by Sherwood Smith
In a conversation not long ago, someone asked if people thought the Harry Potter books would become classics.
I don’t think I have to go into how nobody can predict classics with much success, any more than publishers can guarantee best sellers; even if they put a selected book through the mega hype machine, there’s no guarantee that that will pay off.
Anyway, my short answer? I think it’s more likely that the Harry Potter phenomenon will endure, rather than the books themselves. But who can be sure?
In her short novel, or novella, Bellwether Connie Willis speculates in a sort of Josephine Tey manner on how fashions change, and who changes them. In that particular story I was mildly frustrated because I kept waiting for her to answer the story’s specific question with Coco Chanel, but she never does. But then that wasn’t the point of the story.
The general question remains. Many times we don’t precisely know who kicked off what fashion when. Like, my kids were watching the HBO Henry VIII miniseries, and my daughter, who likes to peg social customs and detail, pointed out that the clothes were beautifully period, except for the total lack of codpieces.
Those fashion necessities persisted for a couple of decades at least, back in Henry’s day. Every man wore them. Henry’s were not subtle. We can probably figure out why they were left out for modern TV audiences, but that leaves the question, what was going on in early sixteenth century Western European culture to make codpieces popular in one set of years, and huge coach wheel ruffs popular in another?
The question could be reframed as, can we recognize what it is in the zeitgeist that makes a fashion, or a work, take fire so much that everyone gets drawn in?
A little over a century ago, there was a best seller called Trilby, which in spite of reviewers and readers everywhere hailing as a classic in the making, dwindled gradually to the name Svengali entering the surging sea of detached metaphors whose origin is long lost.
How can we tell at the time if the work is going to become an enduring part of literature or a relative flash like Trilby, all but forgotten the next generation down? When I was young, the two ‘new classics’ were Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
At some point, they gained enough readers to become phenomena. I remember a conversation with a neighbor in Isla Vista (scene of much bank burning and rioting in the early seventies) that having Love Story lying in plain view on his stereo, below his potted plants, signaled that he was hip and mellow, date material. He actually thought the book the stupidest thing ever written, but it was a sure-fire chick magnet. Many of his dates would begin with a “meaningful discussion” over this book.
I wondered how many women besides me secretly despised the book, but kept quiet to avoid acrimony, because of social expectation. Not that everyone hated it. I also had some friends who adored both books, and memorized aphorisms out of them. Some had the Love Story theme played at their hand-fastings. There were many, many people who felt that “Love is never having to say you’re sorry” was deep and meaningful—and they had the poster on their walls next to their hanging plants or macrame art to prove it.
I have this theory I call zing. I see zing as that moment of visceral thrill (which includes physical reactions—terror, vertigo, eroticism, grief, laughter, etc), the joy of recognition, the shiver of the new, the echo of longing, the glimpse that widens the universe in a single flash. A work that resonates with that level of meaning can strike so far down in one’s psyche as to cause tectonic shifts in paradigm.
There is nothing more powerful than the zing of surprise in a new thing. Book, music, art, fashion. Idea.
Readers who’re long familiar with a given genre are not going to get as many zings of the new as an older readership. Some are going to perceive zing where others are going to get the anti-zing, the eeew!
Also, if a work gives a reader enough zings, the reader is going to invest all that remembered zinginess in the next work by that author before reading the first page, so unless the second work really disappoints, the zings intensify. Zing can echo down the memory lane.
Here’s an example. There is a line in a book by Lois McMaster Bujold, paraphrased as: The next number up is one. I was on a panel not long after that particular novel came out, and that bit came up. There were a pair of panelists unfamiliar with the line. One shrugged, thinking it forgettable. The other thought it was cute. Those of us who had been following the course of the Miles Vorkosigan series got a very intense memory zing from the quoting of that line because it resonated with memory. Then comes the zing of looking around, and discovering others with that same rapt look, the same grin. Another zing, the one triggered by belonging.
So, up to the present day, and Harry Potter, which is still selling briskly, if not in the mind-boggling quantities of the previous decade. At what point did a popular children’s series tip over into a world phenomenon? I don’t think anyone can say for certain, though it seems around the time of the third book.
When I was a teacher, I observed different levels to kids’ engagement with the books. First and mostly, there were the kids who read and loved them. But that was not all those who joined into the Potter enthusiasm. There were the kids who didn’t actually read the books—though they owned them. There were the kids who waited for the movies. There were the kids who hoovered up the story by listening to kids talk about it on the playground, and knew every twist of the plot, every spell, but who hadn’t actually read a page.
The books, someone said, had a devoted readership of eighty million. Are those eighty million still eagerly reading—even rereading Potter? I’ve talked to some young college kids and mid-twenties who remember the Potter days with fondness. They might have spent a fun night camping out at a bookstore before a new volume came out. They wore Potter costumes, they talked on the playground about Slytherin versus the other Houses. They speculated endlessly about Malfoy. Have they read the books recently, or any other book? Not really—“I don’t have time for reading.” They remember the stories with a smile, but their zing of memory seems to emanate from the activities experienced with the social bond.
Since the Potterphenom, it seems to me that people have looked around for another phenom, kind of like happened after Star Wars in 1977. So we had the Twilight phenom, and more recently the Hunger Games phenom.
Some readers do go back and passionately reread these books, though it’s too early to tell if that will happen over a lifetime—or spring to the next generation. Because isn’t that the essence of a classic, that one can revisit a book one’s entire life, and find new meanings? That a new generation can find value there, in spite of the ‘newness’ being worn off? I think that is different from a phenomenon, which is a great body of people happily sharing a work at one specific time—that sharing being at least as important as the work itself. I suspect that all of us alive during the years the Potter books came out will always remember the excitement of that time. As for the books becoming classics, isn’t that really a question for the Potter fans’ children, and their children’s children?