I’m preparing my lecture/seminar on J.K. Rowling, the author, for tomorrow and I have finally decided to turn to my blog, see if writing a post clarifies my confused thoughts.
The idea is to discuss with my students what kind of writer Rowling is from a Cultural Studies point of view, taking into account her personal identity, the material conditions of production of the Harry Potter series, the issues highlighted in her public presentation (website, Wikipedia entry), the rags-to-riches legend accompanying her fantastic success, the awards she’s collected… I have done this for many other writers but in her case something seems to be missing and I find myself in doubt as to what exactly.
I’m going to call this for the time being ‘the bubble effect’. See if I can explain myself.
To begin with, the comments by Rowling’s teachers I’ve come across portray her as rather average. She was rejected by Oxford University, which in itself might mean nothing but is beginning to make me see why she made Harry also an indifferent student. Also why, despite Rowling’s claims that Hermione is like her own girly self, you can see in the series how hard study is patronised and even despised.
Next, although Rowling claims she first wrote a story by the age of 6, the inspiration for Harry materialised in that famous train ride to Manchester when she was already 25, having tried to publish nothing in the meantime. The first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone came out in 1997, when Jo was 32 already. She names among the writers that inspired her Jane Austen but nobody in the canon of children’s literature, which is the genre she chose to practice first. Odd, very odd.
With this I’m getting closer to what nags me: her lack of commitment to a genre. After Harry Potter, remember, she’s published only books for adults: a tragicomedy (her definition) and detective fiction (as Robert Galbraith). Writers do mix genres but usually with a greater commitment: my adored Iain M. Banks used to produce creative literary fiction and science fiction in turns; others produce parallel outputs in fantasy and the historical novel, or science fiction and fantasy, etc.
What I find odd is Rowling’s production of children’s fiction, then tragicomedy (?), now detective fiction… On the positive side, she appears to be a writer open to experimenting with different popular or middlebrow genres; on the negative side, she seems to be in serious trouble to find her real territory. I just find it very strange that after Harry Potter she has no more stories to tell children, except those derived from the series itself. Of course, the future will tell… I also find it very odd that after cultivating an intense relationship with a readership that, essentially, grew up with Harry she decided next to abandon them for the sort of adult that might enjoy her novel The Casual Vacancy. I myself haven’t read it, have no interest at all in reading it and would never in my life consider teaching it.
That’s what I mean by the ‘bubble effect’ precisely: Harry Potter seems isolated in the author’s career and in the reader’s experience. And this is hard to explain because there are not really similar cases. JRR Tolkien did not write The Lord of the Rings and next something totally unrelated. Even in the case of authors trapped by their creations, like Conan Doyle and his failed attempt to murder Sherlock Holmes, their inroads into other genres seem much more consistent than in Rowling’s case.
I think I’m trying to say that I find her career surprisingly inconsistent. After a phenomenon as gigantic as the Harry Potter series, perhaps it would have been best for Rowling never to publish again (as Arundhati Roy decided following the overwhelming success of The God of Small Things). Strangely, Rowling insists on publishing and even came up with the suspicious use of a male penname to start afresh without the pressure of public opinion. I say suspicious because I very much suspect she wanted to be found out.
I know that many writers in the circles of fantasy and children’s fiction were surprised by Rowling’s success, as others seemed much better writers. These voices may have been silenced by the very long list of literary awards she has received, though I have a nagging suspicion that these acknowledge her creating a phenomenon rather than her quality as a writer. Remember: she was awarded the ‘Príncipe de Asturias de la Concordia’ but not ‘de las Letras’. Just think how odd it would have been to award Tolkien the same distinction and perhaps you’ll begin to understand what I mean by ‘bubble effect’.
Now we’ll see what my class says…