The boy who lived and lived and lived

From The Bookseller:

In every skirmish in the ‘culture war’, be it fought in universities, Twitter or Parliament, there’s an inevitable reference to Harry Potter. The Potter references can seem like a joke; the perpetual furore around the politics of a ‘mere’ children’s author more so. But it is no laughing matter. Harry Potter is a cultural force and a financial powerhouse, one that is, ultimately – and for some, frustratingly – ‘uncancellable’.

According to YouGov, British Millennials have a 95% awareness of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For context, this puts Harry Potter significantly above classics such as Winnie the Pooh (90%) and Alice in Wonderland (85%), or, for that matter, Marvel movies. It is uniquely high among all publishing properties. By comparison, The Hate U Give – a stunning contemporary book with massive cultural ramifications and prolonged sales dominance – has a 24% awareness in the same demographic. That level of familiarity is, for a book, incredibly impressive. But Harry Potter is a universal cultural touchstone.

And, again for context, “Millennial” means anyone born between 1980 and 1994, a group that now makes up nearly 14% of the population of Britain (and 90% of the headlines). The eldest Millennials are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and have children of their own. Yet, despite countless efforts by publishers and creators of all types, there is no “new” Harry Potter; no other property with the same ubiquitous cultural presence. 

How is it that a children’s book from three decades ago has successfully remained at the heart of every conversation?

The first reason is found in the story itself. There have been countless theses written on this very subject, but there is, unquestionably, something special about the boy. Henry Jenkins has examined the phenomena at length, and argues (to paraphrase) that the series’ appeal stems from its ability to allow readers to see themselves in Rowling’s world. It is, again, to paraphrase, just rich enough: readers are fascinated by the world, but there’s still room for them to fit in. It is welcoming, and more than that, participative. The loose fabric of the Potterverse invites its readers to indulge in passionate meddling, a form of imaginative activism that has translated to a long lasting, and real world, belief in the power to make change.

Secondly, it is impossible to underestimate the cultural supernova that was the release of individual Harry Potter books when they were first published. By the end of the series, it was a national obsession akin to, one suspects, Beatlemania. Pottermania united the British public – often in the queue at Sainsbury’s, where they would be patiently waiting to snatch up a copy. Readers – and even non-readers! – were all feverishly tearing through books on buses and trains, during lunch breaks and all through the night.

Potter’s explosion also took place before online retailers dominated the scene – in those innocent days when supermarkets were seen as the Dark Lords of book retail. People crammed into brick and mortar retailers, all physically coming together in their need for the book. This increased the visibility of the moment, and the sense of cultural unison. Wanting, buying, reading Harry Potter was the thing to do. Potter’s moment was made all the more unique, and bittersweet, by the fact it will not – and cannot – ever happen again. The retail and media landscape have fragmented too much, and take place in quieter, more personal, and less visible ways. It was, again to borrow from Jenkins, the “last gasp of mass culture”.

. . . .

The result is a creative property that is both culturally influential and an unavoidable, arguably essential, pillar of the publishing sector. Harry Potter is deeply woven into our culture. And Harry Potter is also a financial juggernaut, one that single-handedly keeps publishers and retailers afloat.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

4 thoughts on “The boy who lived and lived and lived”

  1. Regarding the difference between British millennials’ awareness of Harry Potter and The Hate U Give, the explanation is really quite simple:
    1. Millennials aren’t young adults anymore, and The Hate U Give is a YA novel.
    2. The Hate U Give is, frankly, one of those books that’s only really relevant to a particular time and place, the time being the decade surrounding 2020 and the place being America.

  2. Virtually every time I visit amazon.com/charts, and look at the “most read fiction”, I see the same thing. All seven of the HP books are in the top 20 (right now, the top 14) most read. I have read the series two or three times, and while it has a host of world-building issues, they are just flat out fun books to read.

    • Yes. Rowling’s micro-level worldbuilding is fantastic–the HP universe feels like a place where people actually live, rather than just a place for the story to happen.
      Her macro-level worldbuilding, however, is some of the worst that I’ve ever seen, although you can avoid most of it if you just stick to the books of the original series.

    • Part of it is the story is literally timeless, designed to be accesible by readers of the same age as the kid protagonists, all without losing adults. And every year, a new cohort of kids reaches Potter-reading age.

      With the movies readily available and family friendly video games out regularly the franchise has a dozen+ points of entry. And not just in the UK. You don’t sell over 500m books just in the UK and US or even the “anglosphere”.

      Potter will be read for centuries on three planets. 😀
      (Give or take.)

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