Should Rowling Stop Writing? Spoiler: NO

A writer named Lynn Sheperd has committed the cardinal sin of speaking out against one of the gods of writing: J. K. Rowling. Even more shocking, Shepherd did it in public, where other people could hear (or read) her!

Audible gasp!

The rules of talking about the gods of writing have always been thus; if you’re a writer, you CAN criticize the gods of writing, but only if you are also a god of writing. Thus, Stephen King can talk trash about Rowling (although he’s on the record as generally loving her). James Patterson can talk trash about Stephen King (although actually it’s the other way around).

Here’s Shepherd’s reasoning for why Rowling needs to stop after unleashing the Casual Vacancy and the Cuckoo’s Calling on the publishing world:

It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath.

I believe that I understand what Shepherd is talking about, if only because I remember the seething jealousy I used to feel when I was getting into writing myself.

It wasn’t just about comparing myself to every other person I met who told me “I’m a writer” or “I’m working on a novel” or whatever; comparison was part of it, the worry that their writing was better than mine. It was a competitive sort of hate, a feeling that every time one of my fellow neophytes managed to score a publishing deal, they weren’t just succeeding on their own merits. No, my seething jealousy was due to the fact that I believed they were sucking up publishing contracts that were rightfully mine.

Never mind the fact that I wasn’t submitting my work to the same market or the same agent or the same publisher. In my logic (and I use that word loosely), there were a finite number of book publishing deals in the world and every time someone else succeeded, it made my own chances go down. Even though it’s technically true that there are only a finite number of publishing deals in the world, my reasoning is still flawed and I was silly to have believed such a thing.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten over this particular mental peculiarity as I’ve gotten older.

Shepherd feels that writers like Rowling “suck the oxygen out of the room” via the sheer impact Rowling’s work makes when it arrives on the scene. Any other poor book that’s out there at the same time is capsized by the waves made as Rowling’s gorilla jumps into the pool. And maybe this is true for those books published right around any of the behemoths unleashed by the gods of writing.

On the other hand, do we want to see a publishing world without the gods of writing? Rowling might not be good for those first-time authors trying to get noticed, but she is DAMN good for the health of the publishing industry as a whole. Names that get people to remember why they like books and why they like to buy books are names that get people into the stores or onto Amazon or whatever. Simply put, without Rowling (and those like her), publishing as a whole suffers.

The general public has a notoriously fickle attention span and I don’t think a publishing world filled with nothing but scrappy up-and-comers is going to be enough to remind the consumer why he or she likes to buy books. The best case scenario is when the consumer heads to the bookstore (or the library!) for the new Rowling (or Patterson or King) and picks up the new title by their favorite and also decides, “hey, this other book looks interesting” and adds it to their stack.

I used to do this all the time as a kind when I’d roll into the bookstore with my $50 gift card.

I don’t actually agree with Shepherd that Rowling is bad for new writers. I happen to believe that evolutionary pressure applies to writers and their work, and if you’re writing into a market dominated by gods, that inspires you to dig deep and create the very best book you can manage. But even if Rowling is bad for first-time writers, she’s good for the health of publishing as a whole. I’ll happily deal with a turbulent month of sales (or even a torpedo in my own book deal, whenever that finally happens) if it means one of the gods is out there reminding people while it’s still cool to buy books.

6 thoughts on “Should Rowling Stop Writing? Spoiler: NO

  1. I go in fits and spurts for all my endeavors, and books are no exception. I might read (or more accurately: listen) to three or four books in a month, then take 2-3 months to finish the next one, which is no longer than the others. So anything that gets me reading religiously will probably catapult me through 2-3 extra books that I otherwise wouldn’t have read. Considering that I’m not really a bookworm, I feel like this be may be typical of your average non-reader.

    That seems to support your analysis of the situation.

    1. I think that it supports my analysis quite well. That momentum that carries one from one book into another (or two or three) is a wave that fuels growth. That’s good for publishing and good for all writers, regardless of the volume of their sales.

  2. There’s a fundamental flaw in Shepherd’s argument too; she’s talking about all the hype around Rowling’s books as though it was entirely Rowling’s fault. “How dare you write a book that’s a critical darling, that becomes a bestseller, that gets a movie deal and alters the very profile of fantasy? HOW DARE YOU SUCCEED MADAME?”

    Throwing Rowling under the bus because she unwittingly grabbed the four-leaf clover that catapulted her books into modern legend just feels unnecessarily spiteful. Blame the industry for hawking the book like it was the new Shakespeare, blame the film industry for snapping up the movie rights like a delectable piece of chum during Shark Week, or blame the audience for getting bamboozled by Rowling’s storytelling (because all told it’s not a new story, and while it’s told in a charming way it’s not exactly groundbreaking), but blaming the author because she wrote the book?

    That’s just silly.

    1. Very true. Rowling went to great lengths to keep her pseudonym intact and she expressed regret that she was “outed” so quickly. I think that speaks quite clearly on her intent to let her writing speak for itself rather than trade on the strength of her name. Even if she didn’t, though, it’s not her fault that the publishing world reacts the way it does or readers go crazy snapping up her books.

    1. This is why one does not speak ill of the gods of writing; the gods may be benevolent and kind, but their followers most assuredly will not be.

      That said, I do hope that Lynn Shepherd’s career as a writer herself isn’t derailed by this. It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s commentary on a particular topic. It’s quite another to financially punish them for it. I don’t think Shepherd deserves a wave of 1 star reviews on her own work. Snarky posts from sarcastic bloggers, sure, but bad reviews is going too far.

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