One of the interesting memes in the wake of the release of the last “Harry Potter” book has been whether J.K. Rowling is a Good Writer. Many of my friends say no (some with the caveat that she’s a great storyteller); they point to the worst section in the series, the first third/half of book five, in which the relentless dismantling of all the joy of the first four books is nearly unendurable, or they talk about the difficulty in reading “ALL CAPS” Harry. To be fair, there are times when Rowling seems downright uncomfortable with her writing, most often (as Cassie Clare pointed out) when writing about romance. The “monster coiling in Harry’s belly” seemed like someone trying to describe a boy’s awakening to puberty without (a) having gone through it, or (b) being explicit about it at all.
In Salon, Laura Miller (day pass or subscription required) says of Rowling that “the texture and color of her imaginary world is earthy (but not lusty), homely, grounded, irreverent, antic, perfectly suited to the audience of 10-year-olds she first devised it for 10 years ago. Her voice, tone and imagination are rooted in social comedy and observation, not in the metaphysical and transcendent…” This is the best analysis of her writing that I’ve read. I have little to add to it.
Stephen King, in a long article in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, says “she was and is an incredibly gifted novelist.” Novelist (a term Laura Miller also uses) simply means that she writes novels, stories about people, rather than Significant Works such as Paradise Lost, or your average Don DeLillo book. King, whatever you may think of his actual writing, knows a thing or two about the craft (his “On Writing” is one of the best books for writers I’ve read), and I would at this point trust him more to evaluate another writer than to pen a brilliant story.
At the core of it, it feels to me like all of the debate over whether Rowling is a Good Writer or not stems from a touch of professional jealousy, a desire to take down the hugely popular books or demean them because they are so popular. “Yes, well, of course the masses love her, but they don’t know what good writing is.” She is not Dorothy Parker, she is not Madeleine L’Engle; in the world of children’s books, her nearest peer may be Andre Norton, who filled many hours of my childhood with delightful science fiction and fantasy stories that, at their core, were always about the people in them. She introduced me to many strange and wonderful characters (Eet remains one of my favorite sidekicks ever), told gripping and beautiful stories, and took me to faraway worlds. Whatever the quality of her prose, those are the marks of a good writer, and that is as true of the late Ms. Norton as it is of Ms. Rowling.