September 2, 2022

Fifteen years ago, on the eve of the release of the final book in the Harry Potter series, an anonymous hacker calling himself Gabriel sent the following to an anonymised email list: “Dear my brothers, Voldemort killed Hermione.”

The sender, who claimed to have phished a copy of the manuscript from a Scholastic employee, and whose idiosyncratic writing style suggests that English was not his first language, went on to enumerate several other (equally inaccurate) plot points from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. In doing so, he hoped to curtail the influence of Harry Potter over “the youngs of our earth”, whom he feared would be seduced into neo-paganism: “So we make this spoiler to make reading of the upcoming book useless and boring.”

At the time, guys like Gabriel were widely derided as villains, malicious hatemongers on a shameful quest to ruin everyone else’s good time. But on Wednesday, within hours of the release of a new crime novel by J.K. Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, a user named “opiumteaworld” posted the following on Twitter: “[redacted] is the identity of [redacted] and the name of the killer in #TheInkBlackHeart. Retweet as a form of #NonViolentProtest of J.K.Rowling’s relentless enabling of abusive transphobes and the British media ignoring the desecration and destruction of the Manchester trans memorial.”

In the 15 years since Harry Potter made his final stand against Voldemort, the angst directed at Rowling has evolved from nebulous fears of neo-paganism into a far more sustained and focused rage over her perceived transphobia. But when it comes to the shape the anger takes, very little has changed. Rowling’s haters can’t stop her from writing, and they can’t stop people from reading her writing — but by god, they’ll do what they can to make sure those people don’t enjoy it.

This quest by former Rowling fans to ruin her new book is richly metatextual under the circumstances. The Ink Black Heart finds detectives Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott investigating the fatal stabbing of a content creator, a case that centres on the extremely online activities of a toxic fandom that sprang up around an animated cartoon.

Based on the premise alone, it’s no surprise that the novel has been described by Rowling’s critics as “a riposte to those who fantasise about killing her”. And yet the idea of The Ink Black Heart as just the latest entry into a reactionary pissing contest between Rowling and her critics doesn’t quite ring true. It’s not just the length of the book (who wants to write a “riposte” in the form of a 1,000-page novel when Twitter is right there?); it’s that The Ink Black Heart is such an incisive, even prescient, view into how the fan community surrounding a beloved cultural property turns toxic, turns on its creator, and ultimately tears itself to shreds.

Indeed, for all the claims that Rowling is writing in response to her trolls, it’s those same former fans who seem most intent on insisting that life imitates art. For instance, as soon as The Ink Black Heart was released this week, a fake screenshot was immediately circulated on Twitter purporting to prove that Rowling uses another anonymous account to tweet homophobic content — a near-identical smear to those that dogged Rowling’s fictional murdered cartoonist, Edie Ledwell. If I were to collage a series of posts invented by Rowling for her book alongside real responses to its publication from the anti-Rowling contingent, you would not be able to tell them apart.

Ever since social media began allowing fans to both gather en masse and, on those same platforms, to enjoy an unprecedented level of access to content creators, the balance of power between the people who make art and those who consume it has been volatile. That tension is the basis of the “toxic fandom” dynamic whose trajectory was traced by fantasy author Sam Sykes in a viral tweet from 2017: “1. I love this. 2. I own this. 3. I control this. 4. I can’t control this. 5. I hate this. 6. I must destroy this.”

Directed at the work itself, this dynamic begets all sorts of atrocious fan behaviour. But when the focus of the anger shifts from the work to its creator, the ugliness multiplies — and intensifies. This is especially true for someone like Rowling, whose books defined not just the childhood of fans but their adolescence and emergence into adulthood. More than entertainment, the Harry Potter series taught them how to live — and more than just an author, Rowling represented something akin to a moral authority; if not a parent, then a cool, understanding aunt.

For this reason — and also in light of the extremely online plot premise and early buzz about The Ink Black Heart’s self-referential aspects — I had also wondered if Rowling had finally given in to the temptation to stick it to her critics in her work. As an author of thrillers myself, I know it’s a fine line to walk. (I also know that uncharitable readers will invariably assume that the characters in a book are a stand-in for the author whether they are or not.) It was an issue that Rowling addressed directly last weekend, saying: “I should make it really clear after some of the things that have happened in the last year — this is not depicting [that]”, before adding that the first draft of the book was finished well before “certain things” occurred.

Needless to say, Rowling’s critics refuse to believe this. But I do, and not just because the length of time it takes to plot, write, edit, and traditionally publish a book makes anything else extremely unlikely. (There’s a reason it took more than 18 months for the first round of hastily-written pandemic-themed novels to start hitting bookshelves.) It’s that if The Ink Black Heart were truly what it’s been accused of — a thinly-veiled persecution fantasy about Rowling’s victimisation at the hands of her former fans — it wouldn’t be a good story. It wouldn’t treat its characters, including the badly-behaved, narcissistic, vengeful, and murderous ones, with so much interest, or so much compassion. It wouldn’t be a pleasure to read even after some goober on the internet took it upon himself to spoil the killer’s identity.

But — and this is no doubt infinitely frustrating to Rowling’s haters — it is, and does, all of these things. And while Rowling writes about the internecine warfare among the extremely online with the insight and authenticity of someone who has seen that world first-hand, she does not indulge the urge, so prevalent in these communities, to conclude that all this disagreeable behaviour is motivated by rank bigotry, bad character, or a moral compass skewed irretrievably toward evil. She has, ultimately, a novelist’s eye for the complications and contradictions that lie under the surface of human behaviour. Even the bad guys in this world have good reasons, or at least sympathetic ones, why they do the things they do.

Of course, those railing online against The Ink Black Heart have no idea about that; it’s not only acceptable but something of a badge of honour in cases like this to denounce a book, or decry other people’s enjoyment of it, without ever actually reading it. And there is an irony here: despite her own experiences — or perhaps because of them: crime novelists will literally write a 1,000-page murder mystery instead of going to therapy — Rowling has evidently spent more time trying to understand what motivates someone to devote so much of their life to hating someone on the internet than those same people have ever spent examining their own destructive impulses.

The critics rail away about her narcissism, her ignorance, her refusal to listen. But this book makes it clear that they’re badly mistaken: she has always been listening. Not with the empty-headed deference of the obsequious ally, but in the way that all good storytellers do, as a fly on the wall of the discourse, a keen observer of human affairs. And it is this — not her fame, not her money, but her ability to imagine an internet troll in all his sharp-edged human complexity — that ultimately makes Rowling uncancellable. She doesn’t just know her enemies; she knows them better than they know themselves.

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