Sunday, July 22, 2007

Pottery Barm

I have nothing against the Harry Potter mania per se, and I assume that when my kid is a bit older, we'll get the books for her if she's interested in them. I might check them out at some point, but I read a lot of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid, and pretty much burned out on the genre long ago.

And I don't buy into the "kids are reading more because of the books" nonsense. Kids make the break between becoming readers or non-readers at a fairly early age, I believe, certainly younger than ten, and they do it by following the parents' example. The more you read, the more likely they will; it certainly seems to be at least correlative. Obviously the test of the theory will be if, after the finale of the series, these kids find something else to jump into.

Anyway, while it's unsurprising to see most of July taken up by the visuals of sidewalk Dumbledorks in home-made robes, waggling their wands as they wait in line endlessly for the movie or book (possibly the most tedious American cultural trait, this moronic need to be "first" to wolf some new thing down, to swallow it whole and dump it right back out, hardly bothering to digest the experience -- or worse yet, running right back in to watch it twenty more times over the next week, like a drooling vegetable), it makes me wonder about why we even hear about it, because there's nothing useful or informative about it. The endless hype has already devolved to the point where pretty much every news program right now has a segment somewhere that seems like a three-minute Hairy Pooter promo, bookended by the usual big trucks 'n' happy pills in the actual commercials.

I think these little pseudo-cultural mini-episodes shed a certain amount of light on the decision-making process at work here. Everybody, audience and content-provider alike, seems to have tacitly agreed, or at least conceded, that they do not expect to be informed, but rather entertained and humored, intellectually coddled and stroked. As such, it makes a kind of perverted sense that national nightly news broadcasts would spend the better part of a month dicking around with the release of a movie and the buildup to a book, happily providing for free a service for which they usually charge five or six figures per minute.

I don't get it -- but then again, I do. It explains a great deal.


Marius said...

It's true that delving into the Potter shtick doesn't make a child more likely to become a reader. They did a study (can't find the link now, but it's somewhere on the web -- I came across it via Google News, so it's probably not too hard to find it), and they discovered that the numbers were simply unchanged by the advent of the Potter series. That is, a child is as likely to develop a passion for reading now, in the post-Potter era, as it was before. Not even 0.5% more likely.

And of course you're right about the media hype bullshit that accompanied the publication of the last (thank God!) instalment. The left-wing take on it would be that nowadays, in the age of post-ideology, mass consumerism, and advertising-generated revenue, the chief function of the "news" has become to soften up the audience with a view to buying some of the stuff paraded on the news. Plus, you don't want to unnerve or upset needlessly an ideologically-entrenched audience by presenting them with actual news, that is, political content. That sort of thing is now left to op-ed writers, columnists, and bloggers.

The right-wing reading of this sorry situation would begin by noticing a fact you left out: have you seen how many adults are all in a frenzy whenever a product (book, movie, electronic gizmo) aimed primarily at children comes out? 'Harry Potter' is not the only example here of something you're supposed to enjoy as a kid, but outgrow pretty soon, that is, around 17 or so. There's the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' thing; there's PlayStations -- how many people in their right mind, even as recently as 20 years ago, would have considered playing games on a console something fit for 30-something year olds?

It is here that a certain brand of right-winger, the civic-republican virtue theorist, comes to the sober realization that late capitalism has basically turned most of the populace into infantilized consumers reacting to sensory stimuli. As a result, they can't be trusted to entertain any considered, rational political views aimed at enhancing the common good. That difficult task should be left in the charge of a small elite who have the intelligence, interest and strength to run the commonwealth.

Eerily, The Onion, that invaluable source of contemporary insight, predicted it almost a decade ago.

Heywood J. said...

Yeah, I heard about that Potter-debunking study, so I recall what you're referring to, Marius. It seemed to reinforce what common sense already tells us -- that without some sort of continuity, the kid just winds up the series and goes back to his video games or whatever. For me, the real indicator of whether it "helped" turn the kid into a genuine reader would be what he chooses to read immediately after the Potter; the further afield the next book, the more likely the kid is actually interested in the process of reading, as opposed to merely accessorizing himself with another hot trinket.

I'm mindful of the consumerism aspect of all the hype, naturally. But I'm much more concerned with the tendency of the media to produce what they apparently feel are seamless (but are actually transparently clunky and obvious) profiles of this or that contrived aspect of the series, or its characters, or the fans, or Rowling herself. It reeks of cross-promotion and corporate partnering, and in this age of amazingly incestuous media entities, it's very difficult to know much for certain, aside from the fact that it's not newsworthy.

I like your take on the warped deontological "virtue ethic" as practised by Our Betters in the elites. I think there's a lot of truth to it, and of course it's deliberate and self-fulfilling. They compound their debased sense of noblesse oblige with the revolting habit of profiteering by the very infantilization of the populace that they have the gall to rail against.

Great Onion piece, and as you say, eerily prescient. It's a sad commentary on this country that the three most reliable news sources are the Onion, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert.

By the way, I did happen to be in the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. No, I did not get the Hairy Pooter book, but it looked as if nearly everyone else in the line (20 or so people) did. Not one of them looked under 25 years of age. The guy behind me could have been the inspiration for Comic Book Guy.

Not having read the series (and actually, not being completely disinclined to), I can't judge it on those merits. I would note that from the outset, the series has been heavily marketed as one of those "not just for kids" deals. Not too violent for the younguns, but dark and complex enough to pull in some adults who may just want a different type of beach reading. I don't know, but it does sound similar to the way animated films are marketed these days -- which, when you get right down to it, got popularized with The Simpsons.

At any rate, it does strike me as odd, but more of a broadening of traditional markets than anything sinister. Americans have never needed much of an excuse to indulge their inner child and absolve themselves from their responsibilities.

It may be splitting hairs of stupid, but I find slightly more value in people finding their escapism from reading even mediocre books and playing Halo once in a while, to simply vegetating in front of Deal or No Deal or Age of Love. It's when they start lining up in costume, in the dead of night, outside a bookstore, that you start wondering about their sanity.

Marius said...

People who watch Age of Love have long relinquished their humanity.

I'll footnote your response with the note that yesterday, in the mom-and-pops used bookstore I go to every Saturday, H Pot was on display in a special case at the entrance, surrounded by fresh baked cookies and coffee, for amateurs to browse. I won't wax high-brow and denounce the consumerization of the last remnant of authentic culture or anything like that -- they, like everyone else, have to struggle to survive in a quasi-monopolistic market. But it clearly ruined the charm of the place for me. It's usually very quiet, on Baltimore's Federal Hill, and you find the occasional great bargain. But yesterday, no less than three customers popped in to ask about the British wizard lad. One of them bought two copies. There is no hope for anyone.

thedevilzone said...

It may be splitting hairs of stupid, but I find slightly more value in people finding their escapism from reading even mediocre books and playing Halo once in a while, to simply vegetating in front of Deal or No Deal or Age of Love.

It's Resident Evil 4 for me, and Forgotten Realms fantasy books for my cheesy literary escapism. I can't stay absorbed full-time in heavy topics, as Russian Roulette is getting harder to say no to as it is!

But having always been an autodidact who's seen enough assholes with advanced degrees trying to use them to intimidate people into ignoring how full of shit they often are, I tend to sympathize more with the low-to-middlebrow types here than I normally do. In other words, while I hate the fact that we're such an aggressively illiterate and proudly ignorant culture, I try to avoid dumping on people who go for safe choices like Stephen King or Harry Potter, etc. That's partly because I'm mindful of how art is a two-way street, and I'm often surprised by how many times a person will get something from a piece of work that I found banal.

And at least those things do open the door to the possibility of some better stuff, as Atrios said the other day. I try to use the opportunity to lend out books of mine that my friends might like if only they knew where to look. (It's no different with music - as much as it pains me to not sob in despair sometimes when I hear what my friends are listening to, it's worth it when they get enthused over something I burn onto a CD-R for them that they didn't know existed.)

It seems to me like people with a higher education who know something about literature and how to discuss and think about it are cut off from everyone else by a huge gulf, where you're apparently just expected to make do with Jerry Springer and sitcoms. I didn't go to a four-year college, and I'm often struck by how skimpy the opportunities are for people like me to find a way into that world. When I was a teenager, I used to pick up stuff that I knew was considered timeless, but I had no idea what I was supposed to be getting from it, and I couldn't find many sources, people or reference materials, that bothered to give me pointers, so it was a long, hard process of muddling through that I sometimes wish could have been streamlined.

Heywood J. said...

Right, I definitely agree with that. I've made sure not to make this about people's taste -- I read Stephen King too, and I'm listening to Motorhead and Primal Fear right now, for Pete's sake. "Popular" certainly doesn't mean "bad". It's where the hype comes into play that interests me -- and more importantly, where the line gets blurred between "legitimate new story" and "transparent attempt to cash in on hype that borders on free advertisement".

Heywood J. said...

...."legitimate news story"....