My mother used to say, “Philosophy is the occupation of self-involved men with nothing better to do.” Now, I’m not quite that negative on philosophers as they began investigation into science, the world, religion, society, human nature, etc.. However, given some philosophers, I can kind of see her point.
I certainly apply that characterization to professional literary reviewers.
There are a lot of people, both men and women, who enjoy mental masturbation just for the sake of proving how intellectually superior they are while sucking the joy out of stories for other readers. The problem for them is the people smart enough to see through their mental gymnastics to what they are actually saying, which is often B.S..
For example, this little piece of “You have GOT to be kidding me” wandering around the internet I just discovered today.
I can’t cut and paste the salient points because the entire thing is a JPEG. But the principal idea in this “interpretation” is The Harry Potter series is not a Fantasy Genre story, but the story of a traumatized and mentally ill person (Harry) retreating from reality in a mental institution. Every adventure and achievement is made negative, everything is bad/false/a delusion, his heroism is a lie he tells himself as his psychosis becomes more deeply entrenched.
Now, speaking from a “post-structuralist standpoint” (which one can apply to *art*, not people), sure. That is one way to look at it. One way which, like too much post-modern thought, deconstructs the hero into a horribly damaged villain of the entire piece. One way which sucks anything worthwhile or enjoyable out of it.
First of all, all this “great intellectual” did was take the themes and situation of Sucker Punch and apply them to Harry Potter. So not exactly clever, original or even deeply intellectually-informed thinking here. They just want you to think it is/they are.
Secondly, this is someone who does not understand or like the Fantasy Genre. No, not everything is symbolic of the real world. Sometimes a wand is just a wand.
Third, this type of “interpretation” is, as I said above, nothing more than mental wankery in the interpreter proving their “intellectual superiority” over the fans of the series, or at least that PhD they got in English Literature was worth whatever they paid for it. I remember in High School (in California) in my Honors English class, we were going over The Scarlet Letter. The teacher (with her shiny new Doctorate) was insisting there were three “symbols” on every damn page. Well, that is only a slight exaggeration, but it got to the point where she said, “The moss is a symbol of his moral decay.”
That was it for me. I had grown up in Maine. “It’s moss! It grows on trees, it grows on the ground. It’s just there, part of the scenery.” I switched to the regular English course at the mid-year. (I transferred back the following year with a new Teacher.) If that was what “advanced study of English literature” was, I bloody well wasn’t going to sit through it.
Harry Potter is of the Fantasy Genre. It is a very classic Campbell-ian “Hero’s Journey” taking place in a fantasy world with magic and monsters and good and evil embodying universal themes of mankind, just as Star Wars, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are (for Bilbo and Frodo respectively), The Tasks of Heracles or The Epic of Gilgamesh are. (As Sir Terry Pratchett pointed out, the Fantasy Genre is the oldest literary genre.)
(The links in the previous paragraph lead to brief examinations of each example of how they fulfill the requirement of the universal “Hero’s Journey” which in fact hold much deeper themes of humanity than “He’s bonkers.” Like friendship and sacrifice and the role of free will in good and evil. Sometimes the hoi polloi are more intelligent and insightful than the literati are.)
But having been a fan of SciFi and Fantasy long before LOTR film series made it acceptable to the general public, it is has very amusing watching the elite of literature, who for decades dismissed SciFi and Fantasy as “kids stuff” (I particularly remember one conversation in which I was told that Fahrenheit 451 was not Science Fiction, the person’s argument basically boiled down to “It’s too good to be Science Fiction”), trying to review and analyze genres they have absolutely no knowledge of. I have read some really ridiculous crap including a very ignorant treatise of the “History of Fantasy” that the reviewer stated came through books like Treasure Island and that George R.R. Martin was “revolutionary” for publishing the first “dark,” “gritty” Fantasy story.
Needless to say, a bunch of long-time genre fans jumped in the comments thread and tore him to shreds. It was funnier than watching the NYT Book Reviewers bending over backwards trying to classify American Gods as *anything* but a Fantasy novel when the author himself proudly claims the title of “Fantasy Author.” (None of this “Magical Realism” or “Speculative Fiction” B.S. used by authors raised to disdain the genre they are writing in.)
What needs to happen is publications like the New York Times Book Review needs to hire (or at least get some freelancers) some of the people who have been reviewing books for journals like Strange Horizons, Tor, Analog, and Fantasy Magazine, people who know and understand the genre they are reviewing, to come and work for them. Because right now, their literati book reviewers are just making fools of themselves.
And P.S. As I have said many times, interpretations of art are often more revealing of the nature of interpreter than they are of the art itself.