Writer’s Desk: Rules? What Rules?

J. K. Rowling (born on this day in 1965) has sold a few books in her career. So it is somewhat refreshing to see her resisting the urge to lay down some must-follow rules for other writers to follow. In fact, in this piece from 2019, she points out that her breakthrough came largely from going in the other direction:

I found success by stumbling off alone in a direction most people thought was a dead end, breaking all the 1990s shibboleths about children’s books in the process. Male protagonists are unfashionable. Boarding schools are anathema. No kids book should be longer than 45,000 words…

Still, she presents a few common-sense rules of thumb to follow:

  • Reading: “Reading is the best way of analysing what makes a good book. Notice what works and what doesn’t, what you enjoyed and why. At first you’ll probably imitate your favourite writers, but that’s a good way to learn. After a while, you’ll find your own distinctive voice.”
  • Discipline: “Sometimes you have to write even when the muse isn’t cooperating.”
  • Independence: “By this, I mean resisting the pressure to think you have to follow all the Top Ten Tips religiously, which these days take the form not just of online lists, but of entire books promising to tell you how to write a bestseller/what you MUST do to be published/how to make a million dollars from writing.”

That does not mean if you do everything she says, success will follow. Nothing is that simple. Remember what Dumbledore said:

We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.

Screening Room: ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’

Eddie Redmayne in ‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ (Warner Bros.)

The second entry in J.K. Rowling’s post-Harry Potter Wizarding World movies, the Newt Scamander series, is opening everywhere tomorrow.

My review is at Slant Magazine:

The fun but more predictable Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald moves the new series forward, but only incrementally—all the better to maximize the potential for six or seven more sequels to be strung out for Thanksgivings to come…

Here’s the trailer:

Quote of the Day: Book Burning

fantasticbeasts1When the verbose and gloriously opinionated J.K. Rowling had the temerity a few weeks back to tweet her thoughts on President Tiny Hands’ travel ban, the pushback was about the same as what happens whenever an athlete ventures into the realm of politics.

The conservative troll brigades swarmed and told Rowling the usual things: Stick to writing, woman, and stop saying what you think about anything. (Nevermind that her Harry Potter books are all about tolerance and the acceptance of minorities.)

Things hit a particularly ugly pitch when one twit tweeted that they would “burn your books and movies.”

Rowling’s response was one for the ages:

Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.

Reader’s Corner: The Books Facebook Users Love

hitchhikers1Does this list say something about who’s using Facebook? In yet another of the listicles that they’re famous for, BuzzFeed shows the Top 20 books most beloved by Facebook users. With the exception of the number one pick (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone?), it’s pretty much what you would expect:

  • Great Modern Novels I Had To Read In School But Actually Liked (1984, The Great Gatsby)
  • Books That I Read 50 Million Times As A Child And Whisked Me Away Somewhere Magical Each Time (The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeAnne of Green GablesA Wrinkle in TimeThe Lord of the Rings)
  • Actual Classics That Tend Not To Be Assigned In School Anymore (Jane EyrePride and Prejudice)
  • Self-Help Creed Masked As Literature (The Alchemist)
  • The Only Book I Read In The Past Few Years (The Hunger Games)
  • Outlier (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Bible)

watchmen1When you dig into the full dataset that Facebook made available, particularly the full Top 100 list, a few more surprises pop up. There’s a heavier sprinkling of modern YA, plus the occasional religious text (The Book of Mormon). But what’s fascinating is just how overwhelmingly genre the list is, compared to what it might have been a few years ago. Even though many mainstream readers barely know who they are, Terry Pratchett, Orson Scott Card, Alan Moore, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Jordan all make appearances here.

This begs the question: Are Facebook users geekier than the population at large, or as the percentage of adults who actually read books falls every year, are genre fans just the ones more likely to keep reading books as opposed to tweets?

Also: is it a problem that the number-one book is Harry Potter? After all, according to Scientific American, children who were read to from those books acted more compassionately afterwards.

Readers’ Corner: America’s Top Ten Books

"Reading the Bible," Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)
“Reading the Bible,” Currier & Ives (Library of Congress)

The Bible is still the number one book in Americans’ hearts. At least, that’s according to a new poll by Harris Interactive that surveyed American adults to find out what their favorite book was. The rest of the top ten books are all fiction (insert atheist gag here), starting with the somewhat curious inclusion of Gone with the Wind at number two. Here’s the list:

  1. The Bible
  2. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  3. Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
  4. The Lord of the Rings (series) by J.R.R. Tolkien
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  7. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
  8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  9. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  10. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The poll further breaks down the list by ethnicity, politics, age, geography, and gender. Conservatives and moderates preferring Gone with the Wind while liberals’ fave was the Harry Potter series; either way, everybody likes fantasy.

The last time Harris conducted the same poll was in 2008. Interesting, among the books that dropped off in the intervening six years were Atlas Shrugged, The Stand, and two Dan Brown novels. New on the list since then were a couple classics deserving of the name (The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath), possibly showing that Americans’ tastes are improving. That, or people who really like Ayn Rand and Dan Brown either just aren’t reading anymore, have started to die off, or are sticking with pretending to have read the Bible.

(h/t: New Republic)

Readers’ Corner: J.K. Rowling and Pseudonyms

jprowling-popupThere’s a piece of mine that published at PopMatters today about the recent kerfuffle over J.K. Rowling being unmasked as the real author of the little-noticed mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Clock, previously credited to one “Robert Galbraith.”

It’s called “What’s in a Pseudonym?“:

It’s not as though Rowling hadn’t branched out from her Harry Potter success. Last year’s novel, The Casual Vacancy was set in real-world Britain, with nary a spell to be found. Why would she put that out under her own name and not The Cuckoo’s Calling? The easy answer probably goes back to the old literary / genre divide that one would have thought had disappeared in a time when people aren’t embarrassed to be seen reading Fifty Shades of Grey on the train and adults happily own up to reading YA fare like The Hunger Games

Previous to this news being broken, The Cuckoo’s Clock (well-reviewed, by the way) had sold 1,500 copies when attributed to Galbraith. The publisher just ordered a rush printing of 300,000 copies.