Ian Parker has a very good profile of J.K. Rowling in last week’s issue of The New Yorker. Ultimately, I find myself sympathetic to Joanna Rowling, and it seems like a fair piece. That being said, almost all the best parts are a bit mean.
Here’s Parker on Rowling’s private nature. I especially love the last sentence of the paragraph:
Rowling is not a recluse: she read at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics; she was Harvard’s commencement speaker in 2008; she apeared in a television documentary about her family tree. But she is not a part of everyday British cultural life. (“I’m not a natural joiner,” she told me.) Her non-fiction canon adds up to just a few thousand words, and includes a single book review—she praised the letters of Jessica Mitford[!!!], the British writer and left-wing activist for whom Rowling’s older daughter is named—and a short essay in a collection of speeches by Gordon Brown, the former Labour Prime Minister, whom she admires, and whose wife, Sarah Brown, is a friend. She has given limited access to her personal history, and in interviews has tended to strike the same few notes: a friend in her teen-age years who freed the two of them by having access to a Ford Anglia, the same car driven by Ron Weasley, Harry Potter’s friend; the train ride that delivered Harry to her; a difficult period, in the nineties, as a single mother. Last year, Lifetime constructed a biopic out of these fragments, filling the gaps with surreally misjudged approximations of a middle-class West Country childhood in the sixties and seventies: in the film, Rowling’s secondary school has exposed timber beams, and people say “I love you” at the end of phone calls.
Here’s Rowling being both sharper and funnier than I’d imagined:
Despite Rowling’s difficult home life, she did well at Wyedean where only a minority of students went on to college. But she downplayed the achievement of having been head girl, an appointment by school authorities. It meant, she said, “We have caught you once smoking and think you probably won’t go to Borstal”—juvenile detention. (Steve Eddy, the teacher, doesn’t recall the school being so rough.) In 1982, she took the entrance exams for Oxford but was not accepted, and instead studied French at Exeter, a university with a reputation for being “frantically posh,” as Rowling put it. She was suddenly among privately educated girls, in pearls and turned-up shirt collars. Paraphrasing Fitzgerald, she said that she reacted to Exeter not with the rage of the revolutionary but the smoldering hatred of the peasant.” (There’s something of this spirit in Rowling’s acidic portrait of the haughty youth of Slytherin House, at Hogwarts, Harry Potter’s school.) Martin Sorrell, then a professor of French at the university, recalled a quietly competent student, with a denim jacket and dark hair, who, in academic terms, “gave the appearance of doing what was necessary.” Her own memory is that she did “no work whatsoever.” She wore heavy eyeliner, listened to the Smiths, and read Dickens and Tolkien. In retrospect, she thinks it was fortunate that she didn’t get into Oxford: “I was intimidated enough by Exeter. Imagine—I would have fallen apart at Oxford, I never would have opened my mouth.” Or might she have become academically inspired? “Well, that would have been nice,” she replied, and laughed. “This isn’t therapy! I don’t want to be talked into eternal regret.”
On Rowling’s stylistic flaws in the Potter series:
There’s little irony, and the reader rarely knows more or less than Harry. In the seven novels, Christmas Day always falls midway. Stephen King and others have teased Rowling for overusing adverbs when describing speech. The habit seems to show a determination not to be misunderstood. So, too, in a way, do her repetitions. (Over a few hundred pages, as Harry enters adolescence, Diggory reddens, Harry reddens, Ron reddens, and Fudge reddens; Percy goes slightly pink, then very pink; Hermione is slightly pink; Malfoy is slightly pink and then brilliantly pink; Hermione is very pink and then rather pink; Colin also goes pink; Hermione is, again, slightly pink; so is Ron, and then Hermione; and then she’s flushed pink with pleasure. Lavender blushes, followed by Hagrid and Hermione.) And if Rowling’s metaphors were sometimes grudging—“like some bizarre fast-growing flower”; “like some weird crab”—it may be because metaphors carry you away, for a moment, from the place where the story has put you. Rowling’s goal was to keep you there.
Some people really don’t like this.
In Edinburgh, I met Alan Taylor, a journalist and the editor of The Scottish Review of Books, who despaired of Rowling’s “tin ear” and said of her readers, “They were giving their childhood to this woman! They were starting at seven, and by the time they were sixteen they were still reading bloody Harry Potter—sixteen-year-olds, wearing wizard outfits, who should have been shagging behind the bike shed and smoking marijuana and reading Camus.”
Well said, sir, and even better if one imagines it in a Scottish accent. Finally, my favorite passage:
Many beloved children’s stories describe an adventure in a supernatural or dreamlike realm, and then a return—with regret, or gratitude, or both—to the everyday. But we know that Harry Potter will be a wizard on his deathbed. For all the satisfying closure provided by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” gloomier readers may still detect a not of melancholy; there is a narrowness of life for former Hogwarts students, whose career opportunities barely extend beyond the wizard civil service, wizard schoolteaching, and professional Quidditch. This magical society has no use for science; there’s little commerce; and thousands of years of wizarding seems to have generated no culture beyond a short volume of fables and a tabloid newspaper. (Wizard technology is often a cutely flawed approximation of non-wizard technology—owls for e-mail—and one wonders how quickly Harry and his schoolfriends could have won their battles against the evil Lord Voldemort, given two or three cellphones and a gun.) In a time of wizard peace, at least, Harry’s separation from the real world—even as he lives in it—can seem tragic.
When I asked Rowling if she’d ever regretted not being able to bring Harry Potter back into ordinariness, she talked about him with surprising passivity: Harry was more a character with responsibilities than a person she knew. In the role given to him, she said, “Harry has that sort of Galahad quality. It seems that you can’t escape it.” Though it was possible to imagine Ron Weasley, Harry’s friend, embracing a Muggle existence, “Harry, as a character, can’t. The person who is leading the quest—it seems that they have to have this weird purity about them. And, after all, if Harry really had gone through everything he went through, he probably wouldn’t be mentally healthy enough to survive anywhere, would he?”