Why I Tried To Hate JK Rowling

Media

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.

 

25 comments on “Why I Tried To Hate JK Rowling”

  1. Allan says:

    I’m sorry that Bryant and May have been turned down for TV, and yet I’m not. They would never be able to do justice to your characters. I can just about imagine John May played by an aging smooth thespian, but no-one would get anywhere near Arthur. They would either sanitize him or turn him into a caricature, maybe played by David Jason.
    The joy of the books is that the pair live in your mind, and a TV series could never match the image.

    Also, how could they bring in all the obscure London references without becoming a down market travelogue. I can just see the camera panning over a sleazy back alley with a voice-over saying “This is where…”

    So, sorry for your financial loss, but you keep your integrity.

    And I never got on with Harry Potter either, but as you said, look at the kids who are reading and obsessing about the books. I’m sure that the current boom in Young Adult books is mostly down to Rowling.

  2. SteveB says:

    I quite enjoyed the films, except the new 20s one which was just a bore, never read the books.
    The Strike TV series is dullsville and predictable, again never read the books.
    A tonal overlap eh. Must remember that one. Before the tonal overlap was with New Tricks I seem ti remember. Damn those tonal overlaps.
    Though come to think of it doesn’t about 90% of TV drama have an endless tonal overlap with itself.
    Oh PS do watch Black Earth Rising.

  3. Matt says:

    Totally Agree with Allan. Couldn’t put it better myself.

  4. Roger says:

    “There is nothing about Ms Rowling that doesn’t warm the heart.”
    …except that her writings – or the ones I’ve looked at – seem to be calculated and deliberate products of consumer research. I know that we think of her as producing made-to-measure devices that reflect the influence of a lot of successful writers and multiplies the effect by combining them, with the addition of brilliant if inadvertent publicity: her lawyer tells his wife who really wrote a book and his wife tells her best friend, who just happens to be a journalist… It’s so effective you couldn’t do it on purpose.
    You ought to read Christopher Hitchings on Mother Theresa. The punk should have been reading a book by Rowlings.

  5. Bernard says:

    Endorsing Allan’s comments (except the last paragraph, I thoroughly enjoyed the HP books especially as read by that other indelible cultural reference point Stephen Fry).

  6. DC says:

    Get thee onto Netflix (or Amazon). Redraft the series. Set it in say DC. Instead of a couple of old codgers make Bryant a hunk of beefcake and May a cool blonde. Raymond could age a bit and perhaps be a bit more aggressive and shouty.
    The Mini could be a Mustang and please drop the intellectual drivel from random books etc. More fists, guns and car chases are what we need. Lets face it your attempt at a runaway car scene was a bit weak – where was that massive explosion which caused mayhem and our heroes to suffer a cut over the eye and a saucily ripped blouse!

    (Sorry been reading some Donald Hamilton, recently)

  7. Brooke says:

    Agree with Allan and SteveB. I did “read” 2 Potter books; friends who are parents foisted the nonsense on me. Claiming Rowling “got children to read again” is like claiming the Jurassic Park franchise got children to be paleontologists. Yes, her books are shaped by the attention span of children, incident driven with magical thinking; like comics books. Is that how we want children and adolescents to understand the adventure of reading and the world?

    The analogy with M. Theresa is spot on. Religious friends who visited the “mission” in Calcutta were appalled and hurt by what they found–the reality versus the marketing image (and financing) which allowed no criticism.

  8. Peter Tromans says:

    Not a fan of either august lady and certainly not an admirer of their works. I’ve not seen much new in TV crime to encourage me to watch it. Indeed, without the older, much re-cycled series, TV would leave me as happy as a bat on a wet Saturday night.

    David Jason as Mr B? At first, I thought no, but it’s growing on me. Great pity that it will not happen. Well probably, as TV can make a terrible horror of anything.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Hate does not become you, Chris. I’m not a fan of Mother Teresa, either, but I do enjoy the Potter books. (sorry) I wish there was more space between “everything to do with — is marvelous” and “nope, no use for that.” No one should have to go from bookselling to souvenir selling and I really deplore the loss of a bookshop to a souvenir lineup. I don’t understand these gigantic fan blowups. Why is more necessary than the enjoyment of the story? I liked the films and thought Warner Brothers did an excellent job but I did not like the franchising that followed. Actually, I blame the film franchising for a lot of the whoop de doo. I would expect fans to enjoy costumes (made by themselves or knitted by fond grandmothers) and that they would search the wood for a proper wand stick which they might even polish. Warners made a major fortune out of those films; there was no need to milk the world forever afterward.
    I admit that I wore a black choir gown and a “witch’s” hat to read the opening chapters of one of the books, but I put that down to creating appropriate atmosphere and don’t apologize.
    Everyone has favourite reads and the only regrets are where one favourite hampers other people’s.

  10. bill051 says:

    When I read about Mr Bryant I always think of Roy Dotrice,somewhere between Mr Haddock and John Aubrey.

  11. RDaggle says:

    When reading the first ”Bryant & May” I tried to visualize Arthur.
    Jim Broadbent popped into my mind and there he has stayed.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    I found the Harry Potter books to be rather tedious drivel, with ideas cherrypicked from dozens of other, more original sources. Maybe there is something to be said about the books getting children to read. When I was five, my favourite book was ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, and yes, a lot of the ideas that Swift included, to poke the social mores of the time with a stick, went right over my head – but I read books. Every other kid I knew had books, went to the library, etc. My parents would always get me books – on any subject, and ‘I Spy’ and ‘Ladybird’ books were a kind of currency, being constantly swapped between us kids. I find it very sad that someone has to feel proud about getting children to read. Enid Blyton, who some consider the Anti-Christ, wrote some really good books that I’ll always remember with great fondness – her ‘_____ Of Adventure’ series made me want to read more adult books (and yes, the first contains some questionable content about a black criminal), but then you are shown a dry well with rungs in that leads to a tunnel under the sea to an island. Does the eight year old you continue? Hell yes. My brother had a Blyton book called ‘The Treasure Hunters’ which he read again and again, with good reason – it’s well plotted and paced. And there are secret tunnels in it. Blyton’s ‘_____Of Adventure’ series got rather weird, too – my favourite, ‘The Mountain Of Adventure’, has a mad scientist living in a hollowed out mountain (a proto Blofeld, methinks) in Wales, refining an odd mineral that has anti gravity properties. He keeps the local people away by venting coloured gas from his work into the sky from the top of the mountain, so that it looks like a volcano about to erupt. That really did my head in when I read it. Blyton describes the inside of the mountain, carved into luxury rooms and huge laboratories and workshops, beautifully… I wnder how much gin she had drunk that day? It was also through Enid Blyton that I first read the Greek Myths, tales from the 1001 Nights, Robin Hood, and King Arthur. She adapted all of these, and they were all still exciting, entertaining, and as alarming in places, as they should be. She never mollycoddled children (possibly because she didn’t really like them) – there are ‘Noddy’ stories with frightening elements in them. So, should anyone say to me: ” JK Rowling got children reading”, I shall reply “Enid Blyton did it first, like it or not. ” And you must admit, that the whole premise of ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’, with different lands at the top, a bit like the parallel worlds of the TV show ‘Sliders’, is (a) Brilliant; (b) Way ahead of it’s time; (c) Barking mad, and (d) Far more inventive than anything in Harry Potter, being written 60+ years ago.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and that bloke’s t-shirt? It’s 100% correct.

  14. Rob Aherne says:

    Great article. I raged about HP when he first arrived ( although I read books 1 to 3 and sneakily enjoyed the3rd ) because of what I saw as an amalgamation of Le Guin’s Ged and Buckeridge’s Jennings and the coincidence of Neil Gaiman’s Books Of Magic.

    I’ve felt it was all a bit of a silly position to take for a while now and your blog has encapsulated the reason perfectly!

    Shame to hear about Bryant and May getting turned down again – but it’d have to be truly great casting. So many failures in transition.

  15. Stephen says:

    Hi Chris, I’ve never understood why adults read the Harry Potter books, when there’s so many good adult novels.

  16. David says:

    I read the HP books at the same time as my kids. As a result I could follow their discussions and enthusiasms and engage with them.

    As books I found them readable and I understand their attraction.

  17. Roger says:

    The thing about the HP books is that they aren’t actually bad – according to a friend who read them with children, they are masterpieces of construction and in the way themes and tropes are raised, dropped and raised again – but they look like very carefully constructed devices. Even at the level of the writing, HP is an industrial product.
    I don’t actually blame Rowling, who seems to have many admirable qualities, but I think her books are more something produced by the zeitgeist than individual works of art. Readable, yes, but I can’t understand the people who are dedicated to them. You can read them, but the style and characterisation and world-building don’t knock your socks off. Mind you, they probably think I’m bonkers, with just as good reason, for some of the things I like.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    That was pretty well put, Roger. Not fond of diatribes about authors because a lot of it is personal taste or a determination to be anti the current fad.
    I’m currently re-re-reading Laurie King’s O Jerusalem and wondering why I always sink into anything of hers with a contented sigh. I think it’s her writing which takes me wherever in a blink of the eye. I always edge into “The Game” carefully, though, because there is so much in that one to make a reader intensely uncomfortable.
    As I say, it’s a lot down to personal taste. Wish industry didn’t get involved and deprive us of a possibly great experience. Perhaps someone could be convinced to do Full Dark House as a mini series?

  19. Bruce Rockwood says:

    My boys grew up with HP books as they came out–aged along with them. Not bothered with her mysteries. I can enjoy them for what they are, while thoroughly enjoying Bryant and May. I think B&M would work as long form movies of each book if PBS and BBC or ITV teamed up for it. Like the three films of the first three Tony Hillerman novels set on the Navajo nation. But film versions never match ones mental images. I never felt the Rebus filmed versions came close to the books.

  20. John Griffin says:

    The first Resnick TV film featuring Tom Wilkinson caught the books and Nottingham exactly.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    I didn’t read the Rebus books till after I saw the series so the books are coloured by what I saw. It didn’t seem to match badly though. I liked the contrast with the tourist’s Edinburgh.
    I didn’t feel that the films of the Hillerman books caught the feel of the stories. They were trying for eerie and got it but not the way Hillerman wrote it. Perhaps I read the books wrongly.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    It was through ‘Rebus’ that I saw just how ‘telescoped’ the TV version is from the book. I was reading one of the novels, when the TV show of it was aired. There were conversations and walks through doors that were, in one case sixty pages apart. Though I do like Ken Stott very much, I’ll stick to the books. With me, the ‘Rebus’ books are like the first ‘Jaws’ movie – if it’s on TV, I feel compelled to sit and watch it to the end. If I find a ‘Rebus’ book, then I’m duty bound to read it. It’s a pleasant compulsion.

  23. Sheila McInerney says:

    I have read all of the Harry Potter books, and seen all of the movies, and enjoyed them. However, I don’t like her crime novels and they don’t hold a candle to Bryant and May. I’m sorry for you that Bryant and May won’t be television stars, but I am happy that I can continue to enjoy them in my mind, without my mental images being affected! I love your books!

  24. I love the Strike novels and HP. Not as much as B&M but they’re great reads, well plotted and characterised. The TV version of Strike is completely wrong. Stopped watching almost immediately.
    B&M on TV is tricky. Too many characters and the leads are so old. Personally, I’d cast unknowns. Although I always read the books first, I always treat myself to Ian Goodman’s wonderful readings on audiobook afterwards. I would really struggle to hear another actor do Arthur’s voice. Last year I was thinking about this and thought that stop motion might actually suit B&M – Aardman style. Maybe not… but the actors would be in no danger of dying at least.
    Also, Chris, I’ve tarted up that B&M theme tune and it’s joined a dozen other “theme tunes” that will be on my new album (currently being mastered) for release early next year.

  25. Mary Hutchings says:

    Trevor Howard and Charles Coburn

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