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?
"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.)