By Russel D McLean
When THE CASUAL VACANCY came out the other week, lots of people reviewed the book (some of them, those amazon customer reviews, reviewed the lack of proper digital formatting rather than the book itself). Reading those reviews, I was astonished by one constant theme running them: the continual references to Harry Potter.
Now, perhaps that was inevitable because Potter’s legacy is the Potterverse, but at no point during the pre-publicity (and there was a lot of it) for THE CASUAL VACANCY did Rowling state that this book had anything to do with Potter. In fact she went out of her way (as did the publishers) to state that it was a book for grown ups. A book that was set in “the real world”, something that had nothing to do with what she had written before.
And yet the reviews were littered with references to Muggles and hogwarts and magic and the fact that Rowling dared to have a very strange reference to a used condom in the book. Few of them seemed to take the book and its merits on its own terms, preferring instead to play on the author’s past rather than seeing what Rowling was attempting to do in the here and now.
It left me with a feeling that Rowling would have been better (expectations wise at least, but not sales wise) to have released the book under another name. I know there are many reasons why that didn’t happen, of course, but the expectations that came with the Rowling brand were too much for The Casual Vacancy to be taken entirely as its own thing. Like the crime writer who can’t break out of the genre and do something different because of publisher and reader expectations* Rowling faced similar difficulties on a massive scale, and I have to wonder what will happen with her next book. Now that sales have been so huge because people were intrigued as to what she would do, will they come back now that that curiosity has been satisfied?
Writers have strange expectations placed on them, especially genre writers. Readers and publishers expect them to do something the same “but different”. We are put into holes of expectation and only rarely allowed to break out of them.
I always think of movies, how directors and actors can have a go at different genres and yet people will still come flocking to their movies (seriously, if Arnie had been a writer, then Jingle All The Way along would have killed his career) without the same kind of baggage of which they approach writers. Perhaps because its difficult not to pigeonhole writers. After all we are solely responsible for the product that reaches the readers. It is our name that is most important. Whereas in the movies, its always a team effort; its not simply the star, but the director, the scripter (even though people rarely notice them), the co-stars and so forth. There are so many people to blame or praise for a movie, whereas with a book, its just one person (even when behind the scenes there are other people assisting, such as editors, first readers, researchers etc etc) and the public easily start to associate that one person with a particular style which is why it can become difficult to break that style.
Writers are often more than the readers expect. They have the same complex and varied interests as anyone else, and to pigeonhole them in one genre is often a mistake, You can tell when a writer has reached the point of writing for contract and expectation instead of their own passions, and I think that is such a sad thing to see. Reinventing, taking risks and simply playing with words is part of who a writer is. We shouldn’t limit them. We should take each book on its own terms rather than comparing it to something which it is not.
*I’m thinking of Stuart MacBride’s brilliant Half Head which deserved a sequel and a chance to build up the man in another genre