Hazel McHaffie

Changing spots

Some years ago when I was preparing to change careers from academic to novelist I had big ideas of writing both adult and children’s books simultaneously, one being light relief for the other. No 1 Detective AgencyI had a lovely encouraging discussion with Alexander McCall Smith (a University colleague at the time ) who had no qualms about combining the two – but then he’s a lovely encouraging man! And of course, he’s been hugely successful in both areas himself.

But sadly I do not have his Midas’ touch. Or sheer confidence and capacity. I started approaching publishers and agents … ahhhh … I changed my mind forthwith and tout suite. It wasn’t the writing of such different genres that was the problem, no, it was the sheer complexity and stress of dealing with the multitude of agencies involved in publication and marketing across the age ranges. So I chickened out and concentrated on adult fiction, reserving my children’s stories for the family.

Which is partly why JK Rowling’s transition last Thursday from acknowledged queen of children’s literature to a debut novelist in the adult world was of particular interest to me. In her former capacity she’s already a household name around the world. She has a … no, probably several, dedicated teams of publicists at her beck and call, publishers queuing for the veriest nibble at her synopses, and she’s so stupendously rich that sales figures matter not one whit to her standard of living. So how is she faring with the grown-ups so far?

The Casual VacancyWell, reviews have been mixed. Plenty of shock and outrage and dismay at the toxic mixture of cruelty, despair, pornographic descriptions, and foul language in The Casual Vacancy. But also admiration for her acute observations, her humour, her honesty, and her courage in stepping so far out from under her invisibility cloak.

I haven’t read the book, but I have seen and heard enough excerpts to have a very uncomfortable reaction. How could the soaring creative mind that conjured up The Leaky Cauldron and Diagon Alley and the Hippogriff and Platform nine and three quarters, also sink to such depths of murk and depravity? But of course, it’s exactly because she has such an awesome imagination that she can encompass both ends of the spectrum, conjuring up the objectionable as readily as the exceptional.

Nevertheless I confess to one overwhelming concern: for today’s children. There are all sorts of avenues open to me, and adults like me, to make an informed decision about whether or not we will enter the bleak and sordid lives of the people of Pagford. (I come from the Westcountry so it might have been tempting.) But children? They’ve grown up knowing the name JK Rowling as synonymous with wholesome enjoyment. Indeed this one incredibly gifted woman has won over a generation of young people to the magic of the written word. How many of the million-plus customers who pre-ordered copies of A Casual Vacancy are innocents below the age of consent, avid followers of this unique Pied Piper? And how many when told, ‘No, you can’t read this one‘, will adopt Harry Potteresque tactics to circumvent the embargoes, convinced that the thrills will be even more spine tingling than Lord Voldemort’s exploits. I for one devoutly hope none of my own young relatives will do so. I’m not even sure I will read it myself.

In her own defence Rowling protests that there has been ample advance warning about the content of this book. She rolls her eyes at the lack of parental control which might allow the young to obtain a copy. And besides, she insists with something bordering on a flounce, she’s a writer, she must be allowed to write what she wants to write. As she told an interviewer from The New Yorker magazine, ‘There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teachers.‘ No? Maybe not deliberately, but everything about the promotion of the brand said, ‘Exciting, magical, fantastical, child-friendly-and-safe.‘ This reinvented JKR is for consenting adults only.

What’s more, she herself seems to have changed. This week’s publication interviews (click here for one of them) showed her not only as rich and glamorous but also as rather more assertive, aggressive, acerbic even, than hitherto – in her language, her demeanour, her reactions. Is this the real JKR? Or was the previous image more true to her inner self? I personally preferred the gentler, shyer Jo.

But whatever the public reaction to her new persona, wherever her muse takes her, I hope nothing eclipses the pre-2012 image. They say an author is only as good as her latest book, but in Rowling’s case I personally don’t think anything should be allowed to detract from her unparalleled position as the genius who captured the devotion of a generation of children, and took the magic of storytelling to new heights.

 

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