J.K. Rowling released a book last fall, The Casual Vacancy, that garnered instant hostility from critics and fans alike. It is an interesting novel, set in England, revolving around complex characters who are all trying to benefit from a grand situation that has just fallen into their laps. Except that it’s not really a grand situation. It’s small town politics, but it’s been given the great scale that only J.K. Rowling can do. And her fans widely differed in their reactions to it. On the one hand, there were those who love her writing style, and found the subtle nuance that defines her work. They were pleased. But on the other hand, some people were expecting a children’s book (for whatever reason), and were disappointed (nay, shocked) at her use of swearing, and more importantly, her use of the “C” word (shhhh). They vowed to never read another J.K. Rowling book, as long as they both should live. And both camps have a point, because of their expectations. You see, J.K. Rowling will forever be judged, whatever else she writes for the rest of her life, on the boy who lived, and the epic tomes that brought us his life, her first published works, and her lasting impression. Is it fair? Of course not, but that doesn’t stop it from being real, from being the J.K. Rowling syndrome.
In the 2008 Olympics, held in Beijing, China, Michael Phelps set all kinds of records in the pool with an eight for eight gold medal showing. Over the next four years, he was scrutinized more than any other swimmer ever had been, and he was judged on his times and his showings at subsequent world events. Indeed, he came under criticism for his training regimen, which had admittedly slacked off considerably since Beijing. And it all came to a head in London at last year’s Olympic Games. And of course he didn’t get all golds in London. He didn’t even medal in all of his events, but the smile on his face at the end was so much bigger than we had seen in Beijing. Because he was satisfied with his showing, based on how hard (or little) he knew he had trained. He even said before the games that his goal was just to do the best he could, and things would happen as they would. He still won more hardware than any other mens’ swimmer. But, he will always be judged by those eight golds, no matter what else happens in his life.
Take a look at Michael Jackson. He broke a long-standing record when he had five singles from one album reach the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. That album was Bad, but for some reason it doesn’t generally come up in the discussion even for best albums of the ’80s. Surprising, considering the record has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, something only two other albums released in the ’80s have done. But not surprising, considering that the album Michael released just prior to it was Thriller, which has sold almost twice that number worldwide. For the rest of his career, Michael Jackson would always be judged musically against the success of Thriller, and nothing less than that success would do.
We, as a global society, are never satisfied, with anything, at anytime. And when we think we are, something else comes along that takes our minds away and we’re hooked on that too. We also have expectations that are impossible for others to meet. Think about it. If the Blackhawks win 18 games in a row, even a streak of 16 is dismissed after the fact. The only thing that might change our minds is if a streak goes over that 18 game barrier. We truly enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife, and we wanted a clone of that book when Miss Niffenegger released her next book. When we didn’t get it, and got another amazingly complex, amazingly beautiful book instead, we were disappointed (nay, shocked) that she didn’t give us what we thought we deserved. Well, have I got news for you. People evolve, and change, and so should our expectations. One of the worst things is to typecast someone when they can play many roles. I love watching Kelsey Grammer in Boss because he’s showing his versatility. It’s not Frasier Crane does politics. It’s another deep role he can sink his teeth into and make us forget all about Frasier Crane.
I appreciate J.K. Rowling’s ambition in providing us with the minutiae of small town life. It reminds me of the small town in which I live, but Harry Potter it ain’t. Luckily, I didn’t expect it to be. She knew, and rightly enough, that the chapter of her life with the boy wizard in it was over. She evolved. We’ll see if her fans can as well, or if her next book will be collecting dust in Barnes & Noble.