I finished The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s novel for adults that came out last year. Last week I gushed in the early stages that I couldn’t see why reviewers had panned it. Someone suggested to me that they were expecting Harry, but for grown-ups, and Harry was Not What They Got. I can see that. The Harry Potter books are fantasies, school stories set in a world of magic. Wherever Harry lives, it isn’t in our world — or at least the world visible to us Muggles. Pagford, on the other hand, the village setting for The Casual Vacancy, is very recognizable as a part of our world. It is populated with a variety of families with varying degrees of dysfunction. They are just like our families, or at least like families we know. There is no escape from reality in Pagford. If you thought Rowling was the Queen of Escape To Another World, The Casual Vacancy will disappoint. Maybe that was what was with all the negative reviews, the conclusion that Pagford is not Hogwarts. Well wake up and smell the coffee reviewer people. Not everyone who is a writer is content with cranking out the same old thing because that is what the Reading Public has enjoyed in the past. I think The Casual Vacancy needs to be assessed on its own strengths and merits for what it is, not denounced because it is not another Harry Potter book.
Let me try assessing The Casual Vacancy for what it is. CV is a novel set in an English village. The main conflict revolves around whether the village should continue to rent a building to a drug treatment clinic, and whether the village should urge the nearby city to annex a district council-run development called “The Fields.” The main advocate for the clinic and the people of the Fields remaining attached to Pagford is Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother. The trick is that Mr. Fairbrother dies an early and unforeseen death in the golf club parking lot on about page 4 of the book. The rest of the book examines the long shadow Fairbrother’s life and death casts across the village. The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother makes four appearances, and drives the conflict onward. Essentially the conflict resolves when people learn to live without Fairbrother and his ghost.
Rowling tells a compelling tale. She does not sugar-coat the realities of teen-aged and adult life. Some may be shocked at the lack of sugar coating, but I didn’t find that Rowling gave unnecessary details for shock value. There are a lot of characters, but this is a village play, not a family drama, and there are no more key characters to keep track of than in many other novels of a similar size and length. The one thing I wondered about was Rowling’s use of the third person omniscient to tell the story. In the Potter books she used the third person limited voice, so that with some few exceptions in the beginning chapters of some books, we saw and heard everything from Harry’s point of view. This limited point of view is, I think, a strength of the Potter books. She might have done better with a more limited point of view in The Casual Vacancy, but I’m willing to chalk that up to trying something different. I’d read CV again, and give it 4/5 in my personal rating scheme. This means I recommend it with only a few reservations (it can be a bit raw, and it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea as it isn’t plot driven).
Have you read Rowling for grown-ups? What did you think?
Dear Miss Austen,
Allow me to congratulate you on Pride and Prejudice, in print this day for 200 years. I have read almost all of your fine works, and confess that I return most often to Pride and Prejudice, and take solace in the company of the Bennets and their connections. Miss Elizabeth, or as I should call her, Mrs. Darcy, is a friend whose company I enjoy greatly.
I wonder if you know, Miss Austen, that many writers have written books about the Bennets and the Darcys that follow the events you portrayed so admirably in Pride and Prejudice? I do not think that you would approve of all of the efforts of your admiring fans. You might, however, enjoy Death Comes to Pemberley, a murder mystery involving Mr. and Mrs. Darcy and their close connections. The cosy murder mystery is a genre, that, had you known it, you might have enjoyed writing.
I hope that you eventually receive my congratulations, and in some way come to know what an enormous influence you have had upon the imaginations of millions of people.
Allow me to remain your
When sorting used books I find bookmarks. Here’s one I quite like:
Look, it’s a friendly bookworm. On the flip side is an invitation to join the Red Deer College library for the low, low price of $5.00 a year. Now it costs $40/year for a community membership!
How a Red Deer College Library bookmark ends up in a bookshop in Toronto is, I’m sure, a tale to be told. But I don’t know the story. Sad.
I almost missed my stop on the subway, then on the bus. Why? I was reading The Casual Vacancy. I don’t know why this book got panned by so many reviewers. Seriously people, what were you thinking? Were you annoyed because you were forced to read it all in one day and it is so delicious you wanted to slow down and just enjoy it? Were you expecting more magic and otherworldliness? What’s the deal?
Sorry, I’ve got to go, I want to see what’s going on in Pagford.
Today I took myself off to a Large Book Retailer as I had a lovely gift card given to my by the Street Pastor at Christmas. With the lovely gift card I got some lovely books to add to my Christmas Reading Pile. I got Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope, both in support of my Reading Old Books campaign in 2013. I also got Pattern Recognition by William Gibson, because Gibson is generally brilliant and I’ve been looking for that one. Finally, I caved to the pull of a large epic in the winter and got Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. More books! Very exciting.
Since I’m generally having an afternoon off, I am now going to put down my computer, sip my freshly brewed decaf cinnamon coffee, and begin The Casual Vacancy. I will report on J.K. Rowling’s adult fiction soon.
Today when I was riding home on the subway, a man asked about the book I was reading. I’ve never actually had this happen before though I read on the subway all the time. I was reading Foundational Issues in Christian Education by Robert W. Pazmiño. I’m using Pazmiño as a text in a course I’m teaching.
Anyhow, buddy interrupts my reading and asks “Could you summarize the fundamental issues he mentions in what you’ve read so far?”
I said “Sure, he talks about biblical, theological, philosophical, historical, and sociological foundations to name a few.” <I go back to reading.>
Buddy <interrupting again>: “So all the foundational issues for Christian education are academic?”
Me: “Yes, according to this. This book focuses on the theoretical.”
Buddy: “Doesn’t he do anything practical?”
Me: “Not in this book, he’s got another one on practical things.”
Buddy, nodding and smiling at me like he’s made his point: “Oh, ok.”
I go back to reading.
I’ll be using this story as an introduction to tomorrow’s class on the philosophical foundations of Christian education. Lots of times we think that practical tips are the ultimate measure of whether a class or a book is any good. I think that good thinking should lead to good practice. I will also suggest that if one’s thinking does not influence one’s practice, neither the thinking nor the practice should be called “good.”
I note here that I refrained from asking subway buddy about the Arnold Schwarzenegger biography from the library that he was reading and carefully put away inside a bag before he began our little exchange. Possibly I should have asked what drew him to reading about Arnold. Was it the practical nature of celebrity biography?
First, some economic realities of academic publishing. University presses tend to lose money or do a little better than break even. They are not money-printing operations. There are probably some exceptions to this generality. Most academics do not make money writing and publishing — it is not worth their time if the only motivation was the money. Academics make money in publishing when they write a very successful textbook.
Second, some personal disclosures. I work in two areas of academic publishing. I write academic books and work in a bookshop that specializes in academic theology books. I am also linked to academic publishing in a third way as I teach, and so assign academic books as textbooks.
The fact that I produce books and receive royalties from their sales (piddling as these royalties may be) probably partially accounts for my strong stance against downloading copyrighted material. I did take a stance agains this before I produced books, realizing that photocopying books (which happened when I was an undergrad back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) or downloading scanned books is illegal. I don’t make copies outside of fair use for my students, didn’t before I was published, don’t now that I am published. I am pretty scrupulous about this. I realize that not everyone is so scrupulous.
Working in retail has given me a different perspective on academic publishing. In the bookshop where I work we give everyone the best price we can. We always discount 20% off the retail price where this is possible. Unfortunately, it is commonly not possible on textbooks because university presses give a short discount to retailers on textbooks. This is irritating to us in the store, and also to students. It seems backward, but see above. Textbooks are the one place university presses have a chance of making enough money to break even or do better. It is that whole captive audience thing. So part of me kind of understands it, though I find it irritating. In my mind, however, this doesn’t justify cranking out editions of very popular textbooks. That seems like pushing a good thing way too far.
So, as a producer and consumer of academic books what can I do? Well, do I want to publish with the Oxford University Press? Should I decline to publish with them because of their questionable ethical practices around the many editions issue, as exemplified in the Ehrman text? Do I avoid using Oxford University Press books as texts in my courses where that is possible? Yes, these are all things I should do. My own personal stance on this won’t change the OUP. But my conscience will feel better.
I’ve just finished On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, translated by a sister of the CSMV and introduced by her correspondent and friend C.S. Lewis. I talked about Lewis’s introduction during Christmas, and mentioned how reading his reflections on old books in that introduction influenced my reading resolutions for this year. Added to the end of On the Incarnation is an appendix containing a translation of a letter written by St. Athanasius to someone called Marcellinus on reading and interpreting the Psalms. It is great.
I am interested in the history of interpretation of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, so reading this appendix on the Psalter was almost better than the theological discourse on the incarnation. Both pieces of writing have their own charm and particular appeal. I preach the Psalms whenever I get a chance, so reading about their interpretation always fascinates me. This morning I heard an excellent exposition of Psalm 139 in the middle of a sermon on our identity in Christ. Then this afternoon I read St. Athanasius on interpreting the Psalms. The combination made my day.
I will post again on publishers and textbooks, but that’ll come tomorrow. Watch this space.
My last post was about a particular publishing scam for selling more textbooks. There are other publishing quirks that make me sad, but about which I will not rant. These quirks reflect the age and not the morality or ethics of the publishers.
Many times when a book is published and becomes a big hit (goes viral? can books go viral? maybe not) often there are spin-off publications. Recently a devotional/reflection/self-help book hit the New York Times best-seller list. Now there are related books including a devotional and a gift book. Now the original book is not a difficult read, nor is it long and complicated. The gift book is an excerpt version of the original book. Excerpts. The original book was released a year ago. Aren’t excerpts versions for classics? And doesn’t an excerpts version mean maybe people are intrigued by the book but they don’t want to read the whole thing? It all seems pretty over the top and also a bit condescending. Aren’t book-buyers more discriminating than that? Aren’t people more discriminating than that? Maybe not, but one can hope.
I sort of get that not everyone has a book on the go all the time. Sort of. I usually have about five on the go and one on my person at all times in case of any reading opportunity, so I’m not sure I really get people who don’t read. But surely even if you don’t read all the time you can gradually push through a small book that is not densely written or difficult? Are we becoming so post-literate? Really? Or am I making a big deal out of nothing?
As mentioned many times in this blog, I work in a theological bookshop. This bookshop serves a consortium of theological schools housed in a major research university. We sell textbooks for most graduate theological courses and also for select undergraduate religious studies courses. I do used books, so I buy back some textbooks. Usually the textbooks I’m most interested in buying back are those that are expensive new, and commonly required in more than one course. Bart Ehrman’s The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, published by Oxford University Press. This is a pricy little book, so the first question students ask after they recover from their initial sticker shock is “Do you have any used copies in stock?” The answer is usually no. Why? Because of the startling number of editions of this text that have issued forth from the Oxford University Press since it was first published in 1997.
Ehrman first published this textbook in 1997. It is now early 2013. That is coming up to 15 years since the book was first published. This textbook is now in its 5th edition.
There is a new edition of the book every 3 or 4 years, which means the used textbook market never really develops for this book. Someone buys the book for a first or second year course, then may keep it, particularly if they are a religious studies major, until graduation, by which time there is a new edition, and no one is interested in buying the old edition.
This is a scam. There is no earthly need for a new edition of a textbook to be issued every three or four years unless the publisher wants to continue to milk this particular cash cow. I’ve seen undergraduate textbooks in other fields go through multiple editions, and I’m sure the same thing is true in those fields with other publishers. Not every textbook publisher scams students like this, but many do. I think it particularly sad when university presses do.