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.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for historical child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

Operation Midland, which was set-up to check claims that boys were abused in the 1970s and 80s by a high-level group of paedophiles including politicians, military figures and members of law enforcement agencies, has had up to 40 detectives assigned to it and a similar investigation. Admittedly some of these were murder and major crimes officers but that’s still a large contingent.

In fact if such squads were formed for every historical case the Metropolitan Police would be overwhelmed as last year alone it received reports from nearly 1100 adults – many of them well past retirement age –that they were sexually assaulted when children.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.