One of the reasons I’m keen to promote an “Everything Studies” approach to expressive culture is my dissatisfaction with the way that established models in cultural and media studies often (not invariably) marginalize aesthetic judgements as well as evaluations of technical craft in cultural works while still making those judgements sotto voce, on the sly. Saying that a particular film or song or book is good or bad, well-made or slapdash, becomes the crazy old aunt in the attic of cultural analysis: you can’t get rid of her, but you don’t want to admit she’s living under your roof. On the other hand, I don’t want to just invert that picture so that we primarily judge the aesthetic worth, skill or import of a cultural work at the expense of questions about audience, circulation, reproduction, production, ideological use and so on.
Let me try a road test of an Everything Studies approach by talking a bit about Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books in comparison to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I was reminded of Cooper’s books this weekend by a thread at Unfogged which mentioned an upcoming film version of The Dark Is Rising. (Also from that thread: an interesting list of the film’s changes to the narrative of the book.)
Let me start with a bit of potential apostasy: I think the Harry Potter books are on the whole better works of fantasy than Cooper’s Dark series. I re-read the Cooper books a few years ago and I found them wanting in many respects, some of which bothered me even when I read them as a child.
Where Cooper’s books suffer by comparison with Potter is in the dynamic relationship between the narrative of the series and the characterizations of the main protagonists. Both series have a similar narrative engine driving their action, something that I suspect will lead many inexperienced critics to accuse the upcoming film of being a derivative creation based on Rowling’s work. Of course, this similarity is also what led some readers to accuse Rowling herself of being derivative. Without the accusation, there’s something to that reading. In terms of the history of juvenile and young adult fiction since the 1950s, I would rate Cooper’s books as one of the most important thematic precursors to Rowling.
Both series center around a young hero named by prophecy as the key to defeating a growing menace of supernatural evil. In both series, the hero discovers that he is the heir to great power, which he must learn to use quickly in order to be equal to the challenges ahead. Both heroes are advised by a wise older mentor. Yes, I know, this is hardly a parallel limited to these books: paging Joseph Campbell. But the specific parallels between the Potter and Dark books are much tighter than that. Harry Potter and Will Stanton have to decipher mysterious signs and master powerful talismans in alliance with some of their peers while also dealing with adults who either help or oppose them in their tasks. The Dark books have a wider variety of protagonists, however, in that Will isn’t central to the action in all five of the books.
So why do I think the Potter books are better? The Potter books center the action in a character and his growth and maturation. There’s a naturalism in the way Harry Potter navigates the situation of the books. He’s painfully aware that he’s been chosen to play his destined role and increasingly resentful of the way that adults around him abdicate their responsibilities and leave him groping in the dark. When he at last accepts with grace the inevitable climax that others have scripted for him and (seemingly) sacrifices himself willingly, that’s a fairly hard-won moment that’s been building for seven books with some degree of consistency. Rowling at least wants us to read this as a story of choice rather than a story of destiny fulfilled: Harry had other paths he could have trod. There’s another important part of the Harry Potter books: they’re social. The Wizarding world is a complete social world, a community. In discovering his powers, Harry is not set aside from the social world, but inducted into a new one. His eventual triumph in the climax of the story is a consequence of his own efforts to build community within that social world: without the voluntary, hard-won loyalty of friends and peers, he could not have won.
Will, on the other hand, often reads as if he’s taking a very strong sedative. There’s some fairly pro forma attempts on the character’s part to reconcile his sense of self before and after his part in prophecy is revealed, but he very quickly adjusts to his new circumstances. In fact, the plot argues for a kind of anti-naturalism, that because Will is one of the Old Ones, he really isn’t an eleven-year old boy at all in many respects. The narrative structure of the books is largely not situated in the interior of the characters at all: it’s a puzzle narrative where the pleasure of the story lies in seeing how and when all the pieces will come together, in finding out which Sign does what and when it does it. About the only character-driven moment I recall clearly is in Greenwitch, where Jane’s personal empathy is the key to the plot. Moreover, the books are really not about a fully realized social world for all that it talks about the Light and the Dark and the Old Ones: neither side is really about personalized desires or ambitions. The Light and the Dark are more like weather systems or tectonic plates, impersonalized forces that happen to manifest in human or humanoid shapes. The Rider is very menacing, but none of his menace comes from within.
This is not to say that the Dark books are bad: they’re very appealing in many respects. If I were just going to focus on the prose of the two series, I’d probably say Cooper has the edge. There’s a parsimony and precision in her use of language where Rowling is often sloppy or prolix. The Dark series is tightly plotted where the Potter series is lax. But this also reinforces the comparison between them. It behooves a puzzle narrative to be tight where a narrative centered on character and community can afford to take detours or spend time setting the scene.
The question is, why do I think Rowling’s narrative is preferable? This is where I think an Everything Studies approach can show its strength. If I were just to declare by fiat that situating drama in character as opposed to situation is always better, that isn’t much better than a pitched argument about whether Metallica sux or rools. First, I think we can talk about a very large-scale comparative critical history of dramatic conflict in expressive culture, with such obvious touchstones as Hamlet. In preferring the way the Potter stories explore a basically similar narrative structure, I’m aligning myself with a huge infrastructural argument about personhood, subjectivity, modernity, individuality.
In preferring the fully realized social world of Potter over the impersonal mechanistic world of Dark, I’m also aligning myself with a tradition of world-creation in modern fantasy writing. That in turn brings into focus the very particular audiences who have read this kind of fantasy most avidly, and the desires they bring to those readings. To me, the puzzle structure of Dark is a kind of Asperger’s fantasy: it requires no messing around with the mystery of people or their feelings.
As a result, it’s not a narrative that allows for any kind of projection: fans cannot be slans in Cooper’s stories, really. I suppose you can imagine yourself in a role rather like the Drews, as spear-carriers for the Old Ones. But the books close as tightly as they begin: when it is over, it is over, with only Will left as the Ishmael who remembers any of it. (The other children dream a bit of their experiences, but that’s all.) The Cooper books aren’t an open platform for further subcreation, whereas the Potter books are like a printing-press of the imagination, a wide-open creative engine.
Putting the comparison in those terms not only locates me within one of the great cultural arguments of our historical moment, it locates me sociohistorically as a reader of fantasy, in relation to a particular group of literate young middle to upper-middle-class readers who read fantasy at a time when it was culturally marginal and largely invisible to the wider society, whose accumulated tastes and experiences have become a major driver of cultural industry in the last decade. There are all sorts of questions to be asked about that history, some of them fairly pointed or critical.
There’s also a historical argument to be made about Rowling’s craftwork in relation to Cooper’s. You could argue that Rowling’s individual skill has something to do with taking some of the narrative motifs of juvenile fantasy from the 1960s and 1970s and refocusing them dramatically. Here I think you could compare her much more to L’Engle and Alexander, whose works had some of the same orientation as Rowling’s. I think there is a really technical aspect to this comparison. It’s not that a puzzle narrative is inevitably and by definition always inferior to a fantasy story that situates drama in character and in a fully realized world, but if I were giving advice to a writer, I’d generally say to put your money on the latter rather than the former.