Shared Text: The Advent of ‘Parable Novel’ Mania

I was asked last week by a major periodical to share what my current thinking was about the Harry Potter novels. The editors were curious if I had anything ‘new’ on my mind about these books that they could publish in the run-up to the release of the first ‘Deathly Hallows’ film, at the beginning of the end, if you will. I’m not sure if they’ll be interested in publishing what I’m thinking these days, but I thought I’d share with you the preliminary notes I sent them. My thesis is this: Ms. Rowling’s success (and the success of Harry’s progeny, the books that probably wouldn’t have been published or found the audience they have except for Harry) has turned the literary world upside-up, with allegorical and serial ‘Young Adult’ books restoring the novel to its original popularity, power, and relevance.

My first thoughts from last week on how Harry Potter and the literature and readers that have appeared in his wake have changed our understanding and expectations of books:

The biggest effect of a decade-long Potter-mania global immersion is the bleed we’re seeing in “books readers love” from the Harry Potter series. The Twilight books written by Stephenie Meyer, most notably, but also Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy are the best selling book sets post-Hogwarts and each features Rowling signatures. There is the “soul triptych” of the major players that are two boys and a girl, for example, and the spiritual allegory of a soul’s perfection told as a circular or cyclical hero’s journey. Each draws heavily, too, from the stream in English literature tagged “literary alchemy” that C. S. Lewis used obviously in the Ransom novels and more subtly in the Narniad and which Ms. Rowling said “set the magical parameters” of her stories. Ms. Collins, again like Rowling, writes whate Mary Douglas called “Ring Compositions,” books whose first half chapters mirror those in the second half.

This would just be egghead trivia except that there is obviously an audience of readers who are now looking for reading experiences that give them the mythic or religious rush that Eliade said adults in a secular culture look for in their fiction. Hence we have millions of adults reading powerful allegorical work comically cataloged as genre ‘Young Adult fiction.’ They aren’t prudish or stupid readers dumbing themselves down; the only reason the books are tagged this way is because the transparencies are not realistic enough to qualify as “psychological’ or ‘literary novels,” the only genre fiction not dismissed as a genre. Northrup Frye would call these books — Potter, Twilight and Games — “Romances,” not because of the body heat, but because of their being only sufficiently realistic to allow entrance into the mythic and archetypal.

And what is striking about these books, all of which have inspired manias of sufficient breadth to justify midnight book release parties and major film projects, is the amount and depth of the spiritual content. If you include Mrs. Meyer’s Mormon teaching as Christian, all three deliver powerful and translucent messages about and imaginative experiences of transformation in Christ.

The books, though, obviously aren’t obvious about this; none of them are cardboard Jesus fictions from Focus on the Family or stories that would be featured in CBA stores. All three series, springing from the Coleridge inspired English fantasy tradition and wonderfully alchemical, are resonant of Charles Williams work, only much more accessible with the Christian content well under wraps. That many Christians balk at their message because of the surface story elements they cannot get past — the ironies of Christian critical nominalism are too rich to go into here — only testifies to the artistry of these novelists and their mastery of the tradition in which they are writing.

I find this exciting because it points to (a) the truth of Eliade’s thesis and my corollary (the more spiritual content, the more popular the work will be if presented deftly), to (b) the great hunger of readers for even imaginative experience of apotheosis and divinization, and to (c) that this is happening in plain sight but no one discusses it because it requires understanding books at allegorical and anagogical levels that the academy has declared dead. If there are no supernatural referents to which these symbols refer and no human faculties of soul exist to experience these referents, Dante, Spencer, and Ruskin are wrong and all we have are surface and moral meaning (which isn’t really meaning).

Millions of readers don’t know that much about postmodern literary criticism, obviously, and continue to do what human beings do; seek the Christ where He can be found. Today, it’s in fiction inspired by the shared text of the 21st Century, Harry Potter. I know there are literary critics who think that Harry is just the best of the ‘Penny Dreadfuls,’ that he isn’t a Christ figure (woot!), and that alchemy is “code breaker” fantasy, centuries of poems, plays, and novels to the contrary. I hope that you will be able to see through that fog and make some note of the remarkable Potter wake we are living in that is generating edifying fiction of significant spiritual content and critical messages as parables.

Two after-thoughts I wrote out last night in response to the magazine’s courtesy reply:

On the Influence of Ms. Rowling in Re-shaping our Understanding of What Literature Does

Harry Potter has become the 21st century’s “shared text.” It is perhaps the only near-universal cultural item with which the global community is familiar, either as text or as film. Given the organic nature of “influence,” this means we should be seeing fruits from this tree already. How has Ms. Rowling changed our appreciation of past books? How has she re-shaped our understanding of what is “literature” today?

On our understanding of past books, note first what Ms. Rowling has said about how influence works on her and how one notable literary critic says landmarks re-shape appreciation of previous works:

Speaking with Writers Digest in February 2000, Ms. Rowling listed several authors she admired but added quickly, “But as for being influenced by them… I think it [may be] more accurate to say that they represent untouchable ideals to me. It is impossible for me to say what my influences are; I don’t analyze my own writing in that way.” In an interview with in 1999, though, she explained that “It is always hard to tell what your influences are. Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.”

Food and eating are a good analogy for how this process works. I eat my lunch and I become my lunch in a chemical and before-to-after, cause-and-effect kind of way. I am what I ate, undeniably. But I have also really done a number on this food. I may have become all the chemical nutrients and calories of my chicken salad sandwich but even my worst enemies wouldn’t say the chicken salad sandwich won out. It has been changed into me, not me into a chicken salad sandwich. Just so with writers and their influences. Writers read books, and the best writers, like Ms. Rowling, have read voraciously, profoundly, and widely.

These books, as Ms. Rowling says, don’t mechanically become models for the writers’ stories. They become the soil out of which the seeds of the author’s talent and ideas can grow. The richer and more fertile the soil, the more this talent and these ideas will flourish and blossom. The greater the talent and ideas, the more nutrients will be drawn from the rich soil and the more delicious and refreshing will be the fruits from this tree and vine. This organic relationship between talent and tradition is what makes Ms. Rowling’s novels the perfect gateway to great reading. As F. R. Leavis wrote about Jane Austen:

In fact, Jane Austen, in her indebtedness to others, provides an exceptionally illuminating study of the nature of originality, and she exemplifies beautifully the relations of ‘the individual talent’ to tradition. If the influences bearing on her hadn’t comprised something fairly to be called tradition she couldn’t have found herself and her true direction; but her relation to tradition is a creative one. She not only makes tradition for those coming after, but her achievement has for us a retroactive effect: as we look back beyond her we see in what goes before, and see because of her, potentialities and significances brought out in such a way that, for us, she creates the tradition we see leading down to her. Her work, like the work of all great creative writers, gives a meaning to the past.

(The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis, Fellow of Downing College, Cambridge, New York University Press, 1973, p. 5)

This is at least as true of Rowling as it is of Austen, before whom, at least in Leavis’ opinion, there were no great English novelists (the “greats” in his opinion being Austen, Conrad, James, Lawrence, and Eliot). Ms. Rowling by her absorption and representation of the classic genres within her simultaneously genre-busting and genre-embracing novels, by her interpretation and misinterpretation of these standards, is shaping our understanding of the great novelists and playwrights that came before her by the light she shines on them.

Here’s the weird thing. The most notable shift in our understanding of the novel today, by novelists and literary critics, is that the so-called literary novel, the realist and psychological explorations of the boundaries of the comprehensible a la Joyce, Faulkner, Pynchon, and Roth is not accomplishing what the novel specifically and art in general is meant to do. See Lev Grossman, TIME’s book reviewer and accomplished novelist, in the Wall Street Journal all but acknowledging that the art novel is dead or, worse, irrelevant. Read Jonathan Franzen in a GoodReads interview and speaking with Grossman in TIME about the state of the novel. Each admits the academic and conceptual novel, either grittily realist or subliminally driven, does not engage a reader and cannot challenge him or her, consequently, either with ideas or by an experience had within the reading.

Forgive me for not ignoring the Hogwarts Elephant in the room, but I think this re-examination of the Proustian Sacred Cow — whose sales have never been earth shattering and post-Harry-and-Bella seem only pathetic — is a consequence of readers, writers, and critics understanding consciously or consciously that Ms. Rowling achieved something bigger and better in her artistry than any writer of the last, say, half-millenium, give or take a few centuries. This re-appreciation of the engaging novel, of fiction that requires suspension of disbelief, poetic faith, and entry, is I think, sans fallacy, a post hoc propter hoc phenomenon due to Ms. Rowling’s success and the re-shaping of reader expectations consequent to a decade of waiting for Harry’s next year at school.

On Young Adult Fiction Being Literature; ‘Adult’ Books Much Less So —

Today’s heresy is tomorrow’s truism so let me say the heretical thing. Ms. Rowling has done more than re-set the clock to the early 19th century with respect to what novels are supposed to be doing, i.e., “instructing [and transforming] while delighting,” this from both Grossman and Franzen. Beyond creating an even greater market for Romantic fantasy and serial fiction making Waverly seem laconic, Ms. Rowling, as is evident in the two most popular fiction works of the century written in her wake — Mrs. Meyer’s Twilight books and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games — has shifted our critical parameters from “angry Algerian” to “late Ruskin, early Northrop Frye.”

In brief, Rowling, in her revival of multi-layered texts that deliver sublime, archetypal experience in rousing good reads, has turned the literary world upside down. Make that “right-side-up.” True fiction is Young Adult fiction, perhaps more properly called ‘Parable Novels’ (because of their readership and their weight), and the “better books” that only academic theorists and media mavens read have been exposed as the naked Emperor with little relative value for the reader. Rowling has created, like it or not, a return to the novel as engaging and edifying allegorical experience, just realistic enough, as Frye explained in Anatomy of Criticism, to engage the reader and allow them to look through the story transparencies and experience the symbolic referents in the translucencies.

YA Books are despised as “genre fiction,” of course, and their writers are considered hacks compared to the Byatts and Franzens. But the better ones here are the writers whose readers re-read books to re-enter and experience imaginatively a story more real if much less “realistic” than their own persona existence. These books — Ms. Rowling’s, Mrs. Meyer’s, and Ms. Collins’ at least — are what Dante, Spencer, Coleridge, and Ruskin believed fiction to be, not empty or vain artistry devoid of transcendence but an alchemical event in which reading subject and story object elide for the betterment of the reader.

We live in a post-Potter literary world, and, though it is the world as we knew it turned upside-down — when the “children’s best seller list” at the New York Times is really just the best seller list — it is a world with many more readers who are finding at last and in spades what Eliade said citizens of our secular culture are looking for in books, namely, a means to escape ego and find conscience, love, and something Absolute.

I’ll let you know if the magazine editors show any interest. Until then, as always, I covet your comments and corrections.

Author Jonathan Franzen in ‘GoodReads’ —

Celebrated author Jonathan Franzen casts his perceptive eye once again on the American family in his new novel, Freedom. Nine years have passed since his game-changing novel, The Corrections, became one of the most critically acclaimed works in recent memory—winning the National Book Award and becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Franzen grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, and his novels often evoke a strong Midwestern sense of place and explore the minutiae of family relationships, particularly those between parents and their children. In Freedom, gentrified married couple Patty and Walter Berglund weather a fall from suburban grace. On behalf of Goodreads, writer and talk-show host Emily Gould spoke with Franzen about marriage, bird-watching, and the past, present, and future of the realist novel.

GR: You are the first author since Stephen King in 2000 to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. In the profile, you say that it’s important for books to be compelling because readers must resist so much distraction. But I’ve also heard the complaint from writers that there’s enormous pressure to write clear, compelling realist narratives because they’re so much more marketable than difficult, densely written art novels. Are books stooping too low in order to level the playing field with TV and the Internet?

JF: There was a time when it was assumed that a novel was readable. You go back to Richardson and Defoe and then up through Austen and Stendhal and Balzac and all the way through the 19th century, it wasn’t even a question. And then we have modernism, which was made possible by the existence of a long tradition of reading novels. The moderns were able to start doing crazy things with narrative and investigate important questions, like “How does time pass?” and “What is the nature of time?” Faulkner was writing about that in numerous books, Proust was writing about that, in his way, and they were doing this in ways that were very challenging. They could do that because the novel was the dominant form, and what they were doing, at its extremes, was only comprehensible to people who undertook with scholarly seriousness to really study the book.

What happened then is modern literature became something comfortably ensconced in the university, and there was an understandable critical privileging of stuff that required critics. But even as late as the ’80s, when I was still in school, there was an assumption that the very best serious literature was challenging. And it was never in my nature to write books that were really hard to read. But for a long time, for decades, I thought that that was a fault in me. And it’s really only with this last book that I found my liberation from what was arguably an artifact of a particular place in the development of the novel in the early 20th century, and how it coincided with the development of English departments.

So this is all by way of saying that unless you want to discount everything written before 1900, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being readable.

Early readers of Freedom, including this one, have found that the book has an addictive quality, the kind one usually associates with mysteries or thrillers. This isn’t by accident. Franzen is very conscious that people are freer than ever — that word again — to spend their time and attention being entertained by things that aren’t books. That awareness has changed the way he writes.

A lot of literary fiction strikes a bargain with the reader: you suck up a certain amount of difficulty, of resistance and interpretive work and even boredom, and then you get the payoff. This arrangement, which feels necessary and permanent to us, is primarily a creation of the 20th century. Freedom works on something more akin to a 19th century model, like Dickens or Tolstoy: characters you care about, a story that hooks you. Franzen has given up trying to impress with his scintillating prose (which he admits he was still doing in The Corrections). “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist,” he says. “To me, now, to do something new is not to develop a form for the novel that has never been seen on earth before. It means to try to come to terms as a person and a citizen with what’s happening in the world now and to do it in some comprehensible, coherent way.”

There are any number of reasons to want novels to survive. The way Franzen thinks about it is that books can do things, socially useful things, that other media can’t. He cites — as one does — the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and handheld games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.

Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. “We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,” Franzen says. “The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also to read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.”


  1. I agree with what you say on Harry Potter. The themes of love, overcoming hatred and prejudice, loyalty to friends, and fighting for what is right at the risk of your own life, these are consonant with Christ’s values. Rowling displays a strong intertextuality with all the English literary tradition and is supreme at characterizations. I’ve read the books numerous times and will again.

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  2. David Brooks on ‘Freedom:’

    “Freedom” sucks you in with its shrewd observations and the ambitious breadth. It’ll launch a thousand book club discussions around the same questions: Is this book true? Is America really the way he portrays it?

    My own answer, for what it’s worth, is that “Freedom” tells us more about America’s literary culture than about America itself.

    Sometime long ago, a writer by the side of Walden Pond decided that middle-class Americans may seem happy and successful on the outside, but deep down they are leading lives of quiet desperation. This message caught on (it’s flattering to writers and other dissidents), and it became the basis of nearly every depiction of small-town and suburban America since. If you judged by American literature, there are no happy people in the suburbs, and certainly no fulfilled ones.

    By now, writers have become trapped in the confines of this orthodoxy. So even a writer as talented as Franzen has apt descriptions of neighborhood cattiness and self-medicating housewives, but ignores anything that might complicate the Quiet Desperation dogma. There’s almost no religion. There’s very little about the world of work and enterprise. There’s an absence of ethnic heritage, military service, technical innovation, scientific research or anything else potentially lofty and ennobling.

    Read the rest. Pretty much my point, I think, about why readers will re-read Parable Novels again and again and not ever make it through Freedom or a literary novel once. When the transparencies of the text are only of the barrenness of your own life, why would you want to look through it?

  3. Chesterton says the same in Tremendous Trifles. “Folklore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy-tale is what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world? The problem of the modern novel is what will a madman do with a dull world?”

  4. Hello John

    your use of Leavis and his views on the ‘greats’ and categorisation of literary traditions – which absolutely informed my education in the UK system – reminds me of the varied reception of Austen. Although she is now deemed to be unquestionably great – that was not always so.
    It is interesting to note that she was derided at times (by none other than Charlotte Bronte for one!) and has been at various points across the years as literary fashions change, but she has always remained in print – the ultimate test!
    My recollections of studying her included being dissuaded from her notions of romance and sentiment because they did not fit certain feminist schemes of criticism – the least perceptive variety, I might add. Austen was not deemed ‘serious’ enough. She was from the 18th century sentimental tradition. I recall the field of Romantic literary criticism as being quite a chauvinistic one, with few women included in a canonical context. Austen was the only one permitted – because she was there and (horrors!) was popular. She bought it from both angles: the feminists thought she was too traditional and marriage/romance obsessed and the mostly male Romanticists thought she was devoid of tradition and not concerned enough with the configuration of social order and politics. But pursuing a Marxist and cultural materialistic angle as I was attracted to as a student meant that the popular tradition need not be diminished. In my experience to date the most interesting professors and academics who are the best communicators are those who make the popular tradition a remarkable cultural field – rich and relevant. I am reminded of Professor Molly Mahood (author of ‘Shakespeare’s Wordplay’) for example (Shakespeare, of course being the ultimate example of popular/low culture entering the hegemonic and high cultural zone). She wrote to my mother (whom she had taught) to offer her support to me as a young graduate – that level of encouragement for someone unimportant as myself was the epitome of graciousness and wisdom to begin with. She said that she had witnessed fads in literary criticism come and go and the obtuseness of a lot of theoretical study and modern literature would have its day and then pass. And she was right to a large extent.

    My best experiences in a teaching and learning environment have involved the delight and engagement of popular culture and I just couldn’t imagine handling any other form as an academic now.

    There are numerous and very persuasive arguments for the worth of popular culture and I think that the most perceptive critics do not disparage it anymore. After all, who was, arguable, the MOST popular and original novelist of the 19th century and who is now seen as a master of the craft, showing an artistry in the form second to none, but Dickens? Popularity need not indicate a lack of ‘art’. And you don’t get much better quality of prose than Dickens, whilst remaining popular. Henry James and his shift in the late 19th century away from what he called the ‘baggy monsters’ of fiction (the HUGE Victorian novels) helped to cause the break and then the 20th century, as Franzen remarks, consolidated the notion that novels have to be difficult.

    I am principally a Victorian studies specialist – as you can guess – and work on the ‘lowest’ form of fiction – sensation novels by women such as Mary Braddon. Also melodrama. For me, this type of appreciation and critique of the popular and a reinstating of allegory at the centre of literary criticism is a political act as much as a cultural one.

    Great to be part of the debate.

  5. Grace: As usual, Chesterton says better in three or four sentences what I hoped to get at in a long post. Thank you for putting up the concise and pointed version of what I hoped to say!

    Gabrielle Malcolm: Your last sentence is intriguing, the part about “reinstating allegory at the centre of literary criticism is a political act as much as a cultural one.” I think we have to look at the critical or intellectual virtue Austen and Dickens both felt was at the heart of their artistry, what their novels were meant to foster in readers, namely, “penetration.” This virtue and art that requires it, of course, means that there is an inside greater than the outside that rewards breaking the surface and “slow mining.”

    As Rodney Delasanta said of Austen (and I think is true of all the better novelists especially Dickens), this allegorical quality with characters and themes acting as transparencies to greater meaning, makes these writers philosophers in combat with David Hume and his empiricist progeny and revolutionaries in arms against every political regime whose citizens are taught to value comfort and credentials over character and charity.

    Is this what you meant, though, by your statement about reading allegorically being a political rather than just a cultural act?

  6. As usual, John, thank you for saying what has been on my heart and mind these days. Thanks for speaking truth, for doing what you do, and for pointing out the obvious to those who make it not-so-obvious.

    Bridging off of what you said, some tertiary questions:

    1. If Rowling’s books have reinstated the prominence of the novel, what do you think a truly american epic fantasy series would look like? How would a mythology (like Rowling’s) be formed for americans?
    2. What era, decade(s), and city would it take place in (both technologically – i.e. wizarding world uses less ‘muggle tech’ than the real world, and chronologically – what year is it?).
    3. What types of fantasy elements should be included? What should be excluded?
    4. What questions, as a Christian, need to be dealt with?
    5. What questions, as an American, need to be dealt with?
    6. What questions, as a 2011 human, need to be dealt with?
    7. What genre(s) should be blended? Or should a new genre be rendered out of long-established genres?

  7. John,

    Yes – that is partly what I am getting at with the view that it is a political act as much as cultural one.

    My idea of criticism is influenced by James Reeves, in The Critical Sense, and also by George Orwell’s writing about language and criticism, from the inserts about ‘Newspeak’ in ‘1984‘ to his essays on Tolstoy, Dickens and Shakespeare. So there is an element of the political (Marxist/British Socialist) to the way in which I have read things in the past. So that is a blatant form of political interpretation and activity if you will.

    However, going back to the origins of that kind of thinking in the 19th century and beyond, I agree with your assessment that the moral aspects of literature were, unashamedly, about penetrating the readers’ psyche and affecting them deeply – via sentiment, romance and so forth. Drawing them in and giving them a lesson – that could be accepted or rejected accordingly. Not all Victorians, by any means, liked or approved of Dickens’s form of reformist thinking and social commentary. Dickens’s politics, if it could be said that he had any, or his philosophy at any rate, was that of the Benthamite view – ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ (Sydney Carton’s motto ‘It is a far far better thing I do…etc’ could almost be paraphrasing that – but in an infinitely more affecting way of course – brings tears to your eyes – at least to mine!) And of course Scrooge’s journey to self-realisation and redemption in ‘A Christmas Carol’ was a highly political, radical tale for its time. Controversially challenging attitudes, and legislation, to the poor and taking a swipe at the legacy of Malthusian economics.

    Nowadays, to involve and invoke such values in literature (bringing in the Judeo-Christian messages of forgiveness and redemption as part of social reform) and to make the act of reading one of interpreting literature as having a source and a message is a political act in that it challenges the prevailing scope of education and social values, in the UK, which are currently so dominated by material/atheist thinking.

    There are some interesting books that have recently come out that are challenging this, and looking to restore some of the philosophy and criticism that has been undermined over the years by the material (and what I think are the highly conservative and non-radical views) of the scientific and rationalist movements that are influencing culture, so much in this country at least. I haven’t had a chance to pick them up yet but I hear good things about Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind (her Yale lecture series I think) and also Mary Midgeley’s The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene.

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