Kelly Lawler USA TODAY
Published 9:36 AM EDT Sep 15, 2020
Upon receiving a 927-page tome in the mail two weeks ago, I realized for the first time in my life I wasn’t excited to read a new book by J.K. Rowling.
As a longtime “Harry Potter” fan, the kind that stood in line at midnight for each new installment throughout my childhood, I was among those delighted to discover in 2013 that she’d published a mystery novel, “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Free of the pressure of her “Potter” fame, Rowling-as-Galbriath flourished. Reading “Cuckoo’s” was a reminder of the gripping, fluid prose that made “Potter” an unstoppable phenomenon.
I devoured the three subsequent Galbraith book with similar glee, and therefore should have been elated to read “Troubled Blood” (Mulholland Books), the fifth story starring private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott, which hit bookshelves Tuesday. But ever since Rowling made headlines this summer for her comments on transgender rights that have been widely condemned as transphobic, I can’t see any story she’s written in the same light.
In a series of public posts in June, including tweets and a manifesto-esque essay on her website, Rowling voiced her strong opinions on the trans community that conflated sex with gender and defended ideas suggesting that changing one’s biological sex threatens her own gender identity and even her safety. Rowling suggested that by opening the doors to bathrooms and changing rooms to “any man who believes or feels he’s a woman,” the doors are open to all men who wish to come inside.
To many, including transgender “Potter” fans, Rowling’s comments were extraordinarily hateful and harmful. Widespread criticism of the posts as transphobic, hateful, harmful and factually inaccurate did not stop her from doubling down on her opinions.
More: How trans ‘Harry Potter’ fans are grappling with J.K. Rowling’s legacy after her transphobic comments
Mark Hutchinson, Rowling’s representative, told USA TODAY she would not be commenting further.
The intensity and viciousness of Rowling’s statements shocked me. How could a writer once so important to me have this much hate? Rowling maintains she still supports trans people, but there is no doubt that her words have caused pain and suffering among transgender people and their allies
The debate about whether one can separate the art from the artist resurfaces every time a celebrity does or says something “wrong,” ranging from offensive remarks to being charged with violent crime. Their supporters often cry the now-politicized term “cancel culture” if the art is criticized along with the person who made it.
More: J.K. Rowling reveals she’s a sexual assault survivor; Emma Watson reacts to trans comments
With Rowling, as with so many artists, it is not as simple as putting her books on one shelf and her beliefs on another. As you might expect when someone with strong opinions puts pen to page, Rowling’s thoughts come through in “Blood,” even if the story has nothing to do with transgender rights.
The foremost association appears almost right away. In “Blood,” Strike and Robin are investigating the cold-case disappearance of Dr. Margot Bamborough, who walked out of her office one night in 1974 and vanished without a trace. A prominent theory to explain Margot’s disappearance is that she was abducted and murdered by serial killer Dennis Creed, known to have been committing his acts of atrocity nearby at the time.
Creed is as abhorrent a fictional serial killer as any crime writer could imagine: He kidnapped women, raped them and tortured them horrifically for weeks. Then he killed them, often beheading them and boiling the flesh off their skulls. Creed is described by his unrepentant evil, his unassuming nature that fooled his acquaintances and the fact that he sometimes “crossdressed” as a way to get closer to his victims.
I could think of nothing but Rowling’s essay. Creed used the trappings of femininity to get closer to the woman he would abduct, imprison, torture, rape and eventually murder. Isn’t that what transphobic people fear most? The lurking predator guised as a woman in the bathroom, explicitly there to do women harm?
“Blood” is not the first time Rowling has put these issues in her work. In the second novel in the Strike series, “The Silkworm,” a trans female character, Pippa, is portrayed as violent and attempts to stab the book’s hero. In the tense scene, Strike 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 says. “Not pre-op.” Readers recently pointed out more than a few episodes in the “Potter” books in which a male character wearing a dress is played for laughs.
In addition to everything else, “Blood” is simply not good, and pales in comparison to the first four Strike mysteries. It is far too long and overstuffed, and could have been edited down to a sharp, twisty mystery. It is a laborious read, not nearly as gripping as Rowling’s other books. By the time Strike finally solves the case, learning what happened to Margot Bamborough is frustrating, not gratifying.
“Hate” is not a word tossed around easily or lightly today. There is hate coursing through our culture, particularly online. In her essay, Rowling writes that she has been subject to hateful tweets, threats and abuse since she publicly stated her views. But it’s impossible not to feel hate in her own words, both online and in print.
You can’t separate the art from the artist. Not anymore, not when the tone of both author and novel is the same. Rowling maintains she supports trans people, but we can only judge her by her actions and words. After reading 927 pages of them, I’m not inclined to change my judgment.
Contributing: Hannah Yasharoff
Published 9:36 AM EDT Sep 15, 2020