Boyd Tonkin: Whatever her views, JKR acts as the old-school Marilyn of literature


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The Independent Culture

Before the crucial parish-council meeting in The Casual Vacancy, JK Rowling wheels on a junior reporter who has heard of the looming bust-up and demands entry. "Press are allowed, I think," she insists. "I've looked up all the regulations." Oh, the irony! For the media – most of them, anyway – were not allowed in to Rowling's public event on the South Bank in London this week. Only a few agency reporters could attend.

That's a parochial point, but it does bring home the cult of secrecy, concealment and control that has surrounded her first post-Potter book. The novel, of course, chooses for the prime targets of its critique the secrecy, concealment and control that disfigure a small community twisted by "things hidden and disguised".

Talking of which, I bought my early access to a copy of The Casual Vacancy at the cost of signing the most absurdly restrictive "non-disclosure agreement" I have ever come across. In super-injunction style, this legalistic sledgehammer even forbade all mention of its own existence, although the publisher's willingness to let an interviewer describe The Casual Vacancy in detail almost a week in advance of release surely rendered it null and void. These intimidating documents are the florid symptoms of an increasingly desperate urge to present the publication of any book with celebrity appeal as an event that should be hedged around with the Potter-level sorcery of withholding and revelation.

Rowling has spearheaded the first of this season's "Super Thursdays": those red-letter days for the book trade in which potential Christmas bestsellers descend like leaves in an autumnal storm. This cranking-up of hype around every starry title, just like the legal paranoia of those "NDAs", betrays not confidence but doubt and dread.

Corporate publishing and high-street retailing, stressed as never before by bargain-basement e-books, the self-publishing revolution and the anarchic freedom of writing and reading on the net, fear for their future. In this context, Rowling arrives not just as a commercial windfall but as a bracing blast from the past. Her mega-selling stardom has come via the traditional route. Sane, modest and progressive she may be in person, but JKR as a phenomenon still looks like the Marilyn of books, a reassuring diva of the dodged flashbulb and the velvet rope.

This year, the threat to the old ways has taken the form of another initialised sensation: EL James. It took quite a while for conventional publishing to catch up with the Fifty Shades online bandwagon. Within a couple of months, the print editions of James's bondage blockbusters had begun to fly. However, publishers still stand exposed to the DIY free-for-all of the web. Next time, when a Fifty Shades-sized wave surges through cyberspace, the print merchants may not be able to surf it. Before long, online literary celebs may never touch the world of the agented deal, the one-off event, the clodhopping embargo. And conglomerate publishers as we know them may not survive for more than a decade or so.

Hence the brash hysteria of the Casual Vacancy and Super Thursday drumrolls. They hark back nostalgically to a vanishing world of mass manipulation. Now, this system fed an industry that delivered many great books along with all the silliness. Its demise may bring more losses than gains. The outcome of this historical chapter remains much more of a mystery than the ending of The Casual Vacancy, in which… no, NDAs or not, I won't do spoilers. I will merely note that its publisher Little, Brown (part of the Hachette combine) can afford to employ attack-dog lawyers, but not a copy-editor who knows the standard spelling of "indispensable" (see p.347). And "indispensable" may prove to be just what Little, Brown - along with all its corporate peers - is not.

Zola goes north – so credit where it's due

Literary Britons grumble whenever Hollywood takes a book with deep local roots - whether Pat Barker's Union Street or Nick Hornby's High Fidelity - and transplants it to an alien US setting. But it can happen here. The Paradise, BBC1's new department-store drama, plucks Emile Zola's retail saga Au Bonheur des Dames (1883) from France and relocates it to somewhere like Newcastle. I liked Bill Gallagher's makeover (starring Sarah Lancashire, pictured), but could the Beeb at least pay its bills with a Zola documentary soon?

Why appease the Chinese censors?

This spring, the British Council collaborated with the Chinese publishing authorities to host a hand-picked selection of safe writers at the London Book Fair. We were assured that such deals with official censors help to spread the ideals of free expression and debate into authoritarian cultures. Well, dream on. Earlier this month, China's long sovereignty dispute with Japan over the uninhabited Diaoyu or Senkaku islands turned nasty again. One facet of a wave of anti-Japanese protest has been a witchhunt against Japanese books and authors in China, cynically directed from the top - exactly those state agencies that the BC wished to appease. For instance, Haruki Murakami's novels have vanished from Beijing shelves. This is naked, jingoistic racism applied to literature. So what difference did the Book Fair junket make? In any language, a big fat zero.