That’s the question being asked by Philadelphia Literature Examiner’s Peter McEllhenney. He answers, “no,” not great; but they are literature. I’m not really sure what that means. It is a very interesting article, however, assessing Rowling’s strengths and weaknesses. I wonder the extent to which Hog’s Head patrons will agree and disagree.
The question caught my attention immediately, because the first 60% of Hog’s Head Conversations contain essays which, in one way or another, answer this question, “yes” – primarily the two essays that start the volume: “The Literary Value of the Harry Potter Books,” by Colin Manlove, and “Repotting Harry Potter: Popular Lit Made Legit,” by James W. Thomas.
Rowling’s strengths, according to McEllhenney, are her storytelling (his assessment of this is spot on) and her characters (who, if not very complex, he says, at least “engage our sympathy” and “are vividly drawn.”)
Her weaknesses are her “prose style” and the oldness of her themes and insights. The first I won’t touch here; we’ve discussed it before, and you can feel free to pick it up in the comments if you’d like. The second baffles me.
Nothing new about the themes? What makes something great literature is not the same thing that makes something a great dissertation or article in an academic journal. “Newness” has got nothing to do with it. In fact, Great Books evoke the great old themes of humanity, not anything “new.” We’re talking about “ancient human desires” (Tolkien) like love’s victory over death here.
Further, I’d disagree that her “insights” into those themes are “nothing new.” She’s managed to communicate these old themes to a whole new generation of readers who’d never pick up Homer or Dante; it’s old themes in a new story. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s first aphorism in Aids to Reflection begins:
In Philosophy equally as in Poetry, it is the highest and most useful prerogative of genius to produce the strongest impressions of novelty, while it rescues admitted truths from the neglect caused by the very circumstance of their universal admission.
I think Rowling accomplished this, and I think it puts her in the “great” category.