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…

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  1. Jaime García Iglesias says:

    Dear Sara,
    I do agree that JKR is far from being a conventional author in many senses. Yet, I think we should also note that few authors – or, rather, contemporary authors – enjoy the personal media repercussion she has. We know much more things not necessarily about her work, but about her public life than about most other authors. At some extent, she has embodied the British (or should I say European?) counterpart of the American Dream!
    Nonetheless, as you point, there are certain incongruities in her oeuvre. However, we have to be aware that her literary work is still relatively scarce: not necessarily quantitatively (for Harry Potter is a long saga) but due to the fact that – if we consider the saga as a “single work” – she has published less than five books. It is true that those books cannot be classified in the same or near shelf. This could also be explained by a change of context in writing process.
    Whenever she is interviewed about Harry Potter (let’s say in JK Rowling: A Year in the Life) the idea of writing for herself always comes to the surface. And I explain: she said she was as poor as one could be in modern Britain without being homeless and that writing Harry Potter was her way out of the pesterer reality. I believe that this kind of personal nature of Harry Potter never totally disappeared. Surely, it gained gradual acceptance and fame, but I think J K Rowling never wrote for the public exclusively. I base this opinion in certain curious facts: Dumbledore’s “outing” was surprising for many (however, who could resist Grindelwald’s blue eyes and power? Yeah, he’s my sex symbol in the books and films too) yet her reply was (and I quote very very roughly) that she never thought of it as necessary (outing the wizard) because she always, from the very beginning, knew it. So, this, at some point, reflects the level of introspection of the saga. Other examples are that she rarely or never in her later books added any kind of what’s now called “fan service” and also in the fact that, when finishing the saga, she had a perfect family tree for the descendants of Harry Potter and the rest of characters for two or three generations! And that never ever got published (what a shame! I still support the shipping between Draco and Harry… they would be such a lovely couple…).
    So, the above refers to Harry Potter, that is, before she got immensely rich and, by consequence, free to do whatever she wanted! And, here comes my thesis, she wanted to write (she said so many times) and I believe she is just experimenting with the same set of background topics than in Harry Potter, but in different genres. Nonetheless, she must be well acquaintance with tragicomedy since she studied classics and with crime and depravation since she worked with African refugees while employed by an ONG.
    The Prince of Asturias prize… You yourself said that Harry Potter had many different layer of meaning. Well… it seems that the jury only read Harry Potter as a children’s book (saga) of love, family and good. As such, they though that JKR did not deserve the “letters award” because it was just “children’s fiction” and because it was not praised by the critics (hardly ever the public is taken into account, sadly). So… they awarded what they thought Rowling was trying to teach with her books and never stopped to think on the status of domestic elves or the racial bigotry towards goblins…
    Nonetheless… aren’t weird/not average/even mentally sick authors much more interesting to analyse?

  2. JoseAngel says:

    “I myself haven’t read it, have no interest at all in reading it and would never in my life consider teaching it. ” ¿¿¿¿?????

    What I mean is, you seem to protest too much, taking into account that this is a writer whose works you have enjoyed. Why so?

    And, well Rowling’s “proper place” is, quite obviously, fiction for children, if success means anything. At least so far. Whether she is unhappy about that is quite another matter… And of course she is the product of a rather random “bubble effect” or what I call sometimes “information vortex”. The secret agent here, if you ask me, is the Internet, and the way it has radicalized the Logic of the Long Tail, see link in my name above if you care to read more…

  3. But that’s my point, José Ángel: I like Harry Potter but I don’t find Rowling interesting as a writer, nor do I think that she’s primarily a children’s writer.
    As for the internet, well, of course: think what Walter Scott or Charles Dickens could be today… And, and again of course, among so much to read word of mouth runs faster than light whenever something interesting appears. Same explanation for the frankly mediocre ‘Millennium trilogy’ which is by no means the best that detective fiction has to offer.

  4. Thanks Jaime!!
    So much to say… get yourself an air ticket and come for coffee… and a muffin 😉
    Draco and Harry, I’m still amazed at how popular that is…
    I basically agree with your analysis of Rowling’s odd career and you’re possibly right about the prejudice against chilren’s literature (I mean regarding the Príncipe de Asturias). I think the ‘legend’ of the instant rag-to-riches success is eating up the writer. She might turn out to be much more interesting than we assume her to be if she’s given credit for her novels and not so much for her being a billionaire. I have just seen the Oprah Winfrey interview and there’s not a single question in it about literature, whether for children or otherwise…
    About her writing for herself, this makes perfect sense since, if we believe her, she wrote in total obscurity for about a decade before being published. If you have no hope of reaching an audience then, clearly, once you get one it won’t really play a major role.
    You know what’s in a way frustrating for me? That others deserve that much and it’s not happening to them. I’m thinking of Terry Pratchett, big as he is in Britain.
    Can Rowling be the first truly viral writer???

  5. Jaime García Iglesias says:

    Don’t doubt I would love to attend your classes! Note, though, that if I go, I would arrive with a group of ten or more potterhead colleages in love with what I told them about your course, so you would have your class a little crowded hahaha

    Ophra’s interview… I saw it a couple of months ago… I think is an interview by and for her public, who possibly didn’t read the books but are very interested in her “Copperfield story” (as they are in Ophra’s own story) I’ll try to get hold of some Pratchett’s books, although there are far too many. The problem with him – for what I see in Wikipedia – is that he is an adult fantasy writer… and adults are not suposed to read fantasy (in case they discover the subtle criticism behind and begin to think by themselves).

    Mark also that you are free to come here whenever you want and you will have a more than willing public of potterheads, potter-lovers, Draco-Harry lovers and traumatized readers, and some sweets also!

    P.S.: have you checked whether your students are also traumatized by Fred Weasley’s death in the final battle and by his brother marrying his fiancée? Because I am not so shocked, but all my colleages consider it to be the saddest moment of the saga (and the sickest) and I begin to think I am quite heartless with the Weasley…

  6. Jaime,
    Um, wouldn’t it be nice to organise a school trip!! My class is already quite crowded, about 40 people attend regularly though around 50 follow the course…
    I’m in the process of asking my students to write their original impressions of the sage as child readers so I still don’t know what traumatised them. They all smile very nicely to me when I tell them about Sirius.
    As for Pratchett, I think you can read him from, say, 15 or 16 upwards. I’ve taught in class novel 25, The Truth, which I love. I’d recommend that one, and once you’re hooked as you’ll be, then start at the beginning. I’ve read the 40 odd novels and would read 140 more if published but, unfortunately, the poor man is suffering from a sad case of Alzheimer’s.

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