The masses aren’t asses

CHARLES TAYLOR is a critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday and the Nation, among other places.

IN AN AGE when we are constantly told that the printed word is dying, J.K. Rowling defied the received wisdom.

I’m not the first critic to compare the midnight frenzies that have greeted every Harry Potter book since the fourth to the crowds waiting on the New York docks for the ships carrying the next installment of Charles Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” frantically calling out to the sailors to ask if Little Nell had died.

Nor am I the first to note that the extraordinary level of excitement around the Harry Potter books was generated not by media saturation on the part of the publisher, Scholastic, but by the spontaneous enthusiasm of young readers, which was buoyed and expanded by the enthusiasm of a steadily increasing number of older readers.


That’s right: Manufactured buzz alone cannot create or sustain the public’s enthusiasm. You need only look at this summer’s box-office returns, with the end-of-the-line grosses for the “Shrek,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and “Ocean’s” franchises, to see that. Yet the excitement about Harry Potter has steadily grown over nine years, and for all the merchandise tie-ins, the movie franchise and all the other Potter folderol, we should remember that all those products came in response to the public’s enthusiasm and were not part of a campaign to create that enthusiasm.

And that’s why those who ascribe the popularity of the Potter books to nothing more than the bad taste of the masses are so off the mark. The most prominent of those naysayers, that drooping defender of the canon, Harold Bloom, has, in his attacks on Rowling, provided us with fine examples of another reason for the Potter books’ popularity: the insularity of a literary culture that willfully ignores what it is that makes people readers in the first place.

In a July 2000 article in the Wall Street Journal, and in comments made in these pages three years later when the National Book Foundation announced it was awarding a prize to Stephen King, Bloom revealed a vision of literary culture in which only some people belong, where class is destiny and where the idiot rabble needs guidance by those elites who are better suited to making the decisions that will affect that rabble.

To be fair to Bloom, criticism is of necessity an elitist enterprise, and insisting on a hierarchy of good work over bad work is essential to the job. I wouldn’t trust any critic who didn’t despair of the garbage that finds an audience while good work languishes.

But when a work achieves a popularity that only a few books or movies ever do, it’s an act of supreme arrogance and laziness on the part of the critic to chalk that up to the dumbness of the masses. “Can more than 35 million book buyers, and their offspring, be wrong?” Bloom asks. “Yes, they have been, and will continue to be for as long as they persevere with Potter.”

In Bloom’s world, it’s his way or nothing. He claims to have the divine foresight to know that no child who ever reads Harry Potter will ever go on to “The Wind in the Willows” or Lewis Carroll. Just as, he insists, no one who ever enjoys a Stephen King book will ever go on to read Edgar Allan Poe. (This, by the way, seems to be the new anti-Potter tack; a Page 1 story in the New York Times last week revealed breathlessly that not every Potter reader will go on to other books -- as if the series had billed itself as a cure-all for falling readership.)

Bloom’s argument is not only that young readers won’t move on to other works but that the Harry Potter series, in and of itself, is trash.

“Why read,” he wrote, “if what you read will not enrich mind or spirit or personality?”

Notice what is missing from that brief list of why we read: to be entertained, to escape or -- and this is the genius of great fantasy literature, a class to which Rowling’s books belong -- to find in the escape a metaphor for our own reality that will bring us back to that reality with the very enrichment of mind and spirit that Bloom believes cannot be found in so tawdry a thing as a piece of popular writing.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, took a similar tone during a visit to Borders with his chum, Maureen Dowd. Dismayed about the profusion of chick lit, Wieseltier mused that “these books do not seem particularly demanding in the manner of real novels. And when we’re at war and the country is under threat, they seem a little insular. America’s reading women could do a lot worse than to put down ‘Will Francine Get Her Guy?’ and pick up ‘The Red Badge of Courage.’ ”

It’s the same insufferable mixture of pompous instruction and baseless certainty. If people are reading a pop novel, it follows that they must be disengaged from the social and intellectual and political life around them.

Because literary culture is so insular and defensive, it’s no surprise that the out-of-nowhere success of Rowling would be taken as a threat. But I think that anyone who has a stake in seeing literature not just survive but thrive is a damned fool not to rejoice in the success of the Potter series.

Not because the books are popular but because they are popular and good. The kids for whom the Harry Potter books are the first big books they’ve embarked on will start off with a belief that books must engage them, must make them feel swept up in something bigger than themselves, must make them feel the joy and the pain of having an emotional stake in characters and in story. For adults, the books may make them remember why they read in the first place -- and make them less tolerant of the arid cult of the beautiful sentences that has turned so much literary fiction into a show-and-tell exercise of polished, bloodless craft.

Why read, to echo Bloom, if what we’re supposed to applaud are the freeze-dried mandarinisms of Susan Minot? Why read, if our sense of vision is reduced to the apocalypse-in-a-spittoon grimness of Cormac McCarthy?

Of course, this is not the sum of contemporary literary culture. This year has already given us Vikram Chandra’s “Sacred Games,” a book that, in the tradition of 19th century novels, makes you feel as though all of the life of a vast metropolis is contained in its pages. And it’s given us Penelope Lively’s “Consequences,” a multigenerational tale that manages to be narratively elliptical and emotionally overpowering.

If I haven’t talked about the specifics of Harry’s adventures, it’s because I’m more interested in what they mean. The lesson they teach might be the one imparted by another current piece of popular art, the film “Ratatouille.”

Toward the end of the film, a critic who has regained the joy that first drew him to the art he observes has a speech in which he suggests that the critic’s great function is to be the most egalitarian of elitists. In other words, to remember that good work can come from anywhere. In the case of the Harry Potter books, an unemployed single mother, working in a cafe where she could linger over the one cup of coffee she could afford, has reminded much of the world of the adventure of discovery that literature is meant to be.