Wednesday, August 08, 2007

There's Something About Harry

by Marcus Sakey

Fourteen million. That's how many copies of the new Harry Potter were printed. Actually, Scholastic started at 12 million, but within ten days of the book's release went back for two million more.

Two million more.

It's become fashionable to roll your eyes at the series, but I can't go with that. I'm not a fan, either. I've read a couple of the books, and liked them fine. She's a wonderful fantasist and has a lovely touch with the characters. Overall, though, my hair remained forward and my socks stayed on.

Obviously, I'm in the minority. 14,000,000 copies.

Which has me wondering — and I really want to know — what is it about these books that so grabs people? The appeal transcends age, gender, and sophistication. People who read a book a year love 'em; people who read a book a week love 'em. People who don't read fantasy love 'em. People who hate children love 'em.

Is it the universe? The fantasy of empowerment? The fight against ultimate evil? The camaraderie of the characters? A wish for magic? An identification with the misfit kid in all of us? What has drawn so many people into this series, and held their attention through something like 6,000 pages?

I'd really like to know. Partly out of curiosity, and partly because I intend to let the answers inform my own writing. Whatever she's doing, it works, and it's worth learning from.

So those of you who love the series, can you explain what it is that moves you? And while we're at it, you eye-rollers out there, what bugs you?

34 comments:

JD Rhoades said...

The fantasy of empowerment? The fight against ultimate evil? The camaraderie of the characters? A wish for magic? An identification with the misfit kid in all of us?

All of the above.

I'm with you, Marcus. Enjoyed the first one, didn't feel the need to read farther. I'm also with you on the "unabashed envy" thing.

Greg said...

I'm a 50-something who has read all the books and seen all the movies (and otherwise been oo'd by the websites, etc.). My theory is there are 3 things:
1. Though in a fantastic world, Harry's experiences are very relate-able (home life, school, bullies, confusing world around, friends, girls)
2. We all want to feel that we were born, and are, special (loved, something unique to contribute, etc.). This attribute helps us attach to Harry because he is, and most of us aren't.
3. One of the great questions of life is - will good win. Often in life it doesn't but we really want it to.
My thoughts.

Nina said...

Jane Espenson has an essay in The New Republic titled "The Secret to Selling Sci-Fi." She writes that the Harry Potter narrative is the most potent sub-case of the hero's journey. Read it here: http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=w070806&s=espenson080706

Karen Olson said...

I'm not a fan of fantasy, but I read the first Harry Potter two weeks after 9/11. It was engaging storytelling; I hadn't thought I could read anything at the time and I found myself in Harry's world, forgetting about the horrors of terrorism for a little while. I followed Harry through all the books and the movies, rooting for a the Boy Who Lived.

As for learning how to do this, how to capture the magic between the pages that makes 14 million people buy your book? Well, she's the only one in my lifetime who's done this and I doubt we're going to see this phenomenon again anytime soon.

V.I. said...

i'm eye-roller:)-
i has read 3 or 4 first books. and only because i want to now what happens next. maybe it's fault of translation, but style wasn't good, it was hard to read i was driven only by curiosity.
succes with children? maybe because there is no much good books for them?
well, I don't now how children's book market looks like.
succes with adults- dont get it.publicity? trendy? jazzy?
struggle of good end evil(and not only black and withe, but also much of shadow)-read Diuna, cameraderie-read Dumas, adventure-Jack London

Word Nerd said...

Ok -- so I'm one of the bonkers Harry fans who stayed up to get the book at the midnight release, then read all day Saturday.
Why do I love it? Because ever since reading Narnia as a kid, there's a part of me that keeps hoping someday I'll stumble into the right wardrobe or find I was overlooked for admission to wizard school, etc.
It's completely unrealistic, I know that, but it's sure a nice day dream when the regular part of life gets cumbersome.

Sean Chercover said...

I think it's all the adverbs. Put more adverbs in your next book, Marcus. As many as you can. And when you think there's no more room, look again and squeeze in a few more.

Adverbs. The key to success.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

The thing about phenomenon books (Harry Potter and Da Vinci Code) is that the reasons for their popularity aren't all on the page. We all know how much luck figures into this business, from getting an agent to finding a publisher to publicity to sales and on and on and on. And at some point the success becomes self-generating. Relatively few of the billions of words that have been written about Harry Potter are about why you should read it. They are, instead, about trying to figure out why everyone is reading it. Which spurs more people to read it which spurs more articles about how many bloody people are reading it.

(This is really part of another discussion about why most of the books coverage in this country is really publishing industry coverage. Which is why, when a publisher wants to manufacture a bestseller they will print a quarter-million of them. Because most newspapers and magazines won't write a story saying "Holy crap this is book is good" but they will all print a story saying "Holy crap Flaybin and Farbooster is printing 250,000 copies!!")

That said, I read the first Harry Potter and enjoyed it a lot. Then I had a kid and realized that in a few years I'm going to be reading these all over again and so I decided to wait on the rest of them. So don't anybody tell me how it ends. For about three years.

Marcus Sakey said...

Greg: I like your three reasons. But of course, there are lots of books that do those things, especially numbers one and three. Any take on what about HP in particular is so appealing?

Nina: Interesting article! And Harry is definitely on the archetypal Hero's Journey.

Karen: I agree--she's a phenomenon, and if it were a recipe to be copied, there'd be a bunch more out there. But I still think there are things to learn from her, especially in terms of sheer appeal.

WN, I love your post--I know exactly what you mean. And that was actually one of the parts I found most compelling and charming. It's also why I like the first film best; that sense of wonder and possibility is infectious.

Sean: Ahh, adverbs. I read a review by Stephen King, who pointed out that she averaged around 65,000 adverbs per novel, which is damn near a novel in its own right.
I think I used 4 in my last book.

Kevin: Good points. It is kind of funny and kind of odd that a print run is taken as a value statement for a work.

Still, I'm really curious on a story level--what is it about these books that so ensnares readers? I agree that it can't be duplicated, but as storytellers, surely there are lessons we can learn from it.

cameron hughes said...

Marcus, I love that you changed Stephen King's gender there.

Marcus Sakey said...

Actually, I meant that Stephen King said it about Rowling. ;)

King himself uses almost no adverbs, god love 'im.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

All of this gives the impression that Stephen King does not like the Potter novels when, in fact, his reviews of them in EW of have been long love letters to JK Rowling. King is a huge Potter nut.

Which goes back to Marcus's original point. What about them has enthralled so many readers at so many different levels? I'm not sure except to say that they seem to have the literary equivalent of charisma. An intangible quality that just sucks people in.

Alison said...

I love the Harry Potter books. Midnight releases, media blackouts in the days following so I don't see any spoilers, Wizard Rock on my iPod, the whole nine yards.

For me, what really captures me about the books, and makes me think about them even now -- now that I've read them all, now that it's "over" -- is her passion. It's so apparent when reading the books that JK is as into as I am. Her excitement gets me riled up. I want to play with her, because she's so obviously excited about the rules of the game she just made up.

That sounds so corny all spelled out like that. But for me, it's true.

Maryann Mercer said...

I've read them all, although I did burn out after Goblet of Fire and then had to read 5 and 6 just before the last one came out...for me it was total escapism. I give JK Rowling loads of credit, not only because she created such a complex world, but because she turned so many non-readers, especially children,into book lovers. That's a very good thing in these days of instant gratification; video games, online chatrooms, etc. Kids learned to appreciate words on a page and look for even more of them in stories like Eragon, and (rekindling interest in) Narnia. She also inspired other writers to take a crack at something new and different:The Unfortunate Events series, Cornelia Funke's wonderful books such as Thief Lord and Artemius Fowl to name a few.
I have to admit to wanting to hang Harry upside down and shake him for some of his antics, but then I realized...gee he's a teenager. Maybe that's helped a parent or two along the way, and a teenager too. She touches the reader and invites him (her) into the world for a wild and unpredictable ride, not always sunshine and flowers, but not all that far off real life either when you consider her characters...I mean after all, we all know a Malfoy, right?

spyscribbler said...

Well, for me, it's her enthusiasm for her world. In the first four books, it permeates every single page. It's contagious! How could we not get hooked?

Another part of it is the iceberg (which writer was it with the iceberg theory?). She once said she had a list of every single student at Hogwarts, tons never even mentioned in her books. Her world is SO detailed, vivid, and fleshed out.

I'd be willing to bet that those seven books are supported by thirty books worth of detailed knowledge about the world she created. If she does release that encyclopedia, I can only imagine how big it'll be!

I've read the first four books four times, and the only other books I've read that much are C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

Or maybe it's just that seven is a lucky number. :-)

kinzcrusher said...

I agree with you completely. I think many Potter lovers are the once a year readers and would love many other books if a similar fad led them to it.
I do think that anything that draws children to read is a tremendous thing.

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