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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

A Wizard Lesson for All

By Norman Lebrecht / June 25, 2003

A hundred years from now, when a fourth generation of scholars and biographers goes ferreting over the Harry Potter legacy, opinion will divide between the esoteric minimalists and those who take a broader world view of Joanne Rowling's historic achievement. The more blinkered academics will focus their researches on numerical records and the transformation of children's publishing in the 21st century.

On the eve of her fifth book, they will note, Rowling had sold 160 million copies of her works in every living language, including (to Giscardian resentment) French. Only the Bible claimed more translations.

The fifth in Rowling's progressive sequence of seven books, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, was the fastest selling title ever counted, with 1.2 million advance internet orders received before it was put out on sale at one minute past the witching hour on 21 June 2003, another totemic moment in the diaries of obsessive Potterists.

By now, the movies, the merchandising and the mega-trinket marketing were yielding revenues in the meaningless billions, with the makers of Coca-Cola, Mars bars and Barbie dolls cashing in on Harry's unstoppable global appeal and a flurry of wildcat harry.coms protesting at the conscienceless commercialisation.

The generic impact was no less impressive. Children's fiction, long the Cinderella of serious publishing, was catapulted into the second hottest category with a fistful of shy writers enjoying parallel growth from mythical narratives with a pronounced moral dimension.

Chief among them were the Oxford daemonist Philip Pullman, the San Francisco mystifier Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket's author) and the Irish fantasist Eion Colfer, whose Artemis Fowl stories periodically topped the sales charts in the hiatus between one Harry Potter and the next.

The requickening of interest in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings was, at least in part, a side effect of the Potter explosion.

All of them will keep academics in footnotes for the next century and more, but it is, nonetheless, a limited interpretation. The bolder view that will emerge is that Rowling, a subsistence-level, single mother in flint-faced Edinburgh, succeeded over the course of six years in overturning the established order in western culture, subverting the dominance of the visual with the primacy of the word.

Think back to June 1997 when 1,000 Bloomsbury copies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone sneaked near-unnoticed into British bookshops, after being rejected by some 20 publishers for being variously too long, archaic and politically incorrect.

The pronounced wisdom was that children were uninterested in reading. Teachers and their unions set up a demand for more "visual aids". Pre-teens returned home from seven hours of unstrenuous schooling to slump, semi-vegetative, in front of flickering images of vaguely sexual connotation.

The publishing dictum, impressed on me when I proposed a story about kids with a chronic illness, was that "we no longer take on children's books without a television tie-in". Rowling changed all that, surreptitiously and within months.

Harry Potter spread by word of playground mouth and reprinted time after time.

Children blew their pocket money on the first book and clamoured for more. Infant teachers who read it aloud in class were begged to continue when the bell rang for break. Pupils who had previously resisted literacy mastered their ps and qs on platform nine and three-quarters.

Dyslexics overcame their disability. Parents saw boisterous offspring, aged eight to 18, reduced to silent contemplation by their fifth or sixth reading of the text. I know one fan who bought a copy in Hebrew to assimilate that ancient language as if by the wizard's spell.

Many stayed faithful into their twenties, embracing Rowling as a lifelong companion in the way that Victorians embraced Charles Dickens.

Rowling made no concession to the natural consequences of success, shunning the outstretched palms of politicians and media moguls, determined to protect her work in its integrity. When she finally sold rights to Hollywood, she maintained a measure of editorial influence.

The two Harry Potter movies adhered like clingfilm to her plots and accelerated the process of cultural reversion. Millions of movie-goers went scurrying bleary-eyed to the nearest bookstore in pursuit of the original. In the beginning, they must have remembered, was the word.

Amid a culture of flashbulb celebrity, Rowling bravely and resourcefully guarded her privacy, bringing up her daughter out of the public eye and entering a second marriage discreetly without so much as a photo call to appease the slavering paparazzi.

She had become, in her modest way, more powerful than Rupert Murdoch or Bill Gates and less susceptible to market fluctuations. Her resistance, coolly heroic, fortified her personal appeal.

Cultural heroism is usually the outcome of working against the grain, and that has been Rowling's stubborn method. She writes everlengthening books in a world that has grown dependent on sound bites and internet access. She engages in wars of good against evil amid a social melting pot in which almost any offence against man or beast, art or property, is defended by someone on screen in the name of cultural relativism.

Some dismiss her work as escapist, but so was Mozart's. Others simply envy the unimagined dimensions of her achievement. None can reasonably deny its power.

Hers is the largest mythical world to be invented since Wagner's Nibelungen Ring and it stands alone, without the benefit of music. As in Wagner, the characters are not wholly credible.

They represent aspects of our individual selves, both openly acknowledged and shamefully concealed. Joanne Rowling has endowed our culture with a menagerie of role models, a wizards' assembly of eternal relevance.

For while it is futile to predict the thought processes that will prevail a century hence, when books may have been supplanted by chips and authors by robotic processors, one certainty can be safely asserted. A hundred years from now, millions of people will still be reading Charles Dickens, and they will still be reading Harry Potter, the written word triumphant.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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