The Casual Vacancy, part 2

As I stated in yesterday’s post, critics of The Casual Vacancy seem to have three main problems with this book: 1. It’s not Harry Potter; 2. There’s a lot of swearing; and 3. It’s boring. Yesterday I wrote in response to critics surprise at how different this book is from the Harry Potter series. Today I’d like to respond to the criticism that there’s a lot of profanity in this book.

My answer is, yes, but not like you’re thinking.

Yes, the novel is fairly saturated with words referred to sometimes only by their first letter: plenty of f-bombs, a few s-words, and even more “bloody”s (which in the US isn’t a swear word at all).  But the obscenity of the words used in this novel is nothing in comparison to the extreme obscenity of what HAPPENS in this novel. And critics– particularly full-time book reviewers who cultivate an aura of jaded sophistication– who complain about, sneer at, or otherwise focus on Rowling’s mere diction, for crying out loud, are missing the whole point of the novel.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to defend profanity. I think an over-reliance on swearing leads to the death of vocabulary. It’s typically demonstrative of small minds preoccupied with petty things. It indicates being overcome by one’s emotions. In short, I’m a snob about swearing. BUT swearing is not what should offend readers of this novel.

In this book, Rowling depicts drug use, rape, bullying, child abuse, emotional abuse, and pedophilia– just off the top of my head. And all of those are nothing in comparison to the bald fact that (SPOILER) a child of less than 3 years old dies, which death could’ve easily been prevented by the intervention of anyone in that town at any point in the novel. That, coupled with the suicide of his teenage sister, his main caregiver, who is complicit in his death, is the most obscene thing in this novel. (END SPOILER) That should offend readers. That should rock us to our very core. It’s exposure to THAT reality that readers should try to insulate themselves from, not the f-bombs.

But you know what’s even MORE offensive than Rowling’s choice to portray that? The reality behind her art. In the United States, a report of child abuse is made every ten seconds. TEN SECONDS. More than five children EVERY DAY die from child abuse, and of those children, 80% are under the age of four. And that doesn’t say anything about the number of children currently caught up in human trafficking, the drug industry, or child labor. THAT offends me. THAT is obscene.

So yes, The Casual Vacancy is offensive, but so is reality. If you have friends who swear, if you’ve ever been to a bar past 10 pm, if you’ve ever attended public school, the swearing is nothing. Rowling made a choice to tell this story as realistically as possible, and her characters swear as easily as they breathe. The realism of profane language is only a part of the greater realism to which this novel is committed. There’s profanity in this novel not just so it can be an adult novel, not just to show up Rowling’s “adult writing” chops. There’s profanity in this novel to make a point. Rowling uses her platform to speak to the experiences of the very most unempowered people. (SPOILER) Robbie Weedon barely speaks at all, but I assure you his death is the most awful, most shocking thing I’ve read in years.

So, you may say, that’s great Susan, but you’re only giving me more reasons to not read this novel. Life is ugly enough, why fill my leisure hours with that ickiness? You might try to quote Paul or the 13th article of faith at may, and say that The Casual Vacancy hardly sounds like something “virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.”

Here’s the thing: I get the need to insulate oneself from the genuinely poisonous things that are out there in the world. I avoid watching R-rated movies. I’ve put down a few books myself. I do think spiritual harm can come from exposure to some media. I also understand that the decision about what to read and what to avoid is a very personal thing. I’m just saying, in this instance, I think being concerned about swearing is small-minded. Because there ARE good things that come from this novel, and, I think, the profanity is central to getting those things across, to making it real.

You can cover your ears and hum, you can change the radio station or the tv channel, you can close the book– or never pick it up. You can protect yourself from all the bad language in the world and you know what? That won’t change the fact that in 2010, over 1500 children in the United States died from abuse or neglect, or the fact that the number of child deaths per day has been increasing over the past ten years. If you read this book, you won’t be able to avoid the swearing. If you read this book, you will not be able to avoid the tragedy of these situations. To me, that’s a good thing. Maybe if we avoided these problems less, we’d be motivated to act on behalf of children. I think our society– yeah, you too, fellow Mormons– is all too good at pretending a child in need is someone else’s problem. “Isn’t there a social program for that?” If there’s a positive message that comes from The Casual Vacancy, it’s that we are all responsible to look out for each other. A child’s black eye darkens all our souls.

The Bible says that we’ll know if something is good by the fruit it bears. The Casual Vacancy bears a message (one message, among many) remarkably similar to one I heard at Conference this weekend: “Children need others to speak for them, and they need decision makers who put their well-being ahead of selfish adult interests.” (Dallin H. Oaks, “Protect the Children”) I am also reminded of the Savior’s words, that it is better for a person to be drowned than to harm a child (Matt 18:5-6).

The decision about whether or not to read The Casual Vacancy because of the profanity involved is obviously a personal choice. We can still be friends if you opt to keep your ears clean– at least, I’m willing to be friends with you. But let me just say, I am a better person because I read this novel. And I am a better person because of the impact of its tragedy on my heart. I just don’t think pristine language would carry the message of a dirty world as strongly. Rowling’s language is profane, certainly, but utterly appropriate to her subject matter. I’m grateful, in fact, for what I learned from this novel. I hope you’ll take a chance on it as well.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Children’s Alliance
Dallin H. Oaks, “Protect the Children”

Feel motivated to act on behalf of children? So do I. I’m still trying to decide what I can do to help the lives of children worldwide, but I’m starting by hugging my little boy and loving him a little better. Since reading The Casual Vacancy, I’ve been more patient with my child, less inclined to speak sharply, more inclined to say yes. I’ve tried more consciously to make sure my actions are about his welfare and less about my convenience. I’ve been kinder to J’s little friends, too, and more aware of the needs of the moms around me. Helping them helps their children. Unicef can always use money, Boys and Girls Club could use mentors, and the foster care system is always in need of loving homes. I want to do something meaningful for children, but until I figure out what that is, I’m starting where I am with what I can do for the children in my life already. Maybe a similar strategy would work for you?

I know this was a super long post. Thanks for sticking with it. Next time: On Being Bored.


4 thoughts on “The Casual Vacancy, part 2

  1. I love how strongly you feel about this. And I’m glad we can still be friends, even if I am small minded. 🙂 I don’t think this is a book I can handle reading. It sounds intense!

  2. I just think that even if there were no swearing at all, many readers would still find this book, as you say, “intense,” and perhaps that’s more worthy of critical attention than potty-language. Most of the professional reviewers who complained about language in her book have had no problem with foul language coming from other authors– provided those authors are 1. male, and 2. write literary fiction, not children’s genre lit. Their focus demonstrates an ill-placed bias. I just think rape, neglect, and death are worse than swear words, and that’s what they (the reviewers) should be talking about.

  3. I completely agree! I still won’t read The Kite Runner because of the rape that takes place… I’m just unwilling to put myself into that world, even if it the world I actually live in. 🙂 Does that make sense?

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