Picture credit: Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for for Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights)
Artillery Row

J.K. Rowling is honest, not “nasty”

Attempts to discredit the author are increasingly pathetic

Can you imagine “a Britain populated by paedophiles, domestic abusers, rapists and terrorists”? That, according to the New Statesman’s Nick Hilton, is the Britain of J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels, in which we see the author “taking off a mask — and showing herself in full, nasty glory for the first time”.  

Over the course of 2,500 words, Hilton works towards his breathtaking conclusion: one of the world’s most successful writers — who happens to be a woman and a feminist — is “brittle, insecure, cruel”. You can tell this, you see, from the kind of baddies who populate her crime novels. They’re really, really bad, but also quite weird. Plus Rowling once liked a tweet she shouldn’t have, or something. 

Anyhow, maybe this — after several years of people trying, and failing, to explain why Rowling’s compassionate essay on trans issues is actually evil — could be the piece that gets that witch burned. God knows, people have had a good enough go at the Harry Potter series (I thought the bankers in Gringotts were supposed to have shown her in “full, nasty glory”, or was it the house elves? Clearly, there’s much more nasty glory than we thought). 

Ever since Rowling had the temerity to express an unacceptable yet also uncontestable opinion on sex and gender, plenty of people have been trying to use her fiction to expose her as really, truly evil. It’s a weird distortion of that situation in which an artist is wicked in real life, but produces wonderful art, and people rush to performatively wring their hands over whether one is really “allowed” to like them. Here, Rowling hasn’t done anything wrong in real life — unless founding charities and supporting victims of violence is some terrible sin — but she believes sex matters, and that’s not permitted. Therefore it is necessary to find evidence of her wickedness in her fiction (which will in turn prove that it’s wicked to think sex matters — look, we’re all getting desperate here).

It is easy (and fair, I think) to mock Hilton for such a crass approach to the crime fiction of a woman he clearly feels obliged to find morally deficient to start with. At the same time, it does raise an interesting point to do with the boundary between fiction and fact. We all know that had Rowling said nothing about male violence in real life — how it affects the lives of women and girls, why single-sex spaces matter, why female trauma should be recognised and validated — no one would be scouring her novels for evidence of nastiness. In the context of real life, male violence is still supposed to be a fiction of sorts — the province of villainous outliers, nothing to do with maleness and masculinity in general. We’re not supposed to think there is a sex class that commits over 80 per cent of violent crime and 99 per cent of sexual violence, and that members cannot simply identify out of it. Any woman who dares to describe this reality is wont to be dismissed, if not as a fantasist, then certainly a bigot. 

One of the things I love about the Strike novels — and which Hilton seems to miss with his focus on the more obvious “deck of depravity” — is the way in which women’s everyday experience of male violence and physical threat plays out in the background. Robin’s rape trauma is not downplayed; it is not a one-off event, something to be solved through therapy or a court case or the passage of time. It is there in every novel, a wound that never heals, routinely re-opened by the casual misogyny of colleagues, friends and passers-by. It’s a startling depiction of the trauma so many women live with but never speak of, and which therefore, to some men, might as well not exist (leading to claims that female fears of male bodies are confected, a mere excuse to be exclusionary). To situate this alongside the extremes of the crime novel — the grotesques, the obsessives, the psychopaths — is quietly political, in a way that having characters say or think mean things about other characters (which Hilton seems to take as evidence of Rowling’s own cruelty) is not. 

While we may not “inhabit a landscape” populated by rapists, domestic abusers and paedophiles, none of these crimes are rare

While we may not “inhabit a landscape” populated by rapists, domestic abusers and paedophiles, none of these crimes are rare. At one point, Hilton takes issue with a character “naturally” turning out to be a paedophile. The insinuation is “what could be more of a right-wing dogwhistle?” But child sexual abuse is not unusual. It is not a fiction. There seems to be some annoyance that Rowling populates her work with men who do these things without being the ones who “actually commit the murders”, as though such things ought to be more self-contained. How dare it be implied that your child sex abuser or your rapist isn’t the “official” baddie, but merely exists as part of a much broader ecosystem! To be fair, I think Rowling would get away with making this point about reality in the context of fiction, were she not also making it in reality itself. 

Hilton describes Rowling as “obsessive” in her “gender-critical feminism” (otherwise known as “feminism”). One of the impacts of trans activism, with its insistence on vilifying women who fear male bodies and want spaces of their own, has been to force feminists to say things out loud which, rightly or wrongly, many of us hoped could remain implicit. Things about who does what to whom, about how widespread rape and sexual assault really are, about how much female trauma there really is, about just how many men have truly dark desires. Now we have been pushed into a corner, we are treated as though our truths are outlandish fictions. This is what so many find “nasty” — not the stories, but the truth. 

For most women, male violence isn’t constant drama. It isn’t falling from balconies in Mayfair, or being stabbed to death in graveyards. It’s a low background noise, always there. If you are able to read the Strike series and miss it, this says something about the way you have educated yourself to understand the world — not as one packed with villains (which of course it isn’t), but one in which female pain can only ever be entertainment or hate, never a story, let alone a truth, in its own right.

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