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.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle