Women of Speculative Fiction: J.K. Rowling

Since I wrote about Hermione last time, I’ve been considering whether to write about her creator as well. Again, she’s such a well-known figure that even the most casual Harry Potter fan could probably recite the details of her rise to super-stardom in the literary world: the idea for Harry came to her while riding a train; the tragedy of her mother’s death influenced how she wrote Harry’s loss; she was an impoverished single mother when she wrote the first book and did a lot of the writing in cafés after the walks had gotten her daughter to fall asleep; she’s the first writer whose career made her a billionaire (though Rowling herself has disputed the actual figures) and promptly stopped being a billionaire by donating a large portion of her fortune to charity.

Her tale has the sort of rags-to-riches trajectory that inspires many a struggling writer. Her books have gotten countless children interested in reading. She may have single-handedly jumpstarted the fantasy craze in children’s literature, or even a fantasy literature craze in general. But that’s all been discussed before. Her fame has also brought plenty of criticism, with a level of scrutiny that other less-famous books and authors never receive. I’m not going to dwell on the criticism either. What I do want to explore is just one specific aspect of her career that raises some important questions about writing as a profession, how we perceive writers and artists in general, and how women carry a disproportionate burden of scrutiny, particularly mothers.

Whenever Rowling’s rise to fame and wealth is mentioned, among all the admirers there is usually some sour commenter who feels the need to point out how she was on government assistance while writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. How appalling, they seem to say, that she could squander precious tax money just to indulge her little book-writing hobby. Now, I could get into an entire separate analysis of how we judge the relative worthiness of welfare recipients, but socioeconomic rants are not really within the realm of my expertise. I just find it interesting that the easiest response to the detractors would be, “Well, but look at what came of it! She became a bestselling author! She made millions, and gave back tons of money to the needy!” True enough – but does that mean that if she hadn’t; if publishers had all turned down her little wizard-school story – would all her work have been a waste? An unnecessary drain on society; a bout of neglectful selfishness when she should have been providing for her daughter? The fact that she was a single mother only seems to worsen the criticism, as if she ought to magically go back in time (by Time-Turner, of course) to undo the circumstances resulting in single-parenthood, rather than doing the best she could to deal with those circumstances.

The truth is, most writers don’t make much money. We hear about the rich ones. Of course we do, because we’re all buying their books and giving them lots of money. But the average mid-list writer probably has a separate job so they can actually pay the bills. And of course, many writers never get published, never make a penny off their work. Does that mean it’s worthless? How do we measure the worth of art outside of monetary value? Are artists less important contributors to society than those in the STEM fields, or the laborers who provide essential goods and services? If we were to judge their contribution solely by how much they get paid, most artists would be almost worthless, aside from the rare ultra-rich ones like movie stars – or Rowling.

This is obviously a very personal question for me, because I currently have no career outside of my as-yet unfulfilled writing aspirations. Now, I know I’m one of the lucky ones. My husband has a steady job – he’s a theatre teacher, so we’re not exactly living in a mansion, but it’s enough. And I don’t currently work at a paying job because we have three children and until three years ago, at least one of them was at home, needing full-time care. But now that they’ve all been in school for a few years, I’ve been expending a lot of mental space on how I should spend my free time – whether I should be seeking employment or volunteering in the community or some other obviously productive activity. Yet all I really want to do is write. I’ve put a lot of time into it, but it’s hard to measure whether any of that time has been put to good use. I think I’m closer to publication than I was five years ago – I’ve gotten some interest from literary agents, and some very useful feedback – but there’s no money to show for it. What if there never is? Have I been wasting my time? No one’s ever accused me of this, but I can easily supply enough self-doubt to make up for it.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for some kind of indulgent artist utopia, where the soulful bohemian type is given a free pass just by virtue of their artistic-ness. If my husband weren’t able to support us, I’d find a job, writing-based or not, to provide for our needs. I wouldn’t sit around waiting for someone to gratify my pride and perceived genius while doing nothing. And for some people, they’re perfectly happy to create art as a hobby rather than a profession. They might make a little money here and there, but the joy of creation is sufficient – presumably because their career is sufficient to meet their financial needs. Yes, the world would be a dismal place without art, but without basic essentials like food and shelter, we wouldn’t be around to know it. So there has to be some kind of reasonable balance between supporting artists while also taking care of practical concerns. I don’t have the answers. I only know that a writer shouldn’t have to be as successful as J. K. Rowling just to validate their desire to write.