Writers may be jealous of JK Rowling's success, but she has provided Britain with another four-minute mile moment.
A POINT OF VIEW
By Clive James
If asked whether I suffer from the condition commonly known as JK Rowling Envy, I can't say no.
Like any other writer who is not JK 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 JK Rowling Envy. Some clinical psychologists insist on referring to JK 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 JK 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 40-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.
A writer's dream - global fans
In other words, he did it for love. He is not in the business of maximising 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 JK 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 CS Lewis for going on all those long walks with JRR 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 CS Lewis and JRR 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.
Not even the Sultan of Brunei actually makes money on the scale of JK
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 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 love 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.
Hate Lord of the Rings? Blame CS Lewis
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 JK 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.
Britain is back
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 merchandising 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 be a key player in a whole new historical development. What if, by aid of the globalised 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 trivialisation, 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.
A selection of your comments appears below.
There's some sour grapes on that sideboard, and more than a whiff of literary snobbery about Jo Rowling, and CS Lewis and Tolkien, for that matter. As an extremely unpublished author, I don't envy Jo Rowling any more than I envy Clive James or any other author who's had the good fortune to be published. If anything Jo Rowling has shown that an author with a good idea can get published without the lubrication of celebrity or industry contacts. She has also shown the importance of thorough research in weaving a completely believable world for her characters to inhabit - a trait sadly lacking in so many writers, especially journalists.
Mark O, Blackpool, UK
Clive James's new book is longer than the latest Harry Potter, and much more enjoyable than some curmudgeonly reviewers have suggested. I have been enjoying the way it takes such unlikely twists as an account of Richard Burton's hairstyle in something called Where Eagles Dare when the subject of the essay is turn-of-the-century Vienna. It is a long book which can be rewardingly snacked upon.
Christopher Hawtree, Hove, England
Any self respecting writer should be more concerned with Clive James envy, as no one can be as intellectually forceful, open minded and forthright whilst maintaining the highest laugh-a-sentence ratio known to man (well this man anyway)
Dave Bradley, Nottingham
Mr James you are a star, always there two make us laugh out loud or just give a wry smile. If there were any natural justice in the world then your books would also sell by the gazillion fantabulon. I'm old enough to miss Biggles too (and Algy and Ginger!)
Iain Challis, Cambridge, UK
Whilst Mr James himself would no doubt decry the idea, I think we are very lucky to have people like Clive to make us think about the viewpoint from both sides at once. As an ideas man, raconteur and author he also ranks high amongst the men (and women) who prove that there is still life and fire in the old empire. Long may he and his ilk continue. Oh, and by the way, many thanks also to Ms Rowling for the excellent stories she has written. Aimed at children they may have been, but they have also had that reach towards the adult population too... especially the ones who still want to be children at heart.
Steven Lucas, Farnborough, UK
Just so laugh out loud! Brilliant, you have a way with words, your books should sell more!
Ginny Chapman, Manchester
Another excellent piece by an excellent writer. If I may say, I think Clive does himself a disservice in separating his writing from show-business. He fuses the two in a way that communicates more powerfully than the sum of the parts. His series on fame in the 20th century, for example, was not only an exquisite dissection of the phenomenon. It made wonderful television and the book read like one of the wittiest doctoral theses I have come across.
Jack Staff, Ashford, Kent
Typical saddo Britain, jealous of talent as always ......
HP is not 'great literature' it's great fun, a point lost on the snootier members of the self-appointed cognoscenti.
Jeremy M, Bristol
I am mildly envious of Ms. Rowling because she has written what every writer strives to write- an instant classic! No doubt she will be taught in classes on a much larger scale than she is undoubtedly being referenced in now. She has made room and opened the market back up, for a lot of writers who write in that genre. While I wish I could write an instant best-seller, I'm a fan of Potter. In fact, I'm also a fan of Austen as well.
CJ, NY, NY
Maybe, JK Rowling's 'success' means a lot to England, which doesn't have much else to be proud of in recent years. And some of her earlier Potter novels were well worth reading. But, somehow, objectively speaking, I have found it personally very difficult to get too excited about the last 2-3. In 'Deathly Hallows', now, she has proven that one can write absolute trash, with on eye on the much-touted 'bank account' and another on Hollywood, and still make big fools of most people caught up by a hysterical fad.
Time will tell if Rowling stand anywhere close to Tolkien and, to some extent, Lewis.
Omer Salim Khan, Lahore, Pakistan
Of course I envy Rowling, as every honest writer must - unless his name happens to be Stephen King, where I guess the pressure to envy is not so great. But I'm not jealous of her, and that's an important distinction. I'm far more inclined to cheer her on, because she's scoring one for the rest of us. That's waaaay removed from the sensation I get when see someone having disproportionate commercial success with manifestly second-rate work. When that happens words don't exactly fail me, but they're not the kind of words I can use right here.
Stephen Gallagher, Blackburn, UK
Brilliant - the antidote to Pottermania and a right royal read! Thanks Clive.
Trevor Boag, Pickering England
Nice one - Clive - (I miss Biggles too)
MH Reader, maidenhead
I was told how great this was when aired on Sunday (I was asleep) and I'm so sorry I did. It's great to hear someone say something good about J K Rowling. I'm getting heartily fed up with the constant carping about the Harry Potter books (I did catch Will Self on the Today programme, what a laugh), they are great. So what if the writing isn't of the standard of, say, Dickens - it's a wonderful idea, as someone said, Billy Bunter on broomsticks. What could be better - the Famous Five at Hogwarts? Yes, I enjoyed them as well.
Marie Burnett, Melrand, France
Very funny! Clive James is a master wit! JKR should employ him as her publicist......or at least invite him to dinner. :-))
Barry Weeden, Westcliff, Essex, UK
Listening to Will Self (interesting surname Self, me, me, me, me apt really) on the radio, Thursday morning, pretty much confirms your article. Undoubtedly a learned man and I would not want to challenge him to a times crossword challenge, but his envy was gross.
Whilst being an absolute Hermione Granger for the text and its meaning, alas a perfect example of a Grawp when it comes to imagination and story telling.
Richard Taylor, Wrexham, North Wales
I enjoyed listening to this and then reading it. I had forgotten that Mr James was a writer. He is always so clever in his observances. I love how he manages to find something new to add to everything.
Joyce Hackney, Derbyshire, England, United Kingdom
Strangely, I also have had a lifelong aversion to novels about elves and pixies. I refused to pick up a Harry Potter book for this very reason. My wife made me see one of the films, which impressed me and sent me to check out the books. And I'm glad I did. One of J. K. Rowling's greatest skills is that she can write a book about elves and pixies in such a way that it reads like a wicked parody of the genre, while remaining entirely palatable for the vast legions of elf lovers. Chapeau, as the French say
Nick J, Woodbridge, Suffolk