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In defence of JK Rowling's The Casual Vacancy

Rowling is often presented as a stultifyingly middle-class and cosy writer. That's unfair, says Sarah Ditum: her adult fiction makes a clear political point in a way few modern novels do.

JK Rowling. Photo: Getty Images

Nobody thinks of JK Rowling as a great literary radical. Even the people who love her wouldn't claim she's an artist of the experimental: there's not much chance of confusing The Casual Vacancy with, say, the work of BS Johnson. Writing about child wizards or council elections, her style is continuous with the nineteenth-century peak of realist storytelling of Dickens, Eliot, Trollope: plots that drive and characters who stand with absolute vividness. When you come to a Rowling novel, you know your fourth wall is structurally secure.

Sometimes, that stylistic continuity gets mistaken for political complacency. When I was studying literature at university in 2005, one of my lecturers contrasted the Potter books with James Kelman's How Late it Was, How Late: Rowling represented the stultifying conservatism of the middle-class voice, Kelman was the jagged working-class breach in the bourgeois smoothness of letters. It seemed a slightly unfair way to make the point then, and even more so now her adult fiction is in view.

Because while The Casual Vacancy isn't a difficult or particular abrasive novel, it's one that asks readers to do something hard, necessary and deeply unfashionable: The Casual Vacancy wants you to exercise your feelings in the service of people you don't know, people you may not meet or even like, but people whose lives are nevertheless knotted up with your own. And speaking at the Bath Literature Festival on Friday night, she was unambiguously clear that she had a political motive for this kind of writing.

"It would be pointless to pretend I wasn't trying to make a point," she said. The Casual Vacancy was a reaction to specific concerns about Britain now: "I'm worried about the lack of empathy in our culture." If an interest in empathy is what motivates The Casual Vacancy's author, an absence of that quality is what animates the plot. If you haven't read The Casual Vacancy (and it's possible you haven't, even if it is the second-fastest selling adult novel of all time), it's set in the fictional village of Pagford, and the story hinges on a council election, the outcome of which will decide whether a whether a council estate called the Fields remains part of the village or is cast off to a neighbouring town.

From the middle class characters competing for political office, there's little compassion for those they're striving to represent. Those standing on a platform of casting off the Fields think of the local addicts as grasping dependents, a problem to be sloughed off; those campaigning for it to remain part of Pagford make their case with statistics and cost-benefit analysis, but even they can barely summon any warmth for the residents.

The two lives of Pagfords two estates are so removed from each other's view, they rarely imagine that they have any responsibility for one another. The sole person who offered a bond between the village's economic layers, socially mobile Barry Fairbrother, is dead within the novel's first three pages (it's his death that necessitates the election). That's telling, isn't it? Rowling writes a state-of-the-nation novel, and she's offed the key representative of individual advancement and mutual compassion before she even gets going.

Pagford is its own place, but it's a miniature of the UK too. As we live now, if you're born down, you stay down, and the well-off have grown increasingly efficient at hoarding what's theirs and gathering more wealth to wealth. The lives of rich and poor meet less and less often: councils are actively dispatching their poorer residents to distant outposts of poverty, and in lieu of immediate knowledge, cruelty and caricature flourish. The character of Krystal Weedon in The Casual Vacancy could have been a Vicky Pollard-style underclass nightmare: crude, promiscuous, violent, illiterate.

Krystal is all of those things, but she's also loving, striving towards a kind of motherhood she's never been shown herself, and Rowling describes her with love. During the talk, Rowling was asked whether The Casual Vacancy was a satire. Her answer was an emphatic no: "It's not satire. I couldn't have written about, let's say, Krystal as satire." Later, Rowling said that Krystal was a character she "just wanted to hug". Writing about Krystal without empathy would have been empty unkindness.

You can take issue with The Casual Vacancy's air of Victorianism on aesthetic grounds, but we live in increasingly Victorian times: Samuel Smiles' doctrine of self-help could be a ResPublica paper. The nineteenth-century realists answered inequality in their fiction, turning faceless masses into individual stories, making the connectedness of society an undeniable truth in the eyes of their readers. Rowling does the same thing now, because a century-odd later we are sliding into the same old divisions and cruelties.