Diane Rehm Show (NPR): Discussion of JKR’s Casual Vacancy

Diane Rehm features a book each month on her popular NPR talk-radio program called ‘Reader’s Review.’ This month the novel selected was Joanne Rowling’s Casual Vacancy. You can listen to the discussion which aired Wednesday here.

The producer and I spoke  for the better part of an hour about the symbolism, structure, implicit parallels, and postmodern meaning beyond the surface narrative and obvious political messaging. That conversation was all about the discussions found here, Hogwarts Professor Casual Vacancy Thread Round-Up, a link she put on the NPR Diane Rehm page for that show.

I finally listened to it myself last week and confess to scratching my head. Outside of one bizarro caller who wanted to talk about Ms. Rowling’s “metaphysics,” and whom was immediately given a brief, polite answer in dismissal, the show didn’t talk about the depth, the structure, the allegory, not to mention the alchemy and its like. Nada. The expert guests, all literary sophisticates with guild certification, agreed even when they disagreed on surface points they liked and disliked — and that was all the conversation dwelt on, in the end — that the book was only one more reading experience among many.

When the British maven felt obliged to express her disgust with Congress’ decision not to extend unemployment benefits, seemingly as a throw away comment but really entirely in keeping with the quality of her critique of Rowling’s work, I almost tuned out. Why continue listening to these evaluations of the work in question that could only see the surface and moral/political ‘realism’ of a story that is almost fairy tale like in its allegorical qualities?

I hope you will give the show a listen if you have any free time between Western Christmas and the Gregorian calendar New Year. Is this the usual level of conversation about popular literature? Or did Diane Rehm just have a bad day or poor panel?

1. The Harry Potter Echoes

2. MuggleMarch or A Modern Moonacre Manor

3. Potter to Potty-Mouth: The Profanity by the Numbers

4. Literary Narcissism or The Art of the Psychic Realm

5. Barry Fairbrother and the Political Parable

6. Literary Alchemy: The Conjunction of Sex and Death

7. The Seven Part Ring Composition

8. Andrew and Gaia: Fallen Man and the Natural World?

9. Andrew and Stuart: Doppelganger, Ouroboros, or Diptych?

10. The JayZ song  ‘Umbrella’

11. Religion: Christian Hypocrites and Sympathetic Sikhs

12. Authenticity and Hypocrisy:’Penetration,’ Suffering, and the Birth of Consciousness

Post First Week Round-up:

13. Christianity Today: ‘Profoundly Biblical Worldview’

14. Notable Reviews, High and Low

15.  Guest Post: A Telling Re-Take of ‘The Good Samaritan’?


  1. You know, we Hogwarts alums are very used to really digging in to literature because of Rowling’s intense detail and because people like you, John, are awesome enough to write so much work that points out this detail. Modern literary critics, however, are not used to looking at work on an anagogical level. They expect some surface level symbolism and connection to recent historical events, and that’s about as far as they go. They think they’re digging deep when they find foreshadowing! Rowling is tapping into a deep literary tradition reminiscent of the Gawain poet, but critics used to Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy don’t go that far into literature. In fact, you might hear questions like “Don’t you think you’re reading too much into it?” or “Sure, but do you think they REALLY intended that?” if you point out chiasm or literary alchemy. Rowling is waking up this tradition, but the critical world just hasn’t completely woken up yet.

  2. I have been disappointed to see — ever-increasingly — any kind of media review/criticism/critique boiled down to “I liked this” or “I didn’t like that.”

    *Professional* critics. And that’s all they have to say.

    I used to think they didn’t want to confuse the audience. Now I think they’re just ignorant.

    Very disappointing. Things like this used to be a SNL comedy sketch; now it’s the very highest level of book/movie/media criticism: http://www.hulu.com/watch/4186

  3. waynestauffer says

    a few observations:

    there is a difference between “literary criticism” and “book review.” too many of these programs are reviews masquerading as criticism…

    it has been a long time since we have had an author of Rowling’s caliber. the “critics” are likely not giving her a deeper look out of lazy habit

    i recently read a couple of startling stats: 33% of high school graduates who do not go on to college do not read an entire book for the rest of their lives; 42% of college graduates do not read an entire book after graduation. such shallow book discussions in the program described are likely shallow at some producer’s direction to try not to get too deep for listeners’ preferences.

    still, many college profs are not studying Rowling’s work because it is too much a part of “pop culture” for their tastes. they assume CV and CC are like HP because they have not engaged with any of them.

    my 2 cents’ worth

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