paywalled review of the novel in the UK Telegraph by Jake Kerridge describes a “transvestite serial killer” as part of the plot and suggests its moral is “never trust a man in a dress”. Snippets of the review volleyed around Twitter, fuelling condemnation of the book as transphobic, and were marshalled as further evidence of Rowling’s controversial views about transgender women. In newspaper articles, experts offered commentary on transphobia and the book while it was still likely being unboxed in Amazon warehouses.
The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” might now be updated to “don’t judge a book by Twitter” given the recent trend for books to be pilloried online, and even withdrawn from publication, before the public has even read them.
Rowling’s beliefs about transgender women or even how her book depicts the killer, Dennis Creed, as once wearing a wig and a woman’s coat to trick his female victims, can be considered as distinct from the increasing problem of books being “cancelled” based on second-hand accounts of their contents and subsequent Twitter pile-ons directed at authors and publishers.
The trend first became visible in relation to Young Adult fiction, a category that is heavily politicised because it is seen as educating teen readers and because its readership is active in discussing books online.
In 2019, Amelie Wen Zhao’s debut YA novel Blood Heir was due to be published in the United States. Zhao claimed the book drew on her background as an Asian-American woman and issues such as human trafficking, but it was savaged online for its depiction of slavery, “anti-blackness” and bigotry.
The tinder for the outrage was a small number of advance copies but the unrelenting response was enough for Zhao to withdraw the novel from publication. When the tweets calmed, Zhao decided many of the assessments were unfounded, and the novel was subsequently published after she made some revisions.
One critic of Zhao’s work was Kosoko Jackson, a queer African-American author who is also a “sensitivity reader”. Publishers of YA novels commonly run manuscripts by sensitivity readers to ensure that people who belong to the depicted racial or religious groups, for example, have shared any concerns, particularly if the author does not belong to the group being represented.
Unbelievably, Jackson’s own YA novel, A Place for Wolves, was also withdrawn before publication last year. The story about the Kosovan genocide was subject to backlash on multiple points: it focuses on two non-Muslim Americans, Jackson himself was not Muslim, the villain is an ethnic Albanian, and a recent genocide was being used as the backdrop for romance.
The response to Rowling’s new novel signals the spread of this worrying trend to books published for adults. Before the public could even scan the pages of Troubled Blood for questionable content, the opinion of one reviewer was distilled to soundbites of “evidence” that were widely circulated and then taken up as a serious issue in the media.
This is a problem for numerous reasons. First, individual readers can misread novels. Laurie Frost’s YA fantasy novel The Black Witch was accused of racism in a viral tweet by a book blogger in 2017. However, the depiction of a metaphorically racist society does not equate to an endorsement of racism. The premise of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for example, is troubling, but the novel cannot be reduced to an endorsement of paedophilia.
Second, opinions based on publicity material or second-hand description don’t account for the complexity of novels that run to hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of words.
Alison Flood has read Rowling’s novel and observes that there is more nuance to the representation of the character in question than the “transvestite serial killer” stereotype. In fact, the outdated term “transvestite” that appears in most tweets comes from the Telegraph review that sparked the outrage, rather than the novel.
This is not to offer a judgment one way or another about Rowling’s gender politics or the offensiveness of Troubled Blood. However, with the democratisation of reviewing and criticism that empowers bloggers and users of social media to make or break books, we need to apply rigour in shaping our opinions about them. As a university literature lecturer, I have heard many students say, “I haven’t read the book, but it sounds like …” Offering judgment of a book that you have not read is akin to giving an opinion of an image you’ve viewed with your eyes closed.
Dr Michelle Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University.