So I finally got around to reading Jk Rowlings new detective series, written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The first book ‘The Cuckoos Calling’ achieved a certain amount of notoriety when it was first revealed to be the work not of new unknown ex-soldier, Galbraith but the very well known best selling author of the last decade, Rowling. She released the book, in her own words, seeking a fresh start ‘without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback’. As such it seems she is – or her book is – the perfect choice to review in order to uncover whether or not experts truly do seek out criticism and if so, what they do with it. Whether in fact it has any intrinsic value at all.
I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, just in case that isn’t clear. There’s no doubting the enormous impact the books had across the cultural sphere. From Taiwan to Torquay they are a universal meeting point for kids and adults, a bridge between different worlds. It seemed as though she plucked a story out of the ether that spoke to all of us, always there but never quite realised until she gave it form. That doesn’t, however, mean they were without fault. I personally struggled with some of the later books. The fifth in particular was weak yet bloated to the point you could only assume something deeply important had to be said within. One of the issues that niggled me about the later books was that I could not help but feel that criticism – the inevitable deluge of sour grapes – had struck home.
The criticism for the most part centred around two points; the first and most common, the style of Ms Rowling. Or rather the lack of it. Style is something that concerns literary fiction – which sells so much less than its commercial counterpoint, that its counterpoint is termed ‘commercial’. Occasionally critics like to take a few pokes at some of the heavy hitters. Brown gets lambasted for his flamboyance, Patterson for his volume – mostly volume of ‘co-authors’, and King earns grudging praise. Kids books rarely get this treatment; it seems here at least we approach the art of story by judging the story. But then adults aren’t queuing up at midnight to buy Julia Donaldson or Meg Cabot. The price of success is always going to be criticism and that certainly makes parsing the useful from the bitter tricky. When it was recently revealed that the books would be the subject of academic study, it raised a lot of eyebrows
“..the prose is too basic,” says author and literary critic Philip Womack. “It’s written awkwardly and is clumsy in places – although it does tell the story well. And it lacks subtlety. Even Professor Snape, who is meant to be complex, is so obvious.”
Which is fine as an objection to an adult study of literature, but does seem rather churlish when applied to a work aimed at 9-12 year olds. Yet it didn’t feel – to me – as if Rowling were able to dismiss such criticism as sour grapes.
People criticised her portrayal of the endlessly optimistic and kind Harry who never showed any signs of his abusive upbringing. Rowling responded with a whiny aggressively-aggrieved Harry in ‘Order of the Phoenix’, a personality turn that p’d of her fans and disappeared as swiftly as it had appeared in the next book.
She was accused of simplistic morality – all the bad guys so conveniently collected in the same house. She responds by showing Harry’s father and friends, including the kind professor Lupin, as bullies.
With the release of her first adult novel ‘The Casual Vacancy’, it seemed as though she was being haunted by those criticisms, but as with Harry Potter her response seemed to be concentrated entirely on the content rather than style. With an almost impenetrable host of unlikeable characters and unpalatable subjects she produced something both diametrically opposite her inviting magical universe and exactly the same in her straightforward, detail heavy prose.
I never had any interest in reading it. I have no interest in being preached to and subjected to the literary equivalent of an acid bath, just because someone somewhere decided it was worthy. I was hopeful with the release of ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’, that she might finally have shaken of those criticisms and returned to form. Cormoran Strike sounded suitably silly, PI’s might be the real world equivalent of the Loch Ness monster, none of us quite able to believe anyone really does that for a living and it was set in the suitably unrealistic world of models and celebrities. It seemed a recipe for all her strengths, larger than life characters, great twisty plots and fun settings.
And of course there was the front cover crawling with rave reviews..
‘The Cuckoos Calling reminds me why I fell in love with crime fiction in the first place. – Val Mcdermid
I don’t pay attention to these sort of things usually, but some do and I do really like Val McDermid. She seemed – seems? – like someone who would be honest. Of course, it could have reminded her by reawakening the desire to write something better…
Because it wasn’t good. I really wanted it to be, but it wasn’t good.
There will be spoilers ahead, so please if you haven’t read it and intend to, please don’t read on.
Spend too many years in the strange trenches of the wannabe masses, (which these days is the great published masses) and it changes your perception a little. I cannot for that reason perhaps, say the book was terrible. I did finish it, although there was a fair amount of skimming. My mum, for whom I actually bought the book, can’t remember if she did. She thinks she might have, but can’t remember much about it at all. That’s pretty unusual. She’s an avid reader of crime fiction – almost exclusively – never skims, always finishes but falls far from the snobby elitist so many of Rowlings detractors have been.
Let me put it this way, I have no intention of reading any more in the series. And I bought my mum ‘The Silkworm’ at the same time, so I wouldn’t even have to fork out another penny. That’s about as damning an indictment I can dole out as reader and would dread as an author.
It feels as though Rowling is still haunted by those voices of criticism. And in particular the ones taking aim at her prose. It’s very easy given the sheer length of the last four Harry Potter novels to assume that Rowling had gone the way of King and so many others, who it is unofficially acknowledged no longer have to adhere to the editors administrations. As Anne Rice put it (quite officially)..
“I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself,” she wrote. “I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.” – NY Times.
Publishers after all have no reason to encourage length. It costs them more, and if you can make three out of one, a la Lord of the Rings? Muchos more mullas. Yet from the very start Rowling has defined herself with both her attention to detail and delivering works much longer than their counterparts. The average kids book is about half the length of ‘The Philosopher’s Stone’ and rumour has it the original was over 100 thousand words. If this is a battle fought and won, might I suggest it was the wrong one. The length was troublesome in the later HP books and becomes potentially insurmountable in ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’. There simply isn’t enough story here to justify the length, it drags, meanders and late at night, the sheer weight of it metaphorically and physically, induces the reader to surrender to sleep.
The detail that illuminated a magical world rich in complexity and wonder, is entirely unneeded in the drab reality of modern day London. Worse, much of her verbosity owes nothing to her eye for setting and everything to do with proving herself as a stylist.
A strange stray thought came to him now, as he looked up at that portrait: that this was the reason it had been painted, so that one day, its large hazel-green eyes would watch him leave. Had Charlotte known what it would feel like, to prowl the empty flat under the eyes of her stunning eighteen-year old self? Had she realised that the painting would do the work better than her physical self? – The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith
We are constantly treated to the musings of the main character as he nurses his broken heart, not merely short paragraphs such as above, it felt at times like entire chapters. The prose is – odd. Not bad. Some is quite pretty, but quite pretty isn’t quite enough to justify it. Great prose is just that – great. And even then it consistently loses out to great story. A few – for my mind, truly great – authors figure this out and limit themselves to storytelling. The prose is still great, it just doesn’t advertise itself as such. You have to appreciate it through its functionality. Which actually makes it even greater. The art of the weave is the mark of the master storyteller.
The issue however, isn’t its greatness or otherwise, its that we don’t actually care. It’s revealed almost like a sub-story – well exactly like a sub story – explaining who our man is and how he ended up where he is. But this isn’t a story. It’s ordinary, everyday, there’s no deep secret, no intriguing detail, much as she might try, its just a man who fell in love with a beautiful spoilt woman and finally decided he’d had enough.
And further – and you can shoot me, I don’t care – in pursuit of that beautiful prose, she abandoned show and succumbed to the dark side to tell. We don’t see this relationship unfold in the past, the traumatic scenes, the fights, the manipulations. We don’t meet or hear this woman, get to judge her actions, we’re simply told as he sulks about it. In fact i’m surmising what she actually did(either faked a pregnancy, faked a miscarriage or had an abortion) with no idea why, except ‘thats what shes like..’ so we’re told.
This tendency is rampant throughout, both in terms of creating subplots which aren’t really plots and which fail mostly due to being reduced entirely to tell. Robin – the co narrator of the story – has a doubting boyfriend who dislikes her temp job as the PI’s secretary. We don’t really meet him, but we hear about him a lot. You get the impression building a triangle or rectangle of sexual entanglements might be on the agenda, but any tension is negated by the lack of a visible third wheel.
Likewise the mother, and family dynamic in general, of the victim is continually referenced by all other characters yet we never meet her until the solution has already come to Strike. The uncle, also barely makes an appearance, albeit slightly earlier. Given this story is really truly the story of a young adopted girl and her troubled family, this impacts on a much deeper level than Robin’s boyfriend. It doesn’t merely obfuscate any hope of figuring out the truth – which might have in part been the thinking behind it – it pushes everything of real interest to the background. We spend most of our time chasing neighbours, IT girls and celebrities none of whom appear to have any reason to hurt the victim, or indeed much of a story to uncover. As such we never feel as though we are chasing anything of substance.
And perhaps strangely given all of that, the ending isn’t a surprise. I thought it several times, yet dismissed it because of one insurmountable obstacle that just couldn’t be got around. The killer was the man who hired Strike to prove that his sisters death – months beforehand – was not the suicide it was believed to be – and officially declared to be. There’s some attempts to work around this, but they just don’t pan out. No man who is free and clear would reopen an investigation into a murder he committed.
The second accusation that gets levelled repeatedly at JK Rowling is that of unoriginality. Not merely in her copious use of existing mythology and obvious nods to the forefathers of the fantasy genre, like Tolkien – mostly Tolkien – but also in the stereotypical nature of her characters. Brave orphan Harry, wise mentor Dumbledore, evil bully Draco… and so forth.
I’ve defended Rowling – and will – against most of those claims. They weren’t incorrect, it was merely that for the vast majority they were used well, the sheer scale of her vision and world, the history it came with and again her audience were all tricky yet important factors and she managed to balance all of these considerations and still managed to surprise, delight and innovate.
She seems to have approached ‘The Cuckoos Calling’ in much the same way, carefully plucking elements, a character here, a plot device there, from existing fiction and re-crafting them to suit herself. Unfortunately I’m not sure she pulled it off with the same aplomb. Potterverse has its own unique flavour. Strike’s feels like a rather tepid mishmash. Despite the modern setting there was an old fashioned quality: The thirty five year old detective who felt more like a fifty five year old from the 1940’s due in part to sentences such as, ‘(he) held out a hairy backed hand and attempted to counter his visitors sartorial superiority by projecting the air of a man too busy to worry about laundry,’ creating a stiff voice at odds with the image of the man and thus cancelling out the image of the man. Part of me was expecting a ‘gee golly’ to pop out of young go getter Robin, and the picture in my head of unseen fiance Matthew was circa 1950 Coronation Street, replete with gray slacks and patterned knit vest. I’d lay good odds she’s a big fan of Christie.
The modern elements, perhaps most notably the celebrity culture, something which should have been her hidden ace in the pack, felt utterly at odds with what really longed to be an old fashioned family melodrama with shades of the classics. With first-hand insight into this world, it’s slightly worrying that all she could offer up was a slew of the most base stereotypes: The gay designer, the gossipy blackmailing make up artist, the rich society girls who marry old men for money and prestige, the boyfriend with his frequent stops in rehab and his deep need to be seen as.. deep.. the list goes on. And on. Which again might be part of the problem.
Harry Potter was epic world building. It needed to be to convince. In this she has again assembled a considerable cast, but here it dilutes. Everything and everyone feels like they’re just passing through. Checkmarks on a list. Both they and the victim never root in our imaginations, owing in no small part to being at best marginally helpful, but never central to the story we’re supposed to be reading about. Yet the focus remains here for most of the book. In Potter we may have a huge cast, but we’re always with our trio of young heroes, their friends, ensconced in the daily rhythms of life within the walls of Hogwarts, which is perhaps the greatest character of all and whose peculiarities tint everything we see. There is no corresponding filter here, and yet this type of story is one that could benefit from a claustrophobic limiting of scope and cast, an intensively skewered worldview to give it shape and flavour. The overall effect is generic and distancing, not aided at all by her tepid – dare I say it – politically correct approach?
Every author who writes fantasy seems to have to fight to prove their merit, or simply defend their choice. The presumption, I suppose, that fantasy is a bit silly. Boy wizards and possessed cars and epic journeys of small men with hairy feet.
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” – Tolkein.
Rowling is credited with changing the face of literature, certainly children’s literature and getting an entire generation to read at a time when it was believed to be falling out of favour. For some giving that much credit to a woman who wrote about flying cars and whomping willows is just not acceptable and I’m sure she’s felt that ‘tone of scorn and pity’.
It certainly reads like it in ‘The Cuckoos Calling’. Her cast may be stereotypes but her tone is always striving for gravitas. Her musing detective and his odd mix of fifty dollar words (about thirty quid) and expletives, the throwaway comments on the political issues of the day, the jabs at the celebrity culture, mostly though its harder to pin down that, a lack of humour, and a fear perhaps of committing to something, anything, with any vigour.
Rowling with the release of ‘The Casual Vacancy’ and her recent embrace of Twitter has shown herself an … ardent? Liberal. In that thoroughly middle class sort of way. The victim at the centre of this all is a mixed race young woman, adopted daughter of rich white aristocrats, searching for her true roots. But really she’s dead and it’s about two white folks trying to figure out why… 😀 I’m not berating her for that – but I sorta feel like if she ever read this she would berate herself. She’s not only a known supporter of the Labour Party but good friends with the Browns, yet she openly makes disparaging remarks about Gordon Brown in the book. They are presented as neutral background, the beliefs prevalent at the time, rather than belonging to any of our heroes. Our two narrators are never so foolish as to brave a political opinion. Although they manage a bit of righteous indignation and get along with the ones who you know are ‘good sorts’..
This deliberate neutrality is something I want to applaud, but I can’t lie and say it works. It doesn’t because its artificial rather than honest. Its pandering to a mindset, a popular, vocal one and its tainted every character and choice she’s made, consciously or not.
This story would have worked if the focus was on the rich white aristocrats. It suits her voice, her plot and theme. They were, despite being ruthlessly sidelined, where the interest lay, where a world could have been built, one we would have been happy to escape to for a while.
Big SPOILERS now. The brother, another adopted waif, killed his sister, as he had once killed his brother many years ago. Out of jealousy, spite and greed. The mother always preferred the others, smothering them in a claustrophobic love, overly permissive with one child, then upon his death overly protective with the other. The uncle, employer of the brother and partner at the prestigious family law firm, had always suspected the death of the first son had not been an accident, suggesting as much to his sister, and causing them to be estranged for many years. All of which is explained to us in about two scenes at the end of the 536 page book.
It’s hinted he reopened the investigation because he feared a claim might be put on her fortune by her real half brother, whom she had planned to meet that night for the first time – unbeknownst to anyone but him. The idea being if he could successfully put the blame on the brother – by repeatedly saying ooh it must be that fuzzy faceless dude seen on the cctv – he’d have no grounds for an appeal. I don’t know the legalities, but I don’t believe a man who had gotten away with murder would take a risk on something that had about 1 chance in a million of happening.
What would have been believable was if he was acting on behalf of – seemingly in agreement with – his mother, on her deathbed and unwilling to go believing her beloved daughter had taken her own life. An hysterical, obsessive woman who still controlled the family purse strings. But it would only have worked if the focus had hinged on them, their constant interference, their privileged archaic and dysfunctional world, with the other characters in the periphery. We would have felt the suffocating influence of the mother, understood the desire to grasp some freedom by her daughter. We would see the constant desperate attempts to steer the investigation by the brother, even feel sympathy for him under the sneering presence of his Uncle. And we’d have done it all in a world we are rarely given insight into, a world very far from most of ours. (unless you polo on the weekends..)
The second potentially interesting aspect of this book was the two main characters. Ask Agatha Christie, better yet, ask Tommy and Tuppence, how important your main character/s are in a detective novel. This was handled bewilderingly, initially set up with a modicum of bite, two seemingly opposite characters, who very quickly seem to blend into sameness. When they do fight, you kinda don’t understand why. Strike’s incredibly considerate – unbelievably so, sorry guys. Her editor might have been convinced it was written by a man, I’d qualify that with ‘delusional man’. Robin’s apparently the best damned secretary in the whole world. In a manner reminiscent of Hermione, in too many ways, she organises his life, magicks chocolate biscuits out of thin air and weaves spells round judgemental sisters. Unfortunately beyond her filing skills I’m not sure what point she serves. Okay the biscuits are a plus, but still not enough. Again there’s that tepid tiptoeing. The initial set up begs for a classic clash of opposites, but what’s delivered is the single most pointless, boring relationship I’ve encountered in a long time. And two individuals who simply cannot sustain my interest.
Wow that reads rather harsh.. I might have to go watch Toy Story to cheer myself up. Sorry JK! I still think you’re great. It is however, as I said, a perfect book, given her background, its initial release under the pseudonym, and the very public criticism she’s received, the perfect book to look at the influence of outside feedback on a writer. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been given such an opportunity to measure the response of an ‘expert’ before, which is perhaps why it always feels as though to a one, they are utterly unresponsive. In fact, to reference Ms Rice again, that responsiveness and success have an inverse relationship.. (always wanted to use that in a sentence. Makes me sound like I know maths stuff…) Back to normal language, the more famous they get the less they care about anyone’s opinion.
JK may be the odd woman out, but she does seem to be listening. And I wish she hadn’t. She’s fixed all the wrong things, she’s abandoned all the things that once made her great. Things that she could been focused on strengthening and building. Of course, she says she hasn’t, that ‘The Casual Vacancy’ was not literary revenge, but for god sake, she even capitulated on the adverbs! King may admire Hemingway and Leonard, and his advice may seem like he is trying to craft us all into little minimalist clones, but his writing tells a different story, (a really long one..) He’s a man who knows who he is when pen hits page. JK hasn’t reached that yet, too much success, too much criticism too fast, for all the wrong reasons?
I’m just one opinion. No opinion is definitive, not even my wise, enlightened one.. The book did well, even under its pseudonym, although I would factor in that it was a hardback launch by a major publisher and endorsed by most of the big reviewers. You can make up your own mind. But for me it reinforces something I’ve been thinking for a long time, ever since I hit the writing circuit, we – beginners – may have lost something incredibly valuable, the chance to write just for us, just with us in our heads. I certainly would say that if you intend to publish, until you find that great feedback you can trust, the best approach is know yourself, know why you write, what you’re striving to write. And never read reviews.