by K.M. Zahrt
Recently, writer Lynn Shepherd wrote an interesting article for Huffington Post titled, “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It.” In the article, Shepherd asks Rowling to “give other writers, and other writing, room to breathe.” She writes, “By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure […] but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn” (par. 5). Shepherd recognizes the inevitable response from Rowling fans – that she is whining because she could not “possibly be anything other than envious” of Rowling’s success (par. 1). However, Shepherd’s position on Rowling’s success, and the implication that a writer should retire after one’s day in the sun, is problematic from the perspective of one of those other writers producing other writing.
Like Shepherd, I have never read the Harry Potter series, but I have seen the first 45 minutes of the first film, so maybe I’m not as impartial as she is. I have heard all of the arguments from adult friends and respectable readers as to why I should try the series, but I’m sorry, folks. It’s not my thing. I only have so many pages I can read in my lifetime, and I’m going to spend mine elsewhere.
But Shepherd raises an interesting question, which I put out to writers on Twitter last night: If you land the success of your dreams, would you retire? Larry Manch (@LarryManch) replied: “With her talent; if she is still inspired – yes, absolutely she should continue writing.” I both agree and disagree with Manch’s response, because it represents the conundrum.
Talent? The writing and publishing industry is subjective to the point of a joke. As Shepherd points out, Rowling’s adult novel The Casual Vacancy was “(by all accounts) […] no masterpiece” (par. 3), and Cuckoo’s Calling, “well-written and well-received […] sold no more than 1,500 copies under its own steam” until it was leaked that Robert Galbraith was Rowling, then the book “went stratospheric” (par. 4). That’s how it works.
That is a perfect example of “author-function,” a term in literary criticism coined by Michel Foucault that describes how the name on the front of the book impacts the way the book is read, viewed, and responded to (OR read at all). Once the author-function was unleashed, Cuckoo’s Calling became a more important book. Because the writing suddenly got better? Because Rowling’s so talented? No. Because of author-function. This would be an interesting author-function experiment: Take your average novel of average-to-no success, perhaps even a novel that was a critical failure. Put a new title on it and put Rowling’s name on the front. And let’s watch what happens.
Inspired? I thought – and I think Shepherd would agree – that Rowling was going to be something of a one-series wonder. She had one good idea and was able to milk it for seven bestselling books, eight movies, and a castle. Good for her. I thought that was obvious when those terrible spin-off books were coming out; do you, Rowling fans, really want to have a discussion about the literary value of The Tales of Beedle the Bard? I should hope not.
However – and here’s where the dilemma sets in – I respect Rowling because she keeps writing. A true writer must write. It’s something I call “The Writer’s Burden.” It’s that nagging voice in your head that tells you “you should be writing,” even when you’re on vacation. Substitute “artist” for “writer,” and any artist most likely understands what I’m talking about.
Another response to my question on Twitter came from Doug Look (@dlook1): “Takes courage to put yourself out there, especially after success, so I think yes, keep trying, learning, growing…” So why does it take courage? Shepherd wants Rowling to stop writing so she stops sucking “the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere” (par. 3), but perhaps Rowling should stop writing because her talent is at risk, her legacy. But she can’t, and I wouldn’t be able to either. In the words of Toni Morrison, “All I can do is read books and write books and edit books and critique books” (The Paris Review). For that reason, I understand what Rowling is doing.
Shepherd closes with an appeal to Rowling to remember what it was like to be a writer stuck on the margins of the publishing industry. In response, I would cite a passage from Nick Hornby’s “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column in The Believer: “Walk into a bookshop and you will see works by writers who produce a book every three months, writers who don’t own a TV, writers with five children, writers who produce a book every twenty-five years, writers who never think about money, writers who, in your opinion, can’t write at all. It doesn’t matter: they got the work done, and there they are, up on the shelves. They might not stay there forever: readers, now and way off into the future, make that decision.” Dickens was “a man who got the work done, millions of words of it, and to order, despite all the distractions and calamities. And everything else, the fame, and the money, and the giant shadow that he continues to cast over just about everyone who has written since, came from that. There’s nothing else about writing worth knowing, really.” (The Believer, Nov/Dec 2011, p. 95) Hornby is writing about Dickens, but perhaps in the future, we could add “writers who write a mega-bestselling series and keep writing mediocre crime novels” to that list, and we could insert Rowling’s name for Dickens’ and not know the difference.
In sum, as a writer, it doesn’t matter; get the writing done. Let the readers sort it all out.