Despite all the pre-publication secrecy and personality-centred fanfare, the word is out. JK Rowling’s first novel for adults is a turkey. The review that made it sound most interesting was one in the Telegraph, which declared it a retelling of The Communist Manifesto. This was not meant as a compliment, but I bet that flatters The Casual Vacancy every bit as much as the kindest of reviews does. I can’t say I’m surprised.
The Harry Potter books had their charms, but they included neither originality nor profundity. I’d expect Rowling to make the transition to literary fiction no more successfully than Enid Blyton could have, Blyton being the publishing phenomenon closest to Rowling that I can think of. Strip the Potter books of all the sorcery, and you have Malory Towers. Both are descriptions of class and classroom dynamics that reassure young readers, rather than challenging them. Rowling just added more bells, whistles and spells – as Blyton did, in other books.
Both authors appeal to children precisely because they offer simple adventure, simply told, never coining an arresting phrase when a cliche will do just as well, never prioritising their own creativity above the near-universal expectations of their audiences. It’s a great gift to be able to bang out a narrative, without self-regard or a yearning for peer approval. It is by no means the only way to write children’s fiction, which can be both engaging to children and a perfect distillation of literary craft.
But a generation of kids that experiences the joy of awaiting a new work from an author such as Rowling is blessed. I’m sorry she appears to have discovered self-consciousness, the lack of which is the most endearing aspect of childhood. That same lack made her a brilliant, exceptional author, even if she always was a pretty poor writer.
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