Friday, October 1, 2021

J.K. Rowling: The King Lear of Kiddie Lit

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve blogged about She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-But-Must-Be-Obeyed (even if one is a conscientious objector in the editorial and design department handling her work at Hachette), and it’s been a quiet year at that.
        Among other things, I taught Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as one of the texts in my young adult “coming of age” lit class during the last school year, something I will never do again. It involved the “teachable moment” presented by the author’s social media pronouncements on gender issues as well as my own tribute to “The Shrieking Shack Sequence,” pp. 324-421 in your hymnals—quite possibly the most brilliantly-crafted narrative tour-de-force I am aware of in any storytelling media.
        I won’t be teaching any of the Harry Potter books ever again. For one thing, it’s tiresome having to explain to today’s utterly indifferent college students that once upon a time, every literate adult reader, regardless of age, devoured each installment of the Harry Potter series—that it wasn’t just for kids. I know, because I was a part-time bookseller at Borders c. 2000-2005, the heyday midnight release parties (as I’ve previously written about).
        There’s also the whole transphobia thing, which is now past metastasized into lethal toxicity.
        The past year has also been quiet in the sense that J.K. Rowling (there, I said the name) has also been rather quiet, too; she hasn’t said anything more damaging. Then again, she hasn’t made any attempt to repair the breach. Lethal toxicity seems to be something the author, her licensors, and her creative partners have factored into their calculations going forward.
        It’s astonishing to think that less than two years ago, one could speak fondly of Harry Potter and the Single Mother That Wrote without any qualification. I myself read the series only in 2015, a decade after having handled a minimum of 15,000 copies of the various volumes and editions at Borders, and before The Cursed Child or the first Fantastic Beasts movie were even discussed in the future tense.
        To be sure, there were always a few detractors of Rowling, her fame, and her composite horror-fantasy-Arthurian-Agatha Christie literary concoction. There were skeptics of Albus Dumbledore’s retroactive, post-libris homosexuality as well as those who looked askance at the bad taste of the author’s declaration that wizards traditionally shit in their robes.
        And of course, there were the fundamentalist Christian families who no doubt substituted Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind (both the adult and young adult ghost-written series) for their young readers, or that old standby, C.S. Lewis’s overtly Christian fantasy, The Chronicles of Narnia.
        But such naysaying was easy to ignore, since I’d read the series myself and was simply blown away.
        When I first learned about “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you,” just a day after Rowling Tweeted on December 19, 2019, it simply made no sense (I wrote on Facebook on December 20, 2019, “Say it isn’t so, Jo,” with a cap of her Tweet). Even before delving into the judgment against Maya Forstater and the numerous and quickly-multiplying critiques of the author’s gender views, one could sense the wicked sarcasm, innate cruelty, and dismissive arrogance of “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.”
        Than one sentence broke the magic spell of a million-word epic, at the core of which was an ethos of non-bullying: Don’t let the Muggle world get to you, kiddo. What makes you a freak in their eyes is your true essence, your power. You are the most magnificent hero of your age.
        This Joseph Campbell subtext, it turns out, was nothing more than a cynical hook, perhaps inserted by the same editor who suggested adding a “K” initial to Joanne Rowling’s gender-effacing byline, who no doubt also persuaded her to substitute Sorcerer’s for Philosopher’s in the title of the first volume to dumb things down for an American readership.
        As I wrote just days after that initial Tweet, “Just think: J.K. Rowling has driven off more diehard fans in the past week than I will ever have in ten lifetimes...!” (December 23, 2019). Such a thing would be impossible to calculate, but my guess is that Rowling has lost at least as many readers as she had the day I was hired at Borders Books and Music in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, just days before the release of Goblet of Fire and the first midnight release party (very likely the reason Border’s needed new hires desperately, although I never worked one of those gatherings).
        Total unit sales and readership at that moment, in English and a few other translations, before the release of the fourth volume and at least a year before the first movie hit theaters, could still be measured in the hundreds of thousands, or a few million, at least. While that may seem negligible in terms of the worldwide juggernaut Harry Potter became, it was a literary following any writer would kill for.
         (It occurs to me that the Harry Potter following coincided with the aftermath of 9/11, much like the earlier British Invasion of Beatles arrived just after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Interesting how America always reverts to its British cultural roots in times of crisis. In any case…)
        It’s been more than a year now since anyone has given a wizard’s shit about Rowling or Potter, at least anyone of any intelligence. If the loss of readership and fan loyalty has been numerically insignificant, it has certainly been catastrophic in terms of good will. It’s not simply that a few million fans who had already read her books and seen her movies have moved on; it’s that a few million of her most loyal, most intelligent, and earliest adopter fans find her and Harry Potter utterly toxic.
        Her only public defenders, anymore, are (a) outright bigots who never read Harry Potter or likely any other book; (b) actors and others who find it constitutionally impossible to go on record as burning any bridge to a possible job; (c) and few others who weren’t paying attention to the unfolding melodrama that took place two years to eighteen months ago.
        Her Twitter following appears to be little more that U.K. TERFs—aging feminists who still read Andrea Dworkin and various fellow-travelers with no interest per se in the “Wizarding World” but revel in having a famous celebrity as an ally, along with the most sycophantic Harry Potter fans who are tickled to finally have Jo all to themselves.
       (The Wizarding World, by the way, is a stupid name for the property; better would be, I dunno … Harry Potter?)
        A segment of Rowling followers, of course, persist, fueled especially by a right-wing U.K. press and a rabid form of TERF feminism that has not, thank God, transplanted well to mainstream North America. A number of observers pay lip service to Rowling’s absurd and exaggerated claims of having suffered abuse; but then, strictly speaking, one isn’t entitled to call even the worst expressions abuse when one has intervened as clumsily, cruelly, stubbornly, and persistently in a life-or-death set of issues as this emotionally-damaged author feels entitled to do, in lieu of obtaining proper, private therapeutic treatment for her issues.
        Rowling’s bullying TERF Twitter followers can never win; you can’t detoxify a toxic situation with more toxicity.
        And you don’t get to select only her most politely-phrased passages written since to paper over the abject cruelty of “Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.”
        Her middle-ground, middlebrow fandom—those who more than year ago who seemed to think it possible to separate the toxic author and her views from the world she bequeathed to them—can only be a sorry lot, one supposes. They have no intelligent peers capable of critical thinking left to talk to and face ostracism from both transphobes and anti-transphobes.
        Many independent booksellers today, much like my former fellow employees at Borders who championed Harry Potter in the late nineties and are responsible more than any single factor for getting the series out of the ghettoized children’s section and into the hands of readers of all ages, don’t want to touch shit even with gloves on. Many have publicly announced they will not carry any Rowling (or Robert Galbraith) titles on their shelves, and are loath even to special order it (what Borders used call a SPO in the old days).
        New Harry Potter content such as a rumored TV series reboot and the next Fantastic Beasts film, are greeted with far more widespread criticism and derision from a still-wounded and fuming fan base as with anything resembling genuine enthusiasm. Tweets from the Leaky Cauldron, a major site that vowed to continue celebrating Harry Potter while denying the continued human existence of the author, notes birthdays and anniversary, but otherwise seems corporate, sterile, perfunctory.
        Book sales for Rowling titles have reportedly “slowed,” and long-delayed conventions seem to be in the offing. Assuming the numbers are off, since the pandemic still rages, this may not tell us much about whether the author has damaged her properties numerically or monetarily. But the blow to the goodwill she once enjoyed universally and ubiquitously seems gone forever.
        In retrospect, it is now a commonplace to read about the anti-Semitism of the Gringotts Goblins, the oddly un-queer Dumbledore of Fantastic Beasts, and the racist underrepresentation of non-whites in the original books and films. Criticism of her business moves and cynicism about her power-politics suppression of an Hachette uprising abounds. The Cursed Child, dismissed as bad fanfic and penned by somebody else, and her straight-to-screenplay prequels (cutting out the labor of those big, fat, books fans really want) now seem like cheap artistic shortcuts so that Robert Galbraith can spend more time on his politically-incorrect TV detective, and, well, generally being a man like daddy always wanted anyway.
        As a latecomer to the series, I never participated in Harry Potter fandom, but I enjoyed explaining to anyone who would listen, “No, it’s really good; I haven’t been so engrossed in any mythos since The Planet of the Apes and Kolchak: The Night Stalker in junior high school.” But I myself will never again be able to share such sentiments. While I don’t plan to remove those posts, or strike my playful mentions of how she stole my Time Turntable and Cosmic-Cue-Ball swallowing from my 1980s Megaton Man comics, I don’t plan to ever mention Rowling or Harry Potter ever again. At least until the next inane, uninformed, wryly sarcastic if not abjectly bullying thing she says.

Like everyone else, I was probably a bit to under the spell of a certain middle readers series when I first turned to writing prose fiction in 2015-2016. But I plan to keep the witchy character, Simons friend Deirdre, nonetheless. (Unpublished sketchbook page.)

         It occurred to me that Rowling has much in common with King Lear, a character she is often fond of quoting in her work and elsewhere. In Shakespeare’s play, the aging king is enraged when the daughter that most sincerely loves her can’t find words to express that love. Surrounded by evildoers like Edmund, Regan, and Goneril, who don’t love the king and end up tearing his legacy to shreds, Lear is left only with a Fool, and finally his own folly, crazy on a stormy heath.
        J.K. Rowling has become the King Lear of kiddie lit. Once beloved and considered wise by all, not even her most devout Cordelias have been able to reason with her since December 2019. Surrounded by cynically-motivated Edmunds, Regans, and Gonerils, Harry Potter and all things related to it are now a storm-ravaged heath; certainly, not a fun place to be.
        Despite Daniel Radcliffe’s hope that fans “experience of the books” would not be “tarnished or diminished,” or that Rowling’s transphobic remarks would not “taint” their fond memories of them “too much,” in the end, that is exactly what has come to pass. Rather than an anti-bullying refuge, Harry Potter and all things Rowling are painful things now better left unmentioned.
        I don’t know if what we are seeing is comparable to Leir of Britain losing his kingdom; only time will tell; it may take time, but bigger names than Rowling have passed from the scene and been forgotten over the centuries. But my guess is this is how the process begins.
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