In Praise of Difficult Women: 'feisty' J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling is known for her creativity, quick wit, and for passionately standing up for what she believes in.

Published 14 Nov 2018, 23:01 GMT
Joanne 'Jo' Rowling, pen name J. K. Rowling, is the British novelist, best known as the ...
Joanne 'Jo' Rowling, pen name J. K. Rowling, is the British novelist, best known as the author of the Harry Potter fantasy series. The Potter books have gained worldwide attention, won multiple awards, and sold more than 400 million copies.
Photograph by Gareth Iwan Jones, Eyevine, Redux
National Geographic's book In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo profiles women throughout the world who have pushed societal norms and boundries in areas spanning the gambit from politics, art, media, books, and more.
Illustration of J.K. Rowling by Kimberly Glyder for the book 'In Praise of Difficult Women'.
Photograph by Illustration by Kimberly Glyder

Given her monumental literary success, happy marriage to a loving Scottish doctor, three beautiful children, posh residences scattered around the UK, blond English rose beauty, and ability to rock dangly earrings, there is no reason on Earth for J. K. Rowling to be difficult. And yet she is. Tetchy on Twitter, out and proud about her progressive politics, Jo (as she calls herself) isn’t interested in remaining imprisoned by her role as creator of one of the most beloved fictional universes in literary history. Instead, she stays in the fray, enjoys stirring things up.

Jo has always been scrappy, so either old habits die hard or she sees no reason to stop now. Her own origin story has become as well known as Harry Potter’s. She grew up in middle-class English villages—the first outside Bristol, the next farther west in the Forest of Dean. Her father, Peter, was a Rolls Royce aircraft engine mechanic; her mother, Anne, a science technician in the chemistry department at Jo and her younger sister’s school. Anne was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when Jo was 15, which put an abrupt end to the luxury of being a bookish, sheltered child. She became the girl with heavy eyeliner, binge-reading Tolkien while The Smiths pumped through her headphones.

In 1982, Jo applied to Oxford, didn’t get in, and wound up studying French and classics at Exeter. In 1986, after graduation, she worked for Amnesty International. Four years later, while sitting on a delayed train en route to London, she got the idea for a book about a boy wizard who takes a magical train to his magical boarding school. She started writing, but when her mother died, she lost her momentum.

Customers rush to grab the sixth book in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince', at the midnight launch at the Book Passage bookstore.
Photograph by Jim Sugar, Corbis, Getty

It was 1991. Jo was 25 and suddenly lost. On a whim she moved to Porto, Portugal, where she met and married journalist Jorge Arantes. A daughter, Jessica, was born in 1993—but the marriage didn’t last, and Jo soon found herself back in England with an infant, three chapters of her wizard book, and not much else. “I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless . . . By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew,” she confessed.

Hoping to make a new start, Jo moved to Scotland at the end of 1993. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was written in Edinburgh cafés while she lived hand to mouth and cared for her baby. After she was finished, the manuscript was rejected a dozen times. People apparently thought the boarding school trope had been played out, even if it was a wizard boarding school that featured a partially decapitated ghost named Nearly Headless Nick.

Then, an editor at Bloomsbury, aka the Smartest Man in Publishing, bought the manuscript for £1,700. Pretty much every superlative came to pass. The seven Harry Potter books became the best-selling literary series in history. The last four of the seven volumes hold records for the fastest sales. They’ve been published in 73 languages (including Latin and ancient Greek, just for kicks), and have sold 450 million copies, give or take.

J.K. Rowling poses with Daniel Radcliffe, left, who plays Harry Potter, Rupert Grint, second left, who plays Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson, right, who plays Hermione Granger, at the UK premiere of 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' in London.
Photograph by John D. McHugh, Ap

The books begat the movies, which begat the theme park attractions. More than 600,000 pieces of Harry Potter fan fiction have been produced, and about a hundred more pieces have been posted online since I began writing this sentence. A two-part West End stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, opened in 2016. It takes place 19 years in the future after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh book in the series. In the sequel, Harry has become an employee at the Ministry of Magic. I haven’t seen the play, but I’m a bit disheartened to think that after his epic childhood and teen years, Harry grew up to become, essentially, a civil servant.

But wait, there’s more. In 2001 Jo expanded her Potter oeuvre to include 'textbooks' from Hogwarts—Quidditch Through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (writing as the fictitious magizoologist Newt Scamander)—and in 2012 published her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy. She also writes the Cormoran Strike crime series, under the pen name Robert Galbraith (described by the publisher as, “a former plainclothes Royal Military Police investigator who had left in 2003 to work in the civilian security industry”). All this has made Jo literally richer than the Queen of England, and people have become obsessed with her financial status, before and after the Potter books. In 2016, the New York Times offered an in-depth accounting, but the takeaway is:

Then, not a pot to piss in.

Now, billions or millions, depending on whether you’re counting the vast sums she’s given away to charity.

Rowling finished the final Potter instalment in 2007—and now that she’s off the leash, she’s known for being 'thin-skinned'. These days 'thin-skinned' is the insult du jour—but long before politicians were calling each other thin-skinned and pundits who disagreed were calling each other thin-skinned, Jo was smacked with the label. In 2007, Time magazine described her as “a woman of high energy and a short fuse.” In 2012, the New Yorker weighed in with, “She has a reputation for being likable, but shy and thin-skinned.”

Queen Elizabeth II met J.K Rowling during the Children's Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London.
Photograph by Chris Young, PA Images, Getty

To be female and be thin-skinned means you react, sometimes strongly, to things you don’t like, choosing to voice your opinions instead of swallowing them because they may cause problems. It’s that straightforward: Rather than tolerating something, you speak up. Perhaps you’re even a little bit angry. You don’t pretend it’s okay, or (as I sometimes do) bend over backward to see the other point of view, or try to magically convert rage to empathy. (I’m sure Hermione has a spell for that.)

In 2004, when Rowling’s 19-month-old son, David (from second husband, Neil Murray, whom she married in 2001), was 'papped' by a photographer with a telephoto lens while she was out walking him in his baby buggy, she sued everyone who could possibly be sued for invasion of privacy. I think it’s safe to say she never thought, 'The guy’s just doing his job'.

Rowling is also reputed to be “famously reclusive”—a descriptor that’s vaguely disapproving. If there was ever a word that needed to be redefined for the digital age, it’s recluse. Although it’s true that Rowling doesn’t throw neighbourhood potluck suppers or get sloppy drunk doing karaoke at the local pub, the woman has almost 15 million Twitter followers, and has been known to tweet many times a day about rugby, Scottish politics, her favourite charities, and various Potter arcana (there are Jews at Hogwarts but not Wiccans, oddly enough).

Before I go any further, I should point out that I am no devotee of Twitter. I suspect you need to be either famous or an existential masochist to enjoy it. Nothing makes it clearer that you’re a lone soul living out your uneventful days on an undistinguished planet orbiting a mediocre star in a far-flung arm of the Milky Way than blasting out a few wickedly insightful or funny tweets, only to have them met with . . . nothing.

Obviously, Rowling doesn’t have that issue. The downside of her visibility and influence is that she’s routinely held to task for refusing to behave like a proper children’s book author (which seems to be a mix between a Sunday school teacher and full-time literacy advocate).

When Jo published The Casual Vacancy, a hefty adult novel about a local city council election in the small English town of Pagford, the parents of young fans apparently took umbrage with the clearly grown-up content (by which I mean that Rowling used the word 'vagina'). Her tweet on the matter was a delicious snippet of the snark to come: “There’s no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher.”

She was just warming up. During the 2016 presidential election, she regularly weighed in about her disdain for Trump. After the third debate, she tweeted: “Well, there you have it. A highly intelligent, experienced woman just debated a giant orange Twitter egg. Your move, America. #debate.” She went on to offend legions of Trump-supporting trolls who shot back that they were going to burn all their Potter books and DVDs and never read her work again.

Her takedown: “Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic, and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.”

Of course, the more success a woman enjoys, the more complicated things become. Sometimes, there is no winning for women—for deep and deeply infuriating reasons that legions of feminists, sociologists, psychologists, and culture anthropologists have spent entire lifetimes attempting to sort out.

In Praise of Difficult Women, by Karen Karbo
Photograph by Book Cover design and illustration by Kimberly Glyder

In 2016, Slate posted a piece called, “J. K. Rowling’s Twitter Feed Is Slowly Ruining Everything I Love About J. K. Rowling.” The tone is tongue-in-cheek, but the message is unmistakable: stay in your lane, Jo. Don’t ruin our image of you as the sweet, slightly eccentric author of the best books of our youth by being an adult woman with thoughts and feelings of her own. Please spend your life being an emissary for Harry Potter.

Over on Gawker, however, she was mocked for doing exactly that. A regular J. K. Rowling feature headlined “God, Get a Life!!!” pictured Jo either reading from a Potter book, or holding one up. As authors are wont to do.

Luckily for Jo, she doesn’t mind being called thin-skinned. She owns it. She isn’t thin-skinned about being called thin-skinned.

To be blasé about what others view as a shortcoming is pure difficult woman. Please join me in a thought exercise: That thing you hate about yourself? Accept it now. Make no excuses for it. Be inspired by Jo Rowling, and embrace your complexities! Your public, like hers, will simply have to deal with them.

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