The literati have been claiming the death of the novel for about a century. In the midst of its moaning, however, JK Rowling appeared and zapped the publishing industry with defibrillator paddles. She has taught an entire generation -- worldwide -- to wait, white-knuckled, for -- of all things – a book.
The effects of Rowling’s unprecedented success can’t be overlooked. Kids literature has taken hold in a way that no one could have expected, and many American writers have broken rank, abandoning adult readers (if only temporarily) to write magical books for kids. Alice Hoffman was there at the outset of the trend, Isabel Allende and Michael Chabon followed, and, just this May, Walter Mosley joined in.
It isn’t surprising that these writers found themselves – quite naturally – at home in the magical realm of children’s literature. In their adult work, they all have magic in their roots -- Hoffman’s fairy tales, Allende’s magical realism, Chabon’s folklore, and Mosley’s science fiction.
And they all have their own reasons for turning to their new audience.
Allende’s books are the result of a promise she made to her grandchildren.
Hoffman decided she wanted to write for mothers and daughters, because, as she says, “what you read when you’re twelve stays with you in such a deep way.”
Chabon was inspired by reading to his children. He has said in interviews, “That [experience] reconnected me with an earlier incarnation of myself, at 10 or 11, when I said I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Back then, I didn't want to write a novel about an overweight, pot-smoking, philandering teacher whose mistress is pregnant; I wanted to write the books I loved to read, fantasy and novels about contemporary children.”
In his children’s literature debut, 47, Mosley wanted to create a kind of book that didn't exist. He has said, "For a long time I have known that many young black children find it hard to read stories about slavery because of their healthy resistance to identify with victims. My goal for this book was to create a character that rises above his role as a victim by becoming a victorious hero." Mosley understands the limits of realism, putting it this way “I used speculative and mythical genres to create possibility where more realistic storytelling and historical perspective might not.”
At seventeen, I had strong magical roots. I signed onto the writing life because of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism – the dreamlike alongside the ordinary. But glancing at the Barnes and Noble display tables, it was easy to figure that my collection of suburban Marquezian stories might be a tough pitch. Instead, my agent sold my contemporary easy-to-swallow first novel while the memoir craze fueled realism’s fire. Regardless of a few curve balls (The Lovely Bones’ murdered narrator and The Time Traveler’s Wife), the big dogs of the publishing industry have made it clear that the adult American audience wants the truth, most of all, and, if not the truth, then at least something that acts like it.
And so I held the hands of my adult readers through three novels, warning them at the approach of anything unusual, couching my most imaginative moves in metaphor.
When I turned to writing for the younger set, I suddenly had an audience that didn’t need warnings and couched metaphors. Nuns turned into lampposts. Tornadoes were shaken from books. An evil mole attacked campers. I was allowed to be the writer I’d always wanted to be with an audience who was willing to leap.
But haven’t adult readers leapt with J.K. Rowling? Of course. This summer they have dived into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in droves.
Maybe the publishing industry has been wrong about adult audiences. Force-fed contemporary realism for so long, the American imagination has become somewhat starved. A good bit of my fan mail is from adults. And it makes me wonder if perhaps they’ve found what they’ve been hankering for in children’s literature – the wild imagination made to only seem real.
The success of Rowling’s books has made it possible for writers to get industry backing for their more whimsical fiction. Chabon who claims to have a “Potter maniac” daughter, has said that he’s “fairly certain … [his] publisher would not have been so interested in ... [Summerland] if it weren't for Harry Potter.”
Thankful for the trend but also regardless of it, I’ll keep writing for the younger set because of the kids themselves. These books really aren’t for adults – as Allende’s grandchildren can probably testify – as the twelve year old Alice Hoffman those decades ago, as well as the fresh-hearted ten-year-old Chabon -- not to mention the next young Mosley who now has a book about slavery that includes heroes.
Perhaps we are handing over our imaginings to these young readers, hoping they'll tote them around for a bit -- long enough to charge up their own wild minds. In this way the novel will continue to survive, one young reader-turned-writer at a time.