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Artillery Row

Publishing needs JK Rowling to be a monster

The facts are irrelevant

The trouble with JK Rowling is that she has done nothing wrong. Back in 2020, she wrote a carefully worded, compassionate piece about sex and gender. It’s here if you want to read it. 

In it, she described “a climate of fear that serves nobody – least of all trans youth – well”. At no point did she express the even mildest disapproval of gender non-conformity, let alone call for “trans genocide”. “Trans people,” she wrote, “need and deserve protection […] I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.”

The response to this piece was obscene. Some of it’s here if you want to read it. I am aware, however, that checking original source material is not the done thing when it comes to having an opinion on Rowling. 

Shortly after the publication of her blogpost, countless op-eds appeared explaining what Rowling “really” meant. To summarise them all, Rowling was lying about not hating trans people and wanting them dead, and you could tell this by the fact she said she didn’t hate trans people and didn’t want them dead. 

There then followed a succession of lengthy, meandering (and deadly boring) essays on what it meant to be a Harry Potter fan now that Potter’s creator turned out to be evil. Idiotic references to the Sorting Hat, which confused maintaining a strong sense of self regardless of external forces with getting to choose one’s biological sex, seemed to be de rigueur.

As for the rape and death threats, it was quickly established that taking issue with tweets such as  “JK rowling suck my fat cock and choke on it” was transphobic. Indeed, when one group of literary figures signed an open letter condemning such messages, the response of over 200 writers, publishers and journalists was to sign a different one stating “trans rights are human rights”. 

It’s a response that could have been predicted by Rowling herself. “It would be so much easier,” she’d written in her original blog, “to tweet the approved hashtags – because of course trans rights are human rights and of course trans lives matter – scoop up the woke cookies and bask in a virtue-signalling afterglow.” 

That this was so obvious and so lazy didn’t matter to writers including Jeannette Winterson, Malorie Blackman and Joanne Harris. As witch-hunter Martin Del Rio put it in 1599’s Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex, “it is evidence of witchcraft to defend witches”. This may be why Kiran Millwood Hargrave, another signatory of the second letter (and, ironically, author of a novel about a witch hunt), refused to sit on a panel alongside Amanda Craig, a signatory of the first. 

The lack of support extended to Rowling by so many in the publishing industry has been nothing short of appalling. True, in the aftermath of the recent attack on Salman Rushdie – and Society of Authors chair Harris’s initially crass response to the suggestion that threats against Rowling should be taken seriously, too – it has been grudgingly acknowledged that all death threats matter, even those against women deemed to be TERF scum. 

“Yes, I support trans rights,” Harris eventually tweeted, “But my personal feelings about the gender-critical movement don’t affect my belief in free speech, or what I do for the Society of Authors.”

How magnanimous! This is not enough, though. It’s a position that still falls back on the misrepresentation of Rowling, positioning her as someone who does not “support trans rights”. What’s more, it is a position that uses the very rape and death threats it purports to condemn as a way of dodging accountability. Finally admitting that another woman should not be burned at the stake is not so gracious an act it entitles you to continue calling her a witch.  

The monstering of JK Rowling has taken place in two registers: the obscene social media version, and the genteel, literary version, in which horrified articles are written about books not read, advertising campaigns imagine “Harry Potter without its creator” and twee references are made to “the wizard lady” to avoid the distress caused by naming her. You might think the two registers are different – the one, blind hate, the other, political disagreement – but the latter depends on the former. How do we know “the wizard lady” is bad? Well, just look at how hated she is! 

This is a situation in which the punishment has created the crime

This is a situation in which the punishment has created the crime and it’s one that is needed by members of the publishing industry who have spent years embracing the arguments of the most extreme trans activists while ignoring those of feminists. They need Rowling to be a monster. Otherwise they might have to respond, not just to what Rowling has written, but to the realities of the movement to which they have pledged allegiance. 

Intelligent writers, many of whom call themselves feminists, have painted themselves into a corner from which they are now forced to play along with utter absurdities. They must pretend that Andrea Long Chu and Grace Lavery are thoughtful commentators on the contemporary sexual landscape, that the only reason a female writer would use a male pseudonym would be if she wasn’t a woman, and that the London Review of Books describing women’s fear of rape as “the sort of fairy-tale fear-mongering that puts them in league with the far right” is top-class feminist analysis. 

It is intellectually and morally degrading. I would not want to be the person who, having glibly conflated trans activism with supporting gender non-conformity and gay liberation, now finds herself on the same side as a movement which orders lesbians to “suck my huge trans cock”. No wonder so many writers and journalists, rather than take responsibility for their own politics, prefer to promote the myth that they’re taking a brave stand against the genocidal author of Harry Potter (while expecting an award for nuance and reasonableness for noting that they wouldn’t actually kill her).

The trouble with JK Rowling is not that she is transphobic, but that she isn’t. Her honesty has shamed a literary community that thought it could squint a bit and fudge things when it came to the question of “what is a woman and do they matter, anyway?” Because of this, the extreme, violent misrepresentation of Rowling has become a way to defer any reckoning with the harmful messages those in publishing and the creative arts have been waving through. 

Extraordinary women weren’t women! Femaleness is an expectant ass and blank, blank eyes! Books which encourage children to accept their bodies are transphobic propaganda! Less than five seconds’ consideration of such ideas would show them to be regressive nonsense, only JK Rowling disagrees with them and she wants people dead! 

Except she doesn’t and that is the problem. The monstering is wearing thin. Last week’s collective attempt to trash The Ink Black Heart by people who hadn’t read it felt far less enthusiastic than 2020’s shot at Troubled Blood. I do not think it can last. People like their fiction, but they do eventually tire of lies.

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