Warning: This article includes excerpts featuring transphobic writing.
Fans and critics alike have been calling out Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling for years for her history of playing online footsie with noted transphobes. This week, she finally made explicit what a lot of those fans and critics have argued: She's an aggressive biological essentialist, and vocally supports known transphobes and their beliefs. It's the latest stage of the slow-burning, deepening estrangement between Harry Potter readers and a woman who has often been as ill-suited to the role of pop culture celebrity as she is eager to play it.
But this latest turn in the conversation also underscores the degree to which Rowling has been successful in downplaying the peevish condescension and personal conservatism that she has flaunted in her writing outside the saga of the Boy Who Lived. It's also perhaps revealed how many literary critics were either happy to overlook, or were unable to perceive, the prejudices and grudges that she has exercised since becoming a successful adult fiction author with the Cormoran Strike mystery series (that she writes under the pen-name Robert Galbraith). If J.K. Rowling has been a disappointment in her public statements and interviews and troubling on Twitter, she's been positively abhorrent as a mystery novelist. And there might be nothing she's written more vindictive and grotesque--and revealing--than 2014's The Silkworm.
The Silkworm is that most dangerous of things: a dark satire of the literary business, with all its rivalries, resentments, and pretension. It's impossible for an author to write one of these without basically showing their whole hand. It's not a subject anyone wants to write about unless they personally have some axes to grind. Nobody reads a book and thinks, "Damn I'd love to know how this publishing deal was structured!" Only writers are drawn to this theme, a way to complain about a job that typically involves writing about the jobs and lives of others.
Now let's establish upfront that mysteries, particularly British whodunnits, are as a rule full of preposterous dirtbags. But they also tend to be clear about their perspectives, about who we are meant to sympathize with and treat as a reliable narrator within the world of the story, and who is just one more suspect who richly deserves either to be one of the victims or punished as the killer. Within the world of Rowling's Galbraith mysteries, our guides are the shabbily irresistible Cormoran Strike (imagine Jack Reacher by way of Patton Oswalt) and his loyal assistant and protege Robin Ellacott (basically a disappointed Hermione). And this makes the Strike series rather revealing for who it satirizes, who it attacks, and who it admires.
In The Silkworm Rowling is largely concerned with literary losers: the victim is a pretentious author of awful literary fiction, Owen Quine, and he's killed in a particularly lurid and horrific fashion. In the wake of his murder, oily colleagues and business associates abound: a resentful and greedy agent, oafishly opportunistic publishing executives, and the superstar author who had a long-ago falling-out with the victim.
Don't think for a moment that this character is intended as a stand-in for Rowling, a way of taking a jab at her own reputation. It is clear at every turn that this is the world of literary publishing, a world that never took the Potter series or its author particularly seriously and which is somewhat easy to lampoon as being insular and self-absorbed while producing little that makes an impact on popular culture.
But a major part of the case turns on an affair the victim was having with one of his writing students and their own protege, a young trans woman named Pippa.
There's a viciousness in Rowling's descriptions and characterizations in the Galbraith books from time to time. But her descriptions of Pippa, the features and mannerisms she chooses to focus on and emphasize when writing from Strike's POV (generally one of our two reliable narrators in this world) are consistently objectifying and othering in ways that are very familiar from the ways transphobes describe and debate the validity of trans men and women's identities.
Critic and VICE contributor Katelyn Burns wrote about this last year, using this particular sequence to contextualize some of Rowling's other statements and behavior on Twitter and to persuasively make the case that Rowling is transphobic in very familiar and common ways. She writes:
In the scene, a trans woman, Pippa, follows and tries to stab the protagonist, Cormoran Strike, before getting trapped in Strike’s office. After demanding Pippa’s ID, her trans status is revealed and her visible Adam’s apple is noted, while it's noted that her hands were jammed in her pockets. Pippa tries several times to escape the office before Strike finally says, “‘If you go for that door one more time I’m calling the police and I’ll testify and be glad to watch you go down for attempted murder. And it won’t be fun for you Pippa,’ he added. ‘Not pre-op.’”
This is unpleasant stuff, and there is indeed far more where that came from, because as scathing as a few passages can make The Silkworm sound, the full novel is much worse. It's a work in which Rowling relentlessly brutalizes the story's most vulnerable characters and their aspirations.
But I think Burns may even undersell the poisonous sympathy Rowling's characters express for Pippa and Kath, the woman and aspiring writer who has effectively adopted her as a surrogate daughter. It's not merely Pippa's gender identity and physical appearance that Rowling is keen to point out, it is also her foolishness and futility.
When Strike and Robin finally get the full story on this secret family that murder victim Owen Quine was hiding, what's revealed is intention to create a new family with his lover Kath and their surrogate child Pippa. The picture Rowling paints is of people who are fundamentally deluding themselves, whose happy ending will at best be a parody of a family.
It's a nasty scene. The condescending sympathy extended to Pippa is framed by an overall contempt for her and Kath. They both cherished dreams of making it as writers, dreams that Rowling's hero Strike finds contemptible narcissism ("What was this mania to appear in print?" Strike wonders). Kath talks over every attempt of Pippa's to join conversations about writing, and it's crystal clear that even here in a relationship where Pippa feels safe and valued, she's just being used to flatter her friend's ego.
"I write fantasy with a twist," said Kathryn and Strike was surprised and a little amused that she had already begun to talk like [a famous author]: in rehearsed phrases and sounds bites. He wondered fleetingly how many people who sat alone for hours as they scribbled their stories practiced talking about their work during their coffee breaks…
What's remarkable here, and elsewhere in this book, is how it moves from the kind of thoughtlessly and pruriently cruel transphobia displayed towards Pippa and into a very specific kind of malice toward people who dream they might be worthy of the kind of success and importance that Rowling achieved. In The Silkworm, Rowling's narration is consistently othering and patronizing towards Pippa as a trans woman. But it hates Kath and Pippa for their creative ambitions, despite the fact that Rowling herself made much of the fact that she began her career as a struggling single mother.
It's hard to read this as anything other than the meanest kind of punching-down. It might work as a kind of dark self-portrait of Rowling before the Potter series became a global phenomenon, but then we'd expect to find some kind of character who parallels Rowling's rise to riches. That's not what The Silkworm gives us, however. There is no commentary anywhere in The Silkworm on Rowling's own arc. Its viciousness is for other people.
The cruel portrayal of Pippa is not the only painful characterization in the series. In the first Strike mystery, Cuckoo's Calling, we are repeatedly treated to weirdly fetishizing descriptions of mixed-race black characters and this unbelievably sweaty passage:
A masterpiece produced by an indecipherable cocktail of races, Kolovas-Jones's skin was an olive-bronze, his cheekbones chiseled, his nose slightly aquiline, his black-lashed eyes a dark hazel, his straight hair slicked back off his face.
But while Indecipherably-of-Color Is Sexy and Beautiful, Cuckoo's Calling also lingers over the conniving, grasping Blackness of another character who holds a key piece of the puzzle in the murder case. When Strike meets a reluctant witness, Rochelle, Rowling is at pains to reproduce a working-class accent and portray her as ugly and alien.
She was uncompromisingly plain. Her greasy skin, which was the color of burned earth, was covered in acne pustules and pits; her small eyes were deep-set and her teeth were crooked and rather yellow. The chemically straightened hair showed four inches of black roots, then six inches of harsh, coppery wire-red. Her tight, too short jeans, her shiny gray handbag and her bright white trainers looked equally cheap.
It's hard to argue this is an example of Strike being an unreliable narrator, because when we get Robin's POV in other sections of these books, Strike's judgments are largely confirmed except when it comes to understanding women's feelings. Nowhere does the racial lens that Strike turns on Rochelle get questioned, and in fact by the end of the novel Rochelle is undeniably revealed as a manipulative crook who is too greedy and stupid to see the danger she's in.
Now Rowling's book is also full of dysfunctional and venal white people, particularly white men. Robin is involved with a fiance named Matthew who seems like an extended mea culpa for Ron Weasley. As in the Potter series, Rowling seems to reserve most of her ire for posh public school types, people born to privilege and power who nevertheless seem to relish stripping that power from others. And this being a Rowling series, there are still long descriptive passages of Britain through gloriously changing seasons, and the occasional moment of cutting clarity. Talking about how middle-class values cheapen the lives of others whose realities are more vulnerable or complicated, Strike thinks:
How easy it was to capitalize on a person's own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.
But while the Potter books benefitted from a combination of historical specificity (the entire series is a period piece about the cruel plutocratic revanchism that defined the Thatcher era) and troublingly simplistic analogy (house elves!), the Strike series struggles with the vague and under-considered liberalism of its author. Strike considers anti-war protestors in light of his own service and trauma as a military policeman who lost a leg in Afghanistan, but only to piously reflect on his own complicated (and completely unstated) thoughts and feelings about Britain's role in the War on Terror. There are the requisite observations about how London is changing, the city's rapid polarizing between the Have-It-Alls and the Have-Nones, but divorced from any kind of critique or wish to bring change. Given the strong undercurrent of resentment and prejudice running through the books, it's easy to understand why they have so little insight or conviction. It's hard to identify problems or think about their causes when you lack the empathy to care.
Reading the Strike books, however, it seems clear that Rowling's politics got worse because of her celebrity. The transphobia directed at Pippa is in proportion to Pippa's demands for dignity. Pippa's friend Kath is not hard to read as being analogous to the fans and fanfiction authors who dreamed of bringing their own visions to life. People who at one point turned against Rowling, or demanded that she do better at respecting segments of her fanbase, all find themselves transformed into a vicious archetype in the Strike novels.
J.K. Rowling is transphobic. She wrote a transphobic novel. She tweets transphobia. She's also written a racist one (maybe more than one, given the stereotypes that are strewn throughout the Potter books, but I'm only talking about the mysteries here). But the thing that really haunts me about the Strike novels, and what they reveal about Rowling, is that their worst traits and authorial decisions seem fueled by a kind of defensive contempt. She became a beloved juvenile fiction celebrity for writing a story about a very privileged group of "misfit" friends who fought exaggerated avatars of classism and racism. But at every turn, success seems to have made her more vindictive, more resentful.
As they grew older, many of the young readers who loved these stories, but struggled to see themselves in them, started asking Rowling why her attempts at inclusion only came via retcons after the series was finished. Countless people aspired to be the next J.K. Rowling, and offered their own thoughts about how her stories might have been better. And confronted with criticism and questions about her work and the biases and prejudices that may have shaped it, Rowling's response was to take another name and lash-out in another series where she finally just said what she thinks of all those people who think they might deserve better than being ignored.