The Harry Potter Phenomenon

by Sherwood Smith

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. The question could be reframed as, can we recognize what it is in the Zeitgeist that makes a particular piece of work take fire so much that everyone gets drawn in? A bit over 100 years ago one of the Hot Novels of the Future Generations dwindled gradually to the villain’s name, Svengali, entering the surging sea of detached metaphors whose origin is long lost. At the time, though, many touted Trilby as enduring literature.

How can we tell at the time if the work is going to become an enduring part of literature or a bright but relatively brief-spanned comet of popularity—all but forgotten the next generation down?

That might be related to this question: when does a work change from being popular for itself to a social fad, that is, you have to read it, or pretend to read it, in order to seem part of the in crowd? We all can name books from childhood or adulthood when this was true.

This isn’t to say that Harry Potter is popular primarily for social reasons, though there are definitely levels to engagement, I discovered over the past few years as a teacher using the books in the classroom: there are of course the passionate readers, then there are the kids who don’t read much but did read Potter, then there are the kids who don’t actually read the books—though they own them—but wait for the movies, and the kids who don’t read them or see the movies but like to talk about the story with other kids. These last subsets don’t explain away a readership of 80 plus million, of course. There was definitely something in the Zeitgeist through the late nineties and early 2000s to make the books resonate so powerfully. At some point, yes, I suspect they became de rigueur but before then, there was a readership both vast and dedicated.

I have this deeply intellectual and academic 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, which in many human beings can be defined as gnosis. Current brain theory states that some are born with that, some aren’t, but for those who are, 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.

Zing is often personal (Pride and Prejudice has zinged me all my life, but it left Mark Twain utterly cold all his life) but culture is made up of individuals, and sometimes books have a cultural zing, which happened to Harry Potter.

The Harry Potter story zinged with a lot of readers for whom all the elements of the story were new: the boarding school story, the lonely orphan who turns out to be special, the fights with evil adults when everything seems to be about the orphan…and of course the magic. Rowlings’ magic was so clever, her witty exchanges so fun between the main characters, that longtime readers for whom these elements were not new got charmed into the storyverse. Does this particular zing have the staying power to last for generations? My guess is, no. But none of us can be sure unless we actually survive that long.

Notes on specific books as they came out (scroll down)

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The Harry Potter Phenomenon — 16 Comments

  1. When the Harry Potter books first came out (well, I got the first two shipped over from England by a friend, so I really have no idea about release dates in the US), I was kind of offended. I liked them, well enough, but they didn’t give me the sort of zing that say the Dark Lord of Derkholm did, and I was surprised at everyone suddenly liking these books when they hadn’t ever given my favorite books of the same sort of genre the time of day.

    I couldn’t say I hadn’t liked them, but they were just okay. It was only after I read a ton of Enid Blyton (during exams) when I started to really enjoy their intertextuality. Enid Blyton is awesome, though clearly not great literature.

    But actually, what I think made Harry Potter great was the fact that it took off. It’s fandom turned it into something bigger than just a book series and a couple of derivative movies. It became a whole world. And the places where the world was muddled and ill defined were places where readers could sneak in and become writers, writers who worried about house-elves and racism and medical magic (and gay sex, and way too much about veelas).

    So maybe one of the reasons for the Harry Potter phenomenon was the internet itself, having grown out of the days of fansites and email lists and into the days of massive communities and forums. But that sort of community didn’t happen with the Hunger Games. There is 69x as much fic for Harry Potter as for the Hunger Games, and it’s easy to see why. HP evokes a world. It evokes it enough so that it’s extensible. HG tries to show a world, but one of the main complaints is that the worldbuilding is flawed-arbitrary-confusing. There are a plethora of secondary characters in HP, and they’re all depicted clearly enough to be interesting. In HG even the main characters are a little unlikable, and the interesting secondary ones are all dead.

    So maybe we could say, HP had enough zing to build to a tipping point, which thanks to the internet and the story’s own qualities, spread to create a huge phenomenon. But I have faith in Connie Willis, and I know, that if there weren’t a bunch of Bellweathers hitting on it all around the same time, the phenomenon would not have been the same.

    (Okay, wow, I really need to learn how to stop rambling at some point.)

  2. Cara: interesting stuff! I agree that there was more space for fanfic . . . and though Rowling’s secondary characters were pretty much cardboard it might have been that very sketchiness that invited fanfiction writers to flesh them out. And there are so many possible side stories, whereas in Hunger Games, it’s pretty much either fight stories, or slashing K’s two boyfriends.

  3. No zing for me in regards to Harry Potter. I was far too old! But if i’d found the books at age eleven or even earlier–ZINGOLA!
    As it was I had to wait for LOTR at age fifteen.
    The Miss Austen zingeroo for me was Persuasion. That led me back to all the others.

  4. I’m interested in what happens to phenomena when they’re on the decline from their apex. Sometimes things get renewed and flare up again. Other times they become limited to a much smaller audience. Other times the nature of people’s engagement with the thing changes. Kids who are six and seven today will grow up in a world that already has all the Harry Potter books and all the Harry Potter movies–their relationship to the phenomenon will be very different than the relationship kids had who grew up as the books, and then movies, were coming out.

    I agree with Cara’s comparison of HP and HG: HP has all sorts of odds and ends that can be seized upon and expanded, whereas my impression of HG is that all the details bend back to focus on the main themes, conflicts, and characters–which can make for compelling storytelling, but doesn’t allow ancillary stories as easily.

  5. Yes. When I was in my twenties, the “thing” was Star Wars. It was brand new–nothing like it–the idea that they were going to make a second one was electrifying in its intensity. I was working in the film industry at the time, so saw some early drafts of the original that had sat in studio files (and phew, you could see why, talk about wooden writing) but again, there were those interstices that allowed for imaginations to take wing while we waited for the next movie.

  6. I’m trying to think of previous fantasy series that have stuck around for a good long while. So far I’ve got the Narnia books and perhaps Edward Eager’s Half Magic, etc. I’m afraid Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series has been neglected in recent years, as has Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series (despite the hopes raised and then dashed by the inept movie). I suppose the cultural phenomenon can never be reproduced for the Harry Potter series itself, though we’ve seen later waves for Twilight and The Hunger Games. However, I’m guessing HP will stay in print for a few decades, if not longer. They are still delightful and sometimes heart-wrenching stories, even when they’re not triggering a mass cultural frenzy.

  7. Another issue is that some stories, like Harry Potter or Star Wars, have a cross-cultural zing, while others only work in certain countries. For example, while Harry Potter was huge in Germany (and read by adults), Twilight was huge with teen girls but mostly ignored or viewed with bafflement by everybody else. Meanwhile, The Hunger Games never became the cultural phenomenon they are in the US at all. Even of the avid readers among my students, very few have read or heard of the Hunger Games, though they all read Harry Potter and Twilight. And among the dystopian YA set, Sue Beth Pfeffer is far more popular in Germany (probably because she won a prestigious YA award) than Suzanne Collins. Whatever zing those books had in the US, it doesn’t work here.

    I do expect that Harry Potter will last for a couple of decades yet, though probably not forever. Because when the first generation of Harry Potter readers have children of their own, many will introduce Harry Potter to their children, because parents often reach for books they themselves loved when choosing books for their children. That’s also why Enid Blyton has lasted so long – because parents kept giving the books they had loved to their children. Whether Harry Potter will still work for the children of the original readership, however, remains to be seen.

  8. Cora: yes. I think of the Heinlein juvies, which were pretty much a dud for the eighties and nineties kids, in spite of their parents’ enthusiasm. (Smaller pool, tho.)

    Kate: HP is such a juggernaut I think it pretty much guaranteed they will stay in print for a couple more decades. Though I could be wrong–Trilby had an abrupt falloff.

    I need to reread the Prydain Chronicles to see how they hold up, but I’m kind of afraid to.

  9. Oh, this definitely applies to the Heinlein juvies. I always cringe when I see them recommended as good YA reading today, because I found them awfully corny and dated when I first read them 20 years ago (not introduced by parents, though. I found SF on my own), so I don’t even want to imagine how unreadable they would be to a kid of today. But they had the right sort of zing for some kids in the 1950s.

    Karl May is another example. The Winnetou novels, for all the emotional connection we may have to them, are not exactly easy reads, yet they have been passed on from parent to child for decades. In my generation, many kids still read Winnetou (of course, the YA fiction of the 1970s and 1980s was awful and vintage stuff from our parents and grandparents was often preferable). Indeed, my then best friend was determined to marry Winnetou, while I decided I’d marry Old Shatterhand and then we’d live happily ever after on the prairie (hey, we were twelve). But today’s kids no longer read Karl May, probably because our generation either didn’t pass him on or he didn’t work anymore.

  10. Cara, that was EXACTLY my reaction (though I’ll admit that we did get Four the day it came out, but by Five I settled for getting it from the library the day it came out, and by Six and Seven, though I did get them from the library right away, I would’ve waited if I hadn’t been able get them for free right away, and I never went to a release party). But even as I was distainful (There are better books out there, and guys, this is not a new idea: for one, Jane Yolen did magic boarding school in Wizard’s Hall), I LOVED that I could talk about them to people. As a kid, I only ever had one or two friends that I could talk books with, but after Harry Potter was a thing, I could talk about that with ANYONE. (Mostly. I also got yelled at by a lady at my grandma’s church for reading them at all, which was a new experience because the rest of my fantasy reading was so obscure that sexagenarians couldn’t identify them from across the room.) I could talk to grownups, I could talk to my peers, I could talk to kids younger than me . . . and an instant topic of conversation really was magic for someone as shy and conversation-averse as I was. The whole sci-fi/fantasy club at my college could get in on discussions of whether or not Snape was really evil or playing a very deep game. I didn’t find that sort of literary discussion anywhere else until I got to college (and even then it was restricted to more specialized groups).

  11. Harry Potter resonated with me in some way that I’m not entirely sure I can explain. I suppose that’s what you mean by zing. All I know it that was the right book(s) for me at the right time. (I was twenty when the first came out.)

    That zing is in part a created world so real I could taste and smell and hear it, but mostly it is characters who were so real I ached to know them in real life, so real I cried when they lost their loved ones and cheered when they won their battles and was emotionally wrung out by the end. They spoke to me.

    My kids love the books, while my husband and most of my closest friends, even those who enjoyed them, don’t feel as strongly about them as I do. Are the books a generational phenomenon that will fade away to obscurity? I hope not. But that doesn’t really matter in the greater scheme. The HP books got an entire generation to read. And some of them picked up other books and explored other genres. Most importantly they talked about what they were reading. And even better they are still talking about what they are reading. And some of them started writing. They started with fan-fiction, and then wrote their own stories and some have become published writers.

    That is Harry Potter’s legacy to the world — not whether the stories themselves will survive, but the influence they had over the people who read and wrote and talked about them.

  12. I personally don’t think it was the Harry Potter books that zinged people. They certainly never zinged me – I was a teenager when I started reading, and the impression I got was that the books weren’t growing up with me – they were still children’s books, even when I was not a child anymore. What zinged me in them (and I think the rest of the world – certainly fanfic) was the world. An entire hidden world, as big as this one, with a history and characters beyond just 7 years in England which one could invent at well. That’s what got to me, and led me to Harry Potter fanfic. HP fanfic zinged me. Especially such stories as Alexandra Quick, which have Absolutely No Connection to Harry Potter, except that they take place in the general world of wand wavers and muggles.
    Books that actually zinged me – Pride and Prejudice, LotR, Here Be Dragons (which got me into historic novels).
    I think one should differentiate in the end between the idea of a world (such as HP, and other fantasy/sci-fi novels) which zings people, and an actual book, where both the characters, plot and world zing.

  13. I agree with this last point by Koby– I was never blown away by the characters or plot in HP, mostly I found myself thinking: Damn, what a beautiful and rich imagination the author has! But that was enough to always keep me reading and wanting to find out. Of course every reader is different, but a book like HP in which the author’s imagination and not the characters themselves or their situations, fascinate me cannot zing me. (And I don’t think it was an age issue either.. My best friend, same age, had the reaction another poster above did… the books made her cry and they deeply resonated with her…)

    By the way, I wanted to say to Sherwood, I love your blog. I read it in the shadows mostly, but it is really an inspiration for an aspiring writer! Thank you for tending it =)