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J.K. Rowling's new book, about a character accused of transphobia, raises eyebrows

J.K Rowling has said publicly that her new book was not based on her own life, even though some of the events that take place in the story did in fact happen to her as she was writing it.
Tolga Akmen
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J.K Rowling has said publicly that her new book was not based on her own life, even though some of the events that take place in the story did in fact happen to her as she was writing it.

J.K. Rowling, who rose to fame as the author of the Harry Potter series, is known for writing about magical subjects and fantasy worlds. But her latest book bears more than a passing resemblance to reality — and, critics say, not in a good way.

The Ink Black Heart is the sixth installment of Rowling's thriller series Cormoran Strike, which she penned under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The 1,024-page tome started raising eyebrows as soon as it hit stores on Tuesday.

Observers noted that the plot appears to mirror Rowling's own experience of taking heat and losing fans for expressing transphobic views in recent years. Rowling has said publicly that the book was not based on her own life, even though some of the events that take place in the story did in fact happen to her as she was writing it.

"Although I have to say when it did happen to me, those who had already read the book in manuscript form were [like] – are you clairvoyant?" Rowling wrote in a Q&A on Galbraith's website. "I wasn't clairvoyant, I just – yeah, it was just one of those weird twists. Sometimes life imitates art more than one would like."

In the book, a popular artist gets harassed for her opinions

The book centers the story of Edie Ledwell, a popular cartoonist who, according to the official description, is "persecuted by a mysterious online figure" — and ultimately found dead — after her cartoon was criticized for being racist, ableist and transphobic (at least partly over a bit involving "a hermaphrodite worm," Rolling Stone reports).

"The book takes a clear aim at 'social justice warriors' and suggests that Ledwell was a victim of a masterfully plotted, politically fueled hate campaign against her," the magazine continues, adding that the character gets doxxed — with "photos of her home plastered on the Internet" — and faces threats of rape and death because of her opinions.

Parts of the story seem to mirror Rowling's experience

Rowling has made her own opinions known, particularly in regards to the transgender community, over the last several years.

She faced backlash in 2019 for publicly supporting Maya Forstater, a researcher who had lost her job over transphobic tweets. The following year, Rowling posted several controversial tweets, including one opinion piece that mocked the term "people who menstruate" ("I'm sure there used to be a word for those people," she tweeted. "Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?"), and published a long statement expressing her concerns with "the consequences of the current trans activism."

Rowling said in November that she's received death threats. She also publicly accused three activists of doxxing her when they posted photos of themselves holding pro-trans rights signs outside of her house in Scotland, "carefully positioning themselves to ensure that our address was visible," she said.

The activists, who had been demonstrating in honor of International Transgender Day of Remembrance, later deleted the photo and deactivated their accounts because of the amount of transphobic backlash they had received online. Scottish police later investigated the so-called doxxing and determined no crimes had been committed (notably, Rowling's home is a popular tourist attraction, as Them points out).

Critics say the book is self-serving and "beyond parody"

News of Rowling's book release has taken Twitter by storm, even prompting dueling hashtags – #IStandWithJKRowling and #ICantStandJKRowling.

Critics have decried the book as "hilariously self-persecuting" and "beyond parody," with some drawing attention to the real-world problems facing transgender people, deriding its length ("500 pages longer than Dune, 300 pages longer than Infinite Jest and 100 pages longer than the Bible," wrote one) and calling for people to boycott her work.

Lark Malakai Grey, co-host of the queer Harry Potter podcast "The Gayly Prophet" told NPR over email that he finds the situation "deeply embarrassing" for Rowling.

"She has published a 1,000-page self-insert fanfiction where she's the victim—it's the kind of behavior that you'd expect from a petulant teenager, not a grown adult with immense wealth and power," he added. "I have no idea what she expected, but seeing the internet fill with jokes about the book has been an absolute joy after all the harm she has caused my community over the past several years."

Rowling's transphobic comments have lost her many fans

Rowling's stance has alienated many in her fanbase — which includes a large number of LGBTQ people — as well as a slew of prominent Harry Potter cast members: Actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint are among those who have condemned her comments and expressed their support for the trans community.

Rowling was noticeably absent from the Harry Potter 20th anniversary special, a de facto reunion for much of the franchise's cast and crew that aired on New Year's Day 2022. She told Graham Norton's "Radio Show" podcast on Saturday that she was invited to participate in the special but chose not to come because she saw it as "about the films more than the books."

In that same interview, she stressed that she had written her new book before the events of the past year.

"I said to my husband, 'I think everyone is going to see this as a response to what happened to me,' but it genuinely wasn't," she said. "The first draft of the book was finished at the point certain things happened."

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Corrected: August 31, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misspelled Grey.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.