The Rowling Effect: The Uses and Abuses of Storytelling in Literary Fiction

It’s in school that almost everyone first experiences both the joys and the difficulties of reading stories. And almost everyone quickly learns to associate reading fiction with all the other abstract, impersonal, and cognitively demanding tasks forced on them by their teachers. One of the rewards of graduation, indeed of adulthood, is that you no longer have to read boring stories and novels you have to work hard to understand, all those lengthy texts that repay the effort with little else besides the bragging rights for having finished. (So, on top of being a waste of time, reading books makes normal people hate you.) One of the worst fates for an author, meanwhile, is to have your work assigned in one of those excruciating lit courses students treat as way stations on their way to gainful employment, an honor all but guaranteed to inspire lifelong loathing.

As a lonely endeavor, reading is most enticing—for many it’s only enticing—when viewed as an act of rebellion. (It’s no accident that the Harry Potter books begin with scenes of life with the Dursley family, caricaturizing as it does conformity and harsh, arbitrary discipline.) So, if students’ sole motivation to read comes from on-high, with the promise of quizzes and essays to follow, the natural defiance of adolescence ensures a deep-seated suspicion of the true purpose of the assignment and a stubborn resistance to any emotional connection with the characters. This is why all but the tamest, most credulous of students get filtered out on the way to advanced literature courses at universities, the kids neediest of praise from teachers and least capable of independent thought, which is in turn why so many cockamamie ideas proliferate in English departments. As arcane theories about the “indeterminacy of meaning” or “the author function” trickle down into high schools and grade schools, it becomes ever more difficult to imagine, let alone test, possible reforms to the methods teachers use to introduce kids to written stories.
Miraculously, reading persists at the margins of society, far removed from the bloodless academic exercises students are programmed to dread. The books you’re most likely to read after graduation are the type you read when you’re supposed to be reading something else, the comics tucked inside textbooks, the unassigned or outright banned books featuring characters struggling with sex, religious doubt, violence, abortion, or corrupt authorities. One of the reasons the market for books written for young adults is currently so vibrant and successful is that literature teachers haven’t gotten around to including any of the most recent novels in their syllabuses. And, if teachers take to heart the admonitions of critics like Ruth Graham, who insists that “the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction,” they never will. YA books' biggest success is making reading its own reward, not an exercise in the service of developing knowledge or character or maturity—whatever any of those are supposed to be. And what naysayers like Graham fear is that such enjoyment might be coming at the expense of those same budding virtues, and it may even forestall the reader’s graduation to the more refined gratifications that come from reading more ambiguous and complex—or more difficult, or less fantastical—fiction. 

James Wood
Harry Potter became a cultural phenomenon at a time when authors, publishers, and critics were busy breaking the news of the dismal prognosis for the novel, beset as it was by the rise of the internet, the new golden age of television, and a growing impatience with texts extending more than a few paragraphs. The impact may not have been felt in the wider literary world if the popularity of Rowling’s books had been limited to children and young adults, but British and American grownups seem to have reasoned that if the youngsters think it’s cool it’s probably worth it for the rest of us young-at-hearts to take a look. Now not only are adults reading fiction written for teens, but authors—even renowned literary authors—are taking their cue from the YA world. Marquee writers like Donna Tartt and David Mitchell are spinning out elaborate yarns teeming with teen-tested genre tropes they hope to make respectable with a liberal heaping of highly polished literary prose. Predictably, the laments and jeremiads from old-school connoisseurs are beginning to show up in high-end periodicals. Here’s James Wood’s opening to a review of Mitchell’s latest novel:

As the novel’s cultural centrality dims, so storytelling—J.K. Rowling’s magical Owl of Minerva, equipped for a thousand tricks and turns—flies up and fills the air. Meaning is a bit of a bore, but storytelling is alive. The novel form can be difficult, cumbrously serious; storytelling is all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness. Easy to consume, too, because it excites hunger while simultaneously satisfying it: we continuously want more. The novel now aspires to the regality of the boxed DVD set: the throne is a game of them. And the purer the storytelling the better—where purity is the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning. Publishers, readers, booksellers, even critics, acclaim the novel that one can deliciously sink into, forget oneself in, the novel that returns us to the innocence of childhood or the dream of the cartoon, the novel of a thousand confections and no unwanted significance. What becomes harder to find, and lonelier to defend, is the idea of the novel as—in Ford Maddox Ford’s words—a “medium of profoundly serious investigation into the human case.”

As is customary for Wood, the bracingly eloquent clarifications in this passage serve to misdirect readers from its overall opacity, which is to say he begs more questions than he answers.

              The most remarkable thing in Wood’s advance elegy (an idea right out of Tom Sawyer and reprised in The Fault in Our Stars) is the idea that “the novel” is somehow at odds with storytelling. The charge that a given novel fails to rise above mere kitsch is often a legitimate one: a likable but attractively flawed character meets another likable character whose equally attractive flaws perfectly complement and compensate for those of the first, so that they can together transcend their foibles and live happily ever after. This is the formula for commercial fiction, designed to uplift and delight (and make money). But the best of YA novels are hardly guilty of this kind of pandering. And even if we acknowledge that an author aiming simply to be popular and pleasing is a good formula in its own right—for crappy novels—it doesn’t follow that quality writing precludes pleasurable reading. The questions critics like Graham and Wood fail to answer as they bemoan the decline of ambiguity on the one hand and meaning on the other is what role either one of them naturally plays, either in storytelling or in literature, and what really distinguishes a story from a supposedly more serious and meaningful novel?

Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Goldfinch has rekindled an old debate about the difference between genre fiction and serious literature. Evgenia Peretz chronicles some earlier iterations of the argument in Vanity Fair, and the popularity of Rowling’s wizards keeps coming up, both as an emblem of the wider problem and a point of evidence proving its existence. As Christopher Beha explains in the New Yorker,

The problem with “The Goldfinch,” its detractors said, was that it was essentially a Y.A. novel. Vanity Fair quoted Wood as saying that “the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture: a world in which adults go around reading Harry Potter.”

For Wood—and he’s hardly alone—fantastical fiction lacks meaning for the very reason so many readers find it enjoyable: it takes place in a world that simply doesn’t exist, with characters like no one you’ll ever really encounter, and the plots resolve in ways that, while offering some modicum of reassurance and uplift, ultimately mislead everyone about what real, adult life is all about. Whatever meaning these simplified and fantastical fictions may have is thus hermetically sealed within the world of the story.

            The terms used in the debates over whether there’s a meaningful difference between commercial and literary fiction and whether adults should be embarrassed to be caught reading Harry Potter are so poorly defined, and the nature of stories so poorly understood, that it seems like nothing will ever be settled. But the fuzziness here is gratuitous. Graham’s cherishing of ambiguity is perfectly arbitrary. Wood is simply wrong in positing a natural tension between storytelling and meaning. And these critics’ gropings after some solid feature of good, serious, complex, adult literature they can hold up to justify their impatience and disappointment in less ambitious readers is symptomatic of the profound vacuity of literary criticism as both a field of inquiry and an artistic, literary form of its own. Even a critic as erudite and perceptive as Wood—and as eminently worth reading, even when he’s completely wrong—relies on fundamental misconceptions about the nature of stories and the nature of art.

            For Wood, the terms story, genre, plot, and occurrence are all but interchangeable. That’s how he can condemn “the embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” But the type of meaning he seeks in literature sounds a lot like philosophy or science. How does he distinguish between novels and treatises? The problem here is that story is not reducible to sheer occurrence. Plots are not mere sequences of events. If I tell you I got in my car, went to the store, and came home, I’m recalling a series of actions—but it’s hardly a story. However, if I say I went to the store and while I was there I accidentally bumped shoulders with a guy who immediately flew into a rage, then I’ve begun to tell you a real story. Many critics and writing coaches characterize this crucial ingredient as conflict, but that’s only partly right. Conflicts can easily be reduced to a series of incidents. What makes a story a story is that it features some kind of dilemma, some situation in which the protagonist has to make a difficult decision. Do I risk humiliation and apologize profusely to the guy whose shoulder I bumped? Do I risk bodily harm and legal trouble by standing up for myself? There’s no easy answer. That’s why it has the makings of a good story.

            Meaning in stories is not declarative or propositional, just as the point of physical training doesn’t lie in any communicative aspect of the individual exercises. And you wouldn’t judge a training regimen based solely on the exercises’ resemblance to actions people perform in their daily lives. A workout is good if it’s both enjoyable and effective, that is, if going through it offers sufficient gratification to outweigh the difficulty—so you keep doing it—and if you see improvements in the way you look and feel. The pleasure humans get from stories is probably a result of the same evolutionary processes that make play fighting or play stalking fun for cats and dogs. We need to acquire skills for handling our complex social lives just as they need to acquire skills for fighting and hunting. Play is free-style practice made pleasurable by natural selection to ensure we’re rewarded for engaging in it. The form that play takes, as important as it is in preparing for real-life challenges, only needs to resemble real life enough for the skills it hones to be applicable. And there’s no reason reading about Harry Potter working through his suspicions and doubts about Dumbledore couldn’t help to prepare people of any age for a similar experience of having to question the wisdom or trustworthiness of someone they admire—even though they don’t know any wizards. (And isn’t this dilemma similar to the one so many of Saul Bellow’s characters face in dealing with their “reality instructors” in the novels Wood loves most?)

            The rather obvious principle that gets almost completely overlooked in debates about low versus high art is that the more refined and complex a work is the more effort will be necessary to fully experience it and the fewer people will be able to fully appreciate it. The exquisite pleasures of long-distance running, or classical music, or abstract art are reserved for those who have done adequate training and acquired sufficient background knowledge. Apart from this inescapable corollary of aesthetic refinement and sophistication, though, there’s a fetishizing of difficulty for the sake of difficulty apparent in many art forms. In literature, novels celebrated by the supposed authorities, books like Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake, and Infinite Jest, offer none of the joys of good stories. Is it any wonder so many readers have stopped listening to the authorities? Wood is not so foolish as to equate difficulty with quality, as fans of Finnegan’s Wake must, but he does indeed make the opposite mistake—assuming that lack of difficulty proves lack of quality. There’s also an unmistakable hint of the puritanical, even the masochistic in Wood’s separation of the novel from storytelling and its pleasures. He’s like the hulking power lifter overcome with disappointment at all the dilettantish fitness enthusiasts parading around the gym, smiling, giggling, not even exerting themselves enough to feel any real pain.  

            What the Harry Potter books are telling us is that there still exists a real hunger for stories, not just as flippant and senseless contrivances, but as rigorously imagined moral dilemmas faced by characters who inspire strong feelings, whether positive, negative, or ambivalent. YA fiction isn't necessarily simpler, its characters invariably bland baddies or goodies, its endings always neat and happy. The only things that reliably distinguish it are its predominantly young adult characters and its general accessibility. It's probably true that The Goldfinch's appeal to many people derives from it being both literary and accessible. More interestingly, it probably turns off just as many people, not because it's overplotted, but because the story is mediocre, the central dilemma of the plot too easily resolved, the main character too passive and pathetic. Call me an idealist, but I believe that literary language can be challenging while not being impenetrable, that plots can be both eventful and meaningful, and that there’s a reliable blend of ingredients for mixing this particular magic potion: characters who actually do things, whose actions get them mixed up in high-stakes dilemmas, who are described in language that both captures their personalities and conveys the urgency of their circumstances. This doesn’t mean every novel needs to have dragons and werewolves, but it does mean having them doesn’t necessarily make a novel unworthy of serious attention from adults. And we need not worry about the fate of less fantastical literature because there will always be a small percentage of the population who prefers, at least on occasion, a heavier lift.

Also read: How Violent Fiction Works: Rohan Wilson’s “The Roving Party” and James Wood’s Sanguinary Sublime from Conrad to McCarthy

And: Let's Play Kill Your Brother: Fiction as a Moral Dilemma Game

And: What's the Point of Difficult Reading?