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.

Open Source Universes

Will Harry Potter ever eclipse Luke Skywalker as a cultural icon? That’s the question being asked over at a post on IO9 and it sparked my interest enough that I wanted to weigh in with my own thoughts.

It’s trendy in nerd circles to hate on George Lucas. You decry the plastic acting, overly video game-y appearance of the prequels while pointing out the purity of the original trilogy and sign off with a flourish by declaring solemnly that your favorite film of the original trilogy was Empire. This statement earns you massive nerd cred, as your fellow nerds nod approvingly and also voice their support for Empire‘s obvious superiority. This is all a testament to the sadly fallen state of the once-beloved creator who lost his artistic drive and his vision as success blinded him.

It’s like Harvey said: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

It’s also like Bane said: “Peace has cost you your strength! Victory has defeated you!”

It’s amazing to me how many times I can quote Batman characters to make a point.

Here’s the thing about George Lucas, though, and something that almost nobody gives him respect for: he was one of the very, very, very few creators who not only allowed people to play in his universe, he encouraged it. Do you think it’s a coincidence that there’s a huge body of “Expanded Universe” material for Star Wars? Or that it just so happens that some Expanded Universe material ends up finding its way back into the movies, like blue hottie Jedi Knight Aayla Secura?

George let people write novels in his universe. He let a whole slew of other authors take his playground and define it in new ways. Things that we take for granted as Star Wars fans, like “Coruscant” were created and imported into the canon. There aren’t many creators with the courage to do this. I’m a creative-type myself and the idea of letting control of my story slip out of my hands is something that fills me with terror. And I’m just talking about some little novel I’ve been plugging away at, not a multi-million dollar franchise.

There are a lot of creators that don’t allow this level of freedom. Ann McAffrey didn’t. J.K. Rowling doesn’t. You’re either not allowed to play in the universe at all (seriously, McAffrey hated fan fiction) or you are allowed to play, but only under strict supervision (which is the current state of things for Harry Potter fan fiction).

My point is not to be an apologist for George Lucas, although I think he gets a very unfair rap these days from overly vehement fans (seriously, some of the dialogue in Empire is pretty terrible, you guys). The comparison between Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter shows the importance of allowing fans to play with your work. Rather than dilute or diminish your copyright (the usual argument against this sort of thing), unimpeded fan-love is what takes your intellectual property and turns it from a franchise into a cultural touchstone, a part of our modern mythology.

Is Harry Potter big? Absolutely; I’m sure, all things added up, it’s made more money than Star Wars. Harry Potter is a phenomenon. Or at least it was. With no inkling of new books on the horizon, how long will the fan base sustain its love? How many times can you revisit the universe you love without injections of new life from the creator?

Star Wars fans know what this is like: it was roughly fifteen years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menanace. What kept the torch burning for all those fans when it looked like the movies were done? It was the Expanded Universe. It was the novels. It was the culture that was allowed and even encouraged to grow around the love of this thing.

I’m not saying creators don’t have a right to control their work. They absolutely do. But I think any creative person should look very closely at George Lucas and Star Wars and keep in mind what happens when you allow the fans free access. They won’t fuck you over. Fans will protect you. They will take your baby and love it and cherish it and help it grow into something so far beyond your wildest dreams. That’s the lesson to be learned from Star Wars.

Star Wars first appeared in 1977. It’s 36 years old as I write this. Harry Potter is roughly half its age, having debuted in 1997. Will Harry be as iconic as Luke Skywalker in another fifteen years?

I’m not so sure. I’d like to think so, but if nobody is ever allowed to return to Harry’s world and tell stories around Harry and beyond Harry, if Rowling never allows another scribe to dip his or her pen in the Hogwarts ink . . . I don’t see how it will be allowed to grow. Certainly, we’ll still remember it, just like we remember the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia and all those many other beloved stories. But will they grow with us? Will they persist through the generations? I’m not so sure.

For all his other mistakes he might have made as a creator, I think George Lucas knocked this one out of the park and in the end, this might just be the only decision that ever really mattered.