Pretty Vacant

Understanding the badness of J.K. Rowling's adult novels

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Certainly no Harry Potter...
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I am a Harry Potter fan. Like many adult enthusiasts, I was introduced to the novels by my children, who began reading them in pre-adolescence and continued into their teens. My appreciation was reinforced by my students. When I led a group of undergraduates to London as part of a course on Charles Dickens, the class visited the Inns of Court that figure in Bleak House but also Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross Station where Harry and his friends embarked for Hogwarts. This makes sense; there is a definite kinship between Dickens’s novels and Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Rowling, like Dickens, is wonderfully inventive with a clearly defined moral sense; her characters’ whimsical, allegorically-inflected names are Dickensian, as is her ability to mesh adventure with the bildungsroman plot. I have maintained, in the face of snobbish opposition, that she is Dickens’s heir — and a genius. 

But I was brought up short by the three novels Rowling has written for the adult market: A Casual Vacancy, published in 2012, A Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013, and The Silkworm, in June of this year.

What must strike a reader of these books, especially if one comes to them after the luminous Harry Potter novels, is how unluminous they are — dingy in the literal and the metaphorical sense. The world they depict is an uber-Muggle world, and the writing is full of pedestrian, formulaic phrasing and imagery. A Casual Vacancy takes place in a small parish in England and explores the response to the unexpected death from a brain aneurysm of one of its prominent citizens. Most everyone in the town is small-minded, vulgar, and ugly. There is little compassion for the characters and no sense that the world they inhabit has beauty in it. Rowling describes how “the town petered out in a final wheeze of old cottages,” how the bathroom of one of the characters “smelled of mold and damp sponges,” how one character’s “great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him,” and how another’s “stooping posture made her look much older than she was, though she strove, in so many ways, to keep a claw-grip on youth.”

It occurred to me in reading these sorts of descriptions that Rowling might be trying to update Anthony Trollope. The Harry Potter novels are, as noted, Dickensian in their sensibility; perhaps A Casual Vacancy was meant to pay homage to Trollope, who had concentrated his Barchester Chronicles on the corruption and melodrama of an English cathedral town. But if so, Rowling took the updating to an unpalatable extreme, showing only the seedy, mercenary aspect of this enclosed world and not the sense of duty and moral rectitude that Trollope placed in opposition to it. I hoped that A Casual Vacancy was a transitional work and that something more subtle and appealing would follow.

The Cormoran Strike series, as her next two novels are referred to, were written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, whose true identity was revealed after the first of these books landed in bookstores. I tend to think that Rowling’s aim in using a pseudonym was to combat the bad reviews of A Casual Vacancy. Possibly she believed that that novel was criticized in backlash to its not being in the Harry Potter mold. If this was her intention, she succeeded, though only when her cover was blown (it is still unclear whether this was done purposefully or accidentally). Indeed, though the book received more praise than A Casual Vacancy, I think that this was a case of another kind of backlash: A decision to see this book as better than it actually was as soon as it was unveiled as a Rowling (before this was revealed, the book had received only lackluster reviews). The idea in publishing seems always to work in reversals. Neither of the Cormoran Strike novels are good, and the second, in particular, is, in my view, quite bad (though it received the better reviews, issued when everyone was aware that Robert Galbraith was J.K. Rowling).

Both novels feature the detective Cormoran Strike, a one-legged veteran of the Afghanistan war who also happens to be the illegitimate son of a Mick-Jagger-like rock star. Such details sound like fun, and the beginning of the first of the novels, A Cuckoo’s Calling, is promising. But it eventually devolves into the kind of vulgarity and ugliness that characterized A Casual Vacancy, with the addition of a complicated and unconvincing mystery plot. The second novel in the series, The Silkworm, is similar, only with more emphasis on the formulaic and gratuitously grotesque.

Inventiveness was the hallmark of Harry Potter. What is so surprising about these books is how little inventiveness they contain. Instead, Rowling relies on the stale conventions of detective fiction and on repeated motifs to fill in the space of her narrative in lieu of character development. For example, the painfulness of Strike’s prosthesis is continually being invoked until it becomes a veritable linguistic pain. The reader must hear again and again about how Strike’s leg aches, how raw his stump is, how badly his prosthesis fits. Similar if less central are the repeated references (in the second Strike novel) to the office couch that “farts” when someone sits on it (a farting couch sounds like a parody of a Harry Potterism). More unpleasant is the use of off-color language to mark allegedly sophisticated exchanges, with Strike and others referring to people (oddly, mostly men) as “cunts.” Yet I couldn’t for the life of me understand why a hardened veteran like Strike would always be announcing that he had to go “pee.” At intervals, Rowling inserts material that one can tell derives from her experience with paparazzi and with the publishing industry, but this world is portrayed with such relentless negativity as to leach from it any particular interest or fun.

One way to understand the badness of these novels is to consider the conventional distinction between young adult and adult fiction. People in publishing like to say that some of the best work being written nowadays is for the young adult market. They explain that YA fiction is less formulaic because it is not constrained to use “adult material” (i.e., bad language and explicit sex) at prescribed intervals to bolster sales. This seems precisely what Rowling feels obliged to do in these post-Potter books. I am reminded of the way former child stars decide to behave in shocking ways to demonstrate how grown-up they are.

The Harry Potter books had good guys and bad guys appropriate to the way that children see the world. Being children, the characters were not called upon to analyze complex moral issues. Even toward the end of the series, when Harry learns things about people he thought he knew, moral complexity is a revelation rather than a given. But real adult life is a matter of mixed moral character of a sustained kind, precisely what Rowling seems unable to portray. Most everyone in this adult world is sordid and caricatured, and even the good guys in the Strike novels, Strike and his assistant Robin, have their characters relayed through tics and quirks: Strike’s prosthetic leg, his copious drinking of beer and smoking of cigarettes, his astonishingly beautiful but volatile ex-girlfriend, his “pube-like” hair, and his general inability to speak beyond monosyllables to render the fact that he is vaguely troubled and alienated. Robin, his assistant (who is apparently being set up for a romance with Strike later in the series), is no more rounded. She is described as pretty, with red-gold hair, noted in the narrative to indicate Strike’s latent attraction to her, while being saddled with a jealous accountant boyfriend whom she must continually assuage or bravely oppose in order to do her job. I liked the Harry-Potterish names of some of the characters, but they seemed out of place in a hard-boiled detective novel.

I have suggested that the problem for Rowling may have to do with her determination to shift from young adult into adult fiction. But there is also another element at work, unrelated to the age group at which these novels are directed.

Fiction generally falls into one of two categories — outer-directed or inner-directed: the picaresque or the domestic, the epic or the psychological. Homer’s The Odyssey epitomizes the one, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the other. These two categories can certainly overlap (Leo Tolstoy and George Eliot managed both), but most authors fall on one or the other side of this divide. Rowling’s Harry Potter series falls in the former category (so do Dickens’s novels). Harry Potter is an adventure story that is also a bildungsroman and a quest narrative. The characters stand in in for types that the self must engage with in order to progress in the journey of life. One of the most compelling creations in the series are the Dementors, those soul-sucking creatures in Book 3 who bring mind-numbing depression and despair in their wake. What a metaphor not only for the depressive personality but also for the idea of mortality as it hovers in the background of our lives and that, in order to live productively, we must learn to ignore. The Dementors are vivid externalizations of a profound existential idea.

Nothing of the metaphorical grandiosity of the Dementors is possible in domestic fiction. Here the self and the story are an intricate mechanism that requires a delicate touch to properly mesh. Rowling’s imagination is ill-suited to this sort of delicacy. The nuance of characterization, which one feels so acutely in a good detective novel by, say, P.D. James or Kate Atkinson, is missing, as is the narrative intimacy that one associates with a well-wrought whodunit.

I remain convinced that J.K. Rowling is a genius. But genius doesn’t flourish in every milieu, and even a literary genius doesn’t flourish in every genre. The Harry Potter novels had an extraordinary ease about them — one was carried along effortlessly in their inventive wake. But her adult novels seem forced and painful, like Cormoran Strike’s prosthetic leg. I have been hard on Rowling in this essay not because I am giving up on her, but because I am disappointed. She has betrayed her great gift for wonder and fun, and her larger-than-life imagination, with such small books. • 27 August 2014

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a talk show broadcast on more than 400 public television stations across the country. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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