Why I Feel Sorry for J.K. Rowling

15th April 2012

Yes, I know she’s a gazillionaire and that her success is beyond what most people can even imagine. However, when Little, Brown announced this past week that J.K. Rowling’s new adult-fiction book The Casual Vacancy had a release date (September 2012) and a synopsis, the Internet went a bit crazy. The synopsis?

When Barry Fairweather dies unexpectedly in his early forties, the little town of Pagford is left in shock.Pagford is, seemingly, an English idyll, with a cobbled market square and an ancient abbey, but what lies behind the pretty façade is a town at war.Rich at war with poor, teenagers at war with their parents, wives at war with their husbands, teachers at war with their pupils…Pagford is not what it first seems.And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has yet seen. Who will triumph in an election fraught with passion, duplicity and unexpected revelations?Blackly comic, thought-provoking and constantly surprising, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. (via Little, Brown)

Personally, I loved the Harry Potter series. I didn’t expect to, but I did. Yes, the beginning books were a bit unstable, but the magic? The storytelling? I loved it all. Even at the end of the series, yes, I felt J.K. Rowling made some missteps (I’m looking at you, awkward Dumbledore scene in the train station when Harry is supposed to be dead). However, as a series, as a composite group of work, Harry Potter is masterful.

This novel? It will be different. J.K. Rowling certainly could have published this book under another name and avoided all the drama; however, she chose to place her name on The Casual Vacancy, a markedly-different book in almost every conceivable way.

In 2007, there were rumors that J.K. Rowling met with Ian Rankin in Edinburgh to discuss crime novels. The man himself tweeted me in February, saying she “does love a good whodunnit.” It isn’t being touted as such, but politics and small-town issues put this one in a perfect position for a murder or two. Speculation only, but isn’t that what revealing a blurb this early in the game is all about?

Many vowed to read anything written by the author of the famed boy Harry Potter. Others weren’t so excited:



Twitter / @ArnoldGareth: #jkrowling should have sto … via kwout

On Bookalicious.org, Pam says it sounds “boring,” and the comments on her blog tend to agree. The Telegraph’s Sameer Rahim talks about why he’s “dreading” The Casual Vacancy, with the oh-so-original argument that J.K. Rowling sucks as a writer and that kids should be reading Charles Dickens (I’m thinking that deserves a post of its own).

So am I so ensconced in Jo’s camp (yeah, we’re close. I call her “Jo”) that I feel the need to defend her against all this scuffling nonsense? Hardly. I’m sure the woman who has built a multimedia empire can hold her own. However, in terms of J.K. Rowling as a writer, one who created something that has, for many, become legend, how do you move past it?

I, for one, am impressed that a mere year after the last HP film, she has jumped into the fray and is releasing a book. She had to have known she would meet this sort of response as there are some who will be unhappy with anything less than full-on magic. There are still others who have never understood her success to begin with.

Releasing a book so radically different is natural. Had she released anything else about Harry or any of the characters from the series, she would likely have faced much criticism for “milking” the success of the series. There would inevitably be articles written about the watered-down stories, much like spinoffs of successful TV shows. [Who can forget the Friends spinoff, Joey? Or maybe, who can remember it? Cheers boasts the successful Frasier, but it also had a 13-episode run of The Tortellis.]

J.K. Rowling will face a multitude of critics come September (and months before as ARCs are parceled out). The reactions? Disappointed Harry Potter fans angry that Queen Rowling didn’t produce the magic. Devout HP fans who will laud the queen, regardless of the quality of the book. Raging journalists, who have wanted to pounce for years but didn’t want to be attacked, will come out of the woodworks, decrying the death of literature.

Do I feel sorry for J.K. Rowling? Indeed I do. There is no way for her to win here, even if she produced a Dickensian novel, and I say “Dickensian” simply because these days Dickens seems to be the media’s favorite measurement for true literature. Once she gets this first novel out of the way, I think it will be easier for her to continue writing if she chooses to. So get it under your belt, Jo. I’ll pour the tea (with a bit of spirits) come September.

  • I completely agree with you. I’m actually glad that she went in a completely different direction and want to know how far can she go as a writer. You can’t just write about young wizards! I loved HP, but the “spinoffs”about Quiditch and what-not was just too much. Personally I want to read The Casual Vacancy!

    • I do, too! I like that sort of book, though. I understand those who love fantasy NOT wanting to read it. That’s fine. Not everyone has to read the same types of books, but don’t knock it before it’s even out. We shall see!

  • I guess it’s jealousy as much as anything, but it does seem cruel to slam a book on the basis of a change of direction that was already inevitable. I’m not a big lover of the Harry Potters but I do love that they got kids (and indeed adults) enthusiastic about reading. I mean, media embargoes and midnight launches for BOOKS? That is a wonderful thing.

    • Exactly. I can get on board with enthusiasm for books in any shape or form, but I actually really love the series.

      I didn’t mention jealousy, but you’re right: I think a lot of it boils down to that.

  • Lorren

    I am so glad you posted this, because I’ve thought of it quite a lot lately. Before I knew J.K. Rowling was writing a new book, I always wondered if she would write another because the success of Harry Potter would be impossible to top. Yet at teh same time, I felt sure that she must be writing because how can you stop something so important to your life? I think it is very brave of her to write this book and I hope that any criticisms or disappointments that come from it not being Harry Potter don’t discourage her.

    • Exactly. Criticism on the merits of the book itself is a whole other ballgame. But in terms of judging it simply because people are glorifying her downfall after HP? Nah. I can’t get on board with that. I’ll at least give it a chance, and I’m curious to see what the book will be like.

  • Oooh, I love everything you say here, times one million. I enjoyed the HP books but am not a slavish HP fan — however, I am a huge Rowling fan. She’s so impressed me with her professionalism and clear affection for her readers, given some serious levels of crazy they pull out, and I don’t envy her right now. I agree — no matter the novel she came out with, it’s easy to hate on her and I find that unforgivably cruel. If she were male, would the response be the same?

    • PS: new layout? Love it!

    • You know, I’m shocked that I didn’t even think of that when I wrote this post. I’m trying to think of another male author that could compare…not sure there is one with this sort of phenomenon. At least not in recent history. Or, they were already established writers. Now I’m curious…need to do some research.

  • teresareads

    Nice post, and I totally agree that a change in direction was probably a good move on her part, whether the book itself is a success or not. I don’t know whether I’ll read this or not, only because what I loved about Harry Potter was the world-building, and I only found the writing to be so-so. However, I’ll be interested to watch people’s reactions, and if it gets good reviews from sources I trust, I’d be open to giving it a go.

    And I wonder if there isn’t going to be some hint of the supernatural. The premise makes me think of Tom Perrotta, who brought the supernatural into his latest book, or maybe Matt Haig, with his suburban vampires. There are all kinds of intriguing possibilities in that premise.

    • I really didn’t think about that, but you may be right. I think the synopsis is open ended enough to still give a lot of surprise.

  • Some really great points. I’ve always said Rowling will really prove herself when she writes something non-Harry. But I like your point that this one could just take the flak and the next could be good. Cause honestly, that synopsis does not excite me in any way. But maybe the synopsis is just horrible?

    • Thanks, Amie! Yeah, I think the synopsis is very vague, but perhaps that’s because it is so early? Still, I would rather no synopsis than a not-so-hot one. But I am a big mystery writer, and it does seem like it might be bent in that direction.

  • As much as I loved HP for the fantasy and magic, what really made the series for me was Rowling’s detailed descriptions of characters and places. I, for one, am excited to read what she writes when she puts those talents to use in a very tangible location like the English countryside. If you are a fan of Midsomer Mysteries, as I am, you know boring country life is not always as it seems. I have hopes it will be a more interesting book than the brief synopsis hints at.

    • Exactly, Amy! Boring country life has produced some really great books – Madame Bovary is a classic, but it’s a great example as are many of the mysteries I love.

  • S.G. Wright

    I’m optimistic about her book in September and glad she went in a new adult direction. Her storytelling skill is strong no matter what. I’m curious about it and say bring it on! Agree with your post. cheers. http://www.thecuecard.com/

    • Thanks for stopping by! I, too, am optimistic about the book…and really, really curious.

  • Why in the world is Dickens held up as the example? He wrote pulp novels! They were fun for the general public to read, but not even really considered literature at the time. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – I’m just saying that’s exactly the same as what Rowling has done, so why are we saying it’s different? It reminds me of Orlando by Virginia Woolf, where the writers of whatever present Orlando is currently living in talks about how the writers of old were so much better than now.

    Anyway. Tangent. I feel sorry for Rowling, too. She’s a fantastic storyteller, and her writing improved all through the series. Like you said, there were definitely still some missteps – I still dislike the King’s Cross chapter in that last book – but she was constantly improving, and told a great story while she did so. That is a mark of a good writer. I don’t know if I’ll like her next book. The synopsis doesn’t intrigue me, and wouldn’t intrigue me no matter who the author was. I will read it, because it’s Rowling, but I’m trying to go into it very neutrally – not expecting too much, not expecting too little.

    • Amanda – don’t get me started. That’s why I say that needs a whole other post.

      And I think that is all most books/authors can expect…an open mind. I’m willing to give it that.

  • heidenkind

    “J.K. Rowling sucks as a writer and that kids should be reading Charles Dickens (I’m thinking that deserves a post of its own)” LOL Weirdly, I’m rereading Great Expectations right now, and I have found myself thinking that are some similarities between it and Harry Potter. But subject kids to Dickens? Riiight.

    Personally, I’m excited to read A Casual Vacancy and was a little taken aback by comments about it on twitter and blogs (by some people who hadn’t even read Harry Potter). I happen to like mysteries. 😛 Besides, who cares what the heck she writes about? She wrote a series of books that pretty much defined a generation. Isn’t that enough? She doesn’t need mine or anyone else’s approval.

    And I seriously question the taste level of anyone who believes Rowling is a terrible writer.

    • Yes, yes, and yes! I agree with all you say. And, as Amanda mentions, if people really paid attention to Dickens as an author of his time, I think they’d be much more apt to incorporate these types of writers without judging them so swiftly. However, isn’t that what each generation does? It’s interesting to watch the kerfluffle, though. 🙂

  • I really do hope that all goes well for “Jo.” Her HP novels were certainly magical and she does have a lot to live up to BUT I don’t think it’s fair to judge her new book in relation to Harry Potter. They need to be valued separately.

    • That’s all I’m saying. Let the novel live and/or die on its own. It’s a separate book. There will be no comparison.

  • Ronnica

    Harry Potter is a magical world, something that can’t be repeated without great difficulty. The spark of that world that we fell in love with won’t be in this book. It perhaps will be good in it’s own way, but I agree with you that it might not be given that chance. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in her shoes, but give her props as you do for not publishing it under a different name.

    • Ronnica – thanks for stopping by! And you’re right. When I referred to magic, I also thought about the magic the books worked on me. I fell in love with those characters in the way someone only can with that type of story.

      The Casual Vacancy won’t be the same, but I’m ok with that.

  • pattismith

    We had this same conversation at work last week at least 3 times…I feel sorry for her too bc no matter whether or not a reader enjoyed HP, this is a no win situation for Rowling. I too was stunned that she decided to write this quickly and to put her own name on it. Seems to me if she really wanted genuine response she would have published under a penn name. I will probably read it, but I don’t want to be critical unfairly either. Maybe she is just trying to get the first one out of the way…I guess we’ll see soon enough.

    • That’s honestly what I think. As I said, she just needs to get this one under her belt. It IS soon, but I have to think that’s intentional. Otherwise, people would be saying that was all she had in her. That’s why I think it’s a no-win situation. I’m very interested to see what this book will be about.

  • Sara

    But in the train station scene we get the wonderful comment about fiction in general: “Just because it’s in your mind doesn’t mean it isn’t real.” So I forgive the “WHAT THE HECK IS UNDER THE CHAIR?”-ness of that particular scene. I was much more confused by the “Draco is really the owner of the wand” business.

    Jo writes amazing books, wonderful characters, fabulous settings. I can’t imagine she’s going to put out anything that’s poorly written. I, too, pity her for the criticism this book is sure to draw simply because it isn’t HP.

    • This is true. I do LOVE that quote. And yeah, it does get a bit muddy in the last book, but as you say – the characters, the story – I love it.

  • Belle

    So true. I can’t understand how people can be so harsh judging it from that short synopsis.Personally I’m intrigued and look forward to learning more. I think it’s great she’s doing something different.

    • Me too! There’s just such a long amount of time until it pubs. I’ll be curious to see if they release any additional info.

  • Great post – and glad to learn I’m not the only one who feels this way! I can’t imagine being Rowling and having to move on from such a hugely successful series; for so many of her fans, I suspect anything less than a Harry Potter spin-off won’t be enough. And I also have to wonder how many readers there are like me, who may feel a bit sorry for Rowling having to try and find her way to a post-Potter writing career, but are also hesitant to read anything else by Rowling lest it somehow ruin the magic of the Potter series. Even writing that, I know it doesn’t make sense – reading a middling novel has never changed my opinion of other books written by the same author…but it’s a thought I can’t quite shake, much as I want to. Like Amanda said, I think Rowling’s writing improved over the course of her first seven books, so I’d be curious to read more of her work, but I’m also not real drawn in by the description of her forthcoming novel.

    • I can understand that, but personally, I think HP exists in a space of its own. I can compartmentalize that and view it differently.

      But I think what you discuss is probably a pretty common thought. That it just can’t compare.

      The more we discuss it, the more curious I am.

  • Right on. I was shocked when I heard she was coming out with a new book, especially now that the aftermath of Harry Potter is so present. I don’t have strong feelings either way on the synopsis. I’ll read the book I’m sure, whether I’m excited by the synopsis or not. I honestly think maybe it’s a good thing it sounds a little boring because it can only improve from there!

    • I agree! There’s plenty to work with in that synopsis, so I’ll be really glad for closer to pub date to get a better idea of what type of book we’re looking at.

  • Hahahaha Love it.

    I think you’re right. She doesn’t have any choice at all with her first after all that Harry Potter – it’s just NEWS. It’s amazing that she dove right into writing again and after this book is behind her, she’ll be able to continue writing all sorts of things. What a year for her, hey?

    I’ll have some of that tea!!!

    • Yep, yep. Have to get it out of the way, for better or worse. But you’re right. What a DECADE for her. I’m not jealous, but I certainly would love for an idea like that to strike me… *Are you listening, universe?

  • I don’t feel sorry for her at all. I envy her. She’s a woman who is in complete control of her life, doing exactly what she wants to do, and is successful beyond most people’s wildest dreams, probably including her own. How many of us can say that?

    I think there’s another possible reaction when the book comes out: Snarky critics who WANT to decimate it grudgingly giving it a good review instead because it’ll actually be good. And she’ll have the last laugh, even though I don’t think she cares much what critics think of her anyway.

    • This is true. And certainly possible. It’s just that seeing the instant reactions from a short paragraph blurb, I think you’ll see reactions all across the board.

      And totally. She’s amazing. But she’s still human and an author, and I can imagine no matter how wealthy, how strong, it can still be difficult to have that sort of pressure.

  • I had the opposite reaction from most people…I have like zero interest in Harry Potter, but I’m actually curious about The Casual Vacancy. Always the contrarian. lol (Although I do really like Rowling as a person. She seems so grounded and awesome in everything I’ve ever read/seen about her.)

    Also: I LOVE the new blog look! So clean and pretty! 🙂

    • Melissa! I feel like I don’t know you. No interest in HP? Ok, read and let read, Jenn. Read and let read. 😉

      However, I’m very interested in this book, and yeah, I’m super impressed with her as a person/writer.

      Thanks! I’m really happy with the look.

  • steph_h

    I think JKR knows that she will never top the success she had with Harry Potter, and I’m sure she’s made her peace with that. That type of thing is really a once in a lifetime phenomenon, and I feel like she’s a sensible enough lady to thank her lucky stars that HP became the hit that it did.

    I, for one, am actually really interested in the synopsis I read for her new book. It sounds very… English, which is exactly my cup of tea when it comes to novels. Whatever qualms some have had with her actual prose in the past, I think she managed to inject her books with a good deal of humor, so I do think this book will likely offer up some laughs. I’m interested to see what kind of range she has as an author, so I’ll be interested to hear more about The Casual Vacancy as it release draws nearer.

    • I know! Pagford? Yes, please.

      In terms of success, yes, I’m sure she’s made her peace with it, as you say. This is a whole other ballgame.

  • Andi

    Agreed. All of it. I have nothing good constructive to add. I take two lumps in my tea.

    • Duly noted. 🙂

  • Did find it kind of funny my tweet is on here. Yes, I am the notorious Casual Vacancy bashing Gareth Arnold.