A problem with the formatting of the e-book version of J.K. Rowling’s new novel “The Casual Vacancy” meant that some readers were unable to dive into the “Harry Potter” author’s newest work when they received their electronic version.
The book, which is published by Little, Brown, a division of Hachette Book Group, had problems with font size when first released. For some e-book users, the type was too big to read comfortably, while for others, it was too tiny.
The publisher has released a fixed version after being alerted to the problem by consumers.
Some customers were not happy with the glitch, with one anonymous user on the Barnes & Noble website writing, “Tiny font size, won't enlarge, Don't buy on nook, impossible to read!”
The problems with the e-book version came after some had complained about the price of the e-book, which was $17.99.
“I refuse to pay hardcover prices for an ebook,” a user named Chris Rowley wrote on the Amazon website. “So I will either wait till it drops to about $7.99, or I will just borrow it from the library. Anything over ten dollars for an ebook is ridiculous.”
Other e-books have also suffered technical problems, including Neal Stephenson’s 2011 book “Reamde,” which had typos and other errors in its e-book format when it was first released.
Banned Books Week, an event usually celebrated in the last week of September in which libraries, bookstores, teachers, and others celebrate the freedom to read and present the books that they choose, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
One part of the celebration this year is the “50 State Salute,” a movement organized by the American Library Association in which organizations from each state record a video representing the importance of having the liberty to choose books freely. Organizations such as schools, colleges, libraries, and bookstores can participate with videos of up to five minutes long.
Sponsors of Banned Books Week are also holding the Banned Books Virtual Read-Out campaign for the second year in a row, in which users can upload to YouTube a video in which they read a banned or challenged book out loud. Participants can also videotape a person who saw a book being banned or challenged recounting their experience or make a video that in some other way promotes Banned Books Week. Users can upload their videos to the Read-Out YouTube channel.
Various communities are also holding events to celebrate books the right to read, along with specific books that have been banned or challenged. Some common activities include reading banned or challenged books out loud or prominently displaying in libraries or bookstores books that were banned or challenged.
The American Library Association often releases its list of the 10 most challenged books of the year in April. This past spring, the “ttyl” series by Lauren Myracle was cited as most frequently challenged for its plotlines on teen sexuality and offensive language, while the graphic novels “The Color of Earth” by Kim Dong Hwa came in second place for their depiction of nudity and sex education in the series. (Check out more of the list here.)
The classrooms did not have Wi-Fi installations. Outlets were few and far between (and not all had been charged with current). No matter; none of the students would be perched behind computer screens.
In fact, there was no Internet connection on the “campus” – nowhere, anywhere, on “campus.” No matter; few of the students (many of whom could barely squeeze their muscled bulks into the opening encompassed by a laminated tablet-arm desktop that is connected to an injection-molded plastic seat by tubular metal struts) have any facility with the most rudimentary computer, let alone a smartphone, let alone an iPhone5. The students are housed in quarters that are entirely removed – cyberly and otherwise – from the world of WLANs, WNICs, spread-spectrums, orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing....
The students are cordless, router-less and cyber-less for the length of their “enrollments.” Their personal access points, interconnectivity and interface are limited by cellblocks and Department of Correction regimens. They are inmates – prison inmates.
My job: Devise a curriculum that would:
- engage and “hold” inmate-students who had qualified for and then earned (through behavior and resolve) the opportunity to try their hand (and handwriting) at a college course or two
- prompt reader-response essays that would accumulate to warrant community college course credit
- be acceptable (somehow) to Department of Correction officials in Connecticut and New York, respectively (assuming that these officials would actually know of and seriously contemplate the selections itemized in my proposed list of readings)
Mark Twain is credited with declaring, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.” Well, vanity and literary pretensions were my starting points and prompted me to assemble (initially) a list of pretty highfalutin' works. Here's a list of books I considered – including a handful that actually made the cut.
"Papillon": Henri Charrière’s mostly autobiographical account of injustice, indignity, and escape could not be passed off as fiction. While the setting and circumstances (the French penal colonies of Guiana – most notably Devil’s Island), along with the looming guillotine, would make US incarcerations seem posh, the book’s extensive descriptions of escape plans and the many escape attempts were not the “escapism” I could advocate to any DOC. Furthermore, I would have trouble confidently pronouncing the author’s name.
"In Cold Blood": The two cold-blooded murderers got what they deserved, didn’t they? But, masterfully, Truman Capote managed (with art and artifice) to perform what one astute critic has called “alchemy” in mixing “untruth” with truth. For some, Capote was a storyteller who masqueraded as a reporter. I didn’t want to have to look into and evaluate claims of inaccuracy, misportrayal, and misquotation.
"The Executioner’s Song": Norman Mailer wrote so powerfully that some find the murderer Gary Gilmore “heroic” for insisting that his execution be carried out without a protracting series of appeals and lawyering delays. Okay, but what bothered me was Mailer’s role in hyping "In the Belly of the Beast" and obtaining parole for the book’s author, convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott – who, six weeks after his release, committed another murder. No go.
"Invitation to a Beheading": I don’t get Vladimir Nabokov. Yeah, okay, he learned English really well. But somebody at the DOC or, more likely, some inmate would find out about "Lolita"... I found that book irredeemably “icky." As for "Invitation," flap copy speaks of “a dream country” and “a vision of a bizarre and irrational world.” The copy also speaks of the imaginary crime of "gnostical turpitude,” “chimerical jailers,” and the condemned prisoner’s ability to make his executioners disappear, “along with the whole world they inhabit.” Naaah.
"The Stranger": Too strange. I wouldn’t be able to explain Albert Camus’ thinking, the defendant’s indifference, or whatever it is, the defendant’s responses and his failure to respond and react as one might expect of someone accused and then convicted of murder. Too strange.
"Kiss of the Spider Woman": The title would raise eyebrows – in a men’s prison, in any prison. Besides not being able to confidently pronounce Manuel Puig’s surname, and not wanting to get into the politics that are elemental to this time-and-place story, there are the intra-cellular taboos and surrenders that... Enough said.
"Darkness at Noon": “Who is this Rubashov?” “What’s he in for?” “What did he do?” “Where is this?” I’d have to do a lot of research to do justice to the questions Arthur Koestler's masterwork would be likely to inspire in inmate-students. In classrooms without maps and reference books (or maybe just a few random volumes from an ancient encyclopedia), I would be tasked with explaining the ideological and social tensions, along with the political context and military history. Didn’t want to have to explain Stalinism.
"The Fixer": Inmate-students would pick up on many of the novel’s depictions of injustice, indignity, and degradation, and would surely have something to say about wrongful accusations, unrelieved interrogations, intrigues, and betrayals. However, absent a lot of background and context, I wondered if even the most intellectually curious inmate-students would fully grasp what Bernard Malamud was trying to say about the pogroms and prosecutions of Tsarist Russia and the scapegoating of Yakov Bok.
"One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich": The inmate-students were impressed by biographical materials that corroborated Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s personal ordeals in gulag labor camps and his live-to-tell-about-it survivorship. They got this straightforward linear recounting of deprivations and resourcefulness. They were keen on offering their takes on meager food and pilfered parcels and tedious regimens. They claimed to know from hoarding food and sick-outs, from checking emotions and summoning restraint; from endurance and mental toughness; and some do indeed take pride in even the menial tasks they ascend to in the prison work ladder.
"Falconer": Close to “home” – geographically, drug-wise, and crime-wise. However, John Cheever’s novel didn’t deliver the pace and – strangely – the intricacy and immediacy of "One Day in the Life".... Maybe if Cheever had written about only one day in the life.
"Great Expectations": Talk about going on. But in Abel Magwitch, the great Charles Dickens allows us to consider how a betrayed and bitter man (wrongfully-convicted) can still acknowledge an act of kindness and make good on a debt of gratitude – or something along those lines. However, Pip’s infatuation, longings, and social-climbing – and the whole notion of a gentleman’s great expectations – put me off. He did pay a debt to “society.” If only I could somehow extract just key Magwitch moments (gently out of context) and convey them so as to give inmate-students “portable property.”
"Little Dorrit": And talk about going on, and on. Yet, there are descriptions of the Marshalsea prison, the family life therein, and the consequences of indebtedness and imprisonment that would surely prompt good questions about the authenticity of those descriptions and depictions. If, somehow, I could just mine the right veins in the novel, those excerpts would probably prompt discussions (and written reflections) that would evolve into compare-contrast works. And, inmate-students would probably be intrigued by biographical accounts of how his father’s misfortunes and imprisonments weighed on Dickens.
"A Christmas Carol": Yes!! Chains, shackles, bad dreams – allegorical and real. To some extent, aren’t we all, in some respects, “imprisoned” by regrets, remorse, or, at least occasionally, captive to memories? If visited by reminders and visions of what might be, wouldn’t we seize the opportunity to right things, avoid slights, do better? The inmate-students took this allegory as a gift.
"The 25th Hour": Would the inmate-students be able to identify with, relate to, the characters’ socio-economic situations in David Benioff's story of a drug dealer partying with his friends the night before he begins a seven-year jail sentence? Would they themselves have had an opportunity to put things in order between sentencing and incarceration?
"A Lesson before Dying": This Ernest J. Gaines’ novel might be too pessimistic, fatalistic. The lessons I was proposing would manage to provide some hope; not build on and accentuate resentment and despair.
"The Green Mile": Most of the inmate-students had heard of Stephen King and many had seen a movie based on one of his books. Although I recoil at horror stories and contrived scares, this Depression-era saga, in its way, presents the scary realities of a rush-to-judgment and death row. The similes and metaphors – along with the descriptions of “old sparky,” the exit room, and the tunnel used to take out the cadavers – gave us plenty to linger over and relish linguistically. Unlike "Rita Hayworth" and "Shawshank Redemption," whose bad guy is the abusive, despotic, and corrupt warden, the Green Mile guards (the death-row “screws”) are sensitive to the sensibilities of their charges and the sensitivities of their special tasks. Remorse and atonement become factors in the guards’ lives.
"Cry, the Beloved Country": Thank you, Alan Paton, who drew on his years of work in South African correctional institutions to deliver a story of family tragedies that are so very relatable. The descriptions of the young people straying in Johannesburg did indeed compute. The father-son conversations really got to the inmate-students. One of the most memorable of their essays began, “Despite my father’s good example, I killed a man. To this day, I do not see myself as a murderer, but I do not see myself as innocent, either.” The essay closed with this recollection of a conversation separated by three inches of Plexiglas: “If it wasn’t for the partition that separated us, I would have thrown myself at my father’s feet. I would have begged for forgiveness. I would have begged to have my childhood back.”
The only materials that were read with more interest than "Cry, the Beloved Country" and "The Green Mile" were photocopied synopses of US Supreme Court decisions pertaining to search-and-seizure, admissibility of evidence, Miranda warnings, interrogations and confessions, assertions of ineffectual assistance of counsel, and claims of “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Every year, by statute – Section 2 of Title 28 of the United States Code – the US Supreme Court opens its new term on the first Monday in October. Inmates around this country are attuned to the docket whose arguments may offer possibilities for a rehearing or other reconsideration of their respective cases.
Meanwhile, if prison officials allow, there are some pretty good books that could be worked into inmates’ sentences.
Joseph H. Cooper was editorial counsel at The New Yorker from 1976 to 1996. He teaches ethics and media law courses at Quinnipiac University.
David Foster Wallace, perhaps the biggest literary star of our era, didn't spend his childhood buried in a book. Instead, he watched TV. A lot of it.
It did not rot his brain.
Instead, Wallace would become fascinated by pop culture and spend his career trying to untangle its influence and power. He questioned ironical detachment and tried to write what he called "morally passionate, passionately moral fiction." He'd write mammoth novels, short stories and journalism.
Born near the cusp between the Baby Boomers and the denizens of Generation X, Wallace became a touchstone for both. But he couldn't vanquish the demons of mental illness and killed himself four years ago this month.
D.T. Max, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has spent the last several years trying to understand the enigma of a man who could embrace life so fully – and enlighten the rest of us about it – yet not wish to go on.
Max's new biography, "Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace," is a hit with many reviewers. I met with Max near his home in northern New Jersey and asked him about Wallace's fascination with popular culture, his messages about life and the impact of his depression.
Q: What surprised you as you researched the book?
A: He has this image as "Saint Dave," this person who can show us how to live in a distressed world. After he died, there was this outpouring of grief from so many people, even those who hadn't read much of his writing. They knew him as a kind of hip homilist, a cultural sage.
The book obviously shows him to not be a perfect human being. The level of his imperfection was a surprise to me, but I also came to understand that the identification with him isn't that he's perfect. It's that he teaches something about life.
He had this deep concern for people in his writing and in his [famous] speech at Kenyon College. He cares whether the reader has a full life or not, whether they go through life awake or not.
He had this stance of being unironic but not simple minded, curious without being intrusive, empathetic without being sloppy.
Q: Did you feel like a detective trying to solve a mystery?
A: The mystery about David was about how someone so immensely talented, creative, and successful could feel so bad about himself no matter what. He hated criticism, but he also hated praise. He hated illness, but he also hated being well. I wanted to understand what that person was really like.
Q: I'm fascinated by his childhood and how much TV he watched. Some writers are proud of themselves for never having encountered pop culture. They don't own a TV, they don't watch TV. They act like they don't know what a TV is. But for Wallace, pop culture is all over the place. He's not superior to it. What can we make of that?
A: Not only was he was acquainted with pop culture, he thought he was addicted to it. He said his primary addiction wasn't to marijuana or alcohol, it was to television. David, with his anxiety and depression, found television fundamentally soothing: He was addicted to narrative. He said the narratives were too easy, too smooth, the endings too pat. But his sister says in the book that she didn't know anyone who had a need for TV like David had.
Q: Did the depression within him inspire his writing? Did he need it to give him inspiration?
A: I don't think so. I don't think he's that kind of writer.
The despair was something he feared enormously and ran from his whole life. It would be more accurate to say to say his tendency toward gags and humor writing – he was a very funny writer – was probably to some extent an attempt to outrun the despair.
He had that massive brain that always kept him company and always tormented him.
Q: What can we learn from David Foster Wallace?
A: He's not a cautionary tale about flying close to the sun. His story is much more about an insistence on never being content with who you are or what you've written.
Here's a guy who could have been a well-known literary author and lived in his little literary persona. Instead, David insisted on trying to reach people in this highly unusual and emotional way and show people, as he does in that Kenyon College speech, that he cares about them and how they live their lives.
For a guy like David who wasn't naturally caring, this shows that you can push the edges of your natural comfort zone in order to reach people.
Another lesson is that often it's the simpler truths that carry you forward, and the complex truths that hold people back. If you can simplify what you're here for and who you want to be for people, you can achieve far more than if you insist that life is so complicated.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.
If you’re among those mourning the imminent release of J.K. Rowling’s new adult book because it is not another Harry Potter story, Potterphiles, take heart: Rowling plans to return to writing for young adults – and she hasn’t ruled out a return to Hogwarts.
That’s right, the author behind the seven-novel Potter saga whose first adult novel, “Casual Vacancy” will be released Thursday, told the press she’s eager to get back to young adult books.
“I think it very likely that the next thing I publish will be for kids,” she told BBC News. “I have a children’s book that I really like. It’s for slightly younger children than the Potter books.”
Though she seemed to close the door on more Potter books, however, she didn’t shut it completely.
“It was murder saying goodbye, but where Harry’s story is concerned I’m done,” she told the BBC. “Now if I had a fabulous idea that came out of that world – because I loved writing it – I would do it. But I’ve got to have a great idea. I am very adverse to the prequel/sequel scenario.” She added, “I don’t want to go mechanically back into that world and pick up a load of odds and ends, glue them together and say, ‘Here we go, we can sell this.’ It would make a mockery of what those books were to me.”
Rowling, who can’t escape talking Potter even while promoting her new adult release, also told the press that writing the “Harry Potter” series wasn’t always easy and she wasn’t satisfied with some of the novels.
“There are a couple of the Potters that I definitely knew needed another year,” she told the BBC. “I had to write on the run and there were times when it was really tough. And I read them, and I think, ‘Oh God, maybe I’ll go back and do a director’s cut’.… But you know what, I’m proud I was writing under the conditions under which I was writing, no one will ever know how tough it was at times.”
Though she seemed averse to the prequel/sequel idea, Rowling did say she might consider what she called “a sidestep.” We’re eager to see what she envisions.
Rowling’s latest novel, “The Casual Vacancy,” a slice-of-life commentary on class warfare and small town politics, hits bookstores Thursday. Rowling has described it as “a contemporary version of what I love, which is a big, fat 19th century novel set in a small community.”
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
Because clearly he hasn’t yet conquered enough fields of entertainment, actor Neil Patrick Harris is writing a memoir, currently scheduled for release in 2014.
The book by Harris, who currently stars on the TV show “How I Met Your Mother” and has also served as an awards host, director, producer, and magician as well as performing on Broadway, will be “a work of imaginative nonfiction that delivers an interactive, nonlinear reading experience that breaks the boundaries of conventional memoir,” according to a statement from the book’s publisher Crown Archetype.
Harris will “draw upon his love of adventure and surprise in creating the book, as well as upon the many roles he has played in his life and career – from being a child star to coming out, and from acting on Broadway to becoming a proud father,” the statement continued.
Harris’s show “How I Met Your Mother” will continue for at least another season through this spring, and he will appear in the film “The Smurfs 2,” which is due in 2013, reprising his role as protagonist Patrick Winslow. He hosted the Tony Awards for the third time this past June and is reportedly involved in a sequel to the musical web series “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,” which its creator Joss Whedon said will start filming this spring.
“I'm excited to be writing a book of the observations and stories of my life," Harris said in a statement about his memoir. "I read with great fondness Tina Fey's ‘Bossypants,' so my plan is just to reprint those exact stories but change the names to people that I knew. What editor would take issue with that?”
Chinese authorities are asking booksellers in Beijing to ban books by Japanese authors and titles about Japanese topics as well as pressuring Chinese publishers not to translate and publish Japanese content in response to a tense territorial row between the countries.
Tensions between Japan and China escalated last week after the Japanese government nationalized the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu in China. The countries have been embroiled in a bitter dispute over the ownership of this string of small islands off China’s eastern coast, and Tokyo’s decision to nationalize the islands further heightened tensions. The move sparked protests in China, directed toward Japanese citizens living there, Japanese businesses, even Japanese diplomatic offices. Anti-Japan protestors damaged Japanese plants and dealerships including Panasonic Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan Motor Corp., and Honda Motor Corp., according to the Japan Times.
Now, the dispute has taken a new turn, and the target is books. According to the Japan Times, Chinese publishers in Beijing were told by authorities to “halt the planned publication of books written by Japanese or protected by Japanese copyrights, and books related to Japan that are being written by Chinese authors.”
“The ban will also affect cultural exchange events, copyright trading with Japan and the promotion of Japan-related books in the country...”
The Bookseller reported that Japanese titles like Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84,” a bestseller in China, have already been removed from Beijing bookstores, including Wangfujing Bookstore, one of the city’s biggest bookshops. “We don’t sell Japanese books,” a shop clerk told the UK’s Guardian. “I don’t know much about the reason, but perhaps it is because China-Japan relations are not good.” Another added, “It’s because of the deteriorating ties between China and Japan.”
A source told the Guardian it is not uncommon for the Chinese government to restrict retailers business during times of political tension. “There are instructions from time to time, especially at moments of internal instability, such as this,” said the unnamed source, “but they will be short-lived.”
While we hate to see books entangled in this territorial dispute, it does remind us – in a time when bookstores are disappearing and the publishing industry is embattled – that books hold an innate power and authority so compelling nations ban books instead of trading bullets.
After all, as English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his play “Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy,” wrote:
True, This! –
Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.
The popular children’s book series "Clifford the Big Red Dog," which follows the adventures of the giant dog of the title and his owner, Emily Elizabeth, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.
To honor the dog and his creator, writer and illustrator Norman Bridwell, the books’ publisher Scholastic hung a large banner from their office, and Bridwell participated in a webcast on Monday, answering students’ questions. More than 5,000 classrooms tuned in for the question-and-answer session.
Almost 90 books have been published about Clifford and his adventures.
“It has gotten more difficult over the years,” Bridwell told NPR, to create fresh plotlines. “Every time I think of an idea, I think, 'Well, that's kind of like the idea that I did a couple of times before.' And I'm running out of situations."
Bridwell got the idea for the series while he was trying to find work as an illustrator for children’s books. He brought samples around to various publishers and was rejected. One publisher told him that because he wasn’t a very good artist, he’d have to write his own copy, too, if he was to have any hope of working on a book.
“She pointed to a sample painting I'd done, of a little girl with a gigantic red dog, and she said, 'Maybe that's a story,'” Bridwell remembered in an interview with NPR. “And I went home, and over that weekend I wrote the story ‘Clifford the Big Red Dog’ and was shocked when it was accepted for publication, because I'd never written anything before.”
Bridwell said in the question-and-answer session with students that he had the idea of a huge dog when he was growing up and wanted a dog as big as a horse that he could ride.
In “Clifford,” a young girl named Emily Elizabeth chooses Clifford to adopt despite the fact that he is the runt of the litter, and Clifford soon grows to be more than 25 feet (though his size varies in some books). Emily Elizabeth’s family relocates to a new home on Birdwell Island to accommodate the giant dog. The most recent title released was "Clifford Makes the Team," in which Clifford has trouble playing baseball with Emily Elizabeth and her friends until the children figure out a way to include him in their game.
Clifford became red when Bridwell spotted a jar of red paint on his desk while working and decided to make him "a little different," Bridwell told USA Today. The writer named his heroine after his real-life daughter Emily Elizabeth, who now works as a preschool teacher.
“As I got older and as I started to meet parents who really loved the books, they would express to me how much they meant to their family and how much they meant to their children,” Bridwell’s daughter told the Wall Street Journal. “Then I started to realize it was something special.”
“Doctor Sleep,” which will follow Danny Torrance as an adult, will be released Sept. 24, 2013.
In the sequel, Danny is now a worker at a nursing home who becomes known as "Doctor Sleep" because of his psychic abilities, which he uses to give comfort to those who are dying. After meeting a young girl with powers like his own, he embarks on a quest to save her from a tribe called the True Knot which ingests the psychic powers of children known as the “shining.”
And third and fourth, it seems. The once-single mother who survived on welfare, then struck platinum-status with her seven-book series on the magical world of Harry Potter has reinvented herself again, this time as a novelist for an entirely new audience – adults.
Rowling’s post-Harry era begins Sept. 27 with the release of “The Casual Vacancy.” The new novel is a 512-page tale of class warfare, morality, and small town politics set in an idyllic fictional English village.
The question on everyone’s mind: Whether Rowling can successfully crossover from her stratospherically triumphant reign as a children’s author and creator of the 450-million-selling Potter books, which made her net worth almost $900 million and set the bar for forthcoming books frighteningly high, to well-received adult novelist.
This much is clear: “The Casual Vacancy” is no “Harry Potter” and Rowling, thankfully, makes no apologies for this decidedly different track. Set in the fictional English village of Pagford, the book begins as a “rural comedy of manners” that builds into a portrayal of class warfare, strewn throughout with treatises on social welfare. Following the death of Pagford council member Barry Fairbrother, the well-heeled town is pitched into a divisive battle about its connection to Fields, a neighboring town characterized by its public housing and poverty. Historically, Pagford extended a hand to Fields – children from Fields could attend primary school in Pagford (“a place of flower baskets and other middle-class comforts) and the town also ran a drug-treatment clinic that served many in Fields. But with the death of council member Fairbrother, Pagford’s “anti-Fields faction sees an opportunity to rid Pagford of this burden.”
After reading the 512-page novel and interviewing the famously reserved Rowling, writer Ian Parker shared his thoughts in a 10,000-word feature in the New Yorker.
“Within a few pages, it was clear that the novel had not been written for children,” Parker writes. “The Casual Vacancy,” after all, is a tale of “class warfare set amid semi-rural poverty, heroin addiction, and teenage perplexity and sexuality.”
“…But reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. “The Causal Vacancy” describes young people coming of age in a place divided by warring factions, and the deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother – who dies in the first chapter but remains the story’s moral center – had the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his – tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.”
Even Rowling found similar themes. “I think there is a through-line,” the author told Parker of the New Yorker. “Mortality, morality, the two things that I obsess about.”
But, by most accounts, the similarities end there. For those accustomed to Rowling’s more traditional, buttoned-up children’s fare, “The Casual Vacancy” is most certainly not that.
There’s this: “The leathery skin of her upper cleavage radiated little cracks that no longer vanished when decompressed.” And this, about a lustful little boy who sits on a school bus “with an ache in his heart and in his balls.”
Some have asked Rowling whether she felt some responsibility for her band of youthful fans who grew up reading Harry Potter and would now, surely pick up “The Casual Vacancy.” “There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher,” Rowling told the New Yorker. “I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.”
Following the unprecedented success of her Potter series, it would have been easy for Rowling to continue writing Potter adventures, or at least, more children’s books. With this new adult novel, she drummed up the courage to branch out and take a risk.
Writes the New Yorker’s Parker, “I asked her if publishing the new book made her feel exposed. ‘I thought I’d feel frightened at this point,’ she said. ‘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. It’s not the place I’m happiest or most comfortable, shall we say. So, for the first few years of writing ‘The Casual Vacancy,’ I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re very lucky. You can pay your bills, you don’t have to publish it.’ And that was a very freeing thought, even though I knew bloody well, in my heart of hearts, that I was going to publish it. I knew that a writer generally writes to be read, unless you’re Salinger.’”
“Authors, and especially successful authors, are expected to keep producing more of the same,” writes the UK’s Telegraph. (The curse, if you will, of the Harry Potter phenomenon.) “To change genres can upset their fans.”
In an autobiography A.A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame complained “that the artist who has early success with a painting of a policeman is expected to paint policemen forever,” as the New Yorker writes. “If you stop painting policemen in order to paint windmills, criticism remains so overpoweringly policeman-conscious that even a windmill is seen as something with arms out, obviously directing the traffic.” Although Milne is best known for his children’s books centered on that lovable bear, Winnie-the-Pooh, he attempted at various points in his career to explore all genres, including sketches, plays, mysteries, novels, short stories, even war pamphlets – with mixed success. “As a discerning critic pointed out,” Milne wrote, “the hero of my latest play, God help it, was ‘just Christopher Robin grown up.’ So that even when I stop writing about children, I still insist on writing about who were children once.”
Though we have yet to get our hands on a copy of “The Casual Vacancy,” we wager to say Rowling has already accomplished something remarkable in having the courage to walk away from the “easy success” of another Potter novel or even another children’s book and leap into a new genre. With “The Casual Vacancy,” she is attempting to escape the curse that accompanies any smash success.
As we page through this new, and no doubt very different piece of the Rowling canon, we’ll do our best not to superimpose upon every second character a certain beloved boy wizard we once knew. Because whatever Fitzgerald said, everyone deserves a second act – and a fresh read.
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.