The bafflement about JK Rowling’s new, not-Potter novel is scrawled on the face of every reviewer. I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, but I can tell you that it includes sex, drugs and social issues. I have read (some of) the Potter books, but even if I hadn’t, I could tell you that sex, drugs and social issues do not feature large in the boy wizard saga – because every review of The Casual Vacancy takes care to tell me that these are things “Harry Potter never dreamt of!” Also, there is no magic in The Casual Vacancy. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that both the cover and the pre-release pitch for it as a dark realist comedy strongly suggest no magic; however, the dismal insistence with which reviewers repeat the news that there is no magic implies that some people have been caught unawares.
There’s also a curious belief that The Casual Vacancy represents some sort of test for Rowling: she’s done kids’ stuff, but is she really up to the rigours of adult fiction? I prefer to see it the way Rowling does, when she says that the success of Potter “truly liberated me in the sense that there’s only one reason to write, for me – if I genuinely have something I want to say, and I want to publish it”. Rowling has already been more successful than pretty much any author who’s ever lived, whether you measure that success financially, critically or in the devoted response of readers. She’s got nothing to prove, but the niggling belief that she does tells us something about the weird segregation between children and adults that our cultural captains try to maintain.
Here’s the order of importance:
- Things intended for and marketed to adults
- Things intended for and marketed to children
Even if something in category 2 achieves success beyond that enjoyed by anything in category 1, it’s still possible for category 1 to pull rank by making the staggeringly thorough argument, “Ah, that category 2 thing might be popular, but it’s really just for kids.” Truth bomb detonated, doubters left reeling and dazed. This leaves us in a rather bleak circumstance where anything shortlisted for the Booker can claim to be better than the Potter novels because books about middle-aged, middle-class people having delicately described feelings are somehow deemed to be more crafted than multi-arced, carefully plotted epics.
Sure, Rowling can tell a story, said Anthony McGowan on the Today Programme yesterday, but can she really write a sentence? – as if plotting were some low-rent trick and the real artists of literature were putting more effort into crafting their gem-like and subtly revealing descriptions of kitchen tables. The thing is, this obsession with adult artistry over childish action is a very modern thing. Up until the Victorian period, the idea of children’s books as a separate genre didn’t really exist, and even then, surveys of the reading material favoured by girls and boys reveal a juvenile taste for Dickens, Eliot and Thackeray.* All authors who contain an extraordinary amount of no magic and quite a lot of social issues, incidentally, as well as having the distinction of being both great sentence writers and great plotters (apparently they only became mutually exclusive qualities sometime in the 20th century).
This obsession with adult as an analogue for important leads to some embarrassing stuff, and it’s not limited to the world of books. I remember seeing a Mighty Boosh gig in Sheffield, and part of the act involved Noel Fielding spouting off about how they weren’t “fucking Rentaghost” and aiming a string of C-words at a kid in the audience. It wasn’t funny, it was awkward and bullying, and all it made me think was that I’d rather be watching Rentaghost actually thanks. While the self-conscious grown-ups police their cultural compound, kids can keep hoovering up the good stuff. Want a fantastical sitcom? You want to watch Adventure Time. Want a finessed and polished ensemble? Try Nickelodeon’s iCarly. Want an anarchic and grotesque sketch show? The only one to go for is Horrible Histories on CBBC. And why shouldn’t we expect things for kids to be excellent? The fact that they’re learning is a reason to give them the best constructed, the most thoughtful and the most imaginative, and that way introduce them to all the possibilities in the world.
There are a few things which qualify a work as exclusively grown-up, but these are matters of content, not quality: graphic sex, graphic violence, graphic swears, serious analyses of institutions that a child has yet to encounter. All things I enjoy immensely done well, but simply smearing them about on sloppy plotting and precious writing isn’t enough to conjure up maturity – especially when fiction marketed for kids already handles the dark stuff so well. Rowling’s proved her authorial chops when it comes to themes of good and evil, loss and betrayal, love and maturity. It’s all in Potter. You thought it was just a kids’ book? You probably need to do some growing up yourself.
* Edward Salmon, Juvenile Literature As It Is (London: Henry J Drane, 1888)
Photo by Astrid Kopp, used under Creative Commons