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harry potter and the state of anticipation
hyping the craft and crafting the hype
by juli mccarthy
6.25.03
pop culture


It took my thirteen-year-old daughter Kate less than 48 hours to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Considering that this book weighs almost as much as she does, I was pretty impressed.

But not a bit surprised.

It's not news that children all over the world have been eagerly anticipating J.K. Rowling's latest installment in the Harry Potter saga. The hype surrounding the publication of this book has been almost overwhelming, and has been no less carefully crafted than the books themselves. Taunting tales of hijacked shipments and stolen pages have been interspersed with spoilers that are not spoilers at all.

That's right - whatever you've heard prior to the book's release only SOUNDS like spoilers.

Rowling is nearly as famous for her commitment to secrecy as she is for her storytelling, and the media has gleefully played along with the mystique of mystery. Even when a bootlegged copy of the book made it into the hands of the press several days before its official release, details of the content of the book were most carefully given to enhance, rather than to ruin, the mystery.

For the jaded cynics among us - and there are a few - it would be easy to criticize the hype. Harry Potter is a cash cow, make no mistake, and Rowling has very shrewdly kept control of nearly every aspect of his merchandising. Her lawyers have pounced on anyone else seeking to make a buck off the phenomenon, while Rowling herself has reportedly socked away more money than the Queen of England. The tale of the welfare-mum-turned-publishing-phenom has been repeated often enough to become legend. Some critics have suggested that the books themselves couldn't possibly live up to the hype surrounding them and Rowling may be setting herself up for a fall of Martha Stewart proportions.

My daughter has always been an avid reader, so I have no heartwarming tale of watching my child's reading transformed through the magic of Harry Potter. Books in various stages of perusal have always been stacked on her bedside table, the toilet tank, the coffee table and, on one memorable occasion, in the fridge. It's no task to get Kate to read a book - it's much harder to get her to stop reading long enough to set the table for dinner. She was hooked on Harry from the moment he first appeared, glasses askew, on the cover of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

For a year, Kate begged me to read the first Harry Potter book. I was not tempted. I outgrew fairy tales a good many years ago, and, having recently had my fill of Junie B. Jones, was looking forward to reading some grown-up books. When the second book, Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, was released, I succumbed to pressure from my daughter, and read the first two books in one (rather long) sitting.

And suddenly... Kate and I had something to talk about. I pointed out some of the clever wordplay in Rowling's writing, and Kate asked about some of the "British-isms." We talked a bit about how Rowling had incorporated traditional mythology into Harry's world. Slowly, we slipped into discussions of a more in-depth nature, from writing styles to responsibility to power to sacrifice. Together we staked out the bookstore for Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, and when it came in, we curled up on the couch to read it together. We devoured Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, and were first in line for the local premiers of both movies.

As media attention to the series increased from interest to frenzy, Kate and I looked forward to this latest book with great anticipation, each taking guesses as to what plot convolutions would be wrought. We read interviews with and stories about the author, and with each tidbit, our anticipation increased.

Rowling carefully skirted direct answers, quietly insisting that there would be no hints, no spoilers, no break in the shroud of secrecy. Yes, this book would be darker than its predecessors, she said. No, she couldn't be more specific. My daughter and I marveled at her reticence, her ability to keep her mouth shut. We talked at length about the enormous security construct that was built around the books. And it was Kate who made this observation: we are buying into this hype because we want to.

Rowling is not tricking us into reading her stories. The books are good enough on their own to inspire loyalty among their readers. Harry Potter and his cohorts have just enough "real" in them not to be one-dimensional. The standard good vs. evil storyline has just enough twist to keep our attention. There's enough humor to set off the darkness and enough magic to sell the morality.

Where Rowling could easily have used her press to do nothing more than enhance sales, instead she has carefully built a culture of mystery, and invited everyone to play along. Secret-Keepers play a pivotal role in Harry Potter's world, and the ability to trust someone with a secret is a recurring theme. While action, adventure and fantasy are the constants in her stories, the overriding tone is suspense – what will happen next? – and Rowling is a master. The mysteries surrounding each installment of Harry’s story are carefully kept by Rowling, her editors, her publishers ... and her fans. The devotion of Harry Potter fans is such that they self-regulate, vowing not to spill secrets even to one another. Just pretend you’re going to deliver a spoiler, and everyone covers their ears and eyes and says “NO! I DON’T WANNA KNOW!”

This time, just like last time, Rowling did her part in hyping Harry by not hyping Harry. She stayed tight-lipped through the questioning, even letting it be known that her own husband doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. Everyone became more and more breathless with anticipation. Then, at what seemed like minutes before the book's release, Rowling let it “slip” that someone dies. And the crowd went wild.

When I came home from Wal-Mart this past Saturday morning, my daughter met me at the door with a huge grin.

"Did you get it?"
"Yep."

Forty-eight hours later, I asked her if it worth the hype. She handed me that book and said, “Not telling. But hurry up and read it, I want to talk to you about it.” Kate, like her favorite author, has come to understand the value of suspense. I was up reading until 3:30 this morning.

Yep. It was worth it.


ABOUT JULI MCCARTHY

A whole gallon of attitude, poured into a pint container.

more about juli mccarthy

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
6.25.03 @ 12:29a

Oh, masterful indeed.

I, for one, don't mind the hype. It's better than hearing what Jen and Ben had for breakfast or discussing, again, why Lisa Marie Presley didn't inherit any musical talent.

I also completely relish the opportunity for children to be interactive in this way. Maybe, just maybe, someone is turned on to the everylasting power of reading because of Rowling's books.

And that is better than any sales.

However, I wish Rowling would have resisted merchandising. Just once, it would be nice to see someone not do that.

[edited]

juli mccarthy
6.25.03 @ 8:18a

The books are too popular NOT to be tied in with merchandising in this day and age, when you can get Finding Nemo toys at Burger King. By keeping control of it, Rowling has at least prevented someone else from very possibly producing crap that would tarnish Harry's image. Certainly she's preventing anyone else from cashing in on her success, but her own image is such that very few resent her for it. And that's another thing I find fascinating.

I like your comment about children being interactive in this whole thing, because that's the gist of it, really. It's not hard to get kids to jump on any bandwagon, but to get them this excited about literature in any form is just so much more - acceptable, maybe? - to parents. Which is why we Moms and Dads have jumped on, too.

russ carr
6.25.03 @ 12:11p

I can teach you how to bewitch the mind, and ensnare the senses. I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory...

The conspiracist in me wonders if some of these leaks are strategic. Who just "finds" an unpublished manuscript in a field? Still, they're not your average leaks. I'd much rather a page of the latest Harry Potter novel make the news than a page from HRC's autobio.

juli mccarthy
6.25.03 @ 12:41p

Oh, I almost think the leaks have to be strategic - hence my observation that the hype is carefully crafted. The thing is, we don't mind the hype because it is a big part of the fun.

In contrast, just recall Anne Rice's disastrous publicity ploys for the Interview with the Vampire movie. I admire that Rowling uses the media the way she does, and doesn't make herself look foolish in the bargain.

russ carr
6.25.03 @ 2:01p

Disastrous publicity ploys for a disastrous movie. At least we got Kirsten Dunst out of it. And Anne Rice is a loony, anyway.

One thing I've noticed, however, among authors who write series, is a gradual tendency toward repetition and cliche, and an interchangability with new characters. I've read some series (Tom Clancy and Harry Turtledove's stuff springs to mind immediately) and it gets to the point where only once sentence in four is relevant and moves the story forward, or provides something new. Has Rowling avoided these pitfalls? Longer, after all, doesn't mean "better" so much as it just means "more wordy."

russ carr
6.25.03 @ 2:04p

Freaky coincidence #1: the quote I used from Prof. Snape is IMDb's Quote of the Day...

juli mccarthy
6.25.03 @ 6:24p

The books are only repetitive in that they're set in the same place, basically, and until this most recent one, there was quite a bit of background being repeated for readers ("Last year, Harry found out he was a wizard...") Kate noticed that in Order of the Phoenix, Rowling assumed her readers were up to speed. There's definitely some repetition in some things - the Defense Against The Dark Arts teacher is unsatisfactory for one reason or another, and in this one there's a particular dream that is repeated frequently. There's a lot of detail that might not be necessary, but you never really know. A character who seems unimportant early on may prove vital to the plot later.

russ carr
6.25.03 @ 8:04p

Actually, by repetitive, I meant more regarding Rowling's style -- finding her using the same pet phrases all the time, but uttered by different people. It's one thing if a character has a trademark saying (eg: "Jiminy jillickers!" "Up and at dem!") but if that's not the case...

juli mccarthy
6.25.03 @ 8:08p

Oh no, there's not much of that - that I noticed, anyway. Then again, I'm the dingbat who typed the sentence "I asked her if it worth the hype" over there in the column.

tracey kelley
6.27.03 @ 2:56a

I caved to the hype. Not only did I buy the book at Sam's for $15.95, but I also bought a bunch of Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans and, new this year, Chocolate Frogs!

We have a game we play with Aly and the Bertie Botts - the taster has to choose a bean with their eyes closed while everyone else determines the flavor. Then the taster eats it, unknowing, and tries to guess.

Heh. Those bogie-flavored ones are naaaasty.

sarah ficke
6.27.03 @ 5:10p

My sister and I played that game with Jelly Bellys.

I just finished the book, and I have to say that it was worth the hype. I don't believe I have to wait another year to find out what happens.

juli mccarthy
7.14.05 @ 5:18p

Big ol' bump: a store in Canada "mistakenly" put Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on the shelves on July 7. Rowling offered a personal inscription and t-shirt to any purchasers who returned it to her and promised not to reveal anything about the book.

TELL ME that is not carefully crafted hype!



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