Writing Matters: Readers and Writing

I recently came across the original article on the Huffington Post in which Lynn Shepherd urges J. K. Rowling to stop writing. While this statement has been flying about the internet, I had not seen the original, and I think Shepherd actually puts together a very interesting argument. She doesn’t suggest that Rowling stop writing altogether.

She states, “By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.”
According to Shepherd, her argument is grounded in the fact that Rowling’s book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, did not sell well until it was discovered that she was the writer (the book having been published under the pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, in 2013). She published after having written The Casual Vacancy, another novel written for the adult market, under her own name. Shepherd claims that The Casual Vacancy, while being “no masterpiece and yet [selling] by the hundredweight” was sucking “the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere.”

Shepherd asks Rowling to “Remember what it was like when The Cuckoo’s Calling had only sold a few boxes and think about those of us who are stuck there, because we can’t wave a wand and turn our books into overnight bestsellers merely by saying the magic word,” by having the fact surface, intentionally or otherwise, that Rowling was indeed the author.

Shepherd clearly feels that Rowling is getting attention in the adult market solely based on her name and her success with the Harry Potter books, and she writes that “it’s time to give other writers, and other writing, time to breathe.” Obviously, since we as readers have a limited amount of time to devote to reading, this raises the question of whether “bestsellers” like Rowling’s, seemingly based not on merit but on popularity, should be our focus?

I think Shepherd’s argument may have more to do with the readers than the writers, though. If we, as readers, stopped reading books just because they were popular and started reading what we really enjoyed – what we found inspiring or excellent, not because of peer pressure or any desire to conform to others adulation, but because the work recommended itself to us – then publishers would no longer publish books solely on the merit of an author’s celebrity name. If we ignored who did the writing and looked at the content itself to guide us in whether it was worth buying, worth reading, worth recommending, then we’d no longer have this problem where supposedly mediocre books suck “the oxygen from the…reading atmosphere.”

As far as authors go, I think those like Rowling are presented with a dilemma. Should an author who has developed a strong fan base keep writing, even if her works do not sell well on the book’s own merit? Knowing that, eventually, the truth will surface and the public will discover that she is behind the book, no matter what she does, should such a book be published? Should Rowling keep writing just because she can, because she has a story to tell, even knowing that her story may be taking up space and reading time that could be devoted to another, better story?

I don’t think that is something we can answer, because we are not the ones entrusted with her stories. She is, and as such, only she can decide if they need to be sent out to readers or kept to herself and her family. But I think the question would lose a great deal of its significance if we, as readers, didn’t care as much about who wrote it and more about what was written, if we read what was good, because it was good, and not because it was popular.

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