Cooper v. Rowling

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.

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16 Responses to Cooper v. Rowling

  1. withywindle says:

    Also prefer Potter to Cooper–and read both for the first time as an adult. Cooper’s work struck me, ultimately, as having no sense of drama–everything was predicted, predictable, and there was no sense of human frailty, contingency, character to provide suspense. This Potter has in scads. I would say Cooper’s books and C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books are alike–the recapitulation of faith rather than an unpredictably human story. Now, I did read the Narnia books as a child, and loved them then–but not as an adult. Which I think has something to do with the sharpness of my reading, and something to do with what I want out of a book–the recapitulation of ritual appealed more as a child. (Because I was a child?) Tolkien, of course, fuses high-level providence with brilliant evocations of human (hobbitish!) character and contingency.

  2. k8 says:

    I find it helpful to think of the Cooper books in terms of the author’s time/space. While she was very young at the time, she is among the children’s lit fantasy authors who experienced WW II/post-WW II England. As an adult reading her novels, I can really see this coming through the text – particularly in terms of the concept of darkness throughout the sequence. Oh, and that is another thing about these books – it is a sequence, not a series. I think that makes a difference in how the notion of continuity between the novels is conceived.

    Ultimately, though, I prefer Diana Wynne Jones to Rowling and Cooper. I appreciate her humor, both subtle and not so subtle. And her writing is wonderfully styled, much more so than some of Rowling’s clunky prose. And of course, Pullman is amazing; I like his historical fiction as well as his fantasy fiction. And Terry Pratchett has some very amusing children’s fantasy novels.

  3. I can’t speak to the Cooper/Rowling question, as I’ve not read Cooper. But I do agree that the lack of evaluative & formal consideration in media & cultural studies is an issue. As a bit of self-horn-tooting, I wrote about this very matter for Flow a couple years back concerning Lost, and presented these ideas at the Flow Conference. No torrent of evaluative criticism has emerged in its wake (although a great simultaneous publication I can claim no credit for is Alan McKee’s anthology Beautiful Things in Popular Culture), but I do think the questions are on a number of people’s minds. Why do we need to open up the box of Everything Studies to get them on the table? Why not push the agenda into cultural & media studies?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Sure. I just think cultural studies as established needs to lose two things to get there: 1) the assumption of a particular political project embedded within cultural studies and 2) the hostility to evaluative criticism.

    But ideally, I really would like a cultural studies program that got to that point to just swallow a lot of the rest of the humanities, actually. Because if it were done right, other departments of cultural criticism and analysis would be duplicative.

  5. I agree whole-heartedly. The failure to undertake serious aesthetic criticism implies that pop culture is important only for its political content. And that pretty much collapses onto whatever political project the writer is pushing at the moment.

    I’ve just published a short piece on graffiti aesthetics at The Valve:

  6. waxbanks says:

    Tim, this is an excellent post I think. I adored the Cooper books as a kid but have never thought to come back to them, unlike the Narnia books, which I couldn’t bear to reread in the end. Unsurprisingly (given my strong, entirely retrospective dislike of it) I was reminded strongly of Ender’s Game, a thrilling and heartbreaking book that comes to feel like a cheat: its central conceit – 11-year-old kids who speak, think, and act entirely like adults – is an abhorrent shortcut/shortcoming that happens to make for very easy reading. Lucky for Orson Scott Card, lucky for the reader, unlucky for the evaluative critic, forced to see the transparent authorial wish-fulfillment at work in the work. Indeed, this bit of your post…

    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.

    …is a lovely, concise description of a certain increasingly common characteristic of certain entertainment these days: cleverness, even sympathy, effective melodrama structured around compelling mysteries, but work ultimately resistant to the teaching power of empathy. I would count Lost as perhaps the most successful contemporary exemplar of this style, a mystery only superficially about people, ultimately about itself. (Critical readings of The Sopranos reveal that criticism, as you seem to suggest, often functions the same way.)

  7. Just by way of revealing a bit of my background, I haven’t seen more than an episode or two of Lost, have never seen The Sopranos at all, but I know why I liked Buffy TVS and why Deadwood is super. Have not read Rowling or Cooper.

    Meanwhile, I’m slowly working my way through the recently released 3-DVD set of Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and others by Lantz. Those were near and dear to me as a kid, more so even than Disney. After all, Disney was only once a week (couldn’t get MMClub on our TV), while Woody was every day. It was to be some time before I realized that his theme song is based on the chord changes to “I Got Rhythm,” as is the Flintstone’s them. That is to say, those themesongs are based on music created by Gershwin and elaborated on by Charlie Parker. Whatta’ pedigree.

  8. emschwar says:

    Funny; I recently went back to the Cooper books and still find them superior to the Potter books. That’s not a rag on Rowling, by any means; I just find Cooper’s milieux more compelling and interesting.

    It seems to me that your main argument for the superiority of the Potterverse is that it lends itself more readily to escapism; the reader can imagine they’re part of Potter’s world in a way Cooper’s story doesn’t lend itself to. While that’s true, I think it’s a case of judging Cooper for not writing a story she didn’t intend to write in the first place.

    I was having this argument with a friend at a con last year, and her argument was much like yours; although she agreed with me that Cooper was a better writer, her argument was that the Potterverse is superior precisely *because* it’s not as well written. Rowling’s tendency to throw in a character or scene willy-nilly (or so it seems to me at times), or to occasionally break Checkov’s Law (the one about the gun on the mantelpiece, not the one about it being better in the original Russian) often weakens the narrative, but that very tendency also allows more opportunities for the reader to find a place they can call ‘home’. Cooper, on the other hand, is retelling and recasting Celtic and Arthurian myth for a modern age; she’s interweaving dozens of legends and stories from disparate mythoses (if that’s not a word, I want it to be) and putting a modern face on something that is as old as, if not older than, time. Reading Cooper I get the sense of a world where there are secrets hidden under every bush– secrets I may not be able to find, but that’s okay, they’re there, and that knowledge brightens my day a bit. Reading Rowling, I get the sense of a world that never quite manages to fit together completely. I’d rather live in Cooper’s world than Rowling’s– in Cooper’s world, I could get on with a fairly normal life 99% of the time; in Rowling’s, I’d always be huddling under the covers trying to figure out which way gravity was going to point when I got out of bed this morning. I’d rather argue about Rowling’s world than Cooper’s, though; Cooper, for better or worse, gives you what you get, and you can’t get no more, where with Rowling, there’s enough holes (but not too many) that you can plausibly argue about the effects of this curse or that spell, or how an economy based on wizardry might operate, or whether or not Harry should (or even could) have done this, that, or t’other thing.

    Also, I think _The Grey King_ is a perfect example of Will as a sympathetic character. He’s lost most of his memory and almost all his powers for the vast majority of the book, and even when he does get them back, he’s relatively constrained in how he can use them because of Bran’s attitude towards the Old Ones. That said, these days, _Greenwitch_ is currently my favourite of the series, largely because Gummery and WIll play such an understated (not to say entirely absent) role.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I like Greenwitch best of the series as well for some of the same reasons.

    But the thing is, in Cooper’s world, you really wouldn’t be involved in the struggle of Light and Dark unless you were specifically written into that struggle, if you know what I mean. I don’t get the sense at all that there are secrets under every bush: there’s just the secrets of this specific turn of the wheel of the struggle of Light and Dark. The Light and the Dark don’t feel to me like a parallel secret society, or a mystery that illuminates the ordinary lives. The tie between them and the mundane world is minimal except that if the Dark wins, the implication is disaster for all humanity. (The victory of the Light, on the other hand, appears to be the status quo.)

    I think it’s not so much escapism as Rowling allows for what is sometimes called “geek hermeneutics”. Her world is slapdash enough that it needs that kind of involvement, but not so slapdash or derivative that it doesn’t merit that kind of involvement.

  10. k8 says:

    I think I have a problem with the idea that writing that isn’t as tight allows for more reader engagement. I think Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is an excellent example of beautiful, gorgeous writing with a tight narrative structure that still allows the reader to become engulfed in the world he has created. Something that Rowling and Pullman do have in common is that at least parts of the worlds they’ve created are similar to parts of our world. Could it be that, for some, Cooper’s world is too distant from our own reality to allow for that kind of engagement?

  11. emschwar says:

    I guess I never particularly wanted to be involved in the struggle of Light and Dark; the Light may be on the side of human freedom and, all, but they’re still a bunch of heartless bastards. And the Dark is even worse. But then, neither do I care to live in Rowling’s world, for reasons previously expressed.

  12. emschwar says:

    k8: If anything, I’d think Cooper’s world is much more like our own than Rowling’s. Harry, after all, spends something like 90% of his narrative time in the wizarding world, where Will and company, except for the last book, spend most of their time in ours. Occasionally in different times, but definitely in our world.

    And once I twigged (entirely on my own, by the way, but I’ve read interviews that corroborate this) that Pullman was basically ripping on (not ripping off, please note) Narnia, my ability to enjoy his books went way down. The first two are still fun (I mean, come on, polar bears with frickin’ lasers! What’s not to like?) but the turgid philosophy of the third book just turns me off completely.

  13. k8 says:

    Actually, Pullman is doing Milton’s Paradise Lost, but with adolescents. True, he does not like Lewis’s work, and it certainly is a knock on Narnia – specifically The Last Battle. But then, many feminist scholars of children’s lit. have issues with that book as well – particularly Lewis’s treatment of Susan. It is an old discussion within the field. Somewhat tangential, but I’ve always found it funny how much Lewis ripped off George MacDonald – and he freely admits it! The trilogy does receive mixed reactions, specifically for his views on religion as presented in the books.

    As for the third in the Pullman trilogy, it is my least favorite. A little too didactic at times, I’m afraid. But the world he creates is amazing. I do like the second book, largely because I like the character Will. I wanted to learn more about him. Pullman has written some very good historical fiction – the Sally Lockhart Mysteries. The focus is on an unconventional Victorian girl detective.

    My comment about Cooper’s world had to do with the time in which it is set. Harry Potter is more current, more like the world we live in today. Cooper’s England is more distant in that respect. I suspect that affects some younger readers. I think M. T. Anderson also does an amazing job of creating worlds, whether it be in the futuristic Feed, the vampire novel Thirsty, or the revolutionary war era The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing. OK, I like Whales On Stilts! too:-)

    Oh, and Greenwitch is my favorite from Cooper’s sequence, too!

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Octavian Nothing is sitting right next to me on my next-to-be-read pile.

  15. emschwar says:

    I definitely agree Pullman is doing Paradise Lost now that you mention it, but as far as I can remember, which is admittedly not very well (it’s been three years or so since I read Pullman), the Paradise Lost bit doesn’t really get going until the third book. Then again, I’m woefully unfamiliar with the original Milton, except in snippets here and there, so maybe I missed the part where Satan hired the polar bears with frickin’ lasers on their heads. 🙂

  16. k8 says:

    No – sadly, as learned as he was, Milton didn’t have the foresight to include polar bears with lasers. Although that would have made reading it a whole lot more fun!!

    Actually, in an interview I read, Pullman said that before he wrote the books, he proposed the idea to his publisher as a version of Paradise Lost. He had it in mind from the beginning. The imprints for it are set up from the first book – the notion of dust, the child as prelapsarian figure, the search of the adults to re-gain or at least identify that moment, etc. Of course, in book 2 we get a character named ‘Will,’ too. By the time he comes on strong with it in book 3, there have been all sorts of hints and pushes and proddings towards the structure.

    I’m impressed by all of these authors, really. They are so much more talented than I am.

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