The most powerful way to attack a book, Salman Rushdie writes in his memoir, Joseph Anton, “is to demonise its author, to turn him into a creature of base motives and evil intentions”.
The same thing, it turns out, can be said of a “her”. Now that Twitter content doubles as news, you don’t need to be a member of that habitually irate community to have gathered that Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike detective novel from JK Rowling, has been denounced by people who would not read it on principle, on account of it being by JK Rowling. Some copies are reportedly being burned, with the more frugal preferring to incinerate their old Harry Potters.
Many people have been hurt and angered by Rowling’s comments on trans issues, including those that have been accurately reported. She states that “sex is real”; has concerns about the “huge explosion in young women wishing to transition”. That many other people are unaware of such remarks, or tolerant of or even in agreement with them, may help explain the surging sales of a book whose author was for much of last week the subject of concerted online abuse and therefore of news reports about this abuse, which similarly took her guilt or, at best, carelessness (why else all the abuse?) to be axiomatic.
Anyone who was around for the Rushdie fatwa may have been reminded of remarks by some eminent UK figures to the effect that, since he had caused actual book burnings and whatnot, he really should have known better. You often got the impression that a British-born target would have elicited more sympathy. “I would not shed a tear,” said the historian Lord Dacre, “if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”
As for Rowling’s text, a Pink News headline announced (drawing on what seems to have been a mischievous Telegraph review): “JK Rowling’s latest book is about a murderous cis man who dresses as a woman to kill his victims”. The message being that the 927-page thriller belongs to a sequence of trans-related provocations.
The online fury this duly generated, especially once it was organised under the Twitter hashtag #RIPJKRowling, was itself attributed to JK Rowling at her most diabolically cunning. “Was the entire JK Rowling on trans issues nightmare just a PR stunt ahead of the release of new book?” the editor of Pink News speculated on Twitter. NB publishers! In a crowded autumn season, what female author would not want to plot, months ahead, the promotional asset that is massed non-readers celebrating her longed-for extinction, or inviting her, in another popular response to the Pink News story, to “choke on my dick”?
Again recalling aspects of The Satanic Verses’ reception in 1989, her book is twice convicted, both for its claimed offensiveness and for being – much like Twitter clickbait – a cynical exercise in controversy. “Nobody” – Rushdie summed up this line of attack in Joseph Anton – “would have bought his unreadable book if he hadn’t vilified Islam.”
In the case of Troubled Blood, not much changed after readers failed to spot any vilification of cross-dressers or of trans people. My colleague Nick Cohen’s reading is supported by early reader reviews on Amazon: “ignore the sensationalist headlines”, one writes, “this isn’t ‘that’ novel”.
Maybe Rowling wasn’t trolling everyone via Strike, after all? Yes, but she is still JK Rowling, infuriatingly uncancelled by the latest Twitter charge sheet – and, maybe most galling of all, powerful and female. That’s enough, since nothing has been done to combat increasingly extreme and pervasive levels of misogynistic hate speech on social media, to guarantee an offending woman’s exposure to collective, targeted, sexualised abuse.
The participation in this particular case of progressive misogynists seems to have required few revisions of the ur-bitch/hag text. There are moments, we discover, when the kindest of men may be compelled by the right side of history to borrow vocabulary from a resentful daytime TV viewer moved to inform an uppity presenter or politician that he would never give her one, no, not if she were the last woman on earth. One popular philanthropist was feted for calling Rowling a “wicked witch”.
If you compare the online correction of male as opposed to female sympathisers with Rowling, what’s fuelling much of this new literary criticism is, as James Kirkup noted in the Times, dismally obvious: “It’s about people who hate women.” (Naturally, nobody immediately told Mr Kirkup to choke…) There were objections, but if the Rowling death hashtag was not rooted in misogyny, what explains the relentless rape speak, and the absence of similarly dehumanising insults when Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid in Harry Potter) volunteered his support for the author? That is, if it’s not the great misogyny facilitator, Twitter itself.
A recent news story about unwanted parrots raised a rehoming difficulty: some of the birds are irredeemably, violently and, in their parrot way, comically woman-hating. Something to do with imprinting after hatching. But what’s Twitter’s excuse? Does that endlessly devious Rowling make them do it? The less easily her book could be represented as a suitable candidate for Goebbels treatment, the more last week’s indulgently curated insults added to the evidence marshalled by Laura Bates, and consistently indicated in earlier research, that the misogyny of the manosphere has permeated mainstream culture. In 2018, Amnesty identified Twitter as “a toxic place for its female users”. Now, regardless of earnest pledges to improve, the reach of its orchestrated abuse must be the envy of the most rabid subreddit.
So long as misogyny stays off the list of hate crimes, and endemic male violence against women remains a negligible political concern, it evidently suits both certain campaigners and this social media platform to keep up their contributions to the spread of professional, private and street-located hate.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist