Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Curse of Harry Potter

A good friend of mine is going through Hell at the moment. And it's all because of J K Rowling. Or, to be fair, the fallout from J K Rowling - Joanne herself is fairly blameless. You see, my friend has written a children's book - a very good children's book - and when he first floated it around agents and publishers a year ago they pounced on it like a hungry badger on a fat slug. Within a matter of days, it was being touted as 'the new Harry Potter'.

And that's when the curse of Harry Potter struck him.

Ever since J K Rowling announced that Book 7 would be the final chapter in her young wizard's story, hungry publishers have been looking for the new Harry Potter. Publishers don't seem to be looking for something new and exciting and original ... they're looking for a Potter clone; something that will generate the same sales figures. And people like my mate Mark have been caught up in the madness because his book, at a very cursory glance, seems to push all the right buttons. Kids. Adversity. Big baddie. Consequently, publishers swooped on him and raved about his book ... but then they read the whole thing and discovered that it's actually not a Potter clone. It's different and challenging and original. And they subsequently dropped it like warm poo. They've dropped his book in the hope that something more Rowlingesque comes along. To date he's been snapped up and dumped by two agents and a string of publishers. It's driving him mad and it's so unfair. His book is excellent ... but it's not Potter.

We need new stories, new plots and new characters. Why is everyone so sure that we need another Harry potter?

Well, the first claim you'll hear is that Harry Potter got kids reading. That was a good thing surely? Well, it would have been if it were entirely true. Kids were reading Harry Potter books; millions of kids who would normally not have enjoyed reading. But that's all they were reading. They weren't moving on to tougher, more challenging and (in my opinion) much better books such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. They just re-read their Harry Potters. Kids who enjoy reading will read a variety of books by different authors. Kids who don’t particularly enjoy reading will not read unless they feel they have to. Peer pressure or a desire ‘not to be left out’ are good motivators and, it seems, many kids were only reading Harry Potter only because their friends were reading it:

‘Previously released results from The Kids and Family Reading Report, a national survey of the reading attitudes and behaviours of children ages 5-17 and their parents, found that there is a significant falloff in children’s reading frequency after age eight. Yet, according to the Harry Potter section of the survey, the average age kids say they start reading the series is age nine and they continue to read and re-read the books as they mature. Nearly 60% of kids ages 9-11 years old have read the books, and 70% say they are interested in reading or re-reading them; 63% of kids ages 12-14 have read the books and 69% are interested in reading/re-reading them; and 57% of 15-17 year olds have read the books and 60% say they are interested in reading/re-reading them.’ (1)

Incidentally, one worrying spin off of the books’ success was the belief among some parents – particularly in the USA where the Christian church is far more vocal than in the UK – that the Harry Potter books lead children into Satanism. This has proven to be entirely without any basis in fact and apparently stems from an article in US satirical magazine The Onion. Here’s an example of the (I would have thought) obvious spoof that The Onion published:

"I think it's absolute rubbish to protest children's books on the grounds that they are luring children to Satan," Rowling told a London Times reporter in a July 17 interview. "People should be praising them for that! These books guide children to an understanding that the weak, idiotic Son Of God is a living hoax who will be humiliated when the rain of fire comes ... while we, his faithful servants, laugh and cavort in victory." (2)

Amazingly though, people bought into this. As reported by the urban Legends Website Snopes:

‘Unfortunately, hysterical religious groups determined to demonstrate that any children's book dealing with ‘wizards’ and ‘magic’ must be a pernicious, evil influence upon young minds have not only failed to realise this article is satire, they've actually cited it as proof that the ghastly phenomenon of Satan-worshipping youngsters is real. If The Onion's parody has demonstrated anything, it's that we should be worrying about adults not being able to distinguish between fiction and reality. The kids themselves seem to have a pretty good grasp of it.’ (3)

Jeffrey S Victor, in his book Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend (4) describes how an entire urban myth has grown up about Satanism:

‘Again and again we are told (…) that there exists a secret network of criminal fanatics, worshippers of Satan, who are responsible for kidnapping, human sacrifice, sexual abuse and torture of children, drug-dealing, mutilation of animals, desecration of churches and cemeteries, pornography, heavy metal lyrics, and cannibalism. This popular tale is almost entirely without foundation, but the legend continues to gather momentum, in the teeth of evidence and good sense. Networks of 'child advocates', credulous or self-serving social workers, instant-expert police officers, and unscrupulous ministers of religion help to spread the panic, along with fabricated survivors' memoirs passed off as true accounts, and irresponsible broadcast 'investigations'. A classic witch-hunt, comparable to those of medieval Europe, is under way. Innocent victims are smeared and railroaded.’

At the moment, J K Rowling is one of those ‘innocent victims’ as her books are being pilloried by misinformed and fanatical Believers. I even read somewhere that one person claimed that Rowling had sold her soul to the Devil. What else could you attribute her huge success to?

Not Satanic interference certainly. She was just in the right place at the right time and her books captured the zeitgeist of the moment. A Harry Potter clone won't do that. If public taste were that easy to predict, we wouldn't have the fantastic range of literature that we enjoy. We don't want more Harry Potter clones. We want new, exciting, groundbreaking fiction. We want to encourage a whole new generation of writers. We want those new writers to be original, entertaining and successful. None of this will be possible if we spend all of our time looking for a replacement Potter. He was a one-off phenomenon, just as Hula Hoops, Rubik's Cube, Tamagochi, Spice Girls, Clackers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Thunderbirds' Tracy Island were one-off phenomena.

Let's lay the curse of Harry Potter to rest and invest in new talent. Kids will find the next big thing all by themselves and you can bet that it won't be anything that we've foisted on them. Without original writing and brave publishers and agents, fiction will stagnate or simply become a homogenous, unchallenging mess just as populist television and magazines have become.

We deserve better and so do our kids.

(1) Information taken from The Kids and Family Reading Report, a US national survey of 1000 individuals - 500 children ages 5 to 17 years old and one parent or primary guardian per child – prepared by Scholastic Books and Yankelovich, a consumer trends research group.
(2) From The Onion 26th July 2000.
(4) Open Court Publishing Company (1993)


Michele said...

"but then they read the whole thing and discovered that it's actually not a Potter clone. It's different and challenging and original. And they subsequently dropped it like warm poo."

I'm so sorry this is happening to your friend! Hell, indeed. How frustrating.

This happens in genre writing as well. For example, take historical novels (in the U.S. Market). The market will swing toward stories set in England and Scotland only...and only if they're set during the Regency or early Victorian era. So the writers of historical novels set in America can't sell unless they write for the market, which unless one knows British history, customs, traditions, ect...well, the author will be torn apart by critics no doubt. And this will be the trend for a couple of years, which means, as you pointed out, the variety in the genre suffers. But what is weird is that when readers are asked if they like to read American historicals, there's a resounding, "Yes!" I know I do. I know I've heard several editors say the same thing, so why do publishing houses keep saying they won't sell? Or stories set in other countries?

That's my long way of saying I agree there needs to be variety on the bookshelves. But if that doesn't happen, then as writers, we need to write what we want, what matters to us, so we'll be the ones starting the trends. :-)

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that your friend finds a home for his book!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Thanks for the American perspective Michele ... I am so glad that I work mostly in non-fiction! I will pass your kind words on to Mark.

Michele said...

I'll be certain to buy your book when it's released! Can't wait to read it.

By the way, I love, love, love to read stories set in Britain. I hope my comment above didn't sound otherwise. I just enjoy stories set in all time periods and settings, not only one or two. Variety, that's the key. :-)

Another great post!

Stevyn Colgan said...

Well, the feeling is mutual. We like reading books set in the USA. I guess it's the sheer size of the place that impresses us most. We're living on a bunch of islands smaller than Texas ... but you guys have time zones and every extreme from Alaskan ice shelves to Arizona deserts. By comparison, we have almost constant drizzle, around 5 days of sunshine hidden somewhere in August and so little snow that it catches us by surprise every year, causing transport chaos every time. The problem is that, particularly in the south of the UK, we never have enough snow to get any practice with it. It's here one day and gone the next. Our snowmen are pathetically small and ill-constructed - more like deformed snowtoddlers - and 'toboggan' is just a curious word that doesn't rhyme with anything. Except possibly 'doggone'; a word that, if we ever used it, which we don't, would be used to describe our feelings about snow.

Alistair Boxworth said...

What is you6r friend's book's 6name?


Stevyn Colgan said...

It's called 'The Children's Crusade'. And it's too good to be rejected!