The Casual Vacancy: Second Book Syndrome

I approached reading The Casual Vacancy, J K Rowling first novel since the Harry Potter series, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I was eleven when I first read fellow eleven-year-old wizard Harry Potter’s story, and nineteen while reading the last book. I went to many midnight book releases and movie showings, practiced reading tea leaves with friends, and in my sophomore year of high school wrote a paper defending Ron Weasley after a disagreement with one of my teachers. Oh yeah, the paper was completely “for fun” and I wrote it over Christmas vacation. I wouldn’t say the series defined my childhood, but it certainly bookended my adolescence and will always be near to my heart. Trite but true!

I had no such expectations for The Casual Vacancy, but I did await the book with a curiousness. What would the author who had created a world so magical children slammed themselves into the brick wall between platforms nine and ten at Kings Cross to find it – come up with next. What would she make of the real (or shall I be cute and say “muggle”) world?

Not much apparently. Many reviewers are focusing on the intense social commentary within the novel. This is a fair focus. The central plot, if there is one, centers around an election for a recently available parish council seat – the closing of vital treatments to the poor side of town is what is at stake. Other reviews have highlighted the incredible darkness of the book, which I also find fair. However while there is drug use, child abuse, rape, self-mutilation, a plethora of swear words, and other nefarious activities, these are not the focus of the book. They are background activities.

Although I found the book, to it’s credit, very readable, it seemed to me that a central message was on the cruelty and darkness of human nature. In an effort to make her characters complex, to me they all seemed overtly flawed. Transcending race, religion, social class and gender not of the characters were relatable or engaging. In a clear contrast with the clear good/evil lines drawn in the Harry Potter series, the message of this novel seemed to me: if you aren’t magic you are screwed.

Most people would probably consider this Rowling’s 8th novel, but I see The Casual Vacancy as a clear case of second book syndrome.  Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series much like a single book. She planned the whole thing before she started writing the first book, and wrote the epilogue to book 7 before Sorcerer’s Stone was published.

Second book syndrome obviously means different things to different authors, but is in it’s most general terms the difficulty a published author has writing a second book. I’ve heard it characterized as (1) having difficulty writing on a deadline driven timeline; (2) fearing you only have one good story to tell; (3) giving in too much to what your publisher/agent/audience wants and expects of you; and (4) trying to redefine yourself by writing the exact opposite of what your publisher/agent/audience wants/expects of you. In this book I think Rowling is suffering from 2 and 4. Also, I think the book would have been much more tightly crafted with a stronger editor.

Rowling can obviously write whatever she wants. Aside from considerations of free speech, she has enough money that public reception no longer matters except perhaps to her ego. I am not disappointed with the Casual Vacancy, but I will expect more from her next book.

I can recommend or advise against reading The Casual Vacancy. I suspect most diehard Harry Potter fans will, just to see what is up. And while it contains no of the literal or figurative magic of the boy wizard series, fans will feel comfort in the familiar language and tone within the language of the book.



When Does an Author’s Gender Matter?

As an English major, something every professor I ever had stressed, was that to accurately access a book you had to divorce the work from your knowledge of the author. This can be near to impossible to do. Somehow The Bell Jar isn’t the same without knowledge of Sylvia Plath’s suicide. It’s hard to not recognize the patterns in Pat Conroy’s books without surmising that he had a pretty rough upbringing. Now the author’s gender is coming to the forefront of literary discussions, especially when it comes to reception from elite book critics. Which has me wondering, are male and female authors treated differently?

Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, and Vida (an organization for women in the literary arts) all say yes. Vida make the most convincing argument through their annual counts of authors from each gender reviewed in the most respected book news outlets. Unfortunately outlets like The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic and The New York Times often devote over 75 percent of their coverage to men. (Note: I got this from this Huffington Post article. I read somewhere else that this year 60% of NYT reviews where men).

Weiner makes a less convincing argument, and Picoult is the weakest of all. In a recent tweet she compares herself to Franzen stating they both focus on domestic issues but credits the difference in their treatment to their gender. Jeffery Eugenides dismissed this claim, touting the difference in the type of book the two authors write and offering up Zadie Smith and Alice Munro as female authors receiving deserved acclaim for their literary works. Eugenides’ recent book The Marriage Plot, also deals with what Huffington Post has termed “domestic issues” and perhaps that is why he is quick to defend Franzen. I think he understands that comments like Picoult’s will not raise the esteem of her and her cohort’s novels. Instead, the danger is that authors like Franzen and Munro, who write about family life, romantic relationships and what Munro famously (to someone who wrote her thesis on Alice Munro) termed “deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum” will be discredited in favor of the hyper masculine writers and writing styles that dominated the 20th century.

While I find the disproportionate representation unfortunate, and I am sure there are probably lots of fantastic female authors being overlooked, in this instance I kind of couldn’t agree with Eugenides more. In fact, Picoult being the author to make this claim weakens the argument and skews the issue. Something I think even Weiner would agree with based on her statement “Do I think I should be getting all the attention that Jonathan ‘Genius’ Franzen gets? Nope.”

I like all the authors I’ve mentioned in this post. There are many days I would rather read In Her Shoes than Middlesex. But there is no doubt in my mind, that from a literary standpoint Franzen, Eugenides and, yes, my hero Alice Munro are on a completely different level from Picoult and Weiner.

Interestingly, at the National Books Festival last weekend Tayari Jones addressed the issue with a completely different attitude. She said that being marginalized by these popular outlets, made women (particularly women of color) write for purer and truer reasons. She knows she isn’t a writer for the praise and positive reviews, and thinks this keeps her more connected with her readers and her craft.

I thought it was interesting that Jones eagerly exposed a silver lining, while Weiner and Picoult seemed intent on having their cake (extreme commercial success) and eating it too.

I don’t have an answer. But thought this was a pretty interesting discussion. It definitely got me examining my own biases and I found my own inclination to support Eugenides over Picoult pretty surprising. I’m still trying to synthesize my opinions, so please, let me know your thoughts.

National Book Festival 2012

I went to the National Book Festival (the largest book festival in the country!) this weekend. Two days of good weather, good speakers, and a huge crowd of people who also love books: what could be better or more affirming?

I saw many YA authors we’ve reviewed here on the blog, and some “grown up” authors. Everyone was fantastic. I started strong with John Green, who was probably my favorite speaker. The most interesting thing he said (aside from a hilarious story of how he met his wife) was that the relationship between readers and writers is one of mutual generosity. Side note: when I tweeted this, the Library of Congress retweeted me. I’m just going to say, that I think that officially makes me successful at life, or at least at the internet.

Next I saw Robert Caro, with his unparalleled knowledge of Nixon. Followed by Tayari Jones. Tayari was my wild card visit, but she had an infectious sense of humor and was the best dressed author of the festival. She talked about how often when girls like books and writing, people don’t view them as being smart or studious they think of them as being nice, because “you can’t get pregnant in a library.”

After Tayari, I saw Jeffrey Eugenides, a big literary heavy weight. I was so impressed that when I got home, I read The Marriage Plot (finishing last night). If you haven’t read it yet, you definitely should. Who knew contemporary fiction for adults could be so compelling?

My last author of the day was David Levithan, another writer we’ve reviewed. It was interesting to hear about his writing process and love of writing with other authors. Apparently he just writes one chapter and sends it off, then the collaborating author writes a chapter and sends it back. It sounds like it would be a fun experiment, but I can’t believe so many beloved books have been born this way.

Sunday was a little lower key. I’m sorry to admit it, but the authors didn’t intrigue me as much. The weather was better, but the crowds were much smaller than on Saturday. I heard some poetry from Nikky Finney, heard about Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian’s new book series (it deals with bullying and sounds much more intrigueing than the Summer I Turned Pretty series) and listened to Hope Larson, Anita Silvey, and Leonard Marcus discuss the impact of Madeleine L’Engle and A Wrinkle in Time.

Overall, it was a super fun weekend. Some lessons for next year:

  1.  If I can only choose one day to go, I’m going on Saturday.
  2. They ran out of books to buy almost immediately. Next year I’m buying any books I want signed from Amazon and bringing them with me.
  3. I’m bringing an extra water bottle and a picnic lunch. No more $11 hamburgers for me!

There should be more videos of the author talks here in the very near future. I sincerely suggest you check a few of them out. My intention was to share all the funny quips and writing advice, these authors shared with me, but I’m afraid instead this read a bit like a book report. Was anyone else there this weekend? If so share some of your favorite speakers!