It must be magic

J K Rowling: a biography

Sean Smith <em>Michael O'Mara, 224pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 1854798200

At the end of this biography, Sean Smith reflects: "When I began this book I had a feeling that J K Rowling the person was more interesting than Harry Potter her fictional creation." He concludes: "I believe I was right." Well, he would say that, wouldn't he. Unfortunately, anybody who sticks with Smith's comma-free narrative long enough to reach the "Afterthoughts" will know that this is just not true.

Smith - whose previous work includes Sophie's Kiss, a biography of Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones - uses every opportunity to eulogise this children's author, referred to persistently and soppily as "Joanne". But this biography does her no favours.

Some of the success of the Harry Potter books has been attri- buted to the marketing ploy of keeping their author relatively anonymous so that they would appeal to boys. Joanne Rowling dropped her first name, made up a middle name and became "J K". In our personality-obsessed times, the Harry Potter phenomenon is refreshing because it stems from the books themselves. Getting up close and personal ruins all that - and underestimates the quality that Rowling clearly does have: her imagination.

Like many biographers, Smith strains to show that the subject's work is inspired by specific personal experiences - no easy task, in this case, given that Rowling had a nondescript provincial upbringing and went to a comprehensive, but writes about a boy wizard having endless adventures at boarding school. Smith's attempts to make random connections between Rowling's early life and later fame are unintentionally amusing, but they are not exactly useful. "Joanne joined the others in saving pennies in Smarties tubes," he writes of Rowling's days in the Brownies. "A quarter of a century later she would be celebrating becoming a Triple Smarties Gold Award Winner for children's fiction." It must be magic.

Smith is even funnier when he tries to emphasise Rowling's brilliance - especially when the facts get in the way. He burns with indignation as he tells of her rejection from Oxford University and of her former chemistry master's opinion that "she was discriminated against because of her school in a way that mirrors the story of schoolgirl Laura Spence" - the straight-A comprehensive student whose rejection by Oxford last year caused government ministers to declare war on "elitism". Rowling got two As and one B at A level, and graduated from Exeter University with a 2:2. She is undoubtedly a good children's author, but an academic genius? Hardly.

Smith trips up on his own hyperbole. On page 63, we are told that Rowling is "probably the most imaginative deviser of names for her characters since Dickens"; by page 90, Smith is comparing the characters' names to those in J R R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings - Wormtail and Wormtongue, Aragog and Aragorn, Muggles and Mugwort, and so on.

Smith barely attempts to analyse the Harry Potter phenomenon - which is, it has to be said, far more interesting than Rowling's (relatively short) life story. Book clubs, journalists and critics have agonised over the appeal of Harry Potter to children and adults alike, wondering whether the books are great literature or junior potboilers, comfortingly safe or subversively satanic, easy to read or challenging. A friend described them as "Enid Blyton without the ideology", and that seems about right to me. (I speak, by the way, as a staunch Blytonite.)

If Darrell Rivers, the star of Blyton's Malory Towers series, were given a broomstick instead of a lacrosse stick, and if the values of "Rule Britannia" were replaced with a more basic struggle between good and evil, the result would pretty much be the Harry Potter formula. There's nothing wrong with that - kids love it and parents delight in its wholesomeness, especially when they don't have to deal with the tricky issue of empire. Young adults, who now like any excuse not to grow up, get off on a nostalgia trip about the kind of books they read as kids, but justify it through banging on about how special and literary the Potter books are. In fact, adults can get hooked on any good children's book - they just used to have enough self-respect not to read them in public.

But whatever the secret of Harry Potter's success, all power to Rowling's pen. You can never have too many good children's books. You can, however, have too many bad biographies - and Sean Smith would be well advised to jump off the Hogwarts bandwagon before he finds himself turned into a sheep.

Jennie Bristow is commissioning editor of Spiked