Much like the way a live performer might have to take the stage following a co-star’s brilliant performance, a successful writer might have to contend with following a tough act — with one difference.
They have only themselves to blame.
Though many aspiring creators imagine that achieving mainstream success will put an end to all their concerns, the opposite is often true. Again and again, the career paths of major writers indicate that the popular novel, for some, is not a learned form but a chance event. The majority of writers will never know what success feels like firsthand, except perhaps as a one-time occurrence.
Mary Shelley once claimed that some people only have one good novel in them, and considering the small number of people who have read any of her post-Frankenstein creations, she would certainly know. Perhaps it would have been more accurate for her to say that some people only have one truly resonant novel in them, and, as a result, struggle to capture that bottled lightning a second time. Considering that writers from Aldous Huxley to Joseph Heller never quite managed it, clearly this is easier said than done.
The luckier breed of one-hit-wonder authors are the ones who produce not one renowned work, but a beloved series that they are then able to explore over multiple volumes. But at its worst, this trend can leave writers feeling trapped by their own creations.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grew weary of writing Sherlock Holmes stories and, in his frustration, eventually killed off the Baker Street detective in The Final Problem. Yet he underestimated the devotion of his fans. The outcry from his readers was impossible to ignore and — compelled also by a very real need to pay the bills — Doyle brought Holmes back to life and went right back to chronicling his and Watson’s exploits.
Even more extreme was the case of L. Frank Baum, who wanted to focus on books outside the land of Oz. Unfortunately, nothing else he wrote sold particularly well, forcing him to go over the rainbow time and time again. He put his foot down with The Emerald City of Oz, declaring it the end to the series, but monetary woes eventually led him to write eight more Oz books.
The desire for familiarity and for stories to continue is nothing new, and with mass media being the franchise game that it is, there’s greater incentive than before for writers to stick with what’s made them popular.
So just imagine the pressure J.K. Rowling felt to churn out another book about witches and wizards. As the first person to become a billionaire through writing alone, Rowling was free from any of the financial pressures that Baum or Doyle labored under, she wasn’t free from publishers, Warner Bros. and fans eager to see more of Harry and his world. As the author who inspired an entire generation of readers, giving into the demands of the ever-faithful followers must have been tempting.
And many writers would be happy to stay in the world they’d created. Lemony Snicket, for example, is publishing the first installment of a four-book prequel to his Series of Unfortunate Events later this month — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Rowling, though, was itching to do something completely different with her first non-Potter work. Now dominating the display shelves of every major bookstore in the country, The Casual Vacancy is a magic-free, firmly adult tale of small town politics filled with enough sex and social satire to deeply confuse the millions of unwitting children who might be expecting more of the same from the woman who introduced them to Quidditch. That the two most popular ratings for the book on Amazon are one and five stars is not exactly shocking, and when the dust settles, the Harry Potter fandom might find itself decisively split between those who love only Rowling’s magnum opus and those open to what else she has to offer as a writer.
But this doesn’t mean that Rowling’s ruled out the possibility of returning to Harry’s world at a later point in her career. She hasn’t said anything concretely either way, avoiding Doyle and Baum’s mistake of burning a bridge she might someday hope to cross. In a way, it’s refreshing she doesn’t claim the foresight to know everything she’ll ever want to do. Though it might be frustrating not to have a definitive answer as to Rowling’s intentions for her literary future, fans should take comfort in knowing that if she returns to the world that gave her fortune and fame, it won’t be because she needs to or because they asked, but because there was more to say and more stories to tell.
Ideally, that’s the only motivation that matters.
Michael Chasin is a sophomore majoring in narrative studies. His column “Fandomination” runs Fridays.