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

 

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?