7 Reasons Rowling Deserves Nobel Prize (3) The ‘Literariness’ of Her Work

[This the fourth in a series of posts in which I offer an argument in the terms of Russian Formalism for J. K. Rowling’s being awarded a Nobel Prize on the merits of her work. The first three posts in this set can be found here, here, and here.]

If there are two concepts in academic study of literature which are anywhere and everywhere recognized as ‘Russian Formalist,’ as such, they are literaturnost or ‘literariness’ and ostrananie or ‘defamiliarization.’ The ideas are conjoined, as we’ll discuss at some length in tomorrow’s installment, but I have separated them temporarily and artificially to highlight how each is reflected in Rowling’s work before seeming them in conjunction. Defamiliarization is the point of literature, in a nutshell; literariness is how writers create this effect and what those who study literature are studying. Literaturnost is a principal means to any author’s syuzhet or poeima.

Roman Jakobson, the most well known Russian Formalist besides Shklovosky, wrote in Modern Russian Poetry (1921) that “the object of literary science is not literature, but literariness, that is, what makes a given work a literary work.” Chris Baldick explains:

The Formalists set out to define the observable ‘devices’ by which literary texts – especially poems – foreground their own language, in meter, rhyme, and other patterns of sound and repetition. Literariness was understood in terms of defamiliarization, as a series of deviations from ‘ordinary’ language. It thus appears as a relation between different uses of language, in which the contrasted uses are liable to shift according to changed contexts. (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, p 123)

The obviously poetic or extra-mundane quality of literary language “foregrounds” it.  M. H. Abrams defines ‘foregrounding’ as “bring[ing] something into prominence, to make it dominant in perception.”

The literariness of a work, as Jan Mukarovsky, a member of the Prague Circle, described it in the 1920s, consists “in the maximum of foregrounding of the utterance,” that is the foregrounding of the act of expression, the act of speech itself.”… The primary aim of literature in thus foregrounding its linguistic medium, as Viktor Shklovsky put it in an influential formulation is to estrange or defamiliarize; that is, by disrupting the modes of ordinary linguistic discourse, literature “makes strange” the world of everyday perception and renews the reader’s lost capacity for fresh sensation. [A Glossary of Literary Terms, pp 107-108 (highlighting in original)]

This “focus on the formal patterns and technical devices of literature to the exclusion of its subject matter and social values” (Abrams, 107), as we have discussed, is why the Formalists were labelled as such by their critical opponents. To risk repeating myself to clarify this point, the aim of fine writing is a reawakening of any reader’s thinking and understanding by a defamiliarizing experience; the means to this goal and the object of literary study is any work’s literariness or foregrounded linguistic, structural, and referential markers that make it undeniable that we are reading something extraordinarily other than commonplace experience and language. References to other work or intertextuality is a hallmark of such foregrounding or markers that we have entered the world-apart of intentional writing.

If there is only one hurdle for Rowling to clear to become Nobel worthy in the eyes of the cognoscenti and academic gatekeepers of literary canon, it is literariness. For at least a century, literariness to these stewards has meant writing plotless novels of self-reflection about the absurdity and meaninglessness of human existence in elevated, relatively inaccessible language for an increasingly limited audience of existential-atheists. The only thing Rowling has published to date, perhaps published to please just this audience, that is not wonderfully accessible, popular, and plot-driven has been the Hardy-esque Casual Vacancy, the only novel or screenplay she has written that disappointed her global audience.

But literariness understood as the Formalists did rather than as the certified literary establishment now does is an undeniable quality of Rowling’s work, Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts to Cormoran Strike. Here are three points about Rowling’s novels and screenplays in which she foregrounds by language, artifice, and referencing the literariness of her writing that continually remind her readers they’re not in Kansas anymore.

(1) ‘Literariness’ is More than Aesthetic Language

The great failing in Rowling as a writer, I think, as perceived by those who judge such things in academic journals and public reviews, is that her language is insufficiently literary. Nabokov, who also failed to win a Nobel Prize (almost certainly because of his disdain for such honors and his fervent anti-Communism in the age of Soviet fellow travelers), in contrast, was much admired for his remarkable vocabulary and verbal pyrotechnics. The name ‘Nabokov’ is synonymous with everything magisterial, sophisticated, and demanding in literature.

Let me dwell on this Nabokov-Rowling point for a minute. The difference in how these writers are perceived (and the consequent surprise when, say, a Nabokov scholar like Michael Maar writes that VVN would have liked Harry Potter) gets at the literariness point neatly if circuitously.

Samuel Schuman attributes the now near universal view that Nabokov was “one of the twentieth-century’s prime advocates of ‘art for art’s sake’“ is due to his “glittering prose style” which “so consistently and so delightfully calls attention to the medium” in which he writes, i.e. his ‘literariness.’ Equally important in cementing this view, he argues, is Nabokov’s “oft-repeated, passionate, and apparently sincere affirmation that his work did not have some sort of social message,” “that he did not see the purpose of art as political reformation” (‘Beautiful Gate: Vladimir Nabokov and Orthodox Iconography,’ p 48). His reputation, as Brian Boyd notes, remains that he “was an ironist who skewers with the elegant epee of his prose all he dislikes in life, an artist who flaunts his artifice, a supreme stylist with nothing to say” (Nabokov’s Pale Fire,  p 5). Vladimir Alexandrov writes that the predominant view of Nabokov is that he “is first and foremost a meta-literary writer” whose “ironic manipulation of the devices and forms of narrative fiction lies at the heart of his oeuvre” (Nabokov’s Otherworld, pp 3, 235).“He is either celebrated or condemned for being a brilliant and ironic manipulator of fictional techniques” (The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, p 567).

Rowling has suffered the opposite if corresponding and equally monolithic profiling as a children’s book writer. From William Safire’s 2000 New York Times op-ed in which he branded her work as “unworthy of adult attention” and similar literary gate-keeper rejections by Harold Bloom and A.S. Byatt, to the same Times’ creation of a Children’s Bestseller list to remove the Potter titles from their perch atop their fiction list and Rowling’s OBE for “services to children’s literature,” Rowling, by fan and foe alike, is criticized, celebrated or condemned as children’s book writer, a literary type-casting which is now received and nigh universally accepted, albeit as an unexamined opinion. Critics who argue for a children’s book stockade for Rowling are more than legion; they are the rule to which exceptions are so few that they are extraordinary. All this despite her not having written a children’s book in her life, if the Potter books featured children and were sold as Kid Lit.

It has to be noted first that all the Nabokov critics quoted above are describing a mistaken understanding of Nabokov as literary aesthete writing above the human fray and condition. Read The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrea Pitzer as well as the article and books cited for a correction of that upside-down view.

Rowling’s reputation as a non-aesthete or at best a sophisticated Dr Seuss is similarly wrong headed. Her parodies and reinventions of the School Boy Story and Gothic Romance (and now crime fiction) are not written in the style of Proust or the inwardness of Joyce or even with the lexical quirkiness of Nabokov. But literariness is not restricted to literary novels.

The first marker of literariness, I think, as the Formalists explain it, is insurance on the author’s part that the reader is constantly being reminded he or she is in the midst of artifice, of a literary construction apart from ‘real life.’ This, of course, is nine tenths of our fascination with Rowling’s Wizarding World sub-creation, i.e., its magisterial inventiveness and the exquisite detail provided. In case we become so immersed in story and setting that it seems real to us, the author is careful to slap us with a comic title for a book, silly shop name, or preposterous historical event, government agency, or magical potion, curse, and spell.

And it is exactly this magical language use, her literariness affecting defamiliarization, which marks Rowling as an author Formalists would admire if not flat out a “Formalist author.” It is the kitzsch in Rowling’s Latin hexes, place names, magical objects and creatures that jars with the knowing laugh, an acknowledgement of her cleverness and of getting the joke, a grin and giggle that pulls us out of the story and reminding us that we are reading a story that is her ‘literariness,’ one at least as effective as Nabokov’s puns in three languages and literary references.

(2) Rowling’s Character Names Scream ‘Literariness’

And the names! They are literariness all over in their alliteration and interior mirroring, their references to characters in the works of other writers, and their palimpset meanings of two, three or more layers.

The ‘Four Founders’ are an obviously alliterative group with Godric Gryffindor, Salazar Slytherin, Rowena Ravenclaw, and Helga Huffelpuff. And the Heads of Houses? Not too surprisingly, as they represent the Four Founders in some respect, we have Minerva McGonagall, Severus Snape, Filius Flitwick, and Pomona Sprout. They are joined on the faculty, at least for a short while, by Quirrius Quirrell and Mad-Eye Moody. And the Ghosts and Ghouls on campus? The Fat Friar, the Bloody Baron, Nearly-headless Nick, Moaning Myrtle, and Peeves the Poltergeist.

Not enough? How about … Archibald Alderton, Arkie Alderton, Bathsheda Babbling, Bathilda Bagshot, Blodwyn Bludd, Barberus Bragge, Betty Braithwaite, Broderick Bode, Cho Chang, Colin Creevey, Dilys Derwent, Daedulus Diggle, (Elphias) “Dog breath” Doge, Dudley Dursley, Gellert Grindelwald, Filius Flitwick, Florean Fortescue, Gladys Gudgeon, Gregory Goyle, Luna Lovegood, Madames Malkin and March, Pansy Parkinson, Patma and Parvati Patil, Piers Polkiss, Stan Shunpike, Thaddeus Thurkell, Ted Tonks, Tilden Toots, William Weasley, Willy Widdershins, and Vindinctus Viridian.

I mean, c’mon. For the discussion of the interior mirroring of the names, as in the two ‘r’s and ‘t’s in ‘Harry Potter,’ see my Harry Potter as Ring Composition.

The names are also loaded with hat-tips to favorite authors. Cedric Diggory is one to C. S. Lewis’ Digory Kirke, his insertion of self into The Narniad. A Potter phile wandering through Nabokov’s Lolita will be taken aback by the number of Hogwarts names in the text. The lead character, Lolita, for instance? Her real name is ‘Dolores,’ spelled the way Prof Umbridge does her first name. Then there are Lupin, Sybil, and Argus among references to Sirius, to nymphs of all ages as well as elves, and to ‘rufus’ and ‘rubius’ as shades of red that are significant enough in the narrative to warrant explanation in Appel’s notes for The Annotated Lolita

Maybe you find that unconvincing. “There are lots of Arguses running around in popular novels. Could be a coincidence.” Take a look into Pale Fire. You’ll find a Luna, a Fleur de Fyler who clearly is part Veela, and, wait for it, a Grindelwod.

And that’s just Lewis and Nabokov. Fans of Jane Austen, Tolstoy, P. D. James, and other Rowling favorites will happily share with you the number of character’s with names taken from other novels and creatively remade and inserted to meaningful effect in Rowling’s work.

Last but not least is that Rowling’s literatriness with respect to names extends to the fact that her characters are given designations that are more epithets or ciphers for the kind of person they are. Readers of this blog by now are familiar with the ‘adult comedy’ meanings just beneath the surface of Peter Pettigrew and Matthew Cunliffe. Hermione Granger, too, has a hilariosly hermetic significance. If you think this is just a John hobby horse, go ahead a google “meaning of Sirius Black” or, better, check out Beatrice Grove’s exegesis of the name Owen Quine, the self-important author and murder victim in Galbraith’s The Silkworm:

Perhaps The Silkworm’s most evocative cratylic name, however, is that of its murder victim. Owen Quine is a brilliant name for someone who ends up sharing the fate of his fictional alter-ego because a “quine” is the name of a self-replicating computer program: a program that can only produce a copy of itself. (The program was named after the philosopher Willard Quine, who worked on indirect self-reference and invented Quine’s paradox:

‘Yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation’ yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation.

Owen Quine’s writing appears to be deeply self-referential – “Quine was repeating himself. That’s the second thing from Hobart’s Sin he put in Bombyx Mori” (242) – as does his death. (And Owen Quine sounds rather like “own quine” – the most self-referential name of all!) But Quine is not quite as narcissistic as we are being lead to believe. As with the “yields falsehood when preceded by its quotation” part of Quine’s paradox, so this is false self-quotation, intended to lead the reader up the garden path.

Check out Prof Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter for an entire chapter on the ‘cratylic’ quality of Rowling’s character names.

(3) The Literariness of Rowling’s Intertextuality or ‘Literary Allusions’

I have written a book about Rowling’s Harry Potter series being a gateway to a lifetime of reading rather than to the occult; Harry Potter’s Bookshelf is all about the debts owed to previous writers and the references in text Rowling makes to pay those debts. Prof Groves’ Literary Allusion in Harry Potter was written ten years later and realizes what I hoped Bookshelf would do. The chapters on Jane Austen, Ovid, Shakespeare, Hardy, and the imbedded Gospel narrative (‘the Guiler Beguiled’) are extraordinary explorations and revelations of the profound literariness of these supposed children’s books.

And I’ll leave it at that today. Yes, there is the literariness of the ‘texts within texts’ — see especially Caitlin Harper’s work on how the Quidditch matches in each novel tell the same story as that book — and don’t forget the intratextuality of characters reading texts in ways that we are or are not supposed to take as models for our reading of the book we have in hand.

Rowling’s greater literariness, I think, is found beneath the magical language and Dickensian cryptonyms that constantly remind us we’re reading a very funny writer’s work. In the discoveries we make on repeated readings, the connections, the clues we missed, the story structures and symbol sets, we come to an appreciation of Rowling’s artistry, the syuzhet and style of her fantasy and crime-fiction writing, that is farther down than the surface markers of her language, however fanciful and intentionally quirky.

Tomorrow, defamiliarization, the aim and end of poetry, plays, and prose according to the Formulists, and Rowling’s success in this with her Wizarding World stories and relative failure with Cormoran Strike. Stay tuned — and do let me know what you think in the comment boxes below!

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