J.K. Rowling is not the first writer to skip genres. Poets write fiction. Historians write novels. Fiction writers, including Norman Mailer, Stephen King and Truman Capote, try sticking to the facts. All sorts of writers turn to children’s literature at some point in their careers. Should J.K. Rowling, the world’s first billionaire author, the woman who revolutionized the children’s publishing industry, be treated differently?
That was the buzz in the twitterverse earlier this week after a New Yorker profile by journalist Ian Parker quoted lines from Rowling’s about-to-be-published adult novel, The Casual Vacancy . Would children nurtured on Harry Potter be offended by passages about a teenage boy sitting on a school bus “with an ache in his heart and in his balls” or descriptions of “a used condom glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub.”
Graphic sexual language was the least of Rowling’s worries after the critics on both sides of the Atlantic unleashed their reactions when the embargoes were finally lifted with the novel’s appearance in bookstores on Thursday. “There is no magic in this book – in terms of wizarding or in terms of narrative sorcery,” Michiko Kakutani sneered in The New York Times, while Theo Talt concluded in The Guardian that, “All the characters are fairly horrible or suicidally miserable or dead.”
What’s unusual about Rowling’s genre-skipping is that she has moved from children’s author to adult novelist, rather than the other way around. Traditionally, that is a difficult feat. For example, Lucy Maud Montgomery, who published Anne of Green Gables in 1908, never achieved the same success with her long since-forgotten adult novels.
Applying the skills and experience you have acquired in other literary forms to children’s books seems to make for a happier genre-changing transition. C.S. Lewis was an Oxford don, a medieval scholar and a poet when he began writing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of the seven volumes in his Narnia series. A classic Christian allegory – although he denied that – the Narnia books have enthralled children and their parents for decades.
Most writers want to experiment with technical and literary challenges, to test their mettle, to find new audiences, to have fun with voice and narrative, to force themselves to keep staring at the blank screen. Even those, like the late Christopher Hitchens, who can’t escape their own genre (his genius was as a polemicist and literary and cultural critic) admired the best writers for children. In a Vanity Fair column in October, 2002, he wrote about Philip Pullman, another writer who sticks to his main strength, decreeing that Pullman’s books, especially the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), “have begun to dissolve the frontier between adult and juvenile fiction.” Hitchens and Pullman shared a world view – they were both atheists, although Pullman likes to call himself an “agnostic atheist” – but Hitchens’s point about the artificial boundary separating books for children and those for adults is well taken and speaks to the Harry Potter phenomenon.
Children listen long before they read, and one of their best listening times is lying in bed while an adult reads aloud from a mutually agreed-upon “chapter” book. Speaking as a parent who has been caught “reading ahead” by a wakeful child who crept out of a darkened bedroom begging for tomorrow’s night’s instalment, I can attest that Rowling’s skill was in imagining an alternative world that intrigues all ages, either from curiosity about the unknown or a vicarious nostalgia about times past.
The Harry Potter books belong to a great escapist tradition that ranges from ancient sagas through Robert Louis Stevenson, Roald Dahl and beyond. There’s an outsider who overcomes adversity to become a hero, a struggle between good and evil, hope and despair, and an empowering drama in which kids outwit and rescue adults. There’s also lots of humour and competitive action. Remember Quidditch, that combination of soccer and hockey played on flying broomsticks? Most of all, Rowling created a mythology in Harry Potter that wasn’t religious, as in books by Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but which was richly satisfying as an over-arching narrative universe.
Not all writers recognize the literary merits of serious children’s literature. Hitchens’s pal, Martin Amis, expressed a hidebound snobbery on a BBC radio program in February, 2011. “If I had a serious brain injury, I might well write a children’s book,” the former bad boy British novelist remarked snidely. He received a torrent of angry comments, as The Guardian reported, including a diabolical threat from Jane Stemp, who has cerebral palsy and is the author of the prize-listed children’s book The Secret Songs. “I have brain damage,” she wrote, before concluding that “superglueing him to a wheelchair and piping children’s fiction into his auditory canal suddenly seems like a good idea.”