Some names are big. The shadows they cast are long and deep, so that even people with only the barest grasp of that particular field of endeavour will have heard of them. After all, you can’t talk about tennis without mentioning Roger Federer. But there is a phenomenon I’m coming to loathe with a fiery, stabby vengeance – the dark side of such overwhelming notoriety in the literary world. It is the use, over and over and over, of a single speculative phrase. It consists of five little words. They are:
The Next J. K. Rowling.
Sweet merciful donkey-gods, I am sick of it. On hearing that I’m a writer, or a writer of fantasy/young adult books, the first hopeful-teasing reaction of far too many strangers is, ‘So, you’re planning to be the next J. K. Rowling?’ In that context, it’s not a compliment or a vote of confidence: it’s a grasping-after-relevance on behalf of the speaker, clutching at the most famous name they can think of to try and reverse-orient their perception of what it is I actually do, and whether or not I’m likely to succeed at it. Depending on my mood, this is either amusingly unoriginal or a source of withering despair, but at least, when it does occur, there’s a good Goddam reason: 99% of the time, I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t read much, or who doesn’t read fantasy/young adult titles, and the name-drop represents an effort on their behalf, however misguided, at finding some conversational middle-ground.
But literary reviewers have no such defence. Google the above phrase, and you’ll see what I mean: G. P. Taylor, Catherine Banner, Stephenie Meyer, Maggie Stiefvater, F. E. Higgins and Michelle Paver have all been described thusly at one time or another; puzzlingly, so has Philip Pullman, despite the fact that the first volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy was published in 1995, two years prior to the advent of Potter, with the final two books appearing in 1997 and 2000. It is a phrase currently in danger of being abused to the point of ritual castigation, and worse, it seems to be employed more out of hopes for hype and the preemptive desire to create yet another worldwide marketing phenomenon than as an admission that the book in question is brilliantly written. The public yearneth for another Cinderella story – which Rowling, with her initial poverty, blonde hair and squillions of rejection letters, personified – and journalists are eager to provide. There is a tendency to forget that she also wrote an incredible series of seven books, the popularity of which stemmed, not from her underdog status, but from the creation of a fabulous world, brilliant characters and a well-plotted story arc.
The latest candidate for the TNJKR mantle is an Australian mother of four, Rebecca James, whose teeange thriller, Beautiful Malice, has earned an advance of more than $1 million from Allen & Unwin and started a bidding war over the international publication rights after being rejected by the Australian market. More, the windfall came just as James’s business folded, effectively saving the family. Regardless of whether the book lives up to expectations, there is warmth in the story on those grounds alone: underdog victories are always emotionally satisfying. As for the book itself, I’ll certainly read it, if only because the application of the Rowling moniker will make me remember the author. There you go, Marketing Guys – viral publicity strikes again! Thank the writers at the Wall Street Journal. After all, they started it.
I wish Rebecca James every success, and I’m extremely happy that she’s managed to achieve her goal. But in future, can we please have a moratorium on calling each new writer to earn a big advance, publish in the YA fantasy genre and/or write their book as a teenager the next JK? It’s like hailing each new addition to the Australian cricket team as the next Don Bradman: unnecessary and, ultimately, inaccurate. Because what made the Potter phenomenon so powerful was that no one predicted it. Rowling didn’t earn a $1 million advance for the first volume. The series was seven books long, and they were published over an entire decade – that’s a long time to work up a fanbase, infiltrate the market and create hype for each successive instalment. Chances are, when the Next Big Thing comes knocking, most of the world will be two rooms over with their music turned up loud, and will have to hear about it on the evening news. So until then, let’s just keep our eyes peeled and defer judgement to the delivery of an actual product, shall we?