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J.K. Rowling’s New Novel Reveals What She Really Thinks of the Publishing Industry And it isn’t pretty

28 June 2014

From The New Republic:

In The Silkworm,the disappearance of Owen Quine, an eccentric, third-rate writer, unearths the bizarre underworld of the publishing industry. In both novels, solving the murder involves a kind of anthropological investigation of the characters and practices that comprise each subculture. It’s cultural commentary through genre fiction, and since Rowling is one of the most famous and successful writers of our time, it’s hard not to feel like we’re getting the inside scoop.

So what does Rowling really think of the literati?

The line-up of murder suspects gives us a few hints: a boozy editor; a powerful though closeted publisher who retreats to the countryside to paint naked youths; a jealous literary agent whose own writing is “deplorably derivative”; a much-revered but pompous and sexist novelist; a writer of “bloody awful erotic fantasy”; and the victim’s wife, who ignores his books until they have “proper covers.” Then there’s Owen Quine himself, a middle-aged writer riding out his career on a novel published years before—the only decent work of literature he’s produced. Quine is so desperate for adulation that he habitually persuades his mistress to mock-interview him. Even his disappearance is initially disregarded as a publicity stunt to garner attention for his latest manuscript—a thinly disguised exposé of the above figures.

. . . .

It’s [a world] of ego-maniacs. And the writers, or would-be writers, are the worst of the batch. When the amateur author of erotica describes her work to Strike in rehearsed phrases and sound bites, he wonders how many people “who sat alone for hours as they scribbled their stories practiced talking about their work during their coffee breaks.” (One wonders: Did—or does—Rowling do this?) Meanwhile, Quine’s agent describes him “as a bigger glutton for praise than any author I’ve ever met, and they are most of them insatiable.” Of course, this agent, a wannabe writer with a first in English from Oxford but no novels to her name, turns out to be pretty insatiable herself.

There’s more than just caricature in Rowling’s submerged criticism. Her reproach of Internet trolls is downright vitriolic: “Hard to remember these days that there was a time when you had to wait for ink and paper reviews to see your work excoriated. With the invention of the Internet, any subliterate cretin can be Michiko Kakutani.” Or the exclamation vis-à-vis online publishing: “The dross the Internet has given us!”

Link to the rest at The New Republic and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

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58 Comments to “J.K. Rowling’s New Novel Reveals What She Really Thinks of the Publishing Industry And it isn’t pretty”

  1. How nice of her to describe readers as “subliterate cretins”. I used to have quite a bit of respect for Rowling but she is rapidly disabusing me of that.

    • From reading the article, I’m not sure whether JK Rowling actually thinks that. It seems that it was one of her characters (a rather egomaniacal novelist) in The Silkworm who described readers as “subliterate cretins.” (I haven’t read The Silkworm yet.) If it’s the latter, then I’m not sure whether it’s right to attribute the sentiment of a character in her novel to the author herself. I certainly wouldn’t want some of the things my characters say to be taken as my opinions, particularly if they are villainous or unlikeable characters.

      • Seconded. Of all people, we should be the very last to make the assumption that a character’s opinions mirror the writer’s.

        • But for sure she’s heard some say these things – or write something similar.

          She probably didn’t have to do much inventing, but could just reach into her memory and pull out the appropriate dialogue or thought.

        • Obviously if you are following the basic rule of show don’t tell, you have your character say or do something obnoxious to indicate that he is obnoxious. You don’t tell your readers: X was an obnoxious person.

      • I also agree with Justice Joy’s comments. It’s inappropriate and unfair to assume that Ms. Rowling’s fictional characters are expressing her personal feelings.

      • as to what Rowling really thinks – (spoiler alert) – consider the difference between what Quine and others think of his mistress (trying to avoid spoiling) versus what we see at later moments which is that she is an alert and comprehending literary critic with real insight, despite being a total nobody.

    • I’m with the others. I don’t believe she personally thinks this about readers (readers that have made her a billion dollar franchise). I took it as it’s the voice of others in the publishing industry, which isn’t surprising as it isn’t hard to find pub execs who say this almost verbatim when they think no one is listening or will quote them on the internet.

      • Why do you assume that the words of one character come from Rowling’s mouth and not the others? Are you going to assume that she embodies all of the negative attitudes displayed by all of the characters in the book?

        I think it is much more likely that each character is based on someone she knows, rather than herself. It is simply silly to assume that any one attitude is hers rather than one which she had heard from someone in publishing.

  2. Malnurtured Snay

    She’s not describing her readers as “subliterate cretins,” she’s describing internet trolls that way (per this review, anyway).

    • That’s a not-so-subtle difference that a lot of commenters on this article seem to have missed. We now live in an age in which anyone with internet access can “review” a book and give a star rating. Reviews like “This book sucks, don’t bother” are common on Amazon and Goodreads. They offer no valuable information about the book, yet have the effect of altering how Amazon’s algorithms promote the book.

      If an articulate and thoughtful reviewer reads my book and writes a scathing review, so be it. I may disagree with his views, but I won’t call him a cretin. If some troll who hasn’t more than skimmed the book gives it a one-star review and trashes it, I wouldn’t hesitate to call this person a “sub-literate cretin.”

  3. (Justice Joy already said all this while my comment was being moderated.) 🙂

    I think it’s important to remember that words put in a character’s mouth are not necessarily those of the author. The difference resides in validation. Does the author put those words in the mouth of someone she hopes we like and respect, therefore validating them, or are they given to a character who reveals or confirms some unpleasant facet of themselves by saying them?

    Since I haven’t read the book yet, I don’t have an answer, but I think the question is important.

    • Sorry, Bridget. I’m not certain why WordPress has decided your comments need to be moderated.

    • Obviously, Lord Voldemort is indicative of Ms. Rowling’s true (evil and murderous) nature. Just read some of the things she has that character say.

      I thought I was a nice person too, until I read what some of my characters were saying.

    • @Bridget McKenna

      Your comment is apt.

      ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’

      Many people quote this with approval. What most fail to realize is that Shakespeare put these words in the mouth of a murderer, Dick the Butcher. He was not called ‘the Butcher’ because he ran a meat shop.

      So . . . did Shakespeare advocate the extermination of lawyers? Or did he mean for his audience to consider the source?

      • I am fond of pointing out that Dick the Butcher and his cronies want to kill all the lawyers because they are plotting to take over the country, and they know who their principal opponents will be if they do.

        Anyone who says “Let’s kill all the lawyers,” until proven innocent, should be assumed to be plotting treason.

      • The funnier thing to me is all the people who point out the guy who said “let’s kill all the lawyers” was a villain, therefore, lawyers were good guys.

        I actually wrote a blog post about this sort of thing—the mistaken interpretations people adopt because they’re counterintuitive. It’s of a piece with the people saying that when Hamlet said “get thee to a nunnery” he meant a house of ill-repute. (He didn’t. He meant a convent.)

        To quote Simson Garfinkel:

        A very rough and simplistic modern translation would be ‘When I’m the King, there’ll be two cars in every garage, and a chicken in every pot’ ‘AND NO LAWYERS.’ It’s a clearly lawyer-bashing joke.

    • W-e-l-l…did I break a writer rule? Because some of my sympathetic characters have been known to say things that I do not agree with. Or only partially agree with. Eeep!

    • In one of my novels, the villain is a corrupt politician. She views everyone beneath her as expendable and at one point describes cops and military personnel as “useful idiots.” This is before -spoiler!- her conspiracy unravels and she ends up in prison.

      The fact that she was the villain didn’t stop one of my readers from posting a scathing review saying that I was “Insulting the people who sacrafice their lives so people can write this blather…”

      Uh huh. And I’m not even famous like J.K.

      Sometimes you just have to roll with it. I’m certainly not going to make my villains more likeable just so I don’t offend that one reader.

  4. I would cut her some slack. These are characters talking, and it sounds like most of them are not very likeable. Ms. Rowling generally seems like a very decent person, and I think her own feelings would be quite different.

    • Agree. If we were all held to account for what our characters say, some of us would be in jail. LOL

      • lol So true. Characters are simply that–characters. Co-mingling personalities is one of the joys of writing. (and I wouldn’t want to go to ‘jail’ for it.)

  5. I’d cut her enormous amounts of slack anyway, because any moron with a Twitter account would fit that description to a T. And being a woman, she would come in for that “special” kind of abuse that most men would never encounter.

  6. I would hate for people to assume that I believe all the things my characters believe. Certainly bits of my own ideas leak into my work, but when I write about a psychotic mother who abuses her child I am not pulling from my own childhood experiences. It’s irresponsible and dangerous to assume that just because Rowling has written these types of characters and ideas it means she believes them all. Often we might take small bits of real life and blow them up into something more interesting for fiction, but what you have in the end and what inspired it can be quite different when all is said and done!

  7. I’d rather not presume to know what Rowling thinks by interpreting her fiction into an unverified opinion. If she has something to say about the publishing industry, she has the ability to say it. Authors should not be judged by what their fictional characters say or do.

  8. Her book and characters are fiction, not necessarily her reality nor what she thinks of writers, agents and publishers. I realized that there is this “advice” to write what you know, which I don’t subscribe to, and because of that other people may believe that the writers are writing their autobiography and beliefs. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A novel and its writer are two different entities.

  9. I listed to the first book in this series and it centered on a famous model and the fashion industry and it wasn’t pretty.

    I think she just hopped from one industry to another to use as a back drop for what I’m sure is going to be an interesting story.

    I think the writer of the article needs to go back and say how much she hates the fashion industry if this is how you’re going to interrupt her books.

    The article seems to have been written by a dumb bunny.

  10. I don’t know. Readers are entitled (and perhaps encouraged) to read between the lines in a book that takes such a close look at one industry. Didn’t think the author of the review was a “dumb bunny.” He/she focused on an aspect of the novel that is very current at the moment and seems to be the main theme of the book. This web site has pretty much specialized in the evils of traditional publishing (though it hasn’t really touched on the evils of self-publishing). The subject is interesting, and it’s fair to assume that Ms. Rowling has some views on it.

    • I think it’s wrong to insinuate what Ms Rowling is thinking about a whole industry based on a fictional book, even one she wrote. Maybe the writer of the piece isn’t a dumb bunny but her topic is like putting words in J.K.’s mouth and that doesn’t seem fair. Yes, it’s safe to assume Ms. Rowling does have some views on the subject, but I notice there are no direct quotes from Ms. Rowling in this piece. It’s all pulling supposition out of left field.

      As shown above there are a whole lot of writers who would not want to have their characters words taken to mean that they are the same opinions or beliefs as the writer.

  11. The Silkworms’s cover is only marginally better than The Cuckoo’s Calling. I’d hate to think that an author of JKR’s stature doesn’t have at least a “little” say in her covers. Or maybe she prefers slanted typography and lack of balance.

    That said, I enjoyed HP, but have yet to be gobsmacked by her adult fiction, covers notwithstanding.

    • She might have tremendous control and really likes that style… 😉

    • I didn’t read anything but the first couple of chapters of the first HP book before deciding it isn’t my thing but because of her success with HP I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on Cuckoo’s Calling. I thought she must be able to tell a good story. I haven’t been disappointed. I enjoyed the first book and while I haven’t gotten to the second I have an audio copy and I am looking forward to it.

      And I didn’t think the covers of either were so bad… 🙂

      • I didn’t like the American covers, especially of the Cuckoo’s Calling. The English ones are more suited to the stories.

        I’ve read and enjoyed both books. If the characters had been nice then they would have been boring. All of them, trad published authors/editors/etc and the self published and even the aspiring author were treated equally. They all had flaws and ambitions and weren’t lovely people. I actually think the trad pub characters were painted the worst 😛

  12. There’s a great tradition of satirizing the publishing industry. One of the first books that took a serious look at how the publishing industry might react to e-books was an absolutely brilliant satire that might not have been exactly right in all the details, but damn was it ever right in figuring that publishers would hate and fear the very idea of e-books. Cyberbooks by Ben Bova. Currently available as part of the Baen e-book Laugh Lines

  13. It is interesting to see famous writers emerging from the ivory tower of big publishing to meet the vast cornucopia of readers. Many of them are extremely sensitive about bad reviews, pissed off about Twitter and angry that people can comment on their work.

    Some of these writers should read their bad reviews and pick up a few tips because fame has a way of making people lazy and self indulgent.

    The days of publishing companies deciding who will sell are coming to an end and apparently some of the literati are receiving a harsh lesson in reality. I’m sure Robert Galbraith’s sales have been modest compared to JK Rowling.

    However having worked in publishing, JK Rowling’s (or Robert Galbraith’s) observations sound spot on.

  14. It’s a murder mystery. It is common to feature a lineup of distasteful types as the suspects.

    On the other hand, the factual reality of manhattan publishing isn’t that far from Mr Strike’s world.


    • Michael Matewauk

      Great piece. Thanks for posting. He actually made publishing types sound human.

      • I loved it when I saw it linked at Mobileread.
        Didn’t draw much discussion, alas. Got lost in the flood of ADS-positive “news”.

  15. I like JK Rowling as a person [re a long interview on tv],

    However, tho it is FICTIVE: erg …holding aging Kakutani the cloying NYT praiser of her own circle of fav authors over the years –her one-person opinion– as better than/or equal to ‘cretins,’ [not sure which she meant, upstrike or downstrike for Kakutani] is like calling stranglevine [growing loopy a-gaggle, greedy and slothful, all] worse then invasive dandylions which are kinda purty.

    I know she was writing about trolls “With the invention of the Internet, any subliterate cretin can be Michiko Kakutani.”: and her reference changes to waiting for ‘reviews’ in snail days vs now… she is calling, I believe, in her fiction, ‘trolls’… those who negatively review in an instant.

    Just as an aside, give me and all authors the plethora of opines is better than a one-alone review to be bowed down to by some. AMZ gives us multi-ethnic, multi-econ, multi backgrounded, multi-educated, multi ages reviewers any day. The time of some one person being ‘elevated’ as ‘chief knowitall’ about books or films… by selling newsprint re NYT ‘critics’, is over. Long over.

    Again, I realize we’re talking about ‘fiction’ in Rowling’s novel. But/ and, remember PG what you put up re Isak Dinesen just the other day here at PV…. essentially work out your annoyances/hatreds by writing about them. As fiction that is not entirely fiction, is how I heard that. lol

    • The next time Joanne and I go out to drink blood for the evening, we’ll be sure to bring you with us. 😀

      • you made me laugh out loud Suzan. Thank you. I’ll bring the Luminol then? You know, like tapping up the last breadcrumbs from the table of a really fine croissant?

  16. Great satire is indistinguishable as such.

  17. A revered but deplorably pompous and sexist novelist? Great to see that V.S. Naipaul gets a cameo. I bet his is the character who calls readers subliterate cretins. Sounds like something he’d say.

  18. My new novel reveals what I really think about three-foot-high secret agents who know kung fu.

  19. I’ve never read anything by J. K. Rowling, but this post and the comments inspired me to get an Audible copy. I’m enjoying it. What horridly wonderful characters.

  20. I know very little of Rowling and even less of her work, but I’d just like to agree with the point that one must never confuse an author or her views with those of her character. Two very different people you’re dealing with, in most cases.

  21. I don’t know too much about Rowling, but I’d be leery of confusing an author’s characters with an author’s beliefs.

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