Friday, August 17, 2007

Harry Potter and the Curse of the Derivative Ending

Taking a moment to tear my attention away from depression I’d like to talk about Harry Potter.

I’m not a fan. I’m not an anti-fan, either. I just haven’t been swept up in the Potter mania. I may read the books one day but I’m in no hurry. I think that I’ve seen all the movies that have made it to cable but I’m not sure.

But I do like reading critics’ reviews of these books in the same way that I enjoyed reading reviews of Dan Brown’s runaway Code. I read a particularly interesting one that attacked the final book for being an anemic ending to an otherwise stellar series. There may be something to that but I can’t help but be amused by these critics. Everyone who makes a living from the written word has a novel or dream of a novel in her and wishes more than anything to eventually steer her career in that direction. Some may claim to be content transcribing police reports or compiling prospectuses but don’t believe them. Every writer got into this game to write the great novel. And that includes literary critics.

So when these eventual novelists’ attack the successful work of another it’s hard not to pick up the stink of souring grapes between the lines. They like to say things like the characters have no depth, the plot seems artificial and contrived and the author takes to many liberties with our mother tongue. But the books are selling in the millions so there must be something about the work that works, right?

But my favorite criticism to hate, and one that showed up in that Potter review, is to claim that a book – or any work of art, I suppose – is derivative. When derivative first showed up as a word of criticism it must have been devastating because the word survives today after literarily decades of use as the single worst word that can be leveled at art. It is no longer the polite way to call a book, a painting, a movie shit; to use derivative IS to call a work shit.

But its use always vexes me. What does it mean? The base word is derive and to derive you must derive from something. The critics never explain the source of the derivation. From what did the artist derive his work and why is that necessarily a bad thing? Wicked, the fabulously successful book and now musical that retells The Wizard of Oz from the witch’s perspective, is derivative in every sense of the word. Without Oz Wicked would have never been derived from it. I see nothing whatsoever wrong with that.

So when a critic uses this all too over used word to attack a book, all of their claims that the author might have abused verb usage or created unbelievable characters become baseless. Remove the plank from your own eye, critic! Don’t be so derivative!

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