Books: A Point of View: Harry Potter Envy |
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Harry Potter Envy : on bestsellerdom

(S02E06, broadcast 27th and 29nd July 2007)

"JK Rowling, the new Roger Bannister"
— JK Rowling envy

If asked whether I suffer from the condition commonly known as J. K. Rowling Envy, I can’t say no. Like any other writer who is not J. K. Rowling, I can’t say no because my teeth are so tightly gritted in a smile of good sportsmanship that tiny fragments of enamel are given off into the atmosphere, and if I opened my mouth any further a long howl of anguish would be released, tapering into a convulsive whimper, punctuated with deliriously mumbled statistics: 325 million copies; 65 languages; a thousand million dollars; a million billion roubles. Gazillion fantabulon megayen ...

Yet mine is only a mild expression of J. K. Rowling Envy. Some clinical psychologists insist on referring to J. K. Rowling Envy under its full technical name of invidia rolinosis potteritis but those are the psychologists who get the job of trying to restore sanity to writers who have plunged into a canal with a word processor to weigh them down or who have turned up gibbering at a Harry Potter midnight book launch and thrown themselves on a burning pyre of their own books screaming, ‘What about me?’

As we go to air, the latest, and avowedly the last, of such Harry Potter book-launch events is allegedly retreating into the past. This contention that the Harry Potter continuous book-launch era is now over for ever is one we might well view with scepticism, but let’s suppose for the moment that it’s true, and return to the question of whether a writer should be without J. K. Rowling envy. It seems to me an impossible requirement. As I’ve stated several times in earlier broadcasts, I set out to be positive in this series, but there is such a thing as facing inconvenient truths, and I think we should admit that there is no point in presuming to condemn an envy so deep-seated. The requirement is to control it, not to eliminate it. For any writer of almost any type, there is no prospect of eliminating it: it burns too deep, like a fire in the hold.

You will notice that I say almost any type, so as to allow room for the occasional altruist author who is not out to make a hit. Take Dr Roger Bannister, the man who ran the first four-minute mile. I think of him most mornings when I’m out doing my exercise walk which culminates in a sprint phase of a forty-minute mile. I can remember watching the newsreel when he ran the first four-minute mile and thinking, well, the old country might not have an empire any more but it isn’t finished yet.

But in the long run, if that’s the phrase I’m looking for, it was Bannister’s brain that mattered. Later on he co-authored the standard medical textbook on neurology, which has gone on selling all his life and will probably remain on the medical school curriculum far into the future. The book has sold thousands of copies over the years but he wouldn’t want it to be a bestseller, because for that to happen there would have to be a superfluous supply of neurologists.

In other words, he did it for love. He is not in the business of maximizing his sales, and the same could be said of all other authors who work to satisfy the requirements of a limited market. But most writers of books are out after the biggest share that they can get of an unlimited market, and this is where J. K. Rowling Envy comes in. She’s actually done what every writer dreams of. What every writer dreams of is of everybody reading the book. I speak approximately, of course. I personally don’t read Harry Potter books because I was inoculated, very early in life, against all forms of magic and elfin whimsy, even when convincingly disguised as literature.

I still haven’t forgiven C. S. Lewis for going on all those long walks with J. R. R. Tolkien and failing to strangle him, thus to save us from hundreds of pages dripping with the wizardly wisdom of Gandalf and from the kind of movie in which Orlando Bloom defiantly flexes his delicate jaw at thousands of computer-generated orcs. In fact it would have been even better if C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien could have strangled each other, so that we could also have been saved from the Chronicles of Narnia. But there is one grown-up member of my family who would regard this opinion as hopelessly restrictive. Having read everything including Tolstoy and Jane Austen, she still has time for elves and wizards, and reads all the Harry Potter books as if they had been designed for adults as well as children.

Perhaps they have. Certainly the total readership for the Potter sequence far exceeds the number of literate young people on earth. JK doesn’t need me reading her too. She’s got the planet, and all its treasure. In getting that, she is also getting the other thing that any writer dreams of. She is getting a torrential stream of income, from royalties beyond the dreams of royalty. Not even the Sultan of Brunei actually makes money on the scale of JK. He accumulates it somehow, but he doesn’t make it. And recently, when his ex-wife went crazy with the credit card and squandered a couple of million quid, he noticed. Judging from his track record, he should never have noticed a little thing like that. This year JK gave at least ten times that much to charity, and we presume it barely dented the bank.

This is hard to take for most writers because most writers don’t even make a living. Although the occasional book of mine does reasonably well — about, say 0.003 on the Rowling scale — I’m always careful not to tell a journalist how many copies it has sold, because the journalist invariably looks unimpressed. Journalists are too used to hearing that Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham sold a million of their latest book in a week. But the average book doesn’t sell even a thousand copies in a year. The average book is lucky to sell a hundred in its lifetime. The average book doesn’t even get published.

Until recent times the average writer could always tell himself that he was suffering for his art and that the blockbuster bestselling author was merely cashing in on a formula. The writer of the serious, sensitive novel that came out, rolled over and sank could always say that John Archer and Jeffrey Grisham were peddling a gimmick, or that the Bond franchise will sell shed-loads anyway, no matter who writes the actual words.

But JK blew that consolation away. She was so obviously working from creative inspiration, and her global audience so obviously loves the stuff. The profile journalists who write about JK’s houses all over the world would dearly like just one of those houses for themselves, but the days are gone when they could delude themselves that a thick volume of chick-lit written a paragraph at a time before breakfast would get them off the piece-work treadmill.

Now they know that they have to come up with something inspired. Inspiration being what they have always been short of, they succumb to such an intensity of J. K. Rowling Envy that they buy a copy of one of her designer evening gowns and stage an imaginary tête-à-tête dinner at home with George Clooney. If the journalist is male, this is likely to cause trouble at work.

If would-be writers aren’t capable of writing a book for its own sake, they shouldn’t be writing at all. I speak as one who would have found it hard to make ends meet as a writer if I had not been wearing another hat in show-business. I can’t honestly whinge about having pushed my pen in vain but if I had done nothing else except write books I would be raking the leaves on one of JK’s front lawns by now, and glad of the gig. And I’m one of the lucky ones. The thing to grasp is that if you’re getting published at all, you’re one of the lucky ones. You’re expressing yourself, and the bookselling business is still willing to take a chance on someone like you. The publishers are still looking for a hit, and one of the reasons they are doing so is JK. No matter what you hear about the depredations of mass merchandizing and the destructive effect of supermarket discounts, her success gives a lease of life to a whole industry.

It also gives a lease of life to the allegedly threatened activity of reading — reading worldwide, in all languages, but especially in English. Which puts Britain back in the middle of the action. It’s another four-minute mile, a flying of the flag for a post-imperial empire in which personal initiative counts for more than social position, a glorious act of individuality. JK might even by a key player in a whole new historical development. What if, by aid of the globalized entertainment industry, the world’s evil could turn into a fictional spectacle in which real people no longer form the cast and almost everything bad that happens happens in a book or on a screen? Would that be trivialization, or the opposite? Either way, it really would be magic, but as countless Harry Potter fans will tell you, magic has already happened seven times. Whether they can live without Harry Potter we will have to find out. Personally I miss Biggles.


There must be something to it. Even now that they are adults, my two daughters, who read everything of quality and are not to be fooled by mere fashion, will actually fight to be first with the new Harry Potter book. Perhaps there is more to magic than the spells. Among the best-read men I know, Anthony Lane and Adam Gopnik both think I must be in the grip of madness when I refuse to rave about Tolkien. They might be right. There is such a thing as a blind spot. I know that I have a blind spot about food, in which I can’t get much interested beyond its function in sustaining life. Yet I have friends who read, and write, books about it. Some of those who write books about it get quite rich, wherein lies the real topic of the above broadcast. In pronouncing the importance of controlling one’s envy for those who sell books in huge numbers, I should have been more clear that everything, in the publishing world, depends on such people. A wise writer in any genre, if he sells merely by the thousand, would do well to spend the late part of each evening on his knees and praying to heaven that his publisher will discover a new Dan Brown.

The serious writer who vaunts himself on not being a commercial prospect had better realize that his publisher can afford to publish him only because some other writer of less refined ambitions is earning cash. From the publisher’s angle, the difficult question, when it comes to the next Dan Brown, is how to spot him. If you yourself were picking talent for a publishing house, you would be inclined, on the basis of his manuscripts, to report that the next Dan Brown could scarcely write English. You would be right, but you would be wrong. The executive who turned down the Beatles had tastes too fastidious for the job. It follows that the most vital piece of recruiting a publishing house can do is to choose the dim but keen editor whose heart genuinely races when the manuscript of the next The Da Vinci Code is carried in. Somewhere just below board level in every successful publishing house there is at least one chump. These chumps can be most easily identified by their excellent tailoring and large cars.