Suzanne Collins, J.K. Rowling and the albatross of success

6 December 2012

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, has announced that her next book will be a picture book. Rather than writing a follow-up dystopian adventure for her teenage readers, she has decided to engage with four-year-olds in Year of the Jungle, a story about how her family coped when her father spent a year serving in Vietnam.

Collins is not the only staggeringly successful children’s author who has taken an unexpected step away from her fan base with her writing. Whereas Collins is turning to younger children, J.K. Rowling turned to grown-ups with her recent adult novel about provincial life, The Casual Vacancy.

Many Harry Potter fans were disappointed. While they didn’t expect wizards, magic and Hogwarts, neither did they expect such a grim, miserable novel. Theo Tait wrote in the Guardian, ‘The fan base may find it a bit sour, as it lacks the Harry Potter books’ warmth and charm; all the characters are fairly horrible or suicidally miserable or dead.’ According to David Sexton in the Evening Standard, ‘The problem for Rowling’s legions of fans will be that she has forgotten to include any basic likeability in her characters here or any real suspense as to what will happen.’


The Casual Vacancy did not appeal to Rowling’s Harry Potter fans, just as Year of the Jungle will not appeal to Collins’ Hunger Games fans. But perhaps this is the point. By choosing different audiences, subject matter and tone for their new books, Collins and Rowling are stepping away from what everyone knows them for and asking to be considered in a new light. They are asking for their new books to be assessed on their own merits, rather than being compared to their earlier successes. The problem is that J.K. Rowling is so indelibly associated with the world of Harry Potter that it is impossible to read a novel by her and not expect something of that world – a glimmer of excitement, a flash of the spirit of adventure. The reality is that when you’ve had a success on such a scale as Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, it stays, heavy as an albatross around your neck, impossible to shed by such tricks as changing genre or audience.

One children’s author who seems to have solved this conundrum of what to do next is Alan Garner. While his original books are now children’s classics, this year saw the publication of Boneland, an adult sequel. Garner has evidently deduced that many of his readers have grown up – it’s nearly sixty years since The Moon of Gomrath was first published – but he has also acknowledged the fact that his powerful stories have stayed with them. Instead of abandoning the old characters and ideas, he rejoins them at a later stage in their lives. Fans of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, now grown-up, can read a novel that is new, adult, and yet still retains an essence of the original.

Perhaps Garner is not unlike Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and, feeling the weight of the albatross about his neck, knows that he must keep on with the same story – ‘till my ghastly tale is told / This heart within me burns.’ If successful authors are trying to tell a new tale, with new characters and new preoccupations, then perhaps the only way to escape the shadow of their earlier success is to write it under a pseudonym. I wonder what everyone would have made of The Casual Vacancy then.

Emily Rhodes works for an independent bookshop in London. She blogs at Emily Books and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog.

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Good view.

  • Bob

    I strongly suspect that if the manuscript for The Casual Vacancy had been submitted under a pseudonym, then it would never have been published.

  • John Lea

    Great photo of Rowling. Captures her perfectly. All that money and still a miserable cow.

  • kevinlaw1222

    Oh lets not too artsy about all this – basically people like Rowling and Collins ‘got lucky’.
    They hit on an idea that turned out to be very popular – and to their credit, they rode that popularity. That isnt to take away from the imagination that went into both authors works. Both sets of book are very good and have entertained millions of people. Though it has to be said that in both cases the ideas and tropes used were well worn. But they managed to put these old ideas together in such a way that created something that seemed new.
    But lets not kid oursleves that either of these authors are wellsprings of an infinite number of great ideas. Simply they are so succesful, they can now indulge themselves. They can write books that may have no real market but they are so succesful that both publishers and their fans will allow them to write what they like.
    You saw the same thing in rock music with the ‘super bands’ of the 1970’s. they would put out one or two very popular albums. Which then allowed them to go away and release self indulgent solo projects or some triple album that would not have seen the light of day if a new band had released it.
    If Rowling were to release her version of the telephone directory now, then there would be people who would buy it. But I hope she and Collins develop a little humility and understand that whilst they might want to do other ‘stuff’ – at heart all the fans really want is more of the same.

  • Wills

    What a mean-spirited comment, below. I can only imagine you did a course on Eng Lit once and therefore imagine you have something interesting to say. As opposed to a genuine creator, whose works have enthralled for half a century and has the courage to put himself out there again in old age. If he is a bitter old man, at least he has turned that into a novel, not into facile snipes on the internet. “…as is nearly always the case with musicians…” indeed! A body of work is a body of work, creativity is creativity. Silly fanboys may wish for their heroes to die young, or shut up at any rate, but enriching the world still further, even by a small increment, is the job of a true artist.

  • Chris Morriss

    I’m not convinced by Boneland, which seems to be the last gasp of a writer who promised much, but failed in the long run to deliver. Unlike Strandloper, which stood alone and worked as a novel of ideas, Boneland has deliberately been wriitten to have a relationship with his first two children’s books. Sadly here, Garner’s distaste for his own early work has soured his writing. For all the adulation that the critics bestowed on ‘Red Shift’ when it came out, it never entered into peoples hearts in the way that ‘Brisingamen’ and ‘Gomrath’ did. Garner can still write well when he lets himself go, but his long struggle aginst his own psychiatric problems seems to have left him a bitter old man. Sometimes writers, (as is nearly always the case with musicians) come to be seen as having produced their most enduring work early in their careeers.

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