A lot of adult writers – to use an arbitrary classification – compose children’s tales when they become parents. Salman Rushdie was in hiding during the fatwa following the publication of The Satanic Verses, when he wrote one of his most endearing and imaginative books, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, for the son from whom he was often separated. Tolkien was a medievalist at Oxford – his lecture on Beowulf inspired scores of students, including the poet W.H. Auden – when he wrote The Hobbit for his four children. An employee of the British publisher Allen & Unwin heard about the story and persuaded Tolkien to submit his manuscript. The book was such a success that sequels were demanded. Tolkien eventually produced the three volumes called The Lord of the Rings, which are among the most successful children’s books ever.
A.A. Milne was a novelist, a playwright and a humorist for Punch when he created Christopher Robin and the Pooh books, based on his own son and his stuffed animals. Frankly, I have never understood the fascination with these books, which screech with silly wordplay and turn Christopher Robin into a demi-god from whom the animals seek guidance and approval. Reading it aloud once was all I could muster. In our house, Pooh became the test for bedtime reading – parent and children had to agree on the choices – although we could each read whatever we wanted by ourselves. Call that capricious if you will, but the ritual is as much about bonding as reading. Besides, it gave my children the freedom to make and express their own choices. One morning I was delighted to find my daughter, surrounded by her own stuffed animals, splashing “tea” into cups and “reading” to them from The House at Pooh Corner.
As for Milne, he resented the reading public’s unwillingness to let him resume his grown-up writing career, even though the Pooh royalties made him rich. “If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills,” this week’s New Yorker piece quoted him, “criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic.”
Rowling, unlike Milne, doesn’t resent Harry Potter – at least not so far. But that doesn’t mean she wants to be typecast. “There is no part of me that feels I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” she said stoutly to Parker. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”
No argument there. But we don’t have to like it. The Casual Vacancy, with a two-million-copy print run, fell on stony critical ground after its release, not because Rowling had switched genres to write for adults but because the novel had so many flaws. Set in the contemporary upscale town of Pagford in southwest England, The Casual Vacancy lacks the most essential ingredients of successful adult fiction: psychological and emotional depth. Instead, we have cartoon characters exhibiting a surfeit of mental illnesses, a closed society riven with class and social enmity, and a tightly controlled and convoluted plot that depends on improbable coincidences.
Potentially, there are two characters with enough resonance to appeal to readers who grew up on Harry Potter. Alas, Rowling kills off the first one – Barry Fairbrother, a hale fellow who escaped the grit and deprivation of a working-class neighbourhood and wants to help others do the same – on the second page. The other enticing character, Krystal Weedon, has sparkle, gumption and determination, but Rowling won’t let her breathe.
Deserting her traditional audience isn’t the problem with The Casual Vacancy. What’s wrong is Rowling’s inability to allow any white space on the page. There is no ambiguity, no air, no room for readers to engage with the characters outside of Rowling’s restrictive authorial girdle. If she wants to be a writer for adults, Rowling – an increasingly paranoid celebrity – needs to loosen up. We aren’t the ones typecasting her; she is refusing to recognize our life experience and reading skills as adults.
Sandra Martin is a senior features writer at The Globe and Mail, and the author most recently of Working the Dead Beat: 50 Lives that Changed Canada.