This week J K Rowling unveiled a new children’s tale, The Ickabog, a story about truth and the abuse of power. Not about now, the author assured her fans, but timeless. So here we have King Fred and his two advisers, Spittleworth “thin, cunning, and clever”, and the “ruddy faced” enormous Flapoon. Fred, who by the way has "lovely yellow curls", rules over Cornucopia, a place of bounty, while in the north lies the Marshlands, a desolate abode, and home to the monster Ickabog. So far, so resonant. We don’t yet know if Fred lives in Castle Barnard, but fingers crossed.
Rowling is an author of such magnitude that we tend to miss the obvious in such announcements. Written to be read aloud, this tale is being published online, for free, in regular instalments until 10th July, as Charles Dickens once famously did. Publication in print is not until November. We have gotten used to authors releasing work early, particularly during lockdown. Fellow children’s writer Anthony Horowitz began sharing chapters from his new Diamond Brothers book, Where Seagulls Dare, with children online back in April; Nosy Crow published, as a PDF, a free coronavirus explainer illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
But as ever, Rowling’s timing could not be better. Last week the government set up a Cultural Renewal Taskforce but did not include anyone from the book publishing sector; on Monday it announced that non-essential retailers could reopen from 15th June, and though charity shops, betting shops and mobile phone outlets (et al) got a mention, bookshops did not. Baffled is becoming a term regularly employed by those I speak to about this government, but the darker reality is that this (to reference David McKee’s children’s classic of parental neglect) “not now” attitude to a business that delivers a consistent stream of world-leading products is unforgivable.
By contrast, Rowling reminds us of the power of the imagined and the influence of reading. Stories are our way of distilling what is happening to us. As the Publishers Association’s incoming president, Taylor & Francis c.e.o. Annie Callanan, says in an interview with The Bookseller this week, “we’ve been around for centuries”. The mission remains clear and present; corona has made it urgent again.
Publishing has a big moment just now to get it right and, in the run-up to the big bookshop reopening day, a date to rally around. The government may be looking the other way, but our audiences are not. The Hay Festival’s digital iteration delivered 210,000 streams over its opening weekend; J K Rowling’s 1 p.m. announcement of her new story reached 4.5 million on Facebook, and there were over 5m page views in the first 24 hours of the first two chapters on The Ickabog website with people visiting from over 50 different countries; even Connell Waldron’s chain has 166,000 followers on Instagram.
These are not insignificant. Books are both a cultural good and a business; one does not detract from the other. This week the magazine features a Welsh special showing (among other things), that there is a way of celebrating the former without undermining the latter. For Literature Wales c.e.o. Lleucu Siencyn, it is a given that the creative sector should play a key role in the future revivification of our nations, with books at the heart of that.
If you don’t see what I’m getting at, I suggest you go for a drive to clear your vision, and if you happen to spot a Spittleworth en route, now might be the time to channel your inner Bernard.