Just back from a surprisingly enjoyable and active holiday with J and the kids at Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest (which I can recommend wholeheartedly by the way). Due to time spent fencing, sailing, doing Teddy Bears Picnics and the like, I managed to read far fewer books than usual and, more disappointingly, the new books I read were less than enthralling.
There is an popular school of thought which says that as soon as an author becomes very successful (in the sense that people might actually buy their books rather than the Guardian Review section stating the author has a narrative voice reminiscent of early Banana Yoshimoto
), it is pure intellectual snobbery to claim that he or she is nowhere near as talented as is generally suggested and that other, far more obscure writers are considerably better and more worthy of adulation.
This is, of course, sometimes true, but in general it's just so much hot air, designed to help people avoid any actual thinking about whatever it is that they're reading and to instead continue to believe that high book sales are a sure fire sign of literary quality.
In fact, extremely popular authors tend to fall into two categories.
First and best, are those writers who are genuinely very good at all levels of what they do (Terry Pratchett
for the fantasy/sf crowd; Marian Keyes
for the chick-litters and so on) - their writing is solid and well-done, their ideas are witty and original; their characters, within the scope of their chosen genre, rounded and believable. In general, no-one tends to come out and say 'Terry Pratchett is a very poor writer of dialogue', for the simple reason that evidently he isn't.
The second group are those authors who really aren't very good at writing, but who can churn out intriguing, if often illogical, plots which hold the attention in much the same way that soap operas do. Jeffrey Archer
although an absolute tosser, is the most obvious example of this second breed (as a teenager I once read Archer's Kane and Abel whilst on a family holiday in a B&B in Fort William
and it was perfectly acceptable stuff - certainly much more attention-grabbing than the pile of Zane Grey
westerns which were the place's only other literary offerings). People frequently do
come out and say things like 'Jeffrey Archer is a very poor writer of dialogue' which is fair enough comment because equally evidently he is exactly that. Which is not to say that he can't tell a story - and that is an accusation not often levelled at him.
All of which apparent digression brings me to JK Rowling
's latest book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
. One in three hardbacks sold in this country are written by Ms Rowling and, if the papers are to be believed, she made £20 million in the first day of sale of this novel, the sixth and penultimate offering in the Harry Potter series. The series regularly tops reader polls as best children's books ever and Ms Rowling is now the richest woman in Britain (possibly the Universe). She was even, it is rumoured, invited by Russell T Davies
to write a story for the rebirth of Doctor Who
. To suggest that Ms Rowling is a less than stellar writer and that - for instance - Ursula K LeGuin's Earthsea trilogy is so far above Harry Potter as to be invisible is presumably just the type of intellectual snobbery mentioned above.
And yet her new book is - and apologies in advance for the profanity - fucking awful.
So awful that it would never have been published had it been written by anyone other than JKR.
So awful that even the sycophantic drone at Bloomsbury who...ahem...edits the Rowling manuscripts must have winced.
So awful that even the author appears to recognise that she's putting no effort in any more.
So awful that everyone involved should be throughly ashamed of themselves.
Like the recent Doctor Who audio play The Juggernauts
, The Half-Blood Prince
has the story's hero spending much of his time (several hundred pages in fact) doing something which does not need doing, simply in order (a) to have him doing anything at all and (b) waste some time. Dumbledore clearly already knows what has passed between Professor Slughorn and Lord Voldemort, so there is no need for Harry to spend so much time on the subject, other than artificially boosting the pagecount. What makes this particuarly galling is that Rowling knows that what she's doing is rubbish - there's even an explicit reference to the fact that the hero need not have been Harry but could just as easily have been the ineffectual Neville.
We should, however, really be glad that Rowling's third-rate rip-off of the Origins of Gollum section of Lord of the Rings
(which makes up much of the 'plot' and which is the supposed reason for Harry's enquiries of Slughorn) does take up such an incredibly large part of the book as it at least prevents Rowling shoe-horning in yet more tedious, badly written and shallow bits of teenage love and snogging. This is a book bought mainly by ten to fourteen year olds after all, and if they want romantic teen angst they can presumably go out and buy a Jacqueline Wilson
book, rather than this hand-me-down tat.
In any case, once the 'Lord Voldemort is
Smeagol' and 'Harry meets Ginny' sections are over, there's only about 150 pages left of the 607 page book and we're heading helter-skelter for the Obligatory Dead Hero section of the book - by my count this is the third book in a row where one of the good guys is killed.
Surprisingly perhaps, given the emotional impact Rowling managed to put into the death of Sirius Black in the last book, the O.D.H here is just as poorly done as the rest of the book, and although you can easily conjecture ways in which the scene might make more sense and have a greater impact in light of the final book in the series, it's very hard to care enough to try. Which is something of an achievement in itself when you're talking about the death of a key and sympathetic character the reader has been following for five previous books.
Which leaves the mystery of just who is the Half-Blood Prince? Who cares? The solution in the end is a Pull-the-Never-Mentioned-Previously-Rabbit-Out-the-Hat affair that you couldn't possibly have guessed given the available evidence but it doesn't matter because you won't care. The character of the Half-Blood Prince, once revealed, is neither believable, nor interesting, nor even very necessary. It's just more page-filler, saying in fifty thousand words what a good writer could have said in fifteen (not 15 thousand, just 15).
'Harry is tempted to cut corners and can be a little bit bad sometimes' - there you go, that's only 14 and I'm not a writer of any
As someone recently mentioned on one of the mailing lists I frequent, the whole 'Harry thinks Snape is up to no good, Ron and Hermoine aren't sure, and Dumbledore isn't saying' shtick is now well past its sell-by date and increasingly seems to be the only idea Rowling has for a Potter book. Here that idea reaches a potential conclusion and, frankly, I was bored stupid by just how lacklustre, lazy and badly done it all was.