Saturday, August 1, 2020

The Magic Position

It's that time of year again! Blaugust, right? Oh, wait, no, we did that already back in April, didn't we?

Belghast, Monitor of the Blogosphere, seeing the world was troubled, in need of distraction from its fears, seeking solace for its pain, brought the timelines forward so we could enjoy summer in spring. Blaugust became Blapril and the weather obediently followed his lead (or it did where I live, anyway).

The Great Re-arrangement left a yawning gap where Blaugust once was but Belghast moved swiftly, binding the tattered ties together with a new creation he named Promptapalooza. All through August denizens of the blogosphere will come together in harmony for a game of pass the post, each blogger having their say then handing on a new idea to the next.

All are encouraged to join in as and when the spirit moves them. Kinda reminds me of my childhood, sitting in the Quaker meeting room, waiting for inspiration to prompt someone to stand up, break the silence and speak. Only a lot less boring.

I was all ready to go when August began but then the starting pistol sounded on the last day of July because of course it did. I mean, Blapril began in March. What was I thinking?

It was totally my fault I missed the first day. I even have the Google docs spreadsheet with the dates (I'm up on the seventeenth). There it is in black and white

Okay, that's reeeeally tiny but trust me, it says the opening post is by Bel on the thirty-first of July.

It's okay, though. I never planned to hit every beat. That would mean either an entire month of posting about topics I didn't choose while not posting anything I normally would have posted (never going to happen) or double-posting most days for the whole of August (would fricken' finish me!) .

I plan on picking and choosing. Posting in response to the prompts that interest me or anything that sparks a reaction. Also on using the prompts shamelessly to take the strain on days when I'm out of ideas, of course!

Yesterday's prompt, "If you could change anything about one of your core fandoms, what would it be?", I most likely wouldn't have responded to anyway. I'm not sure I have any fandoms, core or otherwise. I was most definitely an active member of UK comics fandom from the late 1970s to the early '90s, to the point that people I'd never met knew who I was (yes, I know these days that applies to everyone in the entire world but it was kinda not the normal run of things back then) but since that ended I don't think I've identified as being part of any fandom as such.

I'm a fan of a lot of things but being a fan and being part of a fandom are entirely separate states of being. It's well-documented on this blog that I have very serious issues with the concept of being a "gamer". Spending your entire life playing games isn't enough to qualify for that tag in my book, or not necessarily.

To be part of a fandom you have to contribute, not just consume, but conversely, contributing doesn't predicate membership of a fandom. I self-evidently "contribute" to blogging but I don't consider blogging to be a fandom. I think of it more as a craft or a hobby.

See, this is why I wanted to avoid this particular topic. The moment I read it I knew I'd get completely tangled up in definitions long before I ever got to say anything about the substance of the question. Let's shelve that one and move on.

The topic for the first of August itself is infinitely more straightforward: "What is some popular piece of content/media that seems to be universally loved that you have never been able to understand?". Bel assigned that one to Dragonray, who addresses it with what seems to me like an eminently reasonable and well-argued rant against Game of Thrones.

I say "seems" because the problem I have here is that I've neither read nor watched Game of Thrones. Oh, I can tell you the titles of all the books because I've put them on the shelves a thousand times. I've just never bothered to open the cover and look inside.

I read George R.R. Martin's Hugo and Nebula award-winning SF/Horror novelette "Sandkings" back in the early 1980s and it repulsed me so viscerally I swore I'd never read another word he wrote, a promise to myself I've found no difficulty in keeping. Of course, I can't stand turgid, time-wasting 500+ page fantasy potboilers either, so that helps.

I could come up with a list as long as one of George R.R.'s dramatis personae of popular media content I've avoided because I believe I wouldn't enjoy it but what seems more interesting to me are the things that I have consumed and enjoyed, things I would consider to be merely ordinary but which have become major global phenomena and cultural juggernauts.

I used to think World of Warcraft was one of those but that was before I played it. Once I gave it a chance I didn't find it all that difficult to work out why it had become the runaway success it once was. I still think it's unoriginal and derivative in many respects but Henry Ford didn't have to invent the automobile to figure out how to put one on every driveway.

No, the super-mega hit that still puzzles the heck out of me is Harry Potter. I mean, I totally get why people like it. It's a school story with wizards. What's not to like? School stories and magic have been two staples of children's fiction since the Edwardian age.

It's not a bad version of the two tropes, either. It's accessible and relatable, the language is simple, the characters are distinctive, the plot is... well, the plot is all over the place, let's be honest, but that could be said of even my very favorite writer in the genre, Diana Wynne Jones.

The first couple of books are weak but they get better, although as they get better they get longer, which isn't better at all. If you have an author who's inexplicably outselling everything since the invention of the printing press, the last thing you're going to want to do is piss her off, so I imagine editing J.K. became something of a fine art around book three or four.

I was working at a bookshop for the entire first-print publishing run of Harry Potter. I saw it change from generic children's schedule-filler by unknown first-time author to literally the major publishing event of the year. For the last three or four titles we re-organized our entire schedules around Potter Publication Day, and by "we" I don't just mean the shop, I don't even mean the company, I mean the entire bookselling industry.

Never actually seen any of the movies...
As far as I can tell from talking to people who've worked in bookselling and publishing for a lot longer than I have, no-one had ever seen anything like it before. None of us who lived through it expect to see anything like it again.

And yet, the thing about Harry Potter is that it's very ordinary. I have read all seven books, just the once. I can't remember when I started. I think the second was already out by the time I got around to reading the first.

After that I read each of them on release. I never paid for one. We received them in such insane quantities there were always damaged or misprinted copies floating around. There wasn't much competition for those because in my shop most booksellers either wouldn't have been seen dead with a Potter or they were so gung-ho into the series they'd pre-ordered, begged to be allowed to host the inevitable midnight opening, then stayed up all night afterwards reading the damn thing.

I was unusual in that I was interested enough to want a reading copy but not so interested I was willing to pay for one. I read a lot of fiction marketed to children and young adults and to me Harry Potter was (and remains) a pretty run-of-the-mill example. It's a bit better than "meh". More like "mm'ok".

And that's it! Why would something as generic go nova the way it did? Not a clue. These things just happen, sometimes, although obviously not often.

I'm curious to see how Harry Potter lasts. We still sell a lot of Potter although I'm not sure how much we sell directly to children or teens these days. The series seems already to be moving into the category of "books I read when I was a child" that parents love to spend their children's pocket-money on. Soon it'll be on the grandparent's gift list. Once a book makes it to grannie's preferred reading status it's "a classic" and we'll never be shot of it but no-one will be excited by it ever again.

I am projecting a bit, here. All that's a few decades off. For now, J.K. Rowling is still out there, wildcarding, so anything could happen. Her adult titles haven't hit Potter sales figures but she's a very major player in crime fiction now, yet she clearly just can't leave Potter alone. And until someone takes her Twitter account away, she's likely to keep generating the kind of controversy every publisher claims to deplore, while secretly wishing their quieter, slower-selling authors could emulate.

I can take Potter and his pals or leave him but I do have to thank the streaky-haired prodigy for one thing: without Harry Potter we'd never have had Simon Snow.

If you've ever read Potter, whether you loved him or loathed him, you owe it to yourself to read Rainbow Rowell's pastiche/parody/homage. It begins in Fangirl, where the Potter-analog serves as a backdrop, then moves into full 'verse status in Carry On and Wayward Son.

The difference between the two series is the difference between Launder and Gilliat's St. Trinian's films and Lindsay Anderson's "If". Do you want to kill a couple of hours on a wet Sunday afternoon in February or fall in love with another way of being?

Buyer's choice.

All images borrowed from the interwebs. If anyone owns anything they'd prefer not to see here, please let me know and I'll shift it.


  1. Potter just somehow hit a generational zeitgeist. I recall not understanding the furor, but all kids to teens of a certain age were nuts about it. It was mostly Enid Blyton’s school adventure stories crossed with a hefty dose of magic and fantasy. If anything, I was just pretty thankful that the fantasy genre was rooting itself and becoming welcome.

    I had a bear of a time with acceptance of fantasy in my youth due to the satanic panic of that era. My books were always in danger of confiscation by teachers or endless ranting lectures by parents on how I would never amount to anything because I liked living in fantasy worlds so much, while I sat there wondering which party had the difficulty in differentiating fantasy from reality.

    Now they watch Game of Thrones religiously, so who’s laughing now.

    1. For one segment of a generatin the Potter books exactly followed their own evolution. One book a year with all the characters aging in real time from child to adult must have been powerful. And then again for a very slightly different segment of the same generation with the movies.

      Now, of course, the books all sit there, complete, and new readers and viewers will burn through them in dyas or weeks, not years. That experience will never repeated, not with that material.

      The whole satanic connection was always remote where I live, something strange people in far lands, with their strange ways, believed. Stories of churches making a bonfire of Harry Potter and pickets outside bookshops when we were having parties played here like another kind of dystopian fantasy.

      Enid Blyton, however, was widely reviled and frequently banned.

    2. For those who lived the Satanic Panic, it wasn't an abstract thing.

      Sure, there was the heavy metal component to it that riled up parents --including the blame that was heaped on Ozzy, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest for suicides that actually ended up in court-- along that damned Geraldo Rivera television special about Satanism were one thing. But the abuse given to RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, Fantasy novels, and other forms of artistic expression by Evangelical groups were simply mind boggling to have lived in the whirlwind of it all. My parents were so consumed with the thought of Satanism that they threw out all of my D&D materials. I listened to copied cassettes of heavy metal --with headphones on-- so that they'd never know what I was really listening to. Most of the F&SF novels I read at the time had the "classics" by Asimov, Tolkien, and Co. in front of my bookshelf while the more overtly fantastical novels were hidden in the back. (I could double stack my paperbacks, so that had its advantages.) My parents used to regularly rifle through my belongings to see if they could find evidence of Satanic activity, and I learned very quickly to hide my newly reacquired RPG materials. Even visiting friends to play RPGs became an exercise in misdirection, as I'd bring a boardgame with the materials hidden inside whenever I had a session to play.

      The Panic may have died down, but it never went away. About 3-4 years ago during Banned Books Week (meant to celebrate controversial books that had been either banned or called to be banned) I asked one of the librarians at our local branch what was their most commonly requested banned book. "Harry Potter," she replied.

      "Still?" I asked.

      "Yes, because kids still love it, and people are convinced that the books will lead kids to hell."

      A dystopian fantasy indeed.


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