Braving the goblet of fire

Nick Cohen salutes J.K. Rowling, whose latest work reflects her refusal to take the easy route

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This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In Troubled Blood, the latest in her series of detective novels (as Robert Galbraith), J.K. Rowling shows why, for all her fame, she will never be a celebrity. The hero Cormoran Strike is in a pub listening to his friend Polworth explain the advantages of matrimony.

There I am trying to get my hole on a Thursday night, heading home alone again, poorer, bored shitless; I thought of the money I’ve spent chasing gash, and the hassle, and whether I want to be watching porn alone at forty, and I thought, this is the whole point. What marriage is for. Am I going to do better than Penny? Am I enjoying talking shit to women in bars? Penny and me get on all right. I could do a hell of a lot worse. She’s not bad looking. I’d have my hole already at home waiting for me, wouldn’t I?

We are enduring a new era of Victorian respectability. The nineteenth century policed what subjects writers could discuss. The twenty-first century allows them to discuss what they want, then polices how they discuss it. In 99 novels or TV scripts out of 100, a man admitting to “chasing gash” and seeing a wife as a reliable supplier of “hole” would be a carrier of “toxic masculinity”. His revolting words would lead to the inevitable revelation that he was a revolting man who would behave badly and end worse.

Rowling is Victorian only in her Dickensian exuberance. She has produced dozens of characters for her Strike novels, as she did for the Harry Potter stories, and even when the characters are caricatures they ring true. Her powers of imagination and observation, and her remarkable sense of place — when she describes streets I have walked for years, I see them afresh — make the Strike series as much state-of-the-nation novels as detective stories.

If you want to describe your country as it is rather than as the priesthood of the arts want it to be, you have to be authentic. To go back to Polworth wagging his finger by the bar: blokes in pubs are more often drunk than toxic. Later in the book, Rowling shows him as a generous man, although, for understandable reasons, his wife gives him a hell of a hard time.

The refusal to play the game, to behave as propriety insists she must, provokes an unease about Rowling that has turned into outright hatred in some quarters. To start to understand why, imagine what she could have become when she finished the Harry Potter series in 2007. She was the most famous writer on earth. In all likelihood, she was going to stay that way.

They prettify her because the urge to see her as a national treasure rather than a national storyteller is so strong

While it is foolish to predict what novels will last, and literary history is full of examples of writers who were feted in their own age and forgotten in the next, I think I can say with certainty that Harry Potter will survive for decades. Indeed, he already has. Rowling first cast her spells in 1997, and they show no signs of weakening.

She might have abandoned her vocation and settled for becoming a national treasure; scrap that, a global treasure. She was beloved. Everyone wanted a piece of her: the media, governments, charities. She could have been a literary equivalent of Nelson Mandela, applauded wherever she went. She might have been an Elton John, Prince Harry or Meghan Markle: a staple of the charity gala circuit. Or become a UN ambassador for this or that like Nicole Kidman, Anne Hathaway and Emma Watson. Or a Grayson Perry, always on hand to deliver chirpy homilies on the affirmative power of art.

All she needed to do was mouth the right words, and smile and frown at the right moments. Instead, she protected her privacy — she has always been wary of the dangers of being overwhelmed by fame — and carried on writing.

I have no desire to knock the BBC’s enjoyable adaptations of the Strike novels, but they illustrate the desire to sand the hard edges off Rowling and wrap her up in gift paper. The BBC’s version of Lethal White, the predecessor to Troubled Blood, has just finished. I was looking forward to seeing a character I had met everywhere in life but nowhere else in fiction: the racist leftist.

The novel is set at the Olympics and Strike is investigating the organiser of Community Olympic Resistance. (Modern protests are routinely glamorised as a “resistance”, as if the citizens of a reasonably safe and secure country are martyrs willing to give their lives in the fight against the Zionists.) “Wake up! London’s being militarised,” cries Knight as he appeals to his comrades’ paranoia. “The British state, which has honed the tactics of colonisation and invasion for centuries, has seized on the Olympics as the perfect excuse to deploy police, army, helicopters and guns against ordinary citizens!”

Speaking of Zionism, Knight can barely complete a sentence without denouncing it. His ex-wife tells Strike: “I wouldn’t trust him if it was anything to do with Jews. He doesn’t like them. Israel is the root of all evil, according to Jimmy. Zionism: I got sick of the bloody sound of the word.” Knight is also a real misogynist, a central concern of Rowling’s, rather than a loudmouth in a pub. When his girlfriend cries after he hits her, he tells her to check her privilege: “Oh fuck off, that didn’t hurt! You demean women who really are knocked around, playing the victim.”

Too many artists cheered Corbynism on or bit their tongues when they knew they should have spoken out

The Corbyn “faction” tore apart the British centre-left. It burned away its moral certainty that it was an anti-racist movement, along with the notion that a robust democratic culture protected the left from asinine personality cults. It broke friendships and all but broke the Labour Party. It is a dramatic subject that combines idealism, corruption, the aching urge to conform with those around you, and the groupthink and viciousness that follows. The largely leftish arts can’t touch it. Too many artists cheered Corbynism on, or and more damningly in my view, bit their tongues when they knew they should have spoken out.

I may be doing a novelist I have not read a disservice. The pandemic may have stopped the production of a political play or film. But as it stands and to the best of my knowledge, Rowling is the only major writer to have tackled the subject honestly. She doesn’t make a great show about it. Knight is just one character among many. But she presents a side of the left of the 2010s as it was, rather than as leftists would have liked it to have been.

Almost nothing about antisemitism makes it to the screen. If conservatives want to say “What else do you expect from the BBC?”, they should consider how its adaptation treats the upper-class Tory minister whose murder Strike investigates. In the novel, the politician is a vile man, his second wife is deluded, his sons are worse than their father, and his daughter is a snob who sees the suffering of the upper classes as more pitiable than the pain of the lower orders.

The shire Tories do not possess one redeeming feature, yet the TV adaptation of Lethal White turns the daughter into an altogether more sympathetic character. It may be that the incessant attacks on the BBC have made its writers frightened of leaving themselves open to accusations of bias. I suspect, however, the broadcasters could not bring themselves to dramatise Rowling in full. They prettify her because the urge to see her as a national treasure rather than a national storyteller is so strong.

J.K. Rowling: Unafraid of hot-button issues

Years ago, when she was perhaps wearying of the interpretations of literary journalists and academics, Rowling said the moral lesson of the Harry Potter books was “blindingly obvious”. She was dramatising the choice between what is right and what is easy, “because that, that is how tyranny is started, with people being apathetic and taking the easy route and suddenly finding themselves in deep trouble”.

Her sense of what is right guides her life as well as her fiction. The malicious controversy that has left Rowling facing countless online death and rape threats for taking a position in the “Terf wars” comes from the inability to realise that the identities of the tyrants and the tyrannised are always in flux. To those on the charitable gala circuit, politics is always simple. Trans people face prejudice. The job of the gala circuit is to deplore prejudice in all its forms. Hence when Rowling raised doubts in June, Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and other stars of the Harry Potter movies bit the hand that fed them and denounced the mind that made them. It was the easiest of betrayals to execute.

No call is easier when a trans man or woman is attacked or humiliated. But there is nothing easy about the arguments Rowling champions. Nor is it easy to justify the allegation of “transphobia” that shuts down debate faster than a squad of riot police.

The history of using irreversible medical interventions to treat psychological conditions is darker than any crime story, and it is being played out again today. The eugenicists of the early twentieth century advocated the sterilising of what they called the “feeble-minded”, a capacious term that would include what we now call people with mental disabilities, so that they could not breed and produce more “undesirables”. Women were the eugenicists’ favoured target.

Support for “improving” the human race was by no means confined to Nazis. The Labour Party joined with the Catholic Church in opposing eugenics. But it was endorsed by Sidney and Beatrice Webb (the founders of the Fabian Society), George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, John Maynard Keynes, the New Statesman and the Guardian. As the New Statesman explained in 1931, “The legitimate claims of eugenics are not inherently incompatible with the outlook of the collectivist movement. On the contrary, they would be expected to find their most intransigent opponents amongst those who cling to the individualistic views of parenthood and family economics.”

Lobotomies — severing neural connections to the frontal lobe — are today damned as barbaric. Surgeons used them to treat patients suffering from schizophrenia, anxiety, and depression (the “feeble-minded” of the day) and did not wait around to monitor the severe complications that followed. The procedure enjoyed widespread support in the 1940s and 1950s, however. Once again, women were the favoured target. Once again, progressive elements in polite society welcomed the “advance”: António Egas Moniz, the Portuguese physician who developed the technique, received a Nobel Prize in 1949.

Rowling is labelled as the bigot while her critics are at the cutting edge of progress

Like so many feminists, Rowling recoils at the concept of gender self-identity, which allows male sex offenders to get into women’s prisons, and is abolishing the concept of womanhood. You may say that the admission of the odd rapist or peeping tom into women-only spaces is a price worth paying, although I’d be careful about saying that if you’re a man. But Rowling does not stick with familiar arguments. She has devoted as much attention to irreversible medical interventions, through either drugs or surgery or a combination of the two. They include sterilisation among the side-effects, and their long-term consequences remain unknown.

She wrote in a reply to her critics: “Most people probably aren’t aware — I certainly wasn’t, until I started researching this issue properly — that ten years ago, the majority of people wanting to transition to the opposite sex were male. That ratio has now reversed. The UK has experienced a 4,400 per cent increase in girls being referred for transitioning treatment. Autistic girls are hugely overrepresented in their numbers.”

As with eugenics and lobotomies, people with disabilities, particularly women and girls, are to the fore. Rowling is a writer not a doctor. But when she raised her concerns she received “an avalanche” of emails from people working in the field dealing with gender dysphoria “who’re all deeply concerned about the way a socio-political concept is influencing politics, medical practice and safeguarding. They’re worried about the dangers to young people, gay people and about the erosion of women’s and girl’s rights. Above all, they’re worried about a climate of fear that serves nobody — least of all trans youth — well.” Whoever is the tyrant, it sure as hell isn’t her.

Of all arguments for activists to shut down, the medical treatment of people with autism is the most dangerous. One of the governors of the foundation trust running the Tavistock in north London, Britain’s only gender reassignment clinic, resigned in 2019, saying that it was not considering whether psychological and social factors in a young person’s background — such as whether they had been abused, suffered a bereavement or had autism — might influence their decision to transition. A succession of whistleblowers have followed him, and raised ethical concerns about children embarking on a life-changing medical pathway without adequate examination or the ability to give informed consent.

Rowling never sounds like a politician, which is another reason why she will be remembered

Yet Rowling is labelled as the bigot, the unthinking possessor of unreasonable beliefs, while her critics are at the cutting edge of progress. Rowling understands the tyranny of received opinion all too well. But she was never going to go along with it. She lives in Scotland, where nationalists not only control the government but dominate the culture.

She spoke out against the populism of the SNP in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum and took on the party’s “cybernat” attack dogs, who in a foretaste of what would happen to the rest of Britain, were targeting anyone who contradicted their fantasy that wrenching economic and political change could be achieved without pain. She defended Jews, when many on the left were going along with antisemitism, and spoke out when it mattered, and when speaking out made a difference. It’s not just her public pronouncements. I know feminists, Labour MPs in trouble with the left, Jews and journalists the Scottish nationalists tried to silence who have been grateful for the help she offered in private.

You can gauge the unease she arouses in the comments of her more calculating contemporaries. Grayson Perry affects to be a state-of-the-nation artist, but he lacks the required honesty. He told a newspaper interviewer recently there were certain arguments “I keep out of that are real hot-button issues”.

“The transgender debate,” the interviewer began. But Perry cut her off. “I don’t want it to define my public persona. Like it has [with] other people.” Did he mean J.K. Rowling? Perry repeated: “Like it has other people” — and they both burst out laughing, because “he sounds like a politician”.

Rowling never sounds like a politician, which is another reason why she will be remembered when her contemporaries and critics are forgotten. Her Cormoran Strike novels could as well be called her Robin Ellacott novels after Strike’s young female assistant. Perhaps as a reaction to the attacks on her, feminist themes have come to dominate as the series has developed. The Ellacott character allows Strike to talk about the effects of abuse, which she knows all too well, and the psychology of subordination.

In Troubled Blood, a drunk Strike ruins a dinner party Robin has organised and she explodes,

“Now I have to go back in there, and make it all right, soothe everyone’s feelings — ”

“No, you haven’t,” Strike contradicted her. “Go to fucking bed if you — ”

“It’s what I DO!” Robin shouted, thumping herself hard on the sternum with each word. Shocked into silence Strike stared at her. “Like I remember to say please and thank you to the secretary when you don’t give a toss! Like I excuse your bad moods to other people when they get offended! Like I suck up a ton of shit on your behalf!”

To say that the Strike novels are about “feminism” is as off the mark as saying that the Harry Potter stories are about resistance to tyranny. They are read because of Rowling’s remarkable descriptive powers, her ear for dialogue, the desire to know whodunnit and for the touching, stumbling romance between Strike and Ellacott. But the feminist arguments enhance the whole and tie the novels to her public concerns.

One of the many crimes against good taste Rowling committed was to gently mock a drug company that advertised sanitary towels to “people who menstruate” rather than, say, “women”. An unctuous Daniel Radcliffe, who played Potter in the films of the books, took it upon himself to apologise to “all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished”, and for “the pain these comments have caused you. If you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much.”

He was trying to strip Rowling’s novels from her, and separate the life from the work. You can do that with many artists but not with J.K. Rowling. She lives by the standards she sets in her work. She doesn’t take the “easy route”, which is why the travelling circus of actors, trolls and celebrities for whom the easy route is the only route cannot abide her.

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