The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling.
One might think it unnecessary to make a case for this book. After all, it did more for the cause of reading than any novel of the last century. It gave an enormous boost to the purveyors of books far and wide, launching a series that has sold more than 400 million copies to date. It has inspired other writers to publish more than 300,000 (no, I am not kidding) Harry Potter-inspired stories of their own in various on-line forums. It has enchanted readers, young and old, and will certainly continue to do so for many generations to come.
In short, if you had to place a wager on the one book published in your lifetime that will still be widely read a century from now, this is where all the smart money would go. It’s a no-brainer. Today’s children will read it to their own children and grandchildren, who in turn… well, you get the idea.
Yet when I suggested in an article that J.K. Rowling might be as deserving of a prestigious literary award as, say, Doris Lessing, I was subjected to some serious eyebrow-raising. Of course, we will see if Lessing’s work in speculative fiction, Canopus in Argos: Archives, is still in print in a hundred years. The fact that it is out of print now, only a little more than year after Lessing was honored with the Nobel, is not an encouraging sign. No smart money on that horse, my friends.
Of course, Harold Bloom will tell you that "Rowling's mind is so governed by clichés and dead metaphors that she has no other style of writing." A.S. Byatt has suggested that the Harry Potter books were written for “people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons." Given J.K. Rowling’s apparent ineptitude, one wonders why these books have become so much more cherished than, say, The Flintstones or those manga paperbacks remaindered in stacks down at Barnes & Noble. Could it be that J.K. Rowling knows something that Professor Bloom doesn’t? Hmm, can I wager on that one too?
Anyone who has spent some time with the Harry Potter books will quickly discover why these works are so appealing. I have written elsewhere that the most successful works of speculative fiction are similar to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz described in his influential 1973 work The Interpretation of Cultures as “thick description” ethnography. While the “thin description” focuses solely on one aspect of a culture, the “thick description” aims more ambitiously to convey the context as well.
In conventional realistic novels, this context is often fairly straightforward. It is the external world, and all its trappings. The author does not need to specify it in all its richness, since this contextual knowledge is brought by the reader to the act of reading. But for writers who tinker with our sense of reality and exercise the license of fantasy, the context is of paramount importance. The majesty of an endeavor on the scale of Rowling’s project — as with similar imaginative constructions of Narnia, Middle-earth, Dune, etc. — is the suchness of this context, and its capability to astonish and delight us. This is more than the invention of a story; it is nothing less than the construction of a universe.
How difficult is it for a writer to do this? Building a vivid and enchanting fantasy world from scratch, a Hogwarts or a Middle-Earth, is a massive undertaking, much more challenging, I would argue, than writing crisp dialogue or creating an engaging character. Readers understand this, even if Yale academics miss the point. This is why any list of the most popular novels of the last century is dominated by precisely these “thick description” works of imaginative fiction.
But don’t jump to the conclusion that Rowling is weak on character development, pacing or the other more traditional components of the novelist’s craft. She has peopled her magical universe with some of the most striking characters of contemporary fiction. And I’m not just talking about Harry Potter and his two chums, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. The secondary characters are also remarkably well constructed. Even in these long tomes, Rowling can hardly find enough time on center stage for all her memorable role players. While reading these books, I always find myself wanting more of Snape and Malfoy, two of the most perfectly realized villains I have encountered. Hagrid is compelling, as is Dumbledore, and a dozen or more of the lower profile cast members. Even a ghost like Peeves has more personality and makes a bigger presence on the page than those characters in other books who have the benefit of a fully functional non-transparent body.
These are not "realistic" characters in the conventional sense. They are compelling figures, nonetheless. Recall that the characters one finds in Dickens and Proust — to cite two revered predecessors — are hardly more realistic. Rowling, like Dickens, creates artfully conceived "types" who are larger than life. They are decidedly not like your neighbors next door, nor would you want them to be. By exaggerating certain qualities and hiding others, Rowling enhances the drama and vibrancy of her narratives.
In series books, the most imaginative energy is typically evident in the first volume. This is where the new universe comes to life (or fails to do so, as the case may be). If everything clicks in book one, half of the work for the sequels is already finished. This is true for Rowling as it was for Frank Herbert or C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. Once she had created Hogwarts and its denizens, the magical universe that surrounds it, and above all the charismatic Mr. Harry Potter & Company, J.K. Rowling could have given us countless stories with these same chess pieces. For this reason, I give special marks to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in its original British title), the work that set this whole enterprise in motion.
Rowling has blessed us with seven Harry Potter novels (although her fans have added, as noted above, several hundred thousand other related tales), and there is no better place to start in exploring her richly inspired alternative world than this opening volume in the series. If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is not a classic, than the term hardly has a legitimate meaning. This is one of those books that is meant to be enjoyed and shared. I read this book aloud to my son when he was five years old, and I daresay that I was as enchanted as he was by Rowling’s story. We went on to read the rest of the series together. I suspect he will have the same joy sharing these books with his own children. In the often isolating and esoteric world of the modern novel, this sense of sharing and community is in itself remarkable. But no less remarkable — and canonical — than what J.K. Rowling has conjured out of her head.