July 31st, 2007
Two quick questions designed to start arguments in the comments:
1) Is J.K. Rowling the most significant female writer in human history?
2) Now that Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni are dead, who is the greatest living filmmaker?
1) No. Jane Austen is. I'd also place Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, the Bronte sisters, Emily Dickinson, and Madeline L'Engle as more "significant" than Rowling, as I understand the word. There's surely more. But I'm not an HP fan, so keep that in mind.
2) Judd Apatow? : ) Just kidding...
"Jane Austen? Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book." --Mark Twain
I'm not an Austen fan (or a Twain fan, incidentally), but I've never been clear on how her works have garnered so much support. I know that she's supposed to be comparable to Shakespeare with regards to literary merit, but I just plain don't get the appeal.
I'm not disagreeing with you in terms of her being significant. She's significant regardless of whether or not I like her work, obviously, and even if one were to accept as a given that her work isn't worthy of the praise it has garnered (which I'm not trying to posit), one would still have to acknowledge that the mere amount of interest and support has rendered her "significant."
I think we may be using different definitions or at least standards for "significant." Literarily speaking, your list is solid. I was defining significant as pertaining to the cultural impact.
I love Mark Twain. And I'm not a Jane Austen fan either. But consider how we see a new Jane Austen movie adaptation once every ten years or so on the big screen and how PBS runs a mini-series at least once every five. There's an ongoing market for this woman, as only Shakespeare equals that kind of repeated adaptation in film and tv. That's not necessarily the best way to deem something "significant", but it's part of the equation. You mentioned "cultural impact." Certainly she gets credit for that, but I think her true significance will reveal itself over time, based on whether the Harry Potter books stand the test of 50 years or so and become this century's Narnia or Lord of the Rings.
RE Narnia and LOTR
I don't think either of those series are as accessible as Potter. I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Hobbit for school, probably around 5th grade or so, and I swear, I can't remember either of them. They never inspired me to read more. I know they inspired a LOT of other people--believe me--but I don't find them to be as accessible as the Potter books. I think that's part of the reason that Rowling has been as successful as she's been...her books hold mass appeal and they are not difficult to read.
I agree that accessibility is a part of significance, but I think a greater part is sustainability. There's a lot of Potter love in the world right now, partly because of accessibility. And though LOTR is probably less accessible, it has sustained fandom for a long time and helped redefine how we look at fantasy. I think Potter has had similar influence over fantasy fiction in the here and now--I just need to see the influence play out past the end of the series.
I tend to think of Narnia, however, as significantly more accessible than Potter. For one thing, the books are a hell of a lot shorter. : )
Plus, they lack those pesky interesting characters, so that won't slow you down...
(Sorry. I've got a major anti-Narnia bent. But that probably comes from having the books shoved down my throat when I was a kid.)
I think the word significant is key: it's a subjective word. Individual definitions will be different, and therefore, our arguments are all weakened for it.
I believe Rowling is very significant, possibly more than the other writers that you listed. Yes, I am a fan, and yes, I have read each book multiple times. But my argument for her being the most significant is not because I am a fan or because I think she's the most talented (something that I agree is up for debate)...it's because of what she's inspired.
Yes, there are 8 billion Jane Austen related movies/spin offs. But I would wager that no author, male or female, has inspired young readers to keep reading the way that Rowling has with Harry Potter. Kids who never read ended up finding something in her books, and not only became avid readers of the series, but branched out into other books as well. And it's not just young readers--I know plenty of adults that read the Potter series as well. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that they still read novels because of the series.
It can be argued that there are mitigating circumstances to help spread the influence of the books, things that were not available in the time of Austen, but if you think about it, I'm not sure that time should even be a factor. After all, like I said, there are 8 billion Austen inspired vehicles out there, literary or otherwise. I don't think Austen ever reached the juggernaut status of Rowling, and she's had quite a lot more time to do it.
It may be too early to declare Rowling the most significant of all time--we'll see how history treats her. The writers you listed are helped out by the fact that they're all writers featured in English & Lit classes across the US. (I remember reading A Wrinkle in Time for school as a kid.) If Rowling is taught in schools, that will cement her status. And she may be right now, I don't know--or she may be in the future. For anyone that argues that teachers focus on the classics or on work created in the early/mid 20th century, I have an argument: my freshman year english class was combined with my biology class, and in order to coincide lessons, we would do things like read Jurassic Park while we studied genetics. So I do think there is a chance that teachers will be teaching Rowling's work, if only to inspire the kids to read at all.
Just my opinion.
That's exactly where I was coming from with my interpretation of "significant." So often, we focus on the craft of the great writers -- which we should do! -- but we do so at the expense of the great storytellers.
In college, I learned that I am capable of writing prose worthy of being called "literature" by even the snootiest of professors. I also learned that I don't enjoy doing so. I write not for the cadences of the sounds, or the symbolism, or the blah-blah-blah-insert-your-favorite-literary-term here.
I write for the story. So does Rowling. She does it amazingly well, and it's let people who were turned off to reading (by the educational requirements of today's schools) discover that it really can be fun.