January 16, 2024 - 7:00am

It can be satisfying as a writer to take aim at a public figure, to fire a shot at someone more successful and better-known. This is especially true if you believe the subject deserves it: the feeling that one is fighting the good fight by bashing a keyboard is exhilarating. But when the target is held dear to millions of people across the world, as the author J.K. Rowling is, it’s only prudent to make sure the criticism is fair.

Today, The New Statesman published a needlessly vindictive article by Nick Hilton originally titled “JK Rowling, Britain’s nastiest novelist”. A few hours later, after much outcry, the magazine quietly changed the headline to “JK Rowling, Britain’s gloriously nasty novelist”.

The feature-length piece complained that the author’s Cormoran Strike crime series, written using the pen name Robert Galbraith, “portrays a Britain populated by paedophiles, domestic abusers, rapists and terrorists”. There was little appreciation for the fact that any realistic crime novel will by definition include bad people doing bad things. As journalist Hadley Freeman astutely observed, “the main complaint in this piece seems to be that Rowling does not write nice ladylike novels about nice ladylike things”.

With a leap of imagination so fantastical it could be borrowed from Harry Potter fan fiction, Hilton concluded that Rowling’s crime writing revealed her “true heart of darkness”.  “In another world,” he wrote, “J.K. Rowling could be a character in a book by Robert Galbraith: brittle, insecure, cruel.”

When considering Rowling’s cruelty, a balanced piece might have mentioned her philanthropy, which is so extensive she fell off the Forbes rich list. The author has founded a number of charities, notably Lumos, to reform care for children around the world and to help alleviate social deprivation. And thanks to Rowling’s generosity, rape victims in Scotland are now guaranteed a women-only service at Beira’s Place. It’s hard to think of many other writers who take charity so seriously.

A generous reading of Hilton’s article might argue that he thought he was providing a useful literary critique, resurrecting the author killed by Roland Barthes. A more realistic one is that he was hoping to elevate himself by throwing stones at a literary giantess. Whatever his motivation, though, such was the negative reaction that Hilton appears to have deactivated his profile on X.

What angered many was Hilton’s apparent inability to separate his disdain for the artist and her views from the work she produces. For him, and seemingly for many others, it’s personal. An organiser of the 2017 “Potter, Past and Present” conference, Hilton is a former superfan who now feels let down by his erstwhile heroine. Indeed, he wrote in his article that “a generation of Potter enthusiasts have been increasingly disillusioned by Rowling’s evolution from saint-like Labour Party-supporting children’s author to polemical political activist”.

Hilton is far from the only “Potterhead” to denounce Rowling over her wholly unremarkable view that women’s rights cannot be defended without a meaningful definition of “woman”. In 2022, no less than the International Quidditch Association cited Rowling’s “anti-trans positions” as a reason for changing the sport’s name to “quadball”. And last year, former fans decided to film themselves burning Harry Potter books on social media.

Hilton’s hit piece, by comparison, may seem relatively tame. But it suffers the same indignity: of being a “brittle, insecure, cruel” act by a character so immersed in fiction that they’re offended by facts — and who ought not to be taken too seriously.

Josephine Bartosch is a freelance writer and assistant editor at The Critic.