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.


1 comment:

  1. "Take away Harry Potter from her résumé and Ms. Rowling is, for all intents and purposes, a debut novelist."

    You could turn this sentence into a mad-lib:

    "Take away (noun) from his/her résumé and (person) is, for all intents and purposes, a (adjective) (noun)."

    Here are a few examples:

    "Take away Seinfeld from his résumé and Jerry Seinfeld is, for all intents and purposes, an unremarkable stand-up comedian."

    "Take away Relativity from his résumé and Einstein was, for all intents and purposes, a regular patent clerk."