The huge success of the Harry Potter novels has triggered a series of reactions, some of which are reasonably predictable, such as the mass-media machinery that has been built around each successive publication of a new volume, welcomed every time as an "event" rather than an ordinary book; others less so, and in this category I would include many critical reactions. Favorable reviewers have had little more to do than count sales, while even slightly unfavorable reviewers have been compelled to move very cautiously, since their mildest remark might suddenly draw them to the centre of the stage, asked to explain what seemed an inexplicable hostility to everybody's favorite. (1) Many commentators--and this, seen in perspective, is probably the strangest reaction--felt they had to account for the success of the novels, find the secret that made these novels memorable (or at least eminently saleable) and, presumably, hand down the formula of J. K. Rowling's success to future generations of children's novelists. This seems to me not a very profitable exercise, since we are, after all, dealing with a very much manufactured event: it would be probably more interesting to reckon with the success of the Harry Potter novels in, say, fifty years' time, to see if it could survive immediate furor and really become a children's classic.
Whether criticism was favorable or not, however, it was generally agreed that the readers' enthusiasm found its main origin in the air of familiarity of these novels, in the lack of totally original, unheimlichen elements that might have confused and disoriented the younger readers in particular. Pioneering the movement was Wendy Doniger's extremely witty and informative article in the London Review of Books, "Can You Spot the Source?" Written as a review of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the article started by analyzing the novels hitherto published as a variant of the Family Romance, of the English boarding school story and of the jocular magic story, to continue thus:
the fact that the Harry Potter books are an amalgam of at least three
familiar genres works for, not against, their spectacular success.
[...] Myths survive for centuries, in a succession of incarnations,
both because they are available and because they are intrinsically
charismatic. Rowling is a wizard herself at the magic art of
bricolage: new stories crafted out of recycled pieces of old stories.
It is clear at once that such a reading, illuminating as it is, offers no reason for the success of Rowling's novels, especially if we consider the number of relatively unsuccessful young-wizards-at-boarding-school novels that have been published after the Harry Potter books became outstanding best-sellers. It is, nonetheless, a true reading: true insofar as it states a fundamental principle underlying these books, rather than determining their literary value. Bricolage is, after all, what most narrative is made of. But, apart from the fun, playing the "can you spot the source" game offered little in the way of constructive criticism, especially since it was limited to the general lines of the plot of each novel: after all, the structure of fairy tales tends to be formulaic, and it can be imagined that Vladimir Propp had the same fun in analyzing Russian fairy-tales and looking for recurring narrative elements. For the same reason, it is hard to see why this interpretation should be turned ipso facto into a barbed criticism. Some of Rowling's detractors, though rightly sensing the conventionality that is at the back of most of the material used for her novels, seem to have confused conventionality with formulaic plot, predictable story with predictable narration. The use of traditional material per se did not bother writers until the nineteenth century, and, strictly speaking, should not bother children's writers even now; criticism has generally been more profitably employed in analyzing how the traditional material is used. …