I admire and respect J.K. Rowling a great deal. It takes a lot of courage for a popular author to reinvent herself and come out with a book upturning what her readers expect. That’s what she did with The Casual Vacancy, her first published work of adult literary fiction.
The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Pagford Parish Councilmember Barry Fairbrother, soon revealed to be the most genuinely kind, generous, well-meaning and non-self-absorbed person in town. He was also the deciding vote in a conflict that has torn the town apart: the stewardship of a nearby government housing project and the renewal of a lease for the local addiction clinic. A massive host of characters grapple with his death, their own personal demons, and the local controversy stirred by the special election to fill his council seat.
Rowling had to have known there would be hordes of readers hating The Casual Vacancy automatically just because it doesn’t have wizards or magic in it, and who would share their disappointment all over the internet.
That’s part of why I’m sad that I didn’t like it more. Because I picked up The Casual Vacancy prepared to read it as if it were the work of a first-time author, not the creator of Harry Potter. I was not going to bring the expectations that come with a fantasy young adult (YA) series to an adult work of literary fiction. But reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about what worked in Harry Potter and where those elements were missing from The Casual Vacancy – no, I wasn’t going to pitch a fit because Rowling dared to write a book in a different genre, but I was disappointed that she didn’t bring some of the very impressive writing skills that she’d displayed in Harry Potter to her adult fiction.
Here are four reasons why Harry Potter succeeded that have nothing to do with wizards — and why The Casual Vacancy didn’t live up to Rowling’s potential, even for a reader who wasn’t expecting wizards.
4) Harry Potter was darn good storytelling.
J.K. Rowling, like many other mega-popular authors, has been derided by some snobs as “not really that great a writer – people only like her for the stories.” That’s always baffled me since it indicates people don’t realize that storytelling is just as much a part of being a good writer as word choice or elegant description. Storytelling isn’t all about diamond-cut prose. It’s about weaving together the right scenes with the right emotions and the right pacing to draw a reader in, sever her from her reality, and absorb her totally into the world of the book until the very last scene. And I think that nearly everyone can agree that J.K. Rowling owns that.
One reason why it’s easy to undervalue storytelling is because the best storytellers make it seem effortless. Another is because it’s almost impossible to describe what makes good storytelling. Two features of good storytelling are a sense of foreboding (it’s never just about what’s happening now – it’s about what’s about to happen) and a sense of inevitability (you might not know exactly what’s going to happen, but you sense that the proverbial guns being set on the mantelpiece will be fired).
Great storytelling isn’t all about throwing in fantastical plot twists or earth-shaking events. A lot of readers on Amazon have complained that not much happens in The Casual Vacancy. That’s not quite true – what they’re sensing is not a lack of events, but of story. The Casual Vacancy offers plenty of events (people die, lose their jobs, are raped, fall in love, run away from their homes, cheat on their spouses, hack computers, run campaigns, open and close businesses, go on and off the wagon with addiction) – but those events don’t start to feel like a story that creates a sense of foreboding and inevitability, until the very end in the book’s stunning, fast-paced, un-put-downable last few pages.
3) In Harry Potter, sometimes good things happen too.
For a series about an orphan fighting the embodiment of evil while also withstanding the pressures of bullies, authoritarian adults, and homework, Harry Potter is pretty cheery. Even in the series’ darkest moments, Rowling could throw in something to make you crack a smile – and not always at someone’s expense. And for all the setbacks the characters suffer, happy events happen to them as well. No one’s lot is all good, or all bad. Ron’s family is poor, but his parents love each other and all their children and form a bedrock of emotional support for him. Harry is an orphan, but he develops a web of loving and supportive adults who make sure he’s never alone in the struggles he faces.
The Casual Vacancy is supposed to be a portrait of contemporary life – and where it lacked realism, for me, is in its general lack of nice things.
If you want to write about real life as it happens to real people, you can’t sugarcoat the tragedies and injustices that happen to everyone. You can’t choose your parents, as Krystal Weedon, the daughter of a heroin junkie in The Casual Vacancy, so poignantly proves. And we’re all vulnerable to the undiscriminating jabs of fate – as the widow of Barry Fairbrother, who was felled by a brain aneurism, had to learn in the first chapter.
But in real life, nice things happen sometimes too. Sometimes you do catch the train, sometimes a happy marriage does exist with love and fidelity, sometimes people do have a nice time at the party and don’t fight. If only good things happened all the time in a novel, there wouldn’t be much of a plot and the book wouldn’t be very realistic. Nor is it true to real life to portray one small town which contains every possible variety of dysfunctional family in all of Great Britain, subjected to nothing but unrelenting bad luck and poor decisions.
(Is this really what life is like in Great Britain? Yikes.)
Another question: is a book “serious” just because bad things happen in it? Or do people sometimes praise books that cram into one story suicides and drug abuse and rape and self-mutilation and infidelity and violence and mental illness and crime, just because they take a furtive kind of schadenfreude in them?
2) In Harry Potter, there are characters readers want to be like.
Harry Potter escapes his abusive aunt and uncle in the first book to attend wizard school. Harry’s friend Hermione puts up with discrimination for being born to a non-magical family. Harry’s friend Ron’s family is poor and he often wears shabby clothes and lacks school supplies. They also fight their own internal flaws: Harry gets angry at his fate, Ron gets jealous of his famous friend, Hermione is often a pushy know-it-all. But many of the characters overcome their unique challenges – internal and external – to achieve their goals, and also to grow as people.
Maybe it’s easier to weave these “life lessons” into a YA series because YA is still expected, on some level, to instruct — while some authors fear that the same transformations in adult fiction will come across as cheesy if they aren’t tempered with enough gloom and doom to cancel out the positive message.
Some of the characters in The Casual Vacancy do – in the eleventh hour – learn and grow and better themselves. And for a few more, there is a ray of hope that change and growth is coming soon. But absolutely none of them are someone I’d want to spend a lot of time hanging out with. And that’s what you’re doing when you read a book – you’re hanging out with those characters in your mind.
Rowling has a deep sensitivity to the humanity in every person, and I don’t want to undervalue the amazing work she did creating all of the characters in The Casual Vacancy – each one, no matter how minor to the plot, is complex and capable in one way of capturing the reader’s pity even if they don’t inspire admiration.
I don’t have a problem with authors writing unlikable characters – in fact, in Harry Potter, Rowling created a few villains that you love to hate – but in The Casual Vacancy, the only person I’d want to emulate dies in the first chapter. Most readers crave at least one or two characters whom they not only like, but that they want to be like. One of the best parts of fiction – even gritty, realistic fiction – is that it can give us people to look up to, admire, and imitate. It’s what separates the stories that use characters’ tragic circumstances to encourage us to grow from the stories that use tragic circumstances to tap into readers’ craving for Jerry Springer-style squalor and sensationalism.
1) Harry Potter expressed joy.
I love the Victorian-style novel. These books don’t just tell a story; they have a moral encouraging readers to think and evolve, to improve themselves and the world around them. Victorian-style novels are unabashed in praising certain behaviors while condemning others. Victorian novels are also unafraid to entertain – they aren’t viewed as less serious just because they’re fun to read. Think of Dickens, or Jane Eyre, or George Eliot, or Elizabeth Gaskell.
The twentieth-century novel has skewed more toward observation, seeking to record the details of a time, a person, or a place. The twentieth-century novel actively seeks to avoid moral judgment, or it engages in moral relativism. These books provoke readers by jarring them out of their comfort zones and sometimes subjecting them to an unrelieved escalation of tension and bad news. The twentieth-century novel challenges the reader bluntly, and reading pleasure is not always the goal. Think Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Gore Vidal.
I appreciate and see the value in both forms. But I think the Victorian-style novel has been so roundly ridiculed by the caste of critics and literary professors in charge of deciding what is and isn’t “taken seriously” that it’s migrated out of adult fiction and into the YA genre. And the reason why adult readers are flocking in blockbuster numbers to YA series is because there’s a strong craving for Victorian-style fiction, and YA is the only place you can count on getting it: sweeping novels with complex plots that make you believe there’s something bigger worth fighting for and sympathetic characters that make you want to be a better person.
Another thing about Victorian novels is that, by and large, they valued joy. Some of them were written with joy; some of them showed joy in moments and glimpses; and even many of the ones that weren’t joyful throughout were animated with the hope for joy, the belief that joy was possible. Harry Potter is a Victorian-style work in that regard, as well. It was never too cynical or snide to celebrate a joy in life.
The Casual Vacancy is joyless. And joy is what I missed most, when I read this book by an author who had once written books brimming with it.
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