Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why Does Everyone Hate J.K. Rowling?

There was much adverse comment last week at the news that J.K. Rowling is the world's highest earning writer, generating $300m last year: to quote The Guardian, by no means alone, "sickening reading for the majority of authors who are struggling to earn a living".

Rowling's crimes are various: she is rich; she writes derivative books with no literary merit; she gives money to the Labour Party; she sued a hapless and penniless fan who sought to publish a Hogwarts Encyclopaedia. Let's look at all this a little closer.

Rowling is undoubtedly rich. That money has arisen almost entirely from the Harry Potter books. The long and short of it is that those books have sold a hell of a lot of copies, and been made into films. Yes, they have been hyped by a publishing industry keen to profit from the books' popularity--but the sustained success of a seven-book series suggests that she has touched a lot of lives with her work. I've read all the books, seen all the films, so she's probably made about thirty quid out of me. Is that really so excessive?

Literary merit is harder to measure. Many of her detractors seem to me not to have read the books, or to given up after the first three; the later books in the series have an ambition and unflinching quality which to my mind makes them likely to endure well beyond the negative opinions of her opponents. And derivative? Well, Rowling is working in a particular tradition - but none of us works in isolation. I hope I don't disillusion anyone by observing that the plots of Hamlet and Othello are not entirely Shakespeare's own work...

Recently Rowling made a donation of £1m to the Labour Party, a measure of support for a beleaguered Government which should be respected even by those who don't vote the same way. Rowling has consistently championed social causes and supported this with significant amounts of money. That she can afford to misses the point: having money doesn't in general make us any keener to part with it.

Then there is the case of Steven Van Der Ark, who sought only to make an honest buck by producing a faithful Harry Potter encyclopaedia. So faithful, in fact, that it used almost exclusively Rowling's own words. There is a widespread view that a writer as wealthy as Rowling could have turned a blind eye to this minor piece of copyright infringement. I wonder whether those who have denounced Rowling's rapacity would be quite so blase if it was their own work that was being plagiarised in that way.

So why does everyone seem to have turned on one of our best-selling writers? Sadly it seems to come down to envy. Rowling's books are good, but they aren't so good that the revenues should dwarf what other writers are making: she had the fortune to be in the right place at the right time. I am sure that she would acknowledge as much. But wouldn't be a more charitable perspective to congratulate her on her success, and acknowledge that a writer who has hooked so many children on reading deserves all the rewards she gets?

So, with all due respect to those at The Guardian, despite the £27 royalties I have banked to date from The Dog of the North, I am not "sickened" by Rowling's success: I am heartened by it. And so should everyone who thinks that books are important.


Chuck said...

Rowling, I think, is only one of the most successful examples of a phenomenon that may be unique to the speculative fiction (fantasy/sci fi), due to the combination of factors that can go into making a book in those genres attractive to readers. Moreso in those genres than in others, a book can succeed based solely on the strength of a clever idea (settings, gadgets, institutions, etc.), utterly independent of the merit of the writing.

Rowling undeniably came up with an idea that resonated very very strongly with, apparently, every kid on earth, and that was Hogwarts, a semi-Victorian school for young wizards. I firmly believe that that, and a few other of the wizard-specific places and things, were responsible for the popularity of the books. But for all the merit of that idea, the actual execution of the books themselves was not very good. I think people were/are willing to forgive clunky technical writing because they are so in love with the idea of Hogwarts etc.

To my mind the greatest sin Rowling commits is the clumsy and inappropriate juxtaposition of the cutesy and the deadly serious. It seems like she either couldn't make up her mind, or couldn't come up with a story that worked one way or the other. And, I don't see her working (consciously) within a tradition; I see her incorporating vaguely-understood conventions, often inappropriately. ("Dark Lord"?? Sheesh.)

I don't begrudge her her success; after all, I've read the books and seen the movies too. But that success does not mean that the books are well-written; it just means that they contain a concept that resonated with a lot of people. In some complaints against her I sense a feeling that, if the youth of the world are going to turn to books again, it would have been nice if the books were a little better. I guess we can only hope that kids attracted to books by Harry Potter will eventually turn to Lyonesse.

Alis said...

Urgh! I couldn't disagree more strongly with what you say, Chuck, but I haven't got the time to go into it here.
Tim, thanks for this very timely and balanced piece - I shall put up a post on my own blog on this subject in the next couple of days.

Tim Stretton said...

Chuck, I think the books are better than you give them credit for--especially the last three. This is a case I argued at greater length in "Why Should I Read...?" a few months back.

And for those of us who've grown up on Jack Vance, we're always going to find the writing a bit clunky!

David Isaak said...

I'm by no means a Rowling scholar--I haven't even read all the books, though many people, including Tim himself tell me they get much better later in the series. (I'll read them some day. But I have a big stack of other books calmoring for attention.)

Some of Rowling's writing makes me wince, but a good deal of YA writing makes me wince. There is a convention that suggests young readers aren't great at subtext, and therefore need to be adverbed to death. (And this belief may be correct.)

On the other hand, I find the jumps in tone to be quite agreeable and one of the better features of the books.

But to address Tim's original point, the truth is than none of the writers in my circle of acquaintances resent Rowling's success. Some of them love her books, and some dislike them or are indifferent. But all the writers I know are heartened by her success in making the world read again, and most of them view her as a tide that is raising everyone's boats.

I don't know anyone who is "sickened" by her success. But, then, history shows that Guardian seems to consort with a particularly disagreeable colllection of writers, many of them easily sickened.

Swainson said...

Nice article Tim.

I got about half way through the first book and could not get on with it. It happens, I don't hold it against Rowling. Good luck to her. She found her niche and capitalised. Isn't this what a good business woman should do?

If someone in my line of work is making money it doesn't make me sickened, it makes me think "there's gold in them there hills"

I think there will be naysayers about for evermore. I just try not to read what they write.