What's so great about Roald Dahl?
Roald Dahl, 1954, by Carl Van Vechten
By DAVID HORSPOOL
Last year the TLS hosted a discussion on the subject of “Overrated and underrated” authors. They are planning to do the same again this year. It’s always easier to think of candidates for the first category than the second. And if you ask me, a prime example is the man in whose name thousands of primary school children are being encouraged to celebrate today: Roald Dahl.
Heresy? As a parent of a primary-age schoolchild, I can attest to the enduring popularity of some of Dahl’s best works (in which category I’d place Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny Champion of the World). And you wouldn’t be surprised to learn I’m all in favour of kids reading, not that dressing up as Mike Teavee necessarily qualifies. But two things bug me about Dahl-mania. First, there are other children’s authors, you know -- even “classic” children’s authors (Kenneth Grahame, Clive King, A. A. Milne, Norton Juster, Michael Bond, off the top of this head) who don’t receive a fraction of this attention. Hasn’t Roald Dahl had enough of a boost from Hollywood without having to corral every child in England to read him or dress up as one of his characters? It sometimes feels as if school literacy programmes are part of some sort of Dahl cult, something that I’m sure would have given the author himself much amusement.
Secondly, he wasn’t always that good. For every Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is a Great Glass Elevator (a haphazard hotchpotch of sub sci-fi, a cash-in brimming with longueurs, without any of the redeeming humanity of the first book). You can keep almost all his “comic” verse (Revolting Rhymes, Dirty Beasts, Rhyme Stew: “no animal is half as vile / As Crocky-Wock, the crocodile”, etc). In fact the “poetry” he shovels into even his best books often feels like filler (and seems to have given David Walliams the idea that children don’t mind if you pad out their stories with endless lists). What’s a poor parent supposed to do when confronted with “songs” of many verses for which no tune suggests itself? As I spy the stanzas coming up on the facing page, I start fidgeting before my six-year-old does, or simply suggest stopping there.
When Dahl wrote for adults (apart from his memoirs, which are, if not necessarily particularly revealing, compelling creations none the less) he could be amazingly facile and often horribly misogynistic (Switch Bitch, anyone?).
All this may seem rather curmudgeonly on the great man’s 100th birthday -- and of course I’m happy if the charity set up in his name receives donations -- but as there is a Roald Dahl day celebrated every year in various ways, it’s not as if 2016 is particularly unusual. But perhaps we can count this year’s festivities as a decent send-off, and start revealing to our children that, in the BBC presenter’s preferred formulation, “other authors are available”?