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John Neffinger

John Neffinger

Posted: July 20, 2007 03:05 AM

Harry Potter and the Arrogant Editors

What's Your Reaction:

When I saw the Times' review of the final Harry Potter book, innocently linked high up on the home page yesterday, I was dumbfounded. I clicked, and with great trepidation I began to read, peeking slightly ahead for any characters' names that might have spoilers. I saw none, but after two paragraphs, I stopped. That is not how I should have to read the New York Times.

How dense do you have to be not to be able to figure out why this was not cool? Some people, apparently including some Times editors, claim to see nothing wrong with running the review. Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt doesn't get it, though he also admits he is not a Potter reader and might be missing whatever it is that has "countless" readers up in arms. Daniel Radosh, whose attempted defense of the Times appeared on HuffPo yesterday, is a fan, and thus has no excuse — but still manages to get all the issues he raises wrong.

First is the ethics issue: ethics, as in what is the right thing to do, as opposed to law, which is concerned with the outer boundary of things that should not be left unpunished, which hinge on questions like which parties have formal contracts with which other parties. Sure, legally the Times may not be liable in tort for knowingly and deliberately interfering with the publisher's contract with that store, but ethically, participating in such a scheme is not cool. Why bend the rules to get this scoop? Is national security at stake? No, just a content producer's right to exercise control over the distribution of its content, which the Times seemed to be supportive of the last time I re-upped for Times Select.

Which brings us to issue number two, which is not just, as Radosh supposes, that "readers don't want to know anything about the book in advance." In case you've missed it, this is not just any other book release, or any other book. There are parties around the world to celebrate this release (and I don't mean the Manhattan-style, fête-the-author event.) Why are there big parties to celebrate such a solitary experience as reading a book? Because there is a community that has come to love these books, and this release is an intensely exciting experience shared among that community of readers, as well as between Rowling and the lot of us. Rowling created this world that lives in our imaginations, and this is her final gift to her people. So no, it is not just about readers not wanting to know anything about the book in advance, it is about readers not wanting anybody else to know anything about the book in advance, so its arrival can be experienced by everyone all at once. It's like a Schroedinger's cat thing -- the story has not actually ended one way or the other until the official release, and then suddenly the ending is at hand, there for all to share in together.

But no, the Times has instead chosen to thumb its nose at all of the many of its readers it shares with Ms. Rowling: 'Look at ME, I'm so COOL, I'm the New York TIMES, your rules don't apply to ME!' Well, screw you too. And come to think of it, cancel my Times Select.

UPDATE:
When I wrote my post last night, I was (tired and) annoyed that folks were refusing to see the Times' cheap shot for what it was. After a night's sleep, and after reading the comments of both the wonderfully insightful CanProf and the parade of Grinches dismissing the offended as a rabble of childish fanatics, I think there might be a bigger issue here than I first realized. In its own small way, this holds a mirror up to our culture, and what's looking back is kinda sad. My tongue was at least halfway in my cheek when I wrote of Rowling's 'final gift to her people.' But all of these faux-sophisticates are a depressingly cynical bunch. And it's all the sadder that they hold themselves out as arbiters of what is (and isn't) culturally valuable, because it's clear they haven't the foggiest idea.

So here we have a story, richly imagined and morally both complex and redeeming, that a lot of people of all ages have grown to love, so much so that it has become a shared part of the culture for many, notably (but not exclusively) many children. And to bring that community further together to celebrate their shared experience, the author wants every fan to share an equal opportunity to experience the ending at the same time, so that it is almost as if Harry and company (who are after all written as our contemporaries in their parallel dimension) are having their adventures in real time, and in any event the knowledge is shared evenly through the community of fans. It's a nice idea, and it shows a degree of caring and regard for her readers as individuals and as a community, and it would make a lot of people, including a lot of kids, happy and excited. Unfortunately, lacking the San-tastic technology to deliver all the books across the world all in one night, the trick relies on a more conventional distribution system and some combination of goodwill and mostly empty threats to pull off the timing. So the question is, is that worth supporting?

Apparently not - the Times, in its infinite wisdom, decided that waiting two days to respect the wishes of the author and a large segment of her fans (including Times readers) was too much to ask. There was its journalistic practice to consider, after all. What Rowling decided would happen to her imaginary characters in their imaginary universe was news, crying out to be broken, the wishes (and intellectual property rights) of the person who created these characters and their intertwined fates be damned. (Cynical sophisticates might note that this is the same paper that sat on news of Bush's domestic wiretapping program for months until after the 2004 election had passed.)

The point is not that running the review early was a bad move because this book release is such a big deal to so many people. The point is that it was a bad move because it is such a little thing to everyone else - wait two more days, and less devoted fans can still read the review before they decide to buy the book. And non-fans would just as soon be spared the additional pre-publication to-do. It was gratuitously insensitive to the only community that cared when the review came out, a community that asked nothing more than to be left alone to enjoy a rich cultural work the way they and the author wanted. It was what my friends and I used to call 'a dick move.'

But the Times has its stubborn defenders, and they are full of grownup-sounding arguments about why the Times had a duty to spoil all the fun: the excitement is really all just so much 'hype'; a newspaper has an obligation to publish anything that can be construed as news; not publishing the review in advance would be counter to standard publishing industry practice; and (most astoundingly) it's "just a book."

Briefly, then: (1) Hype is what happens when marketers pay people to seem excited about something and others follow out of curiosity. Even the most curmudgeonly non-fan can recognize this enthusiasm is genuine. (2) A newspaper's first obligation should be to its community of readers, not to some abstracted idea of the journalistic process. There is no pressing political issue that its readers needed to know about (ahem, see domestic wiretapping above) that demanded that the Times not wait two days. The outcry was well and truly earned. (3) Ditto for "that's how the publishing industry works." This is clearly not a normal book, where the publisher would be begging the Times to review it. Different rules apply because the series has already accomplished so much and is enjoyed by so many, things most authors and publishers can only hope to one day achieve. This is something to be celebrated, not forced back into the same routine every other book must endure. (4) "Just a book"? Hello? Every work we use to define our culture and ourselves, the way we hand our cultural heritage from one generation to the next, fits that description. Art does a lot of things for a lot of people, but one of the most important things it does is to reach us on an emotional level and help us understand and define ourselves in relation to our broader worlds. Harry Potter has done that admirably for millions. It's not the Bible, but can we have a little respect here?

In the end, I can only feel sorry for the Grinches who begrudge the children - young and old - their fun. I wish them the best in their culturally sophisticated endeavors. But I also wish they would leave the rest of us, who are so childish as to think it's kinda cool that people are all revved up about a book, the hell alone.

Related on HuffPost:

Radosh: Harry Potter and Why I'm Rubber and You're Glue
Neffinger: Harry Potter And The Arrogant Editors
Radosh: Don't Cry Over Spoiled Hallows
Sklar: Harry Potter And The Fact That I Hate The New York Times

 

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