The Booker prize-winning author A.S. Byatt was accused on Wednesday of dumping “a goblet of bile” on J.K. Rowling by insisting that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was below par “ersatz magic”, lacking the skill of the great children’s writers.
Byatt, 66, said the hard question to answer was why Rowling was read by so many adults. While writers like “the great” Terry Pratchett composed “amazing sentences”, Rowling’s world was small, with “no place for the numinous”.
It had little to do with “the shiver of awe we feel” looking through “magic casements, opening on the foam, of perilous seas, in faery lands folorn” of poet Keats.
She said: “It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated — more exciting, less threatening — mirror worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip.”
The Cambridge-educated author of Possession and Angels and Insects, noted for her intellectual skills and whose favourite writers are Marcel Proust and Balzac, made her point in an article for The New York Times.
She said that while children were attracted to the Potter tales by the powerful working of the fantasy of escape and empowerment, the books lacked the “compensating seriousness” of writers such as Tolkien, Susan Cropper, Alan Garner and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Adult readers were reverting to the child they were when they read Billy Bunter books or invested Enid Blyton’s “pasteboard kids” with their own childish desires and hopes.
Rowling spoke to a generation that had not known, or cared about, mystery. “They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not the real wild. They don’t have skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing.”
Her criticism ignited a row, with San Francisco’s literary website, Salon, describing her as a snob.
It was clear, Charles Taylor, the site’s leading critic, said, that “we’re dealing here with an acolyte at the temple of high culture barring the doors as the ignorant masses who love pop culture come a knockin’”.
He called Byatt churlish to put Rowling’s popularity in selling five million books in a day down to “the stupidity of the masses”.
Taylor added that in making Rowling the repository of everything that was cheap and phoney in contemporary culture, Byatt seemed to be arguing against the basic pleasures that drew people to books.
The “ugly truth” was that when Byatt was inevitably reduced to a footnote in academic history, the Potter author would be “laughing” in company with other “non-literary” writers like Dumas and Conan Doyle.
The scathing attack came after Stephen King, the American horror writer, raved about Rowling’s “slam dunk” book. He called the gently smiling Dolores Umbridge, with her girlish voice, toadlike face, and clutching, stubby fingers, the greatest make-believe villain since Hannibal Lecter.
He concluded that Rowling was a natural storyteller “bursting with crazily vivid ideas and having the time of her life”.
Salon is obviously fascinated by Byatt, having recently carried an interview with her in which she spoke of being “fed” D.H. Lawrence at university, with his statement about the novel being the highest form of human expression. She wondered how anybody could be so blinkered, when there was science, philosophy and painting.