Saturday, July 21, 2007

Con: Adverbiage ad nauseum

One reviewer will miss the characters, but not the cumbersome storylines and glaring plot devices, while the other salutes J.K. Rowling for adding to children's moral growth

Carrie Mac
Special to the Sun
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Last week, I asked a bunch of young readers if it was a bad idea to write an opinion piece about the Harry Potter books, what with all the celebrations just about to get under way. "I might not exactly be Harry Potter's No. 1 fan," I added.

"You mean, like, trash it?" a girl who'd been texting during my author presentation piped up. Her friend, the text-message receiver, thrust her hand up, too. "You'll probably get an anthrax threat," she said. "J.K. Rowling did when she even just mentioned she was thinking about offing the twins."

"Or a bomb," said the boy who was scribbling a great black ghoul on his notebook cover. "Watch out for suspicious packages. Maybe check the wiring on your brakes." He glanced up, pencil tight in his fist. "What kind of car do you drive?"

So, for starters, let me say that the car is on blocks and I'm writing this under the cover of darkness at a remote location protected by electric fencing, a moat full of hungry piranhas and a pack of vicious dogs that would make Fluffy -- the terrifying three-headed dog of the first Potter book -- cower with however many tails between his legs.

Harry Potter and I go way back, all the way to the beginning, when I unpacked Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone from its first printing on to the shelves at Bollum's Books, where I hand-sold his tale of struggle and magic and Muggle muddles to teenaged customers who'd look at it with a scowl.

"As good as Diana Wynne Jones?" they'd ask because, inevitably, they'd finished all of her books and Lloyd Alexander's and Brian Jacques's and were desperately awaiting The Amber Spyglass from Phillip Pullman.

"Personally, I don't think so," I'd say. "But it's a good story. I liked it."

And I did. I still do. But back to that later.

Usually, they'd buy it. However, the next time they came in they didn't rave. They didn't flap on about how fantastic it was. And as Bollum's fell to the clutches of the big chain bookstores and Duthie Books stepped up to tackle the foundering store where I worked, Harry Potter's first readers did not exactly clamour for book 2. The general response was a shrug as they scanned the bookshelves with their hands jammed in their pockets.

And then the global swoon began. Time Warner scooped up the movie rights and word of mouth waggled its tongue worldwide and -- voila! -- we had a superstar on our hands.
A poorly constructed, straggly-limbed, overcooked superstar.

Let me explain.

I am not a snob. I read People magazine with as much zeal as I read Anna Karenina. I steal Reader's Digests from the doctor's office without so much as a guilty flinch. A piece of writing need not be brilliant, or even skilfully written, for me to enjoy it. I freely admit to bagging several mysteries of dubious quality from the library on a weekly basis. I simply love a good tale, from Charles Dickens to Ann Rule. And that includes Harry Potter.

But Rowling's use of adverbs has tipped me over the edge.

I grew up in a bunch of small B.C. towns where I gleaned all I could about the art of writing from good old library books. One of the biggest rules was to avoid hammering your readers with excess adverbs.

Later, as a young writer, I was told in no uncertain terms never to include more than six "wrylies" -- as many scriptwriters call them -- in any given short story.
I consistently find six to 10 of them on a two-page spread in dear old HP. Someone in Rowling's inner circle should escort her post-haste to the nearest 12-step gathering of Adverbs Anonymous.

With few exceptions, her heavy-handed use of adverbs is distracting and unnecessary. By now, we know her vast cast of characters well enough not to need to be told that he or she or it is saying something quellingly, vehemently, dispassionately, succinctly, despairingly or -- shudder! -- inconsequentially, as in " 'I'm tall,' said Ron inconsequentially." Where on earth (or whatever alternate magical realm she's in) is her blessed editor? Surely an intervention is long overdue.

What I appreciate about Rowling is that she has inspired a legion of folks to read where they did not before, unless forced to or lured by salacious content. And she has given us Hogwarts and all its inner Sturm und Drang, which makes for a romping good yarn.

I'll miss the characters and the world, but I won't miss the cumbersome storylines and glaring plot devices, or the recapping of earlier plot that adds at least a hundred pages to each new instalment.

That said, I'd far rather attend a Hogwarts high school reunion than my own. And, quite frankly, I'd like to be adopted into the Weasley family. I really want one of those sweaters.

So while I'll miss much of Rowling's magical world, I must say that we aren't bidding goodbye to a great literary contribution, as we did when Lyra's story was complete in Pullman's third His Dark Materials book or when Narnia had been chronicled by C.S. Lewis. We are simply shutting the lights off in a warehouse that has been emptied of a large amount of stock, fire-sale style -- 10 million copies in Canada alone, so I hear.

Come to think of it, if Chapters is selling the seventh Potter book for 46 per cent off, can it even be considered a book? Perhaps it should be displayed along with the paperweights and other cutesy knick-knacks. No wonder Canadian publisher Raincoast Books is going green with its printing. It'd be lynched for clearing what's left of the forests if it didn't. (Yes, this does have something to do with the fact that the Duthie's I used to work at is now a drugstore.)

What I hope for, upon the birthday of this last book, is that HP followers find something else to grab on to, preferably something of better quality. Rowling can even keep her wretched wrylies if it means more kids will be on the hunt for a good book to read.

I just hope they purchase them from a genuine bookstore befitting Diagon Alley and don't just pluck them from the discount bin at the nearest monochromatic superstore.

"I'm so glad it's over," I say exasperatedly. "What's next?"

Carrie Mac is the author of The Beckoners, Charmed, Crush, The Droughtlanders and Retribution.
Her website is