Now that the dust has settled on ''Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,'' Stephen King reflects on why no review did it justice, and whether kids (and their grown-ups) will ever read the same way again
And so now the hurly-burly’s done, the battle’s lost and won — the Battle of Hogwarts, that is — and all the secrets are out of the Sorting Hat. Those who bet Harry Potter would die lost their money; the boy who lived turned out to be exactly that. And if you think that’s a spoiler at this late date, you were never much of a Potter fan to begin with. The outrage over the early reviews (Mary Carole McCauley of The Baltimore Sun, Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times) has faded…although the sour taste lingers for many fans.
It lingers for me, too, although it doesn’t have anything to do with the ultimately silly concept of ”spoilers,” or the ethics of jumping the book’s pub date. The prepublication vow of omertà was, after all, always a thing concocted by publishers Bloomsbury and Scholastic, and not — so far as I know — a part of either the British Magna Carta or the U.S. Constitution. Nor does Jo Rowling’s impassioned protest (”I am staggered that some American newspapers have decided to publish…reviews in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children…”) cut much ice with me. These books ceased to be specifically for children halfway through the series; by Goblet of Fire, Rowling was writing for everyone, and knew it.
The clearest sign of how adult the books had become by the conclusion arrives — and splendidly — in Deathly Hallows, when Mrs. Weasley sees the odious Bellatrix Lestrange trying to finish off Ginny with a Killing Curse. ”NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!” she cries. It’s the most shocking bitch in recent fiction; since there’s virtually no cursing (of the linguistic kind, anyway) in the Potter books, this one hits home with almost fatal force. It is totally correct in its context — perfect, really — but it is also a quintessentially adult response to a child’s peril.
The problem with the advance reviews — and those that followed in the first post-publication days — is one that has dogged Rowling’s magnum opus ever since book 4 (Goblet of Fire), after the series had become a worldwide phenomenon. Due to the Kremlin-like secrecy surrounding the books, all reviews since 2000 or so have been strictly shoot-from-the-lip. The reviewers themselves were often great — Ms. Kakutani ain’t exactly chopped liver — but the very popularity of the books has often undone even the best intentions of the best critical writers. In their hurry to churn out column inches, and thus remain members of good standing in the Church of What’s Happening Now, very few of the Potter reviewers have said anything worth remembering. Most of this microwaved critical mush sees Harry — not to mention his friends and his adventures — in only two ways: sociologically (”Harry Potter: Boon or Childhood Disease?”) or economically (”Harry Potter and the Chamber of Discount Pricing”). They take a perfunctory wave at things like plot and language, but do little more…and really, how can they? When you have only four days to read a 750-page book, then write an 1,100-word review on it, how much time do you have to really enjoy the book? To think about the book? Jo Rowling set out a sumptuous seven-course meal, carefully prepared, beautifully cooked, and lovingly served out. The kids and adults who fell in love with the series (I among them) savored every mouthful, from the appetizer (Sorcerer’s Stone) to the dessert (the gorgeous epilogue of Deathly Hallows). Most reviewers, on the other hand, bolted everything down, then obligingly puked it back up half-digested on the book pages of their respective newspapers.
And because of that, very few mainstream writers, from Salon to The New York Times, have really stopped to consider what Ms. Rowling has wrought, where it came from, or what it may mean for the future. The blogs, by and large, haven’t been much better. They seem to care about who lives, who dies, and who’s tattling. Beyond that, it’s all pretty much duh.
NEXT PAGE: King uncovers the great ”secret” of the Potter books’ success: Rowling’s kids grew up