I was listening to a podcast recently—which I will avoid naming, since I do really like and respect the podcast and what the contributors have to say—and they were discussing a certain topic in writing. As they were discussing, one of the speakers said, “This reminds me of that one character in Harry Potter. He’s the teacher who gets hired and comes in…I can’t remember his name.”
At this point, the three other contributors enter in to the collective mental lapse and are unable to think of the character’s name for a few minutes.
This podcast is run by published authors and literature academics who come from a moderately wide range of genres. When discussing literature and writing, they will often refer to authors and pieces of literature that I have never heard of. I’m not very well versed in even the popular literature of many genres, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt that they are often referring to works of which many listeners will at least have heard.
However, having listened to many of the episodes by now, I can sense a real elitism around literature and the kinds of works on which these people spend their time reading and reflecting. For the sake of time and energy I won’t go into more detail about this. Suffice it to say, they take literature, and the craft of writing very seriously.
And they cannot remember who Gilderoy Lockhart is.
Here’s the thing. The Harry Potter series is BY FAR the most successful work of literature written in our time. No single Harry Potter book has actually sold more than some classics like Don Quixote, or Charlotte’s Web, but collectively, the Harry Potter series has sold something like 400-500 million copies since it debuted in 1997.
That is 7 books, with upwards of 500 million copies sold, in 20 years.
The next closest series of books with that many sales is Goosebumps. But guess how many books were written. Some 60+ books were written in that series, and it has had 5 extra years (since 1992) to make up the difference of roughly 100 million copies.
None of these numbers even begin to deal with the untold number of times someone has lent their friend or family member their books, or has sold them to a used book store, only for it to be bought by someone else. Neither do these numbers factor in the movie series which has reached a far greater number of people than the books ever did. I know I personally have talked to several people just in the past month who have seen the movies but never read the books.
What’s more, people are still buying the books. They aren’t stopping. Harry Potter books are some of the best selling audio books and print books on Audible and Amazon, at Half-Price Books, and Barnes & Noble.
The reality is Harry Potter is the single most ubiquitous, culturally-relevant, beloved, and well-known work of literature in the world right now. Period.
My question, then, is this: At what point do experts of literature really miss the ball when they don’t know the Harry Potter literature well? At what point is a scholar or writer really missing out by being ignorant of the details of the single greatest literary influence in the world right now?
Now, I may be overreacting, and this may be overblown. I accept that. These contributors probably had a million other things running through their minds, and, to be quite fair to them, one of them finally remembered his name, and when he said it, they all remembered immediately with him. Additionally, the person who brought up Lockhart actually knew his character well enough to be able to use him as an example for their topic. Bravo.
Despite this, it really raised a question for me that has come up before in discussions of art, music, literature, etc.: What counts for “great?”
There are some who count The Beatles as the greatest band of all time because of their impact and what they did for music when they did it. Same can be said for Elvis, Michael Jackson, and others. But when they were famous, you know there were experts who had everything to say about how shallow their music was and about how terrible it was compared to Bach’s Cello Suites, and Beethoven’s Symphonies, and on and on.
But is that really the question? Are we really just comparing new forms of media and art to former ones? Or should we take the wild, almost unbelievable success of a work and ask ourselves, “what is it about this that sells so well? What makes this a great work?” The greatness of a work is its impact on the world and the culture in which it is launched.
Harry Potter was unleashed on a world waiting for the remythologizing of itself, and the permission to dream again about the magic to be had right here and now. It is a world longing for institutional structure and credibility, exemplified in Hogwarts. It is a world longing for worthy role models to admire and emulate, exemplified in Dumbledore, Snape, Mrs. Weasley, and Professor McGonagall. It is looking for a community of acceptance and love, within which it can struggle towards a common goal, be free to mess up and still be accepted back, forgiven, and loved, exemplified in Ron and Hermione. It is a world looking for an ultimate Sacrificial Love and loyalty that saves the day, exemplified in Harry Potter himself.
No matter what you think of Harry Potter, its greatness lies in its singular ability to speak into the hopes and desires of an entire generation the world over, and in the obvious impact it has made therein. Great art may be bad art. Great art may be tasteless art. Great art may be a bad patchwork quilt of various famous works preceding it. But it can still be great. Greatness is measured by effect, in my humble opinion.
I’ll finish by paraphrasing Garrick Ollivander, best wand-maker in the wizarding world, and ask, what is our definition of “great?” Because I don’t care who you are or what you think about Harry Potter. It may be terrible, but it is “great.”