Saturday 22 September 2012

The literary Sorting Hat

Does JK Rowling have what it takes to transfigure herself into a writer for grown-ups?

On the 27 September, Waterstones will open their doors at 7am in order that JK Rowling fans can lay hold of her new novel, A Casual Vacancy as soon as legally possible. Waterstones did the same for her Harry Potter series – Rowling’s new book, however, is not aimed at children but adults, and doesn’t a pre-dawn vigil outside a bookshop seem just a little bit, well, age-inappropriate?

Ninety years ago, Richmal Crompton published Just William, a collection of stories about a renegade schoolboy called William Brown. He, his motley crew of Outlaws and a lisping Thatcher-in-frills named Violet Elizabeth Bott, went on to feature in 30 more William books – books which set in aspic Crompton’s reputation of a classic children’s author. Yet Crompton did not only write children’s stories - in fact she wrote over forty novels for adults. For the most part they have been forgotten, eclipsed by her all-encompassing reputation as a children’s writer. Crompton herself once regretfully acknowledged that William Brown, her supreme literary creation, had become her ‘Frankenstein’s monster’. Does the infantile furore surrounding her book’s publication point to Rowling sharing Crompton’s fate?

A new car game – try to list the writers who are equally famous as both children’s and adult authors. It is surprisingly difficult. Take, for instance, John Grisham. He writes a series of legal thrillers for children about a pre-pubescent legal eagle, but in spite of their tremendous popularity, the books are still seen as something of an aberration, a diversion from Grisham’s day job as a writer of adult fiction. The same is also true in reverse. Anthony Horowitz has published four novels aimed at adults but his status (in terms of novel-writing at least) is unshakeably that of a children’s writer. Does the classification of Grisham and Horowitz argue an innate tendency on the part of readers and publishers to pigeon-hole, or is it merely a reflection the ratio of children’s versus adult novels in their fictional output? As tempting as an explanation the latter maybe, it is not in itself adequate. Crompton’s adult novels significantly outnumbered her William stories, similarly her contemporary, Noel Streatfeild, wrote almost as many books for adults as children. Two of Rowling’s own favourite authors – Elizabeth Goudge and Dodie Smith – wrote more fiction for adults than children, but it is for their work for young people they are chiefly remembered.

We did not always pigeon-hole authors in this way. Early 19th century writer Maria Edgeworth was acknowledged equally for her didactic children’s fiction as her novels for adults. The urge to put writers into distinct camps is undoubtedly in part a by-product of modern marketing – these days an author seems to function almost as much as a genre mark or brand as does Mills and Boon, or Nike.

Two authors who have managed to spring the children/adult author trap are Jill Paton Walsh and Penelope Lively, something which can probably be attributed to the significant acclaim they have received for both sides of their work. Their children’s novels have been Smarties, Carnegie and Whitbread prize-winners and both authors have been Booker-shortlisted for their adult work. If you want to avoid being categorised, you not only have to be an exceptionally skilled writer, but the award panels have to say you are. Does JK Rowling have what it takes to transfigure herself into a writer for grown-ups? The snobbery with which the literary establishment tends to regard the Harry Potter books makes it seem unlikely. Her boy-wizard may well become her own ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ and as surely as the Sorting Hat sorts Hogwarts students into Slytherin or Gryffindor, she will be thought of in perpetuity as a children’s author.


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