September 25, 2012
Life after Harry: Rowling's literary magic can address challenges with new adult fiction novel, experts say
In a post-Potter world, J.K. Rowling will try to cast a spell on grown-up readers with her upcoming adult fiction novel, "The Casual Vacancy." Two Kansas State University children's literature experts said that Rowling's strength as a writer can help her successfully jump from children's literature to adult fiction.
"The Casual Vacancy" makes its formal presence on bookshelves on Thursday, Sept. 27. The 512-page novel, published by Little, Brown Book Group, is Rowling's first novel since the Harry Potter series.
"Rowling has been careful to establish this new book as separate, publishing it with Little, Brown and identifying its primary audience as adults," said Karin Westman, head of the university's department of English and a children's literature expert. "The burden now falls on her artistic ability to deliver a compelling story that readers can enjoy regardless of her best-selling series."
Westman is teaching Rowling's new book in one of her undergraduate and graduate literature courses, titled Harry Potter in Context. The course places Rowling's Harry Potter series within literary history, and students read the Harry Potter series as well as the works of Rowling's antecedents, influences and contemporaries. Westman plans to include "The Casual Vacancy" as part of the final section of the course titled Life After Harry.
"The Casual Vacancy" marks Rowling's first adult novel, but Rowling also looked to adult literature for inspiration when composing the Harry Potter series, Westman said. With the series, Rowling blended realism, fantasy, mystery and satire. As a result, the challenges of branching from a fantasy genre are less about craft and more about marketing and readers' expectations, Westman said.
"The cross-generational appeal of Rowling's Harry Potter series provides a ready-made audience of adult readers -- readers who, in 1997, were either adults when the series first appeared or were younger readers then, but are now adults, 15 years later," Westman said.
Westman's current research and forthcoming book explore the Harry Potter series' connections to adult and children's literature. She plans to include Rowling's new novel in the conclusion to the book. Westman expects the new novel to show how Rowling's favorite author is Jane Austen and her favorite living author is Roddy Doyle -- two novelists who favor realism over fantasy and the domestic over the exotic.
"The Harry Potter series has traces of Austen's and Doyle's attention to personal relationships in everyday life alongside its magical setting and epic battle," Westman said. "Rowling's first non-Harry Potter publication grants her the artistic license to immerse readers more fully in a narrative tradition of realism and social satire."
The publisher's summary describes the new Rowling's novel as darkly comic. It tells the story of the turmoil that occurs in the small English town of Pagford after a town leader suddenly dies and an election is held for his vacant spot on the parish council.
"The publisher's description also makes me think strongly of the Little Hangleton opening of the fourth Harry Potter book," said Philip Nel, professor of English and director of the university's graduate program in children's literature. "Small town, mysterious death, gossiping townspeople. So, we might also expect this to be a satirical work in the vein of Austen -- one of Rowling's favorite writers."
Challenges certainly exist with the new novel and Rowling's continued success with the Harry Potter series could overwhelm her effort to create new imaginative worlds, Westman said. But Rowling has the skill to address those challenges. Some of her strengths as a writer come from her ability to blend diverse literary genres into a new work that is more than the sum of its parts.
"The pleasure comes from being able to recognize the individual ingredients while also appreciating the whole," Westman said. "Like Jane Austen, Rowling creates characters who may elicit our judgment as much as our admiration, even both feelings at the same time. However, she also asks readers to acknowledge their own failings and to feel empathy for others."
No matter what happens, Rowling's new novel shows that she will continue writing and even branching out to try new genres of literature.
"With the publication of 'The Casual Vacancy,' Rowling has indeed ensured that there will be life after Harry for her fans, her critics and the Harry Potter generation," Westman said.
What Kansas State University students are saying about 'The Casual Vacancy':
* "It's been described as a dark comedy, which is something we only began to experience in the Harry Potterseries," said Orlando Dos Reis, master's student in English, Red Hook, N.Y., who is writing his master's thesis on the Harry Potter series. "It will be interesting to see how Rowling can flex her writing muscles to tackle writing styles that we've not yet seen from her."
* "I am looking forward to Rowling's new book because it will give her fans a chance to see a different style of writing that isn't for children," said Anne Sisley, junior in English, Manhattan. "The announcement of this book made me so excited because it means we're not done hearing from Rowling after the publication of Harry Potter and that she will continue to write."
* "I am really looking forward to reading a book by Rowling written for adults," said Molly Haddock, senior in hotel and restaurant management, Manhattan. "I am also interested in seeing what she can do with new characters. I have high hopes for the book, and I can't wait to read it."