A week ago I visited my good friend Antonio Penedo’s class to deliver a lecture on my experience of teaching the Harry Potter series in the Spring of 2014. This was for his elective course ‘Estudios Culturales’ within the Minor in Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature (which used to be a second-cycle Licenciatura… alas!… always losing chances to enrich our academic panorama). His class is crowded enough and in addition I had the good company of some of my Victorian Literature class, probably close to 100 persons, a size I am not used to (my classes are around 50 students at the most). I think I can safely say that possibly 75% would have joined a new Harry Potter course if I had offered it on the spot; quite a few did ask me to do so.
I’ll deal first with the problems involved in going back to Hogwarts and then with two of the questions I was asked.
I could certainly teach again ‘Cultural Studies: The Harry Potter Case’ within the degree in English Studies… unless, that is, we start the feared 3+2 model immediately (whether within the Spanish Kingdom or the Catalan Republic, I don’t even know…). As I explained to students, this 3+2 models means the end for fourth-year electives, that wonderful chance to catch students right where you want them, at the end of three years of academic training in our style and with up to 35 persons in class.
My experience of teaching in masters’ degrees is that the electives do not work at a higher level (with the exception of the early years of the MA in Comparative Literature, then crowded with many absolutely brilliant Latin-American students, later expelled from the system by our crazy non-EU rates of up to 6,000 euros). Why not, if MA students already have a BA degree? Well, because they come from different backgrounds, both national and international and by the time you manage to produce a homogeneous academic approach the course is over… Sorry, but I think this is a common experience. I simply don’t see myself teaching Harry Potter in the first year of a two-year MA which, besides, needs more than 10/15 students, a critical mass big enough to generate a variety of experience.
Beyond the 3+2 problem, the fact is that a new Harry Potter course could not compare with the one I have taught in terms of the serendipity that made that one a unique occasion–I could have the same guests, the materials I could generate would be very similar to the ones I have published (or are still trying to publish). It would be haunted by intense déjà vu. And, then, it should be now or never, before the original readers leave university. As for teaching Harry Potter to students in another degree, the problem is that I don’t see myself teaching Rowling’s series in translation. I would cringe all the time… I did this once, I mean teach the same elective in English at 10:00 and in Spanish at 15:00 and it worked very well because the texts were essays and documentaries and, somehow, the translations worked (this was a course on the US critique of US-generated globalisation: Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore…). The problem with Harry Potter is the magical jargon which Rowling developed–the Death Eaters can never be Mortífagos for me, no matter how accurate the translation. Yes, I know, this sound snobbish but this is not what I mean–I’m sure my literary colleagues understand me.
Now for the questions from the floor: 1) if Rowling did not plan beforehand her heptalogy as a best-selling series, how come this is perceived as a commercial product?; 2) is the Harry Potter series Literature? My answers…
As it is well known, the Rowling myth is a rag-to-riches story. Here is this recently divorced mother, raising her daughter in Edinburgh, supported by the generous Scottish benefits system. She went through many difficulties to sell her first Harry Potter novel, and even when the first three novels (I think) were already successful in Britain, many publishing houses in other countries rejected them. If this had been a commercial operation from scratch, then Planeta would have published Rowling, instead of the (lucky) Salamandra, the only one to bid for her books then. Likewise, please do visit the awesome bookshop Gigamesh to see how far the profits of George R.R.R. Martin’s saga have taken its eponymous publishing house, which believed in Martin when nobody did in Spain.
The intensive commercialization, as I explained, corresponds mainly to the film adaptations and the entrance of the gigantic Warner Bros. corporation in Rowling’s universe. Once the series became a world-wide phenomenon turning Rowling into a billionaire, it became hard to say who was the owner, the author or the corporation. The colossal publicity campaigns connected with the book and film launches may make us believe this had been planned from book one, but it is simply not the case.
What is certainly true is that successful products inspire the intensive commercialization of similar products, often commissioned. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy The Hunger Games was, I believe, a phenomenon similar to Harry Potter, whereas now many of those who practice the new sub-genre spawned by Collins, young adult dystopian fiction, do so not out of conviction but because they see an easy chance to make a quick buck. Or because publishing houses head-hunt them, as was the case of Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent trilogy. The derivative product is easy to spot because it tends to be inferior in quality and seems to be written by joining the dots, if you know what I mean. Collins can be read (more or less), Roth is trash.
Is Harry Potter Literature? I wonder how many times I have been asked this… No, it is not if you understand by Literature the endeavour to produce (in fiction) high-quality prose in which you can observe the artistic ambition of the writer. I only found one passage I would call literary in that sense, corresponding to the description of the clashing wands in the duel between Harry and the resurrected Voldemort in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire. Rowling’s prose is palpably functional and extremely effective in leading the reader by the hand; this is a kind of prose which is not that easy to produce, for it can quickly become too obviously hackneyed. I think that Rowling naturally writes this way, that this is her talent (though I must say I have not read her other books).
This is not a literary talent as subtle as what you can find in any of the literary elite writers, from Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood, yet it is an aspect of Literature, whether we like it or not. As I explained, we need to think that the Harry Potter series was addressed to children and teenagers, not to adults and, hence, it operates within certain literary limits (yes, I remember the poetical Platero y yo, but that’s an exception). What I most appreciate, and I think there must be some authorial control here, is Rowling’s ability to darken her prose as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort proceeds. The style of the first and the seventh book is very different: each suits the needs of the story and the age of the implied reader (7-10 in the first case, 16-18 in the latter). I myself was put off by the first book, which I found too childish, until I gave the series a second chance–when I got to book three, Prisoner of Azkaban, I finally understood the gimmick.
Sirius’ handsome wand, a central icon in the décor of my home office, watches my back as I write–this is how close Rowling’s series remain to me. Now, let me think about teaching the elective again…
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