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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred