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Trans Harry Potter fans respond to J.K. Rowling’s transphobic essay

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Copies of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, on display at a bookstore in New York on August 3, 2016.
Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects.

We skipped a link roundup last week, because instead we wanted to elevate voices on racism and police brutality in America. (You can check out the reading list we put together here.) But we’re back this week, and whoa boy, have things been happening! Book publishing is reckoning with its institutional racism, J.K. Rowling is trying to justify her transphobia, the Emergency Library is getting shut down — and also, people are writing some really fun and interesting things about books. So, without further ado, here is the best online writing on books and related subjects for the week of June 7, 2020.

Let’s talk about literary agents for a second; they are, effectively, tastemakers. Editors trust them to deliver books and authors that adhere to their (sometimes limited) taste. And what happens when these arbiters continue to work within the circles of writers who they already know? The same thing that always happens: books that follow trends, that look the same, that are written by the same kinds of people.

We’ve had the Lee & Low reports for years. We’ve had diversity panels for years. Since my first internship in 2013, I’ve been told that change needs time to trickle from the ranks of exploited and underpaid interns and assistants to the senior and executive levels. Asking individuals with very little power, job security, and in-company support to lead the charge is crazy-making. The reason it feels so impossible for us is because it is. But I’ve kept my head down and accepted this absurd premise because it was effectively my only option.

But publishers and authors have for years expressed outrage over the practice of controlled digital lending, and in their June 1 complaint the plaintiff publishers called it an “invented” theory with no basis in law. “No concept of fair use supports the systematic mass copying or distribution of entire books for the purpose of mass reading, or put another way, for the purpose of providing to readers the very thing that publishers and authors provide in the first place through lawful and established channels,” the publisher suit alleges.

Pick up any novel by Portis and open it to any page and you will find something so devastatingly strange and fresh and hilarious that you will want to run into the next room and read it aloud to somebody. His language is precise but whimsical, understated but anarchic, and as with Barbara Pym or P.G. Wodehouse, it’s tough to communicate the flavor of it without resorting to long quotes. All readers who love Portis have lines they like to swap back and forth; and a conversation among his admirers will mostly consist of such gems — committed to memory — exchanged and mutually admired.

  • This week, J.K. Rowling published an essay in which she attempted to justify her transphobic tweets of last December. At LitHub, Gabrielle Bellot responds:

In the wake of her December tweet, some conservatives gleefully declared that liberals had “canceled” Rowling by attacking her. The truth is bleaker, though. It was her transgender fans, like me, who had actually been “canceled,” because the author we had looked up to for so long had shown, finally, that she was no fan of us.

If we’re talking about culture that makes people happy, we have to start with the works of PG Wodehouse. There are two reasons why. One reason is that making people happy was Wodehouse’s overriding ambition. The other reason is that he was better at it than any other writer in history.

The book opens with a warning from mother to daughter: “You must not tell anyone what I am about to tell you.” To read “The Woman Warrior” is to conspire with its narrator, who is never named but is referred to by other characters as Little Dog. Her mother tells her the story of her aunt, the “no-name woman,” who killed herself and her newborn child by jumping into the family well. Her village had turned against her, knowing that the child’s father could not be her husband, since he had left for America. It’s a mother’s warning to her daughter as she approaches puberty. But Little Dog studies what her mother is doing, telling a story, denying its central protagonist the dignity of a name, and recognizes a kind of power. She begins retelling the story herself, imagining different versions of it.

To paraphrase Emerson, idioms, though seemingly mundane, are the fossilized poetry of language. Their origins are often frozen in time, lost in the mists of metaphor and meaning. As excitable paleoscatologists find value in fossilized excrement of an ancient age, so might we delve into the whys and wherefores of the most disreputable scatologically adjacent idioms.

Being a Black performer of Yiddish has also made me a locus of assertions about the language and its relationship to otherness: Yiddish is for many a symbol of “authentic Jewishness” and/or internationalist values, and as such, my engagement with it as a Black man has occasionally been held up as an example of inherent Jewish exceptionalism and liberality. And yet, Yiddish remains a language largely assumed to be a matter of Black incomprehension—a language that has spoken about Blackness from the outside.

Men, it turns out, read significantly less than women, but — and this is important — the publishing industry still caters to them by signing a disproportionate number of male authors to male-owned publishing companies to write books edited and reviewed by men. In this relationship, one party will do anything to please the other — change themselves, destroy their future — while the object of their affections would rather play video games. There’s literally a Lana Del Rey song about how sad this situation is.

Our sales are definitely down since this all started, but we are in a position to reopen and come back strong. I reached out to large organizations to see how we could support them with our books, and we’ve gotten a lot of B2B orders that way. LinkedIn started a Black Book Club to help their POC members cope with — I don’t even know what to call it, the apocalypse? — and they ordered hundreds of copies of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. I also have a section in my store called Dear White People, and when all this racial tension erupted, I put that book list online and it went viral. We’ve made enough sales to weather the coronavirus, I think. Now we just have to make it through whatever comes next.

The next time you pick up a popular crime novel, flip to the acknowledgments page and see how quickly the author thanks the police for ride-alongs in squad cars or answering questions about guns or forensics. The economics of publishing mean that many authors need to publish a novel every year or two; that’s a lot easier to do when you have steady contacts on the police force who are happy to talk to you.

Some proponents have begun treating sensitivity readers as a panacea: a cheap and effective way of achieving diversity in the ranks of publishing that doubles as insurance against future criticism. Meanwhile, detractors have built these readers up into all-powerful agents of censorship, harbingers of the death of literature. Sensitivity readers, of course, are none of these things—what they are is a piecemeal fix in an industry that continues to push minority voices to the margins.

Since before Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, narratives by Black Americans about Black Americans have performed a sort of zoological function. In conjunction with or perhaps with utter disregard for a work’s literary merits (depending on its audience), a reader might approach such a book the way they might watch a documentary. Smooth narration, structurally sound. A chance to learn something new about seahorses. “A window into the condition of contemporary Black America” reads the breathless blurb or pull-quote on the cover. And in that book are likely breathtaking sentences, arresting paragraphs, gorgeous scene-endings depicting the worst day of a Black character’s life. The sentences will sing in a story about slavery.

And here’s the past two weeks in books at Vox, since we skipped last week:

Happy reading!

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