Tuesday, July 19, 2005

People Who Generalize Suck or, Your Host Rants a Little

For the last few days, I've been engaged in an odd three-part discussion on three different weblogs. Edward Champion started it by suggesting 18 Fantasy Authors to Read Instead of J.K. Rowling and then Gwenda Bond suggested 18 others. Matt Cheney kept the whole thing going by wondering what books you'd recommend to someone who'd liked Potter and wanted more of the same.

Ed and Gwenda's lists are interesting. Of the 40 authors mentioned (Ed added 4 more to his list), I've read books by 20. Two I think should be threatened with a sledgehammer to the thumbs should they ever look at a writing implement again (there's another one I might have said the same about, but she's already dead). Another three are authors of frothy but insignificant work who, while they may be, on a sentence-by-sentence level, better writers than J.K. Rowling, haven't produced anything on the caliber of the Potter books. Two others are excellent and highly talented authors whose books have never engaged me emotionally. The remaining twelve are, with a few quibbles here and there, superb and well worth reading. I'd also add Jeff VanderMeer, Tim Powers, John Crowley, Mark Helprin, Susannah Clarke, Hope Mirrlees and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien to the bunch.

And yet, I've found myself reacting very strongly to Ed and Gwenda's lists and, to a lesser extent, to Matt's requests. I was downright snippy when I commented on Ed's weblog and very nearly rude when I did the same at Gwenda's. It was while trying to puzzle out this reaction that I came to a rather shocking realization.

I've been a Harry Potter fan for nearly seven years. During that time, A.S. Byatt has called me childish, explained that the only cultural nutrition in my life must have come from Saturday morning cartoons and that I wouldn't recognize real quality if it hit me in the face. Jack Markowitz of the Tribune-Review has decided that I'm a slave of marketing, blindly following without any volition of my own. Most recently, in The Observer, Robert McCrum concluded that I don't exist. And, although they clearly have no malicious intentions, Ed, Gwenda and Matt seem to be saying that the only reason for me to read the Potter books is that I'm a naif who knows nothing about fantasy.

Godammit, I am an adult. I'm intelligent and well-read. I like the Harry Potter books. It shouldn't be acceptable for people to suggest, off the pages of national newspapers, that there must be something wrong with me for all of these things to be true. Not when the millions of people who have flocked to buy a poorly-written, not particularly thrilling, not particularly interesting airport thriller with some rather absurd theories about art and the early history of Christianity aren't even frowned at.

Honestly, the people who dress up as Klingons in science fiction conventions get more respect than adult Harry Potter fans, and for the life of me I don't know why I've put up with it for so long. Why have I been so defensive? I defy Byatt and Markowitz and McCrum and even Ed and Gwenda and Matthew's assumptions about the kind of people who read Harry Potter, and of the dozens of fans that I've met physically and hundreds that I've met online, there were only a handful who didn't. Why are we still putting up with these absurd generalizations?


Gwenda said...

Ohhhkay -- for the record, I think I made it pretty clear I have no bias whatsoever against the Potter books or anyone who reads them. I think people should read whatever they want. This is something that should be clear to anyone who has read more than a handful of my posts. I just take every opportunity to recommend the work of authors I like and the release of no. 6 (and Ed's list) seemed like a golden opportunity to do so.

There are lots of people I respect that think the Potter books are totally overrated; there are lots of people I respect who love them while believing they are totally overrated; and still other people that love them and think they are truly fabulous and not overrated at all. Even better: they don't feel threatened by each other's opinions. At all.

I think it's interesting that because of a perceived implication that Ed or Matt or me might not share your taste in J.K. Rowling's work your immediate impulse was to critique our taste back. What's that? And I still think you're wrong about Kage Baker.

(This is all in good fun, right? I really don't believe in flame wars.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

for the record, I think I made it pretty clear I have no bias whatsoever against the Potter books or anyone who reads them

You did, Gwenda, and I'm sorry if I didn't make it clear that I had understood that.

I don't have a problem with people who don't like the Potter books (hell, I love them and I don't think they're the greatest books ever). Likewise, people who resent the media circus, the movies, and the merchandise are fine with me. I'd be interested in discussions about why the books appeal to so many people in so many age groups. What gets to me is the assumption that because these are children's books, it is somehow acceptable to make sweeping generalizations and unfounded psychological determinations about the people who read them.

Which is not what you, or Ed or Matt were doing, but my knee-jerk reaction when I read your posts was to connect them with that kind of behavior, and this post was an attempt to get to the bottom of why I've become so thin-skinned on the subject.

I think it's interesting that because of a perceived implication that Ed or Matt or me might not share your taste in J.K. Rowling's work your immediate impulse was to critique our taste back. What's that?

I'd say it was more along the lines of placing Rowling in a continuum of the authors you mentioned and realizing that, while she hardly occupied the top spot, she wasn't too close to the bottom. And, of course, being opinionated. Is that critiquing your taste or expressing my own? Like I said, my comments on your weblog and Ed's were snippier than they should have been, but their substance was an opinion, and I'm sorry if it didn't come across as such.

(This is all in good fun, right? I really don't believe in flame wars.)

I hope so. It certainly wasn't my intention to start one.

Anonymous said...

Like Gwenda, I have no specific animosity towards people who enjoy Rowling. If you dig it, that's cool. I was responding to the general sense right now that Rowling is it, that there can be no other fantasists. If kids (and adults) like fantasy, then I'm hoping they'll give other folks a chance. So no worries whatsoever on the "rudeness."

Robin said...

I think you're initial reaction is based on the fact that there are many (and I'm not saying I include Gwenda, Matt, or Ed in this category) critics, both mainstream and litblog that automatically discount a book simply because of it's popularity with the masses. And of course, they discount the mass readers. It's not just books, it's the same case with movies and TV shows. It is easier to dismiss something that has mass appeal because of the perception of the "Walmart crowd."

Talk about your generalizations there :)

I think Harry Potter suffers from the same thing. Gwenda herself points out that she has never read the books, which I have to say is surprising given the amount of fantasy (especially young adult fantasy) that she reads. I realize that there are only so many books people can read, but as a sheer cultural phenomenon, not to mention as a series that has a great deal of influence over the genre, I think it's a shame to dismiss the books out of hand.

One more thing -- the readers of the DaVinci Code have gotten a tremendous amount of backlash for liking that book. I shall out myself now and say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and 2 other Dan Brown novels. Yet that admission is anathema to most book critics and to them puts me in the same category as those people who think Harlequin romance is the height of great writing.

I think it would be a much nicer world where there were more critics like the Washington Post's Michael Dirda, who actually admits he likes some (not all) of the pulp fiction that the masses like, as well as the more obscure literature out there. Maybe then the masses would take more interest in the stuff they'd never heard of.

Robin said...

One more related comment -- I saw this same phemomenon happening in Chicago when I moved here. The tremendously popular "Devil in the White City" had reached some sort of magic number of readers that triggered the sort of critical backlash I'm talking about. Too many people were reading and liking it, so it must be flawed.

A month before I moved here, it was the next great Chicago history, a month after I moved here, it was trash.

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