English Students

Harry Potter Versus the Ghosts of Literature Past: What Makes a Classic?

Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, the Brontë sisters, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen.  These names are the first in a very long list of authors associated with ‘literary genius’ that are shovelled down our throats in English classes at school.  I should stress here that I am an English girl who received a very English education.  This included years of patting ourselves on the back for what a good job we did studying a book that, more often than not, has been studied since its release some two-hundred-years ago. And I mustn’t forget to mention the seriously biased teaching of these books and how they glorify colonialism. That’s not to say that I don’t tear up when Jane finally marries Rochester or I crack a smile while reading one of Shakespeare’s comedies.

This list got me thinking. Why is it that the only ‘great writers’ we first think of are all dead, writing the same generic characters? The damsel in distress, the brooding Byronic hero, the young pauper setting out on a quest for adventure and fortune?  These are just a few characters I have read time and time again in the classics, and I’ve seen them trickle down through history.  You’ll find them in most books in your local Dymocks store, just ask for E. L. James or Stephanie Meyer.  I think there is a worrying backwards focus in the way we teach English nowadays which has resulted in a literary dry spell in terms of originality and diversity.

Why are we so reluctant to celebrate modern authors in line with the classic authors of the centuries before us?  In their day, writers such as Austen, Shakespeare and Dickens were heralded for their modern, intelligent and witty use of language, yet we are so reluctant to redefine these terms to suit the 21st century.  It seems that the quality of modern writing is the elephant in the room; and don’t let the use of ‘mastery’ we so often see in book reviews today fool you.  One of the books for me growing up that I felt deserved to breach this canonical list was Harry Potter. At first I was dubious about a series that focused on magic, but  once I started to read, I was laughing and sobbing like no other book had made me before  Here, the term ‘mastery’ can be used, and deservingly so.

Having only just reached its 20th anniversary, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has sold over 400 million copies and been translated into 68 languages since its release in 1997, but is still – despite Rowling’s obvious talented writing and gigantic fan base – in some regards thought of as a ‘kiddies’ book.  This puts Rowling’s status as ‘good but not as good as the classics’, or in other words, not good enough to be taught at schools, which seems an injustice when the series is globally adored and revered in the literary world.  Harry Potter should be considered a new classic, not only because of Rowling’s frankly amazing imagination and wonderful way with words, but the immense franchise the books have created, now worth some $25 billion dollars.  The reason for this overwhelming success: J.K. Rowling is a bloody good writer.

What makes Rowling so great is that she challenges the stereotypes found in the colonial era and the ‘great age of literature’. The female characters throughout the series are wonderfully powerful, strong, and confident.  She considers deeper themes than fickle love interests like life and death, identity and purpose.  And to anyone who argues that Rowling is racially unrepresentative, all I say is look not only at the international readership but consider the diversity of characters across Harry Potter, including African, Egyptian, Chinese and Indian.  The decision to cast Noma Dumezweni, an English actress of Swazi descent as Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child last year provoked huge backlash because people apparently didn’t want to see Hermione as a black woman.  Criticisms of the inclusivity of Rowling’s writing don’t stop here: the series has regularly been dubbed anti-Christian owing to its celebration of all things ‘occult’.  It seems the social and religious conservatism of the classics is trying to cling on for dear life.

Perhaps it’s my frustration and boredom with the books we learn about in school being recycled year after year. Do you really expect a modern, suburban student to sympathise with a Scottish loon hallucinating daggers?  Or a sad old English guy wandering as lonely as a cloud?  I love literature so much I decided to put myself in thousands of dollars’ worth of debt so I can read more of it, and I think there are some books everybody should know, even if they don’t read.  But you can’t complain that young people nowadays don’t care about reading. Literature is supposed to be enjoyable. Instead, young people are being bored to death by reading books that no longer have cultural relevance, all for the sake of celebrating the ‘classics’. Is it because J.K. Rowling’s writing isn’t that great or popular that Harry Potter isn’t discussed in schools? No. It’s because the series works against a historical religious stronghold on society and a strict check-list of requirements for a book to be good. What we need in schools today is someone to close the gap between those who love to read and those who have to read.  Someone who can breathe excitement into a story, someone who at the core is representative of today’s multicultural societies.  Someone like J. K. Rowling.

Get your copy of the special 20th edition Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone from Booktopia today!