J. K. Rowling is the world’s #1 Harry Potter fanfiction writer
J. K. Rowling completed her descent from “Harry Potter Creator” to “Harry Potter Fanfiction Writer” this week. You’d think this sort of thing would be impossible, but I was quite the fanfiction reader in my time, and her recent statements have practically filled the checklist. Before I begin, I must acknowledge my debt to my friend Andrew Shvarts, who proffered much of this analysis:
Not being original. Ok, she has a big advantage over the fanfiction writers here because she created the universe, but after four books, she largely coasted on the formula and the past creations. Every time she needed something scary, she brought back the Dementors because they were more compelling than anything else she could create. (As Andrew noted, the “new villains” in the sixth book were zombies.) It would have been impossible to run out of aspects of human society to satirize; she just stopped trying as hard.
Assuming that a “darker” story will automatically be more mature and hence more meaningful. Fanfiction writers could turn Super Mario Bros. into a bloodbath, but that doesn’t mean they should. Since the first book, Harry Potter was a happy universe that had tragedy in the background. People could relate to this. The last books had lots of tragedy and no happiness.
Forgetting the subtle reasons the source material is great. This is related to my first point: after she “got serious,” she stopped inventing cool magical things. Enchanted “Potter Stinks” badges and knights who actually lived inside their paintings were half the fun!
Sexualizing characters for no apparent reason. Dumbledore isn’t the only one, though his case is the most egregious because it’s so utterly random. I mean, Dumbledore was more asexual than the Pope. Now he’s a tenant in Lemon City.
Mawkish romantic writing. For any given work, 30% of the fanfiction is violent; 30% is porn; and 30% is speculation about certain characters hooking up. (Many works combine the three.) Lupin and Tonks and Bill and Fleur were pleasant match-ups, but they came out of nowhere. I know Rowling introduced Ginny’s attraction to Harry in Book 2, but they never developed chemistry. Book 2 Ginny was the best, really; afterwards, she was never more than the generic “good girlfriend” character. Harry’s feelings for her, or at least Rowling’s descriptions of them, never got past two dimensions.
Writing a story in serial format, then losing interest and never finishing. This didn’t actually happen because Rowling had basically the entire world waiting at her doorstep, but we were close. If Rowling were working without pay, like fanfiction writers, I don’t think she’d have finished this. Check out the release dates: 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007. I know she was also working on the movies during this time, but by her own admission, writing the fifth book at least was a “chore.”
Publishing the first draft. Fanfiction writers don’t have time to edit, and who’s keeping track anyway? The Potter books got longer and more convoluted without saying more. How did the fifth book, which was nine hundred pages, become a two-hour movie without losing any plot? Plot logic also suffered. Hogwarts must make students dumber, because the twelve-year old heroes were suspicious of Tom Riddle’s diary, but the sixteen-year olds fell for Snape’s Potions Book, which was practically the same device. I think after she hit the big time, J. K. Rowling’s editors were too intimidated to do their jobs. Besides, when she struggled so much to make deadline, it didn’t make economic sense to give the works serious revisions.
Continuity errors. The most famous example was when her readers informed her Marcus Flint was due to graduate in the 2nd book, not the 3rd, but there have been others.
Inventing previously unknown powers for well-known objects and places. Fanfiction writers have to do this so they can fit their stories inside a certain universe/time frame without openly committing continuity errors. J. K. Rowling did this with just about everything in the last couple books: the snake, the invisibility cape, the wand rules, Quidditch… This is a category of Deus Ex Machina.
Rewriting one’s favorite books by proxy. After I read the seventh book, I was fairly certain Rowling had read both The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Writing oneself into a corner. Harry claimed he was devoted to defeating Voldemort, and various events indicated he’d have to do it himself. His weakness in Occlumency was presented as a serious problem. Yet Harry never got serious about his studies (perhaps because this would break formula), and this was all brushed under the table later.
Post hoc additions to the universe which interfere with the work. Can you imagine if Shakespeare had cleared up all the mysteries in “Hamlet”? No one would read it. Rowling’s statements about Dumbledore’s sexuality, the characters’ future vocations, and about what various characters said off camera both restrict the reader’s imagination and destroy certain scenes. Some readers said the epilogue was OK because all that mattered was that Harry had a family. But now it’s clear she should have just rewritten the epilogue. You have to let the work stand on its own.
Inserting oneself as a character. Just kidding.
The last book was released only three months ago. “Transformers,” which was released a couple weeks prior, is still showing in hundreds of theaters, yet the seventh Harry Potter feels dated. The book gave us the vitals, and the ending made us verklempt for a week, and then we moved on to other things. The Dumbledore announcement was random not only for its weirdness but also because it seemed to come from the distant past. Given the way people still tear up over “Romeo and Juliet” and quote “Casablanca,” (“I am shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on in this establishment!”), this silence is damning to the evaluation of the book among all-time greats. I think the first three books will be classics, but the rest will eventually be glossed over, like “The Magician’s Nephew.” Jim Davy pointed out to me that movie-making may have stunted her imagination, and I wouldn’t be surprised. After spending so much time putting her universe on the big screen, how could she not see Daniel Radcliffe when she thought of Harry Potter? It’s a shame. Halfway through, Rowling was threatening to do so much more. Instead, she ended up no better than her hardcore fans.
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