Mailbag: Washington Post OpEd argues ‘It’s Time for J.K. Rowling to let Other People write Harry Potter Books’

Newt s.A dear friend of HogwartsProfessor sent me a link to an op-ed piece that appeared in today’s Washington Post. Under the headline ‘It’s time for J.K. Rowling to let other people write Harry Potter books,’ it tries to make the case that Rowling needs to open the Fan Fiction Gates a la the Star Wars and Marvel Universe Franchises so that starving fans can get what they want, namely, more Wizarding World stories and films.

We’ve talked about this here before, if only in brief. I confess to being unimpressed by the pitch made in this opinion piece and startled that it appeared in such a well-read venue. It appears to have been written by someone intentionally ignoring the obvious and I thought WaPo editorial page standards were higher.

First, comparisons with George Lucas and Stan Lee are inept and inapt.

SW3The Star Wars dis-enfranchisement from Lucas, for example, took decades and then only after the original auteur had a “second bite at the apple.” Making a Lucas-Rowling parallel and then urging her to get on with it seems more than a little hasty, testy even. And I’m no Treebeard. The comic book universe roll out onto film also is not something that happened suddenly or within the first ten years of Spiderman #1 or the advent of The Uncanny X-Men or The Fantastic Four as American myths. And both LucasFilm and Marvel have been allowing others to write EU stories that did not and could not undermine their core money maker, films and comic books for a very long time.

Second, Harry Potter readers are starved for more stories about Harry and Company? Really?

No doubt, the world would quake if The Presence were to announce that she had penned a novel, prequel or sequel to the Hogwarts Saga, akin to Cursed Child. Failing that, however, it’s not as if Rowling has become a second Harper Lee or J. D. Salinger in closing down access to beloved characters and stories. You may have heard that she has launched a second Wizarding World film franchise in Fantastic Beasts and, yes, there is Cursed Child, if it is not a Rowling product per se. That play (and the script we will be able to read), one that she did not write but from which she will profit, seems to be evidence of her having taken a strong step in the direction this op-ed piece urges her to begin.

We’re in a relative glut of Rowling writing about the Wizarding World today. Why is this the time to call on the author to let go the reins of creative control and story writing?

2015 aThird and last, I’d note, too, that Rowling has been remarkably shy about bringing copyright suits to court since the Warner Brothers/Vander Ark debacle (the rumor is she was told that she can only lose her rights if she insists on them too zealously — and that the judge thought she was approaching that line). Considering that novels have been published for sale that feature the Potterverse already with no objections from WB/Bloomsbury and fans are kickstarting film projects that do the same, I’m left to wonder ‘Whence the push for Rowling to loosen up?’

Best to leave this sleeping dog alone, lest it awake from its nap with distemper or just a bad temper.

Thanks to James for sending the link — and thanks in advance for those of you who share your thoughts on this subject below! Is it time for Rowling to dis-enfranchise? Why or why not?



  1. In his book “The Philosophy of Enchantment”, R.G. Collingwood observed that back in the middle ages, if an audience thought that a storyteller had fudged an element of the story he or she was telling, then sometimes a debate would arise over just how the narrative the particular story was supposed to go.

    Now that might sound like an endorsement of what many are asking of JKR right now, however, I’d argue there’s a difference. For one thing, there is a difference in the “type” of audience Collingwood is talking about. The middle ages were a time when the great majority of people couldn’t read, yet that doesn’t mean they didn’t know how to tell stories. If it was a time before people could read, it was also a time before storytelling as entertainment became a much more privatized affair like it is now. Indeed, storytelling was one of the major forms of social discourse once upon a time.

    What medieval tellers and audiences lacked in reading comprehension, they more than made up for with imagination. I’m not sure the same can be said of everybody or every fan who asks this today of their favorite authors.

    There is a second reason for doubting the validity that any fan can take any story and do just about anything he or she wants from it, and once more Collingwood provides the answer. It is true that sometimes audiences in ancient times might correct a narrator if they felt something was wrong with the story. However, these debates emerged within a context of an established folklore. We’re talking here about the basic type of stories, Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Robin Hood.

    It is true these stories have minor variations here or there depending on which version you read, yet I think that is more telling of just how iron clad this idea of an “established” folklore held true back then. By saying that ancient folklore was “established” for it’s audience, I mean that while certain details may vary here and there, the basic setup and action of the narrative remained unchanged. There is even a possibility that older audiences considered their stories to have a sort of inviolability about them. in other words, they would find it something close to a blasphemy to suggest, say, making the Wolf in Red Riding Hood the hero of the story like we can now. For them, it was a question of a story having an “genuine”, or exact narrative, which it was the teller’s job to both “get down” and then narrate in as exact a manner as possible.

    If all this strikes you as a bit crazy, well, that just shows how much of a shift our current views of storytelling have gone through. The ancient audiences viewed stories as something that was within shouting distance of the Sacred. For most people reading this, however, I’m sure the logical reply must be that it’s “just a story, what’s the big deal.” And that’s the whole point, stories today can’t be a big deal for everyone, otherwise they wouldn’t treat the narrative sequence of events or characters in such a slapdash fashion as we see in a lot of modern blockbusters. I’d argue that the fans who demand co-author status for various stories do it because they really “don’t” see that much value in a work of fiction, except perhaps as a kind of “personal castle building”, something done more for the sake of ego, rather than creativity.

    That’s a rather long way of saying I also don’t think just anybody can write, and that it takes more than the desire to write in order to tell a real story. For me, I think there are two approaches to stories: the selfish, and the creative. The selfish approach is, as I said, always concerned with ego first, and is only interested in imagination to the extent that it can give their ego a boost. The creative type on the other hand is just that, concerned with the creation of the best art possible, even there’s only a handful to here it.

  2. Emily Strand says

    I said it in Amy Sturgis’ Star Wars course, and I’ll say it again here: despite Lucas’ early harassment of SW fan fiction writers, he and his franchise give off a welcome to would-be contributors that Rowling just does not. And for good reason! I say that as a compliment to her writing. It’s too perfectly plotted, too thorough in its characterization and series-based themes. (John, I’m much less interested in the Cursed Child phenomenon knowing she herself did not write it.) In Lucas’ “used universe,” however, perfectionism does not reign (can anyone say “parsecs”?). It’s the vast, expanding incompleteness of Lucas’ world, unlike Rowling’s (which I ultimately prefer), that makes me want to hole up in a murky little corner of the ‘verse and start filling in the details. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to making up Obi-Wan and Anakin dialogue…

  3. I’d note here that the WaPo writer is not advocating that Rowling give up all control and open the flood gates to fan fiction writing and film production. The writer argues she should follow the model of Lucas and Marvel which prototypes both involve(d) tremendous quality control.

  4. Well, when it comes to the idea of there being different types of writing models, I’d have to say, from what I’ve seen, the kind the WaPo writer espouses don’t seem to work out all that well for their originators. Lucas finally had to give them up, while Stan Lee is really more just a figurehead in his company more than anything else.

    It could be this author believes that such a model, with the creator a mere figurehead in service to the various (above all “conflicting”) demands of the fans, actually is the wave of the future.

    Whether or not the creative arts will adopt such a model, I’d have to say I’m not at all confident that such conditions would guarantee the creation of a good story. While it’s true that every author is to some extent the product of the culture they were raised in, the best stories still had a kind of individual quality to them that signified that the artwork was a self-contained, sui-genaris type of thing that ultimately wasn’t beholden to it’s time and place, so much as it was able to channel the times it expressed in a way that always seemed to elevate it above the history it was apart, while at the same time still being able to capture and preserve that history. I don’t think this ability came from any of the authors themselves, I think it’s a natural product of the Imagination itself, really.

    My problem with the fan-oriented model is that I doubt it will leave much room for Imagination, to be honest. I’ve never seen a Superhero comic that I could ever call good, and I think a lot of that has to do with the kind of environment companies like either DC or Marvel foster. I think that kind of bullpen aesthetic really doesn’t aid the kind of creativity you see in a work like Ms. Rowling’s

  5. Lydia Fish says

    I just wish she would publish that encyclopedia which is truly needed and which she won’t let anyone else do.

  6. Ah, Lydia, good point! The Scottish Book, the rights to writing of which she was so determined to protect…

    I think her change in agents and recovery from Post-Potter-Apocalypse has put her interest in a Potter-Pedia on hold, perhaps permanent hold.

    PotterMore entries released periodically and franchise blockbuster vehicles such as Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts will sustain the world’s attention and maintain the remarkable set of charities and their working infrastructures dependent on Ms Rowling’s generosity much better than a one-off volume that would largely preclude her continued exploration of the series and its world.

    But again, point well made. Her pursuit of copyright protection was set upon her determination to produce and profit from her own version of a Potter Encyclopedia. She has published four novels and one screenplay, probably written more, and had a hand in staging a two part play. With no signs of said encyclopedia. This suggests the lawsuit, as many said at the time, was just pique and nastiness, or that her plans has changed as to how she can best profit from her controlled release of Wizarding World information.

    And she is the master of controlled narrative release.

    Thanks for this important note!

  7. Emily Strand says

    John and Lydia – isn’t Pottermore, in effect, the Scottish book? I always thought so, when I understood what it was and what she was doing with it. Which, to me, sort of turned the “I want to be the one to profit off encyclopedic information” argument to VanDerArk on its head, since really, she wanted to give it away to fans for free as a thank you. But either way, I wish a paper-and-ink version of Pottermore were available. I find it awkward trying to cuddle up with a website.

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