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    j. k. rowling, pirates of the carribean, and world-building

    One fact that has not escaped mention in the cloud of discourse surrounding the Harry Potter phenomenon is this one: there are certain metrics that traditionally characterize "good writing," and viewed through some of these metrics, J. K. Rowling does not appear to be a very good writer at all.

    A few examples: she abuses space-filling adverbs, she circulates through the entire array of distracting synonyms for "said" (including the especially unfortunate "ejaculated"), she relies enormously on wordy expository dialogue (often at the climax of a book), her sense of prose rhythm is clunky, her metaphors are rarely vivid, she intermittently dips into cliche, her combat sequences read like a transcript of a Dungeons and Dragons melee round... etc etc etc. I could continue to populate this list, but really, any fan of the books (and I count myself among their number) could tell you that these things detract from the enjoyment of the books only marginally, if at all. And the unprecendted size of her global legion of fans suggest that there is a whole other unspoken set of "good writing" metrics that Rowling is in fact the undisputed contemporary master of.

    So what might that be?

    A clue is provided by Chris Stangl, of the great Exploding Kinetoscope film-blog, who has not written on Harry Potter as such (at least not that I've seen) but who understands something about that sprawling subculture we call fandom (just as a for-instance, note his in-depth appreciation / critique of the comic-book-only Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

    Anyway, in his 2006 year-end list, Stangl writes about, of all things, Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest, and in doing so he says:

    "The story is built out of the elements that satisfy and inspire fan-fiction writers. Careful, obsessive attention to the arcs and quirks of every periphery character, piling on the backstory and complicated relationships, until the puffy summer blockbuster assumes Wagnerian proportion. Every character combination would be a potentially interesting pairing for slashfic. Holes in character histories and the timeline are left open for imagining more adventures. New fantasy elements and characters are introduced with such color and variety, they expand the Pirate-verse in every direction. Any Pirates fan gets a three hour cruise on the funniest, sexiest, most breathless, dreamiest galleon on the water. The rest of you may be lost at sea."

    Interesting, I thought: and it reminded me of the "mixed or average reviews" that the new Pirates movie, At World's End, had been receiving. Complaints of the movie being over-plotted, talky, tedious, and cluttered made me wonder if these critics weren't just judging it, like some have judged Rowling, by the wrong metric. So let's pop over to see what one of fandom's primary academic champions, Henry Jenkins, has to say:

    Unsurprisingly, he calls it "one of the best summer movies that I have seen in a long long time."


    "The film ... throws a lot of stuff at us and expects us to catch it. ... [T]he parts add up to a satisfying whole if we connect all of the pieces. For someone really engaged in watching this film, the result is epistemaphilia, a mad rush of information being brought together and being clicked into the right mental category."

    And still more:

    "The modes by which we consume [franchise] films have shifted. Most films don't warrant a first look, let alone a second viewing, but for those films that do satisfy and engage us, a much higher percentage of the audience is engaged in what might once have seemed like cult viewing practices. Once we find a franchise which floats our boats, we will settle in for an extended relationships and we want to explore all of the hidden nooks and crannies. We want to know everything we can possibly know about this world and contemporary franchise films are designed to accommodate our interests."

    And still more:

    "Plots cross each other: a choice which seems to bring resolution to one plotline opens up new complications for another; a decision which makes sense from one perspective seems enigmatic from another; and the reader must be alert to all of these different levels of development, must think about what the scene means for each character and each plot if they are going to get full pleasure from the story."

    And so all those negative reviews?:

    "[I]f [people] suddenly realize that the film is much more complex and layered than they anticipated, they may start to flounder and ultimately drown, which seems to be what happened to a high percentage of the film critics. They went into the film expecting a certain kind of experience; they hadn't successfully learned how to take pleasure from its world-building; they don't want to dig into the film more deeply after the fact, comparing notes online with other viewers, because their trade demands constant movement to the next film and a focus on their own private, individualized thoughts."

    Hmm. Nice. I haven't seen any of the Pirates of the Carribean movies, but I think that all the praise that Stangl and Jenkins are loading onto the franchise applies perfectly to the Potter books. People don't care about Rowling's work on the level of prose style, because the books offer a different pleasure from the pleasure of simply reading stylistic prose. Rowling has created a world that people engage with and enjoy. The vast networked ensemble of characters attended to within that world provides a staggering number of points for further engagement. The fact that, ultimately, the amount of information she can supply about these characters is finite is not a disappointment but rather explodes the universe into a practically infinite number of jumping-off points for further imagination, participation, and still deeper engagement. This is what Rowling is good at. To judge from the success of her books it may be the thing that primarily matters. Teachers of storytelling, take note.

    (Film club this week was Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), a film that engages in world-building narrative in its own fashion. But more on that later.)

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    Saturday, August 11, 2007
    1:59 PM


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