Thursday, March 6, 2014
Potter and Wallace for folk with little imagination?
About a month ago, on a journey to Gudlavalleru, a sleepy little village about an hour’s drive from Vijayawada, I was led to talk about what Meenakshi Mukherjee had said about three-and-a-half decades ago in a perceptive article titled, ‘Teaching Literature to a Sub-Culture.’ In the article, Mukherjee had complained about what in her perception was a tremendous gap between the classroom sensibility which was switched on for the occasion, and the normal sensibility that operated in real life. When her English literature students came to the classroom, they discussed Yeats and Eliot with diligence and care and took part in discussions with suitable animation, but, when they went out, they only read Barbara Cartland, Harold Robins, James Hadley Chase, and, of course, what was unavoidable and inevitable for college students in those days – Mills and Boon!
With me in the car was Usha, who was teaching English literature in a university. I told Usha about the Mukherjee article and asked, ‘But that was in a different age. Now, do English literature students read fiction in English at all for pleasure? For that matter, do they read anything in English at all for pleasure?’
‘They read stuff like Shoba de,’ she said with some reluctance and even shame.
Her reluctance made me look back on a controversy I encountered in the world of letters over a decade ago when I was regularly launching Harry Potter books at Ashok Book Centre in Vijayawada, giving talks to children on the Potter novels, and even conducting Potter workshops occasionally.
It was AS Byatt, a British novelist, who stirred up a real hornet's nest when she said, in her column in the New York Times, which I was reading almost regularly on the Internet during those days, that the Harry Potter books were written for people with "little imaginations" -- people whose interests were confined to the "worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip". If an ordinary person had made this comment, it would have been ignored. But, Byatt was far from being ordinary: she was one of England's foremost writers and a distinguished critic. Angry Potter lovers from different parts of the world registered a strong protest. Some even hit the critic below the belt by attributing motives to her.
In spite of my Potter talks and workshops, which gave me good publicity, I didn’t quite jump on the Potter bandwagon and cry out that there were drops of sour grapes in Byatt's charge. I was by no means a Potter lover, and I even felt that the obsession with Harry Potter was going a bit too far, thanks to an indoctrinating advertising campaign which presented the Potter books as "must have" merchandise. At the same time, I must concede that, in spite of my being rather eggheaded (you can't help it if you have taught serious literature for a good three decades), I enjoyed reading the Potter books. And, I insist, I didn't find the books candyfloss for the brain. Either I was – and I am even now – a person with very little imagination, or Byatt is outrageously wrong.
Byatt's concept of "limited imagination" is difficult to accept. The Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary defines imagination as "the ability that you have to think of and form pictures of ideas in your mind of things that are different, interesting, or exciting". It follows, then, that a limited imagination is one that is unable to appreciate a wide range of books. There should be – there is! – room in literature for all kinds of works. If Greene and Orwell and Falukner and Fitzgerald have an assured place in literature, so, I believe, have Wodehouse and Dahl and Carroll and Rowling and Irwing Wallace and Amish. Incidentally, I have just finished reading Wallace’s The Prize decades after I had originally read it when I was a student of literature.
In any case, a little imagination, as someone in some other context so perceptively pointed out, is better than no imagination. Any book that inspires children to read and use their imagination in this day and age is certainly good. And Potter books have proved that they can do it. I believe that they have the potential to encourage children to go beyond Potter.
It looks as though the bane of Potter, Wodehouse, Wallace and Amish is their popularity. When a book is read by a large number of ordinary people, one tends to conclude that the book must be mediocre.