St. Andrews Conference: The Literary Legitimacy Controversy

What surprised me at the St. Andrews Harry Potter conference was the media attention it generated (global) and the focus of the fuss: that a venerable academic institution — entering its seventh century qualifies St Andrews as ‘venerable’ certainly — would condescend to take seriously something as silly as the Hogwarts Saga. Both were predictable, of course, and were not only predicted but prepared for by the media co-ordinator at Scotland’s oldest university.

Let’s take a look at the “You’ve Got to be Kidding!” editorials that were generated and the reactions prepared in advance to counter that posture (which it did, for the most part):

I’m going to quote at length so you can get a feel of the dismissals coming out of Fleet Street about this conference and provide links to these and other critical articles in the popular press. First, from a frustrated academic turned hard hitting journalist:

The Daily Mail: Harry Potter as a serious academic subject? What a load of Hogwarts!

Actively over-intellectualising aspects of popular culture is akin to vainglorious intellectual masturbation. I have written here recently of my penchant for Rambo, so I am certainly not saying that we cannot learn edifying things from what is deemed to be ‘low brow’ entertainment. As a social phenomenon, I can even see the interest of Harry Potter. But as a literary text worthy of its own academic conference? Come off it! This strikes me as remarkably self-indulgent on the part of those involved.   …

I am against slavishly genuflecting before (and thus countenancing) the vacuous fripperies and inane whims and caprices of popular youth culture, in the name of fusing ostensible academic rigour with oh-so-cool, ‘down with the kids’ street cred. Whatever next? Will we soon witness PhD viva questions on the racial significance of Will i. Am’s live tweeting on The Voice or 100,000 word doctoral dissertations on the cultural hermeneutics of Lady Gaga’s sartorial choices? I hope not. Media and cultural studies, cultural relativism and the relentless dumbing down of our educational system have a lot to answer for!

Virgil, Ovid and Boethius, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton or Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Alex La Guma – to name a few famous poets and authors from the classical, Renaissance and modern world respectively, strike me as authors who merit serious literary study and I wager they still will when transient fads are long forgotten.

Harry Potter, Hogwarts, platform nine-and-three-quarters and quidditch are all wonderfully powerful and evocative literary inventions which have beguiled and thrilled many millions of teenagers around the globe. As such, they certainly deserve their own rightful place in the literary pantheon. But by trivializing the nature of proper academic study with such blatant pandering to spurious zeitgeist gimmicks which highlight our perilous obsession with youth culture, we are in danger of actively embracing infantilism and regression. In so doing, we are not only devaluing a nation’s distinguished academic heritage, but also sending out a very foolish message to subsequent generations, which would be both a great shame and a grave error.

The Telegraph – You can’t be serious about Harry Potter!

Harry Potter is the ultimate story of good versus evil; a young hero who battles demons and vanquishes dragons to save the world. Having read three of the books, I can see why they have sold 300 million copies worldwide and been translated into 50 languages. But does its success really elevate it from teen fantasy to the subject of an academic conference?

“The books themselves don’t merit study because the prose is too basic,” says author and literary critic Philip Womack. “It’s written awkwardly and is clumsy in places – although it does tell the story well. And it lacks subtlety. Even Professor Snape, who is meant to be complex, is so obvious.” …

And it’s not difficult to apply literary analysis to Rowling’s novels. Hermione makes a nice feminist figure; Ron is the stoical sidekick and Lord Voldemort a Satan-like force of evil. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows has foundations in Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, while Harry’s move from Privet Drive to Hogwarts has been compared to the Dickens classic Oliver Twist.

But, says Professor Greg Currie of Nottingham University: “It’s difficult to sustain creativity over seven novels. As a result, the ideas get stale quickly. Looking at the phenomenal success of Rowling’s creation – rather than its literary merit – would be more fruitful.”

Indeed, studying Harry Potter as a work of literature turns the literary world upside-down. If Dumbledore and Hagrid can be granted the status of Don Quixote and Hamlet, it’s alarming to contemplate what’s next. A dystopian interpretation of A Very Hungry Caterpillar? The Twilight series as an A-level text?

As the first Potter literary conference draws to a close, let’s hope the delegates have learnt something: J K Rowling may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare. Her books, though enthralling, weren’t written for academic study. It’s an injustice to Britain’s true literary greats to pretend otherwise.

My favorite part of that last was the air tight compartments that the Professor of Nottingham uses to segregate “popular success” and “literary merit.” I can understand, I will even argue the truth of the assertion that a work’s popularity does not mean it must by necessity therefore be a work of majestic language and substantial meaning. But the absurdity of asserting that a work must not have “literary merit” if it has enjoyed “popular success” is at least as obvious.

John Patrick Pazdziora noted after reading the Telegraph dismissal, “Let’s ignore that the fact that in the 17th century, Oxford university refused to acquire a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio because it was popular culture, a common book of plays, with no place in academia…” It doesn’t take a mage to guess the guffahs from Oxbridge that might greet a parallel being made between Shakespeare and Rowling, but I think you see Mr. Pazdziora’s point. All the out-of-hand disregard for a serious reading of Harry Potter are founded on an illogical and invalid presupposition that excellent written work cannot be read and enjoyed by millions.

If you want more of this, you can read The Guardian’s Harry Potter and the order of the 60 scholars gets mixed initial reception, the Times Higher Education’s Week In Review, and The Huffington response with a defense of children’s literature, which, forgive me, rather gives up the game with a category distinction (see New York Times Best Sellers Lists).

Though Jenna St. Hilaire has already responded to these accusations of “vainglorious intellectual masturbation” and “turning the literary world upside down” with a Hog’s Head piece (Serious Matters: The Literary Elite vs. The Literary Potterphile), I’ll post here the questions that Gayle Cook asked a few conference participants to answer for the University’s press release in anticipation of these attacks.

My answers then John Patrick Pazfziora’s:

How can you justify an academic conference on a children’s book series as light in literary merit as Harry Potter?

What literary critics do, really, is attempt to answer the question, “Why do people love the books they do?” The Hogwarts Saga is the most loved story in the history of publishing by quite a margin and, consequently, it is a natural and important subject of study for anyone interested in the literary arts.

Is it their artistry and meaning that makes them so popular? Is it the conjunction of a story with the postmodern Zeitgeist? Is there something more material, something as crass as marketing and movie promotions behind it all? I expect all these questions about Harry’s success will be asked and given various answers at the St. Andrew’s conference.

Beyond that, though, I’m obliged to take exception to the unexamined and misinformed assumption of the question, that is, that the books are “light on literary merit.” Ms. Rowling’s works are comic, certainly, but it’s a great mistake to think they’re simple or haphazard story-telling. The seven books are each and taken together a remarkably intricate ring composition for one thing, with every chapter having a parallel analogy with another in the same book. They’re an involved alchemical drama as well that, like the ring scaffolding, obviously reflects years of planning.

James Thomas of Pepperdine, one of the presenters at the St. Andrew’s conference and a noted ‘Potter Pundit,’ once said the “three Deathly Hallows” that prevented Harry Potter from being taken seriously by most culture mavens and too many academics was that “they’re too recent, they’re too popular, and they’re too juvenile.”

I’d only note that by “too juvenile” Prof. Thomas, a great exegete of the series’ value as literature, means “marketed for children,” not “childish” or “unworthy of adult attention” as William Safire once said. All three of these “Hallows” as reasons have all the intellectual value and substance, of course, of snobbery and self-importance inflated by ignorance.

Any special reference to St Andrews or Scotland?

Hogwarts, we’re told, is hidden somewhere in Scotland, the author lives here, too, and Ms. Rowling’s mother was half Scot. It’s somehow appropriate and fitting that the first academic conference of any size be held at Scotland’s oldest university, St. Andrew’s. The enthusiastic response and the quality of the universities from around the world who will be represented at the conference make it a landmark event.

And John Patrick’s thoughts:

Could you give me a quote please on why the subject is an important one and why it is worthy of academic study?

Well, whatever our own opinion of the series, I think we can’t honestly avoid the fact that Harry Potter is the main narrative experience, the “shared text” if you will, of an entire generation–the children who quite literally grew up with Harry Potter. The Harry Potter novels are simply the most important and influential children’s books of the late-twentieth, early-twenty-first century. For very many people, this is their first experience of literature, and of literary art. So they want to think about it, and analyse it, and talk about it. And they are, online and at fancons and reading circles and libraries. As literary critics–as people who talk about literature for a living–why on earth would we not want to be a part of this massive literary conversation? It’s important because people care about it, and care very deeply.

And of course it doesn’t end with Harry Potter. At the conference we’re talking about Chaucer and Shakespeare and the Ramayana and Beowulf and Austen and–well, you’ve seen the programme, you can see how much else we’re talking about. J.K. Rowling has put so much detail, so many literary and folkloric and cultural references, it’s a tangle or a puzzle picking it all out. So of course people find that, say, they like the elements of Scottish folklore they see in the series, or Tarot and ritualism, or the societal concerns, or this alternative history that’s in there, and they go off and become enthralled and fascinated by that. The series is a sort of Platform 9 3/4, really: run into it and there all these new worlds opening before you. This is also partly why it’s so imaginatively and culturally important.

Any special reference to St Andrews or Scotland?

The undergrads here are fond of saying that St Andrews is for people who didn’t get in to Hogwarts. (I think there’s a Facebook group to that effect.) Though I’d say it’s probably more true that this is where you go once you’ve finished Hogwarts–if you’ve done well enough on your NEWTS and OWLS. And then there’s the inimitable “Harry Potter and Gin Society.” But of course Hogwarts is in Scotland–that’s made clear in the books. So they’re Scottish stories, in that sense. Rowling lived in Edinburgh when she was writing them, and still lives there, in fact. And the School of English awarded Rowling an honorary Doctor of Letters not too long ago, as well. So it’s fitting that beginning of academic, literary study of this work begin here, as it were. Back in Hogwarts, or its environs.

On Wednesday before the Thursday-Friday conference, Mr. Pazdziora was almost impossible to reach because he was in interview after interview with The Times (London), Times Literary Supplement, and the like. The first day of the conference, he asked me to go with him to the media office’s wood paneled interview room to share his burden. There I met Gayle Cook, who could pass as Hermione, I think, if Miss Granger were a Scot, who set me up for the first interview of the day with BBC Scotland in ‘drive time.’ Having survived that, I came back after breakfast and the conference opening for a talk with BBC World.

BBC World actually wasn’t interested in a talk; the reporter there was head hunting. He took a skeptical posture and threw out the usual dismissive lines from Harold Bloom and the like as irrefutable barbs. Worse, he seemed offended that I was at least as dismissive of Prof Bloom’s criticisms. Our spirited back and forth went on for five to ten minutes until our allotted time was up. As soon as we were off air, the nasty interrogator all but yelled, “That was great! Thank you so much!” with real delight and enthusiasm in his voice.

It will be hard for me to take the BBC interviewers as seriously as I have when listening to them on NPR! The flinty front is all a posture…

After that it was off to the Chapel for more newspaper reporters and photographers. The picture taking with the four undergraduates went on for the better part of an hour. I think Mr. Pazdziora and I are both very happy that nothing eventful or untoward happened at the conference besides brilliant papers and conversation. The posed pictures were beyond daft. When that was over, we were bundled off to the Headmaster’s office (no joke) with portraits lining the wall (not kidding)  for teevee interviews with STV.

Net time at conference? I caught Prof. Gregory Bassham’s plenary talk, most of Prof. Joel Hunter’s aesthetic analysis of the Saga using the Fairy Tale signatures isolated by Vladimir Propp, and Prof Jessica Tiffin’s keynote the first day. I spent most of the next day preparing my talk which closed the conference so I missed the greater part of the goings-on.

But I had friends write me from the Olympic Peninsula and the Shenandoah Valley to say, “Hey! We heard you on BBC World!” I guess that’s some consolation.

Fr. Micah Snell, who was the co-ordinator of everything practical in this conference, from getting the speakers settled in, registration, and meals to getting us a walking tour post conference and on our way to the Edinburgh airport, wrote a note I found humorous to a participant rather put off by the Daily Mail criticism:

I saw this a few days ago. I’m unmoved by it. It’s the Daily Mail, which, aside from being my favourite disreputable rag to read on a daily basis, is a disreputable daily rag. That’s what they do. Effectively.

All the negative articles I’ve seen on the conference are poor journalism and worse argument, and nothing to be afraid of. The arguments are silly and not worth seriously engaging. I could write a much better criticism of our project–not that good criticism is their priority.
Besides, most of the reports were somewhere between objective and downright charitable. The HuffPo no less gave us one of the most positive reviews I’ve seen.

Sorry you weren’t personally named and scandalized in the piece. Next time write about Harry as drunken sociopath with a gender identity disorder and an over-fondness for woodland creatures but not ethnic minorities; you’ll get plenty of attention.

He’s actually even funnier in person — follow him via Twitter @Patered — and fascinating in everything he says about Shakespeare, especially how the Bard is (mis)understood by the professionals!

I’d like to hear your thoughts, too, on the Literary Legitimacy Controversy along with your reactions to the resistance to the idea of an academic conference. Hammer away, please, in the comment boxes below.


  1. Kathleen says

    Having just finished Intellectuals and Society by Thomas Sowell, I can see through the elite here passing themselves off as gatekeepers of what is worthy of discussion and what is not. It amuses me. What they are missing as they pontificate from their ivory towers is just sad.

  2. Julia H. Hibbert says

    Enjoyed this wonderfully. Thank you. Turned out like I supposed it might. And will be eager to hear from those I knew in attendance. Aren’t Ivory towers wonderful how they spew out their “great authority and indispensible views”.

  3. Bruce G Charlton says

    There is a general discussion of this phenomenon of professional literary criticism – and its biases – in Tom Shippey’s JRR Tolkien: author of the century, and in his book of essays Roots and Branches. Shippey is a genuine scholar, a philologist.

    Nowadays, professional-academic can all-but equate with ‘dishonest’ (because careerist and bureaucratic) – so the best of scholarship is amateur either in actuality or in spirit.

    I think one genuine problem with the HP series as literature is that people may drop out of the series before it reaches its best (with the last three books) – and some of it does need a little bit of revision/ editing.

    I am currently reading-out Goblet of Fire (the least good of the books in my opinion, with an unbelievable plot) to my wife, and there are fairly frequency instances of linguistic clumsiness (fairly small things like unintended repetitions of adjectives in adjacent sentences and the like) and a need for tightening up in several places.

    I personally was ‘converted’ to HP by the last book with its profound spiritual seriousness revealed even for the obtuse such as myself, having failed to get through the earlier ones; and then went back and read the rest ‘retrospectively’.

  4. I laughed out loud when the Telegraph piece argued HP wasn’t written for academics so that’s why we read Shakespeare. The academy wouldn’t touch Dickens at first for the same reason: if it’s popular then it’s easy to read, and if it’s easy to read (on the surface anyway), then it’s beneath scholarly attention.

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