"He'll be famous ? a legend?there will be books written about Harry ? every child in our world will know his name!" ? Professor McGonagall
This statement, taken from the first chapter of J.K. Rowling's debut novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, seems, in 2002, eerily prophetic, given the unprecedented impact it and its sequels have had on the publishing world since the book was released internationally in 1998. The excitement and controversy of Harry's adventures at Hogwart's School for Witchcraft and Wizardry have only been matched by that surrounding each and every event in Harry Potter's whirlwind rise from coffee shop napkins to record-breaking publishing sensation, from receiving a huge bid for a first-time author's American publishing rights ($100,000 from Scholastic Inc. in 1997, before the novel was even released in the UK), to being adapted into a record-breaking feature film. In addition, the book belongs to a number of important bestseller genres, including the cult hit and the blockbuster debut novel. But perhaps the most important factor that has contributed to the attention earned by this particular novel in popular media is its status as a part of the children's book genre. Indeed, it is the fact that a title relegated to this brand of literature was selling in such huge numbers throughout its first two years that has sent the most significant shockwaves throughout the publishing world, and gives us the opportunity to evaluate this unique book for what it contributes to our understanding of best-selling fiction. If this book is indeed a "children's book", what particular characteristics and themes does it share with adult best-selling literature that can help explain its success? And what does this double-standard that has been applied to Harry Potter tell us about the state of book publishing as it stands today? Through an analysis of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, as well as the way in which it transformed the way in which bestsellers are arranged in The New York Times bestseller list, we can begin to draw toward an answer to these questions.
Harry Potter as a "Children's Book"
From the beginning, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, as it was originally released in England) has been positioned as a "children's book." But what does this mean? Surely, it contains a number of elements that have traditionally characterized children's literature: a fantastic story of magic and mythical beings, revolving primarily around the adventures of a young boy. In this way, it shares a lot with other great stories and characters that have become staple examples of children's fantasy literature; the books of Roald Dahl or The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis instantly spring to mind. The most successful and enduring selections of these author's libraries involve ordinary children that are whisked away on adventures to places and with characters that exist just over the edge from our world. Harry Potter, when seen as simply a children's book, seems like just another rehashing of these classic stories, arguably better written, but still of the same category. Harry is taken away from his modest, oppressive household, and dropped into a world where the extraordinary is commonplace, and where he, ridiculed, or, at best, ignored in our world, exists as a hero. These are dreams we all have, but, as is admitted by the placement of these stories in a "children's books" category, these are dreams that ought to abandoned after childhood. For this reason, even adult fantasy such as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is often mistakenly categorized today as children's literature, despite its adult themes and complex narrative.
Another element of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone that it shares with literature commonly regarded as children's books is the fact that the story revolves around a child. In this story, we are placed in a world where children have the ability to act with as much authority and importance as adults, to the point that adults here are often marginalized to minor character roles. In Harry Potter, the characters of Harry, Ron, and Hermione take center stage, and it is their efforts alone that keep the Sorcerer's Stone out of Voldemort's hands, when adults are either disbelieving of their story, like Professor McGonagall, or are incapacitated, as in the case of Professor Dumbledore (Rowling 267). This glorification of child authority is often seen as a defining characteristic of children's literature. However, we see that this method of classification is as problematic as the one of fantastical elements mentioned above. This method of categorization has served to place books such as William Golding's The Lord of the Flies and Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on children's shelves in bookstores today as well, despite the fact that they deal with much more adult issues, and the fact that they were originally released as adult fiction. This too has caused a number of problems for booksellers, as it has become difficult to define what divides children's literature and adult literature (Brown).
This collection of characteristics, in addition to the omission of any harsh language, explicit sexuality, or gratuitous violence (which, as we have learned this semester, can alone make for a successful adult bestseller), automatically categorizes this book as a "children's book" in this era of publisher classifications, despite the possible problems we have seen with this definition. For, as we will explore now, Harry Potter shares a great deal with what traditionally defines adult best-selling literature, something that has also contributed to its success.
Harry Potter as an "Adult Book"
The first quality which sets Harry Potter apart from other children's books that one notices is the fact that its writing, for the most part, is of a higher caliber and sophistication. This is a difficult point to support in a paper of this length, but we can highlight a few key elements that reveal this distinction. First, the abundance of detail. From the moment that Harry learns of his magical heritage, we are thrust into a world of lavish detail, and this makes the world of the story that much more believable and enjoyable. For instance, Harry receives in his letter of acceptance to wizarding school a list of items that he needs to bring with him on his first day:
First-year students will require:
1. Three sets of plain work robes (black)
2. One plain pointed hat (black) for day wear
3. One pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar)?
The Standard Book of Spells by Miranda Goshawk?
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamader?
1 cauldron (pewter, standard size 2)
1 set glass or crystal phials?
Students may also bring an owl OR a cat OR a toad
PARENTS ARE REMINDED THAT FIRST YEARS ARE NOT ALLOWED THEIR OWN BROOMSTICKS
Any reader of the book will also remember the care and detail that went into constructing the game of quidditch, the wizard sport played with magic balls and broomsticks (Rowling 180). It is this extreme level of detail, illustrated in more examples than we have room to explore here, that sets Harry Potter apart from even the best children's literature, and is more characteristic of the immersive worlds created by adult best-selling authors like John Irving and John Steinbeck.
This issue of creating a world for a story connects directly to much that we have already discussed about adult best-selling fiction. It is not only this detailed fantastic world that engrosses the reader, but the way in which it is inextricably connected to our own world. This is quality much more characteristic of adult fiction, creating a world that is exotic and separate from our own, but also permeates, we perceive, into our everyday life. We saw this, for example, with Mario Puzo's The Godfather, where the action of the story took place within a world that operates under different rules from our own, but operates underneath and sometimes in opposition to the world that we know. The same is true for the magical world of Harry Potter, where the wizarding world must be kept secret from the world of "muggles", or non-magic people.
In addition, as we find in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and even more fully developed in further installments of the series, it is the conflict between these worlds that gives the novel its powerful underlying edge. At its heart, Harry Potter is, like many works of adult fiction, a class/racial struggle. The powerful evil force in the book is an evil wizard who wants is opposed to the freedoms allowed to "muggles", and seeks to gain power by enslaving these people. In this way, characters that are seen as evil have this type of oppressive class consciousness about their actions, such as Harry's young nemesis, Draco Malfoy: "You'll soon learn that some wizarding families are much better than others, Potter. You don't want to go falling in with the wrong sort. I can help you there" (Rowling 108). Harry's muggle upbringing is a source of constant anxiety for him, especially as he learns more about his deep connection to different witches and wizards (Rowling 79). In this way, Harry becomes a hero of both worlds as he rises to power, and it is this racial struggle that gives him his power in the eyes of readers. And this conflict of class and race is directly related to the same issues that give books like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Godfather their enduring strength. Again, this class struggle is made much more palpable in the following installments of the series, but is present behind the action of Sorcerer's Stone as well.
Now that we have evaluated the ways in which Harry Potter bridges the gap between children's and adult fiction, and how its themes and characteristics parallel those of best-selling adult fiction, we will explore further how its applied genre of "children's literature" relates to its blockbuster success, and what this tells us about contemporary bestseller publishing.
Harry Potter as a Bestseller
When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was accepted for publishing throughout the world, it was classified in this problematic yet existing genre of children's literature. And, as was stated to J.K. Rowling prior to beginning her publisher search in 1994, "you know, children's book authors do not make a lot of money" (Shapiro 116). Although Rowling herself notes that she wrote the book from what entertained her, and not from a standpoint of becoming a children's author, she was thrilled nonetheless when she was first accepted by a publisher, Bloomsbury Children's Books, in 1997 (Shapiro 115). Because it was initially released as a children's book, its initial rise to public attention can be attributed mainly to the factors that influence sleeper hits noted by Malcolm Gladwell in his article "The Science of the Sleeper" (Gladwell 49): it was published in America by Scholastic Inc., at that time the sixth largest children's book publisher in America (as we know from reading Gladwell's article, this position is far from dominant), sales were small, initially (though large for a children's book), and were fueled mainly though independent bookstores and word of mouth (Brown). However, it took off very early in 2000, about eight months after its release, and stayed near the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for much of 1999 and 2000, soon joined there by the next two books in the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It was in this period that it began to take on the characteristics of a blockbuster as noted in Gladwell's article (Gladwell 49): Scholastic grew to be the largest children's book publisher in America, from a $400 million company to a $2 billion company, and the books, especially Sorcerer's Stone, were promoted accordingly. It was at this point, in the summer of 2000, that the fourth installment of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was to be released. It was the be the quintessential blockbuster, with an initial run of 3.8 million copies (the largest in publishing history), and was expected to join the others at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List (Corliss). However, this would not happen.
It was at this point that The New York Times decided to restructure its bestseller list for the first time in 16 years, dividing it between adult and children's bestsellers. This was due directly to pressure from publishers (not, of course, Scholastic) who were upset three, and now probably four, children's books would be holding spots on the list (Corliss). This begs the question, what does the genre "children's literature" really mean? Is it merely a genre distinction? Or as Richard Corliss asks in his article "Why Harry Potter Did a Harry Houdini", "is it, by definition, second-class literature?" (Corliss). As Barbara Marcus, Vice President of Publishing at Scholastic points out, "if an adult horror writer had been on the list for a year, would they have created a horror best-seller list?" (Corliss). Probably not. This again throws the definition of the children's literature genre into dispute, a question that has great bearing on how we evaluate Harry Potter's success. The distinction cannot simply be what children are reading versus what adults are reading, because NPD Group marketing statistics have shown that 30% of Harry Potter purchases have been for adults.
The answer lies, instead, in the power of contemporary publishing. As Gladwell illustrates in his article, publishing at the turn of the twenty-first century is controlled not necessarily by what is good literature, but by what the largest publishing houses say is the best literature (Gladwell 49-52). By eliminating Harry Potter from the bestseller list, other publishers are increasing the chance that one of their books could attain this title. In this way, the list has stopped meaning what books are selling in what numbers, but rather what books that the publishers want the public to see are selling in what numbers. Is this fair? This question, unfortunately, is not ours to answer, but we can surmise the effect that it has on Harry Potter. The relegation of these books to a separate list inherently implies that they are not of enough worth to be counted among adult books, despite their readership and huge quantities sold. In this way, the phenomenon is cheapened slightly. However, we must consider the other side of this. The fact that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone continues to move at unprecedented numbers, and will probably continue to do so as subsequent books in the series are released, is a testament to the fact that good literature will still find its way to the top despite the power of publishing giants, and that Professor McGonagall's statement, above, still rings true. We can only hope that this can still be true for future children's books to be released, that the new classification system will not impede their success. This has yet to be determined. However, whatever the outcome, it is clear that the path of this unique bestseller has been shaped significantly by its particular genre, that of the children's book.