Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A few years ago I was in a discussion group and and the book we were discussing was Lord of the Rings. We were working our way through the entire book and we’d have these fascinating discussions about the philosophy of the stories. One of the members of the discussion group, however, was a big Tolkien fan and he’d bring in letters or other ways in which we’d learn Tolkien’s view on his own book to dispute whatever point we would be making. I found it immensely annoying - it just totally shut down the discussion. Now we have the Author Himself Telling Us All What He Really Meant. What then was the point of discussing it - the Oracle Has Spoken. What was the point of even reading the story - why shouldn’t he just tell us what he really meant and be done with it?

This is why I think J.K. Rowling made a terrible mistake during her American tour. While I think it would be helpful to hear about her views of the process of writing, or writing as an art form, or to discuss - at length even - what books have influenced her and why, she just gave us too much definitive information on this tour and effectively has nearly shut the discussion down.

As I wrote about in my essay “Iceberg Ahoy” in the book “The Plot Thickens,” the skill of a writer is to tell us just enough information (i.e., Hemmingway’s iceberg analogy) to keep the story going, but not to much - allude to more that is under the surface. This was Rowling’s brilliance in her writing - she gave us enough to sweep us into the story and carrying on discussion that should have lasted into the next century - but not too much to squash the reader’s own journey into the imagination. Her tour of America nearly undid all her skill. It was as though she’s had a “minder” who finally was given the “heave-ho” after the books were completed.

As some may know, I’ve become a Bob Dylan fan and have been spending the last few years trying to play catchup on his lifetime vocation of music. It’s take me three years to get to where I am now, which may mean I might understand the new arthouse film that is about to come out, “I’m Not Here.” But one of the frustrating (wonderful?) things about Dylan is that he very rarely talks about what his songs mean. Early on he might and sometimes something will slip out (but is he telling the truth or fooling around, one never knows). But he really doesn’t tell us what his songs mean. He wrote an entire “first volume” autobiography and still didn’t really tell us what his songs mean - he spent virtually the entire book explaining how he wrote them, not what they mean.

This of course is frustrating - but also an important key to his success and the explosion of his myth. He follows the iceberg theory as well - gives us just enough information but not enough to explain it all to us. We have to work on his songs, we can’t be passive. We can have “aha” moments but until one can sit down with another Dylan fan and argue over the points, one is never going to be sure if one is up the tree or out on a limb or swinging carefree on the mark. But the point always is to make the case from the song themselves and Dylan provides very little to explain it and if he does he isn’t always to be believed.

There are times when I re-read the Dumbledore interview and if Jo Rowling were Bob Dylan you could make the case she was pulling everyone’s leg bigtime, except no one has a sense of humor about such things they are so politicized (with reason) right now. But there is a sense that you could almost imagine the Weasley Twin side of her chuckling.

But if not and she’s serious about all the “revelations” and “opinions” she’s given (and there’s no reason really to seriously doubt her) then she’s spoiled the fun, she’s told us the answer (yes, even after we begged her to) when the better way is to turn the question back to the audience and ask, “What do you think?” and turn the questions back to the audience and have a conversation about it, rather than embarking in that almost celebrity mindedness that everything she says is holy writ. If that is true, then the story is truly “her” story and she owns it like a piece of property to control as she wishes and her audience either gets it or we don’t. But she knows all. Well, that’s a lot of things, but it doesn’t further her story to live beyond herself, to live larger than herself. It might be wise for her to go back to the way it was, when she said little, and if there is something she must say to put it in a book and be done with it. Make the case and tell the story and we’ll judge if she pulls it off. It’s like cheating to tell us all about Luna and her adventures (what was all that stuff about her and Dean and nothing coming from it - what a fascinating and unlikely match that might have been, you could almost see that Dean was entertained by Luna and he offered her stability and sense, but no Jo says she went off to the woods and met someone we’ve never heard of, poor Dean - all that time and it was all for nothing).

And Neville and Hannah - where’s the support for that? Was there any hint in the text about them at all? No, so it becomes almost like gossip, not storytelling. J.K. Rowling toured America gossiping about her characters. I bet a few of them, not the least being Dumbledore, would have liked for her to put a sock in it.

Now we see she is narrow-minded toward something she calls “American fundamentalists.” But she does not define her terms - is she talking about Calvinist Baptists or Evangelical Armenian or what? Isn’t it a stereotype of religious Americans and somehow the British are so much more enlightened? If I were to walk into a Baptist meeting I’d be anything but a fundie - I’m sure they’d find me a progressively liberal. But if I were to attend one my own home denomination, Episcopalian, meeting I’m sure they’d be quick to call me a fundie because I’m not unitarian and I call Jesus by His first name. Jo Rowlings sweeping generalities tells us she doesn’t know America very well and her bias toward her own nation shows. She’s the enlightened one and we’re a bunch of right wing nuts. Maybe she’s trying to be funny.

It was way more fun to discuss her books before she started to explain them to us. I know the temptation must have been great - who knows, perhaps the temptation is great for Dylan sometimes. But his music is strengthened by his silence and perhaps this would be a good time for Jo to get thoughtful and reflect that maybe Harry doesn’t belong to her anymore, that he let her into his life for a spell and now he’s moved on and she’s now like the rest of us, trying to figure out what it all means.

ZR (my HP post name)


Thanks for the comments, friends - I appreciate it more than I can say that I could post that reflection and get such great comments! And I admit I’d love to read Tolkien’s letters - but again, I might maintain that a work must be able to stand on its own and the author also stands in the shadows and in no longer the oracle - but that may be the fruits over my own rebellion regarding the creative writing workshops that go gaga over authors. A book is a book except when it’s a ego-driven self indulgence. Authors are terrible about figuring out when that happens until it’s almost too late or - like Dylan - they crash.

But I seriously doubt that happened to Tolkien, it was indeed how the letters were used to interpret the text and I still find that troubling. If an author has more to say, write more story. A story takes on a life of its own and can suddenly surprise the author. Jo Rowling is into her “plan” and no one can say it doesn’t work. But at some point, if her work is great (and I think it is) she has to step aside and give it away. Perhaps what we saw was a public process of her doing that.

You all have given me more stuff to think about! Thank you! I do quarrel however on calling Rossetti’s masterpiece and “infernal parody.” I saw the original at the Tate in London (I didn’t realize it’s in Chicago now - are you sure that’s the original?) and it was extraordinary. Here it is: http://www.rossettiarchive.org/img/s168.jpg

Rossetti was a troubled man, one of the great PreRaphaelites. Again, there is much in the Potter series that lends itself to PreRaphaelite paintings. But the one of “Beatrice” based on the likeness of Rossetti’s late wife (who died I believe from an opium - a toxic potion if there ever was one - overdose) is very Lily-like. And notice the two figures in the background - one is Dante and one is Rossetti himself. We know of another Rossetti/Dante-like character who also lurked in the background and probably knew much of the turmoil those men knew in their art.

From the PreRaphelites to the Beats we see similar themes of the suffering hero who meets a tragic end, a gothic view of sin - certainly not themes of sweetness and light but the peril of the mortal soul. I must read John’s post on Dante before the weekend.


From here.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

TUESDAY, NOV 4 UPDATE: Read interesting commentary here and here and trademarks and copyrights. This just gets more and more interesting!

More on the Warner Brothers lawsuit against the HP Lexicon here. I am really wondering if the issue isn't so much "copyright" as it is the "trademark" issue and that concerns me very very much on issues of free speech. Isn't the phrase "Harry Potter™" trademarked?

Do you see why we should be concerned?

And I'm sorry, but the "charity" stuff is marketing, it promotes the trademark. If J.K. Rowling was really interested in "charity" she'd follow Rick Warren's example live off 10% and give the rest of the money to charity. The rest is just marketing and it frankly makes me ill. To use "charity" to protect Warner Brothers control over the "trademark" and justify suing the HP Lexicon creator is just unbelievable. I know I'm supposed to be a Republican, but centralized power (be it government or corporations or 815) really ticks me off.

It didn't make sense to initiate lawsuits, except to either frighten fans or establish a precedent this isn't about making the world safe for Jo Rowling's acts of charity - this about controlling the use of a trademark and that is a freedom of speech issue.

Since we know Hermione Granger™ is a lawyer now, perhaps she would like to take on the case of defending the real people against the All Powerful Ministry of Warner Brothers (and the apparently polyjuiced™ author)? Oops, wonder if the word "Hermione Granger™" is trademarked too? Certainly "polyjuice™" must be. Or will be.

Remember back (was it 2002?) when Warner Brothers™ was zapping anyone that used "Harry Potter™" online (okay, I'm old enough to remember), especially the images (but it wasn't just the images, but the way) but also the words invented by J. K. Rowling? It was a public relationships disaster and there was a shift in marketing strategy to use the HP (is that going to be tradmarked as well?) fan websites to market the books and films.

Something has changed.

Remember how Rowling has used the word "invention" when she talks about the HP universe? She's an inventor (not a writer?) and that is a legal term,. She "invented" Harry Potter™. She invented all those other characters and the entire HP universe. Pity the fool to take on the Ministry of Warner Brothers.

Got to thinking this morning if the world of Harry Potter as we know it today is not so much a view of British bureaucracy but rather a quiet scream from Jo Rowling that The Corporation has taken over her life. It might be worth a re-read of the books to see if in fact, the books themselves are a satire and critical review of the very corporation that seeks to impose its will on the last person you'd expect to be AK'd off the planet - the reader.

We are declaring today Steve Vander Ark Day, November 1 - All Saints Day.


LATER (Nov. 5) - Statement from Steve Vander Ark from here.

Dear Friends,

I would like to thank each and every one of you for your support in recent days. Everyone here at the Lexicon, all volunteers, regrets the unpleasantness. We have always been interested in working with the publishers of the novels to satisfy their concerns, interests and needs and we certainly do not plan nor have we ever planned to publish anything which competes with Ms. Rowling’s fine literary capabilities. Our work has nothing to do with fiction writing and is only concerned with legitimate critical analysis and academic considerations. It has been widely approved and employed by Ms. Rowling herself.

My book was started in response to many, many people who talked to me and asked if there could be a print version of the Lexicon, not in some sort of attempt to profit off of fans. Because the material for the book was not only accepted but praised and used frequently by every entity concerned with creating the Harry Potter books, games, and films, I would never have thought that a print version could be judged differently.

I sincerely hope that this matter can be resolved amicably and ask for you patience and understanding during that process.


Steve Vander Ark
The Harry Potter Lexicon

EVEN LATER - Tuesday, Nov. 5

Interesting post over at Leaky, actually a post of a post of a post from the Wall Street Journal blog:


“Ah, the deja vu! Looking over Rowling’s complain to the court, I had a delightful flashback to days not so long ago when, defending myself in Seattle federal court, I took on what must be the second wealthiest literary property in the English-speaking world, that of J. R. R. Tolkien. Now there’s a remarkably similar case coming from what must be the wealthiest literary property on the planet.

There are the same nasty attacks, alleging illicit motivations on the part of defendants that the Rowling’s lawyers have no way of knowing. Consider them lies, because that’s what they were in my case. You should also consider flipping the allegations of greed around. Never, when lawyers are involved, neglect their enormous desire to bill as many hours as possible to a deep-pocketed client. There’s undoubtedly more greed per square inch in the Times Square offices of O’Melveny & Myers than there is at all of Michigan-based RDR Books (a company whose list of titles demonstrates a love of good literature)–much less the original source of the book at the fan website of hp-lexicon.org.

You can also see hints of that billable-hours greed in the rather pitiful attempt one of the Rowling’s lawyer makes to describe her books. A lover of great literature he is not: “Over the course of these seven books, Harry learns many new things, makes new friends, travels, and has many adventures.” That’s how a fifth-grader writes a book report. In this case that fifth-grader, now grown old and cranky, was billing Rowling perhaps $500/hour. That sort of pay will make almost anyone think they’re a literary genius.

Fortunately, in law, money doesn’t always win. The Tolkien estate must have spent close to a quarter of a million dollars trying to stop my book-length Lord of the Rings chronology, Untangling Tolkien. I spent some $4,000 to utterly vanquish them. Just before a judge would have responded to concurrent motions for summary judgment, they bailed out, offering in a letter to settle for a “few changes.” Three months later the judge changed their “little hope” to “no hope” by dismissing their lawsuit “with prejudice.” You can find my book on Amazon and traces of my fair use arguments to the court in the last chapter.

Lawyers can be strange. In the Rowlings complaint, there’s an attempt to put the billionaire Rowlings into the role of a struggling writer for whom every penny counts. Only a lawyer with a large, six-figure income would try to portray her as a victim, particularly since her stated rationale is nothing more than a monopolistic desire prevent any competition to an encyclopedia she wants to write. A good defense lawyer could make mincemeat of her claims there. Numerous copyright disputes have made it clear that no author, fictional or non-fictional, can silence critics. The public interest in that is so great, that in the Beannie Babies case a few years back, it cast aside a visual copyright to any commercial use of pictures of the collectable doll.

The biggest weakness in the RDR Book lawsuit may be that their book is too nice with her corpus. It should take a critical look at where her plot is weak and her characters unconvincing. My Tolkien chronology did that. His time line was remarkably accurate, but I do point out the few places he got it wrong. In the eyes of a court, an author (or in my case, Tolkien’s son Christopher), can’t be trusted to do that. And what matters with something as trite as collectable dolls, certainly matters for one of the bestselling books on the planet.

RDR Books also has one marvelous advantage that I didn’t have, the fact that much of their book has apparently been posted for years on a fan website with Rowlings and her lawyers doing nothing about it. Given the modest profit margins of most small publishers and the little or nothing that the contributors to this book will be getting, the “commercial” portion of copyright fair use will carry little weight before a fair court. By not enforcing her claims with websites, she’s virtually conceded them for a book. The downside of that is when lawyers see that, they’ll get nasty with fan websites. But then intellectual property lawyers are always getting into nasty little snits, all the more so when their cases are weak.

And that brings up Rowling’s primary advantage. The case has been filed in SDNY-the Southern District of New York, because there the court, operating cheek-and-jowl with powerful NYC publishers, is notoriously tilted in favor of rich copyright holders. It’s the intellectual property equivalent of lawsuits filed against giant corporations in obscure Marshall, Texas.

You see that bias in how Manhattan IP lawyers often act before judges. My opponent was so used to differential-to-plaintiffs SDNY judges, he blundered badly before the Ninth Circuit judge in my case. I still smile when I recall his attempt to tell the judge how she ought to rule in one of our disputes. He was on the phone from Manhattan. I was a few feet away from the judge and could sense her growing impatience. Needless to say, I won.

In my case, virtually all the decisions my opponents were citing came from a few 1998 rulings in the SDNY, decisions that have been soundly criticized in law journals and that, fortunately for me, do not bind a Ninth Circuit court. In the almost a decade since those decisions, no other circuit has bought the Second Circuit’s rather extreme claims about the reach of a fictional copyright (i.e. banning unauthorized reader’s guides). One Midwest court even dismissed the Second Court’s argument as “frivolous,” which indeed it was.

The one good thing about this dispute is that it may force the Second Circuit to recant its 1998 blunder. I had the counsel for a university press tell me that, since those rulings, his press has avoid publishing anything about popular, contemporary fiction. That’s precisely the “chilling effect” the fair use provisions of copyright law are intended to prevent.

–Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

P.S. I assert no copyright to these remarks, so Harry Potter websites are free to post what I’ve written here online. And if Steve Vander Ark would contact me through my website, InklingBooks.com, I’d be happy to offer him advice as someone who’s been through what he’s been through.”

Comment by Michael W. Perry – November 3, 2007 at 3:10 pm

Hmmm ... what do you think?