JK Rowling’s new novel set to be a bestseller despite ‘transphobic’ claims

Article by Broede Carmody /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
September 15, 2020 /
Click here to view original /

Despite the controversy and criticism about her outspoken views on identity politics, JK Rowling’s latest crime novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith is likely to be a bestseller in Australia.

The Harry Potter author has made debates about sex, gender and freedom of speech her stomping ground during the past few months, attracting accusations from LGBTQI campaign groups that she is transphobic and support from feminists who have struggled with the transgender movement.

Social media has been a key platform for the British writer’s views, which came to the forefront after she tweeted her support last year for a researcher who opposed government reform that would make it easier for trans people to change their legal sex and in June mocked an opinion piece that referred to “people who menstruate” posting, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”

Rowling doubled down with a 3000-word essay on her website which stated that trans-inclusive language “strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning”. She was also among 150 public intellectuals who published an open letter in Harper’s Magazine in July that argued “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”.

Last month, Rowling returned her Robert F Kennedy Human Rights Award after the organisation’s president said the author’s views on transgender people were “deeply troubling”. She has become a key figure in the culture wars, aligned with feminists critical of fluid views of gender and social conservatives critical of identity politics.

But the debate shifted from Rowling’s social media presence to the page on Tuesday with the release of her new book Troubled Blood. Critics have been quick to decry a plotline in the novel, the fifth in Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series, in which a cross-dressing serial killer is a key suspect in a decades-old murder case. In one passage the character is described as “dark and stocky”, wearing a wig and “padded out in a woman’s coat”.

In an early review, The Telegraph UK critic Jake Kerridge claimed the moral of the novel seemed to be “never trust a man in a dress”. Kerridge referred to the character as a “transvestite”, widely considered a derogatory term for crossdressing, although Rowling does not use the term in the novel. The book hadn’t even hit shelves overseas when the hashtag #RIPJKRowling started trending with claims that the new book was transphobic.

Local publishers Hachette would not comment on the criticism and Rowling has not yet made any public remarks. But while some were penning online eulogies for Rowling’s career, booksellers see blue skies ahead. While writer Lionel Shriver has spoken about the damage she did to her career by famously donning a sombrero and taking aim at the concept of cultural appropriation, Rowling doesn’t seem to have lost her magic selling power.

A Hachette spokeswoman said more than 35,000 copies of Troubled Blood had been sent to local bookshops, making it the biggest Robert Galbraith release for Australia on record. Hachette’s in-house projections suggest it is set to become Rowling’s bestselling crime novel since her second foray into the genre, The Silkworm, in 2014.

Sex, gender and pop culture expert Dr Lauren Rosewarne said Rowling’s work was facing “heightened scrutiny” with more attention placed on her fictional representations of sex and gender.

“She’s already been playing in this space,” Dr Rosewarne said. “It’s unlikely we’d be having this conversation if someone with less of a platform and less form would have written the novel.”

Dr Rosewarne said she wouldn’t be surprised if Troubled Blood’s sales spiked in the wake of the renewed controversy. And despite the criticism, Rowling’s views haven’t broken the spell of Harry Potter. Bloomsbury, which publishes all of the Harry Potter series, said in July that the novels had remained bestsellers, proving “very popular with families at home reading to each other” during lockdown.

“I don’t think this is going to make a drop in the ocean in terms of sales,” Dr Rosewarne said. “In fact, it might help. Twitter is not the real world. There’s a lot of people who don’t let politics impact their buying decisions. There will [even] be people feeling that they need to defend her.”