Congratulations if you’ve been living under a rock long enough to have missed that JK Rowling posted new Potter material (specifically an article from Rita Skeeter bitching about Harry and other members of Dumbledore’s Army) on Pottermore today. If you did miss it, then you can access it here.
What’s that? You don’t have a Pottermore account? Neither did I until I used my lunch break to sign up and read the Daily Prophet article. But wasn’t it an effective squeeze page? Pottermore now has the contact details of almost everyone who has read the Potter series and has used the internet today. I’m guess that has to be numbers in the high thousands who’ve signed up today.
As for the article itself? It was all a little bit pointless. It didn’t tell me much about the characters, and I found it a bit weird that Victor Krum (who is older than Harry) is still playing Quidditch at international level when Ginny (who is younger than Harry) has retired from playing the sport professionally to become a writer… I mean, he has to be even older than Ryan Giggs, doesn’t he?
Maybe I’m jaded because I’ve finally gotten over my five-year Harry Potter themed book hangover, but whichever way you look at it, it’s a clever way to attract new users to your site. JK Rowling’s team should run courses on, how to get a million website hits in a day without using magic, charms to increase numbers of unique visitors or clever book marketing that doesn’t rely on the dark arts.
Michael Gove- the little grey man of literature Image by new3dom3000 under creative commons
I tweeted a few days ago that Michael Gove’s reforms to the English GCSE curriculum reminded me of Putin’s Literary Canon pronouncements a few years back– nationalistic, narrow-minded and reductive. For anyone who hasn’t heard, the head of OCR’s head of GCSE and A-level reform claims that Michael Gove has personally intervened to ensure that where novels like Of Mice and Men and To Kill A Mockingbird would have originally been studied, students will now be examined on a work of fiction or drama originating from the British Isles since 1914.
I am deeply concerned that the education secretary has been allowed to interfere in the English Literature curriculum without consultation with teachers and universities about this. There is no university department which teaches an English Literature degree without reference to writers from outside the UK, for the simple reason that literature is not something which is restricted by geographical borders- it is designed to challenge and breakdown barriers, not to reinforce them in such an arbitrary and mindless way.
And, to steal David Cameron’s favourite phrase, let us be perfectly clear, while there are plenty of students who could and would engage with the works of Jane Austen and Dickens, there are plenty of students who would find the language and volume of reading a struggle. Lower ability students will be penalised as they will require extra support to access the lexis, syntax and context of these novels in the limited contact time that they have with their teachers. So this latest reform will do to the novel what his plans to have primary school children learning and reciting poetry by rote will do- turn more and more students off Literature.
Students used to ask me why I chose to study English Lit at university- and I would tell them it was because I couldn’t decide what subject to study. When studied properly, literature allows you to study history, psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, religion… it broadens the mind. That’s what worries me about this latest announcement, it’s so incredibly reductive it makes me wonder if Gove isn’t one of those little grey men from Michael Ende’s Momo, ripping the colour and fun out of education for every child in the country because they are at odds with his personal values.
While some of the fans reactions quoted in the article above are pretty funny, I can kind of see where they are coming from, because surely the great thing about Harry Potter was the concept of friendship? To reduce it to a retrospective, Harry should have gotten “the girl” (aren’t Hermione and Ginny more than just “the girl/s” dangled as rewards for the conquering hero/es?) risks devaluing some of the core values of the series.
I was a bit annoyed when JK Rowling came out with her retrospective “Dumbledore is gay”, not because it isn’t great for Dumbledore to be gay, but because it is and if she wanted to address his sexuality, she should have done it in the books. To come out with the revelation as an after-fact made it reductive, with it appearing as something of a quest for publicity. At least that might have been an attempt to do something positive though, to come out and quibble about something as fundamental as the Harry/Hermione/Ron friendship group erases some of the magic of the series.
If you’ve been on twitter, news websites or watching television this week, you’ve probably already heard that JK Rowling has released a well-received crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. As a pseudonym, it bears all the hallmarks of JK Rowling’s characters’ names reflecting their traits and means Famous Stranger. Well played, JK Rowling, very well played.
But why all the fuss about her writing under a pseudonym? I can completely understand that with such wild success under her belt she would want to see how her work was received by readers who weren’t prejudiced by their opinions of her previous work. (See statement from JK Rowling on Galbraith here). I mean, show me a review of The Casual Vacancy that doesn’t mention, if not compare it, to the Harry Potter books. Even I was annoyed by the reviews that complained it was a departure from the wonderful world of Hogwarts and its inhabitants. Imagine how she must have felt.
Still, while I could understand excitement at JK Rowling releasing a new book (who doesn’t love a new book from one of their favourite authors) I feel that there has been a hell of a lot of negativity and that it mostly seems to stem from the fact that JK Rowling is so successful.
Suggestions that it was all just a publicity stunt. Maybe it was a marketing ploy, the way it was discovered is a little fishy, but I still think that it’s pretty cool that she did it. As I’ve said, it must have been nice to have her writing appreciated without her name being considered. Let’s face it, publicity stunt or not, it’s not like any book by JK Rowling is at risk of going under the radar. But it does serve to highlight that writing isn’t a get rich quick scheme and even if you are lucky enough to get published what a fickle world it can be. Industry experts like Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown have pointed out on Twitter that until the news broke, the well-reviewed Galbraith novel had sold 449 copies since April. This gives you an idea of why new talent is such a big risk for publishers- they take an awful lot of effort to market when compared to an established name.
People complaining that she felt that she had to use a man’s name as though she’s a gender traitor.Some have said that this allowed her to conceal her identity more effectively, but honestly? It’s just an example of sexism in literature. Male names sell better than women’s names in Crime Fiction. This is why she was told to use her initials rather than Joanne Rowling as a name when she released Harry Potter- because boys don’t like reading books by girls. Pathetic yes, but when did you last pick up a Romance book with a man’s name on the cover? There are plenty of men writing for Mills and Boon, they just use female pseudonyms. Yes it’s sexist. But JK Rowling has done enough to prove that women can right, it’s the attitude of publishers AND the reading public that needs to change here.
Saying it’s all about the money. JK Rowling is allegedly the first billionaire to give away enough money to charity to lose billionaire status. And while it is, admittedly, all relative, it’s annoying to see people giving her a hard time for being successful. Some of the nastier jibes about this have come from agents and publishers on twitter (eg. this tweet from Melville House, below). I wonder if they have a policy of rejecting clients and authors who they deem to be too successful? If so, send them my way. I’m not so fussy.
So, when The Cuckoo’s Calling is out in paperback, I will be reading it. In the meantime I will continue to read a mixture of established authors and new authors, but to be honest, I’ll be more interested in the content of the book than the name on the cover.
National Library of Wales copyright Caroline Ramsden
My brother who is currently a student at Aberystwyth University (my old uni) text me earlier today to tell me there was a fire at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. I have a joint honours in English Literature and Welsh, and as a part of my Welsh language studies we visited a lot of important Welsh cultural institutions to talk to the staff about the role of the Welsh language there. The National Library of Wales was one of these, and I remember being terrified at the idea of being there when a fire broke out because of the tour behind the scenes.
The National Library of Wales is a copyright library which means that it holds a copy of every book or newspaper published in the UK. There are miles and miles of shelves behind the scenes and because many of the documents are very rare, they would be damaged by water sprinklers in the event of the fire, so they have air tight steel walls which come down before the room is pumped full of carbon dioxide to prevent the materials stored becoming fire damaged. I think a special alarm sounded to let you know that the steel curtains were coming down and you had a minute to get out. Really scary. At least you’d stand a chance of getting out of a burning building.
“Let us take a survey of our most influential cultural figures and compile a 100-book canon that every Russian school leaver will be required to read.” Vladimir Putin
You may not have heard about Putin’s plan to develop a Russian literary canon of 100 books which ever student leaving school would be required to read. For those unfamiliar with the problems surrounding state mandated reading, Alexander Nazaryan outlines them pretty effectively here so I won’t go into the political/national/historical side of the issue.
What gets me, apart from the above, is the psychological impact of such a mandate. I’m not a huge fan of reading by numbers, I don’t find that it motivates me and as a big fan of book topic blogs on wordpress, I’ve noticed that many people who set themselves a yearly target of books to read are already becoming stressed at “falling behind” or are worrying about “what counts”.
As a former English teacher, I hate the idea of a dictate stating that students must read x amount books from a list of y and z which is a pity, since the study of English literature generally necessitates some required reading.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m wholly in favour of encouraging anyone to become a reader. But when something becomes a rule, the pleasure is taken out of it. Though some people find a numerical target motivating, there are an equal number who will find it causes them to dig in their heels or shy away from a task. By forcing students to read from a list of prescribed books I believe that you are at risk of creating a huge number of reluctant readers.
A hundred books? That eliminates anyone who has any kind of literacy issue or comprehension difficulty (and who would benefit most from reading regularly) from wanting to read.
A set literary cannon? During The Big Read, the BBC published a list of 100 books that everyone should read. Say that this was a compulsory literary cannon and I had to read every book on there, I’d rather eat your eyeballs (not mine, I need them) than read Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And I’m something of a compulsive reader. I’ve read several (too many) Jane Austen novels and found myself irritated beyond belief in some way by each one of them. Being forced to read another (my grandmother has tried) would spoil my enjoyment of reading.
So politics aside, I think that for any government to set a list of 100 books that all students must read would do more harm than good. When their intentions are to create a forced sense of “unity” or preserve the “dominance” of a culture then you’re in trouble. (Though interestingly as a side note, that’s how the study of English literature came into being- the British government decided that it would have a “civilising” influence on the Indian population they were oppressing ruling at the time and they wanted to indoctrinate the populace with British values.)
In the immortal words of David Nicholls,
“And Jackson, of course you should study whatever subject you want, the appreciation of literature, or any kind of artistic endeavor, is absolutely essential to a decent society, why do you think books are the first thing that the Fascists burn? You should learn to stick up for yourself more.” David Nicholls, Starter for Ten
You can control a person’s ideals and beliefs by controlling what they read.
For anyone who wants to support their local bookshop but reads eBooks, or enjoys the convenience of buying online, there is a new scheme called Hive which allows you to order the books online and collect them from your local indie bookshop. The local bookshop is then paid a commission fee. Apparently, they are also paid the fee if you buy eBooks or have the books delivered to your door.
Obviously this is a commission, so it’s still good to visit the bookshop and buy direct when you can but this could alleviate some of the guilt we feel when we’re too rushed to get in for a visit! The only problem for me is that my favourite local bookshop isn’t on there yet, though another is and there’s a lot of representation for the Oxford shops.