check out this Harry Potter and the Cursed Child fan theory!!!

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?

35 Comments

  1. THANK YOU. I’ve always thought that one of the benefits of being an adult was having greater life experience and also the emotional and intellectual capacity to enjoy adult art, literature, etc. Why would anyone want to limit themselves to children’s versions of those things? I think about the satisfaction I had as a kid of reading a book that I didn’t quite understand but could sense was saying something important. Now that I’m older and no longer get that feeling from children’s books, there’s a whole world of adult books waiting to be read that provokes similar feelings.

    I’m curious how many other adults feel this way. Maybe lots of others do but don’t say anything for fear of sounding like a scold.

    1. Isn’t genre fiction technically for adults? Huge swathes of it are consumed at rates substantially equal to children’s fiction. Take, for example, a guy like Brad Thor. Kids and even teenagers by and large don’t read Brad Thor, but there’s basically no case that his stuff is superior to purportedly “for kids” stuff. So you’re not actually advocating adults read books written for adults. What you’re arguing for is whatever you understand to be *good* adult books and that’s a wholly different, entirely non-objective proposition. Basically, you’re conflating target audience with literary sophistication.

      If you want to advocate for literary sophistication, that’s fine, but it’s a different argument, and one that you probably know is fundamentally unwinnable.

      1. No, I’m not. You’ve made a series of simple misinterpretations of my argument, then attacked the misintrepretation. Nothing in your comment demonstrates even minimal understanding of my actual point. Read more carefully before commenting, please.

        1. I don’t think I’m misinterpreting you (or the guy I responded to directly).

          Here’s what you say your point is:
          ‘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.’

          My point is more or less a direct response to this: a lot of fiction written/produced for adults isn’t like this. So, when you say this is what some art needs to do, you’re advancing a specific taste, not making a claim that meaningfully distinguishes between children’s and adult entertainment.

          1. I am, in fact, and again, you should spend more time reading and thinking rather than asserting. I am arguing that art that does not do those things has value and should be enjoyed, but that we also need to access art that does do those things. I am moreover arguing that there are things that we need that children’s art, specifically, does not do. Your gloss on those things is not an accurate or sufficient portrayal of what I believe those things to be, and frankly I’m uninterested in it. My claim is that precisely what makes children’s art children’s art is its adherence to certain restrictions; if those restrictions didn’t exist, there would no meaningful thing such as children’s literature. You are free to debate what those restrictions are. I am here making a claim about what they are. You disagree, fine. But don’t jury rig some basic misinterpretation of what my definition is in an attempt to find a logical contradiction where there is none. And stop commenting, for a least a day. Take some time. Think. Read. Don’t just react.

  2. Wow, the gloves have come off! (The kid gloves, that is.)

    Regression? Infantilism? Strong words, my friend.

    In fairness to the Slate folks, they do discuss books like My Antonia and Station Eleven and Tristram Shandy on their various podcasts. But I think you’re right. What makes this kind of obsession so poignant is that people are now trying to recapture the experience of being young adults reminiscing about the experience of being children. Forty-somethings pick up the Cursed Child hoping to relive the fun of reading Harry Potter as twenty-somethings, when it reminded them of reading C.S. Lewis is zero-somethings. Fans go to The Force Awakens expecting compensation for the disappointment of the Phantom Menace, which was itself hyped as a revival of the anticipation that swirled around Jedi, which was received as a disappointment by teenagers who fondly remembered seeing the first Star Wars movie as little kids.

    It’s also ironic, or maybe only sad, that all these stories have as their central theme the importance of leaving childhood behind. That’s what makes them so powerful. That’s the wonder and the allure of children’s fiction–that it addresses a trial, a tragedy, unique to childhood. I don’t think disappointed readers and viewers are necessarily wrong in their critical appraisals. I think these stories do get weaker, cruder, with each turn of the mill. How could they not? They’re being systematically drained of wistfulness. How sad but sweet it is to grow older … oh, but wait, except not, we don’t have to grow older at all, we’ll just spend a few million dollars on better effects and it will feel like being young again. Yay!

    Louis Menand wrote that nostalgia, like all emotions, is most intense in children–there’s no one more sentimental than a twelve-year-old lamenting the lost joys of being an eight-year-old. Maybe we should admit that every age group is busy losing innocence in its own way, and write stories to reflect that–instead of trying to turn children’s stories, so beautiful and tragic on their own terms, into a magic potion that can banish the pains of maturity.

    1. I don’t think it’s stories being drained of interest. I think it’s readers starting to tell new stories with the bits of old ones. And those new stories, informed by the readers’ life experience, grow and change and mature. But the original author still has that vision, whole and complete, of how they always wanted things to be; and when they make new works in that vision, they haven’t evolved the way the reader’s has, and they seem juvenile and unsophisticated by comparison.

      We all grew up and our Star Wars stories grew up with us. Lucas was already grown-up, so his Star Wars stayed the same.

  3. Please keep making this argument. I, like you, have no real beef with anyone enjoying children’s literature or films (or eating pink air-blown sugar off a paper stick). Last week I watched ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II’ with the children of a good friend of mine (aged 4 years and 18 months). It was fun especially since I very rarely consumes kid’s stuff as I don’t have any of my own. But pretending it’s something it isn’t or pretending it is suitable for serious/adult consideration or criticism is quite strange. It’s one thing for an adult to indulge in light amusement geared toward children occasionally. However, an adult person calling oneself “a fan” of it is something else entirely. Whatever that something else is it’s not healthy… like the cotton candy.

    1. I think the subject of the essay’s criticism isn’t people insisting on taking kids’ entertainment seriously; it’s people who are, somehow, surprised and disappointed that the people who made kids’ entertainment fifteen years ago are still at it today.

    2. On a related note, the whole creepy, creepy “My Little Pony” fandom. Adults pretending they are unicorns and ponies from a children’s television show?

      Urk. Hate to be judgmental, but…

  4. Back in the 90s, during the height of Barney the Purple Dinosaur’s popularity, I lived for a spell w/ my sister and nephew, who was like 3yrs old at the time. And Barney was part of his morning television viewing; he really dug Barney. At the same time, all through the culture were adults cracking on Barney, how it was awful and evil and the worst thing ever for our culture and how it was worthy of all their jaded GenX/late-Boomer antipathy. It actually started to piss me off. “You realize it’s a kids’ show, right?” Of course you’re not suppose enjoy it, but you know who does enjoy it? 3 year old children. You know, its target audience.

    It’s great that we’ll forever be having variations of this argument as more and more adults define their aesthetics by demanding that all popular entertainment cater to them.

  5. “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.”

    This is one of the better sentences you’ve penned.

  6. I understand that the entertainment media encourages excessive and oppressive fandom (like a casino, I bet a majority of the profits are generated by a tiny minority of super fans) and that popular art can easily overwhelm our culture- but isn’t that true of adult art too? Let’s even discount adult fantasy stories like Game of Thrones, how much does discussion of Baltimore and drugs still revolve around the Wire? If the quality of True Detective had kept up with the second season imagine how many pixels on Slate and Buzzfeed would be preoccupied with “new fan theory teases out how the Yellow King and the Bird Face guy are the same person!!” kind of fluff? Are Kardashian superfans any less disconnected from the possible joys of a balanced culture diet than people who only consume Tolkein-esque stuff?

    Obsession, not lack of maturity, is the real danger.

  7. God bless you for consistently taking this line, Freddie.

    We’ve come a helluva long way in the culture since Cavett had Updike, Cheever, Mailer and Vidal on his chat show haven’t we? To me it seems that there has been a general disappearance of that kind of dignified solemnity that once characterized adult life, the sense of carrying a weight. And I think it’s genuinely difficult for our generation to comprehend why that could be a bad thing. I noted that in the Twitter responses you got, people reached immediately for the word “fun” to beat you with: fun is harmless, light, innocent and so obviously what human beings are on Earth to have, so who but an embittered Scrooge (boo! hiss!) could object?

    I think even your mention above of “the tragic nature of our world” is something that many modern readers would instantly want to object to. What do you mean, tragic nature of our world – explain yourself, I know there’s ISIS and stuff but last year capitalism lifted more people out of poverty than ever and I believe in thinking positively and you’re sounding super negative right now Freddie..etc, etc. I mean, when Updike in aforementioned Cavett appearance refers with a twinkle in his eye to the world as “our vale of tears”, how many people now would get that reference or quietly assent to its obvious poetic truth?

    As you suggest people are quite simply not thinking adult thoughts anymore. They’re not thinking about death because psychiatry has told them that’s a symptom of depression and business has told them positive thinking ensures success. It’s sort of doubly useful for the corporate world: the media companies can sell tacky crap and employers generally can benefit from a workforce who are not likely to be doing any dangerous reading – any reading that might give them subversive, non-HR compliant thoughts.

  8. DITTO to everything you’ve said here.

    I extrapolate this to other similar obsessions by adults who I respect-& who always surprise me when I find out their fixations on stuff like Star Wars, anime etc-to the point of producing in analytic pieces for their political or religious or social/psychological meaning etc. I see these people post on twitter or facebook about some superhero movie like it’s the equivalent of Kafka or Joyce.

    I enjoy some of this stuff myself up to a point as diverting entertainment but the excessive level of devotion to Harry Potter, Star Wars etc by adults is really indicative of how we refuse to grow the hell up.

  9. I thought Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was written more for adults than children.

    But even if not, if adults can find something of value in the first eight Harry Potter books, it seems reasonable to then think about why the ninth book is less satisfying than the previous eight (assuming it is – I haven’t read it). And doing so isn’t necessarily dependent on perpetual artistic adolescence.

  10. “… 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?”

    Wait… so where are we on betrayal, incest, dragons & tits? That still good?

    More seriously, ditto Heliopause, and Freddie is absolutely onto something here. You could probably expand this into a larger thesis about infantilization of American adults not just in literary culture (aptly demonstrated here) and the weird insistence that video games are some sort of high art, or at least subject to the same standards as high art, but also in politics (“PokemonGoToThePolls” is probably the least harmful instance), history (why is an effin’ musical important to the explanation of why Harriet Tubman is appearing on the twenty and not the ten?), and probably a dozen other areas. My intuition is somewhat sympathetic; it’s probably not a coincidence that adults are returning to the comforts of childhood in an era when the day-to-day experiences of adult life are getting so g.d. hard. One can’t imagine Archie Bunker listening to a Harry Potter podcast today. But one also can’t imagine him affording to live in that house today.

  11. “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?”

    This kind of art does happen (in a way), but it’s the property of the few. It’s produced and captured in increasingly tight networks of people invested in particular social-economic gatekeeping. Its moral ambiguity and realism is constrained by a sense that truly challenging our privileged consensus is counter-productive. I’m not sure it’s ‘democratic’ in a way that opens things up.

    In the 80s, Raymond Carver received a lot of attention (to my mind) for a realism that implicitly denied moneyed success culture. His work was tragic, but strangely hopeful for human connection, support, and love.

    But we’re siloed and credentialed these days. It’s easier to receive a message to preach from than to articulate speech that gathers.

    Good reflections, Freddie. It’s why I read you.

  12. I’d add that speech is also constrained by race and socio-economic circumstances. Zora Neale Hurston speaks, as do many others. The Potter universe is normal in its monotony in this matter. Sexless? Sure. Racially visible…..?

  13. Yes, art designed for children can never address adult concerns the way mature and sophisticated art can.

    But I wonder if that’s not as clear-cut as you think. Consider that some of the best movies are those that are enjoyable to both. There are some movies that I loved as a kid, for their good-guys vs. bad-guys fun, etc. that turned out to have deeper layers that I came to appreciate as an adult. I saw Kubrick’s “Spartacus” on TV as a kid and greatly enjoyed the battle scenes, the Roman pageantry, etc. When I saw it again years later I began to see what Kubrick was really getting at: that power, and the lust for power, are the enemies of human flourishing. None of that takes away from the sheer fun of a huge historical spectacle, of course. It just that a good movie (to quote Homer Simpson) works on so many levels.

    You see this in classical literature, as well. A child and an adult can read, say, “Great Expectations” and come away with two very different understandings, but both can enjoy it immensely, and both can be deepened by it.

    And even the best children’s art, such as “Charlotte’s Web”, touches on profound issues, like loss and death, in a way that wizards-and-sorcery stories barely can. I think, ultimately, the real problem with things like Harry Potter is not that adults mistake them for adult art, but that they’re just not very good. For anyone.

  14. Being harrowingly dismissive of children’s media is not a mark of an adult. It’s a mark of a teenager. Teenagers proudly claim on the internet that they are not children, see: they are already sixteen and mature for their age.

    > 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?

    When I studied English literature, we did Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five, specifically. We had discussions about that book, of course. But no references to aliens OR time travel in discussions of this book about time travelling aliens, no, sir! They are a metaphor and completely irrelevant to the narrative, it is just a man with PTSD reminiscing on futile attempts to change fate. This isn’t genre writing! Get this sci-fi garbage out of my Literature, SCUM!

    You completely fail to notice that it’s not like sci-fi *isn’t popular*. It is. Always was. Since Verne, Wells. Millions of copies sold. And yet it and fantasy was so overwhelmingly eviscerated by literary critique that people had to coin the “speculative fiction” phrase in order to draw some line in the sand.

    >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?

    It says that you’re smarmy and uselessly sarcastic and call yourself an underdog victim in a discussion on the level of “you should grow out of kiddie shit lmao”.

    1. Being harrowingly dismissive of children’s media

      Nothing in this post is remotely dismissive of children’s media. I have no idea what you think “harrowingly” means but you should look it up.

      This isn’t genre writing! Get this sci-fi garbage out of my Literature, SCUM!

      That didn’t happen. And for the record the university has become absolutely addicted to genre literature. Please update your useless stereotype.


      You completely fail to notice that it’s not like sci-fi *isn’t popular*.

      Your use of multiple stacked negatives and reversals here is unique, by which I mean, nearly incoherent. But since you’re making the point you’re trying to make, my point exactly is that sci fi has always been popular.

      And yet it and fantasy was so overwhelmingly eviscerated by literary critique that people had to coin the “speculative fiction” phrase in order to draw some line in the sand.

      No, they weren’t. That’s a nerd invention, a fake history.

      It says that you’re smarmy and uselessly sarcastic and call yourself an underdog victim in a discussion on the level of “you should grow out of kiddie shit lmao”.

      And I’d say that you can read, but really the truth is that you don’t want to read accurately, that you’d rather live with the fantasy that I’m saying “never enjoy children’s media” instead of actually grappling with my actual argument, which you feel indicted by.

      Anything else?

      1. “Things that objectively, undeniably, provably happened, including a thing that happened personally to you while I wasn’t present didn’t ever actually happen!”

        Ever tried to take up a career as revisionist historian? w w

        > my point exactly is that sci fi has always been popular.

        Always popular, always derided, until very recently.

        > instead of actually grappling with my actual argument, which you feel indicted by.

        What actual argument? You’re just being a smarmy teen on the interblogs.

        1. “Always popular, always derided, until very recently.”

          No. That’s just wrong. Take 15 seconds to do actual research that cuts against your grievance narrative. You are not oppressed. You never were.

          “What actual argument? You’re just being a smarmy teen on the interblogs.”

          That is not an argument; it’s not even really much of a sentence.

  15. I don’t quite agree, but mostly because I think there is a general confusion with satisfaction and quality that makes this a more muddied conversation. Children’s media is simpler and often has simpler goals than adult media. That means that it is easier for children’s media to reach the minimum requirements for satisfaction. To put it another way, consciously or not our expectations are lowered when it comes to children’s media and so we are more easily contented. This doesn’t mean, though, that children’s media cannot reach the heights of adult media and create something truly great or profound.

    Going along with this is a general dismissal of craft from non intellectual, non critical people that are now part of the media conversation. There are entire youth movements that preference feeling over craft, the way art can touch on your own personal experience over whether that art has been carefully managed and put together. This also makes it more difficult to separate great children’s art from satisfactory children’s art.

    For example, I would argue that although the general themes and content of Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are for children, the writing is so well crafted that it cannot be truly appreciated from a kid’s perspective. The writing itself is the art, the craft of A.A. Milne shines through the simple story and creates something much greater.

    So with that in mind I would like to disagree with the article, but by and large things like the Pooh books are exceptions. Most children’s media, even highly celebrated children’s media, is merely satisfactory and not actually great. Which is fine. There is nothing wrong with enjoying things for the sake of enjoying them. And I even disagree with the article that one needs to go back to adult art. I think choosing to enjoy children’s art for its own sake is a valid choice. But that choice doesn’t then elevate that fun into something more profound.

  16. I had this debate with a friend of mine who only ever wanted to watch Pixar movies. It’s a horrible position to articulate — perhaps impossible to do truly politely, because saying “I need art that addresses the real problems of my life” to someone who only watches Pixar movies is really saying, underhandedly, either
    1) Your art is not addressing the real problems of life, or
    2) Your understanding of the problems of life is on par with a child’s.

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