Last night, I decided to stop reading J.K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy. I usually stop reading books because they are either bad or unnecessary. I’m having a hard time calling this one a “bad book,” though, because the writing is so good.
I think Rowling is a gifted storyteller and a genius in her own right. This book begins with a whole series of chapters that introduce different characters who inhabit a small British town. The chapters are long and engrossing. I thought the characters were rich and well-developed (though I’ve read a number of other reviewers who didn’t think so, most notably, the reviewers at The Huffington Post and The NY Times). Each character seemed to me to have a unique voice and personality. As I read these chapters I kept thinking things like, “If I can ever craft a cast of characters even half this rich and varied, I’ll be lucky.” The woman is brilliant.
So why stop reading it?
Because it’s not fun.
That might be a trite answer, but it’s honest. I’m sure there are some who will think this is not a good enough reason to give up on a good writer. Here’s the thing, I’ve had this book since late October and have only managed to make it through 180 pages. I’m an avid reader. I love fiction, in particular. It never takes me this long to finish a novel. But over the last six to seven weeks I’ve found numerous reasons to ignore this book and pick up something else. This is not normal for me. I keep looking at the book on my nightstand, thinking about the story and the characters, and then choosing to pick up another book or do something else.
Here’s why it’s not fun: it’s a story about the absolute basement of people’s lives. Adultery, rape, domestic abuse, teenage sexuality, bullying, self-harm, theft, narcissism, drug use, bigotry, and cursing that would make a sailor blush all find their home in this story. But that’s not the worst of it. On top of all of these obvious maladies, every character in this story, in some way, is petty. I’m just not interested in reading about a town full of petty people and their messed up lives, no matter how complex and intricate their characterization is. Real life has so much mess in it. When I read a novel, I want to have fun.
At the beginning of this post I said that I’m having a hard time calling The Casual Vacancy a bad book because the writing is so good. That’s because I think readers need to give good writing a shot. Readers (I include myself here) need to work hard and not expect everything to be explained to them in neat paragraphs. If we readers think that way then we’ll only ever read pop novels. We’ll never make it to Melville and Shakespeare. I’m not against pop novels (in fact, I hope to publish one some day) but they’ve got to be balanced with “meaty” writing that makes our brains work a little bit.
However, I’m breaking my own rule. I’m giving up on The Casual Vacancy. I’m just not interested in reading about these people’s lives anymore. I don’t care about them enough to get down into their filth and endure their language. I wrote above that I usually stop reading books because they’re bad or unnecessary. For me, The Casual Vacancy is an unnecessary read.