It is probably ridiculous to even put “J.K. Rowling” and the word “emerging” in the same thought. (Excerpts from the Wikipedia article about her: “best-selling book series in history,” “net worth US$1 billion,” “forty-eighth most powerful celebrity of 2007,” and “Most Influential Woman in Britain”—and that’s only in the introduction.) But I’m tempted to look at Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, in the same light as a more traditional debut novel.
I know, it’s NOT not her first novel. But even “debut” authors usually have a few books under their belts, even if those novels have never been seen by another soul. Don’t they say that most “debuts” are really second novels (or third, or fourth) if you count the novel, or novels, in the drawer? (I recently sorted through old papers, rescued from my childhood desk, and found three “novels” I’d written between the ages of 12 and 16—measuring 88, 105, and a then-staggering 165 pages. If you count them, in all their purple adolescent dreadfulness, the “first” novel I recently completed is really my fourth.) Yes, Rowling’s novels were published—and yes, it’s not quite fair to compare Harry Potter to the scribblings of my youth, though Harold Bloom might disagree. But it’s also true that the world of children’s fiction and the world of adult “literary” fiction have very different expectations and audiences. Rowling could have written Potter spin-offs forever, but in writing an adult novel, she’s essentially turning the proverbial blank page. It’s the literary equivalent of moving to a distant country to try and start a new life.
Of course, we all know how just how simple it is to escape your past. So maybe it’s fairest to compare Rowling’s adult debut with the efforts of James Franco, Molly Ringwald, and other celebrity authors: talented people who’ve succeeded in a different, vaguely related field, and who are now trying their hand at Serious Literary Works. Their name recognition cuts both ways: they’ll probably sell more books, but when it comes to writing a story people will really sink into, their job may even be harder. To make you stop thinking about Pretty in Pink as you read, a story needs to be pretty damn good.
That’s really why I want to think of The Casual Vacancy as a debut novel: because the book just isn’t going to get read on its own merits. The only person who could read it that was would be someone who’d never heard of Harry Potter—and that person would probably have a hard time turning pages under that rock. I’d bet every single review of The Casual Vacancy will make a comparison to Harry Potter, even if only to say that such comparisons aren’t warranted.
And that’s all a shame. From what I’ve heard, it doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a book to me—certainly at least as interesting as three-quarters of the debut novels that get published. So I do plan to read it. And when I do, I’ll try, as far as it’s possible, to read it like I’d read the first published novel of any debut author. It’s not about Rowling: I feel like any book deserves as much.
Have you read The Casual Vacancy? Do you want to? Why or why not?
- A New Yorker profile of Rowling. (She apologizes for “not finishing” Order of the Phoenix, which immediately made me trust her writerly instincts more.)
- What the critics say: Lev Grossman’s glowing review of Rowling’s novel in TIME, The Guardian’s much more measured response, and the Washington Post’s roundup of lukewarm reviews.
- Molly Ringwald on the links between writing and acting
- Actors writing fiction. Ralph Nader writing fiction?