The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

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Rent a Writer!

Chamber of Secrets

Pee Po Belly Bum Drawers

Larking About

Imagine A Dandelion Upside Down

Close Encounters of a Literary Kind

Wreckless, Eric?

Fading, Fifty and 100% South of Watford

Next Best Thing

Larkin Unearthed

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{ Online Festival Diary }
Sue Wilsea & Jackie Goodman

Chamber Of Secrets

I had mentally logged Wednesday as my only non - Literature evening in the past ten days. My teenage daughter's birthday called for an outing en famille to the latest Harry Potter film, an occasion which at first seemed a million miles away from the events of the Festival. The cinema was packed for this screening, one of several the same night, and as the ads and trailers started we munched and slurped on our huge ( or regular ) buckets of popcorn and coke along with the rest of the happy, noisy crowd.

At some point during the course of the film, however, I had the revelation ( Duh! ) that actually Harry Potter is literature for a significant proportion of young people and that I was, in fact, at a kind of literature event given that the audience were there because they had read the book. There was one poignant moment in the film when Harry realises he possesses the same powers as his arch enemy, Voldemort, who killed his parents. He asks Professor Dumbledore whether this means that he too is evil and is given the reply that it is not what someone is but what choices they make that matters. O.K. so this is not a great philosophical point but it was one of those moments of resonance that you sometimes get at a reading or during a performance when the audience breathes a collective sigh of recognition.

Children ( and adults for whom there is an alternative book jacket ) have read the Harry Potter books in their millions. In 2001 Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire sold more copies in a year than any other author had ever done before. This year 3 out of the 4 top places in the Official Children's Fiction list were the Harry Potter books accounting for 86% of the market share. According to Nicholas Clee, editor of Bookseller,

" All the anecdotal evidence is that children who would not have looked otherwise at a book were glued to the pages of the Potter adventures."

Does this phenomenal success make J.K.Rowling's books 'literature' or must we assume that their very popularity deems them not? Certainly they have attracted critical attention. Wendy Doniger, a comparative mythologist, in a recent essay in the LRB , discusses the texts in terms of Freud's Family Romance and the Oedipal configuration. Its title Harry Potter Explained suggests a need to intellectualise and justify the way they have fired the imagination of young people who are, of course, reading other books too: a quick survey amongst this age group elicited an eclectic mix including Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman, Dodie Smith, Roald Dahl and Terry Pratchett as well as George Orwell, Noel Streatfield, William Golding and Susan Coolidge.* After all, the children's market ( defined by the industry as 7 -14 years old but in reality probably encompassing younger and older readers ) was worth 425 million last year. This is not to deny the real problems there are in getting some teenagers, particularly boys, to read. ( My own teenage son has remained immune even to Harry Potter ). Our local village library has recently more or less closed its teenage section. I was told the only teenagers who do come in are inevitably girls accompanying younger siblings. However, they are getting some computers installed shortly which will hopefully attract boys! There are, I believe, in some of the bigger libraries such as Hessle special projects underway whose aim is to attract teenage readers.

I have yet to see a teenager at any of the events I have attended at the Festival and I'm sure this is not peculiar to Hull. I took aforementioned daughter to hear Carol Ann Duffy read at the recent Beverley Literature Festival because she is "doing" her for G.C.S.E. I think she enjoyed it but it was most definitely not a 'cool' thing to do and apparently, according to her peer group, was on a par with being taken to a Garden Centre. Her comment was that everything smelt old - the venue ( Beverley Library ) and the people!

The voice of young people was also absent, I feel, from the debate on Reality TV on Thursday evening. Underpinning the discussion was the notion that watching the antics of Jade and others on Big Brother, for example, was less worthy and less morally instructive than watching some serious drama. Given that the audience for this genre of programme is largely young ( I can vouch that the vast majority of my teenage students watch them ) what we have here is yet another thinly disguised moral panic about media effects on young people which can be traced back to the horror comics of the 50's through Punk in the 70's and the so called video nasties of the 80's. But this now discredited theory of audience reception assumes that its young audience is not capable both of understanding the construction of these texts and of contextualising them.

Reality TV and soaps ( about which many of the same arguments are made ) are the subject of much conversation in our household, as I'm sure in many others. There is both an awareness of the intertextuality between print and other media and an awareness of how they ( as audience ) are being positioned. In the same way they eat and enjoy junk food like McDonalds but are also able to tell you that the cardboard cup costs more to produce than its contents and how many cattle are needed to produce the burgers! At the same age, I was largely uncritical and accepting of what I ate as well as what I read. My experience of teenagers, in both a personal and work context, is that far from being 'dumbed down' they are generally well informed and possess a healthy cynicism towards the world in which they live. That a lot of them can still can find time, in the midst of the media bombardment, to enjoy books means we must find a way to include them in celebrations of Literature like the Humbermouth!

* Special thanks to Alice Brennan