In 1999, JK Rowling had published the first three Harry Potter books and had become a cultural phenomenon. Nowhere was this more evident than in the US, where Andrew Stephen, the magazine’s Washington correspondent, attended a lunch with the children’s author present. Stephen saw her success and backstory as appealing particularly to a nation in love with the idea that hard work can make anything possible. He noted, too, that theories and misconceptions were already beginning to surround her.
Yes, I was right when I said last week you never know who you’ll meet next in Washington. Last week I found myself lunching on successive days in the company of JK Rowling (currently the most successful novelist in the world), the Right Honourable Chris Smith (Minister for Culture and Sundry Other Things Too) and Sir Christopher Meyer (the cleverest British ambassador here for decades). It would be nice to report that bodyguards had to hold back the baying American masses from the latter two: what is true, though, is that security men did have to control huge crowds from overwhelming Joanne Rowling. Over lunch, Rowling confided that only three years ago – when Bloomsbury were insisting on calling her “JK” rather than “Joanne” Rowling because they thought her Harry Potter books might not go down so well with boys if it was known they were written by a woman – she would happily have allowed herself to be called “Enid Snodgrass” in order to see her books in print.
Now the 34-year-old Ms Snodgrass (I rather like that name) is feted everywhere she goes here as the rags-to-riches Scottish multimillionairess who, for six weeks running, has been occupying the top three places in the New York Times’ best-seller fiction lists – not just of children’s fiction, but of any fiction.
When she visited the National Press Club, she was mobbed: children playing truant from school lined the balcony and hundreds of tickets had to be handed out to keep orderly queues for book signings. If the Harry Potter books – typically for nine- to 11-year-olds and about a boy who discovers he has magical abilities – have been a huge success for Bloomsbury (the market price in their shares has risen by 176 per cent since April), then their success is literally unprecedented here.
So far, 8.2 million copies of the three Potter books have been sold in the US – with four more to come by 2003. Ms Snodgrass, we’re told, made £14.5m last year alone. This is before the mass-marketing machine has even had time to get off the ground: there are no Harry Potter costume sets for Halloween this weekend, for example, as there surely will be next year. By which time, of course, Warner Brothers will be producing the Harry Potter movie, [released in the US as] The Sorcerer’s Stone, guaranteed to make more zillions. If businessmen and faceless telly moguls are deemed worthy of honours for service to their country, surely Dame Enid Snodgrass cannot go unrewarded long for her contributions to British culture and exports.
What is fascinating about the phenomenon here is that it is genuinely generated by consumer demand from kids, rather than by slick marketing. I somehow never believed those stories about people queueing along streets to buy the latest Dickens instalment, but that is how it’s been here with the Potter books: boys and girls all over the country can’t wait to get their hands on a copy. School librarians have been run off their feet and last week bookshops had to turn people away. So keen have some computer-savvy kids been that when they realised the third Potter book was published in the UK in July but not in the US until last month, countless parents were persuaded to order the book direct from the UK via the internet.
Americans love rags-to-riches myths, of course. Rowling is not even Scottish, but a middle-class Chipping Sodbury girl who read French at Exeter University before working for Amnesty International; after her marriage to a Portuguese journalist ended, she stayed with her sister in Edinburgh, went on social security and started writing the first Potter book. To the average middle-class American, hearing how somebody goes from “welfare” to overnight millions is vindication of the notion that hard work is all that is required for success; it is the very apotheosis of Clintonian and Blairite feel-good economics. But how many adult Rowling admirers here, I wonder, know that she named her six-year-old daughter after Jessica Mitford?
The Americanisation of both Harry Potter and Rowling is now gathering pace. Harry Potter swats his school timetable and goes on holiday in the original British editions; in the US, Harry studies his schedule and goes on vacation. In the American version of the latest book, “Spellotape” is translated into “Scotch Tape” – and a clever play on words is lost. “Philosopher” becomes “sorcerer” here. Though Rowling insists she’ll have the final say on the film, I’m sure Hogwarts School – to take one example – will be adroitly turned into an Americanised high school, complete with lockers and cheerleaders.
Equally inevitably, in a culture blind to the real works of Cinderella, or Snow White, or Hansel and Gretel – to say nothing of CS Lewis or Roald Dahl – accusations are now flying that Rowling is nothing short of a witch trying to promote the occult: “The books have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil,” one Elizabeth Mounce told the South Carolina Board of Education in a bid to have the books banned. Clarence Dickert, a member of the board, replied: “Censorship is an ugly word, but it is not as ugly as what I’ve heard this morning.” Lack of respect for grown-ups like these two dolts is precisely what makes kids gravitate to the wondrous world of Harry Potter – or even to Cinderella and other fairy tales, for that matter.
If she bothered to respond, Rowling could tell them that she is actually a member of the Church of Scotland and that young Jessica was baptised there. So, meanwhile, a memo to my other two lunch companions of the week: how about Dame Enid Snodgrass by the time the millennium honours come around, chaps?
Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)