granted, Rowling's books begin like invitations to garden-variety escapism: Ooh, Harry isn't really a poor orphan; he's actually a wealthy wizard who rides a secret train to a castle, and so on. But as they go on, you realize that while the fun stuff is pure cotton candy, the problems are very real--embarrassment, prejudice, depression, anger, poverty, death. "I was trying to subvert the genre," Rowling explains bluntly. "Harry goes off into this magical world, and is it any better than the world he's left? Only because he meets nicer people. Magic does not make his world better significantly. The relationships make his world better. Magic in many ways complicates his life."

It's disconcerting to think of Rowling stepping out on Harry and the gang with another set of characters. But at least we can say Harry is Rowling's last wizard. From here on out, it's Muggles only. "I think I can say categorically that I will not write another fantasy after Harry," she says, making herself and her publicists, who hover nearby, visibly nervous. "Wait, now I'm panicking. Oh, my God! Yes, I'm sure I can say that. I think I will have exhausted the possibilities of that. For me." Beyond that, she isn't giving away many clues, but she's approaching the project with her usual ruthless skepticism. "We'll have to see if it's good enough to be published. I mean, that is a real concern, obviously, because the first thing I write post Harry could be absolutely dreadful, and, you know, people will buy it. So, you know, you're left with this real insecurity."

But future insecurities can wait. Rowling still has book seven to worry about. She has already started writing. "It will be a very different kind of book," she says, "because I kind of cue up the shot at the end of six, and you're left with a very clear idea of what Harry's going to do next."

"And," she adds in an uncharacteristic moment of hubris, "it will be exciting!" Then she immediately retreats into self-deprecation. "You don't know! You might read six and think, Ah, I won't bother."

But that, for once, is pure fantasy. Obviously.

Fan Comments

2006

Another statement that has brought criticism to Rowling was her comment, offered a couple of different times, that she didn't intentionally write in the fantasy genre and, in fact, didn't consciously realize that she was writing fantasy until, as she put it, "I suddenly thought, This has got unicorns in it. I’m writing fantasy!" 12 Her first comment, published in Newsweek in 2000, doesn't seem to have attracted much notice, even though she also said "I don’t really like fantasy." 13 However, she repeated the same sentiment in a Time Magazine interview in 2005:

It wasn't until after Sorcerer's Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one. "That's the honest truth' she says. "You know, the unicorns were in there. There was the castle, God knows. But I really had not thought that that's what I was doing. And I think maybe the reason that it didn't occur to me is that I'm not a huge fan of fantasy." 14

Perhaps because the author of the article, Lev Grossman, also made scathing remarks about the fantasy genre or because Rowling's fame has grown since 2000, this statement immediately attracted negative attention from the community of fantasy writers, who were offended that Rowling spoke so dismissively of their ’ and her ’ genre.

Best-selling fantasy author Terry Pratchett wrote a letter to the Sunday Times criticizing the article and mocking Rowling for not realizing that she was writing fantasy.15 A week later, there was a panel discussion at the WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention debating the contention "Harry Potter Has Set Children’s Fantasy Back 50 Years" 16 This was almost certainly planned before the Time Magazine article was published, but the tone of the panel seems to have been quite negative, perhaps influenced by the article. [1]

2008

Soon after the release of HBP a now rather notorious interview appeared in TIME — one which was clearly written with a quick-quotes quill by a Mr Lev Grossman.

The most objectionable statements, and there were quite a few of those, were put into Rowling’s mouth by the journalist — who obviously prided himself on not reading fantasy, and consequently wouldn’t recognize a valid work of fantasy if it bit him on the kneecap. He further chose to flaunt his ignorance by setting up a straw man to describe to his readers just what fantasy is; an example which was so ludicrous that it simply underscored the fact that he either is an ignoramus or was doing a determined job of pretending to be one. The fantasy genre is just plain not the “deeply conservative” environment of his imaginings (although the Potterverse, rather embarrassingly, seems to have turned out to be). And there is a whole lot more to fantasy than just high quest fantasy.

This interview drew some fire when the popular author, Terry Prachett publicly (and deservedly) mocked it in a letter to the editors. But one of the statements in that particular puff piece that really was Rowling’s was the statement that she doesn’t consider herself a fantasy author. She isn’t a particularly big fantasy fan.

And it shows. If the Potterverse was ever really intended as a secondary fantasy world she did not do her homework. In fact she appears to have been unclear on the concept of just what the assignment even was. Great swathes of the background are simply missing, and she seems unaware of the fact. There is no well-conceived and solidly constructed secondary world to be found here. Not even close. There is no solid foundation. The whole edifice shimmies in a high wind. This is not an Alternate Universe. This is our own world as reflected in a funhouse mirror. You are supposed to laugh at it. Until you finally figure out that it just isn’t funny.

By then I was beginning to suspect that that just may be the point.

“I was trying to subvert the genre,” Rowling explains bluntly. “Harry goes off into this magical world, and is it any better than the world he’s left? Only because he meets nicer people. Magic does not make his world better significantly. The relationships make his world better. Magic in many ways complicates his life.”

Well, that’s what she is supposed to have said.

However, I was unsure as to whether even that statement could be taken at face value. As I point out above. Rowling’s wizarding world, once you look past the deliberate silliness spread thickly across the surface, really isn’t funny at all. And even its own best and brightest don’t seem to have that much of a grip.

...Even leaving aside the issue of how she can possibly claim that having magic “complicate the hero’s life” ought to be taken as subversive when that has ONLY been established as one of the fundamental defining principles of the whole genre of children’s fantasy since the mid-19th century, I don’t know.

But, truly, there isn’t any more of a “secondary world” to be found here than can be found in ‘The Rose and the Ring’. The Potterverse, when even casually examined, hasn’t much more order or continuity than the Land of Oz.

Well. Hey. Fans have spent the last 100+ years trying to come up with a “unified theory of everything” accounting for the myriad contradictions attributed to the Land of Oz. It’s totally irresolvable, but its still highly entertaining to the people who are still out there doing it more than a century later.

But somehow I’m not sure that they will be doing that for the Potter series in 2107.

...]

I also keep thinking back to that Lev Grossman interview in 2005, which appeared to be such a clear case of the interviewer putting words in the interviewee’s mouth. I’m just not so sure of that any more.

Grossman clearly had an axe of his own to grind against fantasy literature in general, disparaging it as “deeply conservative” and apparently neither admitting nor realizing that there was anything more to the genre than High Quest Fantasy in the tradition of several decades of Tolklones. That Rowling’s work appears to be even more “deeply conservative” in its outlook than Tolkein’s ought really to be mildly embarrassing to all concerned by now. But I suspect that in this case the usual subjects are all effectively shameless.

But Rowling did make that one clear statement, quoted above, which was her own, about wanting to “subvert the genre.” Even if she did follow up that statement with the somewhat confusing example of Harry discovering that magic didn’t make the world any better, and that the wizarding world wasn’t any nicer than the Muggle one, he just met some nicer people there.

I couldn’t make any sense of that statement at the time. The trope of magic complicating the protagonist’s life has been around since at least the days of Mrs Molesworth, and it was certainly solidly-entrenched by the time of E. Nesbit, who is an author that Rowling at least admits to having read.

But downstream of DHs I began to wonder whether she may have meant exactly what she said, and, if that is so, she has certainly succeeded.

It looks like fantasy, and it quacks like fantasy, but it sure the hell doesn’t walk like fantasy, and it isn’t a bit watertight. In fact, it sinks like a stone. [2]

Of course, we all have a problem with that. Mr. Grossman asserts Ms. Rowling hasn’t read all the Narnia novels but an event in the last pages of the series finale really gets under her skin? Oi. And the report after an interview in 1998 that she “still re-reads The Chronicles of Narnia, famous for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (she likes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader best)”?

But leaving aside Mr. Grossman’s anti-Inkling agenda for a moment, this article and its report of Ms. Rowling’s thoughts on Tolkien give us the very clear idea this author is not a Tolkien reader and it would be safe to shelve the Shire as a place of great influence on Ms. Rowling’s creative imagination. Dumbledore is no Gandalf shadow etc.

Without even going to the texts for a comparative exercise, however, other secondary material suggests Ms. Rowling has read The Lord of the Rings and that she read it attentively, repeatedly, and during the time period she was framing the Potter novels. [3]

References

  1. ^ from If the Author is Dead, Who's Updating Her Website? J.K. Rowling and the Battle for the Books
  2. ^ from So. Here we are now, nearly a year down the road from the release of the final book of the series. (2008)
  3. ^ Tolkien and Rowling: A Case for “Text Only” (2008)