The Curse of Harry Potter

By Gill Arbuthnott

My career as a writer of children's fantasy was dealt what I feared was a killer blow almost as soon as it got started.

Four months after the publication of my first novel - The Chaos Clock - an article appeared in the Sunday Herald about it under the blood-chilling headline 'Shock sell-out for new Potter'. It was about the unexpectedly fast sell-out of the first edition due to the fact it was being bought up by book collectors, something I find just as bizarre today as I did then. To me a book will never seem like a commodity. It's something you buy to read and re-read and hopefully love. It wasn't because of the weirdness of the situation that my heart sank though.

It was that headline.

How often has your eye been drawn to 'Is this the next J K Rowling?' or 'First time author nets record advance' articles in newspapers? Fairly regularly, yes?

And do you ever hear of these authors again?

Now you know why my blood ran cold.

Fortunately however, my career as a writer didn't hit the buffers as soon as the P-word was mentioned. I've had two more children's fantasies published (The Chaos Quest and Winterbringers) and have my fingers crossed that number four will be joining them soon.

I do wish journalists wouldn't automatically compare every bit of fantasy writing for children to Harry Potter though. It's remarkably tedious for a number of reasons.

Let's be clear: I am very definitely not trying to insult Jo Rowling, Harry Potter or their fans here. The Harry Potter books are terrific, and deserve their place at the top of the tree. It would just be nice to get some idea that the occasional journalist was aware of the breadth and depth of fantasy writing, even in a small country like Scotland.

We have a wealth of folk lore here of course, which has always been used to good effect by native storytellers and writers, and fantasy writing for children has a long pedigree in Scotland. Barrie's Peter Pan and George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin lead via Mollie Hunter's A Stranger Came Ashore to the fabulous range of titles available today.

From Debi Gliori's wonderfully dysfunctional Strega-Borgia clan to Theresa Breslin's time-slip series of Dream Master books, and from Julie Bretagna's climate change fable Exodus to the rollicking adventure of John Fardell's The 7 Professors of the Far North, children's fantasy is a diverse and growing genre, and it really can't be ranked on some nominal Potter Scale. It's so diverse in fact, that it can be difficult to define what actually constitutes a fantasy. Does it need swords, or magic, or talking animals? Does it automatically turn into science fiction if there's a computer in it? Is anything with magic in it a fantasy by default?

Please let me know if you have a definitive answer. I certainly don't, and I'm particularly interested in this question at the moment, because my prospective fourth novel is perplexing publishers since it's a fantasy (or at least I thought it was), but has no magic in it (or at least, not in the first volume).

As with any type of genre fiction, fantasy does tend to be looked down on, or perhaps misunderstood, to put a charitable spin on it, by many people. In the course of a recent article in the Times, Anne Fine applauded the lack of fantasy titles on the short list for the Carnegie Award.

'All too often, authorial imagination gets derailed into invention ... The author cursorily dishes out a few skimpy personality traits to the characters ... To watch these pitifully one-dimensional creatures skitter through the plot becomes as tiresome as watching cartoons.'

That's us fantasy writers put in our place! Except that it isn't like that. Of course it's true that there are books out there which have sacrificed character development for plot progression, but that's hardly restricted to fantasy titles. A really successful book of any sort depends ultimately on the reader making a connection with the main characters so that, as Anne Fine says later in the same article, 'In thinking about the story and the characters we find that, by extension, we have begun to think about our own lives and ourselves.'

At the heart of any successful fantasy there will always be real, flawed, complex people (even if they are written as elves or dragons), completely grounded in their own reality.

So, who will be the next 'big thing'? In the last couple of years, lots of people have started trying to dash off children's novels on the erroneous assumptions that

  1. It's easy
  2. They'll publish anything these days.
  3. You're bound to make a fortune.

Now, that definitely is fantasy!

I suspect that there are many tottering slush piles of manuscripts from would-be JKRs who have set out to write 'the next Harry Potter', and I'm sure that some of these are as tedious and horrible as Anne Fine's description; but they're doomed to fail. The number of manuscripts competing to be published is enormous, so there's no need for a publisher to even consider anything that isn't first rate, and of course it's impossible to copy a winning formula like Harry Potter, for the simple reason that it isn't a formula.

Anyway, believe it or not, most writers of children's fantasy aren't trying to create the next Harry Potter or be the next JKR. They want to be uniquely, and only, themselves.

The truth is, we don't need a new JKR or Harry. The ones we have are wonderful, but there's plenty of room for other writers, for other types of fantasy novel. They're out there already. All you have to do is find your favourite, and what better place to start than this website...

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About Gill Arbuthnott

Gill Arbuthnott was raised in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespies' school, and has for the past twenty years taught biology at Edinburgh Academy. She claims to have written 'in secret' for ten years, with her husband assuming she was marking papers - her first published novel, The Chaos Clock was quickly followed by The Chaos Quest. Her third book, Winterbringers, was published in 2005, and she is currently working on a fourth.