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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

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The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Saturday, July 30, 2005

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Pulp - or - Take back your blooming lion!

Posted by John Holbo on 07/30/05 at 08:28 AM

Let’s have another installment in our genre studies series. I was deeply honored when John Crowley himself showed up in comments to a Crowley’s comments.

I suppose you could arrange these instances in a kind of hierarchy - at the bottom level would be characters who say (authors have to make an effort to resist this kind of joky metafiction) “I feel like I’m stuck in a mystery novel!” when indeed they are; and then the insights of characters like Park’s Miranda or Harry Potter who understand that their world puzzlingly resembles a genre fiction, without taking the next step of understanding why; above that would be the interestingly insouciant remarks of characters like Gideon Fell (I remember as a child being puzzled by them) which are a kind of chummy nudge to the avid reader; and then the characters who suspect that indeed they are characters in a fiction and that their own discovery of this is the substance of the fiction they are in (some of my books attempt this); and lastly, characters who discern their ontological status and try to rebel, like beings in a Gnostic universe who understand that their physical existence and life in time are the working of a second-rank tyrannical god who wants not to be noticed.

This is a good occasion to rewrite an old thing I didn’t quite get right.

Let’s ask George Orwell why Harry Potter is so popular.

In “Boy’s Weeklies” you get, in effect, an almost Hegelian mapping of a prior stage in the inexorable evolutionary progress of the spirit of genre. Orwell talks about how the ‘school story’ is being supplanted by more sensational stuff. He quotes two bits to show why.


Billy Bunter groaned.

A quarter of an hour had elapsed out of the two hours that Bunter was booked for extra French.

In a quarter of an hour there were only fifteen minutes! But every one of those minutes seemed inordinately long to Bunter. They seemed to crawl by like tired snails.

Looking at the clock in Classroom No. 10 the fat Owl could hardly believe that only fifteen minutes had passed. It seemed more like fifteen hours, if not fifteen days!

Other fellows were in extra French as well as Bunter. They did not matter. Bunter did! (The Magnet)


After a terrible climb, hacking out handholds in the smooth ice every step of the way up. Sergeant Lionheart Logan of the Mounties was now clinging like a human fly to the face of an icy cliff, as smooth and treacherous as a giant pane of glass.

An Arctic blizzard, in all its fury, was buffeting his body, driving the blinding snow into his face, seeking to tear his fingers loose from their handholds and dash him to death on the jagged boulders which lay at the foot of the cliff a hundred feet below.

Crouching among those boulders were eleven villainous trappers who had done their best to shoot down Lionheart and his companion, Constable Jim Rogers — until the blizzard had blotted the two Mounties out of sight from below. (The Wizard)

Orwell draws the obvious conclusion that, in the market-place of juvenile ideas, Mounty on ice is bound to beat out one hundred words to the effect that Bunter is in detention. The future belongs to the wizard.

The next bit would be impoverished by paraphrase:

Merely looking at the cover illustrations of the papers which I have on the table in front of me, here are some of the things I see. On one a cowboy is clinging by his toes to the wing of an aeroplane in mid-air and shooting down another aeroplane with his revolver. On another a Chinese is swimming for his life down a sewer with a swarm of ravenous-looking rats swimming after him. On another an engineer is lighting a stick of dynamite while a steel robot feels for him with its claws. On another a man in airman’s costume is fighting barehanded against a rat somewhat larger than a donkey. On another a nearly naked man of terrific muscular development has just seized a lion by the tail and flung it thirty yards over the wall of an arena, with the words, ‘Take back your blooming lion!’ Clearly no school story can compete with this kind of thing. From time to time the school buildings may catch fire or the French master may turn out to be the head of an international anarchist gang, but in a general way the interest must centre round cricket, school rivalries, practical jokes, etc. There is not much room for bombs, death-rays, sub-machine guns, aeroplanes, mustangs, octopuses, grizzly bears or gangsters.

Orwell could not foresee what seems, with hindsight, inevitable: Rowlings’ higher synthesis of these seemingly irreconcilable options. I don’t think Hegelian brilliance in this regard suffices to explain why Rowling is now as rich as the Queen, mind you. I think that’s been more of a flukey tipping point thing. But Rowling certainly deserves to be a popular children’s book author for so neatly finessing the problem of how to make room for the sensational stuff without breaking the school story mold. In my earlier post, I praised Crowley for blowing extra complexity into genre vessels, working them from the inside out into distinctive, uncanny shapes. Rowling doesn’t do uncanny, but she manages to combine ordinary school activities with tentacled things and flying cars by suspending them in a stable medium of mild irony consisting of foregrounded genre conventions.

The books are about the school, so keeping the school story mold intact is utterly essential. Harry is a standard issue young hero from humble background who learns he is destined to save the world from dark forces, etc. Hard to throw a rock in a room full of genre without hitting ten young men who could fill Harry’s shoes. Hogwarts, on the other hand, is distinctive. Rowling’s one original trick. The fact that there is magic hidden behind the ordinary world is a good trick, but it’s been done. (Another world within a wardrobe. Eh.) The trick within this trick is that Hogwarts is somehow the strategic linchpin in the battle between good and evil. Wellington said Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Doubtful. But can there be any question that the battle against Voldemort will be won on the Quidditch pitch? But why (apart from the sheer Englishness)? The oddity of Hogwarts’ centrality doesn’t obtrude as you read. But it is illogical. It’s a school. There are other schools. There’s the Ministry and Azkaban and the aurors and all the rest. The adult wizards - even those at Hogwarts - don’t think of Hogwarts as being the primary battleground. This is dramatically convenient, as it frees Rowling to let her kids live stock school story lives full of all the satisfactory repetitiveness of detention and so forth.

The thing about being a kid is: it feels right for school to be the center of everything. Your school seems really big; the people in it seem tremendously important and powerful: intensely good and intensely sinister. Then later you go back to visit and see the two foot tall thing and say, ‘this was my locker?’ Rowling manages to make these systematic misperceptions of youth part of the true geometry of her universe. As a result, the characters get to be quite ordinary, yet cosmologically central, without the strain showing intolerably at the narrative seams. There are tons of fantasy stories featuring children who turn out to be future kings and secret magical beings. But after their true natures are revealed, they mostly don’t get to do fairly ordinary things practically all the time. If they get called to save the universe, they have to drop out of school. But not Harry. (What other examples of this are there? Rowling isn’t totally unique. I can think of a couple examples. Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, for example. They all involve constant, low-grade parody of genre conventions.)

So that’s why Potter works for kids, and probably some adults who like to feel like kids, and some adults who are glad to have literary ground to share with their kids. They want the comforting, rather repetitive opportunity to feel they way they want to feel about fairly ordinary things - school friends and hard classes and homework and mean teachers. But they also want the fantastic. (Orwell talks about how even adults like reading these school stories aimed at 14-year olds. He says giving them up early is correlated with actually attending public school. Probably this is true of Harry Potter, too. If there are children in our world actually getting invited to wizard school, unbeknownst to us, they probably give up Harry Potter before their friends do.) But for most of us, the stabilized ironies of a Bunter/Baggins mash-up are pretty crucial to the steady enjoyment of thousands upon thousands of pages of Potter.

There are parallel compositional problems regarding other genres. I’ve written far too extensively about the problem of trying to write good superhero stories, what with the wearing of underwear on the outside not making sense and all. Let me mention some similar problems with action films.

At a certain point - not exactly sure when - the arms race of ever faster, higher louder explosions made it be the case that psychological realism, even of a very minimal sort, is effectively excluded. Not that action films were ever realistic, mind you, but it is only fairly recently that an actual human mind could not exist for five minutes in one of these things, rollercoaster ride of chills, spills, thrills and kills-wise. You’ve probably noticed. One film that stands out in my mind as a failed attempt to hold onto some humanity, while satisfying the demand for action, is Michael Mann’s Heat. Heat is fun. I like Michael Mann. The film is long - 188 minutes. The plan is to use that exorbitant allotment to pan back and forth between the requisite cops n’ robbers caper blow ‘em up and dialogue-dominated scenes of the cops and robbers in their ordinary lives. The problem is that the action is so extreme that you can’t believe these are actual humans. There’s so much heat any real humans would have melted long ago. So the human scenes are failures. The message of the film is: the cop is just like the robber, when we see them together. Yes. They’re both complete cartoon characters. This is particularly unfortunate because here you have Al Pacino and Robert deNiro just standing around with no human beings to inhabit. (Of course you can always just tell Pacino to chew the scenery; he’s dual use technology that way. Still, seems a waste. Like using a surgical bonesaw as a weedwacker) Basically the problem is that Mann is trying to increase the realism. It just isn’t going to work because the demand for action isn’t realistic.

Whether you like the results or not, Quentin Tarantino gets credit for finding a work around. Don’t turn up the reality. Turn up the genre . You want insane action. You want details of ordinary life (possibly highly stylized, but still. You crave at least a simulacrum of ordinariness - of banality even.) You keep the action from swamping the ordinariness, as realism would dictate, by suspending these mutually incompatible items in a medium of stable irony composed of foregrounded genre conventions. This is constant but low-level, so there’s no danger of the parody becoming the dominant mood. Vincent and Jules chatting about big macs and television pilots and the ethics of foot massages, then blowing a bunch of people away, doesn’t end up feeling as psychologically unbelievable as it should. It feels like a weird sort of expressionism. Vincent and Jules are real characters, as what’s-his-name and what’s-his-name from Heat are not. The title says it all: Pulp Fiction. You name your work after the genre of which it is an instance. I think it’s sort of interesting to think of Tarantino and Rowling as working the same side of the street. Because Tarantino is often felt to be cynical and callous, and Rowling often felt to be sentimental and trite, whereas I think they both simply have deep affection for genre and want to solve a particular compositional problem: how to reconcile a taste for stylized banality with the demand for over-the-top action.

Maybe the real solution comes when you realize a taste for guns and wands is juvenile. But I sort of like them. So I’m sympathetic.


I have often thought about the challenge of the TV sit-com being the balancing of an empathetic domesticity with a weekly absurd situation and a ten-yr-old cracking wise once per minute.

And IIRC, the ridiculously ornate (and vulgar) language of last season’s Deadwood was a device of the writer to get the audience to forget it was watching a western. Sopranos has never seemed anything but a very good soap-opera punctuated with violence.

Might mention Showtime’s Dead Like Me which seems to make a point of leaving its frame and rules mysterious and incomprehensible.

By on 07/30/05 at 12:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

So, it worked with John Crowley, and now you’re trying to get Rowling to turn up and comment too, eh?

I agree with your central thesis.  However, I think that in a certain sense you are underestimating Rowling.  Perhaps she would have been popular with Orwell too.  She writes the most nearly anarchist-flavored children’s literature that I can remember.

It would have been easy for her to combine the magic with the school story in a very straightforward way, without much going on in relation to the outside world.  You know, Voldemort needs to get rid of Harry, therefore Harry’s school is important, and it has sympathetic and unsympathetic teachers.  The end.  But instead, the outer, political world isn’t just intruding—it’s actively hostile.  By the time book six comes around, people are being disappeared as if Harry lived in a mid to late 20th century Central American republic.  The pseudo-Churchillian Prime Minister is an amoral creep, wanting to use Harry for propaganda in order to make it appear that something is being done.  The reporters are craven and lying gossip-mongers, the people are deluded and foolish, and the good guys incapable of keeping order or preventing children from being killed. 

I posted to this effect on Bérubé’s blog, and someone replied “Sounds like cup & saucer realism when you put it this way.”

And, to a certain extent, it does.  The message is: don’t trust your parents.  You’re going to have to fight monsters on your own, and no one can help you.  The adult world is corrupt.

And that’s a pretty radical message for a children’s book.

By on 07/30/05 at 03:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Actually, in the DVD extras David Milch accounts for the quantity of vulgar language with an appeal to naive realism.  The quality of the vulgar language--the turns of phrase, the neologisms, &c.--are Milch’s own.  The best way to think about it is this: Milch helped Brooks and Penn Warren edit some of those Understanding _____ books while at Yale, so it stands to figure he learned from them.  I’m thinking, in particular, of how Penn Warren’s Faulknerian turn in All the King’s Men was, vis-a-vis content, a transformation of the American political novel.  Prior to that, as Gordon Milne argued in The American Political Novel

novelists have offered many broad generalities, few positive suggestions, they have mostly made an appeal to morality as the way to solve political problems, hoping to stir up the reforming zeal so characteristic of Americans and to prod them into being mindful of Cooper’s injunction that it is “the duty of the citizen to reform and improve the character of his country.” (184)

For Milne, Penn Warren’s the sole exception.  (While that may not be true--Milne’s book is dated--it speaks to Penn Warren’s accomplishments.) Now, why do I blather on about Penn Warren and Milch: it’s because I think they both accomplish the effect John describes. Penn Warren, for instance, grafts Willie Stark’s Alger-esque rise and Faulknerian fall onto Jack Burden’s bildungsroman. Granted, Faulkner wasn’t all that popular in ‘45 (when Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men), but he’d been featured in The Southern Review (with which Penn Warren and Brooks were both affiliated) and the successful adaptation would hit the screens in ‘49 ... the same year Faulkner would win the Nobel Prize.  So while not as (initially) popular a mode/genre as the ones John mentions, it’s a similar mash of realism and other easily recognizable and enjoyable in the right genres. 

Same for Milch: Deadwood is not only more realistic than the average Western, it’s at heart a realist television show ... in which the plots of the average Western--not to mention the inside-the-beltway type machinations that have made political novels popular, but also account for the popularity of, say, The Godfather, Parts Good and Better and The West Wing.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 07/30/05 at 08:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think I may have some detailed comments on this later, but first I’m just fannishly overcome by the fact that you’ve gotten John Crowley to comment on something. Jeezus, how cool is that? Rowling can stick with HP fansites for all I care: more Crowley!

By Timothy Burke on 07/30/05 at 08:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just a note to say that anyone rendered all clammy and wistful by Orwell’s decription of pulp covers will want to know about this site:


I specially recommend the section devoted to hillbilly sleaze cover art.

Apropos of not much, Richmal Crompton’s Just William books synthesised Bunter / Biggles in a way that perhaps suggests an additional permutation of John Crowley’s list, up there.  William’s chief dissatisfaction with life as it’s led in his boring English village is that it doesn’t resemble adventure stories (history and politics as well as fantasy) closely enough for his taste. Steps he takes to rectify the situation include stealing a baby and calling it a “space animal” (not as boring as all those spacemen), organising a civil war between the village kids and (unbeknownst to them) the Young Conservatives association, stuff like that.

By on 07/30/05 at 08:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s brilliant, but another way to say this might be to note that Heat ends up with the embarrassment of the middlebrow.  It’s like a two-disc art rock album from the seventies.  (Actually, I thought it was like a long, really long, wine commercial.)

Pulp Fiction by contrast not only glories in the lowbrow, it marries it to hyperclever narrative experiment of the sort you learned about in college.  A classic strategy of twentieth-century art, the union of high and low at the expense of the excluded middlebrow.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

By on 07/30/05 at 09:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Have I seen a version of this post elsewhere?

By ben wolfson on 07/30/05 at 09:41 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, Ben. I rewrote an old J&B post from way back in pre-Typepad days, because I didn’t think I really got it right. And it seemed like a suitable occasion.

By John Holbo on 07/30/05 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think one reason for the school’s centrality is the circumscribed nature of the wizards’ world; the contours of their community are sort of like the weird rarefaction of an exclusive boutique’s five locations, Paris London NY LA Milan, that sort of thing, where there are just a few real places amid the noise and dust of a fake or dangerous world; alteratively, they’re also a little like that of a shameful subculture whose members see one another only at conventions, and there’s definitely something reminiscent of the suburban dog owner in the wizarding community’s habitual need to “clean up” after Muggle exposure to magical events. 

Anyway, it seems that since the loci of wizarding as an identity and profession are so highly impenetrable and impregnable, it makes sense that such an institution which serves as a sort of alimentary canal or seven-year-bris for the magical world would attract circumstances; there’s really no where else for wizards to go. Rowling is clearly not looking to tell the story of the enchantment of the mundane, and since the magical world is incompatible with it, the magical world is (to paraphrase Spinal Tap) treading water in a sea of retarded childhood.

By on 08/01/05 at 03:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

No offense, but personally, I can think of about a dozen literary topics that I’d far rather chat with Rowling about than Crowley.

By Russell Arben Fox on 08/01/05 at 11:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I take it you got Rowling and Crowley reversed there, Russell?

By John Holbo on 08/01/05 at 11:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As far as my understanding of the books go (which may not be very far, since I’ve only read parts of a couple, though I’ve read a lot about them), it’s not so much Hogwarts that’s central as Harry himself. And the reason that Hogwarts has remained the central location up to this point is that while Harry will be the ultimate key to defeating Voldemort, he hasn’t done anything proactive about it so far: rather than sallying forth to battle V. or his minions, he’s been limited to defending himself against V.’s attacks upon him at Hogwarts.

And without spoiling HBP too much, I’ll just say that the events of that book do place into some doubt your assertion that “the battle against Voldemort will be won on the Quidditch pitch.” (In fact, I read somewhere that JKR has said that there will be no Quidditch in book seven.)

By Adam Stephanides on 08/05/05 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Another example of a children’s story of people turn out to be “secret magical beings” who “get called to save the universe” is Sailor Moon, both the manga and anime versions. The anime does “involve constant ... parody of genre conventions,” but the manga doesn’t.

By Adam Stephanides on 08/07/05 at 01:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, have to demur on Pulp F. versus Heat. They are both superb, Heat being more of a genre film than the other of course, which was in a class of its own upon its release.
There is something ineffably chilling about the robbery scenes in Heat that for me demonstrates a hyper-realism which you would rather ascribe to Tarantino. I say they both achieve it in different ways. And of course Heat is too long, but Al is useful wallpaper, as is Val Kilmer.

By genevieve on 08/08/05 at 11:36 PM | Permanent link to this comment

hi iam weird

By on 12/13/06 at 06:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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