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.

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.

JK Rowling. Photo: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Show Hide image

How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.