True to type

Something that turned up because of the new Rowling book, actually, and made me think about things.

Rowling wrote a series of books (ostensibly)  for children – books that started squarely in Middle Grade territory and segued into Young Adult, if you want to apply the labels strictly. And let me correct that, just a little – they weren’t BOOKS. They were a publishing phenomenon, the likes of which doesn’t often happen twice in a lifetime.

But the series ended, as series do. And Rowling, the writer, was now done with them.

Financially speaking she was set for life – she didn’t NEED to write another word, ever, ever, ever, ever, and she still probably couldn’t spend all the Pottermoney in a single lifetime. But she decided that she wanted to keep writing – which was fine, which was well and good.

And now the new Rowling book, “The Casual Vacancy”, is out. And the first wave of reviews – both professional and casual readership – are in. And GUESS what most of them come round to, in the end?

“The book is nothing like Harry Potter.”

One might have expected that, really. But looking at it sideways it strikes me as wholly unfair, for a whole slew of different reasons. The first and foremost of which is, is a writer REALLY doomed to regurtitate the same thing over and over again if said thing has been a huge (read: money making) success for that writer’s publishers? Is success a laurel crown or a straitjacket?

Here’s a disclaimer, right off the bat. I read the first three books of the Potter series in book form (I know the whole story, and the background behhind the story, from the movies and from what I have heard and read when people have talked or written about it)  – and I have neither the interest nor the intention of reading “Vacancy” – I am writing an opinion piece on what I know of ROwling’s style and on what I have heard others contribute towards an illumination of it. And what I have to go on is this.

The Harry Potter stories were distinguished by their sheer exuberant inventiveness – wands, dog-latin spells, potions, Diagon Alley, that fabulous dining hall at Hogwarts which exists in no boarding school ever, the Sorting Hat, nargles, etc etc etc etc etc. But the background to it all – and the substrate on which this was built – was not original at all – it was all predicated on a subgenre as hoary as the hills in winter, the British BOarding School Story. There have been dozens of these. The basic tree, as it were, existed long before Rowling stepped up with her box of tricks and began to decorate everything for Christmas. And my point is that she was very good indeed at those decorations – they were vivid, they were sparkly, they drew the eye and the heart and the imagination – but *she already had the tree*. She didn’t need to build that. The substrate was there for her to work on. And so long as she could juggle the baubles and the tinsel, the lights and the magic, she was doing just fine – but if you paid attention to her actual writing style, that was serviceable but not wondrous. Which might have been perfectly fine for books like Harry Potter, with the opportunity to camouflage any shortcomings in writing style with all the overlaid wonderfulness of sheer world-creating pizzazz. But even in Harry Potter’s world, things were beginning to go a little sideways at the end.

I am thinking particularly of that ill-advised epilogue which Rowling added to the end of  Potter #7, the grown-up protags of the series now at Hogwarts Platform sending their own sprogs off to thefabled school. And the magic, here…. well…. it is beginning to flake off. Why? Because this epilogue loses several essential things that made Potterworld so compelling, and gains a few other things which make you suddenly question the whole edifice of that world. Let us list:

1. The Muggle/Wizarding world interface is fraying badly. In a number of ways. Let me put it this way – if your education consists of Hogwarts – with courses in Potions and Defense against Dark Arts and all sorts of wonderful stuff like that but not (as far as I could ever tell) English Lit or Calculus – your job porspects as a Hogwarts graduate are somewhat limited in the “real” world (you try applying for a Muggle job with O.W.L.s as credentials and see how far you get…) In the magic workd, things like banking appear to be kind of reserved for folk of a goblinish type, and, uh, what else…? Not much, as such. So your  employment options are resricted to (apparently) working for the Ministry of Magic, really (and just how many new graduates can that august institution absorb…?) The point is that Rowling appears to be making an issue of the fact that her erstwhile child heroes are now “working” adults… and she simply has not set up the world to provide them, or a remotely adeqate number of those like them, with productive employment options even in the magic world they inhabit let alone the Muggle one. Which then begs the question – WHY are the wizards and witches interacting with the Muggle world AT ALL – they can get nothing useful out of it and they have to spend their entire existence hiding who and what they are. Which then skates very close to Rowling’s vision of Mundania, in that last sectionof the last Potter book. And it badly did not work. Because without the magic to prop it up… the decorations had nothing to sit on. And it all fell down.

2. And while we are on Hogwarts. It’s a great deal of fun, even if it is Boarding School on Oxford University Steroids  – that dining hall! the high table! and when it comes to food please let me assure you – as a British Boarding School graduate myself, that the food doesn’t looke anytthing like the extravaganza shown by the Potter movies. In fact my own years at boarding school have left me with an instnict to eat very fast (because if I wanted enough food I would have to gobble it) and a lasting aversion to any food that has a remotely PINK tinge (because nothing natural is pink, and any pink food tastes accordingly…) ) But leaving all that aside (and I was LOVING the moving portraits and all the ghosts and half the world was tearing around screaming I WANT TO BE IN GRYFFINDOR!!!) it prepares its students for – well – I don’t know. It might be of great use to know how to brew up a juice with which to change your appearance, and it works wonders for a story with magic-run plots, but practical? Not hardly.  And while in some senses there might have been a raison d’etre for the whole thing while Voldemort was looming out there… what now, when the enemy has been vanquished? What is the reason for sending your magical children to Hogwarts, at all, other than to just Have Fun Out There (and education be damned). And speaking of Voldemort…

3. – well, surely we can say his name now, he’s DEAD – he was kind of sort of the point of the whole saga, his existence, his powers, his vanquishment. Now he is gone. A story protagonist is only as good as his antagonist and let’s face it VOldemort was a doozy – but what now? There might have been a point to learning Defense against the Dark Arts when there was a Dark Lord out there, but why now? Just who would you Avada Kedavra? It diminishes the deadly spells to fling them at neighbours who happen to annoy you by not cutting their grass. But how many Dark Lords to you get to have coming up right after the previous one has been vanquished – do they sort of line up offstage and wait for their number to come up – “Okay, Voldermort is up – next – I believe it’s number 34 – where the hell are you when you’re needed center stage? Come on come on come on we don’t have all day… all right, number 35, then? Who’s next?” And without that overaching Good Versus Evil storyline Potterworld devolves – yes, yet again – into Mundania. And Rowling is less good at Mundania than she is at Magicworld.

But she doesn’t have enough to keep Magicworld going.

Not this Magicworld, anyway.

So fair enough, she said she was sort of done with Harry Potter anyway. But if she wanted to write more books she was now at a crossroads. She could write another book for kids (or not). She could write another fantasy (or not). Whatever she picked, she faced the spectre of Harry Potter casting a gigantic shadow over it all. If she DID go for another fantasy for children, can you just see the reviews? “Well, it’s no Harry Potter…” (as thougn anything could be.. you only get one phenomenon a lifetime…) If she picked one of the two – a book for children that was NOT fantasy, or a fantasy that was NOT a book for children – she would be up against the same Sisyphus slope. Either the fantasy-for-adults would be inevitably called ‘childish” – (“does she think she is still writing for twelve year olds?”) or the non-fantasy for the children would be panned for not being as inventive and dazzling as Harry Potter was. Can’t win.

So she took the last path, wrote a new book which was NOT a fantasy and NOT for children.

And, alas, even though plenty of reviews are okay, there are any number of them that invoke Harry Potter within the first paragraph or three of it. And I’ve seen a disconcerting number of reflections on how her writing style just didn’t quite make the jump with her. The writing style that was fine for the middle-grade Harry Potter books with which she made her name and her fortune just didn’t play as well when the intended audience was all growed up, as it were.

But this strikes me as a sort of an awful situation to be in. Write something phenomenally successful and are you EVER going to be let off that hook? Are you doomed to have to repeat yourself over and over again until even you are sick of the taste of your fiction, because the reading public can’t accept anyhting else from you? Do you take the risls inherent in writing something utterly different? How do you cope if you fail? Is huge overwhelming success as a ficiton writer OF A PARTICULAR FICTION going to hang above you like a shadow of doom ever more?

And what if you DO make the leap, and try something that’s far from your original success, and readers start finding out that your writing style can’t make the leap with you….?

Do you stay true to type? Or do you simply close your eyes and jump and hope that ENOUGH readers will follow…?



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There are 10 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mary

    Well, there was always the possibility of a pseudonym.

  2. 2. Alma Alexander

    There is that. But that’s a different can of worms. People HAVE written different htings under different names – but how many different people can you (or do you WANT to) be…?

  3. 3. green_knight

    For me, it was two things. One, Rowling isn’t a very good writer. I had that suspicion during HP, but A Casual Vacancy shows all of her weaknesses and none of her strengths – she was very ill advised writing and publishing this particular adult book.

    And two, I *do* feel that writers should take reader expectations into acccount in order not to disappoint their loyal readers, because that’s just stupid – I already felt that the HP series failed its readers in that regard (readers, particularly young ones, who love the first few books bounce off the later ones, readers who like the gritty dark ones find the first few silly – I think a school series works better if characters and readers grow up _some_, but without the disjointedness of the HP series.

    And then she jumps to a very explicit, cynical adult novel full of abuse and darkness (rape, suicide, child death). Which, to make it even worse, is wrapped into boring banality – when Neil Gaiman gets gritty, he signals on the first page what you can expect, but JKR isn’t writer enough to do that.

    I think she could have written any number of books that would have been well received, but even at her level of famousness, writing a good book is not optional.

  4. 4. Wolf Lahti

    I tried to like Harry Potter, I really did, but Rowling’s writing was not polished enough to get me past 100 or so pages of the first book. It was, indeed, painful to have read that far before I finally gave up on her lackluster and ofttimes irritating style.

    Regarding an author getting pigeonholed due to past success, I point to the obvious exception in our time, Neil Gaiman. He is entertaining and writes well enough (not nearly so fabulously as some people would have you believe), but it is his range that I find most impressive. Without feeling the need to resort to pseudonyms, he has produced successful comic books, screenplays, and short fiction and novels in children’s, young adult, urban fantasy, high fantasy genres. He has even gained some renown for his poetry (which to my mind is actually poetic prose).

    We are limited not so much but our talent but rather by how we perceive ourselves.

  5. 5. Wolf Lahti

    Ack! It of course should be “*by* our talent”.


  6. 6. Alma Alexander

    So I’ll throw out another question. What is more important, in the long run – a great story to tell or the ability to tell it well?

  7. 7. green_knight

    I think you need a bit of both. The great story is not recognisable in the most pedestrian prose – yes, sometimes readers will supply it, but when you stumble over the words and grind your teeth at the phrases and go ‘huh’ at regular intervalls, a great story becomes unrecognisable.
    On the other hand, the best voice becomes somewhat useless when the story is banal or nonexistent – you might admire sentences and paragraphs, but if there’s no story, you can only stand so much.

    I’d say that a writer who has both – wordcraft and storycraft – in adequate doses is better than one who excels in one and fails at the eother.

    And I do think that ‘great storytelling’ might be a bit of a red herring – because people who aren’t accomplished writers usually don’t understand the nuances of storytelling. What they might have is great worldbuilding ideas – but I can’t recall a great plot coming from a writer who was struggling with the prose.

  8. 8. Chrisv

    Dave Wolverton / Dave Farland has two names. One for sci-fi and one for fantasy. He has said on numerous occasions that he did that specifically to address reader expectation. So it is not unheard of, nor frowned upon, for authors to do this.

    I purposely did not go out and buy Rowling’s new book because I know what I expect from her. I probably would have purchased another fantasy from her, so at least she did the courtesy of warning me about the genre of the new book. I do feel that banking on her success of Harry Potter and expecting loyal readers to follow her to another genre is neither a realistic nor a fair expectation. Of course those fans are going to be expecting something similar to the work they fell in love with.

    Is it fair to an author to be compartmentalized into only writing one genre? Absolutely not, but it’s a real phenomenon. Which is why most use pseudonyms to handle reader expectation. Neil Gaiman and Orson Scott Card seem to be successful exceptions to that rule. (I’m sure there are others, but none spring to mind.)

    I honestly feel that Rowling’s fans would have been better served for her to use a pseudonym for “A Casual Vacancy” for two reasons. First, there would have been no preconceived expectation of some new fantasy world. And secondly, if her writing is in need of fine tuning, having a flop of a book here and there wouldn’t ding her reputation as she works out kinks while experimenting with other genres. It’s not like she needs the money.

  9. 9. Sam Lubell

    I dissgree about jobs in the Potterverse. First, we see several storekeepers so someone must make the goods they sell, including books. We know of two newspapers so probably other publications as well. Humans also work for the bank- onne of Ron’s brothers is a cursebreaker for them and another works on a dragon reservation. There is a hospital so medwitches. And some food and drink is unique to the wizzard world, like butterbeer, so someone must make that too.

  10. 10. David Breslin

    I actually kind of like J K Rowling’s style of prose and (especially!) dialogue, at least in Potters 3-6. She’s pleasantly solid and down-to-earth, letting marvels and terrors speak for themselves rather than over-egging the custard with purple phrases. To me, this rings true for a story where the heroes are modern British kids!
    Mind you, I can see how a tale of real-world horror and angst might need more vivid language….

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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