Is J.K Rowling the last truly global literary icon?

taiwan2So I was switching channels a couple of weeks ago during the rain delay at Wimbledon, and hit a Harry Potter movie, which I am always happy to waste some time on. As it happens, it was the third one (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) where the kids are still kids, and Harry and Hermione do some time travel to save the world, or at least Hogwarts, and all sorts of exciting things happen, like werewolves. Like most of the other movies, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. And it got me thinking about J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, for those of you who didn’t know that. But of course you all did know that. In fact, probably everyone in the world who reads books knows that. Harry Potter books have been translated into more than 68 languages, and have sold more than 450 million copies, and is the third best selling book (collectively) over the past 50 years–right after the Bible and Mao’s Little Red Book, and right ahead of Tolkien. (The top ten list is pretty interesting, in fact, with only two stinkers on the list–guess which they are.)

The point is this is a genuine phenomenon. Yes, Dan Brown is on that list, but he’s already nearly forgotten. Twilight has had a bit longer life cycle, possibly helped by (barely) better movies than the Dan Brown books generated. But it’s broader than just the number of books sold, or read. It’s their impact on the culture, and from that perspective, Harry Potter is not only a genuine cultural phenomenon, he’s a genuine global cultural phenomenon. And it’s not just because the movies brought us the delightful Emma Watson. These books are literally everywhere, from Australia and Denmark and Japan and China to any number of countries in Africa and South America. No one even knows how many pirated editions float around in China. They are read, by young adults and adults alike, and Harry Potter, along with Hermione and Ron and Snape and Dumbledore, all global characters, are now pretty well embedded in our culture, and our consciousness.

This is pretty remarkable, when you think about it. Harry Potter is now just as much a part of growing up as Tom Sawyer was when I was growing up. Even more remarkably, while it’s possible that Mark Twain has a global cultural identity, Rowling certainly has one. She’s the author, after all. And this got me wondering about what other literary figure has had a comparable global cultural impact in my lifetime–say, on the order of The Beatles, or Muhammed Ali. And the answer is–not many. In fact, very few.

There’s Tolkien, of course. Is there a part of the planet where hobbits have not caught someone’s imagination? I suspect not. Agatha Christie? Probably–she’s been translated into lord knows how many languages, and, as a quintessential English persona, has proved enduringly popular throughout not just the Commonwealth countries, but pretty much everywhere else as well. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple may not have the cultural traction of Frodo Baggins, but they probably aren’t too far behind.

After these two, it gets trickier. I want to keep this concentrated on literary figures of my lifetime, so this goes back to the 1950s. So no Charles Dickens here, although he probably has a global cultural identity as well. So if I want to limit this to the 1950s onwards, there are surprisingly few that I would say had a powerful and unique global identity–in the days before the internet. And I can only think of three, really, two of whom are American men–Hemingway and Kerouac. And Hemingway at least was (and still is) read–Kerouac is iconic more as a certain literary apotheosis rather than for his literary output. How many people, really, have actually read On the Road? But practically everyone knows what it’s about, and what it represents. The third, Samuel Beckett, is someone who, like Hemingway, has achieved a global cultural position through a combination of his writing and his public persona–or lack of one. Not everyone knows that Beckett did most of his writing in French and then translated it into English–but it doesn’t matter. Godot has achieved some sort of universal standing.

Let’s be clear–I’m not saying there weren’t important, indeed great, writers over the past 60 years. But the number with any kind of global readership, and with a broader cultural impact, is a different issue. Are there some non-American and non-British writers that fit this category? Maybe, but I don’t know for sure. Perhaps Garcia Marquez, or Borges–but, really, it’s hard to tell. Sartre? Possibly, but I would need to be convinced. Camus seems a better bet. Still, while there are great writers on every continent, very, very few have quite generated the global identity Rowling, for example, has.

And what’s interesting about these figures during my lifetime is that a number of them–Rowling, Tolkien and Christie–are genre writers. There are no claims here to be writing literature, although some of Tolkien’s fanship has some pretensions along this line (Tolkien himself never made any such claims.) It’s the world creation that seems to matter here more than anything else (including literary style and character development, as any number of critics have reminded us.) Hemingway and Kerouac became iconic for reasons above and beyond their writing–because they were icons of a certain kind of masculinity, probably. Really, only Beckett and Camus stand alone on the basis of their literary output–if they really are the global figures I suggest they are. But if someone came back with a persuasive claim that they aren’t in the same category, I’m not going to argue too much.

And what’s interesting about Rowling as well is that she came along at roughly the same time as the internet. And the internet has been something of a cultural unifier, so she clearly benefited from that early on. But the internet has been responsible for a great deal of cultural fragmentation as well. Making anything that develops into a global phenomenon more than a just a temporary blip is getting harder and harder these days–the world now has a 15 minute attention span, as another global icon, Andy Warhol, foresaw years ago. This is good news if you are sick of the Kardashians. But it also suggests that the prospect of another Harry Potter coming along with any sort of permanence is considerably lower than it was 20 years ago–when the first Harry Potter book was published. We may see another similar phenomenon at some point–but then again, maybe not. I hope we do–what Rowling has done, among other things, is affirm the potentially transformative power of writing and reading, and on a global basis to boot. It would be sad to think that no one else is going to come along at some point and make a comparable impact. It will need to be someone who has created something pretty special, clearly.

The Harry Potter stamps shown above are from Taiwan, thus proving my point.

14 replies »

    • My initial thought was “Stan Lee isn’t a literary figure.” Which I guess is silly. Not a traditional genre (although Blake was famous for illuminated manuscripts). But if Dylan wins a Nobel for literature, ain’t no reason to exclude others who expand the genre….

      • I guess my comment on Stan Lee is not really, because his global impact has been through the movies, not through his original genre. But I’m not going to argue that point too hard. Certainly everyone knows who Spiderman is–but that’s probably through the films, not the comics. And again, a genre writer. Vonnegut, King and Bradbury also, when you think about it. Just in terms of book sales, which does mean something in this context, King clearly has an edge here.

        The thing about Rowling is that the books themselves became a global phenomenon before the films even came out. They helped, certainly, but it originally was, and remains, a literary phenomenon.

        And these all pre-date Rowling (although Lee kept going for some time.) So my original question remains–will Rowling be the last literary figure with this kind of impact? Or is it impossible to separate books from films these days?

  1. Very interesting read! I had a train of thought not too dissimilar to this a few weeks ago. As someone who grew up with the franchise, now being in my twenties, I’d love for a phenomenon like this to occur again so that I could be old enough to be actively aware of the buzz. I think it will happen again *one day*… surely?

    • Well, I hope so! It would be sad to think that no one will come along again and do what Rowling did.

  2. Part of the issue here on becoming an icon is the issue of durability. The Rowling books endure. Fifty Shades of Grey? Not so much. As Mrs W points out, it’s a children’s book, so there will always be a new generation of readers coming along to read it. Is the same true of Twilight? We’ll see, but I suspect not. Vampires endure, but actual great vampire books are rare. Anyone still read Anne Rice?

  3. Jk Rowling is more than a literary figure. If you don’t already, follow her on Twitter, start now. She certainly has a lot to say about politics and international issues. I love that she is the Author of the beloved Harry Potter Series but still has the guts to comment on how Donald…sorry, Donnie according to her, Trump is ruining relations between allies. She has one heck of a Twitter feed. Full of opinions and insight on so many issues. Great stuff. Forever a fan!!

    • Thanks for the suggestions. I was wondering when Pratchett would come up. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, although I think the case for Pratchett is considerably stronger that for Gaiman. But Pratchett started publishing in the 1970s, and the Discworld series started in the 1980s. So if it is the case that has has reached global status, it started earlier, and took longer. Which sort of reinforces my wondering whether Rowling, who started much later and reached fame much faster, will be the last of this sort of thing. Both Pratchett and Gaiman are, again, genre writers.

      One thing you can do here, btw, is look at the number of languages something has been translated into. Rowling is either approaching, or is now over, 70 languages, which doesn’t even put her in the top ten according to Wikipedia, even excluding Bible-related stuff. Neither Pratchett nor Gaiman make Wikipedia’s cut-off of 26 (which seems a bit arbitrary, I admit.) Unsurprisingly, Lewis Carroll has been translated into more languages than Rowling. Surprisingly (at least to me,) so has the Asterix series, and, leading the pack, Pinnochio.

      And according to this, the Potter Series only barely makes it into the top 20 of the UNESCO rankings. The non-religious books ahead of Potter make for an interesting list.

      • Genre fiction is almost always more entertaining than alleged literature and often better written in my view. Gaiman will make it eventually if just for Sandman and American Gods.

        • That’s because, almost by definition, a piece of genre fiction has to be a story. And stories are universal. But I wouldn’t be so sure about Gaiman–need to give that some time. You might have said that about Isaac Asimov as well, but I wouldn’t put him in the Rowling/Tolkein category. Arthur C Clarke, maybe.