The BBC nominates J. K. Rowling’s controversial essay for the Russell Prize (it didn’t win)

December 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

The article below, from the Deutsche Welle, knocked me for a loop. Remember when J. K. Rowling was vilified as “transphobic” for putting up this tweet last December?

She then published an essay on her website in June explaining her stand on transexual women, discussing her own domestic abuse and sexual assault, decrying the “trans activists” who tried to destroy her career (impossible, of course) and, most tellingly, expressing sympathy for trans women in statements like this:

If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.

I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

It’s a poignant essay, explaining in what ways she sees differences between trans women and biological women. Nevertheless, she was also attacked by two stars of her Harry Potter movies: Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, who showed thereby that they were ignoramuses. As the DW article below (click on the screenshot) adds:

The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet — two of the biggest fan sites of the Harry Potter series — have also rejected Rowling’s beliefs.

“Our stance is firm: Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. Intersex people exist and should not be forced to live in the binary. We stand with Harry Potter fans in these communities, and while we don’t condone the mistreatment JKR has received, we must reject her beliefs,” the sites said.

The sites also found “the use of Rowling’s influence and privilege to target marginalized people” to be out of step with “the message of acceptance and empowerment” in the Harry Potter books.

Read the essay: she is not “targeting marginalized people”—far from it. She shows empathy for them. She is making an argument for making some distinctions between trans women and biological women. That is an argument worth having, no matter what you believe.

Rowling’s essay also says this:

On Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.

I don’t know how those plans are faring, but this is a very bad idea. If a reader knows about this initiative, please post below.

At any rate, the article below notes that Rowling’s essay was one of five nominated for the BBC’s Russell Prize, named for Bertrand Russell and awarded by the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan for the best (nonfiction) prose of the year—prose that embodies Russell’s qualities of engaging language, erudition, and moral force.

To use the British term, I was gobsmacked. J. K. Rowling? The woman whom much of the world rejected as a “transphobe”?  The nomination didn’t comport with what I knew about the Beeb and its wokeness.

To be sure, the prize doesn’t seem to be an “official” BBC award—simply one editor’s take—but even so. . .

I was going to put this post up two days ago, and then forgot about it. In the interim, the Russell Prize was awarded—and Rowling didn’t win. You can see all the nominees at Rajan’s article below, and I’ve put up links to their pieces.

Here’s what Rajan had to say about Rowling’s piece in the nomination, and it’s very good:

JK Rowling: Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues

JK Rowling is almost certainly the greatest writer of English children’s fiction of her generation, and a remarkable humanitarian. It turns out she writes exhilaratingly powerful prose too.

In a blog about the transgender debate, she offended many people. Offence is the price of free speech. Those offended felt she was questioning their identity and even attacking their human rights, which they argue is a form of discrimination or hate speech.

I take absolutely no view whatsoever on the issues that she raises.

I do take an issue on abuse and trolling, and Rowling has achieved the inglorious honour of topping many a league table for those. The deluge of hatred that she faced before writing this blog made it brave, and it was nothing compared to what came after. Talking about bravery, so too, by the way, was Suzanne Moore’s engrossing, long, personal essay for Unherd on why she left the Guardian.

We should all applaud bravery in writers – even those with whom we disagree. And Rowling’s essay contained moments of both real beauty and piercing honesty, as when she revealed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

What the judges – that is, the voices in my head – most admired about the writing was the plain English. It is an interesting fact about rhetoric that if you want people to understand something, plain, mono-syllabic words are usually your best bet: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

Or think of the final line from Enoch Powell’s most notorious speech: “All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.”

I’m not endorsing the argument; but the rhetorical power of that line comes from the fact that there are 16 words, the first 15 of which have one syllable, and the last of which has three.

Compare it with this line in Rowling’s essay: “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe.”

The rhetorical power from those two sentences derives partly from the plainness of the English. Only “women” (twice) and “natal” contain more than one syllable.

If you’re ever editing copy that seems verbose, go through it and think about cutting syllables while conveying the same meaning. Plain English has power. JK Rowling gets that.

The four other nominees and their pieces (with links) were:

Paul Vallely: “How Philanthropy Benefits the Rich” (the Guardian)
Ian Leslie: “64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney” (The Ruffian)
Wade Davis: “The Unraveling of America” (Rolling Stone)
Decca Aitkenhead: “How a Jamaican Psychedelic Mushroom Retreat Helped Me Process My Grief” (The Times)

Aitkenhead won, but I’m unable to access her piece because The Times is behind a paywall. Congrats to her, despite the horror and pain she experienced that her story describes.

But if nothing else, I hope the nomination gets people to go back and read Rowling’s essay. As happens so often these days, people, running in a social-media herd of sheep, attack something that they don’t even read. I would hope that Radcliffe and Watson read her essay, and, if so, why they see Rowling as somehow harming trans women.


38 thoughts on “The BBC nominates J. K. Rowling’s controversial essay for the Russell Prize (it didn’t win)

  1. Spells and wizards do not exist of course, but I appreciate J.K. Rowling very much for those words.

    : “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world. People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity. So yeah that follows a parallel [to Nazism].”

    “Magic”, of course, does not exist, but J.K.’s perception of human nature Rowling is perfect. Unfortunately, a man is such a creature that when he has a little more access to some advantage (in this case, the so-called magic immediately starts to hurt people slightly shorter than him)

    And off topic, I missed some “magic” in the world of Harry, powerful enough to visit different worlds. Harry Potter in space? 😉 Why not, J.K. Rowling is still writing. Maybe someday.

  2. I’m just dropping in to say that Bertrand Russell is my favorite philosopher. I still have my third edition of The ABC of Relativity. Reading his prose is delightful and deep at the same time.

    1. Beej, you ever read Philip Roth’s novel Indignation (one of his last)? It’s set in the early 1950s (during the Korean War) at a small liberal arts college in Winesburg, Ohio (the site and title of Sherwood Anderson’s short-story cycle) and narrated by one of the few Jewish students on campus. I ask because it has a lengthy argument about Russell between the narrator and the school’s dean pertaining to the narrator’s failure to attend weekly chapel services (a requirement at many liberal arts colleges in those days).

      There was a film adaptation a couple years ago, with the great character actor and playwright Tracy Letts in the role of the dean.

      [Spoiler alert: Turns out the novel is narrated by a dead man (like Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard), since the student gets expelled from college and drafted into the war, where he is killed in battle, the worst fear of his poor father back in Newark throughout the novel.]

      1. Yes, I really enjoyed that novel and the movie. I’ve never read a Philip Roth novel I didn’t like, and his work is often translated well into film, as with The Human Stain. And I do love me some Tracy Letts. He’s a very good actor and has written both grand, award-winning plays, as well as weird little ones like Killer Joe (another play translated into film by the great William Friedkin).

        1. You ask me, Letts’s August: Osage County ranks with Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

          Praise can’t come much higher than that.

          Indignation is relatively minor Roth in the grand scheme of the Roth oeuvre, but even that is saying a lot.

          1. Unfortunately for Letts, he somehow occupies that space where people who aren’t “in the know” regarding playwrights have never heard of him. I hope history will remember him as well as it does the others to whom you compared him, but I think it won’t somehow. Maybe it’s just that culture in general has reached a point where people don’t become that historical kind of famous unless they’ve written material that’s considered by very important people to be very important politically.

            I also feel like the shine in the academic and critical worlds has been slowly fading from Roth over the last couple of decades. I wonder how many people will still be reading his work two decades from now. It would be a tragedy if his status waned, but I won’t be surprised. It feels like a lot of criticism, analysis, and popularity has shifted from the question of “was it good” to the question of “was it important to The Cause” (whatever “The Cause” may be).

            1. As long as people are still reading, Roth’s reputation will endure — from Goodbye Columbus to Portnoy’s Complaint to the first series of “Zuckerman” novels to the great Indian Summer run he had with more realism-based, often historical novels, including the second-round of Zuckerman books, The Plot Against America, and others.

              There were a lot of people who thought it was highway robbery that the Nobel committee in Oslo passed him over for its literature prize. I happen to have been one of them. Philip Roth was another. 🙂

          2. Love almost everything Roth, especially American Pastoral. August: Osage County is terrific, too. Saw it on stage a year or two ago in Toronto and then got the Meryl Streep film out from the library. The movie was surprisingly good; even better on stage. I think I saw Indignation at TIFF.

            1. I’ve seen Osage County on stage and screen, too. What a fantastic cast the movie has! (Starting with Sam Shephard — who knew a thing or two about good plays — as the alcoholic husband/father who appears only in the first scene, then disappears to commit suicide off-stage).

        2. Also, I thought of you today when I chanced upon this video review of one of my favorite Alan Parker films, Angel Heart, by a couple of Brits who do a series on older movies called “Off the Shelf.” (I usually prefer my reviews in written format, but this one’s pretty good.)

          There’re just a handful of scenes in the film with De Niro and Mickey Rourke going head-to-head — one of ’em in a café with De Niro’s character, Louis Cyphre, eating a hardboiled egg, another set in a church — but they are some of the finest one-on-ones ever committed to celluloid. (I also love the scene on the beach at Coney Island in the wintertime.)

          IIRC, you said it saw the film a while ago, but didn’t recall it very well. It’s well worth another viewing.

          1. Funny you should mention that! I bought it on BluRay about three weeks ago and watched it again. An excellent film, even if the denouement is a bit telegraphed. Parker was a fantastic director. It’s a shame that his last film was the cloying and vacuous The Life of David Gale, though I must admit that my impression of that film is from about a decade ago and I haven’t seen it since because I remember hating it that much.

          2. Also, the name Johnny Favorite makes me think of Johnny Hallyday, who also may have made a deal with the Devil because his enormous fame in France didn’t exactly seem completely earned through talent. Though he was good fun in the Johnnie To-directed Hong Kong action flick Vengeance.

  3. We can hope that some of her (Rowlings) critics will reassess their views about what she has really said. But I don’t think we will see much of that. They didn’t comprehend her words then, and they won’t start now.

    1. They didn’t comprehend her words then, and they won’t start now.

      (Which is a nerdish joke for “substitute the string ‘comprehend’ with the string ‘read’ “.)

  4. I self-identify as a direct descendent of Dmitri Ivanovich, the lost son of Ivan the Terrible, and therefore the rightful Tsar of Russia. If I move to Scotland, will I receive there the deference due my self-identified identity?

    1. Any relation to Alexei Ivanovich, the title character and narrator of Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler?

      I mean, it’s your own created self-identity, so why not? 🙂

  5. Good on Rowling and the BBC. Some critics comment “Intersex people exist and should not be forced to live in the binary,” but I’ve never seen Rowling deny it. Making shtuff up about people’s views and then attacking them for it – the usual modus operandi.

  6. “I’m unable to access her piece because The Times is behind a paywall”

    If you have a public library card, the library might give you online access to the Times through a database like Proquest. I know this is the case in San Francisco, my hometown, and I’m guessing a much bigger city like Chicago offers superior access privileges.
    The University of Chicago might offer similar database access.

  7. This may be a little late, but if you haven’t read the nominated article on McCartney, it’s very entertaining, especially in light of the other post about the upcoming Beatles film.

  8. Here’s a thought; if something as physically basic as gender can be legally changed because of how a person feels, then why can’t *race* be changed too? A White person can be Black just by feeling that s/he is, and vice-versa. If there’s really no such thing as sex, then there’s really no such thing as race. Have the SJW crowd thought about that?

  9. When Maya’s judge said that Maya’s vision “is
    incompatible with human dignity and fundamental rights of others” (# 84), Rowling’s reaction was to publicly sympathize with Maya.

    Maya’s ideas, and therefore Rowling’s as well, are incompatible with human dignity. I am with Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson.

      1. There are two blunders in Rowling’s essay that reveal enormous ignorance and great fanaticism:

        1.”If I’d been born 30 years later, I too might have tried to transition. (…) I could have been persuaded to turn myself into the son my father had openly said he’d have preferred.”

        The transition process is so long and unpleasant that no one would agree to go through it without first feeling a binary transgender identity.

        2. “We’re living through the most misogynistic period I’ve experienced. (…) I believe things have got significantly worse for girls.”

        It is obvious that during the last half century the West has become much less misogynistic. Things have never been better for girls than now.

        1. You might say these are blunders, but there are plenty of people who would disagree with you. People have started going through transsexual changes, beginning with puberty blockers, and then changed their mind about their identity. And second, while I agree with you that things are better for women than they used to be, many feminists feel otherwise, talking about “rape culture” and “structural misogyny”. You talk to them.

          Your characterization of Rowling as being enormously ignorant and a “great fanatic” is really overwrought.

  10. Situations like these described make it difficult for MANY people who generally support trans rights (and human rights in general.) The trouble is that the gains for women which have taken place over the past century are slowly being frittered away. Trans persons allowed to participate in women’s sports as women are taking top places which would have gone to women, and women are losing out on opportunities for scholarships, as well as business opportunities. It is a conundrum that female athletes are penalized for taking steroids because it has given them an “unfair advantage,” but yet those individuals who have had MORE androgen exposure than most of those female athletes are admitted to participate. In addition, boys are socialized to be more independent and competitive, qualities which might be advantageous for business. Trans women still benefit from early histories of this kind of socialization even after transitioning, and now some of those grants/monetary help meant for women is also being taken away.

    The fact remains that although much of the pay gap between men and women comes as a result of voluntary decisions by women to stay home and be caregivers or to work fewer hours for various reasons, much of it has to do with the fact that few women gravitate towards engineering, electronics, mechanics, or mathematics out of genuine natural interest. Many will excel in these fields if they are pushed by their parents, or maybe have an incentive to find a high paying job. I do believe that at least IN PART that some of these differences have to do with brain structure present from birth. GRANTED there are women who don’t fit into the mold, and for those women life is especially difficult. Even though the stigma has been removed for women entering these “masculine” industries, women are still thrust into a situation where there are the minority, may have a harder time fitting in to the company structure, and may find it harder to find colleagues to be friends with. Most people understand that in part, climbing the corporate ladder has to do with shmoozing others in your industry.

    The culture of attacks on others for expressing beliefs which are contradictory to those of your own is destructive, and an affront to civil and forward thinking society.

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