Josh Richards: Rowling or Milton or Meyer or Joyce?

Votaries of Antiquity, a Guest Post from Prof Josh Richards, Palm Beach Atlantic University

Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance; all perhaps are more willing to honour past than present excellence; and the mind contemplates genius through the shades of age, as the eye surveys the sun through artificial opacity. The great contention of criticism is to find the faults of the moderns, and the beauties of the ancients. While an authour is yet living we estimate his powers by his worst performance, and when he is dead we rate them by his best.

Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare

Someone recently posted the following comment on an old thread at this site. At the risk of possibly feeding a troll, I have been asked to comment as several illustrative points may be drawn by response.

It follows:

Kids, stop reading this garbage. Do not try to give arguments which you know that are fake. There are better books than this. If you want to read bildungsroman novels, read Mario Vargas Llosa´s, “The Time of Hero” or James Joyce´s, “Portraid of the Artist as a Young Man”. If you like fantasy, read Lewis Carrol, Kipling, Stevenson, Wells, Swift, Wilde, Verne or Jorge Luis Borges. Borges especially will reeducate you and will teach you what literature is. You will discover that many good writers have what is called “style”. Style consists in writing euphonically, by avoiding repeated words, repeated phrases, cacophonies, clichés, anacoluthons and other things. Read good literature. Believe me: you will improve your culture and the way of using your language.

There are three matters that may be learnt from such a post (whose author I have somewhat arbitrarily gendered male for convenience). The first is whether or not there is something that can be learned from works like Harry Potter and Twilight; The second, on the weighing of writers, especially translations; the third on the dangers of pretension.


It is my assertion that we can learn a great deal from even minor books. Do I believe that J. K. Rowling is of the same merit as Joyce? Assuredly not. However, much about design and character creation can be learned from Rowling. Meyer’s prose is deplorable, but she touched something in especially the female psyche with her works. We could and should learn from that—especially if anyone wants to sell lots of copies. There is something to be learned from all but the most profound of drivel, but it should not be blind endorsement either.

Additionally, many great works are weighty and not for every-day reading. Consider what the eminent Samuel Johnson said about Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. None ever wished it longer than it is. Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure. We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation; we desert our master, and seek for companions. (Life of Milton 252)

Paradise Lost is a great book, and you should all read it, but we aren’t adulterating culture by reading something other than high art on a rainy afternoon. One could say the same of Joyce—I read him, but it’s a chore, and I’m a professor of literature. I too desert my master and seek for companions. Not reading them at all is bad, but enjoying lower-brow stuff in the moment is fine.

We’re adulterating culture if we ignore high art, if we say that there is no such thing, if we claim something to be that isn’t, regardless of its other merits. We can and should read Rowling and Meyer; we should appreciate them, but it should be for the right reasons. Claiming there is no merit at all in Harry Potter is just as ridiculous as claiming that she’s Charles Dickens.


I find two things interesting about the collection of authors listed.

The first is that Verne and Wells are listed alongside Joyce. A truly risible assertion—Verne isn’t even the greatest French author in any of the many decades he was writing. Wells isn’t even the best author of science fiction/fantasy fiction during his long lifetime; H. Rider Haggard and H. P. Lovecraft held those crowns during their respective floruits. His prose, while not deplorable, is not objectively better than Rowling’s. This seems to be an instance of, in the words Samuel Johnson in his “Preface to Shakespeare,” how “[a]ntiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice.” J. K. Rowling and Stephen King may have the rights to be in the same club as Verne and Wells in 100 years, even if they may not have seats among the Everlasting.

The second item of interest is the advocacy of Llosa and Borges. The latter I have certainly read; the former I can’t comment upon. Nonetheless, if the purpose is purely education in writing, you should not go to an author in translation. If you have the Spanish (which the author seems to), by all means. If not, you are normally better off getting the basis of your education from great authors in your own language.

This isn’t to say I haven’t learned many things from Borges or from Kiyohiko Azuma (who may have as much a right to a seat with Milton as Borges and certainly greater credence as a YA author). Yet, I have not gone to them for the prose itself. Why? Because what’s lost in translation is the poetry of the language, the euphonious features the author asserts as so important. Borges is no better in translation than Rowling, though Borges is, in his own language, a much greater writer.

There are exceptions for truly literary translations such as Pope’s Iliad, Wilbur’s Moliere and Baudelaire, but by and large, reading a work in translation is transmitting but a shadow and isn’t useful for edification. Enjoyment sure, but not a writer’s education.


Railing against the popular opinion is dangerous.

While English is obviously the author’s second language and it would be bullying to take him to task for that (his English is certainly better than my Spanish), the danger of flinging names and erudition about is that somebody will call your bluff, as in the case of Wells and Verne above.

For example, he mentions the anacoluthon. First, the proper plural of anacoluthon is anacolutha—think back to your Greek. Second, when it is used properly and intentionally, the anacoluthon is an extremely effective writing technique. Consider the opening of Tennyson’s Ulysses. I don’t think anyone will accuse him of being a hack.

Being a high-brow advocate is fine, but make sure you know your stuff if you’re going to toss about erudition—somebody who knows as well might call you on it.

In short, Rowling may not have a laurel crown, but you should read her, enjoy her, and appreciate her work for the correct reasons.

Learn from both the living and the dead, according to their merit.

Dr. Joshua Richards

Assistant Professor of English

Palm Beach Atlantic University

[nota Bene: Sharon Jackson and Prof Freeman have also responded to this trollish ‘Plea to the Children’ at the old thread.]


  1. Stephanie Meyer says

    I’ve found great wisdom in this, Dr. Richards. While we don’t know whether or not Rowling and Meyer will stay in the literary canon, Eliot claims that we should just wait and see what happens. “Time the destroyer is time the preserver.”

  2. Audra Nailing says

    Why did Stephanie Meyer refer to herself in the third person?

  3. The author of the ‘Twilight’ books spells her name ‘Stephenie.’

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