For some, the 1,084,170 words J. K. Rowling published in seven Harry Potter novels between 1997 and 2007—the delight they brought to young and old readers, the sheer pop-culture-upending impact of the series—mattered less than the 21 words the author tweeted on a June day in 2020. Rowling was quoting, and commenting on, a phrase she’d read in an op-ed that had avoided using the word “women.” She posted: “‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
Although she followed immediately with clarifying tweets—“If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth”—she was branded as transphobic, and summarily disowned even by some of her fans. Several actors associated with the Harry Potter films and plays were suddenly moved to speak out in support of trans rights, including Harry himself, Daniel Radcliffe, who “felt compelled to say something” while acknowledging that, O.K., Rowling was “unquestionably responsible” for his success.
The publication (though some didn’t even wait for that) a few months later of Troubled Blood, Rowling’s fifth Cormoran Strike detective novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith” and one that features a male villain who sometimes dresses as a woman, fanned the flames. Again: for some. (Notably for three activists who posted a photo of Rowling’s house, the address visible, on Twitter.) Because while one critic saw in the book more “pernicious anti-trans tropes,” another wrote, “No honest person who takes the trouble to read it can see the novel as transphobic.” Predictably, the book sold twice as many copies in its first week as its predecessor, but it wasn’t long before the hashtag #RIPJKRowling was trending on Twitter, the online abuse—including death threats—was ratcheted up, and it was time for dueling multiple-signatory open letters.
“Rowling has consistently shown herself to be an honorable and compassionate person, and the appalling hashtag #RIPJKRowling is just the latest example of hate speech directed against her and other women that Twitter and other platforms enable and implicitly endorse” went the first, above 58 names including the writers Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Susan Hill, Tom Stoppard, and Amanda Smyth. Then came “a message of love and solidarity for the trans and non-binary community” that didn’t mention Rowling but, significantly, appeared just a few days after the first letter and was signed by more than 200 people, among them writers Jeanette Winterson, Malorie Blackman, and Joanne Harris.
Which brings us to this summer’s unpleasantness. The day Salman Rushdie was attacked, Rowling posted, “Horrifying news. Feeling very sick right now. Let him be ok,” and promptly received another death threat on Twitter: “Don’t worry you are next.” (Police are investigating.) A day later, Harris, the trans-supporting signatory—see above—and chairwoman of the management committee of the Society of Authors, the U.K.’s largest trade union for writers (she also wrote the novel Chocolat), “published a Twitter poll asking if fellow authors had ‘ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise),’” wrote Robbie Millen in The Times of London. “The answers she provided … were frivolous given the circumstances. Even Harris thought so, deleting it, then asking the same question in a more sober way. What provoked the furore was that it was seen as a dig at JK Rowling.... The subtext to all this is that Harris is a passionate critic of gender-critical feminists.”
Cue the dueling multiple-signatory open letters!
One expressed “our deep disquiet and anger at the Society of Authors’ abject failure to speak out on violent threats towards its members, and the behavior of Joanne Harris … on Twitter,” adding that “over the last few years, it has been clear to many of us that the Society of Authors has been captured by gender ideologues who brook no debate and who are not prepared to support authors who fall foul of online bullies.”
The day Salman Rushdie was attacked, Rowling posted, “Horrifying news. Feeling very sick right now. Let him be ok,” and promptly received another death threat on Twitter: “Don’t worry you are next.”
But another asserted that “Ms. Harris has, since her appointment, been a stalwart, fair, dedicated, and passionate Chair.… She is, in our opinion, the best person for the job.” A statement from the society itself declared, “We condemn any type of personal attack on any author—whether physical, verbal, legal or political—for exercising their right to express themselves freely.”
Maybe so. But Kate Clanchy, who last year had to revise and eventually reissue her prizewinning memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, following complaints of racist and ableist writing, has accused the Society of Authors leadership of “targeting her after her memoir provoked a backlash. She is reportedly taking legal advice and … has called for an independent review of the society’s processes,” The Times of London said this week. Small world: until his defense of Clanchy forced him to step down, the His Dark Materials trilogy author, Philip Pullman, was … president of the Society of Authors.
“Writers have always been vile to each other, but they used to be vile in dark corners,” said Clanchy. “Now it appears everywhere.”
In a Tumblr post, Harris wrote: “I’ve been repeatedly (and wrongly) accused of a number of things, which when you unpick them, boil down to one thing. That as Chair of the Society of Authors … I’ve abused my position to discriminate against people who don’t agree with my support of the trans community … Here’s the thing, though. I’m stubborn. I’ve never fitted into the London literary scene, so the fact that it now feels the need to mobilize against me means very little to me. This week, I’ve had death threats, attacks in the media, and countless abusive messages. I don’t care. I’m not afraid. I was elected to this role to help protect authors’ rights. That means yours, whoever you are, and those of all other authors.”
As for Rowling, she hasn’t tweeted about Harris, or the Society of Authors. She has tweeted about the imminent publication of her newest Cormoran Strike novel—which, presumably, is 100 percent controversy-free, or we certainly would have heard plenty by now.
George Kalogerakis, one of the original editor-writers at Spy, later worked for Vanity Fair, New York, and The New York Times, where he was deputy op-ed editor. A co-author of Spy: The Funny Years and co-editor of Disunion: A History of the Civil War, he is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL