Holden, Anthony. "Why Harry Potter doesn't cast a spell over me: JK Rowling's new blockbuster will be a monster hit worldwide, But just how good is the Harry Potter series?" The Observer 25 June 2000.

Stay home on Saturday week. The nation's high streets will be mobbed by parents and children stampeding to obtain not the latest faddish toy or computer game or movie spin-off merchandise, but a book. You know, one of those old-fashioned things, pre-audiobooks and e-novels, with lots of words printed on crisp white pages snugly bound between hard covers.

In any other circumstances, this would be cause for stunned rejoicing. The book is not dead, long live the book, etc. But, frankly, it depends on the book. If people were fighting to buy Seamus Heaney's sizzling translation of Beowulf, or David Cairns's riproaring biography of Berlioz, or even my own action-packed life of Shakespeare, I would naturally be uncorking champagne and running jaunty standards up the nation's literary flagpoles.

But it's not. Harry Potter and the Doom Spell Tournament is less a book than a phenomenon. A marketing phenomenon. Haven't Bloomsbury sold enough copies of J.K. Rowlings's three volumes so far without resorting to advance hype worthy of a Wonderbra? Have they no faith in their product's ability to sell on its merits?

Anticipation has been carefully heightened by shrouding the plot in secrecy, beyond the tantalising titbit that one of the characters dies. No review copies have been sent out. The author has given no interviews. After publication a private train will carry her around the country (a privilege once accorded that other noted author, Edward Heath) to sign copies. Come on, guys, why not just sell it as a book rather than hype it like a Spice Girls CD?

Maybe, in truth, because it isn't a very good one. I brave the wrath of millions by daring to say so, but it really doesn't take a high-minded killjoy to worry what these books are doing to the literary taste of millions of potential young readers. Bloomsbury's stock value has trebled since Potter joined its list. As its marketing men think up catchy new sales ploys for the remaining three volumes, they hide behind such worthy, apparently unassailable slogans as 'Anything that gets children reading has to be A Good Thing'.

Call me a super-Muggle, but I beg to differ. As a workout for the brain, reading (or being read) Harry Potter is an activity marginally less testing than watching Neighbours. And that, at least, is vaguely about real life. These are one-dimensional children's books, Disney cartoons written in words, no more.

It is an interesting paradox that the more popular (or bestselling) an adult book, viz a Barbara Cartland or Jeffrey Archer, the less likely it is to be considered literature, while the popularity of a children's book sees big literary claims being made on its behalf. In the case of Harry Potter the mere suggestion is plain embarrassing.

I would be highly unlikely to have read any of J.K. Rowling's series for children had I not been required (and paid) to read the third instalment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, as a judge of this year's Whitbread book awards. I duly found myself amazed.

Eager to see what all the fuss was about, I had looked forward to enjoying a magical ride through some thrillingly original fantasy world, on a par with such children's classics as Alice in Wonderland, Treasure Island or Peter Pan, which gently question the values of the adult world from a child's point of view. Instead I found myself struggling to finish a tedious, clunkily written version of Billy Bunter on broomsticks.

Several of the Whitbread judges agreed with me. Compared with Jacqueline Wilson's The Illustrated Mum, a slice of real contemporary life which credits its young readers with some interest in the complex world around them, the Potter saga was essentially patronising, very conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain which only ever existed at Greyfriars and St Trinian's. And we were, after all, judging an award for writing, not for marketing.

As others leaked my own remarks in the supposed secrecy of the Whitbread judging room, I have few qualms in revealing that Wilson deservedly looked like beating Rowling to the children's book award - thus becoming eligible for Book of the Year - until the majority voting system was suddenly changed in mid-meeting. As most judges' second choice, Potter squeaked home, thus entering the final round for the £20,000 overall prize Whitbread's global rules had also been altered in advance this year, to make the victorious children's book eligible for Book of the Year alongside the winning works of fiction, biography and poetry. All our antennae were thus alerted to another potential marketing coup for Harry Potter. But it wasn't that which moved me to a protest that made unlikely headlines the next day. It was astonishment that anyone could even begin to hold Rowling's work in the same regard as Heaney's or Cairns's. I was not prepared to lend my name to such faux-naif folly, and said so. All populist hell broke loose.

At my most embattled (but before I was called a 'pompous prat' on television), I was alarmed to hear two of the celebrity judges, Jerry Hall and Imogen Stubbs, testifying how much their children enjoyed being read Potter. Were their children, I snorted, to be allowed to choose the Book of the Year? 'You should be reading them Beowulf,' I snapped testily. 'It's much the same sort of stuff, heroes taking on dragons and all that, but the language is far more exciting.' To their credit, Hall and Stubbs politely agreed with me, promised to read their children Heaney, and wound up helping him carry the day. Just.

By that weekend the nation seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown, as the Sunday papers debated whether we are a Beowulf Britain or a Harry Potter Britain. We are, of course, neither. We are a country with dramatically declining standards of literacy, increasingly dragged down to the lowest common denominator by the purveyors of all forms of mindless mass entertainment. The success of the Potter books is just another dispiriting proof of the Murdoch-led dumbing down of all our lives, or what Hensher called 'the infantilisation of adult culture'.

Having gritted my teeth and struggled through the first two before passing sentence, I remain dumbstruck at their huge popularity. The first three books have sold 21 million copies in the US and a further seven million in Britain and the English speaking-world.

Good luck, say I, to Joanne Rowling, who with the help of the marketing men has made a fortune already estimated at £15 million, expected to double once Steven Spielberg makes the movies. I warm to the modest way in which she appears to have handled her huge success, sensibly keeping as low a public profile as possible.

She has also, apparently, been persuaded to endure the indignity of hiding behind her initials to spare young male readers the embarrassment of enjoying a book by a woman. And it is not, I suspect, her fault that the Potter mythology misrepresents a middle-class, university-educated writer who chose to leave her Portuguese husband as an abandoned working-class mother toiling away in a Scottish garret.

What I do object to is a pedestrian, ungrammatical prose style which has left me with a headache and a sense of a wasted opportunity. If Rowling is blessed with this magic gift of tapping into young minds, I can only wish she had made better use of it. Her characters, unlike life's, are all black-and-white. Her story-lines are predictable, the suspense minimal, the sentimentality cloying every page. (Did Harry, like so many child-heroes before him, HAVE to be yet another poignant orphan?)

Even more depressing is the feeble cop-out of this resourceful single parent mum, on welfare while writing the first book, in sending her oh so generic, Molesworthian hero to a good old private English boarding school. Why on earth couldn't Hogwarts (the name is indicative of the reach of her imagination) have been a comprehensive, or an embattled secondary modern or a solid old-fashioned grammar - a school of the kind with which most of those millions of young readers can identify?

Why, in the weariest tradition of English children's literature from Tom Brown's Schooldays on, did she have to send Harry to a neo-Dotheboys Hall, complete with such arcane rituals as weirdly named hierarchies and home grown sports with incomprehensible rules? Much of the Potter saga could have been written in the Fifties, as Suzanne Moore has pointed out: 'What child do you know these days who eats rock cakes and talks about galoshes? No wonder they love it in the States.' Ye olde fairy-tale England, with real Tudor beams and a Queen who rides around in a horse-drawn golden coach: that is not just how the rest of the world still sees us, it is how Potterites would have us see ourselves.

These are some of the reasons why I said, during and after the Whitbread judging, that a victory for Harry Potter 'would have sent out a signal to the world, like the monarchy and the Dome, that Britain is a country that refuses to grow up and take itself seriously'. I did not, as reported, further argue that children's books cannot be great literature. Of course they can, if they are well-written, stretch the reader's imagination and open virgin minds to the magical powers of words.

For all the long shadows of its various villains, the world of Harry Potter is essentially a familiar and thus safe one for young readers to roam in. Their thrill at the smell of danger is carefully controlled by the certainty that virtue will prevail - no Roald Dahl-type risks for Rowling - and their minds unstretched by any reflective pauses in the breathless narrative, any encouragement to assess the rights and wrongs of what is going on.

Not that Potter's world offers much scope to moral philosophers. Harry's dead parents were uncomplicatedly good. His wicked uncle and aunt are unequivocally bad, like the super-villain Lord Voldemort. Given their unadorned prose style, these books wind up reading themselves.

They are not teaching children the joys of literature any more than they are challenging them to question the supposed certainties of their daily lives.

Children's literature is what it is: the invention of a captivating alternative world in which, at its best, home truths about adult behaviour are glimpsed through the eyes of innocence. Harry Potter offers no such transcendent adventure. He is a children's hero for our culturally impoverished times, rating escapism above enlightenment.

I wish I could hope that Rowling's new volume will prove me wrong, that she has taken her audience captive only to lift them, at the midpoint of her saga, from the banal realms in which they are rooted to a wonderworld where their souls can soar. On the evidence so far, that seems highly unlikely. As Harry approaches puberty - the series is scheduled to cover seven teenage years - he will no doubt turn into a spotty little wizard who eventually gets the girl.

As for the 150,000 adults who paid extra to buy the same books in grown-up dustjackets, to avoid embarrassment when reading them in public (or perhaps even at home), well, get a life. I commend unto you the words of George Walden: 'The Harry Potter books are what they are: tales for children. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, or Just William, or The Simpsons, which can be enjoyed by all ages because they are so finely written and work on so many levels, the Harry Potter books work on just one.'

Volume One begins with the sentence: 'Mr and Mrs Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.' Any adult who is not stopped in their tracks by that cutesy 'thank you very much', is presumably a Beano subscriber clutching a comfort blanket. Getting in touch with your inner child is all very well, but reluctance to put away childish things is, as another bestseller long ago suggested, rather more worrisome. One can only pray that, having grown up with Harry Potter, his millions of young fans don't spend the rest of their lives stuck in a scary timewarp. There is, as a grown-up writer once put it, a world elsewhere.

Source: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,6903,335923,00.html

Original page date 2 March 2007; last updated 2 March 2007.