Ozy FranzFN 1 recently had a post titled Why Is Harry Potter So Popular? In that post, Ozy argued that Harry Potter isn’t very good, but was popular only “because something had to be.”
The basic argument is that popularity can feed on itself and become self-reinforcing. Thus, Harry Potter may have caught on at first more or less by coincidence and then snowballed its way to global prominence. As people recommended it to each other and enjoyed discussing it with each other, the popularity became self-reinforcing.
The post cites a famous paper that exposed different groups of people to the same set of music—and discovered that different songs became popular in each group. If one song happened to get popular at first in a particular group, that caused people to recommend it to others; as it gained traction/rose to prominence, it would crowd out other similar songs that could have gotten popular instead. In a different group, some other song might get the initial burst of popularity. Then, that song would be the one that snowballed into dominance in that iteration of the experiment.
Ozy’s post argues that this is exactly what happened with Harry Potter: that it was one of several mediocre (“good-but-not-great”) children’s fantasy books published around the same time, and that any one of them could have randomly turned out to be the mega hit that Harry Potter would be. The post mentions The Animorphs, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and the Time QuintetFN 2 as other series that could have taken off instead of Harry Potter.
This argument struck me as pretty odd—not least because I know that the author is much more of a fan of Harry Potter than I am. I’m going to argue against this point on the object level: I think there were a bunch of reasons Harry Potter became more popular than other, similarly well-written novels published around the same time.
In the next post, I’ll move to the meta level, and talk about why this sort of debate matters for more than just Harry Potter. I think this argument about Harry Potter exposes a more fundamental challenge we face whenever we try to answer complex questions. But first, the object level—here’s why Ozy is wrong:
The Model Is Too Simple
The basic problem with Ozy’s argument is that it focuses only on the quality of the writing in Harry Potter and on random chance. It implicitly argues that any of Harry Potter’s popularity that cannot be explained by writing quality must come down to chance.
Put more simply, Ozy’s post builds an informal model of Harry Potter’s success as a factor of exactly two inputs: (1) The literary quality of the text, and (2) random chance. Thus, an argument that shows that Harry Potter’s success was not attributable to the first input also show that it succeeded based on the second input.
What this ignores—I argue—is that Harry Potter has a bunch of features that were key to its success that had nothing to do with its literary quality—in simple terms, we could add a lot of other inputs to the model. To list off a few rapid-fire examples:
- It had an everyman protagonist who was boring/non-distinct enough that most people could imagine themselves in his shoes.
- It featured a wish-fulfilment opening plot where a regular-ish kid found out that he was secretly special, a common daydream.
- In addition to Harry, the core cast was gender balanced and represented enough personality types that most readers could find someone to identify with even if they didn’t like Harry Potter himself.
- The books were long enough—and published infrequently enough—that readers could get invested in a single book and could count on other fans having read the same books. In contrast, something like The Animorphs was published so frequently that even serious fans might have read a different number of books. And no one would ever look forward to the next one that much, because the last one had just come out not long ago.FN 3
- Relatedly, the length of the books made them much easier to adapt into pretty good films, which changed the franchise from extremely popular-for-a-book to a global cultural phenomenon.
- The books were set in England, giving them an appeal to Anglophiles in America.FN 4
- The tone/style was generic enough to avoid polarizing readers, unlike A Series of Unfortunate Events.
- The books had truly excellent world-building for a kids series—probably on the order of Star Wars, and well above the competition.
This last point is worth elaborating, because I am convinced that it happened entirely by accident. I believe that the way fictional universes have great world building is by having a lot of useless details. I think the useless part is key: a world where every detail is relevant to the plot won’t have quite the same effect, no matter how detailed it is.
This is related to the idea of Chekhov’s Gun, the idea that authors should “remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” This may (or may not) be a good idea for many books, but it is definitely something that we, as readers/viewers are very used to. Thus, any time all the details of a setting end up used, it feels just like a book—exactly what we’re used to.
Conversely, when a setting has details that aren’t important—guns that are displayed but never fired—it makes the setting feel like a real place that we’re getting a window into, rather than an entirely artificial story. So the cantina scene in Star Wars is great for world building precisely because we meet so many irrelevant aliens. If each of those species later became important to the story, the effect would be greatly diminished, because the audience would see that they were only introduced to set up a later payoff.
And the first Harry Potter books have a ton of this sort of useless detail—or at least appear to. All the details about goblins and Gringotts, the Ministry of Magic, the Daily Prophet, Ollivander’s weird focus on wand cores; these all seems like exactly the sort of guns-that-aren’t-fired that make world building great. But, by the end of the series, all these guns end up getting fired—each of these “inessential” elements from the earlier books turns out to have been laying essential groundwork for a later plot development.
Thus, looking at the series as a whole, I’m convinced that the excellent world building was nearly accidental. It felt like a real, lived-in world, but only because readers experienced a lot of details as extraneous—when those details were actually key to developments five or six books later.
I believe that Harry Potter is so popular because it benefits from all these factors, and maybe more. More simply, our model should include way more factors than just “literary quality” and “random chance.” Next post, on to the meta level!