Rowling: The Cyberspace Verdict

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to JK Rowling when her first adult publication instantly drew comparisons with Harry Potter. The series made her the most successful children’s writer ever, after all.

She writes in the new novel, titled The Casual Vacancy, that “it was strange how your brain could know what your heart refused to accept”. Subconsciously, maybe she knew that many of her readers had experienced this conflict.

I am a proud member of the Harry Potter Generation. The majority of my childhood memories have a book buried somewhere in the background, and that I put down to her. And yet, I think I have always known that Rowling isn’t the world’s greatest writer. My heart has always disagreed. It remembers the hours I spent immersed in her world, the world she created for us, her readers. How can someone who inspired so many not be any good? Allison Pearson of The Sydney Morning Herald wrote in her review that for her children Rowling was “the teller of a tale that not only spanned but defined their childhood.” She had the ability to inspire; isn’t that what a good writer is?

The Casual Vacancy was a brave step into new territory and Rowling is fiercely defiant when it comes to discussing the darker side of her novel, snapping in a New York interview “There is no part of me that feels I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I’m a writer and I will write what I want to write.” Whatever her intentions were, she unwittingly played a role in millions of young lives, whether that was as babysitter or teacher or as something else entirely.

She definitely took a risk with her reputation in this new book. She admits that for a while she considered writing under a pseudonym, but in an interview with The Guardian revealed that “it’s braver to do it like this.” She makes it very clear that she is in it for the writing, not the money and certainly not the fame, being a notoriously private person.

Her twitter feed contains just fifteen tweets, and yet she still has over one and a half million followers. The Casual Vacancy sparked massive interest with surprisingly little promotion in terms of social media. On the release of her book, she tweeted only “I am delighted that my new novel for adults is published today”. There is no emotion, no pleading for people to buy it; just a statement of fact rather than the shameless plugging that many other writers rely on. One reviewer on goodreads.com gave a list of six points for how not to read this book; number one was “don’t read it just because it’s written by JK Rowling” but many, many of us did.

There’s no doubting it; the woman has power. So much of it that even those who didn’t enjoy the book seem reluctant to criticise. One reviewer Caduceus writes that “to insist she [Rowling] ain’t no good would be considered a crime, on a par with telling kids there’s no Father Christmas.”

Children loved Harry Potter because they don’t care how well a book is written. They want to be drawn into an imaginary world and believe it to be real. That is where Potter’s success lay – and where The Casual Vacancy’s problems begin. The Casual Vacancy has so much darker real life that it needed to be written with more tact.

In a way I feel bad joining the throngs of people rushing to compare Rowling’s adult work to her children’s books.Reviews on Amazon.co.uk in particular insist on comparing them, but The Casual Vacancy is so far from Hogwarts life that the two shouldn’t really be compared. It is a difficult read, not because the language is complex but just because at times the reader can hardly bare to turn the page for fear of the horrors to come.

One reviewer observed that “At the end of The Casual Vacancy there is no wand to wave, no spell to make the horror go away.”

The content of the book definitely came as a surprise to most readers, many of whom probably expected something with magic, giants or at least the occasional lighter note.

There are reviews online which indicate some fans delayed reading The Casual Vacancy after hearing the first critiques, scared it would damage their respect for Rowling. In fact, it just seems to have confused reader’s opinions. All in all, the general consensus is that we’re all a bit bemused by what Rowling calls “growing up.” The Telegraph offers a tagline “JK Rowling bewilders her fans with an uneven, often harrowing book” while Tweeter Jennifer Knighton reacts with “So. That was The Casual Vacancy. Not quite sure how to react.”

Henry Sutton of the Daily Mail sees the darker attitude as positive – Rowling has grown up along with her fans:

“[Rowling is] the real deal, more than equipped to tackle the grown up world.”

It may be true that she was ready to write a grown up book – but what of the younger fans? How do you explain to a ten year old that they shouldn’t read their favourite author’s new book because it contains sex, suicide and drugs? Then again, as JK pointed out, she never did offer to be a babysitter.

For many, though, The Casual Vacancy was enjoyable. The Observer praises, calling it “a hugely impressive” and “wonderful” novel. Amazon reviewer Peter Mennie applauds her too – not for the quality of writing but for “using her position to make a serious and powerful contribution.”

One post ended:

“JK Rowling, you’ve done it again.”

Perhaps for those who didn’t grow up immersed in JK’s world, the book was a triumph. I did, though, and as much as I tried not to compare it to Potter, it was inevitable.

Rowling has great imagination; she took my childhood and immortalised it for me in those famous seven books. I didn’t want her writing to grow up, ever. Perhaps that is selfish, but although she didn’t intend to be a teacher or a babysitter, she was. Now she’s started writing about things that Harry never needed to know about – her writing has lost the innocence that I loved so much.

I am glad I read The Casual Vacancy, so I can join the crowds of online reviews and have my say. It may well be a good book in literary terms, I don’t know. But it isn’t the JK I know and love, and perhaps that is why it attracted mixed opinions in cyberspace.

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