The exotic and the familiar (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘school story’ was one of the most popular genres of British pulp fiction. The giant of the field was Charles Hamilton, better known as ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’. Under these two names, he was the lead writer for The Gem and The Magnet, the two leading boys’ weekly magazines in Britain between the World Wars. (He also wrote for other markets under other names, including his own.) For more than thirty years, Hamilton published a 20,000-word story in each magazine every week without fail – more than two million words of fiction per year – until they were killed by the paper shortage of the Second World War. After the war he continued to write, with paperback books taking the place of the vanished pulps. By the time he died in 1961, he had written and published about 100 million words.

Many other writers had a go at school stories. Thomas Hughes founded the genre with Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and attracted scores of imitators. Kipling was one of the first; P. G. Wodehouse made a name for himself in the genre before switching to light comedy; and there were, of course, many lesser lights. But the genre died with Hamilton, as it seemed, beyond resurrection.

For these were always stories about English public schools: that is, fictional versions of Eton, Harrow, or Winchester, where the sons of the aristocracy were educated, and the sons of the mere plutocracy were sent to learn aristocratic manners. The stories were mostly read by middle- and even working-class boys, who went to state schools or relatively cheap private schools – boys for whom a public school was a fantasy of wealth and status and unlimited poshness. George Orwell lambasted the stories, calling them, among other things, ‘a perfectly deliberate incitement to wealth-fantasy’.

In the atmosphere of postwar Britain, wealth-fantasy was out of style; poshness consisted largely in pretending not to be posh. The younger generation of the ruling class tended to be good Labourites and work themselves into paroxysms of sympathy for the ‘proles’. It was obvious to everyone that the public schools were an anomaly and an anachronism, destined to be swept away by the twin tides of Reform and Progress. Those tides have since ebbed, and the public schools still remain; but that is a story for another time.

When Rowling cast back to the school stories of Hamilton and Wodehouse, or for that matter, Kipling’s Stalky & Co., she was reopening a mine that still contained vast riches; that had only been closed because those riches were temporarily out of fashion. For her British audience, the school story (however much neglected in recent years) was a familiar thing, and life in a boarding school was a familiar part of reality. Add the exotic element – this is a boarding school for wizards – and you have a recipe for a billion-dollar explosion.

In America, things were different. Americans have never believed in the virtues of sending one’s young away for months at a time to get their education. The very term public school, in their dialect, means a state school; but in the heyday of the state schools, people from every walk of life and nearly every stratum of society sent their children there. To this day, when Americans tell stories about life at school, they most often write about that uniquely American institution, the Big Suburban High School. The closest U.S. equivalent to the ‘Frank Richards’ stories was found (and still is) in the pages of the Archie Comics.

For the American audience, it was the boarding school that was exotic. The training of wizards, by the mid-1990s, was a perfectly familiar idea in the popular culture. It reached perhaps its fullest expression in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. The first book in that series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, came out in 1983: that is, only a few years after the boom of 1977 established fantasy as a profitable commercial category. It would not be quite right to say that Duane had many imitators, for the idea goes back at least to The Sword in the Stone. It is true that young Wart is not taught to become a wizard himself – he is being prepared to become Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain – but he is trained by a wizard, using thoroughly wizardly techniques, so the flavour of the story is much the same. Those who wrote ‘young wizard’ stories did not copy Duane’s work so much as they drew upon the same sources she did.

On both sides of the Atlantic, then, the same two elements made the story work, though the ‘familiar’ and the ‘exotic’ switched places en route. But there was, as I believe, a third element that helped to clear the space in which Harry Potter would have his explosive career.

The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.

— Gordon Korman, No More Dead Dogs

Two prestigious medals are given annually for the best children’s literature: the Newbery in the U.S.A., the Carnegie in the U.K. If you ask ‘Best according to whom?’, with the sinking suspicion that the word children will not appear anywhere in the answer, your suspicions are correct. It is not children who choose the award-winners, but librarians; and librarians, as a tribe, are not interested in entertaining children so much as Raising Their Consciousness and Forming Young Minds. Newbery and Carnegie winners tend on the whole to be dreary, mundane, and tediously ‘realistic’. TV Tropes discusses the matter with its characteristic snark:

There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more ‘special’ than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable.

At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better.

All this is generally accompanied by lots of ‘end of the innocence’ angsting from the main character, along the lines of ‘That was the day my childhood ended…’ Really, it’s just the author’s way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy.

The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

—TV Tropes, ‘Death by Newbery Medal’

Occasionally, in the past, an interesting and exciting book would win the Newbery, but not because it was interesting or exciting. One such winner was The High King, the last book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. The Prydain books are a wonder and a delight, full of excitement and action, wisdom and folly, and a moral compass that acknowledges the mixture of good and evil in the human heart without ever confusing the one with the other. The first four books did not win the Newbery. The fifth did, I suspect, chiefly because of its excessively bitter ending. Evil is defeated in the end, but at a hideous price: about half the characters die, and most of the others depart from the world of mortals as all magic comes to an end for ever. This is the kind of stuff the Newbery jury likes, if it must have fantasy at all.

Librarians carry great clout in the publishing of children’s books; for it is difficult to make a children’s (or ‘young adult’) book break even without substantial library sales. Some authors write depressing children’s books because they themselves are genuinely depressed, which is understandable. Some write them because the paying customers want them, whether actual children have any use for them or not: this is at least pardonable. Some write them because they are fools, and want the prestige of the award itself: this is a cardinal sin against storytelling (and children), for the real audience is entirely divorced from the ostensible audience. The ostensible audience, for the most part, turn up their noses at such stuff, go off to watch television or play video games, and grow up to be non-readers.

Harry Potter rescued a generation of children from hating books; but it was almost denied the chance. All the major publishers rejected the first Potter book; it was bought by Bloomsbury, a comparatively small concern. Legend has it that the acquiring editor there had no idea what to make of the book, and broke all kinds of protocol by giving it to an actual child to read. In Canada, it was passed over by every major house, and brought out by a small distribution firm called Raincoast Books. In the U.S., all the ‘Big Six’ publishers and their various imprints ignored the book, and it was released by Scholastic.

These smaller publishers grew fabulously rich on Harry Potter; and with their customary business acumen, the big publishers chased the train and got on board as soon as the journey was over. For twenty years now, they have been searching assiduously for ‘the next Harry Potter’, and always missing the mark. The trouble is that the particular combination of ideas that made Harry so interesting is no longer new; and imitation Rowling wears much less well than imitation Tolkien or even imitation Star Wars. And the audience is no longer under-served; Rowling herself saturated it, and an explosion of Potter fan fiction has kept the most obsessive readers well fed.

But more to the point, perhaps, the publishers never escaped their ‘Death by Newbery’ obsessions; they could not bring themselves to buy happy books. The dose they prefer is the Y.A. dystopia, sometimes dressed up as science fiction, sometimes as fantasy. Instead of the magical mini-world of Hogwarts, they have gone in for dumbed-down versions of 1984. So they bought The Hunger Games, which is a well-crafted and emotionally sound story with a thoroughly foolish premise; and The Maze Runner, which is emotionally sound but not well-crafted, and forgets its premise entirely between the first and second books; and many another Kiddie Crapsack World, quickly reaching the point of saturation, and just as quickly descending into mind-numbing bathos as the dystopias (to preserve their emotional impact) become ever more ‘dys’.

This seems to be an occupational hazard for jaded semi-literary people who live in Manhattan. New York City, as seen from the outside, is a bit of a dystopia itself; and those who live there seem utterly indifferent to the good things in life as it is lived west of the Hudson River.

Saul Steinberg’s ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’.

‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’, by Saul Steinberg.

In the Y.A. dystopias, there is a strong tendency to divide the world into The Big City and The Wasteland Outside; and sometimes the City is Wasteland itself. The world-building in these books looks as if it had been done by somebody who took Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker joke absolutely seriously. In The Hunger Games, there is only ‘The Capitol’ and ‘The Districts’ that make up the tyrannical state of Panem; no mention of anything beyond its borders.

This attitude is inherited from earlier Manhattan-centric science fiction. It takes a particularly virulent form in The Syndic, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. That book pictures a future America ruled by organized crime syndicates, taking the paradoxical (and highly implausible) view that the Mob would do a far better job of running society than the present system of government. Canada has been simply absorbed by the gangsters, and is no longer distinct from the U.S. – a common enough trope in American SF. Europe is a decadent and exhausted shell, scarcely mentioned; and the rest of the world, when mentioned, is entirely unimportant – merely a place where faceless brown subhumans with neither culture nor technology wring a bare subsistence out of the rice paddies.

This device allows the writer to narrow his scope, and pretend that his dystopia is the only place in the world – to exclude the possibility of external influence by mere fiat. But it is a stupid device, and the best dystopian writers don’t use it. The world of 1984 is ghastly and not entirely convincing, but at any rate it is the whole world; and though the story is set in Oceania, we are made to understand that life is no different in Eurasia or Eastasia. Likewise, Heinlein’s Friday gives us a whirlwind tour of some fairly representative countries outside the U.S., and shows that they are all falling at various rates into the same pit of decadence. Harry Potter, which of course is not dystopian at all, at least acknowledges the existence of the ‘Muggle’ world outside Hogwarts, and has a plausible reason for ignoring it most of the time. The stories are simply not about Muggles.

‘But it’s for children,’ say the defenders of the dystopias: as if children were too stupid to understand the concept of other countries, or as if it were good for them to be indoctrinated in an ideology that includes the tenet, ‘Only America is real.’ It is an excuse for lazy writing – an excuse for short-changing children and robbing them of better stories.

This raises an important question. When we talk about ‘better stories’, what kind of stories do we mean? What elements do our three breakthrough fantasies have in common? If we can find those, it seems like a safe bet to look for them if we want to find a fourth.

(Continued in Part 4….)


  1. Yes yes yes

  2. Related to Death By Newberry is the Death By Appeal To Adults– which is a polite way to say “Can you make it underage porn?” Preferably stuff that’s just uncomfortable to read, too.

    I use to get a large amount of my fantasy reading from the YA section; about ten years ago I noticed they were becoming exactly like the (sucky) “for adults” books, but with teenage characters.

    I go back and read over the old books; I know a lot more about story-craft now, but…they don’t suck. There’s story, there’s characters that never think about their nether bits, there’s character development that isn’t nasty.

    It’s depressing, that’s what it is. (Why is that in a cockney accent in my head?)

    • Scholar-at-Arms says

      Having pre- to young-teen siblings, I sympathise. Some years ago I stopped buying them books that I hadn’t pre-vetted, since the risk of finding softcore porn or other perversions in the YA shelves was too high.

  3. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see someone hit themselves upon a point I noted long ago as a child – Harry Potter is popular because it is BOTH a school story and a fantasy.

    That you are the first person I’ve seen do it is a little more surprising….

  4. There’s also the John Green special, a romance/tragedy about either a bland boy pining after a special snowflake who turns out to be Really Tragic or a romance/tragedy about starcrossed teenagers.

    “The Fault in Our Stars” has a particularly cloying Nicholas Sparks-esque fairy tale sequence set in Amsterdam, capping off with the greatest expression of love possible: A wedding.

    Just kidding, they screw each other. Sex with none of that nasty commitment. So romantic!

  5. The original “Hunger Games” book is not bad at all; not great, but solidly written and clever enough.

    “Catching Fire”is very, very dull for the first two thirds but when we finally get to the games (you know, the part promised in the series title?) the pace picks up and we end up at a crackerjack conclusion.

    “Mockingjay” is just a complete mess from start to finish.

    • Interesting. I agree with you about “Hunger Games” and “Mockingjay,” but I would have said the exact opposite about “Catching Fire.” It starts out okay, with Katniss trying to deal with the fallout of winning the Games. Then, we get the Quarter Quell where (a) we do everything we did in the first book, only with bigger and flashier set pieces, and (b) Katniss loses every bit of agency she has as other people override any decision she makes that might have an influence on the plot. I thought the end of that book was essentially “The Hunger Games,” only with the main character replaced by a blow-up doll.

      • 3 years later I reply to this but eh, better late than never.

        I would argue that the POINT of Catching Fire is that Katniss is continually robbed of agency, and in fact she is in the first book as well. Through two books Katniss sees one and only one major decision through: She volunteers in place of her sister. And after that?

        She intentionally messes up her chances in the private audience with the scoring committee, only to be given a good grade anyway. Peeta makes the decision to craft a love story around her, without her consent. Her first kills are self-defense; she is surrounded by people ready to kill her and has no choice but to drop wasps on them, and even then she wasn’t actually *intending* to kill, just escape. The second kill was an in-the-moment reaction to an immediate threat.

        She cares for Rue but even when she gives her a nice “funeral” she has no intention of sparking any revolutionary action; that aspect is entirely unintentional. She cares for Peeta but also freely admits that killing him would make her a pariah and was never an option. At the end she only mercy kills Cato, and the near-dual suicide was driven entirely by survival needs, as Katniss makes clear repeatedly in her attempts to walk back her actions.

        Catching Fire continues the theme when we reach the hunger games, but there is a difference: Here Katniss THINKS she is making choices, when in reality everything is dictated in advance without her knowledge: Whatever she decided, she would live over Peeta. In the first books she does not act but reacts; in this book she tries to act but every attempt is robbed from her.

        This sets her up as the figurehead leader in “Mockingjay”, where Katniss tries to use her position to leverage things with Coin but eventually realizes that Coin controlled everything from the start. It’s the final nail in the coffin that makes Katniss realize that District 13 was doing to her exactly what the Capital did. And thus she makes her second and final true choice of the series, killing Coin. The last choice, the choice to marry Peeta, is again not really a choice. Other guy whose name I forget never made himself an option.

        So I think the games in Catching Fire have subtle but important differences. Collins’ skill at action scenes made them pretty entertaining for me at any rate.


  1. […] Critic Tom Simon offers an insight that might explain the dominance of these three subgenres: […]

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