Mischief Managed: Harry Potter as Literature

by Anna Blanch on May 19, 2012

Following my post about the first international academic conference examining Harry Potter as literature I received a number of missives (tweets, facebook messages and emails) expressing bewilderment. Not just about the value of examining the Hogwarts saga as literature but whether this conference  is “too late” in coming.

The books were published 15 years ago, I was told, and to be reading them now is a bit passe. Why, they asked, were were not examining something more timely, like the hunger games why were were not considering some other series of young adult (YA) fiction or some new pop culture or trend? Why were we living in the past? Why were considering a series that has questionable literary merit?

Here is where I think it might be helpful to explain the rhythms of academic literary studies. In literary terms, in the context of the history of literature in English, 15 years is a mere blink of the eye. Indeed, in the context of the academy approaching these texts as literature, Harry Potter is about 30 years ahead of how long it took for Tolkien’s work to be included on syllabii.

Do we say such things about Shakespeare? Do we call discussion of C.S. Lewis passe? Do we consider the continued study of the bible as a work of literature a little out of date… some might, granted, but the point is that it is rather a double standard to consider the academic study of harry potter series as somehow behind the times or self-indulgent.

I do concede that scholars contributing to discussions about the latest and greatest contemporary literature and best-selling fiction should be encouraged – there is far too little literary criticism being offered by critics with a broad background in literary studies – and would be helpful  for shaping the conversations assessing the value of texts BUT for scholars, allowing the hype which has been, and is invariably, whipped up by the publishing industry to settle enables assessment of the literary influence and cultural impact to be explored and analysed without some of the hyperbolic fervor.

Though this is the first academic conference held internationally which has focused solely on the Harry Potter series, there has been a serious amount of literary scholarship on the series. Dozens of single author books (though quite a few of these can be considered to be popular rather than scholarly), undergraduate honors theses, quite a few doctoral theses, and scholarly essays which appear in broader literary collections have been published in the last 15 years. It would be wrong to assume that literary scholars are slow on the uptake. However, to spend two full days with 50 scholars discussing the Hogwarts saga demonstrates the status  within literary studies which Harry Potter now holds.

Treating Harry Potter as literature is about considering Harry Potter  in the context of the British literary tradition. It is about treating Harry Potter not just as a commercial phenomenon or as a site of a battle in the culture wars, or as indicative  of the publishing industry’s fan driven media properties. To discuss Rowling’s writing in terms of myth, fairy tales, Philosophy, Shakespeare, and her literary influences is the next stage in their appreciation. To both take them seriously as literature and approach them armed with the same contextual and textual tools with which we read in general is to show the series the respect which deserves. At the same time, maintaining an enjoyment of the story as story isa main goal of the enterprise that is Reading Harry Potter as Literature!

Anna M Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland where she is currently writing her doctoral thesis on E.Nesbit.


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  • Katherine

    Well said Anna. Hope you enjoyed the conference!

    • http://www.goannatree.com/ Goannatree

       It was really great, Katherine.

  • Alison

    In all reality, I think as far as Academic-only conferences, Harry Potter is just coming into its own, even if we have a decade of scholarship as the CFP for the second annual Harry Potter symposium at James Madison University points out http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/cfp-james-madison-university-va-october-11-13-2012-emerging-from-the-pensieve-a-decade-of-potter-scholarship/

    • http://www.goannatree.com/ Goannatree

       Alison, I think you’re right on the money. I noticed that CFP earlier today. I’m sure between these two conferences, there will be some excellent scholarship released in essay collections. Are you planning on speaking at the James Madison conference (or are you involved in the organising  committee)?

      • Alison

        I presented at last years (which the proceedings are going to be published, which excites me because there were so many great presentation topics I wasn’t able to see with about 3 panels going on at a time) and I’m planning on submitting again this year.

  • Christopher

    English Departments are where old ideas go to die.

    But seriously, I’m happy to have an all-Harry Potter conference. Looking forward to the publication.

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