No, really. This is a serious question.
I’m not a complete idiot. (Insert joke here.) I’m not saying that Rowling is a fantastic writer--she’s good, sometimes very good, but she’s not jaw-dropping. Nor does her work deserve to be upheld as the highest standard possible. She is, frankly, better than average some of the time (Harry Potter #1-3), average some of the time (HP #4-6), and pretty sucky at least once in a while (HP #7 and that whole fookin’ Dobby-the-house-elf thing. Oh my Gawd.)
But are Nobel Prize winners really always that great? Gunter Grass won, and man, I got through about six pages of The Tin Drum before giving it up for, I think, Gangsters From Space or something. JM Coetzee won, and the only thing I ever read by him, Disgrace, was underwhelming--put it this way, I found Harry a whole lot more emotionally involving. Nadine Gordimer is mediocre in my opinion, and VS Naipaul? Don’t get me started, dude.
Yes, of course good writers win too. Steinbeck, Harold Pinter, I’m sure there are others. (Faulkner? Hemingway? Okay man, if you say so.) But it’s by no means a given.
So the argument that quality is paramount is, to me, suspect. Especially when you throw in a few great writers who have never won--Vonnegut for example, who certainly created his own style and a hefty body of work, or Ray Bradbury, or Flannery O’Connor or Langston Hughes. (Admittedly, Flannery died young.) And these are just Americans; there are tons of others around the world, I’m sure, whom I never heard of. Meanwhile the other argument against Rowling, I suppose, is that she’s primarily a children’s writer, notwithstanding the millions of adults who read her books. But if Winston Churchill (1954) can win for writing history and Bertrand Russell (1950) can win for philosophy, why can’t a children’s author win? (In which case, add Dr Seuss to the list of “deserving authors who never got it.” That guy was a genius, no joke.)
So then. Doubtless you are wondering: “If she’s not a great writer and she doesn’t even write books for adults, Dave, then what’s your logic? Tell me more! I’m eager to learn.”
The reason Rowling deserves a Nobel is for her services to literature.
Think about it. Twenty years from now, when you walk into a bookshop, everybody in that store aged from, let’s say, twenty to forty-five--every one of them will have read at least some of Rowling’s books. In other words, everyone who is presently younger than twenty-five--who was, therefore, less than fifteen when the whole sheebang started ten years ago--and who is even remotely interested in reading books, will have at least snatched a peek at Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets or Goblet of Whatever. This is not a scientific poll, obviously; but wait until 2027, walk into your local Border’s or B&N or whatever they have in those days, and ask around. “Hey, did you ever read any of that Harry Potter stuff when you were a kid?” The “yes” replies will be unanimous. You’ll see.
This is no small thing. Why does it matter? It matters because a whole generation of kids has learned that sitting by yourself in a corner for hours at a time with only a book for company can actually be a pretty great experience. This is something I learned young, but I didn’t have computers and video games and ipods and cell phones to distract me. If I had, who knows how I would’ve turned out? I know, I know, there are HP movies and video games and all the rest of the crap that the kids are subjected to, but the fact is that millions of them are reading too. In 2004 I was in Malaysia and saw a kid on the beach reading the German edition; I’ve seen kids in Karachi bent over the Urdu translation in Pizza Hut, no kidding. The stories are endless. You’ve probably seen a few of these kids too. Are they just doing it to be cool and fashionable? Who cares? They’re reading books, for God’s sake, and if Rowling has somehow made reading books cool and fashionable, then Jesus-Mary-and-Joseph, let’s get that prize in the mail, pronto.
There is another objection people have about Rowling, which must be considered although I don’t think she is entirely to blame. This is the argument that she has actually hurt writers like me, whose sales are a tiny fraction of hers, because she has introduced the blockbuster mentality into publishing. This is what has pretty much eviscerated big-studio filmmaking: the lowest-common-denominator approach of the studios, who are largely uninterested in making any movies that don’t contain numerous explosions, car-plane-or-boat chases, and tits. These things have sold in large quantities before, the thinking goes, so let’s use them again, and again, and again… Before HP, nobody had seriously thought you could make hundreds of millions of dollars from a bunch of kids’ books; now that it’s been proven to be possible, the pressure will be on publishers, editor and agents--and therefore writers--to come up with the next blockbuster. A publisher will read a manuscript by someone like me, and it will be a unique, individual story, maybe even unlike anything that’s come across the desk in a while; and for that very reason it will be rejected. Meanwhile, the book that reads “like a cross between Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket, with some talking animals like in Narnia” will get snatched up. Take it from me: it’s happening already. True fact. But.
I don’t think readers are really that stupid. Editors might be, and no doubt there will be some lame HP imitations foisted on the public in the coming years. But I think these will fail. There will be another mega-sensation somewhere down the road, but I doubt it will be the one that’s hyped and pushed and paid for and expected to do well. It will be some quirky little thing that nobody thinks will be so huge, just like HP was. In the meantime, writers like myself will continue to carve out small niche audiences who like to read our books, and we’ll get by. I truly believe this; if I didn’t, I’d go jump off a bridge.
Sometimes I think literature is doing just fine. It’s survived in one form or another since Gilgamesh, and it will continue doing so. Other times I think it’s an endangered species, ten or twenty years away from extinction. This is actually what I think most of the time these days. Before long we’re going to have chips in our brains to make 3-D sensurround virtual realities whenever we want (Climb the Himalayas! Fly in a rocket to the planet Qwestar! Hump Salma Hayek!) and I suppose someone will have to write those programs, but it ain’t gonna be me, babe. As it is already, if you spend any time in a school these days, you know exactly how much kids read, which is to say, hardly at all, as opposed to how much they play computer games, which is, as much as they can manage. I’m not dumping on the kids; they just do what’s more engaging to them, and most of them find shooting people onscreen more engaging than turning pages. But right under our noses, Rowling has created several million new readers. Not to be overly dramatic, but she’s helped keep literature alive for another generation. I for one am really grateful. In thirty years, one of those new readers might even pick up a book I wrote. Imagine that. I will owe Rowling, then. And because I don’t know where I’ll be in 2037, I’m thanking her ahead of time.
Thanks, Joanne. Have fun with that Nobel; you deserve it.