The Rats in Potter’s Field

Years ago, I read a book called Seekers of Tomorrow, by Sam Moskowitz.  It was a collection of short biographies of golden age science fiction writers.  Most of them were very interesting to a sci-fi obsessed prat like myself, but the one that has stayed with me most vividly was the story of Henry Kuttner. 

Kuttner is known today, if at all, as the husband of C.L. Moore, and thus, half of Lewis Padgett…author of many well-anthologized stories, like “Mimsy were the Borogoves.”  But Kuttner’s first professional sale was under his own name, a story called “The Graveyard Rats.”

I’ve never read the story.  But apparently, for those who did, it was an indelible experience.  So much so, that for most of his career, every subsequent effort from Mr. Kuttner was compared to “The Graveyard Rats,” and found wanting…to the degree that, in his latter years, Kuttner grew to hate the story, and regretted writing it; it was a success so perfect that it overshadowed every one of its creator’s works to follow. 

That story, and the idea of the “perfect though regretted initial success,” has long fascinated me.  How does one follow up an incredible debut?  How does one write act two, of a one act play, and get it performed in front of an audience?

(In that frame of mind, I once asked Gene Roddenberry if he felt that the success of Star Trek interfered with his ability to get other, non-Star Trek-based projects produced.   He answered that he thought Star Trek‘s impact allowed him to put a foot in the door, but I could tell he was wondering….   Well, I certainly don’t want to think I crippled the Great Bird’s sense of creativity, or nothin,’ seeing as the first film (oops) and the Next Generation (gulp) were still to come….  Evidence, I think, that it’s possible to be resigned to your success.)

At any rate, what brings all of these thoughts forward is the news that J.K. Rowling has announced that the seventh and final Harry Potter volume is to be published on July 21st of this year.

As usual for the past few years, when a new volume appears imminent, the rumor mills begin to buzz, offering that in the last book, Ms. Rowling intends to do what Voldemort and all his followers have thus far failed to do:  kill Harry Potter.

If true, I can say only this.  That if Ms. Rowling truly believes that this is the best and only way to end the Harry Potter saga, and to thus bring the story to its most logical and story-oriented conclusion then she should do so, with all her story-telling skill.

I can’t help wondering, though, why (if true) she would plan on such an ending.  Could it be Henry Kuttner again?  Might she feel that a new, non-Harry Potter book might be greeted with reviews that suggested the work wasn’t bad, but how about another Harry Potter book?   If Harry dies, though, there wouldn’t be another Potter possibility, and her subsequent work could be seen outside of Harry’s shadow.

This is all speculation, and remarkably uninformed at that.  But I have a feeling, if Harry dies in book seven, Ms. Rowling can count on one pretty definite outcome:  she will never sell another book. 

This isn’t a matter of a Star Trek, or a Sherlock Holmes, overwhelming its creator with its success.  While those properties remain popular (to the point where Conan Doyle had to undo Holmes’ death), their popularity is nothing at all like that of Harry Potter.  “Mania” is a word frequently used to describe his impact.  And that impact comes from Harry himself.  People don’t read Ms. Rowling’s work because they admire her writing, admirable and skillful as it is; people read it because they like Harry Potter.  Harry has come to life in the minds of his fans and has become, for lack of a better term, a phenomenon.  Harry Potter has gripped the world.  Young people everywhere identify with Harry and his struggle against great odds.   I’ve taken no surveys, but the amount of Harry Potter fan fiction alone must be in the millions of words.  People like Harry.

Killing him off would be career suicide.  As able a storyteller as Ms. Rowling is, no one would ever trust her again.  Harry’s fans would feel betrayed, and any subsequent works from Ms. Rowling would have an immediate strike against them:  should I read this, should I get involved, or is she going to kill off the hero again?  Betraying a trust has a far-reaching impact.

It’s possible that a writer as able as Ms. Rowling could pull such an ending off, and go on to write more books and continue her career.  But given the level of fandom Harry has amassed, I have my doubts.  it’s much easier to hope that I’m wrong, that Harry lives and J.K. Rowling accepts that everything she does hence will be compared with her chronicle of his life.   It’s better to be Gene Roddenberry than Henry Kuttner.  The grave, and the graveyard, is a fine and private place, but none I think do there write bestsellers.  There are too many rats, after all.

11 thoughts on “The Rats in Potter’s Field

  1. Orson Scott Card flopped with the flow a bit initially too but he seems to be breaking away from the initial franchise now.

    And another thing… J.K. Rowling has more than enough money to start a second career in any field where she’s capable. She doesn’t have to write fantasy books after Harry. How’s that for not being narrow-minded?

  2. All very true, but Orson Scott Card hasn’t had nearly the success that J.K. Rowling has (I don’t think anyone compares, really).

    And it’s not a hard and fast law, by any means. Perhaps she wants to give up writing (which would be a shame), perhaps she wants to sing operetta, perhaps she can kill Harry and continue having success. Nothing’s written (ha ha) in stone.

  3. If Rowling kills off Harry then I think she had better re-read “Misery” so she can figure out how to deal with the many …many… totally insane Potter-philes who’ll want to tie her up and smash up her feet.

    I have a feeling that she’ll kill Harry though, she’ll either kill him or destroy him some other way. Boy is on a thin thread, it wouldn’t take much for him to be shoved over the edge.

    Also, I’m boning up on my rope tying and foot smashing skills.

  4. What is JKR going to do now? Is she going to give up writing or move on to something else?

    I really have to get round to reading the books one of these days. I’ve only ever seen all the films (love ’em) but I’m a bit dubious about the books because someone (I think it was Uncle Steve in his book ‘On Writing’ (that’s Stephen King)) said that there was a lot of plot in her books, but not much story. I think it means that they are put together very well, but there’s not a lot of life in there. Hmm…

    I do need to get round to reading them though. Just to say I’ve done it.

  5. If I were her, I’d kill off Harry Potter, lay that literary type-casting to rest, then move on under a well hidden pseudonym. It must be frustrating to have to write according to everyone else’s expectations with out the chance to explore other avenues of your own art. Imagine painting only what others told you to paint.

  6. I’m not saying J.K. Rowling can’t write whatever she wants to write, just that none of this stuff exists in a vacuum. It’s not just “write a book, money appears.” The money appears because people respond to the work. If you’re not going to write something so that another person can respond to it, why bother? As a matter of fact, people do tell me what to paint–not directly, and not to their knowledge, but whenever I create anything I’m always conscious that it takes a producer and an audience to create a work.

    As for the pseudonym gambit, I think that worked for King because that took place in a pre-internet-dominated culture. And remember, King didn’t reveal himself, he was found out and eventually confessed. I suspect that if J.K. Rowling went that route, her identity would be uncovered before the first book hit the stands.

    And to be honest, I’m not sure what using a pseudonym says. I don’t want to be judgemental–last time I looked, my count of best-selling novels stood at zero–but it almost seems to say, “I made a mistake.”

    I make no judgements either way. I’m just interested in phenomena, and none of it is really relevant until July 21st, anyway.

  7. I agree with you – except in one respect. In regards to “write a book, money appears” – see ” Hannibal Rising”. I paid full advance copy pricing for that hideous pile of dung. By the way, I’m always interested in purchasing your work – despite the fact that your work surprises me – since I could never, in a million years, anticipate the directions your art takes.

  8. You bought “Hannibal Rising”?
    I’m just gonna see the movie and wear headphones in the theater, I expect it’s gonna be crap but the guy who plays Hannibal have the mose beautifully wicked smile.
    I could totally fall in love with that smile. Prolly lose my heart…and liver… and other tender saute -able bits in the process, though.

    If Rowling DID kill Harry and try writing something outside of him (or his universe) I think it would be a miracle if she had ANYTHING nearly as sucsessful. It’s not like she doesn’t have talent, because it’s apparent that she does, but like B.C said earlier, her fans would feel betrayed. Or should I say Harry’s fans?
    Rowling can weave one hell of a story, I think she should go into writing for the big screen. They need fresh blood, I’m sick of remakes.

  9. I haven’t read the Harry Potter books and I don’t really plan on it. From watching the movies the whole Harry Potter phenomenon just feels like a triumph of advertising rather than a triumph of writing or imagination. The question I ask myself is: Does Harry Potter need to survive after he defeats Voldemort in the final book? I don’t think so. I don’t see the purpose of having Harry Potter grow old and die, having fulfilled his destiny and lived beyond his purpose. If Rowling has him survive I’ll see it as an act of cowardice on her part (but I think she’s damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t).

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