Wednesday, March 14, 2012

J.K. Rowling and The Price of Success

There was a big announcement last month: J.K. Rowling is coming out with a new book soon. But there’s a catch: this one will be for adults, a completely separate endeavor from the Harry Potter books. She even signed with a new publisher—Little, Brown. (Her old publisher, Scholastic, is saying that they don’t publish books that aren’t for kids, although it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t make an exception just this one time. The bottom line, I think, is that Ms. Rowling wanted a new publisher, and that’s what she got.)

I’m wondering how many of the millions of readers of Harry Potter will pick up the new book. The answer is obvious: boatloads. There is already a charge of excitement running through the reading community, this before even one word of the synopsis has been released. We don’t know the title, genre, or length of the book, and still it is the most anticipated book of the year (or 2013, or whatever year it comes out).

On a certain level, it’s kind of weird that this unnamed book is getting such attention. Take away Harry Potter from her résumé and Ms. Rowling is, for all intents and purposes, a debut novelist. In the way she’s prepping us for the new phase of her career by switching publishers and noting that the new book is for adults, she seems to want us to forget about the HP books when considering her new work. She probably doesn’t need to try so hard. She has been systematically divested of sole ownership of the Harry Potter universe throughout the last decade by various enterprises, most notably the movies and formation of fan communities. We all know she authored the source material for HP, but between the movies, theme park at Disney World, merchandise, collectable card games, and fan sites, Ms. Rowling can no longer take full responsibility for how the Harry Potter universe manifests itself in our thoughts and dreams. With the almost communal way various other people have added to or modified the HP mythology, it seems at this point a little strange to say that one person created it all; it’s like saying a particular person created Zeus and the story of Theseus and the Minotaur.

But create Harry Potter she did, incontrovertibly. And no one will forget it, especially when she is trying to start anew with a different book. Harry Potter casts a spotlight on her next book, no matter what it might be. Even she realizes the leverage HP affords her, saying, “The freedom to explore new territory is a gift that Harry’s success has brought me.” That’s quite the understatement. Without Harry, chances are Ms. Rowling’s new book wouldn’t be published, let alone given the resources of a major publishing house like Little, Brown. It would’ve been rejected, for sure. Why? Because all first works by first time authors are rejected, even the first Harry Potter book, which was famously rejected at least 9 times.

While I hope that Ms. Rowling gets her wish that the book be judged on its own merits, I’m dubious that it’ll pan out that way. The Boy Who Lived will undoubtedly be invoked in all the press material, and Little, Brown won’t be able to resist slapping “From the author of Harry Potter” on the new book’s cover, regardless of genre. (Which might set up an amusing clash if Ms. Rowling writes an erotic thriller or something like that.) Not that Ms. Rowling is lamenting her success, but she must be thinking a little bit of how different it was with the publication of the first Harry Potter book, before it had sold millions of copies. Back then there was no overwhelming cultural obligation to read her book, and the initial fans loved it for no other reason than it enchanted them. Can one have a pure, honest reaction to something already deemed a massive success (at least financially)?

J.K. Rowling sure hopes so.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Deadly Reflections: Book Club Discussion Questions

So there is a team of people who are helping me out with P&A and doing some general behind the scenes work in trying to get the word out about Deadly Reflections. They just sent me some questions of the kind you see at the end of some books, questions that can be used to foster discussion at a book club meeting, for example. I think they’re kind of wonderful, so I’m posting them here. Enjoy.

Note: There are spoilers in the questions, so please don’t refer to them until after you’ve finished the book.

1. Where do you think the mysterious box came from? What were some of the things that hinted at its provenance?

2. How does the school in the book compare with the school you used to go to or are currently attending? How are the students similar to or different from your fellow students?

3. Was it fate or chance that Justin and Sarah met? Discuss some of the events that brought them together.

4. What does Sarah have in common with Justin? How are they different? What are her similarities with Brandon? Differences? How important is it that two people in a relationship "mirror" each other in personality, temperament, life experiences, etc.?

5. Some of the Terror's victims meet their end in ironic ways and some of the deaths are tragic. Discuss the difference between irony and tragedy using incidents from the book.

6. Halfway through the book, Justin advocates an attention to the “now.”  Is it possible to do this without consideration of the past and future? How did living in the now help some of the characters? How was it detrimental?

7. Is Brandon an evil person? Why or why not?

8. The story takes place in a rural New England town. How would the story be different if it took place in a major metropolitan area?

9. The two protagonists express their love for each other at the end. At what point do you think Justin fell in love with Sarah? When did Sarah fall in love with Justin? What's next for them?

10. What do you think happens to all the characters in the future: Justin and Sarah, the “janitor,” the Terror?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Spring Wonderland?

I think I had forgotten what snow looked like.

The literary chatter last week was centered around two sad events. After it was noted that David Foster Wallace would have been 50 years old on Tuesday, an outpouring of remembrances and tributes once again filled the web. Publishers are doing their part to keep his name in the public consciousness with no fewer than 6 volumes of either his work or work about him being published later this year…not that anyone is likely to forget his impact on American letters any time soon. There has probably never been an author whose death affected such various segments of the populace—from scholars to fellow writers to readers of all stripes, whether they be those who seek out a challenge or those who exult in losing themselves in worlds that managed to be both familiar and strange. The books collecting all the esoterica of his corpus will be received with much bittersweet appreciation.

Barney Rosset passed away last week. He was the perfect example of a man behind the curtain, someone who was tremendously important in putting such canonical books as Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch on American shelves, and yet he is not widely known, even by the fans of those books. Here is a case of there clearly being a 2nd most important person to a book, besides the author. I watched a great documentary on him called Obscene a couple of years ago, and even then I thought, “I’m really glad someone made this now, while he’s alive, so we get to hear his own words.” You could do worse than to revisit that film as a vivid reminder of how Mr. Rosset enriched 20th century literature through sheer ironclad will.