"If you like Harry Potter, you will hate this book"

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This is one of those weeks when you can understand why JK Rowling doesn't like to read what people are writing about her on the net.

"If you like Harry Potter you will hate this book," says one reader, not entirely unpredictably.

And obviously there's an element of truth here, especially if you're only 11.

I was too old for Potter when the first book came out and read just the one, for the purposes of interviewing JKR for Radio Wales. So I’m currently about halfway through The Casual Vacancy with no great feeling of dismay at the absence, so far, of a Quidditch fixture.

JK Rowling

Rowling has said she wanted The Casual Vacancy to be like a Victorian novel, and it kind of is. The various plot lines are gathered around a community council in a country town (which might just possibly be in the general vicinity of Chepstow where the author grew up) with lots of multicultural characters, love and hate, tears and... well, more tears.

It's a bit more like Joanna Trollope than her ancestor, Anthony, but without the stylistic elegance or the economy. Some scenes are way too long and could be subtler.

Jo throws in the f-word and the c-word at the earliest opportunities, to emphasise that it's an 'adult' book. And you tend to find out what the author thinks of her characters rather than forming impressions from what they think of one another. Evidently, she can't stand some and feels sorry for others... but how many does she actually like? Debatable.

However, having said all that, it's readable, intelligent and probably a lot more professional than most of the book critics were expecting.

The national paper reviewers, that is, as distinct from the vast army of unpaid internet critics, many of whom came out like clubbers in the early hours, some with broken bottles.

"Perhaps she shouldn't have written this book as I now will remember her for her magical HP books, as well as one of the worst books I have ever read!"

Well, obviously it's not Harry Potter. You can tell that from the cover, which looks like an election leaflet. As most election leaflets wind up in the bin without being read, I'm not sure this was a great idea, but too late now.

The point is that what attracted millions of readers to Harry Potter were the ideas, not the writing. It doesn't take a Dumbledore to figure out that parish councils can be seriously short on magic.

Just like Martin Amis with Lionel Asbo, Rowling wanted to present her views on an aspect of the Big Society. Fair enough.

In normal circumstances, a novel of this kind would hardly be expected to attract millions of readers... especially when, on Amazon, the ebook is more expensive - by nearly three quid - than the hardback. All the more baffling when its main competitor for mass sales, James Herbert's Ash, was, at the time, on sale at a staggering 20p.

The price discrepancy did not exactly go unnoticed on Amazon.

"Dissapointed. Wanted to read this book but discusted in the price. At least Dick Turpen had the front to wear a mask."

Hmm... the three daft spelling mistakes here, coupled with that comparatively slick Dick Turpin line makes you wonder if it's from someone with genuine literacy problems or someone who actually can spell and has an ulterior motive.

Which raises the issue of all those deliberately damaging reviews posted by people with a personal interest in reducing sales - like rival authors and rival publishers operating under pseudonyms.

And that poses one other very interesting question. Why didn't JK Rowling insist on putting out The Casual Vacancy under a pen name? She hardly needs the money, the publisher would have had to go along with it... and that way she'd have found out what people, readers and critics alike, actually thought about it.

Assuming, of course, that, given the theme and setting, any of them even noticed it.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Michelle_jones

    on 29 Oct 2012 22:46

    Initially, I thought she should have gone with an alas too...but I suspect the fear of this book vanishing without a trace was greater than the fear of it being trashed by the press and rabid Potterites. It's a problem to debate over a nice glass of wine. Then of course you have to look at the 50 Shades phenomenon; I'm not sniffy, if it brings folks to books, brilliant, but it highlights how the niche audience thing works. (Bloody big niche I hear you say!) JKR has written for a she wants to change her niche she has come up against a rather large wall. As a wise man once said; You can only sell folks what they want to buy, not what you think they want to buy. The trick us in marrying up the two. It seems that whilst many people were happy to take a chance on her first adult book, she may find a second one trickier...unless of course it's set in
    Potter land.

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