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Writers in Boxes October 13, 2012

Posted by ccbooks in Analysis.
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I take the bus home from the theater very late every night and most of the time, my fellow riders are asleep. But occasionally, I will overhear conversations around me. A few nights ago, there were two women sitting behind me, and as soon as I heard the name ‘Percy Jackson,’ I started eavesdropping.

The women were discussing their need to catch up with the latest book by Rick Riordan, but then they moved on to another big name of the moment–J.K. Rowling.  When asked if she planned to read Rowling’s new adult novel The Casual Vacancy, one of the women replied with something along the lines of “No, I don’t think so. I think I prefer her in her little box–magic, wizards, you know. That kind of stuff.” She went on to cite the poverty and teen pregnancy that she had heard was part of Casual Vacancy and said that it wasn’t the kind of thing she was interested in reading from Rowling.

I was intrigued, because it felt very much of a piece with what I was hearing in the media about Rowling’s new book–namely, that it was impossible to read, discuss or review, without resorting to comparisons with the Harry Potter series. In Michiko Kakutani’s review for the New York Times, Harry Potter was mentioned in 7 out of the 9 paragraphs. It is impossible to know if the book would have been received differently had Rowling not written (and become famous for) the Harry Potter series first. Certainly it’s a fact of writing and reading that a reader will not necessarily like every book by a particular author, and since I haven’t read The Casual Vacancy, I’m not going to give an opinion on whether it has been unfairly panned by critics. But I wonder if we do writers a disservice by automatically assuming that a book that steps out of their usual genre or style is something the reader won’t enjoy. It almost feels as though Rowling’s creativity and vision for this story is being sidelined, because it doesn’t fit with what readers have come to expect from her. I remembered hearing a clip from a concert by I think Joni Mitchell, who when asked to play one of her hits, pointed out that other artists don’t have this same problem with being expected to repeat themselves–no one told Van Gogh “Hey, paint Starry Night again!”

“Creativity” and “Ingenuity” are words that I hear tossed around a lot–in the media, and around education and business people who talk about how to foster it in students and workers. And yet, when writers and other artists try new ideas and stories that deviate from what they have done before, they often get ignored or compared unfavorably with their previous work. Maybe if we really want to foster creativity, we should stop putting writers and other artists in these little boxes. Even if all we do is read a book like Rowling’s, that we’re not entirely sure we’ll enjoy.

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