J.K. Rowling's Exact Art and Subtle Science
Harry Potter fans tend to be voracious readers of other literature as well, so we often have the pleasure of finding places J.K. Rowling has visited, so to speak, throughout the library of Western literary culture. She wears her learning lightly, an increasingly rare quality and incomprehensible to a certain type of critic. Whether it is the Hand of Glory that pops up in a Hogarth Press essay by Robert Graves, the work on individuation and archetype by Carl Jung and his followers, or even certain dim echoes in Doctor Dolittle, Rowling's own voracious reading filters into her work, not in the self-consciously intellectual way that has become all too familiar but in an evanescent manner, almost like magic.
Samuel Johnson famously included the approbation of large numbers of people in his definition of literary quality; this criterion was discarded in the 20th century as the gap between so-called “high” and “popular” culture widened--discarded prematurely, I think. Definitions of literary value were offered in the past by critics such as Johnson, Joseph Addison, Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot and others. The ways in which Rowling's Harry Potter books meet the criteria established in the past for “classic” are enumerated; but the matter of real importance is how Rowling's works can be reliably used as pointers toward better definitions of “classic” that can guide future literary criticism. Fandom in general has a great deal to say to literary criticism, mostly because fandom is alive, engaged and growing organically.
This lecture, while briefly outlining ways in which the Harry Potter books do and do not meet past definitions of “classic” literature, offers a detailed review of how Rowling's technique in incorporating literary and cultural artifact in her work points toward a new definition of “classic” that, while drawing upon the past, assimilates new understandings of psychology and art that would not have been available to writers in previous centuries. As always, the art comes first and then the criticism fitted to it follows; Rowling's work shines light on a new path for the aesthetic judgment of literature. Rowling's subtlety in her use of literary and other allusion is the key point to this argument but I will also make observations about her narrative point of view.
Gail Shivel's editorial experience includes 12 years as associate editor of Menckeniana and three years as book review editor of SHARP News, the quarterly newsletter of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing; she also has served as consulting editor for several other academic publications. She has been an independent consultant since 1996 in corporate communication in Miami. She is a recipient of the Golden Pen award from the International Association of Business Communicators and the National Press Club's members-only Short Story prize. Recently she contributed an article titled "Science and the Humanities" to ALA's CHOICE for Librarians. She has been National Star Trek Examiner for Examiner.com since May 2009. Shivel participated in the poster session at Lumos 2006. She received a Ph.D. in English (2004) from the University of Miami; she teaches Composition at UM part-time, but would prefer to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts.