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Mary McNamara: The new J.K. Rowling book is not great, but it has nothing to do with transphobia

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J.K. Rowling arrives at the "Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore" world premiere at The Royal Festival Hall on March 29, 2022, in London.

J.K. Rowling arrives at the "Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore" world premiere at The Royal Festival Hall on March 29, 2022, in London. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images/TNS)

There are loads of legitimate reasons a reader might dislike "The Ink Black Heart," the sixth book in the Cormoran Strike series. Writing as Robert Galbraith, J.K. Rowling has spun out a 1,024-page-long mystery, which is long even by, say, Elizabeth George standards and at least 500 pages longer than the story warrants. Far too many of those pages are filled with tweets; characters discussing those tweets; transcripts of website interviews; and gamer group chats complete with all the concurrent private chats they spawn.

These last are presented in column form; they are challenging to read and involve a mix/match game of characters, pseudonyms and red herrings that would give Agatha Christie a heart attack.

"The Ink Black Heart" also includes a few more infuriatingly torturous baby steps toward the inevitable romance between private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner, Robin Ellacott, which may be tantalizing enough for fans to overlook the eye-straining clutter of the above.

Galbraith being Rowling and Rowling being Rowling, however, the earliest and loudest criticism of the novel, published late last month, had nothing to do with form or function. Headlines instead blared that "The Ink Black Heart" was nothing but a thinly disguised self-pity party in which Rowling wallows in the backlash she has faced since she argued, publicly and repeatedly, that trans women are not women.

Early reports that "The Ink Black Heart" revolves around the murder of an animator after she is accused of being transphobic, racist and ableist are not accurate. Edie Ledwell, co-creator of a wildly successful YouTube series, is indeed murdered after being the target of relentless online hate, but that hate is clearly focused not on racism or ableism but on Ledwell's offhand dismissal of a fan-generated game based on the series and, to a lesser extent, the sale of the series to Netflix.

The series, also called "The Ink Black Heart," is set in a graveyard and filled with all manner of fantastic creatures including skeletons, ghosts, a disembodied heart and a character that may be a demon. Among the many, many tweets and online conversations, there are a few criticisms of how one of the fictional series' characters could be construed as antisemitic, another — a "hermaphroditic" worm — could be "triggering" for nonbinary kids, and the various stray body parts could offend the physically challenged.

But to find the word "trans" or "transphobic" amid the hundreds of thousands of words Rowling used to tell this story, you would have to do a document search. Which I did, and each term came up exactly once. "Racism" and "ableism" can be found in a few more places, usually hashtagged at the end of tweets.

And there are So. Many. Tweets.

On one very obvious level, "The Ink Black Heart" is an examination of toxic fandom — how quickly it can change from admiration to a sense of ownership that often tips into joy-stick demands that the creator not "ruin" a work by making creative decisions that clash with audience desire.

When Ledwell dismisses a fan-generated game during an interview, the game's creator, known only as Anomie, turns on her. Not only is Ledwell unappreciative of the work that went into the game, Anomie charges, she is ungrateful for the role the fans played in her success. When it's announced that Ledwell and her partner, Josh Blay, have sold the series to Netflix, Ledwell is cast as greedy as well.

There are subsequent charges of plagiarism and ill-treatment of early staff, but most of the trolling is fed by Anomie, who churns out such a cascading drumbeat of abuse aimed at Ledwell that others begin to wonder if Anomie is a creation of Ledwell's, meant to generate sympathy.

After Ledwell is found dead and Blay wounded, that theory at least is put to rest. Anomie understandably becomes a main suspect; much of the book is an attempt to discover his/her/their identity.

It's hard to imagine anyone who understands the vagaries of fan culture as viscerally as Rowling. From the moment "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" remade publishing as we know it, she has always openly engaged with her fans, even as she maintained an iron grasp on her increasingly massive — and massively valuable — IP. For years, she was viewed by many as something of a saint, the single mother who built a magical world and saved publishing, who dominated the box office and saw her vision turned into wildly successful theme parks.

The Galbraith novels were, she has said, an attempt to return to writing without the pressure of world wide success. And indeed, the first Strike novel arrived with some nice reviews and abysmal sales. Until, that is, Galbraith's true identity was revealed via an anonymous text; then Galbraith soared onto various bestseller lists.

Ah, the price of fame.

When, in 2020, she inserted herself into the debate over trans rights — arguing, among other things, that the growing acceptance of the trans community was pressuring people to declare themselves trans — she was met with a firestorm of criticism as deep and wide as her fan base had once been.

To draw a parallel between fans turning on poor old Ledwell for an innocuous reference to a fan game and Rowling's very public and consciously provocative denunciation of trans women is an absurd reach; it's simply not what she appears to be doing here.

There are many contemporary themes afoot in "The Ink Black Heart" (I did mention it was 1,024 pages, right?), including sexism in the gaming industry, the increase in right-wing zealotry, general misogyny and, of course, the way money changes everything.

There are certainly more than a few aspersions cast on "woke culture," but more than anything, the book feels like an attempt to take on the digital world and all the pleasure/peril of engaging with people you do not actually know in ways that are often not at all sincere.

This is a perfectly legitimate, if unwieldy, topic for any novelist, including a mystery writer, to take on. Grounding a novel in so many deeply specific aspects of contemporary culture, however, is risky business. At best, there's a danger of almost immediate narrative obsolescence; at worst, a subtext of personal grievance.

Rowling is too smart not to know that her comments on trans women have created a whole new filter through which her work will be viewed. The previous Strike novel, "Troubled Blood," was criticized for its depiction of a serial killer who uses a gentle mien, and a woman's coat and wig, to reel in unsuspecting victims. Though hardly in the league of, say, "Dressed to Kill" or even Ruth Rendell's "The New Girlfriend," it seemed a much more direct reflection of Rowling's arguments that trans women pose a threat to cis women — including in that favored boogeyman, the public restroom. Even the most generous reviews marked this character as "tone-deaf."

In "Ink Black Heart," the scattered conversations about fans who see ableism in a skeleton or nonbinary rejection in a worm are clearly digs at the more zealous end of identity politics. Rowling is not so much trying to push a few cultural buttons as running her hands over the entire console to see what pattern will emerge.

Like many, I find Rowling's antitrans diatribes offensive, misguided and dangerous. (To argue that she has been "canceled" only points out the absurdity of that term — "The Ink Black Heart" is currently at No. 4 on The Times' bestsellers list.) Rowling recast her public persona of her own volition, and just as fans overlooked the increasing bloat and flaws of the final "Harry Potter" books, the critics she roused now parse her work for transphobia.

This is perfectly reasonable; readers, critics and scholars often try to find the nature of the artist through the art. It is not fair, however, to invent a revelation where one does not exist. To do it for a clicky headline only reinforces one of the many themes in "Ink Black Heart": that outrage can be manipulated and fanned until its original objection is lost in the subsequent carnage.

Rowling's transphobic statements are objectionable enough; there's no need to bolster the case with a book that weighs more than a house elf — especially when the overreaction only bolsters the author's case instead.

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