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Author Could Use Some Magic in Summoning Book 5

With another delay in publishing, Rowling is on the defensive with fans


There's no double-edged sword more deadly than a literary franchise. Arthur Conan Doyle got so sick of his, he mercilessly tossed Sherlock Holmes into a waterfall, only to resurrect him a few years later to satisfy the baying multitudes.

When Louisa May Alcott died in 1888, her right hand was permanently crooked and crippled by the penning of thousands of pages for her young and voracious readers, and she reluctantly married off her Jo March because the girls of her day could not stand the idea of their heroine remaining single.

Winding through her proposed seven-book Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling is getting a taste of the headache that follows the elation of success. Because the previous four novels had been published in the summer at two-year intervals, many readers expected to have finished reading the fifth book by now. But for the second time, Bloomsbury Publishing has announced that the publication date for "The Order of the Phoenix" has been pushed back, this time possibly as far off as next autumn.

For a moment the world shook from the stomping of childish feet, some of them actually belonging to children. Harry has worked its magic beyond the young-adult section of bookstores--he has earned millions of dollars for many people in the publishing, film and merchandizing industries.

Not only are millions of kids and young adults waiting breathlessly to see what happens to Harry, Hermione, Ron and the denizens of Hogwarts, but the folks at AOL Time-Warner also are pretty darn curious. With plans to shoot the movies almost as quickly as the books arrived, director Christopher Columbus cast actors who would age along with the characters.

So, ticktock, Ms. Rowling, ticktock.

Spokespeople for Bloomsbury in Britain and Scholastic Inc. in the U.S. have repeatedly pointed out that the fourth book, "The Goblet of Fire," was a monster--more than 700 pages--and literature cannot be churned out like so many widgets.

Surfacing for a couple of brief interviews, Rowling has also defended herself, saying that she never committed to a deadline for the new book and so it cannot be considered "late." Furthermore, she does have a child and a life outside Hogwarts: Last December, she married for the second time and recently announced she is four months' pregnant. And sick children write her letters, she recently told the Wall Street Journal, and she feels obligated to answer them.

She was also preoccupied with legal matters. At the end of September, she received a summary judgment that found she had not infringed on or copied from the works of American author Nancy Stouffer. The decision, she said, was a huge relief and allowed her to finally focus on her work in progress. She has scotched rumors that she is suffering from writer's block. Recently, she has said the book has a beginning, middle and an end. All that remains, she said, is a little "tweaking."

Meanwhile, her young fans continue to fill the Internet with Web pages devoted to alternative plots, do-it-yourself sequels and arguments over whether it's OK to be mad at the author. When the Web site BBC Newsround asked readers "Are you fed up waiting for Harry Potter?" the responses ranged from the sympathetic to the truly harsh:

"I think the only reason book five is releasing so late is because of all the pressure put on JK. I think JKR should take all the time she needs."

"I think it's OK that the book isn't out till 2003, this must mean that JK is writing a really good book. In the meantime, we can just read the first 4 over and over again."

"She is probably too busy counting her money to do any writing this year!"

"Although she is a brilliant writer I can't see why she's taken over two years when usually she manages to do it in one. Very few authors take this long when writing a part of a series. 'Order of the Phoenix' has been overdue since last November and, personally, waiting a year was too much for me. Two is ridiculous."

In a way, it seems hardly fair to push the poor woman. She is trying to write a book that not only advances our understanding of an alternate universe but also captures in tone and style her maturing characters. And there's no denying that the world is watching.

Then again, in the words of mobster Hyman Roth, whose own literary father, Mario Puzo, knew a thing or two about the literary franchise: "This is the business we have chosen."

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