Reviews 2010

Kulturphänomen Harry Potter: Multiadressiertheit und Internationalität eines nationalen Literatur- und Medienevents [The Cultural Phenomenon of Harry Potter: Multi-addressivity and Internationalisation in Literary and Media Events.]

Kulturphänomen Harry Potter: Multiadressiertheit und Internationalität eines nationalen Literatur- und Medienevents [The Cultural Phenomenon of Harry Potter: Multi-addressivity and Internationalisation in Literary and Media Events]. Ina Karg and Iris Mende. Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2010. 258 pages. €31,90 (hard back).

At the peak of the Harry Potter hype, not only fan-fiction, dubious lexicons and omnipresent references to the series accumulated, numerous scholarly publications also dealt with this literary phenomenon from the perspective of literary studies. Now it is time to take stock of this research and to accommodate new aspects; a challenge with which Ina Karg and Iris Mende largely overextend themselves in Kulturphänomen Harry Potter.

After an introduction which reveals little about the aims of the publication and instead exhausts itself in listing the fanatical side effects of the novels' publication, the authors deal with the books' economic reception, comparing the covers of different international editions. Beyond this, however, Karg and Mende merely observe the well-known sales figures. Chapter Three bears the mysterious title "Literatur als kultureller Kommentar" (i.e. literature as cultural commentary), and mainly deals with problems surrounding the cultural and literary translatability of the novels. Here, the reader encounters some interesting facts about the backdrop to Rowling's fictional world (such as the British tabloid press). This information, however, is not directly connected to a discussion of the novels, and so is of little value. The subsequent chapter highlights the novels' intertextuality and draws loose connections between these observations and some intertextual theories while the concluding fifth chapter deals with considerations surrounding reception theory and literacy. Different possible functions of reading (e.g. "Lektüre für Empathie," i.e. reading for empathy) are demonstrated in connection with some (slightly bizarre) literary comparisons (e.g. Dante's Divine Comedy (pp. 220- 223) or Heinrich Mann's The Loyal Subject (pp. 226- 228).

The authors justify the relevance of their work with the fact that a sufficient time has elapsed since the publication of the last Harry Potter novel to enable a comprehensive, scientific view of the phenomenon. Unlike previous studies, they promise, their investigation is able to "ask questions which did not appear or went missing, or at least did not get answered in the immediate environment of the nearly continuous, extreme enthusiasm with which each new volume was awaited and accompanied over the course of ten years" (p. 10, my translation). With this, the authors reveal a lack of trust in the scientific neutrality of their colleagues, which is reflected in the continuously missing references to previous research and the extremely short chapter on the "wissenschaftliche Bearbeitung bislang" (p. 66- 69, i.e. review of the scholarship completed so far). By allowing just five pages for their overview of previous research), the authors not only insufficiently address the question of "what interests scholars" (ch. 2.3.1, my translation), i.e. the complete current state of research, but also critically reflect on a seemingly random lesson plan on Harry Potter (ch. 2.3.2: "Harry Potter im Unterricht," i.e. Harry Potter in school lessons).

The authors also fail to fulfil their promise of answering previously neglected questions in Harry Potter scholarship. Instead, they content themselves with vaguely declaring that they want to clarify why Rowling’s novels have fascinated such a vast readership - a question which, in fact, has at least been touched upon by nearly all previous publications. For instance, in my analysis of otherness and the processes of othering in Harry Potter, for instance, I argue that the novels' similarity of real-life and literal otherness with its ethnocentric and racist allusion creates one of the attractions of the series (Rana, 2009). Most of the scholarly anthologies on the novels host articles on readers' attraction to them (see e.g. Anatol, 2003 and Heilman, 2003), while many publications deal with the novels' success from a micro-economic point of view (e.g. Kämpfe-Burghardt, 2004 and Bak, 2004).

Finding an explicit problem statement in Kulturphänomen Harry Potter proved difficult as it was unclear whether the authors, as promised in the title, were really interested in the analysis of the multiple addresses and the internationality of the novels or not. To wit, the discussion of these two topics was limited to the examination of the book covers intended for different target audiences and commissioned by different publishers. The dialectic connection between the national character of the novels and their internationally successful reception hinted at in the title is dealt with in a little more detail, especially with regard to questions of cultural relevance and intelligibility. However, what effects such an ambivalence might have remains unanswered. As with many of the topics dealt with in this study (most noticeably with regard to the examination of translation mistakes and problems), the question remains, why should these be especially relevant to the Harry Potter series? After all, all translations struggle with problems concerning the transferability of poetic finesse and cultural allusions.

Positive and valuable aspects of Kulturphänomen Harry Potter include its extensive explanation of Harry Potter's cultural background such as the British educational and social system. Moreover, the theoretical units on, for instance, reception theory or political theory are thoroughly researched and comprehensively reproduced. As with the examples above, however, an in-depth connection with the content and plot structure of the novels is missing. The British tradition of honorary involvement with welfare organisations and social activism could for instance have been linked to an interpretation of Hermione’s activism for elfish rights in S.P.E.W., as could the history of British unions and the resonances of Tony Blair's New Labour in the novels. The latter is used as a teaser at the end of the chapter on British political life (p. 92) where the authors point out that Blair's terms as prime minister serve as a social and political backdrop to the novels. The connections between New Labour policies and the Harry Potter novels, however, are not touched upon.

In the introduction, the authors state that the "varied view that the series necessitates" leads to their analysis being "at the same time at least a revision of conventional literary scholarship" (my translation). At the conclusion of their analysis, the question suggesting itself, however, is whether Karge and Mende’s work belongs to the area of literary scholarship. The book is certainly interesting for anyone seeking a point of access into the world of Harry Potter and wanting to embark on their own studies with the help of the mostly well researched information on certain aspects of the novels' cultural background. In that sense, however, Kulturphänomen Harry Potter is an anthropological rather than a literary study and, as such, offers some interesting thoughts and scholarly stimulation.

Works Cited

Anatol, Giselle Liza (eds.). Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Westport: Prager, 2003.

Bak, Sandra. Harry Potter: Auf den Spuren eines zauberhaften Bestsellers [Harry Potter: On the Trails of a Magical Bestseller]. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2004.

Heilman, Elizabeth (ed.). Harry Potter's World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Kämpfe-Burghardt, Klaus. Harry Potter: Marketing-Handbuch [Harry Potter: A Marketing Handbook]. Hamburg: Carlsen, 2004

Rana, Marion. Creating Magical Worlds: Otherness and Othering in Harry Potter. Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2009.

Marion Rana
Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany