J. K. Rowling is not a fantasy writer

I have a complicated relationship with the Harry Potter series of books. Not the franchise- the franchise reduces an engaging story of discovery to a series of cash-grabs aimed at the lowest common denominator of consumer, and is awful. The books, though. They've always thrown me for a loop.

On one hand, they played a huge part in my childhood, and engaged me on a level that I had not yet experienced up to that point. I was in third or fourth grade when I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and I read 3 onwards as they were released. I loved the story, and I consumed the books with voracity. They didn't spark my interest in fantasy- I was already a big reader, and Redwall probably took the spot of honor, although it was really only a matter of time. Regardless, they were very important stories to me, and unlike, say, His Dark Materials, the story, and my participation in its readership, carried on into the end of my teenage years.

I think what I've always taken issue with is that the novels aren't very good fantasy novels. That's not to say that they're not good novels overall- the series' continued acclaim would say otherwise. Rather, I would argue that by the traditional standards by which fantasy literature is judged- world-building, complexity/consistency of any magic system, well-developed, morally-ambiguous characters- she falls short. Rowling's world-building is like the set of a play- it will fool you if you're looking at it from a certain direction, but the facade is obvious. This is evident by the very vocal stance Rowling has taken on addressing the various inconsistencies in the HP universe. In interviews, on Pottermore, in written pieces, Rowling has been continuing to patch up the holes in her universe for the duration of the decade since The Deathly Hollows was released. Do other countries have magic? How big is the wizarding community? Are there only 3 schools, and do they each only have about 200 pupils? What's the real reason for the statute of secrecy- because "we don't want to have to cure the muggles' cancer and world hunger 'cause they may bother us for other stuff" really doesn't fly on second read. There are scores of inconsistencies and unanswered questions about the universe she's created that Rowling has only answered after the release of the final novel, when pressed by her fans.

There are small inconsistencies, too. Can prefects take away house points? Percy takes ten points from Harry and Ron after finding them leaving the girls' bathroom in book 2, but later in the series Ron and Hermione are made prefects and specifically lament that prefects can't give or take away points. In Deathly Hollows, Hermione says Voldemort's name with no repercussions halfway through the novel- after the trace has been placed on the name, but before the reader knows this. Small continuity errors like this are minor, but having spent a good amount of time on fantasy subreddits I can confirm that they are certainly pointed out in other series' whenever possible, typically to make a case against the novel as a whole. Fantasy is about building an immersive world in which the reader can fully get lost, and small holes in the facade can ruin that experience for the astute reader.

The magic system is the final point I'll harp on before getting into the actual purpose of this piece. There is barely even an attempt at consistency in this area, other than that most of the spells vocalizations are Latin-ish. If magic is able to expand spaces, like the car the ministry provides the Weasley's with in book 3, why is Ron constantly complaining about his room being so small? How are the Weasley's poor at all, actually, if they're able to magically duplicate any resource they need? Why is there only one "killing curse", when every duel between Death Eaters and Order members shows a myriad of different spells being shot at one another- do they all just kill differently? Why not use the unblockable killing curse all the time? Do spells need to be "aimed"? In Chamber of Secrets, when we are introduced to the concept of dueling and shown the disarming curse for the first time, there is no corresponding "jet of light" to represent the spell. You point and click, and the wand flies out of your opponent's hand. This is true in Prisoner of Azkaban as well: in the final scene, there is plenty of disarming, and no "aiming" necessary. In Goblet of Fire, however, we are introduced to the stunning spell, and suddenly everything's a jet of light. The wand is a gun that shoots spells, and your aim had better be good or your spell won't work, because, well, it missed. Contrast this with successful fantasy books like MIstborn, The Magicians, Discworld, or even ASOIAF. The authors of all those novels put great effort into making sure their magic system was consistent and didn't present any dei ex machina. If Rowling attempted to do this, it did not show.

So what does make these books great? If you've been reading this so far, here's where it gets interesting. I saw Murder on the Orient Express recently, and it kicked off a Christie phase in which I devoured a number of her books in a short period of time. Something that caught my eye was that in one of the novels, there was a character named "Hermione". I googled "JK Rowling Agatha Christie" to see if perhaps this was a known allusion, but no luck. I did, however, find one lonely google doc from 2004 in which a reader listed all the parallels between Rowling's and Christie's work. The full list can be found here, but these are what I found to be most interesting:

  • In "Murder at the Vicarage", there is a character named Lestrange, described as a "mysterious woman with a pale beautiful face" and "something sinister about her". Mrs. Lestrange is married to a character named Lucius.
  • In "Sleeping Murder", there is a couple named Lily and James. In a separate Miss Marple mystery, there is another engaged couple with the same names.
  • In "Appointment with Death", a young girl with bright red hair is hypnotized and taken advantage of by a much stronger personality. Her name? Ginevra.
  • There are multiple Christie novels, like "At Bertram's Hotel", featuring young men named "Ron"- in many of them, he is specified as having bright red hair.
  • In "The Clocks", there is a cat named Arabella, whose owner has "about 14 cats" and is portrayed as an idiosyncratic older woman. Mrs. Figg, Harry's crazy cat lady neighbor, has the first name Arabella.

There are a number of other parallels, some more substantial than others. I don't allege that Rowling stole from Christie in any way, but it seems she may have been a fan, and that may have wound up influencing some of her choice in the Harry Potter series.

I began to consider this in the greater context of the Harry Potter series as a whole, and my various criticisms (and simultaneous great enjoyment) of it, and came to an abrupt conclusion: J. K. Rowling is not a great fantasy writer. She is a great mystery writer.

I've illustrated the standards by which fantasy series are commonly judged, and how Rowling falls short in many of those areas. However, when viewed through the lens of the mystery genre, each Harry Potter novel checks the boxes. Each novel includes some big mystery to be solved- what's in the third floor corridor that they're forbidden to enter? Who/what is petrifying students? Who and where is Sirius Black? Who put Harry's name into the Goblet of Fire, and why? Each of these novels presents us with various clues as the story unfolds, typically including a red herring. Each of these novels has a penultimate chapter in which all becomes clear, and a following chapter in which all the loose ends and sub-plots are neatly tied up, typically via facetime with Dumbledore. Leaving aside the greater plot of Voldemort's rise to power, what keeps these novels chugging along is a series of smaller mysteries that engage the reader's interest, keep her guessing, and ultimately reward her with the satisfaction of complete understanding. Rowling's novels are mystery novels with fantasy flavor, not the other way around. I believe she was a fan of Christie as a child, we know she was a fan of E. Nesbit, whom Christie also revered, she probably read a great deal of mystery novels, and this greatly influenced her writing style. As a side note, Rowling has a second series in-progress called the Cormoran Strike novels, which she writes under the name Robert Galbraithe. They follow private investigator Cormoran Strike as he solves a series of mysteries, and they are excellent.

Ultimately, this is how I wind up reconciling these two things: my love, and very high standards for, fantasy literature, and my simultaneous appreciation for the Potter novels. I will not deny that they did a lot for fantasy as a whole insofar as they may have encouraged a generation to pick up a real fantasy novel, but I will not place them on any lists of great fantasy literature. Are they some of the best mystery novels to come out of the last 100 years or so? You betcha.


Reading: The Noble Waste of Time

I’ve noticed throughout my adult life, and especially over the last few years, a sort of braggy immodesty when it comes to literature. Allusions to and discussions about reading in social media can often be boiled down to “look, I’m reading a book!”, the implication being that there is something inherently pure and virtuous about using the novel as your escapist vehicle, as opposed to the dirty television or the sordid internet. This is self-serving folly, and I hope to put it into perspective with a few observations.

When you look at it from a historical perspective, reading hasn’t always been perceived as an innately virtuous use of leisure time. As a matter of fact, until fairly recently the literary escapist was viewed by the societies of yesteryears much as the video game junkies of today were. One who spent his time lost in books instead of, say, plowing the field or learning to fight, or learning a trade, was a time-waster. Enthusiasts of fiction lacked ambition, they walked around with their heads in the clouds. Men who read too much were lacking in masculinity, and women who read too much had ideas above their station.

The argument I’d like to make is that the societal perception of the book-reader has shifted only relative to the newer methods of escapism we have been presented with. In the face of the television, the loud, brightly-colored box that pumped entertainment down your throat, the book suddenly seemed a lot more elegant. After a generation of parents watched their children gaze slack-jawed at a screen for hours on end for the first time in human history, a new vice was identified. As the TV zombie became something to discourage and avoid, the book-reader first fell by the wayside of the societal criticism machine, and in time nostalgia and the aforementioned relative elegance would transform it into the most noble leisure activity imaginable.

What’s interesting to me is speculating on where this will take us in the future. With the advent of the Internet, as wireless routers become household fixtures, will we see a generation longing for the communal experience of sitting on a couch and enjoying a single piece of mindless entertainment together? These sentiments are already popping up on the fringes of our common conversation. “When I was a kid, we used to sit and watch a movie together.” When I was in high school, my family used to watch Seinfeld every night. It was familiar and nice, and we all laughed at the same jokes at the same time.

The internet, and its new most prolific and ubiquitous vehicle, the smartphone (no spell check on the one-word smartphone, for the record) have taken this to a new extreme. Entertainment is now personal. The cell phone screen is big enough for one pair of eyes at a time, and if you want to share something you have plenty of internal tools to do so, in the mediums supported by said phone. With social media taking the cake as the most unproductive and catastrophically common extreme waste of time in the history of mankind, will societies of the future one day yearn for a time where we accessed Facebook on our browser and checked it for an hour every night, instead of continually throughout the day? Will the societies of the future reminisce fondly on a time when we enjoyed the rustic and common experience of holding a phone in our hands, instead of the damn brain-computer you see everyone zonking out on, on those rare occasions you turn yours off and look at your cohorts with your eyeballs? Is there an end to the relativism, a point where we draw the line and turn it all off? Time will tell. In the meantime, I just spent a half hour WRITING. With my own fingers, too. Beat that.

On the infinite minutiae of creative endeavors

One of my biggest sources of anxiety, part of the reason I am sitting here writing this right now, is the sheer volume of fascinating, unique life and energy and beauty that there is to be found in the world. I’ve always used music as an analogy to explain this sentiment, in the following way: I could spend the entire rest of my life listening to trap music, and only trap music. As a matter of fact, I could make trap music my sole form of entertainment input for the rest of my days- study it, analyze it, become intimately familiar with its genesis, offshoots, variants- and possibly, if I worked really hard, reach a satisfactory level of expertise on it. The problem is I don’t really like trap music that much. I like it, don’t get me wrong; I think Young Thug is an incredibly important piece of art in and of himself, but what it comes down to is that I only have one life, and only a very fixed amount of time in that life, and would I want to prioritize trap music over another genre? The answer, of course, is no- but the same could be said for any genre of music, and by extension, genre of literature, television, film. But it can be taken further than that.

Sometimes, at my current job, I find myself biking home from Midtown at 10 or 11 at night. Part of my preferred route takes me through Downtown Brooklyn, and past a lot of big hotels. Often on these rides, I see people smoking cigarettes outside of the hotels’ revolving doors. I had a thought on a ride once that I could probably do a whole photography project on these people. Spend my time skulking around Livingston street, just taking shots of people who think they’re alone, smoking a cigarette in a foreign city. The visual manifestation of what is probably a pretty vulnerable and reflective state. This would be interesting, and valuable, and meaningful. THIS- this one, extremely esoteric little piece of existence could be my art form. It could be how I shared the beauty I saw and felt with others. 

The (less than absurdity) of the idea became apparent to me pretty quickly as I fleshed it out. I feel like I am an artist because I experience the beauty of existence very intensely, and am compelled to do something to share that with others. Whether that’s out of a need for validation of my experience, or some sense of experiential altruism, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that this idea led me back to the same, tired thought process. Sure, I could shark around hotel districts late at night with my camera and probably a better lens, obsessing over these small, parallel moments a certain group of people experience. But what makes that a more valuable expenditure of my time than, say, writing this? Or making mustard? Or music? Or any other the other myriad of creative and less-creative endeavors I have picked up in an attempt to catch a glimpse of my white whale, True Productivity? 

I’m not too self-absorbed to take a step back and look at the bigger question inherent in all of this: that of what makes something “worth doing”. You can listen to trap music without becoming the Stephen Hawking of trap. You can appreciate something without becoming an expert on it. I understand that, intellectually. But when I see (or hear) something that I love, I want to know it on a deeper level than the immediate, superficial enjoyment of that thing. Maybe that’s a degradation of what art is supposed to be, but it is what it is. When something sparks my interest, it becomes my interest, and that road always ends at the same dead-end. There are only so many hours in a day, and only so many days in a life. If indecision is a decision in and of itself, then I am the waste of potential that I feel. 

There are, of course, an abundance of questions that come up as a consequence of that thought process. Rather than delve deeper into the minutiae of my Internal Existential Artistic Crisis of Identity, which I will surely continue to do another time, I’d like to flesh out another question that seems like a natural successor to these musings: the question of consumption vs creation. This is a continuation of my earlier point about trap music. I am intensely interested in things. I could spend hours learning about a specific genre of music, or literature, or television, or film, or tributaries of rivers in New England. When it comes to art, does one need to choose between “consumer” and “creator”? I suppose not- the best artists have usually been both at once. But how does one find a balance between the two? Great music producers will listen to music and call it “research”. Great writers, I would imagine, read a lot. But what about the people who devote themselves to the study of the art of others? Is what they are doing similarly meaningful? Does their work have any inherent value of its own, any Truly Productive value? Perhaps it only has value if it is applied in the same field. For instance, if an expert on fantasy literature uses that knowledge to bang out the fantasy novel of the decade. But how often does that really happen? We know Tolkein was a scholar, but it is my understanding that he was driven by much more than a love for literature to write what he wrote. Perhaps if the expert consumer uses his knowledge to teach and share what he knows with others who are subsequently inspired and create their own works, that is a form of productivity. It’s indirect and convoluted, but what isn’t in this life.

It’s funny how this all always comes back to the same questions of what meaning is, how to achieve it, how to feel productive and whole and purposeful. These smaller thought experiments are just tributaries to the proverbial river of time, or life, or whatever you want to call it. But at least, for this half hour, I’ve been writing for myself. And for now, that feels just productive enough.

Gender Roles in ASOIAF (from fireandicecream.net)

In our hyper-woke 2017 society, gender roles are often the topic of public discussion. Hollywood has only over the past few years started to get with the times in casting characters- especially women -who don't fall into one gender-defined trope or another. In my most recent listen of the audiobooks (HIGHLY recommend if you want to get a greater understanding of the series than reading or watching alone) I noticed a clear pattern in the behavior of Cersei and Jaime. It seems as if Martin was ahead of the curve when he wrote these two- Cersei and Jaime's character traits fly in the face of traditional gender roles to such a great degree that it seems as if the two might have been intentionally swapped, with Jaime inheriting the trope of the doting female support character, and Cersei that of the assertive, traditionally masculine, protagonist. Let's deconstruct, shall we?

You've probably noticed that Cersei is not your run-of-the-mill subservient female character. In a world where women are relegated to the roles of arm candy, husband-assistant, prostitute, or commodity to be wed for familial gain, she clearly breaks the mold.

Whether she’s condemning people to death, manipulating the court, or seducing Taena Merryweather, Cersei’s character traits fit squarely within what would be expected of a traditionally masculine character. This is especially apparent when you look at her in contrast to her twin.

“Jaime and I are more than brother and sister. We are one person in two bodies.” Says Cersei- but what if Jaime is the female half, and Cersei the male? In terms of their relationship to one another, it fits all the stereotypes- Jaime has only ever loved Cersei, while Cersei has had multiple flings throughout the series, although they are typically for personal gain. Jaime needs Cersei- he spends all his time at Tully Castle imagining his reunion with her. Cersei, on the other hand, seems to need Jaime only insofar as she needs something from him- more often than not something that only he can accomplish due to his having been born a man. Jaime, devotee as he is, bows to her whims.

“The things I do for love” applies not only to Jaime’s defenestration of Brann. Jaime took up the white cloak, in defiance of his father, to be close to Cersei. As the male heir, Jaime is expected to rule Casterly Rock after his father’s death- but he relinquishes this post when he joins the Kingsguard. And the reason for his taking the white? Cersei asked him to. Cersei, who, as a woman, is not entitled to her father’s lands, has even greater aspirations- while she would undoubtedly have loved to be heir to Casterly Rock in Jaime’s stead, she’s set her sights on the entire Seven Kingdoms.

When Jaime’s hand is chopped off, his relationship with Cersei is irreparably and fundamentally changed. Jaime was valuable to Cersei insofar as he was able to command the respect and fear that she so desired. The source of Jaime’s authority came primarily from his skill in battle. Without his sword hand, he has effectively had his penis removed- and Cersei’s initial reaction is revulsion, followed by a swift dismissal of any remaining value that Jaime could have for her.

Gender roles are infinitely fascinating to talk about, and George R. R. Martin writes better female characters than had been seen in fantasy up until that point. Cersei and Jaime’s relationship, and how it defines traditional gender tropes, is just the tip of a huge and world-encompassing iceberg.