From the Observer 9 August 2014
Celebrity watchers in Gloucestershire can spend their summer ogling Michael Gambon, Keeley Hawes and many another star. The BBC is in Stroud to film JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, because it tells us “something insightful about the country we live in”. The BBC forgot to add that the best insight that the arguments about Rowling bring is that vindictive fanatics swarm over British culture.
Her story of rivalries in a small west country town is the most unfairly criticised novel in modern fiction. You will not understand why unless you understand the mentality of an intellectual policeman. Perhaps you scan a novel like an inquisitor interrogating a heretic looking for a passing reference to Palestine, America, climate change, the EU or whatever else stirs your passions.
Like a Freudian slip or DNA fingerprint, it tells you all you need to know. Writers may devote 99% of their time to talking about other subjects. They don’t fool you. A forensic scientist can identify a criminal from a stray hair. So it is with the cops who police culture. They need only a scrap of evidence and – gotcha! – ideological guilt is proved beyond reasonable doubt.
I will not pretend that The Casual Vacancy is a modern Middlemarch; Rowling’s account of provincial life lacks Eliot’s humanity. But I understand why it has had millions of readers. Rowling moves 20 main characters through 500 pages and shows their development without pity or illusion. Her critics seized on just two of them to pretend that an ambitious and impressive work was agitprop. Howard Mollison is a grotesquely obese, small-minded shopkeeper who wants to dominate the parish council. In particular, he wants to return his town to middle-class exclusiveness by ending funding for a drug rehabilitation centre. His wife is a frigid schemer, who is even less attractive than her husband. Rowling leaves the reader in no doubt that she loathes everything about their twee, cramped lives.
Political correctness does not exist only on the authoritarian left, and Rowling’s portrait of the Mollisons brought out its snarling Tory twin. The Daily Mail claimed Rowling was cramming “a socialist manifesto” down readers’ throats. Charles Moore whined in the Telegraph that Rowling hated the decent middle class and could only praise “admirable Sikh doctors, lesbians, social workers and teachers”. The brown skinned, the public sector worker and the queer, in other words. The Guardian agreed albeit from the other side of the divide. Rowling dissected snobbery and racism, therefore her novel was “not bad at all”. QED.
Because I know there is a heresy-hunter in me when I am at my worst, I have learned to despise politicised critics. They judge fiction by its “message” as real secret policemen with the power to censor and harm do. And as with real secret policemen, politicised critics don’t understand what they are reading – or want to understand either.
Stop here if you haven’t read the novel but the notion that Rowling produced a “socialist manifesto” can only come from minds that were closed before the book was opened. I don’t know if decades in children’s books pushed Rowling over the edge, but she revels in the freedom that adult fiction brings. She mercilessly exposes all her characters’ flaws without regard for colour, class or creed. The “admirable” Sikh doctor, who so upset the Telegraph, is an appalling mother, who ignores her miserable daughter because she is neither clever nor beautiful. The teacher is a paranoid wreck. The social worker is a wet and desperate woman who tries to force an unwilling man into marriage.
The Casual Vacancy is not liberal propaganda or anything like it. The book’s “political message”, for what it is worth, is conservative in the end. The threatened drugs centre cannot rehabilitate a heroin-addicted mother, with appalling consequences for her children. Its failure vindicates Howard Mollison’s belief that helping drug addicts is a waste of taxpayers’ money. I doubt that if one reader in a million notices or cares however, and I wonder if Rowling does either. She and her readers were concerned about character and human faults and folly. They know what too few critics grasp: you cannot reduce a great or even a good work to a political checklist.
The sloganising bores of the Tory press falsely accused Rowling. But there is a paradox hidden in her treatment few like to face. The fanaticism that makes critics scour texts like Stalinists produces hack propagandists by the thousand, of course, but it produces good journalists too. Their enthusiasms and loathings drive them to find what others pass over and follow leads that others ignore. I am afraid to say that fair-minded people can make terrible reporters.
And perhaps terrible novelists too. The malice with which Rowling dissects her characters’ faults is the book’s greatest glory. When Rowling describes Mollison’s belly, she does not just say it is fat but that a “great apron of stomach fell so far down in front of his thighs that most people thought instantly of his penis when they first clapped eyes on him, wondering when he had last seen it. How he washed it, how he managed to perform any of the acts for which a penis is designed”.
The obsessiveness that makes her censure her characters’ flaws is matched by her willingness to fund a press regulator that will allow state-backed censorship. If Impress, the body she and other Hacked Off supporters are so generously financing, secures statutory recognition, every paper must either join it or face punitive damages and costs whenever an oligarch or MP sues them – even if they have told the truth.
You might find it incredible that writers who rely on freedom of speech are going along with Hacked Off and I remain astonished by the naivety of Ian McEwan, Tom Stoppard and – give me strength – Salman Rushdie. But in the case of Rowling, I am not astonished at all. In life as in fiction, she is all of a piece. Rowling is so used to condemning, it never occurs to her that she may be condemned; when she takes freedoms from others, she never thinks that they may one day be taken from her.
Shelley said that writers are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Let us hope he was wrong. The example of Rowling and her critics suggests that if writers ever got near a legislature, they would scream, twist, shoot off on demented political trajectories and censor. At least the good ones would.