With Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy just a few days away from the reader, Ian Parker of The New Yorker has posted a lengthy feature on Rowling and her upcoming book. Among the interesting thoughts therein:
…reviewers looking for echoes of the Harry Potter series will find them. “The Casual 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.
“I think there is a through-line,” Rowling said. “Mortality, morality, the two things that I obsess about.”
Parker, of course, talks about the differences, too; notably a much–read MUCH–more adult feel to the book, and–well, as Rowling put it, “It’s been billed, slightly, as a black comedy, but to me it’s more of a comic tragedy.” Likewise, as we’ve all prognosticated, we can expect some politics:
A local election was “a perfect way in,” she said. “It’s the smallest possible building block of democracy—this tiny atom on which everything rests…. In my head, the working title for a long time was ‘Responsible,’ because for me this is a book about responsibility. In the minor sense—how responsible we are for our own personal happiness, and where we find ourselves in life—but in the macro sense also, of course: how responsible we are for the poor, the disadvantaged, other people’s misery.”
But the article is much more than this. It’s close to ten thousand words on Rowling and her work, written with an editorial perspective; Parker comments that “Rowling’s empathy [toward the disadvantaged in her novel] can feel like condescension”, but there’s a tone of condescension in parts of the article as well. Certain of the comments on her appearance and self-presentation, for instance, are liable to draw annoyance from women everywhere, no matter what they think of Rowling.
Parker also quotes some literary criticism on Harry Potter from various perspectives. Harvard scholar Maria Tatar noted beautifully that:
[The Potter tale is] a strange combination of both superficial and deep. That’s what people forget about children’s literature. It is very surface-oriented, but the great writers, and I include Rowling in them, manage to get the depth in, too…. It’s not a psychological depth but a mythological depth.
Then there’s Scottish Review of Books editor Alan Taylor, whose opinion of Rowling’s readers is as follows:
They were giving their childhood to this woman! They were starting at seven, and by the time they were sixteen they were still reading bloody Harry Potter—sixteen-year-olds, wearing wizard outfits, who should have been shagging behind the bike shed and smoking marijuana and reading Camus.
Pub members can all take fair umbrage at the suggestion that reading Harry Potter prevents one from reading the classics. As for the rest, bypassing–for space reasons–the annoying jab at cosplay: when it comes to the unconscionable (in any context) remark about what teenagers ought to be doing, it’s not hard to picture Molly Weasley threatening to jinx the feet of an errant youngster to their bedroom floor with a Permanent Sticking Charm. At which point, said youngster should have plenty of time to read both Potter and Camus.
The piece also contains a more thorough examination of Rowling’s relationship to extreme fame than I’ve seen anywhere else. Parker covers her discomfort with the media, her run-ins with paparazzi, a few aspects of the defense network she has around her, and the mistakes a “powerful and protected writer” risks making in a book about a small town:
One teen-ager bullies another on Facebook, anonymously and repeatedly, which could happen only if the victim refused to make use of the network’s privacy settings…. And, in a tellingly odd turn, three characters read unwelcome, but essentially accurate, judgments about themselves on a tiny local Web site, and all three disintegrate into fear and fury. The novel seems to treat extreme touchiness as a default psychological setting.
The article also contains a fair helping of Rowling’s own commentary about Harry, too–both the character and the story.
The piece is an interesting read, and leaves Rowling’s fans with plenty to consider as they prepare for the first Rowling book since July 21, 2007–more than five years ago. Readers, what do you think of the article? Are you more or less interested in The Casual Vacancy than you were before, or are your opinions unchanged? Has this affected your thoughts on Harry Potter? What do you think of the criticism of the Potter books, both positive and negative? How does knowledge of personal details of an author’s life and opinions affect your interest in their work? The combox awaits.