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Last February, mystery author Lynn Shepherd committed an unforgivable offense: she advised J.K. Rowling to stop writing. Her piece, titled “If J.K. Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It,” chastised the children’s author for occupying the media’s attention with her post-Potter mystery novels, claiming her continued publishing efforts make it difficult for other, amateur writers to break into the industry.
The punishment was swift and scathing. Forbes writer Jerry Bowyer denounced the “second tier” writer’s “pathetic cry for relief” and her view that Rowling’s new writing projects threaten to occupy publishing’s limited “shelf space.” Interview with A Vampire author Anne Rice condemned Shepherd’s “vicious, cynical, [and] resentful” behavior. One blogger went so far as to call Shepherd’s piece “venomous”; another recommended that she seek a therapist, “or a priest, if that’s your thing.”
To say that Shepherd made Rowling the scapegoat for her own personal failings is not entirely inaccurate, but her argument can’t be completely discredited. While her claim that the Harry Potter series “[made] it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive” demonstrates a flawed understanding of the publishing industry, her suggestion that Rowling needs to let her beloved series die is correct, but for very different reasons.
Before I continue, I should preface my discussion by saying that I believe J.K. Rowling should never stop writing. A single mother who suffered bouts of clinical depression and survived on welfare for years before publishing her now famous series, Rowling used literature in a way that literature should be used: to inspire personal growth and happiness. I don’t believe her attempts to expand on Harry’s world pose a threat to new writers trying to break into the exclusive realm of “successful authors.” I cannot deny (nor do I want to) that Harry Potter has had an enormous impact on our society, on our kids’ imaginations, and on literature.
In fact, I resent Shepherd’s holier-than-thou opinion that adults should be reading more “grown up” books; her suggestion overlooks the potential the series has for dissolving the boundaries between young adult fiction and adult fiction, and eliminating the elitism that sometimes comes with the latter title. And I’m not saying we should torch our Harry Potter books and devote our precious reading time to authors who have learned how to pursue other projects.
Here’s what I am saying: the last Harry Potter novel was published eight years ago. The last movie was released four years ago. Since then, Rowling’s released three novels and a handful of short stories. Despite these successes, though, she continues to return to Hogwarts. And that’s where I see a problem.
Steven Spielberg once said that the key to Jaws’s success is not its visual effects but its reliance on the audience’s imagination: “Jaws is scary because of what you don't see, not because of what you do. We need to bring the audience back into partnership with storytelling.” Our imagination is the most powerful tool we have. It’s the well that keeps creativity flowing. It’s what keeps the passion alive, in literature at least.
Withholding the details of Sirius Black and James Potter’s adolescence, for example, allows readers to speculate alternative narratives and create their own connections. It inspires discussion at book groups and encourages the exploration of character development.
In other words, it starts a conversation, which is the best thing any book or piece of art can do. Filling in all the details restricts that creative movement.
What is there to speculate on if the author fills in the blanks for us? Nobody wants to read an extensive biography of an imaginary character. That level of detail isn’t necessary or desirable. In fact, that lack of detail, those spaces between the lines, is what makes some stories so compelling. That’s what engages fans, that opportunity to devise an explanation for all of the stories left unsaid. We don’t want you to show us the shark; we want to imagine it ourselves.
To Ms. Rowling: Saying that it’s difficult to let go of something as massive and influential as Harry Potter would be an understatement. You not only reinvented young adult literature but you built a world that became a part of the national zeitgeist, spawning a film series, tourist destinations, and even a theme park. But you have to. You must. If you’re going to grow as a writer and as a person, you need to keep your eye on the future and not dwell on the past. You need to challenge yourself to create new places, new stories, and new ideas.
You’re allowed to be proud of your accomplishments; I’m not suggesting that you trash all of your Harry Potter memorabilia and “obliviate” your memories. Building up a kingdom that big just to knock it down is counterproductive. But I think you need to stop releasing Harry Potter short stories. You need to stop revealing obscure character details in cryptic tweets and writing prequels, sequels, and spinoffs. You need to kill your darlings, Ms. Rowling, if not for your fans, at least for yourself, and let us pick up where your imagination left off. Pack up your Hogwarts stories and move on; your fans can take it from here.