Monday, July 18, 2011

Who owns the chamber of riches?

Hint: her name's on the front cover. Image copyright Bloomsbury Publishing
[A few words by way of preface: I am a) an unabashed fan of the Harry Potter books, b) a writer who hopes to achieve at least modest sales from her writing in future, and c) hard-pressed to contain my indignance at certain types of public behavior. So yes, this is gonna be a rant, and I'm certain not everyone is going to agree with me. You've been forewarned.]

A few days ago a friend of mine made me aware of this article, published in the Irish Independent online, about J.K. Rowling and the future of the Harry Potter franchise. (You really should read the whole thing before you continue.

All done?

Right, let's go on.)

I've been thinking about this article for some time, turning over the assertions made and the arguments set forth, and I've come to a solid conclusion: John Spain should immediately refuse any further payment for his position of book editor at the Independent.

No, I'm not suggesting he should quit. After all, Mr. Spain is clearly good at what he does based on how much money the Independent has paid him up to this point and his cushy, first-world standard of living. His writing for the Independent has made it possible for him to live in a custom-built home, probably in the €1 million range, in the seaside village of Howth, County Dublin, a place which Spain himself describes as "a prestige location." (In the same article he also admits to spending several weeks with his kids on a beach vacation in Wildwood, New Jersey. Transatlantic tickets don't grow on trees, nor do hotel stays.) Mr. Spain rubs this luxurious lifestyle in his readers' faces -- a lifestyle made possible by the hard-earned euros of Independent readers -- while the Independent publishes the horrifying news that one in four Irish people lives on less than €20 per week.

Honestly, Mr. Spain, don't you have enough already? When will you admit that you're making more money than most citizens of the world will ever see? While I don't have the actual figures of your annual income, I know Ireland's median household income -- which you almost certainly exceed -- is among the highest in the world. The average Irish citizen makes twice what an average Portuguese citizen makes, 3 times the annual income of the average Hungarian and 6 times the annual income of the average Mexican. We won't even take the disparity of developing countries into account, because it would be appalling.

And yet, Mr. Spain, despite enjoying a horrifyingly affluent lifestyle, you continue to accept paychecks from the Independent for your writing. What makes you think you deserve this level of reimbursement? And why do you insist on keeping the lion's share rather than distributing it to your publishers, the homeless or the less fortunate?

Have you no shame?

Yes, I'm writing with tongue firmly in cheek. But the most disturbing thing about Mr. Spain's article is that, apparently, he wasn't. His envy of Ms. Rowling's financial success and his judgment of her desire to continue making money from her own creation rise from the article in steaming, greenish waves, nearly palpable.

I do get it, I really do. I used to have exactly the same problem with people who bought Hummers. I couldn't (and still can't) see why anyone who wasn't active-duty military or involved with search and rescue operations would ever need something as expensive and overbuilt as a Hummer. If I had that kind of money to spend I could make a down payment on a house, or fix up my mom's house, or help some struggling family pay their bills -- not waste it on a four-wheeled conspicuous consumption sink.

But I was missing the point, just as Mr. Spain is missing the point. The money wasn't mine in the first place. If the Hummer owner hadn't spent his money on a huge, overpriced gas guzzler, it wouldn't have gone to me by default just because I thought I could spend that money in a better or wiser way. The money belonged to the Hummer owner, who had every right to use (or misuse, for that matter) his own money. It wasn't stolen from me and given to the guy who bought the Hummer. If I really wanted that kind of money to spend in a way I saw fit, it was up to me to go out and make it for myself -- not to waste my time sourly judging how others spent theirs.

As Mr. Spain so neatly illustrates, there's a good reason why the 10th commandment exists, and that reason is human nature. We humans have an unfortunate tendency to be jealous of the successes of others, especially when we ourselves are less successful than we want to be. And when people are super-successful and are able to make more money than we can even imagine spending, as in Ms. Rowling's case, we tend to become unreasonably judgmental of every choice they make. As even Mr. Spain grudgingly admits, Ms. Rowling has decided to spend some of her millions on causes of her choice, such as single-parent families and support groups for multiple sclerosis, which is a good and admirable thing -- but even if she bought a huge furnace and burned all the money for warmth, it would still be her money and her choice. Despite what he seems to believe based on the tone of his article, Mr. Spain doesn't deserve that money -- because he didn't write the Harry Potter books. (Though perhaps in an alternate universe John Spain is a household name, and Independent books editor J.K. Rowling has just written an editorial decrying all the filthy lucre Spain's set to make from continuing sales of his own writing.)

Do I think successful people should give back to the community? Yes, I do, but for reasons that have more to do with God than with man. The words of a poem by Grace Noll Crowell make up a well-known Baptist and Mormon hymn on the subject, the first verse of which reads: "Because I have been given much, I too must give / Because of Thy great bounty, Lord, each day I live / I shall divide my gifts from Thee with every brother that I see / Who has the need of help from me." I believe that when we receive a surplus, it can be seen as an invitation from Deity to help bless the lives of others. If we choose to use our blessings only for personal enrichment, though, that is an issue between us and God, not between us and John Spain.

Does Mr. Spain have the right to express his envy of Ms. Rowling's success publicly in an editorial article? Absolutely. But he also has the responsibility to examine his own motivations before doing so. After all, as I've already pointed out, by the standards of the rest of the world Mr. Spain himself is unreasonably, irresponsibly wealthy -- and he's become that much more so with the money he was paid to write the article casting aspersions on Ms. Rowling. If he doesn't want others casting covetous eyes on the money earned from his writing, he would do well to be more circumspect when judging the actions of others who share his profession.


D. Cootey said...

Brava! Brava!

MarieC said...

You tell 'em! I couldn't agree more.

Lyn said...

Wholeheartedly agree.