Y’know, for kids

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:

  1. Things intended for and marketed to adults
  2. 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

21 thoughts on “Y’know, for kids

  1. Excellent stuff, SD.

    As someone who’s – ah-ha! – written four children’s books (published by Scholastic, but now out of print) and one self-published fem-zom-com, I’d say the children’s books were definitely harder, and they didn’t even have any of the labyrinthine plotting and emotional resonance that define really good kid’s books. Writing without swears or sex or other shock tactics and still making a decent story is difficult enough, but writing for children means you can’t rely on woolly thinking or lazy writing and expect readers to castigate themselves for not ‘getting’ you.

    Also, Prisoner Of Azkaban is miles better than The Slap, and indeed anything by Julian Barnes. COME AT ME.

  2. I didn’t know it was going to be a comedy. I think I’ll definitely have to pick this up but may well leave it a while due to my knee deep reading list that I have to get through. Personally, I’m of the opinion that children’s fiction is much more important than adult fiction as there seems to be much more room for imagination and growth rather than introspection and decay.

    I recently completed Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series and really quite liked it even if it wasn’t always subtle. The characterisation was great, and Katniss Everdeen made for a great hero, strong and brave but not infallible. I hope that the film adaptations keep the disdain for violence that the books had and helps show the use of violence as a political tool as well.

    As someone who has had their “amazing” ideas for epic stories evaporate as soon as they were committed to the page, I really admire Rowling’s ability to write such an epic tale and evolve her style so that the text grew up with the reader. That is no easy feat and her books are popular for a very good reason. I’m sure that no one is holding her to a higher standard than she is, so I can see this being a fantastic read as well.

  3. I’m not sure “can she write for grown-ups” IS a stupid question. She is obviously superb at telling a rollicking story with glorious, immersive detail, and as it happens, that’s way more important to me than an elegy to a table.

    However, I haven’t read any reviews and don’t have any expectations, so in my position I don’t think it’s a stupid question, to ask myself at least. I’m not convinced by several aspects of JKR’s writing – I think it’s a bit lumpen, expositional, and I think she’s pretty poor at character exploration beyond the superficial. While I’m happy to read around this when there’s an awesome, rip-roaring fantasy narrative, I think it’s appropriate to wonder if this will be a problem in her adult writing.

    And it might not be!

  4. I think the issue here is that Rowling *is* (or at least was) a bad writer. Her sentences *are* awful, her prose an ugly mess. But because of the same prejudice you describe, it was ignored by reviewers and critics, either because they gave it a pass because it was “only a kid’s book”, or because they were too terrified to go against the tsunami.

    I remember trying to read the first Potter (without prejudice), and just wanting to mark it with a red pen. Horrible. I later listened to the mp3s of Fry reading it, and enjoyed the story. So I can sympathise with the argument you dismiss.

    Now she’s writing an “adult’s book” they final feel released to actually do their jobs properly. So just as incompetent as you describe, but from a different angle.

  5. Ah, but the assumption there is that there’s a stark line between children’s and adult fiction, even if you’re not signing up for the one-is-better-than-the-other position — I think that’s a fabrication, not least because so many adults have got really, really into Potter. The Casual Vacancy might completely suck, but it won’t be anything to do with the age segregation of the market if it does.

  6. Again, I agree with you but think the vesing question *is* still relevant to my personal reading pleasure (I can’t speak for anyone else).

    I guess my concern is that the things that appealed to me most about Potter – the adventure, the fantasy, the mise-en-scene – are primarily the elements aimed at children. So I am worried that, when writing a book aimed at adults, a lack of these elements (if indeed there is a lack) will leave us with either her dull prose style or, as you say, attempts to make tables profound (or both).

    I am sure I am being harsh or worrying unnecessarily. But that’s what I mean, to myself, when I wonder if she can write for adults.

  7. Right on the nail, Sarah and a much-needed blast against the overwhelmingly sloppy and often patronising space-filling that’s gone on today. Thank you..

  8. Disagree with this, Botherer, because when you say “she’s a bad writer” you’re implicitly saying that story isn’t writing. It is, it’s just that we give cultural precedent over storytelling to a certain kind of writerliness.

  9. For what it’s worth (not much), I think she’s a great writer. Both in terms of plot, but also word usage, sentence structure, etc.

    I think the only way that ‘well, it’s written for kids’ is a valid thing to say is actually highlighted in something that Botherer, above, picks up on – they didn’t like reading the book but enjoyed Stephen Fry’s audio version. Most children’s books need to stand up to being read aloud, and writing for this is a specific skill (I say this having spent the last two days wrestling a conference paper into part of a thesis chapter). Possibly the earlier books stand being read aloud slightly better – and the later books are meatier and possibly ‘better written’ in style – but that works, with the original audience growing up alongside Harry and progressing from bedtime stories to reading alone.

    I like Philip Nel’s work on children’s literature, a lot, and he’s written here: http://www.philnel.com/2012/05/30/potterstudies/ about taking children’s literature (and Harry Potter specifically) seriously. There’s also a blogpost about the differences between the American and British texts of the books, which is geekily interesting.

  10. As the parent of a five year old I’m certainly aware of how rewarding good childrens books can be for their intended audience, and that us older readers can get a lot of pleasure from them too. And that such books are as much deserving of recognition and serious consideration as books aimed at adults.
    But whatever one thinks of the HP books Rowling’s is still a phenomenally sucessful author known for one distinct genre moving into another and that is always going to attract “can she pull it off?” kind of questions. It’s not necessarily implying that one genre is superior to the other, although I accept that can be implied from some of the comments I’ve seen.

  11. To Botherer, Stephen Fry obviously has the gift of being able to read out loud in an engaging and entertaining way. But even the most engaging reader can’t make clunky bad writing which is ‘an ugly mess’ sound good. It’s just not possible. Fry is reading Rowling’s words. I’m afraid, Botherer, I can’t agree with your dismissal of Rowling’s talent at all. To Sarah, I think this is a fantastic blog post.

  12. I think this article is slightly off-target.

    Fans of various genres of writing are always claiming their stuff is discriminated against by a snobby establishment obsessed with “literary fiction” (whatever the hell that is). There’s truth in that, but children’s books aren’t a special case here. Stephen King gets passed over for award nominations because the Booker crowd think he’s a “thriller writer”. It’s not about the target audience per se – if Ian McEwan wrote a children’s book, it’d get plenty coverage from the usual suspects.

    When a writer switches from one style to a completely different one, it’s perfectly acceptable to wonder out loud if they’ll be able to do it. Different types of writing (or music, or film, or painting) require different skill sets. If George Lucas announced tomorrow that he was going to make a Ken Loach-style film, querying whether he’ll be able to pull it off is not the same thing as saying ‘sci-fi is Less Important than gritty social realism’. Conversely, if Loach decided to make a space opera, the SFX crowd would ask similar questions.

    You point out that all the reviews of Rowling’s new book mention Potter but this is hardly surprising, given that it’s both the biggest series of books ever and the only other thing she’s done. The fact it contains stuff “Harry Potter never dreamt of!” is a story. That the book contains “no magic” is noteworthy, given that all her others do. If, say, Nick Cave released a drum and bass album tomorrow, I guarantee every single review would point out what a huge departure it is, rather than, say, pretending it was his debut so as to leave the listener unprejudiced.

    The Anthony McGowan quote comes across as a criticism of Rowling’s writing style and the kind of soundbitey thing authors say about each others’ work all the time (check out the bitching here http://www.flavorwire.com/188138/the-30-harshest-author-on-author-insults-in-history?all=1). Given that McGowan is a children’s author himself; he’s unlikely to subscribe to the ‘kids books < adult books' thesis.

    Screw Noel Fielding though – he's a tosser. FWIW I'd rather watch Rentaghost than Boosh.

  13. He did subscribe to the “sentences > plots” thesis, though, and ruefully mentioned his own perceived failure as an adult fiction writer. Interesting you mention King. His praise for Bret Easton Ellis’ terrible pastiche of genre fiction in Lunar Park is one of the most embarrassing example of genre being flattered by the condescension of literary fiction (yes it’s a genre, it’s just that its primary convention is pretending not to be a genre) that I can recall.

  14. Some people seem in a terrible hurry to ‘put away childish things’ as that Bible passage would put it. But it seems like you really grow up when you realise that it’s okay to take those childish things back out of the box again.

  15. Reblogged this on Lemon City III and commented:
    Everything Sarah Ditum says: YES. I couldn’t have put it any better myself. This is a must read to all people currently discussing J.K.Rowling’s latest book, The Casual Vacancy.

  16. Absolutely! There is an assumption among certain readers and most critics that the quality of a story or book can only be measured by how closely it approaches the concerns and stylistic conventions of ‘literary fiction’ (an ill-defined genre, but one that is nonetheless recognisable). This assumption entirely misses the point that different genres have different concerns that are not best served by tending towards literary fiction.

    > Disagree with this, Botherer, because when you say “she’s a bad writer” you’re implicitly saying that story isn’t writing

    This, basically.

  17. Thank you!

    People don’t give enough credit to children, full stop.

    I know that as a child I kept thinking “Why the condescension? I’m younger, not dumber.”

    And Horrible Histories is an amazing show.

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