Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is JK Rowling a hack? Revisited.

It’s interesting that Okcopatrick would post Harold Bloom’s review of the first Harry Potter book. The friend with whom I was conversing in my last post had previously sent me the same review.

I will restate the response I gave to Bloom’s review then: Rowling’s books improved over time. It would be fair to say that Rowling’s first and second books are steeped in cliché. The Sorcerer’s Stone? A three-headed dog? Witches transforming into black cats? These are well-worn fantasy ideas and Rowling adds nothing new to them.

I would contend that it’s not until the third book that Rowling’s series becomes something besides commonplace.

But let’s test it. Roy Peter Clark and Bloom each offered quantifiable ways to test Rowling’s writing. Clark criticized Rowling’s overuse of adverbs that modified the word “said,” noting she used five in a 2-page span to describe the manner in which characters spoke.

To wit:
said Hermione timidly
said Hermione faintly
he said simply
said Hagrid grumpily
said Hagrid irritably

Bloom counted seven identifiable clichés of the stretch-his-legs variety in a single page.

Let’s take a look at one of Rowling’s latter books and see if it is also infested with unnecessary modifiers and lazy clichés.

My wife and I only own Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final one in the series. We borrowed the rest.

I’ll read the first chapter and keep a scorecard of clichés and talking adverbs. (Because readers may disagree on what is or is not a cliché, I will try to include any phrase someone might consider a cliché.)

Talking Adverbs:

“sliding in and out of sight”
“(they) passed through, as though the dark metal were smoke”
“lingered for a moment”
“He was so pale that he seemed to emit a pearly glow.” (Better than pale as a ghost, but in the same vein)
“His red eyes fastened”
“his gaze had wandered”
“lost in thought”
“squared his shoulders”
“Voldemort stroked the creature absently”
“‘I speak nothing but the truth’”
“an eruption of jeering laughter”
“the laughter died at once”

In 12 pages, Rowling completely avoided using an adverb to modify “said,” “spoke” or “told.” However, it would only be fair to admit that the chapter did not lack for adverbs. They were legion and most of them added little to the narrative.

As per clichés, I tried to err on the side of inclusion. In fact, you could argue that some on my list are not proper clichés. However, laughter dies more often than it ceases (which is weird, because it never lived, but it does erupt.) “In thought” is one of the most common places to get lost, gazes often wander (or drift) and “smoke” is the most popular way to end the mad lib, “passed through, as though it were ____.”

Twelve in 12 pages is a considerable improvement when contrasted to seven in a page. But is it still an uncommonly high amount?

I took another modern writer who is well-respected in literary circles, Sherman Alexie, and read 12 pages of his The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven for comparison’s sake.

Seven. I counted seven clichés. So Alexie—generally recognized as a good author—has slightly more than half as many clichés as Rowling. (This does not bode well for my argument.)

Rowling’s first chapter also suffered from stilted dialogue—the kind of stuff you can only get away with in romance or fantasy novels. For example: “I speak nothing but the truth.”

Well, it isn’t an exhaustive study, but I seem to have hurt my own case. Rowling is a writer who, even after she matured, depends on unnecessary adverbs (though not the kind Clark noted) and uses clichés almost twice as often as Sherman Alexie.

This doesn’t change the fact that she’s good at characterization and longitudinal plotting, but I can’t speak for the strength of her narrative voice.

-Jason Lea,

PS According to Wikipedia, Harold Bloom discovered poetry through Hart Crane's White Buildings. Portage County stand up!

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Blogger Harold said...

While I try to never indulge in a friend's defeat, I think you're coming closer to the understanding that Rowling's success is already fading.

J.K. we hardly knew you. And that's probably a good thing.

Update: the hack-ish author of Lemony Snicket has apparently run short of funds. He's planning a new series.

Like Clark said: If your aim is more modest ...

August 28, 2009 at 12:57 AM 

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