Is J. K. Rowling a Novelist? Not Primarily

This morning a new friend from Finland, the YouTube videographer responsible for a piece that argued runes would play a part in the Beasts film franchise, wrote a note in response to my post on that idea. It was polite and thoughtful except for the casual assertion that we are “arrogant” here at HogwartsProfessor (a charge like ‘elitism’ that is a hashtag-categorization slur in place of argument and discussion that the insecure use to belittle anyone they fear are more intelligent). I thought what the response said beyond that unfortunate note was well-put, if we’ll have to agree to disagree about the likelihood of runes becoming important in the Beast films.

Reviewing my original post, though, I think I was mistaken in an important aspect of my argument contra Rowling-writing-with-runes in the films to come. As this represents something of a sea change in my understanding of Rowling-as-writer, I decided to write about it as a proper post rather than in that thread of comments (though I was obliged to jump into an old thread yesterday to explain a theory about Jacob Kowalski). I really would like to go public with this change in perspective I’ve had and read what you think.

I asserted with great confidence in the Rune post that Rowling is a novelist-on-holiday in her screenwriting duties, someone who is not really that committed to movie making, hence the ‘one-film now three films now five movies’ evolution that suggests writing by the seat of one’s pants rather than the five years careful planning we’re used to in her novels. The assertion that ‘she’s primarily a novelist,’ an assertion that is one she makes, was the heart of my argument that Rowling is almost certainly not going to create a new language for these films to include an alphabet.

That premise may have been true, but there is good reason today to doubt it. The consequent argument may be true though the premise is false; we’ll have to see. Why do I doubt that Rowling is still primarily a novelist?

The reason I’m hedging on the novelist-before-screenwriter idea despite Rowling’s insistence this is true is the reality of her time priorities and commitments, which can be seen most clearly on her daily notes to the world via her Twitter feed.

She has made more than 6,000 tweets since she got the account and I have not done anything like a category analysis of the subjects she covers. My informed guess, though, from my reading this past year of what she writes about — largely because of a commitment to track the headers she says are reflections of her creative thinking — is that (a) whatever aspect of her work has a news hook gets her tweets and retweets, be it Cursed Child, Cormoran Strike teevee shows, or Beasts press releases, and (b) Lumos, Lumos, Lumos.

Rowling has said that she wants her legacy to be the success of her Lumos efforts to end the institutionalized care of children in orphanages globally. No small ambition. Everything she does, consequently, has ties to Lumos promotion, fund raising, and efforts to end charity-tourism and First World funding of orphanages in economically backward countries. This is her priority.

It has supplanted, I think, her J. K. Rowling identity or persona as a novelist, per se, for one of Writer-Celebrity-Philanthropist. Jo Murray’s crafting of this public ‘JKR’ character — it helps to be reminded periodically that ‘J. K. Rowling’ is no more Jo Rowling Murray’s name than ‘Robert Galbraith’ — is as nuanced and careful as her work creating Harry and Cormoran in their fictional universes or as politicians and movie stars are with the public faces or masks they fashion via publicists and press agents.

Read Jeanette Walls’ Dish: How Gossip Became the News and the News Became Just Another Show for an education about what a full time job this is and the specific techniques and practices involved in public persona maintenance and protection. No interviews with press that do not include approval of questions in advance and of the finished piece before publication, for example, and a priority for screened and audio rather than print media which all but guarantees positive and superficial treatment that advances a specific message. Rowling left Christopher Little to be represented by WB lawyer Neil Blair because the former was not savvy in the kind of celebrity and multi-platform packaging of celebrity that the latter is.

My new premise, then, is that Rowling’s focus is not novel writing. It is maximizing income stream from and public attention on her work to further the ends of Lumos. Novel writing, however close it may be to her one-time identity, takes a back seat to movie making and television show production (and daily tweeting to 13 million followers!) because those activities make millions rather than thousands of galleons and bitcoins and generate exponentially more media exposure and coverage that she can steer towards Lumos efforts.

At the release of Fantastic Beasts 1 this time last year, JKR, Inc., told us on the red carpets she would be publishing two novels in 2017, Strike4 and another one of unknown subject matter. [Who knows? She may have published the one under another pseudonym; keep a look out!] But all we have for Strike4 a year later is a title and a hint last week that she is at the ‘epigraph for chapters’ stage or the big finish when Cormoran quotes a Latin poet at length from memory (Bea Groves noticed this Rowling tweet has a Loeb style translation of Catullus under the popcorn). There is still no Amazon page for Lethal White or an announced date of publication; it’s all out, though, on Rowling-Twitter for re-tweets for ‘Crimes of Grindelwald’ promotion and associated Lumos events with Beasts screen stars at the British Museum.

I still don’t think Rowling is going to be writing runes into the Beasts franchise. There are reasons that works that I explain in the original post, most notably her focus on literariness and embedded texts. I just don’t see it happening, though, because that sort of thing won’t work on screen as it does on the page.

But the premise of my first post — that she won’t go that far into the subject for a film because she is a novelist, first and foremost — I think we have to write that idea off. JKR, Inc., The Presence, is a publicist-packaged entity within which there is a person who has written and continues to write novels, yes, but who is beholden to holding up the persona-celebrity to advance her legacy ambitions which are charitable and philanthropic and social justice rather than literary in priorities.

A closing idea for your consideration. ‘Jo Murray’s greatest single sustained artistic creation or fiction is not the Wizarding World sub-creation or the London world of Cormoran Strike but the Celebrity-Activist-Philanthropist-Writer persona and franchise of J. K. Rowling.’ Think ‘Angela Carter‘ or ‘Dorothy Thompson,’ not ‘Suzanne Collins’ or ‘Dorothy Sayers.’

Discuss!

[The pictures for this post are primarily from the J. K. Rowling Twitter Header collection.]

Comments

  1. I suspect you are entirely right.

    Similarly, we heard that Stephenie Meyer was under contract for numerous novels, yet instead have been given an unexpected, gender-swapped version of Twilight, “Life and Death,” and the first book of The Host trilogy. No mermaids, no remaining Host books, no Book-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

    Filmmaking must be really, really fun, or something: https://ficklefishfilms.com. In terms of social impact, Meyer’s worked to further women’s access and well-being within filmmaking, which nowadays, seems clearer why than ever before. And, she’s used her more modest means for philanthropy such as donating the proceeds from “Bree Tanner” to charity.

    I continue to feel that JKR and Meyer are singular writers whose loss may be sorely missed, whereas many, many others can/would be film producers, and having worked in charities before, I am well aware that there are others who can/will carry out their philanthropic directives.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow! Very interesting! No attempt at real discussion from me, yet – but some thinking out loud as immediate reaction…

    “Writer-Celebrity-Philanthropist” has room under “Writer” for a – what are good words for it? – ‘story-wright’, ‘action-wright’? – actively involved in things that are first ‘filmed’ rather than carefully worked out novels.

    How important are new ‘works’ in this? My snap reaction is, ‘very’ – which you well express in speaking of “movie making and television show production (and daily tweeting to 13 million followers!) because those activities make millions rather than thousands of galleons and bitcoins and generate exponentially more media exposure and coverage that she can steer towards Lumos efforts.”

    “I just don’t see it happening, though, because that sort of thing won’t work on screen as it does on the page.” An interesting, challenging strand… What of the Deathly Hallows sign as rune-analogue, and its transition to screen – and ‘moichendizing’ (to quote Yogurt in Spaceballs)? And of course – and very ambiguously and complicatingly – the incredibly effective visual working of hijacked runes (etc.) by the Nazis. How much ‘runopoeia’ might be necessary to escape its problematical potential? But, again, what Grindalwaldian aura-of-evil opportunities, if malign ‘runopoesis’ – or, better yet, rune-hijacking, were thematized?

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    By the way, having lately listened to “Pottering towards the new socialist state”:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b091wf88#play;

    I wish Sir Roger could be lured into this discussion!

  4. Susan Schutjes says:

    Dear John

    Thank you for this post. I can see where you are coming from. Although Rowling is still writing daily, she has many demands on her time with Lumos and Fb and Cursed Child and the legacy of HP and raising a family. Also, Twitter can be addictive. I think you may be right in thinking all this influences her ability to release the Cormoran Strike novels and other stuff as frequently as she has before. Although just having to write 4 more scripts for Fb in seven years or so would also do that in my opinion.

    Thank you also for clarifying the choices Rowling has made with the legacy she wants to leave. I think it is a very Griffyndor thing to do: she has chosen purposefully to further the causes she thinks are important (Lumos, the Volant institute) by using her financial and moral capital. Aside from her financial position, she has already created her artistical and literary legacy and could be forgiven for never writing a single book again. So writing could take a second place if she did not like it so much. It is now more a daily hobby than a profession. Most artists in the past did not have this luxury, because they never got to the stage where their craft gave them the financial freedom to do so. This “lack of freedom” however, made them focus more on the core of their craft, in my opinion.

    I am worried that all that stress will negatively affect the quality of her work. Is Rowling’s writing better when she is not working under pressure, taking her time to craft her stories? I don’t know, because with HP she could and did take her time when the pressure got too much (after HP4) and Goblet is still my favourite book.

    What is your opinion on this?

  5. Dear Susan,

    Thank you for this contribution to the conversation.

    I don’t think Rowling’s work as a novelist, at least as reflected in her Strike novels, is suffering because of dissipation consequent to distraction, at least in as much as it occurs while she is writing these books. The Strike novels are as well structured, plotted better, and at least as exciting as the Potter books.

    Rowling’s aim, though, in the Hogwarts Saga was an exposition on faith and doubt, in large part, one she wrote in between a blender mix of genre parodies and traditional symbolism. It was genius in conception and execution.

    Strike? The execution has been, if anything, as I said, better than Potter, even the best of her work. The conception and scope, however, is relatively ‘small beer’ and anything but Nabokovian in reach.

    If I understand you correctly, you think she writes better under pressure and against a tight deadline. No author in our lifetimes, I think it safe to say, will experience pressure like Rowling had 1999-2007, not even Rowling today. I hope you’re wrong, consequently!

    And I’m delighted to meet a serious reader whose favorite book is Goblet of Fire!

    This conversation only makes me more eager to read ‘Lethal White.’ Let’s return to it after we get a first reading of a novel she wrote while she has been screen-writing, Tweeting daily, and taking Lumos promotion to another level. If it’s brilliant or a turkey, we’ll have more information to make a call on how the distractions affect her.

  6. Ah, sorry about that comment on arrogance – sometimes the American way of academia rubs me the wrong way. But I found your response quite humorous – it reminded me of professor Snape.

    I, too, think Rowling is really into philanthropy and her main motive might be to create income for charities – I think there is substantial evidence for this as well. As a writer, her passion seems to be directed towards the Strike novels. I think it’s in writing those books she feels she’s truly a novelist. I think using the pseudonym is quite telling – she didn’t want people to have expectations based on her previous works for those books, postulating that she wanted to develop as a writer without the burden of her past.

    I think the Fantastic Beasts franchise is probably both an interesting challenge for her as a writer (writing screenplays is different than writing a novel) and, yes, a way to raise awareness on child abuse and orphanages + support Lumos with the money. Which is why I feel she might want to reach audiences across the world (as indicated by her Pottermore content on wizarding schools and placing the movies in different locations). As she seems to love mythologies, I feel like she’s trying to incorporate as much of different mythologies of indigineous groups across the world into her movies as she can. Which kind of fits the social justice thing.

    Oh, by the way: me and Susan Sipal recently theorised we might meet Merope Gaunt in the next movies. It’s one of those “out there” theories, but I think it’s much cooler to think of Claudia Kim’s character as Merope Gaunt rather than Nagini. You know, just because.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_I5m1O3tIJk

  7. Mr. Granger,

    The best I can offer is a parable drawn from real life. A while back, Stephen King’s son, Owen, became a kind E-Street maniac. In particular, Owen wanted to be nothing more or less than Clarence Clemons, the sax player.

    King and his wife bought him the instrument in question, and signed him up for local music lessons. After seven months, King decided it was time to ask Owen if enough was enough. Owen was relieved his Dad felt the same way. He’d been too polite to admit that sax playing just didn’t cut it for him. King said he could tell the same by the fact he “never heard” Owen “taking off, surprising himself with something new, blissing himself out. And a soon as his practice time was over, it was back into the case with the horn, and there it stayed until the next lesson or practice time. What that suggested to me was that when it came to the sax and my son, there was never going to be any real play-time it was all going to be rehearsal. That’s no good. If there’s no joy in it, it’s just no good. It’s best to go onto some other area, where the deposits of talent may be richer and the fun quotient higher.

    “Talent renders the whole idea of rehearsals meaningless; when you find something at which you are talent, you do it (whatever “it” is) …Even when no one is listening (or reading, or watching), every outing is a bravura performance, because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic (On Writing, 143, mass market paperback ed.)”.

    To this, I’d like to add one more aspect. That talent might contain more than just (in Rowling’s case) a way with words. I’d like to argue that for all writers who are serious about it, storytelling, paradoxical as it may sound, is their way of plugging into reality. It’s what opens up all the world has got, and, in certain cases, what is able to keep them steady. To borrow a phrase from a film, I’d have to say real writers always find they can’t escape their imaginations because were “brought up in it, molded by it”.

    With that said, I don’t know how serious Ms. Rowling is about the craft. The best way to tell, one way or the other, would (in my case) be if her output literary efforts were to gradually drop off altogether. Do think that will happen? Somehow, I just don’t think so. It will all come down to how well she can resist the siren song of her own imagination, and whether she has taught it all too well to misbehave. If she finds that she can’t ignore whatever creative ideas her Imagination tosses into her mind, then no matter what she does or says, she’s a novelist first and last. Who knows, it might all come down to a simple question of enthusiasm. As stand-up comic Bill Hicks once observed, “Play from your heart”.

  8. Rowling on being ‘Jo Murray’ (July, 2017)

    She also told Amanpour that she had been so pleased to have found a publisher, she was happy to accept Bloomsbury’s suggestion of a gender-neutral pseudonym. “I was so grateful to be published, if they told me to call myself Rupert, I probably would have done,” she said. How does she feel about her pen name now? “I actually quite like having a pen name, because… that feels like an identity and then I’m, in private life, I’m Jo Murray. And it feels like quite a nice separation.”

  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “Rowling on being ‘Jo Murray'” added to the post somehow reminded me of an intriguing essay by the late Stephen Medcalf, “Language and Self-Consciousness: The Making and Breaking of C.S. Lewis’s Personae”, in Word and Story in C.S. Lewis, ed. P.J. Schakel and C.H. Huttar (U of Missouri P, 1991).

  10. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Bestiary,

    Your saying, “As she seems to love mythologies, I feel like she’s trying to incorporate as much of different mythologies of indigenous groups across the world into her movies as she can” seems to me to broach a very interesting discussion in the context of her work and mythopoeia generally and what might be called ‘the appropriation wars’.

  11. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    The references to both her “daily tweeting to 13 million followers” and the fact that “Twitter can be addictive” makes me wonder, has anyone tried to do any work of how (partially?) counter-productive her assorted foul-mouthed, vicious, malign, obtuse (etc.) tweets are where her other goals and interests are concerned?

  12. For The Greater Good, in a great way!

    Great post, John!

    What could be more enjoyable than helping thousands of children in need?

    On top of that there is still writing (but for which I think the pressure of a deadline is probably more flexible for The Presence than most other writers). There’s the excitement of story telling via another media (film). And twitter allows not only an avenue for revenue, but a way to connect with real fans without getting mobbed in person.

    Life is good for JKR and she is using her blessings in the best possible way. And everyone wins – those in need, and her fans.

  13. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Branching off a bit from Bestiary’s accent on cultural and especially mythological specific variety and JKR as mythopoet, I just read a historical overview of matter largely new to me which (whatever Jo Murray does or does not know about it) seems to me to invite to a comparison with Wizarding history:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/11/21/the-american-indian-foundation-of-american-gun-culture/

    Magical folk are weaponized, democratically, to an astonishing extent – at least in a European context – and in keeping with this, universally educated in responsible wielding from an early age – around 11 at the latest, for those from non-Magical families. How was that, in other Wizarding cultures? There seems a world (pun intended) of Wizarding sociology for JKR to work out as she needs or likes to!

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