Tuesday, 4 March 2014

On J.K. Rowling and the fans who take no prisoners

A few days ago I passed on a piece of news that had taken center-stage as an indication of the power of fans. The issue involved writing superstar J.K. Rowling, who had been asked (would “demanded” or “requested” be better words?) by Lynn Shepherd to stop writing. If not for a nobler reason, at least in order to give some space to the debutantes and the not-so-lucky.

One thinks about this and somewhere, in the deep recesses of one’s hopeful mind, the torturing thought appears to make sense. It’s not unlike asking a billionaire to stop making so much money, lest poor startups are left with mere bones to chew on. (Not to mention the really poor, who don’t even have a business to complain about!)
Except we’re not talking about making money here – in spite of the frighteningly big cheques Rowling is cashing in. No, it’s not about money. It’s about writing. What bothered the author of the anti-Rowling tirade (subsequently turned, of course, into kind apologies) was the extent to which the mother of Harry Potter has been monopolizing printed space. And that’s exactly where it doesn’t quite make sense to complain. Why? Because there’s no such thing as monopoly in the world of authors. Yes, yes, I know. I know about those who sell millions of copies, I know about the Dan Browns, the Stephen Kings, and the Dean Koontz’s of the writerly world who seem to have taken book selling to fictional dimensions. But they are far from monopolizing literature. With or without them, literature is doing just as fine. There are still Noble prizes to be won, the Booker grows in prestige every year, and even if we don’t think much of these distinctions, the success of the famous doesn’t stop cohorts of (often bad, often good) self-published authors to rise to internet fame like mushrooms after a good summer rain.

Lynn Shepherd
via www.lynn-shepherd.com
J.K. Rowling
via mayhementertainment411
Let’s think about it. Monopoly means the power of one. It’s dictatorship, tyranny, bad stuff. In a monopoly situation all alternatives are paralyzed. Is that what’s happening around the J.R. Rowling industry? Has she killed all possibilities? Are there no other writers publishing and making a lot of money? Are there no fans of other authors who hate Rowling just as much but who would give their lives (metaphorically, of course) to the cause of their own idols? If the answer to any of the above is ‘no,’ we can safely rule out the possibility of monopoly.
One can’t accuse J.K. Rowling of running a monopoly (which she isn’t properly running, since it’s mostly done by her vehement readers) in Rowling Land. Neither can one accuse Dan Brown or Stephen King of the same, when it all takes place in Brown Land or King Land. What these things I call lands have in common is their isolation. They are exclusive territories, with fans who throw their own tantrums, and with readers who have their own tendencies towards xenophobia. But they don’t spill out. Not so much as to worry anybody who is concerned by the fate of literature. They are mostly confined to their reading pleasures and to the circles of aficionados they are affiliated to. They don’t bother the reading time of those who want to read Dickens or who think that Dickens is the only one worth one’s attention. The latter, as we can see, aren’t any better than the former, since what they’re advocating is an equally exclusivist approach to whatever is the object of reading.
My point is this: reading is free. One cannot be persuaded to read what one doesn’t like, which is not unlike saying the opposite: that one always reads what one likes best. Whatever makes them happy!
And so, one’s audience must not be taken to be the only audience there is. Because it’s not. I, personally, haven’t read any of J.R. Rowlings’ books. I didn’t do it because of some literary purism. I simply never had time to approach them. The same way I’ve never had time to finish Anna Karenina. So I am not part of the Rowling audience. But there are many, very many, who do belong in the class of Harry Potter readers. Why should I stumble upon them? Why should I be frightened by them? Why should I be worried? It’s likely we’re never going to cross paths. At the end of the day, we have our own preferences and our own reading schedules, which may or may not collide. If they do, we can talk; if they don’t, we don’t even have to pretend we’ve never heard of each other.

The other side

On the other hand, though, let’s take a look at the opponent as well. It’s only fair to say that, if the argument from the freedom of expression is brought about, then her point should be examined at least with some attention. I would, if I were one of her critics, try to think positively about something that appears in eminently negative lights. What I have in mind is a blog post by Chuck Wendig the other day, who, on a completely different topic, was encouraging people in general (not necessarily the class of readers) to think before judging. That would involve, in his words, thinking in terms such as the following:
“Assume that people who are outraged are sincere and earnest. You don’t have to think they’re right, mind you — nor do you need to appease and placate just because it’s outrage. But assume it’s real. Assume it comes from a place of hurt and not that it’s manufactured just for drama’s sake. Sure, sometimes it is. But you don’t know that and it’s very hard to tell unless you really know the heart of a person — how do you know that they’re just stirring shit because they like the smell and not because they’re actually upset? You don’t. Everyone should approach each other like they’re coming at common ground from different ends, not that they’re trying to burn the crops and salt the earth.
Take a positive twist on your darkest thoughts – this is Wendig’s point. That, to the headless fury of offended fans, doesn’t quite occur as a possibility. Not very often. But to think in response to this Rowling tornado, let’s admit it: the critic was using a tool widely used since reading has become professional and (more recently) interactive. And that tool is called criticism. Just like the fans who exploded against her, maybe all this was her having a word to say about something she didn’t like. Somehow she chose to focus on the wrong thing. Had she stopped at a more specific issue, she would have generated one of those gentle debates that animate fan groups around the world: things to do with character construction, style – you know, the usual stuff of writing.

Fans have been adapting Shepherd's post,
making it into attacks against her own books.
The author of this video went on to post a similar 1-star review
on her Amazon account, just to make the point clearer.

But what if Shepherd is onto something? At the end of the day, frankly speaking, yes: J.R. Rowling is getting more primetime than many other authors. And yes, any article published in a newspaper, a magazine, or a blog takes up print territory to the detriment of all the other articles which could have appeared in the same space. So her calculations are not so darn far-fetched as to completely exclude the point she’s trying to make. Mathematically speaking, she’s right. She’s also right statistically, and for the same reasons: the more attention is paid to a writer, the more he or she gains in the fans department; and the more they do so, the more likely it becomes for their names to appear at the top of all lists of preferences. Poor unknowns, they can only contemplate the rise to power of others, while their own work remains hidden in the clutter of anonymity.

There’s no real monopoly. Not in literature

It looks like I’m returning to the same point over and over again: Lynn Shepherd got the wrong footing on the problem by asking that Rowling stop writing to give the world a better chance. Because – I’m saying it again, I don’t know why – there is no monopoly. Or if there is, it is something way out of a writer’s control. If we look at the list of bestselling authors assembled by Wikipedia, Shakespeare and Agatha Christie are the heads of the entire tribe of writers, with sales between 2 and 4 billion units. I don’t know about Christie, who seems to have grown on the hype of popular culture in the 1970s and ‘80s; but Shakespeare? Poor man would be gob smacked to see the extent to which his celebrity has taken his plays and poetry.

William Shakespeare
via Wikipedia
Agatha Christie
via www.nofemininonegocios.com
What’s more important, though, Shakespeare had no contribution to the spreading of his fame, which started taking off for real only in the late seventeenth century, when he’d been mere shiny bones for about three quarters of a century. His VIP status proves once again that ceasing to write (and to live altogether, for that matter) is no guarantee that fame will plummet.

Who’s the exclusivist?

It’s not clear if Rowling has retaliated. It would have been hardly necessary, since her fans have taken the issue into their able hands and manufactured enough damage to go with the campaign.
You can’t mess with a Lamborghini of contemporary literature and expect to get away with it. That’s a simple lesson many should learn right now, before they put their minds to doing something similar. A lesson Lynn Shepherd was very much aware of (see the first paragraph of her article). But if we look at things from a certain perspective it’s not even hard to see that the one who’s attempting a monopoly is not Rowling, but Shepherd herself. How else could one interpret words such as these:
“By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.”
When you want to shut a door so as to keep someone out, whoever that someone may be, you’re sending bad vibes around yourself. And then wait till the passionate ones react…