It was Roald Dahl day on Tuesday. Dahl would have been 95.
The day got some unwelcome publicity with the announcement by the Dahl Museum in Great Missenden that they were trying to raise £500,000 in order to move and restore the garden shed in which Dahl wrote many of his most famous works. Blogs and tweets ensued, many to the effect that a) that was a hell of a lot of money for a shed, and b) why couldn’t the well-heeled Dahl Estate pay for it?
I have sympathy with both points, but still, you’ve got to hand it to Dahl. There aren’t many writers who have museums devoted to them, and I can’t think of any, other than Burns, Shakespeare and Joyce, who have a “Day”. Even twenty-one years after his death, Dahl shoots effortlessly into the headlines, pushing aside Libya and the meltdown of the Eurozone, merely on the basis that his garden shed is a bit damp.
It’s harder for children’s writers to survive than writers for adults, simply because childhood doesn’t last as long, and their audience must be constantly renewed. Ideally they need to write for a long time, preferably for a generation. At that point, the people who enjoyed the early books are old enough to have children of their own, and may start buying all over again, starting a virtuous circle. Dahl has not only survived, he continues to be read in over fifty languages, and has sold some 100,000,000 books. In bookselling jargon, that’s known as shed-loads.
So here’s the odd thing. Dahl was, and is, incredibly popular. He still has the power to grab headlines. He’s widely loved, but he’s also controversial, having been accused of racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism and the glorification of violence amongst other things. He’s been the subject of two full-length biographies, and a third by Michael Rosen is reportedly in progress. Many of his books have been turned into successful commercial movies. There’s lots to be said about Dahl, whether you love or loathe him. So why is it that, apart from one short survey written a year or so after his death, there has never been an academic book about his work?
Let me put this in context. Children’s literature criticism is a thriving part of academia these days (I write it myself). There are, at a cursory count, no less than six full-length academic volumes on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (1995-2000). On the Harry Potter books (1997-2007) there are at least fourteen. But on Dahl, whose books have been around so much longer and are so much more numerous, nothing.
I should add that this is about to change, as I’m currently co-editing a collection of academic essays on Dahl that will (we hope) appear next year, but it’s still rather mysterious. Why is it that Dahl – controversial, headline-grabbing, eagerly-consumed Dahl – is so widely ignored by the academics? I find it genuinely puzzling.
Could it be because his books are funny?