Okay, so as usual, I am way behind the eight-ball here. I watched the Sopranos on DVD for the first time after the third season, my first Nirvana album was In Utero (their last), and now I have just read, and watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, just as the fifth movie and the final book are about to come out.
When J.K. Rowling's name came up at ReaderCon, you could hear the scorn in people's voices. Everyone was convinced she did not deserve what she accomplished. Other people were doing the same thing, but better, when she got so famous. Rowling just happened to be in the same place at the same time. The only question was how do we get all these Potter fans to appreciate some real fantasy?
When someone succeeds in a way you don't, you can assume they just got lucky, and bitch about it. Or you can assume that, whatever else they did wrong, they just might be doing something you're not, and try to figure out what it is.
So I'm assuming Rowling must know something that the rest of us don't. I'm also assuming I don't need to read every book of hers to know what it is, though since I have a 4-year-old son, I probably will sooner or later. But it was the first book that made Harry Potter into what he is. So what does Rowling do that works?
One of the first things I noticed is that Rowling has a sense of how to use magic to advance the plot, which is to say sparingly. Surprisingly enough for a story about wizards and witches, you could count on your fingers the number of proper spells that get cast in the novel. Of course, there are plenty of magical effects throughout Hogwarts - food appearing on tables, floating candlesticks, that sort of thing. But these are basically background effects, giving the magical school its character. Then you have the broomsticks, of course, but again this is more a feature of the world than a spell anyone exactly casts.
Of the proper spells that are cast, I count these: Hermione levitates a feather in magic class; Ron's desperately, and with a lot of guidance from Hemione, levitates the troll's club in the girl's bathroom; Quirrel casts a dark arts spell on Harry's broomstick, which they believe to be cast by Snape (I really don't have to worry about being a spoiler on a book that's like ten years old, do I?); Hermione sets Snapes robe on fire during the Quidditch match and Hermione lights a fire (or simulates the Sun in the movie) to protect them from the tentacle plant when they're heading for the Sorcerer's Stone. I'm sure there are one or two I missed but not many.
What's significant about this list? Well, to begin they are all extremely minor spells. There are no 12th-level multi-forked lightning bolts; we're talking Magic Missile-level spells. But Rowling gets a lot of bang for her speculative buck. Any wizard or witch should be able to levitate things and start little fires.
Second, they are almost all cast by Hermione, the class geek (and consequently my favorite character), and none of them were actually cast by Harry! Okay, let's count flying on a broomstick as a spell, we'll give him that, but his Quidditch skills are more a matter of athleticism than magic. That gets us to Harry's character.
We hear a lot about how Harry is a "great wizard," but he's not, really, in the way we might expect it. Harry's famous glasses are a red herring, tricking the reader/watcher into thinking he's the Peter Parker of his class. Really he's closer to being Flash, except with a good heart. The ways that Harry is great has more to do with his character, his bravery, and his determination than his magical skills.
And this keeps the plot moving forward. Because barely is he at Hogwarts before he is putting himself and his freinds being, as Hermione puts it, "Killed, or worse, expelled." In response to that statement Ron states that Hermione needs to "get her priorities straight." But that's not Harry's problem. Right from the get-go, he knows that the possibility of getting thrown out of Hogwarts is the least of his problems, what with a wizard so evil that people won't say his name out to kill Harry.
But Harry doesn't just put his life and Hogwarts career at risk to catch the evil bad guys. He jumps on a broomstick to get Neville's memory ball back from Malfoy (right after being warned he'd be expelled for flying), jumps on a troll's back to save Hermione and carries an illegal dragon up the stairs of the Astronomy Tower for Hagrid. Aside from fulfilling the commercial novel's need to keep us on the edge of our seats, it gives us a sense of a character who is both brave and loyal to his friends.
Last of all, and I think this is really important in a commercial book, Rowling knows how to set up the plot dominoes and knock them down. This is a skill that I am still working on. What are the skills necessary to get to the Sorcerer's Stone at the end? First, Hermione's oft-mentioned study skills and magic tell them how to handle the Devil's Trap, then Harry plays Seeker and catches the keys to the door, Ron's seemingly offhandedly developed chess-playing (accompanyied by bravely sacrificing his own piece) allows Harry to advance, and finally (only in the book), Hermione uses a logical deduction to determine the correct potion to drink for Harry to advance to the final stage. And in the end, Harry is saved by a combination of his own bravery and the love of his mother, the two character traits Rowling's been developing from the start of the novel.
Among students of Real Serious Literature, a well-formed plot is as disparaged an advantage as a catchy tune is among serious musicians. In both cases, people make the mistake of thinking that this means these are easy things to do. But if it was so easy to make a catchy tune, Billy Joel wouldn't be so rich, because everyone could make songs like this. It takes a certain humility to acknowledge that writers like J.K. Rowling (who at least has passable prose skills), or worse, Dan Brown, maybe know something that we don't. It takes even more to try to figure out what it is.