Skip to main content

J.K. Rowling's daring leap

By Gregory Maguire, Special to CNN
September 27, 2012 -- Updated 2249 GMT (0649 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gregory Maguire: J.K. Rowling has moxie, derring-do to reunite with her readers as adults
  • He says she doesn't need the money, she's written her new novel out of a need to write
  • Toggling between adult and youth writing more common in UK, less so in U.S., he says
  • Maguire: Writing for children is excellent way to start; they are a more demanding audience

Editor's note: Gregory Maguire is the best-selling author of "Making Mischief: a Maurice Sendak Appreciation" and many other novels, including "Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," the basis for the Tony-winning Broadway musical "Wicked." He has lectured on art, literature and culture both at home and abroad.

(CNN) -- What the title of J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, "A Casual Vacancy," brings to mind is pleasure: that a writer with such standing (in certain circles) has the derring-do and moxie to turn her back on the audience that first brought her fame, some years ago, and meet them again, those same people. Only it's years later, and now they're grownups. Holding their own credit cards, at the ready for this new book.

There is never a vacancy in the world of writers of books for the grownup market or the preteen mob. There is a surfeit of writers working hard, thanklessly. And when a John Updike or a Maurice Sendak dies, such quieter and under-appreciated writers note that geniuses leave a permanent loss, not a casual vacancy to be filled.

Gregory Maguire
Gregory Maguire

So while I have not yet read Rowling's book. I admire that she has decided to try her hand at wooing world-weary grownups. She needn't have, of course. She could have stood and blown 100-pound notes (in British sterling) out her bagpipe in that castle in Scotland from now till her dying day and never noticed the difference.

She must be writing because she needs to write.

Now, truth to tell, it's far more common in the UK for writers to shift audiences, adults to children or vice versa. Graham Greene wrote a few picture books. Salman Rushdie has written fantasies for children. C.S. Lewis was a scholar and popular theologian long before he mapped out Narnia and Tolkien, famously, a philologist and medievalist before he discovered the common hobbit.

J.K. Rowling shows why muggles obsessed with class

But in the U.S., writers for children tend to do little else. When someone not primarily driven to write for children does venture into the field from the great beyond, he or she is usually slumming, dallying from the field of entertainment or sometimes politics, which is another kind of entertainment, just less funny.

Most often, these books aren't very good.

In the U.S., adults who begin writing for children and then turn to writing for adults -- successfully -- are few and far between. (I am one of them; I think that because "Wicked" was based on a children's classic, it allowed me to slip the ropes of convention.)

Such a conversion to being a writer for adults after a novitiate as a writer for children is more common in England. Think of Penelope Lively, who first won the Carnegie Medal for a children's book and a few years later was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for an adult novel. Think Jane Gardam, Jill Paton Walsh. They move back and forth between the audiences with ease.

There's no reason to think J.K. Rowling can't do the same. By and large, the British don't sentimentalize childhood the way Americans tend to -- at least, not since the Blitz brought an end to Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and other British nationals who no longer could fly over central London with impunity and song.

So Rowling, from a tradition of starch and stiff-upper-lip, should have every advantage. England made her keen, and the world made her rich. She's too smart to be self-adoring or self-indulgent, so she won't fall into that trap. We'll find out soon enough whether her new effort will be a memorable book -- but it won't be a weak one, I bet, for it's been prompted by nothing more urgent than a need to write or die.

J.K. Rowling's 'The Casual Vacancy' -- snobbery, sex and scheming

Final thought, though: No one who really gets the density and elegance and mystery of childhood is unprepared to write for adults. By comparison, the adult audience is easier to satisfy than the child audience. Adults have picked up the habit of patience. They understand the concept of delayed gratification and so can be tricked into investment in page after page, waiting for the payoff.

For their part, children are by nature fickle, distractible, alert, compulsive. If they aren't wooed and won early on, they toss the book Grandma gave them right into the rubbish bin and sally out the door.

Writing for children -- succeeding at writing for children -- is much harder than writing for adults, and an excellent internship besides.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gregory Maguire.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT