My favorite description of what makes a classic comes from magical realist Italo Calvino: “A classic is a work which has not yet finished telling its story.”
My question: will the Harry Potter books endure and become classics of literature?
First, let’s agree that “great storytelling” and “literary quality” are often found together, but not always. A well-told story is not necessarily great literature.
Yet it seems obvious that great works of literature – the classics – generally have both literary quality and good storytelling. And of the two, skill in storytelling comes first and lasts longest in the minds of readers.
The skills of superb storytellers like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, despite being disparaged for their suspicious popularity, are undisputed and often under-recognized for their complexity. Great storytelling is not something that anyone can do. To believe that misses the skills that writers at the tops of their fields – especially in genre areas like fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels – have mastered, skills which lie beyond the reach of most graduates of creative writing programs.
The debate over storytelling versus literary quality in popular novels like the works of Rowling or King reminds me of the comment about why Dickens wrote popular novels. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Dickens didn’t write what the people wanted, he wanted what the people wanted.”
The criticism of being a popular writer, not a literary great, was also leveled on Rudyard Kipling — who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, the first English-language author to win that prize established in 1901. In the presentation, Kipling was praised by the Swedish academy for his great “genius in the realm of narrative.”
So the classics speak to readers for a long time. It might be useful to consider the Harry Potter series in light of the Narnia books, which fifty years after their publication are still beguiling hordes of readers, young and old.
Will the Potter books do the same?
The only fair answer: time will tell.
I don’t happen to believe, by the way, in the term “instant classic.” It’s like “jumbo shrimp” – an oxymoron that just doesn’t make a lot of sense.
I’m inclined to give the series the benefit of the doubt . . . and wait to see. In the meantime, J.K. Rowling and her immensely successful Harry Potter series is doing just fine as a decade-long run of contemporary and popular books.
And movies! Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is about to leap, magic wands ablaze, potent spells spouting, onto the silver screen next week.
[Coming next week . . . further thoughts about Pottermania and the role of the series in fantasy literature.]