7 Reasons Rowling Deserves Nobel Prize (2) CSL’s Poeima: Genre and Influence

Vladimir Nabokov, the writer Rowling says “I really love,” was a native-born Russian and a formalist obviously influenced by Russian formalists. In yesterday’s first point of formalist criticism in explanation of why Rowling merits a Nobel Prize, I shared the formalist distinction of syuzhet and fabula, artistic narrative versus basic story or plot, and its relevance in appreciating Rowling’s ouevre. Nabokov made the same formalist distinction in English about the subject of literary study, syuzhet, with an emphasis on “structure and style” as the beginning and end of a serious reader’s work.

M. H. Abrams wrote that the “focus on the formal patterns and technical devices of literature to the exclusion of its subject matter and social values”  is why the Formalists were labelled as such by their critical opponents (Glossary of Literary Terms, p 107). Nabokov lectured on literature at Cornell University and his talks there as well as the interviews he gave and the books he wrote all speak to his having shared this Formalist view.

He described his course, Literature 311-312, Masters of European Fiction, for example as “among other things, a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures” (Lectures on Literature, p xxx). He notes as he begins his discussion of Dickens’ Bleak House that form equates to subject matter in the best writing.

What do we mean when we speak of the form of a story? One thing is its structure, which means the development of a given story, why this or that line is followed; the choice of characters, the use that the author makes of his characters; their interplay, their various themes, the thematic lines and their intersection; the various moves of the story introduced by the author to produce this or that direct or indirect effect; the preparation of effects and impressions. In a word, we mean the planned pattern of a work of art. This is structure.

Another aspect of form is style, which means how does the structure work; it means the manner of the author, his mannerisms, various special tricks; and if his style is vivid what kind of imagery, of description, does he use, how does he proceed; and if he uses comparisons, how does he employ and vary the rhetorical devices of metaphor and simile and their combinations. The effect of style is the key to literature, a magic key to Dickens, Gogol, Flaubert, Tolstoy, to all great masters.

Form (structure and style) = Subject Matter: the why and the how = the what. (Lectures, p 113; emphasis added)

A student in Nabokov’s last class at Cornell, John Updike’s wife, remembers his “central dogma” was “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are hogwash” (Lectures, p xxiii). Our principal pleasure in reading the best fiction, Nabokov declared, is the fruit of our ability in re-reading to “keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece” (Lectures, p 4). In our seven point apologia for taking Rowling seriously as a writer we wil be returning again and again to just this focus on the syuzhet “inner weave” of structure and style in its various forms.

Today I want to discuss a point that C. S. Lewis makes in his critical work as formalist about poeima, his Greek equivalent I think for the Russian syuzhet

A work of literary art… both means and is. It is both Logos (something said) and Poeima (something made). As Logos it tells a story, or expresses an emotion, or exhorts or pleads or describes or rebukes or excites laughter. As Poeima, by its aural beauties and also by the balance and contrast and the unified multiplicity of its successive parts, it is an objet d’art, a thing shaped so as to give great satisfaction. (Experiment in Criticism, p 132; cited by Schakel, The Longing for a Form, p xv).

This “shaping” is largely a consequence of Forma or Form, usually capitalized by Lewis, which Schakel defines as “literary ‘kind,’ almost ‘genre’.” Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost wrote:

Every poem has two parents — its mother being the mass of experience, thought, and the like, inside the poet, and its father the pre-existing Form (epic, tragedy, the novel, or what not) which he meets in the public world. By studying only the mother, criticism becomes one-sided. It is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamored of a woman, but also to be enamored of the Sonnet (Preface, p 3; cited by Schakel, p xi).

Literary artistry, in other words, is largely an author’s appreciation for and command of the the particular forms of literature, the genre rules, standards, and commonplaces. Rather than restricting the expression of a poet, novelist, or playwright, the form focuses and reveals the inspiration, the materia of any work; the form is the essential complement to the matter of the story.

It would, in my opinion, be the greatest error to suppose that this fertilization of the poet’s internal matter by the pre-existing Form impairs his originality…. Materia appetit forman ut virum femina. The matter insides the poet wants the Form: in submitting to the Form  it becomes really original, really the origin of great work. The attempt to be oneself often brings out not only the more conscious and superficial parts of a man’s mind; working to produce a given kind of poem which will present a given theme as justly, delightedly, and lucidly as possible, he is more likely to bring out all that was really in him, and much of which he himself had no suspicion (Lewis, Preface, p 3; Schakel, p xii).

To understand why Rowling deserves a Nobel Prize, especially from a Formalist’s perspective, necessitates discussion of her relationship with genre and the specific forms of story with which she engages and within which her stories are told. Here are three quick points that demonstrate Rowling’s creative genius and syuzhet with respect to story-types she loves and adapts to her purposes.

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Harry Potter by the Numbers: 1,084,170

Your indispensable morning factoid and invaluable follow-on information! Here are the number of words in the Harry Potter novels and comparisons with the word counts of other well-known works.

Quantity is not quality, of course, but don’t make the mistake of neglecting that quantity is one quality — and not an unimportant one. If your spoon at breakfast weighed thity five pounds, you might have had less oatmeal.

So, how many words are there in Harry Potter? More than a million. Via WordCounter.net

  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? There are 76,944 words.
  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets? There are 85,141 words.
  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban? There are 107,253 words.
  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? There are 190,637 words.
  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix? There are 257,045 words.
  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince? There are 168,923 words.
  • How many words are in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? There are 198,227 words.

The Harry Potter books contain 1,084,170 words

Order of the Phoenix is 1/4 of the total, just a tad short of the first three books’ word counts combined.

More to the point, any class requiring students to read the series before registering is setting a million word point-of-entry.

I’m pretty sure that’s a unique threshold outside of Old Testament studies in Divinity School.

 

Other Word Counts for Famous Novels as Points of Reference —  Via CommonPlaceBook.com

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Riddikulus! Humor as a Weapon against Fear and Evil

I have a guilty confession: I really like watching old re-runs of Hogan’s Heroes. Yes, Hogan’s Heroes, with the hokey tunnels and wacky disguises. Probably one reason I enjoy it is because my kids think it’s hilarious; we don’t have Image result for comedy maskcable, and it comes on every night on one of the stations we get with the antenna. It also reminds me of my childhood and the silly stuff we loved then, like Gilligan’s Island and Batman. However, after doing a little research, I began to realize that there was something more at work here, something far more complex than tunnels in tree trunks and microphones hidden under portraits of Hitler. Just as we see in the rich and complex texts we discuss here, even campy Hogan has something intriguing to say about fear and the power of laughter. [Read more…]

Signum U. Symposium: Beasts and Rogue One

Last month, I was pleased to take part in a Signum U./Mythgard Institute-sponsored symposium to discuss the two hottest fantasy films of the holiday season, and their various and sundry implications: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Also taking part were friends of this site Katherine Sas and Kelly Orazi (whom you’ll remember from their brilliant essays in Harry Potter For Nerds 2), Curtis Weyant (who is one of my own, personal go-to Star Wars nerds), Brenton Dickieson, Mythgard faculty member and author of the brilliant blog A Pilgrim in Narnia, and of course our moderator, Sørina Higgins. It proved a lively, lengthy and interesting discussion, especially after our host ended the “official” program, and the remaining panelists, having too much fun to hang up, chatted on unreservedly. Please enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts on these two films, and our nerdy discussion of same, in the comments.

You can follow Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).

Happy Birthday Gilderoy Lockhart! Pride as a Real and Fictional Flaw

We sometimes hear the word “pride” tossed around so much that it just becomes another slogan. People are encouraged to be proud of everything from their sports teams to their genetic make-up. However, this week, after a wonderful sermon on why pride is a problem (thanks, Pastor Alan), I re-read the first sentence of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a line that is surprisingly Image result for gilderoy lockhart harry potterrevealing, and I began to ponder pride a little more in terms of its role as a spiritually corrosive force in fantasy literature, just as it is in life. So, let’s visit that deadly sin that rears its ugly head around so many real and fictional corners.

Pride, not to be confused with self-respect or satisfaction with a job well done, is a sin that is ridiculously common among human beings.  No less a personage than Benjamin Franklin pointed out that if we think we have really overcome pride, then we will become proud of our humility. We are, by our very nature, easily drawn into pride. Perhaps that is why it is such an effective element to characterize fictional people. By creating characters who suffer from the sin of pride, authors can make these characters more believable while, at the same time, using that pride to make readers dislike them. For, strangely enough, although everyone has succumbed to pride, it tends to be an easy sin for us to condemn, even while we are guilty of it ourselves.

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