Let’s get the confessions out of the way. I read 100 pages of the first Harry Potter book, put it down, and never picked it up again. It wasn’t bad writing. It just wasn’t for me. I prefer stories with a little more grit. Unlike other bestsellers in recent years, I do understand why the HP series was a tremendous success. Author JK Rowling is a masterful teller of fantasy tales, and she writes characters with which you can connect. I applaud her for getting not just one generation interested in books, but several generations from the UK to America to Zimbabwe and beyond. She carried the entire publishing industry on her back for a few years, and for that alone she has my respect.
Confession number two, I don’t know who Lynn Shepherd is, and I’ve never read a single word of her books. But, her recent comments concerning JK Rowling have put her on my radar. She’s a novelist in the UK who wrote a piece for the Huffington Post urging JK Rowling to stop writing. Shepherd’s main objection is that by publishing books that don’t really deserve the attention they’re getting, Rowling is making it impossible for other authors to get any attention for they’re much more deserving books.
In Shepherd’s own words:
I didn’t much mind Rowling when she was Pottering about. I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. But, then again, any reading is better than no reading, right? But The Casual Vacancy changed all that.
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?
Shepherd’s logic is flawed. She assumes that a book is wholly fulfilling, that readers will devour its contents and satisfy their need to escape into the world of fiction for the entirety of their lives. In fact, the opposite is true. When a reader falls in love with a book, it ignites a passion for reading that benefits every author. A reader develops a need for fiction that becomes as addictive as alcohol or crack only without the occasional blackouts and poorly made coitus-centered decisions.
Rowling doesn’t suck up all the oxygen in the publishing industry. If anything, she makes it an oxygen-rich environment. We authors of lesser note need JK Rowling to publish more. We need her to expand her appeal across every demographic.
A note to Lynn Shepherd: Literary taste can’t be explained, and shouldn’t be attacked. I love the works of Erskine Caldwell. To me, he is flawless as a writer. Yet, I’ve read scathing reviews of his books. Suggesting that JK Rowling is a second-rate writer is an untenable position. Just because you don’t like her books doesn’t make her writing less than deserving. Are there books that have reached an iconic status that I find unreadable and abhorrent? Absolutely. Does their popularity ruin it for the rest of us? Not in the least. Readers of those books will hunger for more to read, and their tastes will grow. Great writing and storytelling will always win out in the end. You and I may disagree on the nature of publishing and the public’s consumption of books, but that doesn’t mean I want you to fail. On the contrary, I need you to succeed. You have my sincerest hope that you reach bestseller status and bring millions more readers into the fold.
UPDATE: Ouch! I just read a few of the “readers'” reviews on Amazon of Shepherd’s latest book, and she is taking some big hits for her piece in HuffPo. I put “readers'” in quotes because most of those giving the book such poor reviews admit to not having read the book.
Shame on those reviewers. They object to her judging another author’s work she hasn’t read and then they turn around and do the same thing to her. JK Rowling will survive Shepherd’s comments unscathed. They needn’t compromise their own integrity to defend her.