Fri
Jul 8 2011 3:01pm
Tales Out of School

I am currently teaching a novel writing workshop at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and, though it is not an SF course specifically, we’ve had a bit of discussion lately about A Game of Thrones. This is natural: it’s on TV right now, so several people are reading (or rereading) the George R. R. Martin books. Enough people are familiar with the story that we can chew it over and compare the two—and it’s been especially relevant since I assigned a sex and violence discussion topic early in my class. It has all been lively and quite enjoyable.

The world of publishing is so vast that it is rare to be able to discuss books in these situations unless they tie into some kind of a media adaptation. Any group of randomly chosen people is more likely to have seen a given film than to have read many of the same books. Common ground is just easier to find on the big and small screens.

But once in awhile, something grabs everyone’s attention, and so it was at the height of the Harry Potter craze.

It was 2005. I had developed a short fiction workshop with a focus on worldbuilding. Any and all of the speculative genres were welcome: fantasy, SF, horror, alternate history, you name it, as long as the stories were less than novelette-length and contained some element of the fantastic. People were counting down the days until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was due to hit theaters in November. The youngest of my students claimed to be eighteen when he signed up (turned out he was more like thirteen), while the eldest had a couple of grandkids.

Every single one of them was into Harry Potter.

Words can barely convey how heavily those books were stamped on the minds of my students, six years ago. Everyone knew Harry; everyone had read Rowling. Several of them had read the whole series aloud, cover to cover, seven bags full, to their kids. And a few, I discovered, had never read any other fantasy at all.

Now they were trying to write it. A good number of those aspiring authors wanted, in one sense or another, to be J.K. Rowling.

It would be easy to scoff at this. Everyone dreams of success and fame, of course, and many of us also dream of writing books and stories like the ones we cherish most. But there was more to it than that. These individuals weren’t looking to crank out pallid Potter imitations... on the contrary, they were terrified of using any story elements at all that might evoke the world of Hogwart’s.

These were writers who wanted to reach kids and adults, to inspire fannish passion in everyone from the hardcore genre readers to the people who don’t read at all. Who wouldn’t want to snap up the world’s attention so completely? Who wouldn’t be daunted by the books that actually pulled it off?

Oh, it was interesting to watch them dig into it. For a couple of years, until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had finally brought it all to an end, I had one or two submissions each quarter where I saw kids as apprentices at haunted carnivals, or pre-teens who could shift around in time, and child heroes in magical science fictional landscapes. Even the best-written of these efforts couldn’t escape the influence; they all looked a little derivative, and everyone knew it and agonized over it. Any kid who was special at all did rather look, at first glance, like a Harry Potter knockoff. And, even now, I have new writers wondering if they can safely send a child character in a magical universe to any kind of school.

Rowling’s influence didn’t just extend to people who were learning to write, or even just people who wanted to sell books. Throughout this period and to this day, Harry Potter fanfiction was flourishing. Some of the people writing it do nothing else. Others were already-established authors and editors, like Cecilia Tan (who is out and proud about her Harry Potter fics, and whose involvement in this fandom led her to join the Organization for Transformative Works.) Other writers learned their craft writing stories about Harry, Hermione, and Ron and then went on to invent their own universes, and sell fiction set in those realms.

Then the whole phenomenon ebbed, as such things inevitably do. We are many of us awaiting the final movie, and eagerly too, but Potter consciousness doesn’t dominate my workshops as it did. I had a spate of people playing with Teen Monster romances not long ago, discussions about whether it was possible to write a girl-meets-zombie tale that wasn’t completely squicky. But Stephanie Meyers hasn’t been quite as all-consuming. She’s on plenty of readers’ minds, but she hasn’t grabbed us all—there’s room for other things.

Now, when I see a new author saying “Will this remind people of Harry Potter?” I can remind them that the Rowling books are making their transformation to a sort of literary adulthood. With this last film they will graduate; they willstop being current events and make their way into history. We’re starting to get a bit of distance.

As for the writers I see in class now, they include readers who were actually kids when those books were being released: they are the people the Harry Potter books were originally intended for. Some of them remember the books not as influential, game-changing works of literature but as the stories Mom and Dad used to hook them on fiction in the first place.

Well... most of them do. “I was the one kid in my class who didn’t like Harry Potter,” one of this summer’s students revealed.

To college-aged kids and the waves of students yet to come, Rowling has become what Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis and even all those unsung folks who wrote work-for-hire Tom Swift novels were to me: an integral piece of their childhood. Her influence—on children’s fiction, on the book publishing marketplace, and on writers—is still evolving. It has already shown itself to be incalculable.


A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com—an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010.

This article is part of Potterpalooza on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
5 comments
Susan Sipal
1. SusanSipal
As someone who also teaches writing with Harry Potter as the text, it is amazing to me how strong and vital the interest remains in this series four years after the last book was published. And this is from both fans and writers, who are very often both. She has inspired so many young people to not only read, but to create.

The recent news about the upcoming Pottermore plus the excitement over the last film release have brought forth the the energy of this fandom that had never died, but had been on a low boil.

It is nice to see, as you so wonderfully point out, that writers can now venture into classic storytelling territory that for years seemed to be dominated by JK Rowling. Thanks for such an insightful post!
Paul Liadis
2. strugglingwriter
It's sad, but true, that I have a bit of "writer's block" as far as novels are concerned based on some of the stuff you describe above. I mean, I want to write something epic, and something similiar to Harry Potter, not so much to be as successful as J.K. Rowling as much as to capture some of that magic and create something of my own.
Bluejay
3. Bluejay
Perhaps your students who were worried about writing "Potter knockoffs" would be comforted by the fact that in many ways the Harry Potter stories were knockoffs themselves. (I don't mean this in a bad sense.) Sending a kid with magical powers off to a school for wizards? Ursula K. le Guin was there decades before Rowling. And of course all the classic elements of the hero's journey -- being an orphan, facing trials, losing a mentor, facing and transcending death, and so on -- have been around for much longer.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
4. tnh
It took a while for the field to assimilate Tolkien. I'm sure it'll work the same way with Rowling.
Alyx Dellamonica
5. AMDellamonica
Susan--yes. There's just a little less panic now, even though Rowling looms so very large. And I agree, Struggling! You can't not think of her when tackling certain projects.

TNH, you speak truth. Of course, you know that.

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