I don’t usually blog mid-week, but properly writing – not tweeting or updating a Facebook status – seems the most appropriate way to discuss the event of the day, that is: Jo Rowling’s new book being published (at a higher price for Kindle than hardcover to my displeasure, but moving swiftly on…).
Yes, I said Jo Rowling. I know from her recent interviews that it’s a name that she associates with her private self, not her professional self. So perhaps I shouldn’t call her that, but hey, it’s her name. We all know the story: on the eve of publishing, she was asked to choose a more gender-neutral name, to appeal to all the boys that were the target demographic of the scrawny character named Harry Potter.
People like to claim that some gender differences are nature instead of nurture, but when you look at blatant manipulation like that, I vehemently disagree.
I didn’t pay much attention to Rowling during the Harry Potter years, although I’m sure she did all of the required press and publicity then. Nevertheless, this time, her interviews caught my eye. There was something about her that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
She’s the first person on earth to make $1bn by writing books. She’s a Labour party supporter. She’s a pro-union Scottish resident. She gave evidence at Leveson. She doesn’t support tax avoidance schemes.
I re-read the interviews a couple times, trying to figure out what the mysterious quality was. Then I realised it was right in front of me. She’s confident. She’s just really, really sure of herself. “I have nothing to prove,” doesn’t mean, here is my false bravado so I don’t sound pathetic in print. It means, I am not looking for your validation.
There is an odd expectation that she shouldn’t be confident. Surely this new endeavour, with its highly-publicised swearing and not-so-subtle political commentary, should be terrifying her? After all, isn’t it just her way of showing us that she’s more than Harry Potter?
The Guardian: There may be no commercial ambition left, but still perhaps an artistic point to prove? Some critics were always sniffy about Potter’s literary merit […] and I wonder if Rowling wrote The Casual Vacancy with those critics in mind.
JKR: No, I truly didn’t sit down and think, right, now it’s time to prove I can…
BBC: I sensed there was a certain nervousness in your authorial voice in the very beginning.
JKR: I don’t mean this in an arrogant way but I did not sit down to write this novel thinking “got to prove”. I had nothing to prove. […] There’s only one reason to write, for me: If I genuinely have something I want to say and I want to publish it.
Please tell me that I am not the only one who thinks this is absurd. Why is that the focal point of the interviewers? Why is it so unbelievable that she might believe in herself enough to be following her passion for writing, without a hidden agenda driven by a lack of self-confidence?
Of course, asking these questions is part of the job. Interviewers are looking for a scoop, they want a headline to beat everyone else’s. The best headlines are the judgemental ones, the ones that give us a false sense of superiority. They feed shallow egos and boost sales.
Part of it is because most of us are not wildly successful writers. When we mentally put ourselves in her shoes, we imagine being terrified, and then we cleverly impose that on her. Obviously, the difference is that she is actually a writer that believes in her work.
And finally, I also believe that part of it is because we are simply not used to hearing women speak like that. Women have never been encouraged to walk around and say how good they are, so we expect to have a different conversation – which didn’t materialise, this time.
But at the end of the day, Rowling seems to be far past all of that. If she was once fearful, she has overcome that now. She’s not looking for external validation. Life will go on and the commentary will be forthcoming, but it’s not the point of this exercise. That’s a great way to be able to live your life.
“… The worst that can happen is that everyone says, ‘Well, that was dreadful, she should have stuck to writing for kids’ and I can take that. […] I will live.”
I don’t doubt her, but her certainty has the faint zeal of a convert, so I ask how she can be sure. “Because I’m not the person I was a few years ago. I’m not. I’m happier.”