World Building Fail

by syaffolee

I’m not a fan of Harry Potter but I couldn’t help but notice the recent controversy over it. In a nutshell, I’ve seen two responses to it: 1) Rowling is writing fiction and she can write whatever she wants so PC people should just shut up or 2) huge disappointment that she has appropriated other people’s culture and she should have done research and consulted people from that culture to get things right. N. K. Jemisin’s thoughts on the whole thing  probably most closely mirror my own.

Writers, as artists, are free to do their art as they wish. But if they’re presenting their art for public consumption, they have to be prepared for the fact that there’s going to be a lot of different reactions–both good and bad–to their art. As consumers of art, we have to be prepared for the fact that the artist will not kowtow to all of our criticisms. Art is subjective. It’s qualitatively different than selling widgets.

But that said, art can be considered “bad” if it fails at its originally intended purpose.  And in this case, I get the impression that Rowling has failed at world building for some of her readers. The thing is, her “History of Magic in North America” is all about world building. And if effective world building isn’t present in that piece of fiction, then what is the point of it? In the Harry Potter universe, the premise is basically the answer to the question of “What would our world be like if there was magic in it?” By appropriating Native American culture and basically lumping all Native American cultures into some monolithic stereotype, Rowling has failed to answer that question. This isn’t an isolated incident, either. I’ve seen fans grumble about her shallow treatment of African, Asian, and South American magic. Some posit that this shallowness is a signature of her work, that even from her original seven books, she poorly accounts for the diversity in the UK and Europe.

I have only read book one and the posts on the Pottermore website so I cannot comment on the diversity of the characters or their potential portrayal as stereotypical cardboard cutouts. But from what I have read, I don’t particularly find the world building all that compelling. World building, as they say, is supposed to be like an iceberg. You show 10%, but you should also leave the impression that the 90% beneath the surface actually exists in a gigantic pile of notes somewhere. Rowling’s world building seems less an iceberg and more like an ice cream float that’s been sitting out in the sun too long. It’s as if Rowling threw in a bunch of tropes after watching a few movies and reading Wikipedia.

Of course, one could argue that there are plenty of other authors who have terrible world building yet no one’s picking on them with this much fervor. But what makes Rowling’s case different is that there are so many people around the world invested in her fictional world. If you’re going to give the impression that you’re trying to be inclusive to all of your readers, you can’t just turn around and do the opposite. And if you’re claiming artistic license, well, you have to be prepared for the fallout.

To be honest, I think Rowling set herself up for failure by attempting to describe magic in all the world’s cultures. Even if she is a diligent researcher, there would be no way for her to be familiar with everything. Writers who are better world builders know trying to tackle just one culture (even your own) is a difficult task. Heck, I’ve lived in North America my whole life and moved around a lot, but I would never presume to know every single culture and subculture that exists here. So if you want to do world building well, concentrate on that one thing first. Otherwise, go find help.