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?
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.