Davies, Hugh. "Harry Potter attack starts war of words Literary feathers fly as Booker prize-winner suggests latest best-seller lacks magic." The Daily Telegraph (London), 10 July 2003

The Booker prize-winning author A S Byatt was accused yesterday of dumping "a goblet of bile" on J K Rowling by insisting that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was below par "ersatz magic", lacking the skill of the great children's writers.

Byatt, 66, said the hard question to answer was why Rowling was read by so many adults. While writers like "the great" Terry Pratchett composed "amazing sentences", Rowling's world was small, with "no place for the numinous".

It had little to do with "the shiver of awe we feel" looking through "magic casements, opening on the foam, of perilous seas, in faery lands folorn" of the poet Keats.

She said: "It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated - more exciting, less threatening - mirror worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip."

The Cambridge-educated author of Possession and Angels and Insects, noted for her intellectual skills and whose favourite writers are Marcel Proust and Balzac, made her point in an article for the New York Times.

She said that while children were attracted to the Potter tales by the powerful working of the fantasy of escape and empowerment, the books lacked the "compensating seriousness" of writers such as Tolkien, Susan Cropper, Alan Garner and Ursula K Le Guin.

Adult readers were reverting to the child they were when they read Billy Bunter books or invested Enid Blyton's "pasteboard kids" with their own childish desires and hopes.

Rowling spoke to a generation that had not known, or cared about, mystery. "They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not the real wild. They don't have skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing."

Her criticism ignited a row, with San Francisco's literary web site, Salon, describing her as a snob.

It was clear, Charles Taylor, the site's leading critic, said, that "we're dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin' ". He called Byatt churlish to put Rowling's popularity in selling five million books in a day down to "the stupidity of the masses".

Taylor added that in making Rowling the repository of everything that was cheap and phoney in contemporary culture, Byatt seemed to be arguing against the basic pleasures that drew people to books. The "ugly truth" was that when Byatt was inevitably reduced to a footnote in academic history, the Potter author would be "laughing" in company with other "non-literary" writers like Dumas and Conan Doyle.

The scathing attack came after Stephen King, the American horror writer, raved about Rowling's "slam dunk" book. He called the gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, the greatest make-believe villain since Hannibal Lecter. He concluded that Rowling was a natural storyteller "bursting with crazily vivid ideas and having the time of her life".

Salon is obviously fascinated by Byatt, having recently carried an interview with her in which she spoke of being "fed" D H Lawrence at university, with his statement about the novel being the highest form of human expression. She wondered how anybody could be so blinkered, when there was science, philosophy and painting.

However, the site said that her approach to Potter was misguided. She was talking "bunk" by writing that Rowling's world was "only dangerous" because she said so, and that there was an objective standard to discern if a book was "a gimcrack concoction".

Salon said it might be that Byatt was jealous, as she also had a "hissy fit" when Martin Amis was given a lucrative advance against future books.

"It's only human for writers to feel resentful and even contemptuous when what they consider good, serious work is being passed over in favour of some pop artifact.

"Byatt has it better than most, enjoying a modicum of fame, more than her share of respect, and the distinction of being one of the relative few who has been able to make a living at literary fiction. But success on the scale of J K Rowling's clearly gets under her skin."

Byatt, who is at her house in France recuperating after breaking her arm, declined to comment on the dispute last night. Her secretary said: "She has written the article and she would prefer not to discuss it any further."

A spokesman for Rowling said she was unavailable for comment.

Copyright (c) 2003 Telegraph Group Limited, London, England