Why I Tried To Hate JK Rowling
I was once on a tube train sitting opposite a young punk who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan; ‘Mother Theresa Is A C*nt’.
I was shocked, but also had to stop myself from laughing. It had been a long time since I had been surprised by someone insulting an untouchable treasure.
When someone becomes very famous indeed, certain elements of their history are plucked from the publicity and become part of the legend. Everything else falls away and is forgotten. Even their rivals are wiped away. It’s like the St Paul’s sightlines, those paths that protect the view of the cathedral from being crowded in and lost – a space must be cleared around the sacred object to allow it to stand freely.
Destined for cathedral status was one Joanne Rowling, about whom we all know certain facts; she went from living on state benefits to being the world’s first billionaire author. There is nothing about Ms Rowling that doesn’t warm the heart. From rags to riches, she is everyone’s ideal of a free-thinking, sensible independent woman with a talent, is a philanthropist and even has a wonderful charity, Lumos. Everything about her is a force for goodness and decency, literacy and intelligent thinking.
What’s more, the success of her children’s books was driven by the grass-roots dedication of young readers, and although there had been magical schoolboys before from the likes of Diane Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, many fantasy writers have drawn from the same mythology-well as Ms Rowling. The Potter books understood the attention spans of children better than any since the 1930s – they’re almost entirely incident-driven, shaped by the way children think. Even though I didn’t get on with them, this was simply because I’m not in the targeted age group, so perfectly did Ms Rowling tailor them to her readership. So what’s not to love?
It turns out, nothing at all. She is wholly a force for good. On her tombstone (hopefully not for 100 years yet) it will say ‘She Got Children To Read Again’. She is Mary Poppins. Practically perfect in every way. And of course, when this kind of phenomenon comes along, everyone wants a part of it.
You know there’s a ‘But’ coming.
Warner Brothers jumped in with (so far) ten films, plays, theme parks, merchandise, a million licensed deals. Most days I have to walk through two of the most heavily trafficked areas of London – King’s Cross and Cambridge Circus. At the first I have to pass the Potter Trolley, a monetised luggage trolley where teens queue all day and pay to get a selfie. There’s a Potter shop next door where the old bookshop used to be. The bookshop closed because the Potter queue crossed its front doors, killing their business.
At Cambridge Circus there are Potter posters on the buildings on both sides, and the Palace Theatre sells tickets for the two Potter plays. Rich families fly in from around the world to experience it. One of my best friends abandoned his attempts to write fantasy novels and now works selling wands in a Potter shop. Another, a legendary bookseller, now also sells Potter merchandise for a living. They’re making good money. There’s so much merch that separate franchises compete to be the purveyors of all things Potter; one side sent people in to check the other side’s shop for infringement and complained about the use of ‘Potter-style’ cobblestones until it was pointed out that they existed in the UK long before the books.
When the Potter books first appeared I had been working on a modern retelling of the Medusa myth set in a run-down London park. I had an impossible time selling it, not because of Harry Potter but because two other Potter-lite franchises had tipped up and both featured the Medusa. Those franchises promptly stalled, killing my book.
Ms Rowling moved into the world of adult writing with a series of crime novels. This week, after months of fingers-crossed anticipation, the Bryant & May novels were once again turned down for television. That’s nothing new, but the main reason the commissioners gave was that the books would have a ‘tonal overlap’ with Ms Rowling’s own TV series of her crime stories, and like St Paul’s, nothing must impede the sightlines. I am a victim of tonal overlap. Who knew?
They say every good idea has a thousand fathers, but in this case every great success breeds a thousand bean-counters happy to rise on the back of genuinely deserved glory. Ms Rowling’s success is unique and unstoppable, but the industry that has grown up around her creations has warped the landscape for the rest of us. For writers, her work has been turned into a plague-pit that needs to be avoided at all cost. The mantra ‘Too Harry Potter’ is now also ‘Too Robert Galbraith’ for the arbiters of taste.
And so Ms Rowling joins a handful of authors in the pantheon of indelible cultural reference points. I’m sure that’s not what she intended. I tried to hate her for it yesterday, until I realised that it wasn’t her fault that my series was turned down again. It’s the paucity of imagination that makes TV folk only see your work in terms of someone else’s.