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.”
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.