When Genres Collide: J.K. Rowling to Write Adult Fiction
Rumor has it that British children’s Dark Fantasy author J.K. Rowling will next try her hand at writing an as-yet details-undisclosed adult novel. There is speculation that she might not be up to the task; few children’s authors successfully make the transition to writing for adults. Besides some criticism that her writing is not up to literary standards, there is the challenge of making substantial rhetorical changes and recreating style to fit a perceived harder-to-please adult audience.
Others have tried before and failed. R.L. Stine, one of the most successful of young adult writers and often called “the Stephen King of children’s literature” failed at his effort; his crossover bid titled Superstitious went from press to life support right after publication in 1995. To understand why this type of transition is so difficult, one has to look at the differences in writing for these very dissimilar audiences.
Like other genres, Young Adult fiction has its own formulas which dictate things like plot development, point of view and pace. As one might surmise, some of these are fairly obvious: one doesn’t see thousand-page YA novels, vocabulary and sentence structure are less complicated, endings tend to be more palatable if not happy. Other things are more regimented: subject (issues relevant to adolescents), point of view (typically told in first person revealed through a younger protagonist) and plot (character- or action-driven being the norm). Yet as in all areas of literature and rhetoric, YA fiction is in the midst of arguing the semantics of self-definition. This often takes the form of arguing what makes good fiction in general, and why there should be any difference between adult and YA novel writing at all. Sales tend to define the standards and distort publishing choices, sorting the critics between those who seek a set of rigid standards, and those who like a good tale. Writers like Stine and Rowling are collateral damage in the discussion because they are indisputably popular, easily recognized and well published. Their work tends to serve as ready examples in the discussion about what defines “good” or “bad” genre writing.
However, some standards are always shared. For instance, it is true that certain rules of writing remain the same in all genres for novel development: there must be a beginning, middle and an end; and those must be related with purpose instead of accidentally related; plot must be one of character, action or thought, and it must remain coherent throughout the work. But there are disparities in erudition. There are differences in writing for YA and adult audiences because those audiences have different levels of maturity, scholarship and culture. These differences cannot be completely ignored, and often when mastered or manipulated by storytellers, such writers can outshine the technician. An excellent discussion of this very subject is in Stephen Roxburgh’s November 20, 2004 keynote address for the ALAN Workshop in Indianapolis, Indiana titled The Art of the Young Adult Novel. A copy of his essay can be found for further reference at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALA/v32n2/roxburgh.pdf.
Despite an attempt to make YA fiction more sophisticated today, to make it more “literary,” the attempt has only succeeded in driving the YA audience toward the more edgy, “problem” novels of fantasy, adventure, and “chick lit.” This is where authors like Stine and Rowling enter the picture; they are not literary figureheads; they are great storytellers. Their ability to tell a tale moves and connects with young adults because the writing is not pretentious, but sincere and honest. There is no complex narrative to wade through, no sense of “not getting it.” So just as with adult fiction, there is an internal discussion about the “value” of works that sell versus the works that are “literary.” However that discussion remains largely among academics and critics until something like a crossover attempt is imminent. Then suddenly, the torches and pitch forks come out.
Adult fiction, it could be reasonably argued, is not really that different than YA fiction; most adults just want a good read. The words “critically acclaimed” bear the association with adjectives like “dull” or “boring.” So like a YA audience, adult audiences typically look for fiction that carries an emotional jolt. However there are some differences to consider if one is writing adult fiction. Adult fiction tends to tackle larger, dystopic issues that carry complicated associations and “adult” situations. Vocabulary is more fearless, meant to evoke definite reaction in an audience not unlike throwing a grenade into a crowded room. Plot is more complicated, character development is more extensive, and happy endings are more likely cliché than common. Adult fiction writers, then, are more like to utilize literary elements and to court literary establishment. That’s not to say all adult fiction is literature-oriented; it most certainly is not, especially in the belly of most genre fiction. But it does mean that the rod is quick to fall on the hack writer, and “storytelling” becomes inadequate as a primary feature of adult fiction writing.
Woe be unto those who seek then to move between adult and YA genres… Because just like the writer who moves from westerns to science fiction, the critical analysis of their writing becomes amplified with the mere mention of the intended switch. This is one reason why many writers use pseudonyms when they change genres. Imagine the blood-fest of critically dissecting a writer with the success level of a Stine or Rowling. Part of the problem lies in the human nature of things, the common assumption that if one is really good at one thing, one cannot possibly be as good at another. This is insulting at the least. If a storyteller like J.K. Rowling cannot write effective adult fiction, it would be more likely due to the force of ingrained YA writing habits and (like the rest of us) lack of immersion in the pool of technical expertise, which is an acquired skill. Publishers shouldn’t publish just anything with a Name on it; there should be an editorial obligation to help a successful and established writer learn the ropes of a new genre, especially with both the reputation of the writer and the publishing house on the line.
But it wasn’t the case for R.L. Stine. Allegedly, the whole idea of having one of the most prolific YA writers try his hand at an adult Horror novel came from his publisher. And one could see the reasoning; as the author of the iconic Goosebumps and Fear Street book series, he consistently outsold bestselling romance author Danielle Steele. How could a publisher go wrong? But the book failed miserably, selling poorly despite being featured on the bestsellers lists and book clubs. I understood why, because I happened to read the novel.
When I heard that Stine was writing his first adult novel, I immediately decided to read it based on his YA reputation alone. I was rooting for him, hoping for and expecting something delicious. Instead, Superstitious read like a YA novel. The characters came off as under-developed and therefore superficial and unbelievable. The plot was shallow, undetailed, unremarkable and too swiftly told. Something about it reeked of being done before and done better. Comparing what was written with what was intended, it was the difference between Saturday morning cartoons and Bambi. Chapters were short, sentences unencumbered by adult concerns and experiences. The story advanced quickly; it was indeed a page-turner. But the Monster Reveal (demons in this case) was an encumbrance on the fiction, a caricature of Horror not a disturbing consequence of human action or inaction. From beginning to end, the tale remained two-dimensional and too unsophisticated for the audience. The book had to rely solely on the ability of the author as a storyteller. Stine retreated in critical disgrace back to YA fiction.
This may be the publishing industry’s fear for Rowling.
After years of clearly successful writing in the YA genre, the fear is not completely unfounded. Old habits (including writing habits) die hard; Stine has returned to outselling most adult Horror writers by going back to YA, living proof that successful crossover in genre fiction is no easy accomplishment. Yet in seeing the rich magnificence of Rowling’s imagination at work, I am inclined to give her a chance, the benefit of any naysayer’s doubts. I will cheer her on as I cheered Stine on, hoping she will succeed where he did not. Many adult Horror and Fantasy fans probably feel the same way, having adopted her de facto as one of their own. I would read her first adult novel and I would hope for the best – all the time knowing that nothing changes the genius of what she has already accomplished for all of us who love a good tale well told… no matter what genre it is written in.