The boy who lived and lived and lived

The boy who lived and lived and lived

In every skirmish in the ‘culture war’, be it fought in universities, Twitter or Parliament, there’s an inevitable reference to Harry Potter. The Potter references can seem like a joke; the perpetual furore around the politics of a ‘mere’ children’s author more so. But it is no laughing matter. Harry Potter is a cultural force and a financial powerhouse, one that is, ultimately - and for some, frustratingly - ‘uncancellable’.

According to YouGov, British Millennials have a 95% awareness of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For context, this puts Harry Potter significantly above classics such as Winnie the Pooh (90%) and Alice in Wonderland (85%), or, for that matter, Marvel movies. It is uniquely high among all publishing properties. By comparison, The Hate U Give – a stunning contemporary book with massive cultural ramifications and prolonged sales dominance – has a 24% awareness in the same demographic. That level of familiarity is, for a book, incredibly impressive. But Harry Potter is a universal cultural touchstone.

And, again for context, “Millennial” means anyone born between 1980 and 1994, a group that now makes up nearly 14% of the population of Britain (and 90% of the headlines). The eldest Millennials are now in their late 30s and early 40s, and have children of their own. Yet, despite countless efforts by publishers and creators of all types, there is no “new” Harry Potter; no other property with the same ubiquitous cultural presence. 

How is it that a children’s book from three decades ago has successfully remained at the heart of every conversation?

The first reason is found in the story itself. There have been countless theses written on this very subject, but there is, unquestionably, something special about the boy. Henry Jenkins has examined the phenomena at length, and argues (to paraphrase) that the series’ appeal stems from its ability to allow readers to see themselves in Rowling’s world. It is, again, to paraphrase, just rich enough: readers are fascinated by the world, but there’s still room for them to fit in. It is welcoming, and more than that, participative. The loose fabric of the Potterverse invites its readers to indulge in passionate meddling, a form of imaginative activism that has translated to a long lasting, and real world, belief in the power to make change.

Secondly, it is impossible to underestimate the cultural supernova that was the release of individual Harry Potter books when they were first published. By the end of the series, it was a national obsession akin to, one suspects, Beatlemania. Pottermania united the British public – often in the queue at Sainsbury’s, where they would be patiently waiting to snatch up a copy. Readers – and even non-readers! – were all feverishly tearing through books on buses and trains, during lunch breaks and all through the night.

Potter’s explosion also took place before online retailers dominated the scene – in those innocent days when supermarkets were seen as the Dark Lords of book retail. People crammed into brick and mortar retailers, all physically coming together in their need for the book. This increased the visibility of the moment, and the sense of cultural unison. Wanting, buying, reading Harry Potter was the thing to do. Potter’s moment was made all the more unique, and bittersweet, by the fact it will not – and cannot – ever happen again. The retail and media landscape have fragmented too much, and take place in quieter, more personal, and less visible ways. It was, again to borrow from Jenkins, the "last gasp of mass culture".

Finally, Harry Potter remains inescapable. In a recent visit to a local Waterstones, I spotted three bays of children’s books, with one half of one bay filled with various editions of Rowling’s work. There was also an entirely separate bay, devoted solely to Harry Potter merchandise. This is anecdotal evidence, but the reality is, this percentage of retail space devoted to Potter is by no means the exception. The sales dominance of Harry Potter is such that it remains the perpetual asterix in every chart: these figures exclude Harry Potter, lest they be dwarfed into insignificance. The book that dominated bestseller lists until they sheepishly ‘spun off’ the series into separate children’s rankings continues its reign, unabated. Harry Potter not only shone a spotlight on the sales power of children and young adult literature, it continues to hog the stage. It sells. And sells. And sells. Millennials who grew up on Harry Potter now have children of their own, fueling a wizarding baby boom.

The result is a creative property that is both culturally influential and an unavoidable, arguably essential, pillar of the publishing sector. Harry Potter is deeply woven into our culture. And Harry Potter is also a financial juggernaut, one that single-handedly keeps publishers and retailers afloat.

This dual nature is what puts Potter at the heart of every skirmish, and – rightfully so. As a cultural touchstone, it is more than a universal reference: it is at the core of many people’s identity. Disappointment in the books or their author can feel like a serious personal betrayal.

Similarly, by being so firmly entwined with the financial health of an entire industry, the series and its author have become the ultimate insider – unquestionable and unchallengeable. It is demonstrably ‘uncancellable’ and financially essential, yet, at the same time, its cultural significance means the books and their author will forever be front of mind – the most prominent windmill to tilt at. Potter has seen unprecedented success as both art and commerce, and now represents the conflict between them.

Jared Shurin is a communications strategist, focusing on social and behaviour change challenges. He is an occasional editor; his latest is The Outcast Hours (with Mahvesh Murad, from Solaris).