The death of Christopher Hitchens sent me, by way of Hitchens’ own obsession with the great man, into an Orwell reading spasm yesterday, which ended on Orwell’s essay about genre fiction for boys in Britain at the turn of the century.
This, in turn, led me to realize that J.K. Rowling was drawing on a long-standing tradition of popular boarding school adventure stories when she set up the Harry Potter universe, something that her British readers likely realized right away (one cranky literary type has called the series “Billy Bunter on Broomsticks“).
Billy Bunter, the most popular of the boarding school characters, appeared in weekly magazine stories from 1908 until the late 1940s, and has also been featured in comics, radio, television, and motion pictures since then. He was the Superman of the genre, so to speak. This isn’t some obscure literary phenomenon. We have to assume that Rowling assumed most of her readership would catch the reference. Reading Harry Potter without knowing about these old schoolboy stories is maybe like reading Watchmen without knowing about the decades and decades of American superhero stories that preceded it.
All of this, in turn, made me wonder what misunderstandings might arise from products of American popular culture over in England. What kinds of things do American authors assume people know, that may not be understood elsewhere? Then I realized that our cultural products are so powerfully marketed across the world, and have been for about a century now, that there’s likely very little misunderstanding.
What do you think?