In early October I read a curious opinion piece in Kotaku arguing that J.K. Rowling needs to “stop messing with Harry Potter.” The additions and ad-hoc reveals are too much, groaned the critic; no more should be written!
At the time I found the argument strange and tenuous at best, and so I decided to pass it off as something of an anomaly. But then last week there appeared a piece in The Guardian with a similar headline, leading me to wonder what could possibly be motivating such an extreme reaction. Perhaps this other writer had thoroughly examined Rowling’s recent stories and offered a thoughtful perspective as to why the Potterverse has at last run its course?
No. In fact, neither article offers any useful or in-depth literary criticism whatsoever. Instead they hinge on a combination of disapproval over public remarks that Rowling later made about her books, and superficial matters of taste.
For example, one of Gita Jackson’s accusations (the author of the Kotaku article) is that Rowling revealed that Dumbledore was gay retrospectively, rather than in the books themselves: “If the message of Harry Potter was about tolerance and acceptance, then why not just make him gay in text?” She goes on to criticize other such revelations, and details a number of flaws in Rowling’s handling of race and minority characters.
Why can’t Harry Potter be about acceptance and toleration (and a host of other important themes) regardless of the precise manner in which Dumbledore’s sexuality is disclosed? What’s wrong with Rowling revealing things in or about her books on her own terms? Most importantly, why does any of this mean Rowling needs to stop writing Harry Potter stories?
Pauline Bock, the author The Guardian piece, doesn’t get much deeper. Here’s an excerpt:
Someone needs to call a halt to the excessive afterlife of Potter’s fictional universe. It was vast enough in the (seven) books and (eight) films – we didn’t and don’t need a community website, a theatre play, the printed script of said play, a new movie, the printed script of said movie, and even more movies.
In other words: by golly, it’s getting rather troublesome to manage so much information.
To be fair, Bock does highlight what she sees as irritating cliches in the Cursed Child play and the recent Magical Beasts film. There is time travel, and the stories focus on Harry Potter’s kids and the kids of the bad guys. But while these may be tired plot devices, we’re not told exactly how or why they fail in Rowling’s case; and this omission ultimately makes Bock’s observations little more than a litany of vague, insipid rantings.
Of course, anyone and everyone is free to criticize the Harry Potter stories, just as the rest of us are free to criticize the critics. And there is something to be said for craving literary depth from authors who no longer provide it (although the critics I’ve cited here failed utterly in showing that this is happening). But to move from personal dislike of a story to demanding that the author quit her job or move on to other projects is another thing entirely.
Here is my modest proposal. J.K. Rowling is an artist who invented Harry Potter. If J.K. Rowling enjoys writing stories about Harry Potter, then let J.K. Rowling write stories about Harry Potter. Let her imagine and expand and reveal and create to her heart’s content, adding new layers, new characters, and new fantastical tales. That is what artists do. You may not like the output, and that’s fine; you may vent your views and then observe with the rest of us how the market responds. Lord knows that’s what critics do. But let’s dispense with the excessive appeals for Rowling to end it all.
In the words of English professor Alan Jacobs:
Why does someone need to call a halt to [Rowling’s work]? Why can’t you just, you know, not pay attention? I see this kind of piece a lot: I am not interested in X, ergo X should not exist. Perhaps because “I am not interested in X” isn’t long enough to earn you a byline.