So: a month ago, J.K. Rowling decided to out Dumbledore in front of a booked-solid Carnegie Hall. The audience gasped, and then burst into applause. The real surprise, though, is not Dumbledore’s “homosexuality,” but the fact that there could be anything else to know about him. What could she possibly have to say that she couldn’t get across in four thousand pages?
One might ask what Rowling is doing onstage at Carnegie Hall at all. There’s something immodest about milking the crowd like this when you’re already a success of historic proportions. Why isn’t she at Killiechassie House, playing ping-pong and taking it all in? Why is she giving a lecture tour less than six months after the last book launched? Why is she explaining her novels as a “prolonged argument for tolerance” before the readers have decided what they think? Could it be naiveté? Perhaps she spent too much of her time at the University of Exeter “thinking radical thoughts” to read up on the rather wretched history of the novel as political ‘argument.’ For the longest time, I couldn’t fathom Rowling’s unwillingness to let her books speak for themselves.
The key, I recently learned, is Rowling’s obsession with Jessica Mitford. It seems “Decca” Mitford has been Rowling’s hero since childhood, when she received Hons and Rebels from her great-aunt. Rowling’s daughter, Jessica Arantes, is named for her. Mitford died in 1996; “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” appeared the next year. And indeed, the series, along with the way Rowling treats and talks about it, finally make sense once understood as homage. But Rowling had to be more creative—she has no titled family of fascists to shock society by repudiating. Not belonging to the social establishment, she could not subvert it directly. So, instead, she subverted two of its literary appendages: the fantasy and boarding-school genres.
Rowling’s version of the Mitfordian project is also a resolution of the revolutionary’s post-Cold War dilemma. What can the hard left do, now that winning arguments seems off the table? One tactic, it seems, is to beat the capitalists at their own game: repackage a favorite genre, turn it into an irresistibly successful global franchise, but make it an ideological Trojan Horse.
Rowling has proved herself a master at this, channeling the traditional popularity of the boarding school genre—a monument to that peculiarly British schizophrenia of class hatred/class envy—into a countercultural, class-defying, dissident global bestseller. I mean, the books are pretty card-carrying, aren’t they? What are the Privet Drive chapters, but a parodic fantasia on the petite-bourgeoisie? Who are the furtive, hook-nosed goblins that run Gringots Bank? Here’s a hint, kids: they’re the ones who control finance in real life, too! (Isn’t this fun?) And I recently came across a real gem: it turns out that Mitford was recruited to the Communist Party by one Dobby Walker. Yes, as in Dobby, the house-elf, Rowling’s by-word for alienated labor. Remember Hermione’s campaigning? “House-elves of the world, uni….” Oh boy.
And this is why Harry Potter ends up as such thin gruel. Rowling spins a great yarn. Her books are extremely enjoyable. And I find the dual-genre concept appealing. But I’m sorry she had to be the one to get to the idea first. Because genre is never much more than pretext for her, as with all who would make art the handmaiden of politics. Rowling’ seven books read like an encyclopedia of the tropes and clichés of boarding school and fantasy novels. Her best inventions merely fuse the two—what’s quidditch but polo on broomsticks? Her imagination is always clever, but never profound. She sermonizes in a way Tolkien never would have done—though she’s not above choosing a pseudonym that trades on his name—and above all her work lacks the disinterestedness of a classic. The series offers workmanlike political allegory, cheap ideology, and a theodicy with the intellectual sophistication and emotional resonance of the Left Behind novels. Throughout the writing and marketing of it, Rowling has persistently revealed herself as more propagandist than artist.
I read that, in response to the enthusiasm at Carnegie Hall, Rowling gushed: “I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy!” Earlier indeed. Silly Jo! Dumbledore’s been sucking dick for coke for the last ten years, but, what d’ya know, she forgot to mention it! (Good thing she did, though, ensuring that it would not get in the way of the multi-billion dollar publishing franchise, or the equally lucrative film adaptations.) But never fear: she remembered eventually—funnily enough, just ten weeks before the 2008 primaries!
Rowling has a great awareness of, and indeed a true revolutionary provocateur’s relish for, the Christianists who hate her. Indeed, my next door neighbors won’t let their kids read or watch anything Potter-related—something about St. John getting high as balls on Patmos and wizards and portents and the end of the world. So, ever one to kill two birds with one stone, I imagine she’s also doing this to poke American strict constructionists in the eye: “textual penumbrae may not provide a right to privacy, but I can change the debate over gay rights with them—what now, Hugo Black!”
Ultimately, for Rowling, it’s not about the books. Anyone with even a whit of respect for the autonomy of the artwork would sooner eat the check for their next advance than so transparently enlist their characters in a political fray. But, in a quintessential Mitfordian maneuver, Rowling spent a decade riding the marketing whirlwind, and now she’s untouchable—there’s no one else alive with the same opportunity to cash in celebrity for political muscle. What more could Rowling ask for? She has not only vindicated, but far outdone, her heroine. The unimpeachable global reputation she has established now serves as carte blanche for punditry—expect her to “remember” that the Patil twins are half-Palestinian sometime before the next Knesset elections.
Decca Mitford would have killed for this kind of publicity. I can only imagine that, somewhere, she has a smile on her face.