I’ve been thinking a lot about why books like Harry Potter, Twilight, and yes, even Fifty Shades of Gray, are so popular. (I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, I made it through the first Twilight book, and I’m not going to read Fifty Shades of Gray for the same reason I don’t eat McDonald’s hamburgers. Which is that I’ve had real hamburgers, and I see no reason to try fake ones that are inevitably going to taste bad and leave me feeling sick. Meaning, just in case you didn’t get that metaphor, that I’ve read real books, and I have no desire to read fake ones.)
I was thinking about this specifically because in an interview, some time ago, Ursula Le Guin compared her Earthsea books to Harry Potter. I grew up on A Wizard of Earthsea, and the Earthsea books were among those that created my perception of fantasy, and of the world I lived in. I have enough invested in them that I was really, genuinely angry at Le Guin for writing Tehanu, which felt like a betrayal.
But the question I’m most interested in right now is, why are the Harry Potter books so much more popular? Le Guin is by far the better writer. She is a writer: for me, J.K. Rowling is someone who happens to have written a popular series, but someone who is not, at heart, a writer. I know that’s a controversial statement, and I don’t mean it in a negative way. But I would say the same about Stephenie Meyer. Le Guin has written novels, short stories, poems. She has written essays on writing, on her own writing practice and on genre. She is, in a deep and complete way, a professional writer. I have no desire to read Rowling’s adult novel, which is supposed to come out soon. Whereas I will seek out most of what Le Guin writes.
So what does Harry Potter have that her books don’t? What makes them so popular?
Honestly, I think it’s that they come directly from our deepest desires. We all want to be Harry: the boy selected for greatness, the boy who comes into his own without having to wonder whether or not he will ever be great. The boy who is immediately recognized for what he is. Ged is not Harry Potter. He is also a wizard by instinct, he also gets into a wizarding school, but his time there is so much more difficult. He has to earn his later fame through a series of trials, in which he realizes that his own worst enemy is himself. His own talent and ambition hold him back. He is tempted, as we are all tempted but as Harry is not truly tempted. Harry never wants to be Voldemort. The fact that they are doubles is always implicit, but Harry does not want to go over to the dark side. Ged discovers that the darkness is in himself.
The Earthsea books are so much more complex, so much less comfortable to read. In a sense, they are less entertaining. They are more work. They are about us. (I would add that Ged’s suffering is internal, whereas Harry’s suffering is largely external. He has to fight an external enemy, not his own impulses.)
I suppose I draw two lessons from this, which may not be what you expect. The first comes from having studied Victorian literature and knowing that what is popular, even wildly popular, in one era is often forgotten in the next. Who now reads Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop? So we should write what we are drawn to write, knowing that popularity at any given time means very little. But the second is that books like Harry Potter have something to teach us: they give us pleasure because they give us part of what we want. They fulfill our dreams and desires. And that can be an important technique for a writer: making a book entertaining is itself a technique we can use. Even if we want to do the more difficult stuff.
(I should add that the Earthsea books are of course entertaining, although in a different way. They give us wizards and dragons and Le Guin’s beautiful language. I read them for that, but I did rebel when the later books became less like that, and more about her philosophical message. Still, I have to read Tales from Earthsea, which I saw in the bookstore recently.)