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Tony Grist

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The Potter Effect [Jul. 23rd, 2007|09:09 am]
Tony Grist
The publishers are busily looking for the next Harry Potter. I doubt if they'll find him.

There have been several contenders already- The Pullman trilogy, the Lemony Snickett series, the Artemis Fowle books. They've all been successful, but none of them has come near repeating the Potter effect.

International, cross-cultural, intergenerational, cultic-  causing obsession, causing 36 hour queues for product, making the headlines.
 
Marketing has a role to play, but you've got to have a decent product first- a product that a significant number of people have fallen in love with.

Rowling came from nowhere- an untried author who was rejected several times before getting a deal with a small-time publishing house.  Her success is implausible, a-million-to-one. 

Why Harry? Why not? These enthusiams sweep the world from time to time. You can trace them back through history. It's not just about books. People fall in love with all sorts of  cultural products. The last really big one was Star Wars. And before that there was Beatlemania and before that James Bond and Sherlock Holmes and the serial novels of Charles Dickens. People thronged  the quayside in New York as the boat came in carrying the latest issue of Old Curiosity Shop and shouted up at the passengers, "Is little Nell dead?" No concern about spoilers there.

You can't go any further back because the phenomenon depends on modern communications.

It's a feature of all these fandoms or whatever you want to call them that the product is doled out in installments, with the public always expecting and wanting more- another album, a further episode, the next movie. The relationship builds from year to year. The fan lives alongside her heroes in real time. And it's a reciprocal relationship- with give and take between creator and audience. The "author" becomes a celebrity- gives interviews, bats away speculation- Conan Doyle brings Sherlock Holmes back from the dead because of pressure from his readers. And it gets to be quite erotic too. The Beatles have to hide their real marriages so as not to upset the fans, girls queuing outside Waterstones say (only half joking) that they want to marry Harry Potter.

(And then there's fanfic. And slash.)

Another common element is that all the biggest fandoms centre on work that's really quite good. We still read Dickens, we still listen to the Beatles, the James Bond franchise is still lumbering on. The public en masse turns out to have pretty good taste. I can't think of an instance where the idolised work was total dreck. Star Wars? Well, The later  movies were dreadful, but the first ones weren't.

And one of the indices of their quality is that all these fandoms gave us something new.  None of them repeated the success of an earlier franchise. They weren't carbon copies. Which is why all those publishers who are looking for something as much like Harry Potter as possible are barking up the wrong tree.

The next big thing could be anything. And it will take us by surprise.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: methodius
2007-07-23 10:54 am (UTC)

The next Harry Potter

Rowling has shown she can write stuff that kids want to read.

So perhaps she could write something different, with a different set of characters, different setting.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 11:12 am (UTC)

Re: The next Harry Potter

Maybe.

But then I think of Conan Doyle. He was enormously productive, but only the Sherlock Holmes stories achieved cult status.
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[User Picture]From: momof2girls
2007-07-23 12:40 pm (UTC)

Re: The next Harry Potter

It's funny - I was talking about this with my kids, and I opined that anything Rowling writes will be compared to Harry Potter, and she'll have a difficult time measuring up, not because she's not talented, but just because Harry was so big. (How's that for a long sentence?!)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 12:50 pm (UTC)

Re: The next Harry Potter

It'll be very interesting to see what she does next.

Of course her income from Harry Potter means she never has write another sentence if she doesn't want to.
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[User Picture]From: momof2girls
2007-07-23 01:09 pm (UTC)

Re: The next Harry Potter

I read a quote from JK Rowling a couple of years ago in which she said she had all the money she needed and didn't need any more. And this from someone who was a single mom on the dole at one point! Good for her!
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[User Picture]From: momof2girls
2007-07-23 12:38 pm (UTC)
Very well-put! I think one of the reasons certain phenomenons appear is that they do take us by surprise. We won't find the "next Harry Potter" by looking; it will just happen.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 12:47 pm (UTC)
"It will just happen"- yes.

We seem to need these phenomena so I guess there'll be another one along shortly.
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[User Picture]From: mummm
2007-07-23 03:29 pm (UTC)
And "Alice in Wonderland" is forever popular, "The Bobbsie Twins" (in the 50s), and more. I am sure that more will come along shortly. Thank goodness for such things to encourage reading!

Then you have the more sophisticated book writer sensations... such as Steven King. I know that people don't line up for hours for them, but they are/were very popular none-the-less.

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 03:50 pm (UTC)
I thought of putting Peter Pan on the list but it's only one book/play and not a series.

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[User Picture]From: mummm
2007-07-23 03:57 pm (UTC)
Oh that's true. Peter is very lasting though. That one goes on the Children's Classics list.

I'm trying to remember the series books... Little Women was only one book, yes?
We also had the Nancy Drew series and The Hardy Boys. My brain does not function too well on many things. WAY back there were books about elves... but I just can't remember the names of those books! I have them somewhere...
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 05:52 pm (UTC)
Little Women was one of a series I think.

Some of these series don't have much currency beyond the USA. I don't think British kids have ever had much contact with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. The British equivalent would probably be Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" mysteries.

A series about Elves? No you've got me there....



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[User Picture]From: mummm
2007-07-23 06:11 pm (UTC)

So sorry about the American references.

Oh dear... they were BROWNIES... no elves. I have several of these books. I am guessing that they have some worth.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmer_Cox

Oh and... Hans Christian Andersons books are still great ones.

The American ones were ones I grew up with. I live *somewhere else* at times to not realize that they were not worldwide ones.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 06:41 pm (UTC)

Re: So sorry about the American references.

It's interesting how some things cross the Atlantic and others (perhaps equally worthy) don't. I'm guessing that Enid Blyton- who was huge all though my childhood (and many of whose books are still in print)- is largely unknown in the States.

One of the odd things about Harry Potter's international success is that the series couldn't be more English if it tried. Maybe the Englishness is part of the attraction.
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[User Picture]From: mummm
2007-07-23 11:11 pm (UTC)

Re: So sorry about the American references.

Undoubtedly! It's a great series, in my humble American opinion. *L*

Palmer Cox was Canadian, but also a Freemason. My grandfather and his brothers were Freemasons too, so maybe that's why the books are here. But I did read that Palmer Cox was quite famous; popular in the 20's and that the Brownie camera was named that in honor of the books. I have no idea if they are still published.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-24 08:58 am (UTC)

Re: So sorry about the American references.

That cute little brownie fella looks familiar. I'm thinking my grandmother might have had one of those books.
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[User Picture]From: oakmouse
2007-07-23 04:41 pm (UTC)
Look at Tolkien, and the host of imitators he spawned. Not one of them turned out to be a major writer or phenomenon in their own right, and most are now completely forgotten. I think you're right that none of the Potter-wannabees will turn into The Next HP.

It'll be interesting to see what the next big thing is.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-23 08:14 pm (UTC)
Tolkien has been so plagiarised and imitated and generally ripped off that it's easy to forget just how unique and original he was.
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[User Picture]From: clindau
2007-07-23 10:59 pm (UTC)
Well said.

I haven't read any of the Potter books, but several people at the theatre are reading Deathly Hallows (to the extent that backstage looks like a reading room at the library, but I digress...). When no one was looking, I picked one up and read the last two paragraphs.

What a nice way to end it.
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From: manfalling
2007-07-24 04:02 am (UTC)
A few people posting here say a few things I'm curious about-

Harry Potter, compared to something by, say, Stephen King, is unsophisticated. But really? In my opinion, there's a great deal of depth in Harry Potter, certainly in the later books. Some of the characters with their twisted backgrounds have really shown a not-just-black-and-white view of the world. Don't we call that sophisticated?

Someone else said Rowling's successful because she knows what kids like to read. But that's skipping the fact that an enormous part of her readership is made up of adults. She clearly knows what a great number of adults like to read too.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-24 09:05 am (UTC)
I think she's enormously gifted- and she's been learning on the job.

I certainly don't think she's shallow. I think people are going to be writing these about Harry Potter for years to come.
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From: senordildo
2007-07-25 02:49 pm (UTC)
The editors of the OUP editions of the Holmes stories make a pretty good case that Doyle brought Holmes back less because of reader pressure but because Holmes best fit into the story that eventually became The Hound of the Baskervilles, and because Doyle felt enough time had passed since the last Holmes story (good money also helped grease the wheels). Reader pressure also played its part, but it was greatest immediately after Holmes' death, and Holmes was something Doyle always found it difficult to shake off--he said goodbye to Holmes on three occasions and every time Holmes ended up coming back, though on an irregular basis. My suspicion is that if Doyle had lived another decade or two, we'd have probably seen yet another Holmes story.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-25 08:48 pm (UTC)
I know Doyle wanted to be taken seriously as a writer and it really irked him that Holmes eclipsed everything else in his vast oeuvre.
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From: senordildo
2007-07-26 03:27 am (UTC)
He would definitely be horrified that everything else he's written has been forgotten. I personally feel rather guilty about not having dipped into his other work--I hear the Brigadier Gerard and Professor Challenger stories are quite good. Since he's so often been called a reverse figure of Holmes, I recently read Hornung's Raffles stories, but while the characters are truly iconic, the stories themselves are mostly forgettable, which isn't the case with Holmes--proof of the genuine quality of the Holmes canon, even if Doyle dashed most of it off with little thought.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2007-07-26 08:17 am (UTC)
I read the Brigadier Gerard stories and The Lost World when I was a kid. I remember the Lost World being rather heavy going (maybe I was just too young) but Gerard was good, swahbuckling fun.
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