I’ve been up early this morning tending to Miles, who’s dealing with another infection. I’m listening to a Slate podcast, featuring ostensible adults, asking why the new Harry Potter book, a play called Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, is disappointing. This, it seems, is a fairly common response to the play.
Here’s my fan theory! Ready for it? Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is disappointing to these adults because Harry Potter books are written for children, and what is valuable and entertaining for children is often – perhaps usually – not the same as what’s valuable and entertaining for adults. That’s my wild idea. Dan Kois et al are unimpressed with the new story because there’s a natural and healthy divide between the childhood imagination and the adult imagination. And despite the vast social pressure telling us all that the traditional separation between children’s media and adult media was some sort of elitist conspiracy against fun, it was actually a sensible and constructive thing, because there are themes, plots, attitudes, morals, and ideas that grown ups have to grapple with in art that are not yet accessible to children.
My wild fan theory is that, while it can be fun to escape into children’s literature sometimes, and there are wonders and value to be had there, too many seemingly functional adults now never want to return to actual adult mental life. This might be nuts, but perhaps we can recognize the magic and sadness and very real literary merit of some children’s books, while also not expecting the ninth book that involves words like “muggles” and “polyjuice potion” to have a lot to offer mature human beings who have to grapple with the fundamentally tragic nature of our world. Perhaps The Force Awakens is so derivative of past Star Wars stuff because there’s just not that many stories you can tell about knights with glowing swords and wise Muppet wizards fighting the bad guys in a completely sexless universe. Could it be that we need art with moral ambiguity, artistic difficulty, and stories about people who could be real doing things that could really happen in the real world? Maybe, just maybe, this swan dive into perpetual artistic adolescence was not a bold act of populism against boring snobs but a kind of mass cultural regression into infantilism and the refusal to confront life as it actually is.
Call me crazy.
Update: Every time I write this stuff, I get the same responses. And every time, they misrepresent me in the same basic ways. I have never said “don’t enjoy escapism.” I have never said “don’t like children’s media.” I have said, “you must eventually return to the adult world, and leave fantasy behind, and there are things that only adult art can do that are essential functions of art.” That argument, alone, is enough to set off panic and grievance – not that children’s literature isn’t good, but that there are necessary artistic tasks that children’s literature cannot perform. The Harry Potter books are the most popular books in the history of fiction. If merely to say that there are tasks they don’t and can’t fulfill is enough to provoke adults to make outraged defenses on their behalf… what does that say about the culture of this form of escapism? What is this belief that some of the most powerful cultural forces in world history are scrappy underdogs, if not itself a retreat into fantasy?