When J.K. Rowling published her latest novel, The Casual Vacancy, back in September, many of her devoted readers wanted to know where the magic—overt or otherwise—had gone. The expectation was understandable. She had done Middle Grades fantasy so well before. Why wouldn’t she produce the same again? We had been told she was working on something substantially different from the Potter series this time. Followers anticipated her efforts and worried, “What if it’s not as good?” Our imaginations had been taken captive by the Hogwarts story, and as generous as we might intend to be, devoted readers are not actually very generous. We tend to want the same thing again and again. In this case, we wanted the same narrative excitement, the same wild creativity. We were operating from the idea that J.K. Rowling owed it to us.
Indeed, we readers tend to think writers, in general, owe it to us. We may concede the right—nay, the duty (dangerous word)—of the creator to push herself, test new ground, blaze new artistic trails. But the reality is that, having done something well once, the writer must do the same again. We expect that he do it over and over and over. Writers must keep writing. If books aren’t forthcoming, it isn’t only disappointing; it is downright strange. Harper Lee committed the greatest authorial sin: She only wrote once—one novel, that is. There are essays and articles and whole sections of books dedicated to the question “Why?” Why did she stop after To Kill a Mockingbird? Why didn’t she give us more? The silent conclusion is that something must have gone very wrong.
Charles Dickens, on the other end of the spectrum, wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote what he knew would sell: close to 20 novels published as serial fiction to satisfy the reading masses. And he wrote cultural articles for various periodicals because he knew that they would be read more immediately. But he also wrote about what interested him, including essays that weren’t all that well done or well received, because he cared to experiment with his craft. The reading public held expectations of him, and only sometimes did he answer those expectations with his ever-scribbling pen. There’s a reason we only read a select few of his books in high school and college. A number of them were a critical bust. (Martin Chuzzlewit, anyone?)
This nonconformity in writerly habit, whether it’s one exemplary novel in a lifetime or many books with varying reception, stymies us. Our criticism is implicit in the seeming oddity of Marilynne Robinson’s long pause between writing the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Housekeeping and the winning Gilead: “The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.” We are befuddled by why E.M. Forster “stopped writing fiction at the age of 45. He lived quietly for another 46 years and continued to write essays, short biographies and literary journalism—but no more novels.” As if the essays, biographies, and other pieces—not to mention the novels he’d already done –were not work enough. And of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his writing that has been stopped by the cruel hand of dementia: “García Márquez now lives in Mexico and has not written anything since his last novel.” It seems García Márquez has given us plenty; he’s given us enough. And I wish we could think of something more compassionate to say about him right now than that there will be no more novels.
I’m tempted to claim I don’t know much about these things since I am an essayist. But every few months, I pull out my own fiction piece and work at it, imagining, typing, crafting, deleting, writing some more. My fiction story may or may not ever see the light of day (or bookstore fluorescents or e-reader lamp). Still, the work of crafting it over the months and years has molded me. The project has tightened up my nonfiction storytelling, it has taught me that success in writing doesn’t necessarily have to do with immediate readership and it has given me a deeper understanding of and appreciation for writers who do get their fiction in front of the public. Developing narrative, structuring plot, crafting characters, creating dialogue: this is hard work. In my reckoning, Harper Lee is a blazing success. I hold her one piece of fiction prose in my hands, and I am grateful.
But back to those writers who keep at it with varied results. An astute response, this time about George Eliot and her little-known, admittedly-flawed novel Romola:
Only one masterpiece? Not a very impressive record, it seems . . . . But consistency in perfection is a lot to expect of any artist, and especially of an artist working in a medium as fluid and methodless as fiction. And does it in fact, make Eliot a lesser novelist that most of her novels are thus imperfect? My answer, as you probably expect, is no.
Experimenting with form and content, pushing ourselves outside the comfort of predictable perfection in order to create new and maybe—hopefully—better art: Is this not what we, as creative people, do?
Fortunately, some of Rowling’s reviewers get this, too: “The Casual Vacancy is no masterpiece, but it’s not bad at all: intelligent, workmanlike, and often funny. I could imagine it doing well without any association to the Rowling brand . . . ” Let’s disassociate it, then, and perhaps give Rowling a hearty congratulations, too, not only for her work at crafting another story, but also for pushing herself to branch out, with all the risks and imperfections involved in attempting something new.