Okay, writers: who would you rather be Harper Lee or J.K. Rowling?
No brainer, right? We’d rather be ourselves. That’s why we’re writers. Yes, precisely, and now that we have that established, which of these women changed the world (more, or at all)?
J.K. Rowling went from1.50 (can’t get the computer to make a pound symbol) for a pot of tea, pushing her child’s pram back and forth with one hand while pouring out words with the other in an Edinburgh tearoom, to seven mega-hit books–books so powerful, she dragged a friend of mine along in her wake.
Theresa Breslin published one of her Dreammaster books in the year that Rowling actually dipped the annual projected publishing earnings by delivering her manuscript late. Ottakar Books, a chain in the UK, put up a display with Theresa’s YA fiction, and a sign: “Going potty waiting for Harry Potter? Try this instead!” And Theresa’s well-written, charming stories of a young boy and a crotchety old non-mortal who oversees his sleeping moments shot into bestseller status as well.
Did it bug her, a woman of great talent, to be handled this way, when her writing deserved recognition in its own right, I asked Theresa as we sat over our own cups of tea in Edinburgh one afternoon. I was fully prepared to be indignant on my friend’s behalf, but “I have no regrets,” Theresa said, smiling. A brilliant, savvy and kindhearted woman, Theresa is; if you haven’t read her books, you’d enjoy them.
The point being, J.K. Rowling broke into a rigidly self-contained industry and dominated it–but good.
Then there’s Harper Lee. A friend to the damaged (Truman Capote, among others) and a quiet woman, she coalesced a generation’s confusion into one heartbreaking, eminently readable novel. Did she change the American mindset? Or did she just describe it so well that we all got ashamed of ourselves and sought to change it? It’s well-known, that pop-psych wisdom about the first step being defining the problem and wanting to get rid of it. Did Lee launch that vessel? (Didn’t Samuel Clemens do that with Huck’s raft, some 75 years before? Perhaps Lee gave it a fresh head of steam.)
Mockingbird is loosely based on events Lee witnessed as a child growing up in Alabama.
Author Joan Didion says we write to get our thoughts in order and make sense of what’s happening around us. Did Lee ride the wave, or create it? And does it matter? She never wrote anything else (at least, not that her name was put to) but what she set down is still being read and studied and analyzed and held up as the Golden Mean. And it deserves to be.
Did Rowling ride a wave, or create it? It certainly looks as though she created one: a tsunami of interest in the supernatural, neglected children, and national health service owl-frame glasses. Seven waves, each white-topped with money, each exploring ever-darker themes of what it means to be loyal, to grow up, to go from a cupboard under the stairs to the most important person in the universe yet still be a nice guy.
Lee only wrote one, and also hit instant success. She won the Pulitzer. She was lauded as the voice of a generation about to change itself. And she stopped accepting public appearances about her book.
Did America change itself? Did she help? People with white skin and people with black, people who are paid to analyze what others write and people who don’t care to analyze much of anything, would answer that question differently.
But they’d all know what To Kill a Mockingbird was about, too.
I asked the “Rowling/Lee” question of a friend at lunch the other day–a woman high-powered in her profession but not a writer–and she said instantly, “Harper Lee. Duh.”
“Not duh. Think about it,” I shot back, launching into my diatribe: the waves were too murky, the issues less black-and-white than one might think. Marketing, money, the conscience of one generation to change the world, the longing of another to be special….
After five minutes of my onslaught, my lunching friend’s brow furrowed. “Hmmm,” she said.