(Ten Wishes After Six)
504 · 12 August 05
One last chance. Tomorrow morning you begin the end, and release the final forces that resolve into a legacy of timelessness or triviality. One last chance to redeem thousands of pages with some kind of transformation and discovery. One last chance for this to have been something more than a fleeting empire of silly neologisms and too-oft-reiterated card tricks.
I assume you have a plan. Six was a setup, so you must know what happens in seven. It's too late to undraw the map.
But there are destinations and waypoints, and then there are the traveling songs. You know where you are going, and I've come this far with you and will go the rest of the way, but that doesn't mean I don't hope the last stage of the journey will feel different. I turned the pages of six, but what did it get me? Relief that I came of age in more memorable company. You have advanced the story, but with tragically little art. You have done at least ten things wrong, some of them painfully simple. There is one book left, and I think I am within my rights to want it to be better, or at the very least to suffer from more interesting flaws.
And you are the bestselling writer on Earth, and I am one reader of a story that long since stopped existing for the benefit of one, and thus you are immune, a few million times over, to my lecturing. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong. I've read more books than you've written, and many of them were better than yours, and you've earned my feedback by reaching me. One of the perils of immense riches is the illusion that measuring the weight of your vaults is the same as knowing the inscriptions on your treasures. I leave this on a pile of gold, knowing that the gold flows and soon buries all else.
1. A novel is a fantasy in which time does not merely pass.
The main point of storytelling, if not the whole point, is the imposition of cause onto effect. In fiction, as far too seldom in life, it is possible for human effort to seem to change the course of consequence. It is thus arguably the most basic flaw of all technically flawed storytelling that the progress of the story is given to the characters rather than earned by them. Book six is an abject gallery of these pointless devices: artificial-sweetener flashbacks distributed arbitrarily across the narrative, deus ex marginalia that turns a textbook into a cheatsheet without any apparent lingering educational advantage, mysteries that aren't so much solved as alternately ignored and headbutted while waiting for them unravel themselves on their own schedule. Here is your new rule for the last book: anything you wish to reveal to the reader must be the result of a character transporting themselves from ignorance to knowledge by their own struggle and will. Moreover, most of the time the way in which this effort changes the character is more important than what they nominally learn. No more bottles of memory, no more shortcut mind-reading, no more conveniently omniscient maps. Every word you write is part of a story about these children growing up now. There is no history for its own sake. It doesn't matter what happened, it matters only how these characters react and recoil as they slowly realize the layers of context into which they have been born and thrown.
2. A romance is a body impulse for which the mind has a story.
Giving Ron a girlfriend who isn't Hermione was right. Letting Harry notice Ginny was right. Everything other than these facts was botched like you're ten times more terrified of ambiguous emotions creeping into your farce of easy enemies than you are of sex. Ron is oblivious until he's tired of Lavender, and you never make him counterpose shallow thrill against tested friendship and learn anything about either one from the other. He's the one who should have been self-conscious about kissing in company, not Hermione, pulled by the tension between what costs him nothing and what he values. Same for Harry, who you have hesitate at the one moment when it would have been most useful for him to dive forward rashly and then have to deal with the implications for his other friendships. And Ginny was exactly right, but if we didn't know that already, we wouldn't know why from this book, where you spend more words insisting on her popularity than giving her any compelling presence. Show, not tell, a thousand times. But why should I expect anything better? You engage Fleur to Bill and then leave her to sit around being annoying by herself. You find a secret romance for Tonks and then keep it secret from everybody but yourself until it's too late for it to have any function other than desperate comfort. And then you take Ginny away, because Harry inexplicably must Face Evil Alone (and apparently it won't have occurred to Evil to keep track of Harry's emotional vulnerabilities until he decides to start worrying about it), but you spasm and forget to backspace out an idiot coda about taking a short vacation before Facing Evil Alone after all, and Ginny's already out of his mind.
3. Magic is the dream of a system between spitballs and waking.
The longer the series goes on, the plainer it becomes that you've never had any real idea of how this magic is supposed to function. Half the time it's arbitrarily miraculous, and an impatient wave of a grown-up's wand can kiss anything right. The other half of the time spell-casting seems like nothing more than pseudo-Latin in italics, and about as precise as snowballs. Hexes whizzing by near-victims' ears? Apparation pedagogy by pedantic trial and error? Patronus upgrades? Memory edits like film-splices with duct tape? Your magic makes WB tantrums look disciplined and technical. A kids' series doesn't need D&D volumes of method, but there should at least be some rules and principles to learn, otherwise what's the point of having a school for magic? By failing to prepare any, you've left yourself with no good way to explain the gaps and contacts between the wizards' world and the muggles', and no book-seven end-of-magic exit strategy.
4. Evil is not patient.
Here's the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for book six (not that this was any Hamlet): He Who We're Not Supposed to Notice Spent a Whole Year Killing People We Don't Care About. A whole schoolyear, and Voldemort is nowhere except harmless flashbacks. The closest thing we have to villains are disarmed narratively by Dumbledore's conversation-haltingly enigmatic confidence, and for the bulk of the book, again, the reader could be forgiven for agreeing with Ron and Hermione that Harry is kind of being a pain in the ass. Apparently bad things are happening elsewhere, but it's Earth, bad things are always happening elsewhere. Dementors quitting their Azkaban posts and joining the Dark Side sounds fairly apocalyptic, frankly, but more people are killed by mopeds, yet the Vespa people don't seem to need Men in Black memory-zappers to cope with the fallout. This was a book that needed Evil, and no, one nominally shocking (except who else could it have been?) blast at the end doesn't retrofit Evil back into the rest of it. Maybe it could have, but by continuing to use Dumbledore as a font of rationed wisdom you made it impossible for us to really second-guess his trusts, and thus left your own ending to be doubly dubious. Dumbledore pleading is not just out of character for him, it's out of character for the whole book. Even if you've got some thunderous re-reversal in mind for book seven, with the dead rising and the old certainties finally showing their cards, you're left having cheated us in book six until then, and until then is going to be a long time.
5. We flock to new lights.
As C.S. Lewis could have told you, seven is a lot of books. I'm tired of Hogwarts, or tired at least of a Hogwarts where the supply of new toys appears to have been choked off by the also-absent dementors. Another book, another set of My First Puzzles solvable by the same combination of RFID surveillance map, a cloak of not having to learn how to find anything out using magic, and whispering passwords to the fat lady. The closest thing to new gadgetry in book six is the Pensieve, and we don't even get to play with that without adult supervision. Hagrid has the same monsters, the same trains still run the same tracks, and the Quidditch Cup is decided by goal-differential. The new teacher's superpowers are sycophancy and the collecting of droppable names. I kept waiting for the marginalia in the Prince's potions book to show some invention or initiative, which I guess means that I'd ceased to hope for it from any of the characters. Field trips are curtailed, the party towns are all shut down, and we're so starved for new pranks that somebody learns how to hold people upside-down by their ankles and it's instantly everybody's only non-blood-letting recourse. Congratulations, for the first time you actually made a year at a School for Wizards sound duller than real school.
6. Neither paper nor time are free.
Book six was too short and too big. Unless your core audience is young readers whose parents own lumber companies, it should have had several fewer pages and a lot more words in place of blank space. It's ludicrous for a six-hundred-page book to be rushed, and ludicrous to wait two years for the next year and then to finish it in three mundanely unsleepless nights. Of course, it also sounds ludicrous to complain about inadequate quantity in the middle of a complaint about inadequate quality, but in this case I think part of your problem was predefining inadequate scale. If you'd given yourself more words to spend, maybe the budgeting exercise would have turned out differently. Instead we are underfunded and all the bindings feel cheap. Where there should have been a story on which every possible care was lavished, there is only a plot schematic written in coyly discursive prose as if you're hoping nobody guesses you never learned how to outline. It's impossible to maintain suspense against frequent lacunae and random fast-forwards, difficult to achieve resonance or pause amidst the breathless flutter of days, harder than it needs to be to tell a story instead of merely accounting for the time.
7. Only the children matter.
On a scale of tragic deaths, Dumbledore's ranks somewhere below Sirius's and slightly above Charlie Brown's aunt drowning in Lake Erie on a fishing trip. Haven't you noticed that you've set up all your adults to be caricatures and buffoons, even the friendly ones? It makes them emotionally peripheral and expendable by definition, no matter how many times you try to override your own narrative reality by declaring nominal bonds. Only the children really matter, to us and to themselves. Only the children are really capable of consequential action. Adults are outside forces that come into and out of play according to the alien logic of the adult world, which lies behind some wall that no amount of magic can slip a child through. This is fine, and part of a long and noble tradition of young-adult adventure in which the adults are ultimately irrelevant, but it means that you cannot buy your way into real emotions by killing off grown-ups. You knew this when you dispensed with Harry's parents before the story even started, so how have you forgotten it now? No matter how many ten-year-old readers turn obligingly teary for their local news, and no matter how many press-kit arts reporters bark "dark", you have not touched us. Ten minutes later, Dumbledore is napping peacefully in a painting. That isn't dark. Dark is something very bad and very irreversible happening to a person whose happiness we've come to count on, not just whose invulnerability we've been allowed to take for granted. Thomas Covenant getting deported back to his leprosy is dark. The guy standing in the corner at the end of The Blair Witch Project is dark. Draco going Columbine in the Gryffindor common room would have been dark. Voldemort killing Molly and Arthur would have been dark, although only by virtue of orphaning their kids. Snape could have poisoned everybody's owls. If you were willing to borrow the quintessential darkness from Tolkien, Harry could have discovered that magic is soul-destroying and Evil by its inherent nature, and been left with the elegantly paired dilemmas that his best weapons would inexorably corrupt him, and that winning his unavoidable fight would undo his world just as thoroughly as losing it. I'm not saying that you need darkness; it's a series for kids, and there's no reason in the world that Good shouldn't triumph unscathed in both battles and wars. Sally is never going to sleep with Bugs Meany. But if that's not the tone you're after, then don't bother having him flirt with her mother, either.
8. Every word ought to count.
This was a book in which most of the words didn't count. Why have Dumbledore send Harry notes via other kids? Why have everybody's schedule too full to take Hagrid's class? Why send somebody else to do Harry's ATM runs? Why waste all that time with the Prince's book when neither the knowledge nor the explanation of it ends up affecting any important outcome? This one felt like a slouching castle you built by repeatedly reaching blindly into the Lego box and snapping pieces onto the walls in whatever order they came to hand. It's not that hard for me to believe, actually, that you're under so much tension by now that you can't even turn your head, but planning is a short-term sacrifice for a long-term investment. Look at your pieces. The magical world is infiltrating the normal one and you can't think of any use for Arthur Dursley's muggle-tech enthusiasm? You put the Prime Minister of Great Britain in the first sentence of the book and then never mention him again? Six books and you still can't think of any way in which imbuing senses of identity into Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw could color the black-and-white-ness of the same old Gryffindor/Slytherin thing? After years of Draco's detached sneering, shouldn't a year of dedicated purpose turn out to change him in ways other than the ones he intended? Re-explaining the quirk of recursive semantics that doomed Harry instead of Neville might have reminded you to do something with Neville. Luna could have been more than comic relief, or at least more comic or more of a relief. Do you only think of Hagrid when something needs to be carried? Of Minerva McGonagall at the end when you realize Dumbledore's job-title needs to be reassigned? What happened to the centaurs and giants and goblins and spiders? The house-elf politics? The other schools? Wasn't the Daily Prophet once interesting and inflammatory, and don't you think some inflammation would have been welcome? Couldn't plummeting real-estate values in Diagon Alley have attracted a new bad element? This would have been the perfect time to uncover hidden layers of the wider culture of wizards, or even better, hidden layers of the maybe not-so-ignorant-or-separate culture of non-wizards. But no. Characters queue in the wings, appear in rotation to deliver the latest throwaway transition or explication or cameo save, and then are gone again. Events occur because they do, and are related for often no better apparent reason. Are you beyond editing, now? If you'd taken out everything it served no purpose to say, this too-short book would have been as short as the first one. And maybe as good.
9. One last chance.
Please tell me you're not really going to send Harry out to fight Evil by himself. As you knew vividly in book five, but seemed to spend book six unlearning, Harry has a posse. Use the team. Ron and Hermione are mediocre as interlocutors and wearying as skeptical nags, but invaluable as collaborators and friends. Where was Dumbledore's Army all year? They would have been forged and awakened by their fight in the Department of Mysteries, so why did you forget them? That was a border skirmish, and the cavalry came. It is time for the real war to begin, and this time it is the children who will save the adults. The fight between Good and Evil can be about prophesies and forehead scars if you really insist, but all those real kids waiting for book seven are not cited in prophesies, and their scars aren't photogenic. But they do have friends, and they are growing up, and the Evil that awaits has weakened the others who have faced it before them. They will need new strength. Give them a story in which they find it.
10. The end is only the beginning.
Then again, this series is not your life, nor mine. Maybe it's too late for these books to be anything beyond themselves. Maybe there's nothing to be done but play out this sequence, as writer and reader, and save the real magic for the next one, when we can both begin again in a different system. In the end, all I have proven by wishing is that I love other kinds of stories better, and would prefer a world in which I felt less alone. I want better books, but there's no reason I have to make them out of these. I have Tolkien and Peake and Eddison, Lieber and Moorcock and Myers, Card and Park and Wolfe, Pullman and Clarke. And maybe, after you're done with this big adventure that never quite became epic, you'll write a new story, in a new world, and make better books out of different names and different Evils, yourself. This will be a hard legacy to eclipse, but I hope and assume you'll at least try. In the end, though, what you write and how you write it are your domain, and what I read and how I read it are mine. And if I've read a lot more books than you've written, then surely I'm the one that ought to have been better at it by now.