August 11, 2005

"Half-blood this!" he said half-bloodedly


J.K. Rowling was very wise -- though I doubt it was intentional -- to announce at the start that Harry Potter would be a seven book series. It's what's kept me reading. Don't get me wrong, I've very much enjoyed five out of the six so far (the exception being the unforgivable Goblet of Fire) but if I'd thought they were going to go on without end, I probably would have said, after around book three, "well, I'm not going to read these every other year for the rest of my life, so this is as good a place as any to stop."

I've always thought of Rowling as half a great writer. She's swell at devising plots and imagining details, but mediocre at best with the whole prose thing. Eric Berlin puts it nicely: "Words were merely the tools she needed to build a bridge between the points in her overwrought story. A perfectly respectable bridge, but not one you'd want to take pictures of or anything." And every now and then the bridge creaks threateningly, as when, in the new volume, Dumbledore "murmured soundlessly." A murmur is a sound by definition.

It was Stephen King who first opened my eyes to Rowling's worst habit: "As a writer, [she is] oddly, almost sweetly, insecure. The part of speech that indicates insecurity (“Did you really hear me? Did you really understand me?”) is the adverb, and Ms. Rowling seems to have never met one she didn’t like, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. Harry’s godfather, Sirius, speaks “exasperatedly”; Mrs. Weasly (mother of Harry’s best friend Ron) speaks “sharply”; Tonks (a clumsy witch with punked-up, party-colored hair) speaks “earnestly.” As for Harry himself, he speaks quietly, automatically, slowly, quietly, and – often, given his current case of raving adolescence – ANGRILY."

You can see from this review why Entertainment Weekly thought it'd be a good idea to give King his own column. What doesn't make sense is why they haven't yet admitted their mistake.

The spot the adverb game kept me amused during my reading of The Half-Blood Prince (now available for free download), but I nearly choked when I read, "'Yes, thank you, Phineas,' said Dumbledore quellingly."

Quellingly? It's not clever enough to be a coinage; I can only assume Rowling thinks it's a real word. She's not exactly the first person to use it, but it has previously been restricted almost entirely to the realm of fan fiction, including -- hmm -- numerous Harry Potter fan stories. And that makes sense, really, for what does Rowling's prose remind you of if not better than average fan fiction?

Posted by Daniel Radosh


What was so wrong with Goblet of Fire? I recall that being the best of the bunch, with #5 a step back and the latest a fairly large step back. Most people I've spoken to usually rate #3 or 4 the best (except for those where the most recent is always the "best").

Otherwise, I agree with your post.

It's completely inorganic. In all the other stories -- in any decent story -- the plot is advanced as characters make decisions which cause events to occur which necessitate new decisions. In GoF, Harry has to enter a tournament because his name pops out of a cup. And he can't decide not to enter because... the rules of magic say so! After that each event that follows does so because... the rules of the tournament say so! Things are just being thrown at Harry because the writer wants to throw them (it's even worse than an episode of 24). Meanwhile, because the whole thing is a game, there's nothing at stake in any individual adventure.

But the kicker is that it all turns out to be a trick to get Harry to touch a Portkey, when (thanks Wikipedia nerds!), "Crouch, posing as Moody, could easily have turned, say, a book, into a portkey, called Harry into his office, and said, 'Here, take this.' This would have eliminated the need for Moody's laboriously guiding Harry through the tournament tasks, turning the trophy in the labyrinth into a portkey, and for 600-plus pages of dense (albeit interesting) [sic] reading."

I should note that that Wikipedia entry has an counter-argument too, which, while not implausible, is beside the point. A major plot point that has to be puzzled out by Wikipedians is inherently a stinker.

Murmuring soundlessly has a proud history, dating back to Samuel I, when Hannah came to the temple of the Lord to pray for a child:

12 And it came to pass, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli [the priest] marked her mouth
13 Now Hannah, she spake in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard: therefore Eli thought she had been drunken
14 And Eli said unto her, How long wilt thou be drunken? put away thy wine from thee
15 And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD.

But I'm with you on the redundancy inherent in bridges creaking threateningly; in my experience, I've never heard one creak reassuringly.

Yeah, but you notice that when G-d wrote it, he just said she was moving her lips, not that she was murmuring -- which she wasn't if she wasn't making any sound. Of course, you'd have to check the original Hebrew to know for sure.

A more recent history of this delightful phrase, although in a slightly different form: A search of "News, All" in Lexis-Nexis reveals no uses of "murmured soundlessly," but three for its fraternal sister, "murmured silently." Here they are:

1) This question has been chewed murmured silently over and over. In a stylish version it could be a poem with no rhyme. "What's the fate of Gambian foreign-based rappers?" (Africa News, 10/2/02, "What's the Fate of Gambian Rappers Abroad?")

2) "Oh Robin," I murmured silently, a sugary-pink glow of warmth suffusing my whole body, "stop it, you silver-tongued Edinburgh captain of foreign policy, you!" (London Evening Standard, 1/19/99, "'Mah fellow Americans, let me give you a dress... sorry, address'")

3) The distaff side of the picture is similar--ever since the first slinky vamp dropped her cigarette holder, rolled her black-rimmed eyes, twined long white fingers in some hapless sap's hair and murmured (silently) that deathless line: "Kiss me, you fool!" (Chicago Tribune, 2/4/96, "Why the movies (and actors) love the heavies")

Hm. She is writing for children, not overgrown snide 40yearold critics. If you want good writing, read Roth.

C.S. Lewis, Madeline L'engell and Lewis Carroll wrote for children too. If anything, the obligation to write well is greater when your audience is younger. Kids tend to take books much more seriously than adults; that's why they're not as snide.

I think focusing on the specifics of writing too much can ruin any book. Harry Potter is far from flawless, but gave many people a great reading experience. Redemption of flawed characters, morality and power, life and death. A lot of themes and great metaphors for life lessons can be taken from the book. You put anything under a magnifying glass and you'll find imperfections.

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