J. K. Rowling and “Real Writing”

I just read that J. K. Rowling has been “outed” as the author of a new mystery novel that she had written under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith.”  I haven’t read the book (or her other new one) so that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of the details, although she posted her own statement on it here.

What makes best-selling writers want to break free of their best-sellers?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a writer trying to stretch her writing legs by trying to write outside her “field of expertise,” i.e. the kind of writing that made her famous. But is this really essential to be a proper writer? If you keep writing what you’re really good at, and it sells to many happy readers, are you stagnating? Or are you going with your strengths? Who decides?

I see some writers succeed wildly in some particular genre, and then spend the rest of their lives somehow trying to break loose from it, as though there was something wrong with their early work and now they have to try to go beyond it to some lofty realm where “real writing” hangs out. Look at Arthur Conan Doyle, forever trying to get Sherlock Holmes out of the way so he could do serious writing. His premise seemed to be that Sherlock Holmes somehow wasn’t “real writing.” That premise, of course, is a steaming load of horse apples. The same goes for the Harry Potter series, which I have read, and is very well-done.

I’m sure critics have some influence here. Popular writing is often relegated to lower tiers in the realm of literary criticism, while the “real writing” gets the awards and the accolades (if not always the sales). Small wonder even writers raking in the numbers can get infected with the idea that they’re just “commercial” or “popular” writers, without the chops to do the “real writing” the critics will laud.

It’s not just writing, either. We’ve all seen those popular actors with a dozen Emmies for comedy trying to do Shakespeare or “serious” roles. Some of them manage. Many don’t, and I guess I think they’ve failed somewhere.

So if Rowling’s new books don’t do as well as some people think they should, will she consider it some sort of failure?

Why? To paraphrase Clarence the angel, no writer is a failure who has readers. Especially if they have millions of them.

It sounds like Rowling did this for a lark, a “liberating experience” as she put it. I hope so. Certainly she doesn’t have anything to prove.

J. K. Rowling wrote imaginative and well-plotted books with characters that made us care about them. She wrote books that had children flocking to read them, many who had never been enthusiastic readers before. She wrote books that had mobs in bookstores screaming like rock fans when the new ones were rolled out to the shelves. She wrote books that still have fans living happily in the world she invented.  She wrote books that sold millions of copies and earned her a billion dollars.

If that’s not “real writing,” what is?

Trapped in a world of their own making

From the Wall Street Journal: “How to Kill a Vampire (Series).”

The article details the tribulations of authors whose popular series and characters have taken over their careers. Then when they decide to wind a series up, they have to deal with legions of upset fans clamoring for more. The main example in the article is Charlaine Harris and her “Sookie Stackhouse” series.

I can imagine the unpublished authors out there shaking their heads: “Lord, please curse me with that problem!” Yeah, me too. It might be stifling to some writers to spend much of their career in one world with one set of characters (“prisoners of their own creations” as the article puts it, referring to Arthur Conan Doyle), but there are some positive angles to it, too.

In a long-running series your world-building work is largely behind you, but you can still add new places if you really want to. Your characters settle down in your mind, and in some cases practically write themselves. While many authors put their characters through “arcs” of personal growth and change (Harry Potter, Sookie Stackhouse), others write characters who are essentially unchanged through the whole series. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one example. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are the same through 46 books, and don’t even age noticeably between the 1930s and the 1970s.

There are other advantages, too, not least of which is that a long-running series builds a large, loyal audience that will reliably buy new books in the series, sometimes waiting in line to get them. This makes your publisher, your agent, movie producers, and your bank account very happy.

I still remember when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out. My family was in the line at the local Borders bookstore, along with hundreds of others. When the time came for the release, and carts of the books were rolled in, there were screams like you hear at rock concerts. Imagine writing a book that does that. Imagine writing books that make you a billionaire.

Best of luck to those authors trying to move on to different things and stretch themselves, but there are worse things than a prosperous, celebrated, and beloved writing legacy wrapped around one series of books.

Crowd waiting for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Border’s