Harry Potter Oh, Why Not?

Hey, this is a popular culture site. I have to write about it!

I haven't read Book 6, or even started it, mostly because I'm still stuck halfway through the last one. I've written earlier about my difficulty with unending series and even knowing that Harry Potter ends at 7 doesn't help me much. 3-book series are about my max. And then I just get tired of feeling compelled to keep up with the various plot lines.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who thinks that the Harry Potter books are terrible and that Rowlings doesn't deserve to have all the money she can lay her hands on, but then capitalism doesn't bother me, and I don't believe people buy stuff unless they want to. I think there are a number of better written books out there, but I think that Rowlings' writing has an immediacy that explains, and justifies, if it needs to be justified, its popularity. But then I've also let a guy explain the Wheel of Time series to me. I didn't want to read it, but I didn't mind hearing about it.

All that said, the news that someone "much-loved" dies in the latest book (and yes, I know who it is) does not encourage me to run out and buy the book. Even if I didn't know the victim, reading 600 odd pages just to find out wouldn't be enough inducement. I don't object to Rowlings creating darker and darker books. It's her series, and I think she has a point: this is the battle of good and evil. I just, well, don't much care for books that slather me with heart-tugging grief.

It isn't that I mind a good cry. Every time I read Passage by Connie Willis, I bawl my eyes out: at the part when the teacher finally remembers what he has to tell the main character and at the end. Every time. Without fail. And I love that book. It's just that Rowlings has spoken (or people have spoken for her) about killing off various characters as "oh, I have this difficult task ahead of me, it's so terrible that I have to write this" which is precisely the kind of writing that I distrust. I believe that a writer is fully in control of her text. Fully. None of this, "But the muse spoke to me" stuff. You don't like the way the muse is speaking? Get a different muse. Yes, a certain set-up compels a certain ending, but you can change the set-up. As much as you like. It's your story. You're in control. You make it what it is. Nobody takes over. You think that, you're kidding yourself.

With that in mind, I get suspicious over deaths in fiction. At some point, death crosses the line from necessity to manipulation. It stops being the natural outcome of story and becomes a plot tool of surprise and shock, like prescribing a daily dosage of fun, then suspense, then grief. Which isn't de facto bad writing, and I won't answer for Rowlings' reasons for the last three deaths in her last three books. But, as I've said, I get suspicious. (Like people who told me that I had to go see Beaches because it would make me cry. Uh, no thanks. I don't need a dosage of squishy grief today. I'm perfectly capable of finding squishy grief just by being alive.)

But, as I've said, such prescription of emotion isn't de facto bad writing. Aristotle made THE argument in favor of catharsis. Genres like horror depend on it. And many poeple like a frisson of something or other to get them through the day. It just seems to me that if that frisson can't be delivered without killing off major characters, then something is terribly wrong.

Books Where Death Isn't Just A Plot Dosage of Grief

1. Passage by Connie Willis
2. Lord of the Rings by Tolkien
3. Narnia Books by C.S. Lewis
4. Doomsday Book by Connie Wilis
5. Penhallow by Georgette Heyer (one of the saddest books I've ever read)
6. Runner by Cynthia Voigt
7. Shakespeare's Plays
8. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
9. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
10. Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia McKillip



Henry said...

Who dies in Riddlemaster of Hed?

It's a fabulous book, with one of the great no-one-dies dramatic climaxes in fantasy fiction. The sequels were sadly uneven, though.

Kate Woodbury said...

I was thinking of the entire series. (It's often advertised as the Riddlemaster series.) There's a death at the very end of the last book. Actually, there's a lot of deaths because a war is going on, but there's one major death. And it works. It is a great series, although I think the first two books are better than the last.

Henry said...

Right. The death at the end of book 3. I personally found both books 2 and 3 to be extremely disappointing. All the material was good, but the plotting was haphazard (esp. the first half of book 2 and most of book 3) and the characters all went flat.