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Adverbs, Lawsuites and Harry Potter

12/10/01 12:00AM

Harry's back, with a vengeance!

Since the release of the movie, Harry Potter is once again the world's favorite literary character. Harry, along with his friends and enemies, teachers and tormentors, is the creation of J.K. Rowling, who is now the world's most famous and successful writer.

You already know that.

But maybe there are a couple of things about Harry Potter, Inc. you don't know. Let's start with adverbs. When I read the Harry Potter books or listen to the brilliant audio tapes, though I'm thoroughly engrossed in the magic life of Hogwarts Academy, I'm also thinking adverbs.

Adverbs; words that modify verbs, adjectives and other adverbs. Jules smiled shyly. Ahhh.

Writers are deeply suspicious of adverbs. Good writers - real writers - are supposed to give them wide berth. Adverbs, so every creative-writing teacher warns, are the sure sign of amateur writing, like inserting three exclamation points after a sentence!!!

They're proof-positive that your ideas aren't coming through by themselves. Adverbs are even a source of derisive humor. "I'm leaving at once," Tom said swiftly.

So if you wanna be a successful writer, lose the adverbs.

Huh!!! J.K. Rowling uses them in every other sentence. Snape speaks sneerlingly. Dumbledore smiles kindly. Harry watches warily.

She's rewritten the book on adverbs. Along with magic and English schools, she's given adverbs new respect. And written the world's best sellers chock full of them. "I'm laughing all the way to the Pulitzer," J.K.laughed rollingly.

OK, that's adverbs. What do you know about lawsuits?

One of the things about becoming suddenly rich and famous is that just as suddenly, you find yourself trying to fend off lawsuits.

Sure enough, shortly after Harry Potter took off, an American named Nancy Stouffer alleged that J.K. Rowling had plagiarized a number of names and situations from Stouffer's own books. The word "muggles" appears in both their books, although with an entirely different meaning. While Rowling's lead is Harry Potter, Stouffer introduced a character named Larry Potter. Her website, realmuggles.com, listed more than 40 overlaps between her works and Rowling's. And, being American, she immediately hired a lawyer to claim damages. Big damages.

Only there were a few problems along the way. One is that Stouffer's books were self-published and narrowly - very narrowly - distributed.

Second, some of the overlaps seem a wee bit general to qualify as plagiarism. For instance, she listed "characters in tights" and "underground passages" as evidence. Can you think of a fable without characters in tights and underground passages? (Actually, I can think of one. Neither Harry nor any of the major characters in the first three books wears tights.)

So what happened? Well, as Stouffer was getting ready to sue Rowling's publishers, they launched a pre-emptive suit against her. Like all such court cases, the thing promises to continue well after all parties involved are dead and buried. But in my opinion, what it comes down to is this: Stouffer is claiming that Rowling - one of the most creative minds of our time - not only somehow saw Stouffer's self-published books and stole the ideas in them, but was so lacking in imagination that she swiped the characters' names as well.

On her elaborate website, Stouffer says, "If you wish to support N.K. Stouffer and her Muggles you may make a contribution to the legal defense fund."

Call me a muggle, but I'm gonna pass.

This is Jules Older in Albany, Vermont, the Soul of the Kingdom.

--Jules Older is the author of more than 20 books for children and adults and is a passionate outdoors enthusiast. You can reach him at older@vpr.net.
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