Decontextualizing Harry Potter

From the beginning of the 2016 American election cycle, a popular way to signal social belonging on Tumblr has been to reblog angry posts about J.K. Rowling like the one above.

J.K. Rowling isn’t perfect. No human being on this earth is perfect, and Rowling is no exception. Rowling’s books are far from perfect, and I have to admit that I personally don’t particularly like or enjoy them. It’s important to critique popular media, and it’s reasonable to hold public figures to basic standards of decency. Still, I’m concerned about posts like this, which promote decontextualization as a performance of progressive political ideology.

It’s difficult to make generalizations, so I want to refer to the post above to demonstrate what I mean.

To begin with, most of these posts about the Harry Potter books are coming from an American perspective that doesn’t attempt to address the cultural context of the original books. For example, while Americans tend to think everything is about race, British people tend to be much more sensitive about class. Class intersects with race, because of course it does, but class is widely perceived to be the basic framework of social hierarchy in the United Kingdom, and it’s coded in complicated ways that may be unfamiliar to many Americans.

What’s going on with the “house elves” in the Harry Potter books is that the author is taking the well-known figure of the brownie from Celtic folklore and using it to make a statement about class, specifically the class of people whose labor has always enabled the “great institutions” of the United Kingdom to function properly. Without bothering to talk to them or to listen to what they have to say, Hermione sees this class of people as “slaves,” which the house elves themselves find extremely insulting.

This plot line is resolved as Hermione gradually learns that it’s offensive and counterproductive to claim to speak for an entire group of people whom she believes, as an outsider to that group, to be marginalized. Meanwhile, actual members of the group take up activist work based on their own experiences and achieve real change; but, in the end, the “group” is a collection of diverse individuals who have different opinions regarding their “oppression,” and many of them subtly or actively challenge the notion that a privileged group should be allowed to ahistorically define their entire existence as “oppressed.”

Ron tells Hermione that she’s crazy for caring and that nothing should change because this is the way things have always been, but his traditionalism and intellectual laziness are shown to be just as misguided as Hermione’s naive activism. Harry (who is still a teenager, after all) admits that he can see both sides but doesn’t care about the discourse. Nevertheless, when someone close to him is clearly a victim of discrimination, Harry will stand up to protect them, even if he doesn’t like that person.

I don’t agree with the position that ideology doesn’t matter as long as you treat other people decently, which I think is simplistic and reductive, but I can understand how it works as a thematic element in a series of books written for ten-year-olds.

Rowling herself doesn’t entirely agree with this position either, and she addresses the very real and practical problems of the “I see people as individuals” mentality directly in her work for adult readers, including the book she wrote immediately after concluding the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy. The people writing and reblogging posts like the one above don’t acknowledge this, however, perhaps because their only encounter with contemporary British fiction is a series of kid’s books about teenage wizards written during a decade in which a lot of the conversations we’re currently having about social justice were still evolving.

I should add that these books only got as popular as they did because of their cinematic adaptations. These movies are gorgeous and artistically well-crafted, but they tend to flatten and even erase the nuances of the novels. The posts on Tumblr that are critical of Rowling don’t hold the directors and producers accountable for failing to emphasize the progressive themes of the books in order to achieve a broader commercial appeal, nor do they challenge the systems of privilege that have limited the contributions of minority voices to the cinema industry. Instead, these posts pin all faults of the franchise, both real and imagined, on an individual female writer who was very poor for most of her life (thus her various explorations of the theme of class) while decontextualizing what she wrote decades ago in fantasy novels meant for young readers.

Again, it’s vitally important to think critically about popular culture, and I strongly believe that public figures should be held to basic standards of decency. I am all for critiquing the Harry Potter series and Rowling’s creative decisions. That being said, the trend of posts on Tumblr that hold one progressive female artist or activist responsible for everything that’s wrong in the world by means of aggressive decontextualizations of what she’s actually doing and saying are frightening, especially since they’re starting to recirculate within left-leaning spaces in advance of another election cycle.

In the end, who does it benefit to say that books about respecting difference and resisting authoritarian violence even when not everyone on your side is perfect are “problematic” and are only read by bad and stupid people? Moreover, given that the Harry Potter series is the primary gateway a lot of younger kids have into enjoying books, who does it benefit to say that reading itself is something that’s only done by bad and stupid people?

Why I Buy Books on Amazon

Amazon is evil, and I’m afraid of them. So why do I still use their stupid website to buy books? Let me give you six reasons.

First, I read a lot of scholarship. Since it’s easy to get distracted while reading an academic book, I find it more productive to read paper copies than digital editions. I highlight text and take notes in the margins, so library books are out of the question. Bookstores don’t keep academic books in stock, and I’m not about to order them for full price (which is often more than $100) from the publishers.

Second, I read a lot of literary fiction in translation. I’m not trying to sound cool, because I don’t think literary fiction in translation is ever going to be cool, but I enjoy reading the sort of books that you can only find if you can search for them by means of an aggregate of hundreds of independent storefronts.

Third, I read a lot of fiction and graphic novels that haven’t been translated, and Amazon ships internationally for cheap. In fact, buying a book shipped via DHL Global Express from Amazon Japan or Amazon France is often cheaper than buying the translation at an American bookstore. True story!

Fourth, I read a lot of garbage, and I mean A LOT of garbage.

Let me give you an example. I love the manga series Black Butler, but I do not want to walk into an actual bookstore and ask an actual human being to special order the latest volume for me. In fact, I don’t even want the latest volume to be physically in my apartment, which is why I buy the Kindle editions. I also read a lot of Kindle singles, some of which are so bizarre that they’re probably intended to be performance art. Like most performance art, there’s a lot of potential for misunderstanding. Can you imagine yourself going into an independent bookstore and asking, “Hi, I was wondering where you keep your chapbooks of short experimental fiction. I’m looking for I Got Pounded in the Butt by a T-Rex, could you tell me if you have it in stock?” I guessing that you don’t need any help imagining the look on the face of the English major at the till, which brings me to my next point…

Fifth, I tend to dislike independent bookstores. Don’t get me started on the snobbishness of book culture, because we will be here all day and all night and I still won’t have said everything I have to say about literary gatekeepers and their bullshit.

(I love independent comic book stores forever and always, but that’s another story for another day.)

Sixth, I don’t dislike big chain stores as much as I dislike independent bookstores, but they’re still awful. Let me tell you a short story to help explain why.

The other day I decided that it’s finally time for me to read Pride and Prejudice, so I went to a Barnes and Noble in the suburbs. The entire store was very cringe, with lots of Harry Potter and ghostwritten politician “autobiographies” everywhere. But fuck me, I’m very cringe myself, so I went straight to the super discount shelves to check out those giant glossy books about “How to Make Your Own Healing Crystals” or whatever. I was carefully studying the covers of all the garbage books no one else wanted, and I was about to pick up one of those “witchcraft in a box” packages when a store employee came up to me. She was a super cheerful teenager with bouncy blonde curls, and she asked if she could help me find anything.

I did not in fact need for her to help me figure out where Jane Austen is in their fiction section, but I couldn’t help imagining the awkward conversation we’d have if I requested that she take me there. She would ask if I’ve read the book, and I would have to tell her I haven’t. The reason I’ve never been able to get more than fifty pages into Pride and Prejudice is because Jane Austen has always struck me as a mean girl, and I don’t like the way she makes fun of Elizabeth Bennet’s mom. I’m not sure how I would explain this to the rosy-cheeked teenager, who might respond by repeating some nonsense about the book that she read on Tumblr – where there happens to be a lot of angry and impassioned Jane Austen discourse, if you can believe it.

While this awful conversation was flashing through my mind, I realized that the girl was probably ordered to approach me by one of her supervisors, who saw me concentrating intently on something no sane person would actually buy and was therefore worried that I was a shoplifter. I then got a ridiculous mental image of myself sneaking out of the store with a giant “Witchcraft for Dummies Starter Kit with Bonus Crystals” box under my shirt, which would honestly be only slightly less embarrassing than taking it up to the cash register to pay a whole $8.99 to another teenager who would have to keep a straight face while asking me if I wanted to sign up for a store card.

What I mean to say is that this girl surprised me, and I ended up replying to her offer of assistance by saying “no.” Not “no, thank you” or “no, I’m good,” or “no, but I’ll find you if I need anything.” I just said “no” and walked away. Even though it was a little rude of her to interrupt me, this dick move instantly turned me into the bad guy, because what sort of douchenozzle treats retail workers like that? I felt like such an asshole, especially when they didn’t have Pride and Prejudice on the self with the rest of the Jane Austen books and I was too embarrassed to ask where it was.

And that’s why I don’t like going into bookstores, thank you for joining me on this journey.

In conclusion, I love books, and it makes me happy to support writers and publishers, but I’m also a weird little gremlin who probably shouldn’t be allowed to go out in public. Amazon enables the full extent of my reading habit without being judgmental, and that’s why they get all my money even though they’re evil.

Support Writers!

“I don’t like that no one has written about this” has the potential to be super offensive. The chances are that someone most definitely has published writing on the topic, but the person making this statement hasn’t bothered to look for it.

I see this all the time in academic essays that I peer review. The author will claim that “there has not yet been any serious writing on this topic,” either having failed to do their research or thinking it’s somehow okay to dismiss prior research without reading it.

Along the same lines, “members of [minority group] never get published” is incredibly hurtful to writers who have gone through the arduous process of publishing only for their existence to be denied by people who would rather perform outrage than seek out and promote their work.

Support emerging writers!
Support lesser-known writers!
Support marginalized writers!
Support writers!!!

Digital Commonplace Book

It’s disappointing how you can have epic, cinematic dreams with fascinating characters and complicated stories, but then you wake up and all you remember is “I was being chased.”

Last night I had a really cool dream. I woke up in the middle of the night because I had to use the bathroom, and I thought, “There are parts of that dream that didn’t make sense.” I then went back to bed and had the entire dream again, this time with all of the plot holes fixed.

I just woke up and turned on my laptop to get everything down, but all I have is: “There was a small town in the woods of upstate New York that no one could enter or leave without making a blood sacrifice.”

Goddamn it.

I also sometimes have dreams about video games in which I will actually be playing a fully realized game (usually a Zelda clone) with gorgeous system-specific graphics and creative play mechanics, but then when I wake up I won’t remember anything except “you had to solve a puzzle involving differently colored mushrooms in the Lost Woods” or “the first dungeon was just someone’s house, which they had contrived to look like a dungeon for a special holiday.”

When I was a kid – like maybe eight or nine years old – I decided that I wanted to do research on horror fiction, but the only nonfiction book I could find was Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I didn’t understand probably 80% of what King was going on about (specifically pulp fiction from the 1950s and 1960s), but I did enjoy his extended discussion of H.P. Lovecraft, whom I admired at the time. According to King (and later according to S.T. Joshi, a well-respected biographer and editor of Lovecraft), Lovecraft based a number of his more famous stories and conceits off of his correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith, an American fantasy author who, like Lovecraft, was born in the early 1890s.

I was interested in reading Smith’s work; but, as a kid with almost no access to library resources, the only thing I could get my hands on was The Black Book of Clark Ashton Smith, which is, according to Wikipedia, “a transcription of a notebook that was kept by the author” and published in 1979 (about a decade after his death) by Arkham House, the same small American press that used to put out paperback collections of Lovecraft’s fiction. The Black Book is essentially a commonplace book filled with scraps of ideas, which were mostly no more than a paragraph long. I have no idea how something so niche and rare found its way into my possession, but I loved it. I wanted to keep a commonplace book of my own, but I had somehow managed to convince myself that I was too stupid to ever be a writer, so I didn’t.

I’m probably still too stupid to be a writer, but I wonder if it might not be a good time to start keeping track of my story ideas, whether they come from random dreams or alcohol-fueled dinner conversations or the dopamine high I get from jogging or something I saw or heard somewhere and thought I could do better. It might be a good idea to keep track of the video game ideas too.

In any case, a friend recommended Trello, which she uses as a digital notepad. I’m looking forward to trying it out myself!