Rowling's Greatest Work Isn't Her New Novel; It's Bringing Attention to Books
A woman displays copies of J.K. Rowling's novel "The Casual Vacancy" at a London bookstore. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.
This fall readers can find a shelf full of new books by big name authors, from Junot Diaz to Zadie Smith to Salman Rushdie to Orhan Pamuk. But not even books by Pulitzer, Orange, Booker and Nobel Prize winners, respectively, will garner as much attention as the latest work by the woman that brought the world Harry Potter.
As of Thursday morning, no more than 30 people in the United States had read J.K. Rowling's new novel, "The Casual Vacancy." Like the later books in the Potter series, Rowling and her publisher kept the contents of the books close to the vest. But unlike her tales of magic and Hogwarts, "The Casual Vacancy" is not a children's or young adult novel. Intended for adults, it's a look at the political and moral scandals of a small fictional British town.
"All you need to know with the risks she is taking [with "The Casual Vacancy"] is think of Michael Jordan the baseball player," said Julia Keller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning culture writer and novelist who has appeared on the NewsHour to discuss Rowling.
Rowling told NPR's Steve Inskeep, "Exactly as with Harry Potter, I knew it was something I really, really wanted to write. I became excited about the idea of writing it. It's a very personal book...It's not my story, but it does address themes, subjects that are very important to me."
"I thought I'd feel frightened at this point," Rowling told Ian Parker in The New Yorker. "Not just because it's been five years, and anything I wrote after Potter -- anything -- was going to receive a certain degree of attention that is not entirely welcome, if I'm honest."
She may have been right about the attention. Reviews out Thursday morning are tepid:
"Unfortunately, the real-life world she has limned in these pages is so willfully banal, so depressingly cliched that 'The Casual Vacancy' is not only disappointing -- it's dull," according to The New York Times.
"This isn't a book that's easy to fall in love with, the way Harry Potter was with its charming, winning hero and his plucky friends, saving the world from evil with the help of a powerful spell or two. Even with its moments of humor, it's a hard story where some people just don't get saved, because really, they never had a chance," wrote The Associated Press.
Keller, who had not yet read "The Casual Vacancy" when we spoke, argued that Rowling's skills as a writer are often overlooked. "I think as a craftswoman sometimes she is not appreciated as much as she should be -- strictly as a wordsmith, as someone who can put together a narrative," Keller said. "I think she is smart to go into a completely different genre rather than trying another kind of young adult novel."
"The things she was trying to do and able to do, to write abstractly about good and evil is very hard to do, and to not look foolish or reductive or there is a silliness when you read works that try to be about big themes," Keller said. "She never did that from the very beginning."
"The Casual Vacancy" takes place in Pagford, a fictional English village thrown into turmoil after the death of Barry Fairbrother, who guided the town from his seat on the parish council. The vacancy he leaves reveals the town's darker sides and the political and moral struggles of its inhabitants.
"It's been billed, slightly, as a black comedy, but to me it's more of a comic tragedy," Rowling told Parker. Her own rags-to-riches story -- from single mother on welfare to an estimated worth of $9 hundred million -- does not change what Rowling feels she's always been: "I'm a writer, and I will write what I want to write."
"You can lose your job, a relationship can break up, have tremendous trauma or sorrow in your life, but books are always there," Keller said. "There are words chiseled above a school house in Columbus, Ohio, attributed to Aristotle (I have seen them attributed to other people) and it says, 'Learning Adorns Riches and Softens Poverty.' That to me is what reading does, adorns riches and softens poverty."
In a way, it will be hard to measure Rowling's success with "The Casual Vacancy." After all, she instilled in a whole generation the experience of loving to read. Many of the kids around the world who lined up in the middle of night to get their hands on the new Potter books are now adults, and regardless of the reviews, "The Casual Vacancy" has the world talking about a book again.