Wednesday, November 28, 2007

EW'S 2007 ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR

http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20152943_20153269_20161218_25,00.html

EW'S 2007 ENTERTAINER OF THE YEAR: J.K. ROWLING

It would be so easy to explain why J.K. Rowling is 2007's Entertainer of the Year with numbers, not words. The numbers, after all, are so much fun to tally and goggle at: $15 billion (the estimated total revenue generated by the Harry Potter industry); nearly 400 million (the number of Potter books sold worldwide); $4.49 billion (the total worldwide box office gross of the five Harry Potter films, allowing the series to zip past Star Wars and the James Bond films this summer to become the most lucrative movie franchise in history). And let's not forget 1, 2, 3, and 4: the places Rowling holds on the list of the fastest-selling books in the not-very-long history of measuring fast-selling books.

But Rowling never relied on mathematics to gun the motor of the 4,100-page narrative she brought across the finish line this year. So we suspect that she would dismiss the foregoing account as rather dull: Mugglish rather than magical. And although we now know that she is fond of uplifting, even sentimental endings (as long as the joy is qualified by the memory of sorrow and the sentimentality is honestly earned), at this point even she might find her own biography a bit too happily-ever-after; you know, the one that begins in the early 1990s with a young single mother banging away at a manuscript in Scottish cafés, wondering if she could turn her idea into something.

So we'll keep it simple: J.K. Rowling is our Entertainer of the Year because she did something very, very hard, and she did it very, very well, thus pleasing hundreds of millions of children and adults very, very much. In an era of videogame consoles, online multiplayer ''environments,'' and tinier-is-better mobisodes, minisodes, and webisodes, she got people to tote around her big, fat old-fashioned printed-on-paper books as if they were the hottest new entertainment devices on the planet. Let's also credit her for one more thing.

What she spent the last 17 years creating turned out to be completely original. Several years ago, when Rowling's series started to get popular enough to attract attention from the kind of critics who don't usually grapple with popular fiction, she was practically smothered in faint praise that evolved into a low drone of condescension as time went on. Of course, the books are skillful, went the murmurs, but really, isn't this woman merely an adept pickpocket, someone who's synthesized a little bit of Tolkien and a dash of C.S. Lewis and some Lloyd Alexander and a wealth of British-boarding-school stories into a marketable but derivative new package?

No. As it turns out, the Harry Potter books are much richer than their progression from lightness to darkness, from childhood to adulthood, from the episodic simplicity of chapter-books to the heft and sweep of epic novels, and in their constant, book-by-book recalibration of what their readers were prepared to absorb, they've proven unlike anything else in a century of children's literature. Can there be any remaining doubt that Rowling meant every word when she said, some time back, that she planned every aspect of her story ''so carefully I sometimes feel as though my brain is going to explode''? The planning clearly paid off, not only in the blossoming of the books into a worldwide cross-cultural phenomenon but in the widespread declarations that greeted the July publication of volume 7, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that Rowling had created something timeless, a tale that children would read 25 and 50 years from now.

Timelessness is nice, as far as it goes (although it's an awfully hard assertion to prove before any actual time has passed). But as a compliment, it fails to give Rowling her due for something just as tricky: timeliness. The most enduring works of fantasy fiction have always begun by being firmly rooted in their own moment, not by shooting for immortality. A century ago, when L. Frank Baum was writing his books about Dorothy Gale and the land of Oz, the contrast between a windblown, uneventful, monochromatic world of middle American farmland and the exoticism and magic and horror and danger of cities that seemed impossibly far away didn't require a leap of imagination for his readers; they were living it. J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia were both forged in the fire of World War II; the notion that the fate of the world was at stake in an epic battle between good and evil, and the explicit connection between wickedness and a deranging lust for power, was as alive in the newspapers as it was in the stories they told. And George Lucas' first Star Wars trilogy dovetailed so neatly with the rhetoric that marked the final years of the Cold War that politicians of every stripe continue to appropriate it. Not only has Hillary Clinton referred to Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, but President Bush has suggested that the vice president doesn't even require a costume for the impersonation.

To see how apt a product of our era the Harry Potter books are, you have to take the series apart a little before putting it back together. Now that the long-awaited last words (''All was well'') are official, Harry's saga seems like one 7-volume novel (especially since it's been repackaged in a mammoth faux-Hogwarts-trunk cardboard box; look for a sudden spike in parental lower-back injuries around Christmastime). But the Potter books really read as two distinct trilogies — the first one episodic, light-spirited, and aimed largely at children, and the second, much longer and darker one designed for a general fantasy audience that includes both adults and kids and demands a more sustained attention span and a willingness to grapple with the kind of horror that can't be wanded away by spells and charms. Book 4, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is the sinew that connects the first trio of books to the second; it's the one that starts with a long, larky trip to the Quidditch World Cup that turns nightmarish, and concludes with a chapter tellingly entitled ''The Beginning,'' a road sign letting readers know that they are about to be taken into a tougher, grimmer, more frightening place.

The first four Harry Potter volumes arrived in U.S. bookstores at a breakneck pace between September 1998 and July 2000. And then, after ''The Beginning,'' came a wait that tested legions of faithful readers: three years. Rowling keeps most details of her plotting process in her own chamber of secrets, unveiling the occasional tantalizing nugget about her decision-making on her website or during an interview or public appearance, but rarely getting specific. Like any terrific storyteller, she knows the value of leaving certain things untold. So unless she decides to spill the many-flavored beans herself, all we can do is guess what happened. Three years bisected by 9/11; three years during which Rowling remarried and had an actual, nonfictional son of her own; three years spent toiling on an installment of her saga so long that she admitted it drained her energy.

The result was a book that ushered readers, even her youngest ones, into a sadder, bleaker fantasy world to match the real one in which they were by then already living. The final three books are bloodier, more wrenching, and more explicit in their parallels to and reflections of the Bush/Blair landscape (book 6 even begins with the Muggle prime minister brooding while England sleeps), and more intense in their depiction of the cost of war. Given Rowling's outspoken progressivism (of which the outing of Dumbledore is only the most recent manifestation), that shift in emphasis can't have been an accident. While cultural commentators of all varieties were busy arguing about the definition of the ''post-9/11 novel,'' Rowling was putting them right under our noses. Six years on, the first generation of kids to grow up with 9/11 as just another bewildering fact of life is now entering high school. It's not a stretch to say that their ideas about war, about leadership, about the dangers of consolidation of power and of dictatorship, about the importance of dissent, and about heroism and sacrifice, have been shaped at least in part by Rowling. Not to mention their concept of freedom of speech. When her novels make their annual appearances on lists of the most frequently banned books in America, she calls it a great honor and tells the kids who visit her website of Ralph Waldo Emerson's credo ''Every burned book enlightens the world.''

None of which would be as much of an accomplishment if the books weren't also such enthralling fun. Rowling's writing is distinguished by its great and sustained generosity — toward her readers and her characters — and the books she spent so long creating are entertaining enough to satisfy anybody who reads them in order to flee the cares of the everyday world, even if what looks like a chance to disapparate ultimately lands us in a universe very much like the one we were trying to escape. As odd as it may sound, Rowling is a realist. Even when the incantations are flying (not to mention the people), she stays focused on the humanness of what she's writing about: the cost of pride and stubbornness and vanity, the toll of living in fear, the ache of loss, the search for home, the pain of holding a lifelong secret, the need to be loved, the quest to find out who you truly are. Maybe timelessness isn't such a bad word after all.

We'd be remiss if we didn't credit some supporting players in this the ultimate year of Potter, notably audiobook master Jim Dale, the only man in the world whose claim to have read every word of all seven books is factually provable; producer David Heyman, who has managed the rare feat of making a movie series that has improved with time (director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg's distillation of the gargantuan Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix this year was particularly adroit); and Daniel Radcliffe, who has turned out to be as creditable an embodiment of Harry as anyone could wish. But we're sure they'd admit they owe it all to Jo Rowling. ''J.K.,'' by the way, is the remnant of her British publisher's fear that boys might not want to read an adventure book by a woman, an idea that truly does seem to belong to a previous century.

And now, perhaps we'll leave her alone for a while. Rowling has said that she's working on a couple of new ideas — one for children, one not. ''The idea of just wandering off to a café with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss,'' she remarked in July. So if you happen to be walking by a coffeehouse in Scotland anytime soon and you spot a 42-year-old blond woman with a pen, a pad, and an expression of intense concentration, do her a favor and don't interrupt her. She knows what she's doing. All is well. —Mark Harris

1 comment:

Brenda said...

Magnificent commentary. I could not have said it better. JKR has entertained me for a number of years and I know that her timeless masterpiece will remain a fixture on my bookshelves and in my heart for the rest of my life and to that I am thankful.