Saturday, September 24, 2011

The problem with J. K. Rowling

Okay, click on this link and watch the first half of this video in which Rowling tells Oprah that she could easily write a eighth, ninth and tenth book in the Harry Potter series. Now, combined with Pottermore, billed as a "unique Harry Potter experience from" the author, we have almost a safe conclusion that Rowling is, unfortunately, a one-trick pony.

I mentioned in my review for the last film that Rowling doesn't know when to stop telling the story. Every writer who has ever written a novel or a short story has lived and breathed with their characters; they know the cast's lives in complete, from the moment they are born to their inevitable end. But that's not a story. That's simply a biography. Stories are different from a chronicle of a person's life in that stories have arcs. Lives can have arcs, one could say in rebuttal, but that's exactly the point: it's the storyteller's responsibility to focus on an arc and restrain themselves from offering too much detail.

There is no need to know what happens after Leopold Bloom gets home from drinking with Stephen Daedalus. There is no need to know what happens to Nick Caraway after Jay Gatsby drowns. Their stories have come to an end. Anything else is masturbation.

Rowling has proven that she cannot let a story end. She's told us details like Dumbledore being gay, which provides nothing to the reading of the texts. She's also told us that she knows exactly what happens to each character, and she teases her audience, threatening to reveal this information that could never compare with our imagination.

Now, I have to clarify here. I have no problems with the existing Harry Potter story other than the idiotic and amateurish epilogue at the end of the final novel (which is simply proof of my thesis). But to add to this vast story will merely dilute the impact of the original books. Frankly, with some tighter editing, the existing 7 books could probably be cut down to five or even four. They are far too sprawling.

This sprawl however speaks of Rowling's prodigious imagination and talent. She isn't an amateur anymore. She is one of the wealthiest authors in the history of the English language, if not at the top of the heap. Only Dickens, Austen and Stephen King have seemed to reach a similar ubiquity. While all three have some not-so-good books to their name, they didn't walk around threatening to add another five books to Bleak House, Emma or The Dark Tower. Oh wait, King did threaten to "fill in some blanks" between the fourth and fifth book. Ugh.

Rowling is slowly turning herself into the George Lucas of literature. After Star Wars, Lucas produced a handful of films, but not directing a single one until the prequels. After that, Lucas has been content to fiddle with his existing works - to what end? Because he cannot let a story go. Just like Rowling. If Rowling continues to produce Harry Potter fiction, then she is going down a path that many people will follow at first, but will slowly grow tired of rehashing the same scenario, no matter how complex and sprawling that scenario may be.

Maybe this speaks to the power of Star Wars and Harry Potter, how universal and singular they are. Both are examples of the monomyth, and both are example of building a mythology, an internal world so complex that readers could easily lose themselves in it. While this is probably true, I think a better explanation is the lack of self-censorship and self-restraint on the part of the author. It is the author's responsibility to understand how to tell a story - because they are, in fact, the storyteller.

Adding more chapters and more installment dilutes the original product. A good example of this is the American approach to television. In the usual case, American comedies and dramas pump out 22 to 24 episodes in a season. Often, successful seasons will run 5 to 7 seasons. So an average of 23 episode over 6 seasons is equal to 138 installments. I cannot think of a single, singular and organic story that needs to be this long. I love Seinfeld, but it didn't need to be 7 seasons long. I love Lost, but I could easily edit the entire thing down to four seasons. On the other side of the pond, the English seem to take a different approach. Most shows have between 6 and 13 episodes, rarely going beyond that (with the exception of soaps). Not only that, a lot of shows rarely last past five seasons. There's less of the show, therefore each episode requires more from the audience.

This analogy fits with Rowling's paradigm. If she insists of forcing more installments of a story that's already ended, there's going to be a sense of tiredness, of rehashing, of revisiting the same stories and subplots that she tied up. And if the subplot was left a loose end by the seventh book, then it wasn't important enough to tie up. There's a maxim by which all writers should live.

If only Rowling would learn to shut up or at least come up with a new idea.

1 comment:

Matthew Coury said...

i agree, she is a one trick pony. it takes a great deal of intuition and imagination to think outside of one paradigm. i am a writer myself (www.matthewcoury.com) and it has taken me over 18 yrs to come up with my novels since i was 12. both george lucas and jk rowling are a great source of inspiration to me, but they do tend to rehash things.