Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The previous Harry Potter

I've been reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Yes, I know there's a new one out, but I'm still reading the previous one, OK? It is 766 pages long, after all. And I know that you're probably sick of hearing about Harry, but there are at least three things that I think are worth saying about that book.

First, HP Phoenix is an interesting case study in book design. It would have been fascinating to have been a fly on the wall when the production team discussed this book.

There are several problems. First, it's very very long. This means lots of pages, however you do it. Which means costs, in terms of paper.

And then there's the fact that you know you're going to sell several million copies, before you start. And you're going to have to ship them out so that everybody has crates full of the things out in the back room, enough to service anticipated demand and then some.

And, of course, you don't need to be all that bright to realise that if you're shipping several million copies, then factors such as the amount of space occupied by one book, and its weight, become highly significant factors. They always are significant factors, in any book. But the multiplier in this case is so astronomical that it must have focused minds rather more sharply than is often the case.

In the end the production team came up with a compromise which I heartily disapproved of when I first saw it. The book is a nasty squat little thing. Eight inches tall, something over five wide and two and a half inches thick. This is not an ideal shape to hold in your hand, though reading it has not proved to be quite as tiresome as I suspected it would be.

Then there's the text. Thirty-seven lines to the page, which is not too bad, but the margins are tiny and that makes the page look crowded. The font is also a tad small for my tired old eyes.

So, if the book satisfied the punters, and I believe it did, then it's in spite of, rather than because of, the efforts of the production department. On the other hand, the department which dealt with the profit and loss account on this job probably concluded that the right compromise had been reached.

The point of this first point about HP Phoenix, therefore, is that books are seldom designed first and foremost with the reader in mind. Would that they were, for, as I have remarked before, I believe that the layout of the text on the page has a profound if unconscious effect on the impact of the words on the reader.

The latest Harry Potter book, the one which came out a few days ago, seems to be slightly less long and consequently a bit more attractive to look at; it also feels more comfortable when held in the hand.

And what of the next (and last, I believe it is to be)? Well, I would recommend to the author that she makes it shorter still, something like the length of the first one.

Second point. This is going to sound a little obvious, but bear with me. J.K. Rowling writes for children.

Let me elucidate. It seems to me that HP Phoenix is written in a broad-brush style. The author does not exactly caricature her characters, but she paints them in without much subtlety. Just the sort of thing that young people appreciate.

Furthermore, it is by no means universally the case that successful children's books are written in that manner. In fact, I have a theory that most of the so-called children's classics are not books which children find particularly enjoyable. What they are is books that adults can read aloud to children, over and over again, without getting bored out of their skulls. Winnie the Pooh, for example. That book is no more successful with young listeners than a thousand others, but it is a book which Daddy and Granma can read aloud repeatedly with a certain amount of amusement and interest.

There are also a number of 'children's' books -- so-called classics -- which in my view are not enjoyed at all by the average child, and which are written, consciously or unconsciously, with an adult reader in mind. The various Alice books come into this category. The prose version of Peter Pan probably does too, but it's hard to tell because everyone is so familiar with a thousand and one different dramatised and animated versions that they seldom make their first acquaintance with the story by reading the book.

The third point I want to make about J.K. Rowling is one of technique. She is a textbook example of how to create emotion in the reader -- particularly the young reader. Well, it would be surprising if she wasn't really, wouldn't it?

The one thing that Rowling does supremely well is to follow the principle laid down first (I believe) by Thomas H. Uzzell. Specifically: Do not name the emotion being experienced by a character. Instead, describe the character's physical response to the circumstances.

It is no good, for instance, saying, 'Terror gripped Jane's heart.' This gets us nowhere. On the other hand, to say, 'Jane's heart began to pound in her ears' is on the right lines.

Here, for instance, is J.K. Rowling describing a nervous Harry. She does not say: 'Harry was feeling intensely nervous.' Instead she says: 'Mrs Weasley placed a couple of pieces of toast and marmalade in front of him; he tried to eat, but it was like chewing carpet.'

And here is one of J.K. Rowling's versions of the rapid-pulse response: 'Harry looked at his feet. His heart, which seemed to have swollen to an unnatural size, was thumping loudly under his ribs.'

And elsewhere: 'Harry's heart was beating a violent tattoo against his Adam's apple.'

Yes, it's easy to make fun of the changing location of Harry's cardiac system. But the eleven-year-old readers aren't complaining, are they? They are not much into detailed textual criticism of that sort. Instead they are busy turning the pages, and putting in advance orders for the next one.

PS. Added later. Mark Rayner has kindly pointed out to me that the new Harry P has been pirated in ebook form, presumably because there are fans who really want to see it that way. Read all about it here. Meanwhile, booktrade.info reports that pirated print versions hit the street in Mumbai (aka Bombay I believe) less than two days after the official publication by regular publishers.

Mark Rayner adds (thoughtfully) that he has just published his own first novel. It's about an immortal Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who, in the year 2028, decides that he needs a sex-change operation. Hey, I don't sit here making these things up, you know. Go take a look.

10 comments:

Melly said...

Hi Michael,
First time leaving a comment, although I've been around for a while.
I have to start with this - I'm a big HP fan.
As for your second point - JK writing for children. I think the way she does it is brilliant. The first books is the most childish and as Harry grows up and matures, so does the language of the book and the book itself. Quite an amazing feat by itself.

(And I'm so glad someone else admits publicly they like/read HP).

marlyat2 said...

Bring on the Alice defenders! As a first- and second-grader in the wonderland of Louisiana, I read the Alice books until the pages were as thin as Bible pages. I simply adored the stories and the Tenniel illustrations as well.

Debra Hamel said...

It's nice to read a thoughtful post that doesn't bash Harry Potter. Well, to tell you the truth, I haven't made a point of reading a lot of responses to HP, but one does sometimes hear of people lamenting that it's not great literature--this apart from its connections with Satan, of course--or that it won't lead kids to read better books, or what have you. Elitist nonsense, I think. J.K. Rowling has managed to write some highly readable, engaging stories that create a complicated fictional world that people find very compelling. How is this not good or impressive? And while I'm feeling confrontational, I have to say that I really don't see what all the fuss is about with respect to the Alice books, or at least Alice in Wonderland, which is the only one I remember. I find it excruciatingly boring. Clever, sure, but cleverness by itself doesn't make a good read. Where is the satisfaction in reading a dream sequence, bizarre encounters piled on top of one another, that doesn't really, well, have a point? I've wondered if it's the kind of thing adults think they *ought* to like for some reason. And I bet you're right that children don't find the books particularly appealing.

archer said...

As to books that grownups and kids enjoy, Hans Christan Andersen does it best--he can suggest very, very adult things without harming little psyches. (When the Little Mermaid gets her legs so she can court her prince, anybody over the age of eight knows what she's really getting.) As to Rowling, I think her appeal lies in getting kids exactly right. She gets home right--what kid hasn't dreamed of laying rubber on his road to greatness, and leaving his nasty sibling in the dust?--and she gets school right, from bullies to saracastic teachers to the cutie-pie in the next seat.

Andrew said...

Hardy Boys. Tom Swift. Tom Swift Junior. Many more, which everyone has forgotten. I commend Rowling on continuing an old tradition in children's books and taking kids seriously. But her ideas and style are hardly an innovation or stroke of genius. Even her style is (and enviably so) very "Hardy Boyish."

But I'm glad to see someone continuing to run with the torch.

Debra Hamel said...

I just posted a review of Mark Rayner's book here: http://www.book-blog.blogspot.com/2005_08_01_book-blog_archive.html#112403671623378132

Not a bad read.

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Sarah said...

Oh puh-lease, will you ADULTS get over yourselves? Honestly, just because JK Rowling is way more successful than you and you can't even write a paragraph good enough to be in her books, doesn't give you the right to sit on your good-for-nothing asses and clout her hard work.

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