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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Potter and Possession: Googling A.S. Byatt

Monday, October 09, 2006

One of the nice additional features provided by Google Toolbar is that as you type your search, it provides a drop down list which predicts your search requirements based on the number of pages available. The method produces some eclectic results. Type in "b," for instance, and there on the list appear "BBC" and "baby names," "Britney Spears" and "bank of America." I am sure there's material for one of those trendy "found" poems here.

This morning, I start to type in "A.S. Byatt" (searching for a bibliography). As might be expected, at the top of the predictive list, with 38,000 results, is "A.S. Byatt possession." But fourth on the list, and only just behind with 25,000 results, is "A.S. Byatt Harry Potter." Intrigued, and unsure of what can lie behind these results, I divert from my original intention and click on this option. Suddenly, I am plunged into the furious and bitter debate that surrounded an essay, provocatively entitled "Harry Potter and the Childish Adult" (full text available here), which Byatt contributed to the New York Times in 2003.

Byatt likes the "secondary world" Rowling has created, which is "made up of intelligently patchworked decorative motifs from all sorts of children's literature." Whether her comment that "derivative narrative cliches work with children" is a compliment, or a backhanded barb, it is hard to be sure. What is certain, however, is that Byatt disdains the phenomenon's adult readers:
Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, "only personal." Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.
Wow! How to alienate several million readers in one blow. Certainly Charles Tayor was not amused. He countered with an essay in Salon entitled "A.S. Byatt and the Goblet of Bile." Since I am writing on A.S. Byatt I feel I must take sides in the debate and, out of loyalty to a writer whom I admire greatly, I suppose I ought to defend her. Whilst the communicants of the Harry Potter cult riled against Byatt's assault on their cherised priestess, I think in her essay Byatt was attacking not so much Rowling's work itself on aesthetic principles, but rather was condemning the state of the culture that accomodates it with the false kind of passion soap operas are so skilled at inculcating:
In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.
I totally agree that reading Harry Potter is the literary equivalent of comfort eating: you know you can devour it all in one go, and you know it is going to leave you satisfied. But Taylor is quite right to point out that Byatt avoids discussing the increasing darkness of the books later in the series, when this comfort food gets harder to swallow:
Rowling has conceived of the seven-book cycle as tracing Harry's growth from childhood to late adolescence. And as the books have gone on, the dangers he faces have not only increased but, as happens with age, become less easy to shrug off, inflicting physical and psychological wounds that are not so quick to heal.
Not having read these later books, I am not in a position to judge whether Rowling is able to plot the intricate paradoxes of sexuality that twine the adolescent mind as well as she plots a game of quidditch. But given that she has managed to keep her growing audience captivated - and buying - it is surely true that her later works offer not only the simple reassurances of escapism but also a more emotionally affective portrayal of human (magic) reality.

And if Byatt really is railing against the television culture, of which Rowling is a manifestation rather than a cure (unlike Byatt's own favourite Georgette Heyer), can the books really be so bad? Byatt is right that nowhere does Rowling's writing come close to giving us "the shiver of awe we feel looking through Keats's 'magic casements, opening on the foam/Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.'" But there was a time when a television culture would hardly think to pick up a book at all, let alone a Keats or, for that matter, a novel like Possession, with its complex embedded poems and knowing literary references. It is surely apt that when The Observer asked 100 British literary luminaries to name the greatest work of British fiction of the last 25 years, both Possession and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince appeared on the list. The former may have been the most academically-minded, "literary" book to have won the Booker Prize in that period; the latter is probably responsible for getting more people into literature in the first place than any other single work.

It is ironic, then, that when you Google A.S. Byatt you are almost as likely to turn up Harry Potter as her great novel. And more fierce critics of A.S. Byatt might well have liked the option that appears fourth on the Googel Toolbar list: "A.S. Byatt baglady." "Baglady" is the actually the title of one of her short stories, but it is impossible to erase the vision of Byatt standing on the steps of a university wielding a conservative handbag against all popular movements, not unlike that other empowered Conservative with her dark accessory, Margaret Thatcher.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:40 am

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