Featured in the May 2020 issue of The Rowling Library Magazine.

Back to Basics

1992 words.
By Laurent Garcia. Illustration by Fausto Giurescu.

A few nights ago I had a dream in which I was going back home from my favorite bookstore with a newly-released novel in my hand: The Many Adventures of Bartemius Bott, written by J.K. Rowling. The book revolved around Bertie Bott’s grandson, and his time as the new tenant of Honeydukes. It was part of a series of little stories written by J.K. Rowling, all set in the wizarding world. If I remember correctly, there was also a book about the Chudley Cannons’ most memorable games, an anthology of spooky stories about the Hogwarts ghosts, and another one about the house elves’ daily life in the Hogwarts kitchens. People were really enjoying these cute books, and fans worldwide were delighted they had new novels to keep the magic alive. But then I woke up.

Back in July 2007, I remember going to my local bookstore (in real life this time), to pick up the copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I had pre-ordered. I had spent the weeks before (probably even months) browsing wonderful websites like many of us did, reading passionate fan theories about what would happen in one of the most awaited books in History.

It took me about a week to finish the book, spending what I thought would be my very last moments with Harry, Hermione and Ron. For the last time I would step inside of Hogwarts with the three of them, and soon enough I would get to say goodbye to them after spending seven years reading the books over and over again. Or so I thought.

Little did I know that just a few days after I put down Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a teary eye, I would turn on my computer to read a great piece of news online: in just a few hours, J.K. Rowling was going to answer her fans’ questions on a live website hosted by the British publisher Bloomsbury. What an opportunity! I decided to give it a try and asked my own question to J.K. Rowling, knowing fully well it wouldn’t get picked considering how many fans were going to do the same thing (it turns out I’m no Madam Trelawney and my question actually got picked). Here I was in front of my computer, thinking I had taken my last bite of the wizarding world, and all of a sudden J.K. Rowling was telling us more about the future of our beloved characters, explaining parts of her books, and giving us some captivating insight about her writing.

Less than a year later, J.K. Rowling was publishing an 800-word story set years before the books. Though it might sound ridiculous compared to seven whole novels, back then it felt like an unexpected Christmas gift. The fans would discover a few more details about the wizarding world! The Tales of Beedle the Bard got published a few months later, featuring notes from Albus Dumbledore, giving us once again a way to keep ties with Hogwarts, and another taste of the adventures we had been reading for years.

Back then I was still spending quite a lot of time on the Internet. The Harry Potter websites were much more numerous and diversified than what remains of them today. Some were dedicated to publishing fanfictions, others were galleries of fanarts, some were mostly news about the books and movies. J.K. Rowling had her own, on which she even praised some of the fansites. She also used her website to post exclusive drafts, revelations about the stories and clues about what was going to happen in the upcoming books.

Looking back at what happened since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, we can now say that the Internet has played a huge part in making Harry Potter so popular worldwide, as it built a community and filled the gaps between each book in a phenomenal way. By searching Harry Potter on Google back then, you would find lists of local events for fans to gather and talk about the books, amazing artworks (texts, drawings and music) created by talented readers, and forums in which fans could share theories, exchange and debate about them while waiting for the next book to be published. Oh, how sweet was the Internet back then on the Muggle side of the world.

Some day around 2012, J.K. Rowling decided to give up her beautifully designed website (known as the “Desktop website” because of the amazing design created by Lightmaker). For that reason she started using more and more her Twitter account, and used the social network to post new elements about the stories, at times in the middle of tweets about her own political views. So far, Rowling has mentioned Harry Potter in her tweets for a few different reasons: either giving a “neutral” piece of information about the books, giving a piece of information related to social issues (e.g., the presence of a Jewish wizard in Hogwarts), or to react to current events (e.g., comparing Donald Trump and Lord Voldemort). She has also used her Twitter account to express her personal beliefs, sometimes causing controversy.

It is obvious that people’s reaction to a tweet about the novels with a political dimension in 2020 won’t be the same as people’s reaction to a new piece of information posted on J.K. Rowling’s website in 2006. Back then, there was still one book to be published and everybody had expectations and theories to discuss. Now all the books have now been published, and some people rightfully think that J.K. Rowling’s Tweets mentioning diversification among the Hogwarts students years after the publication is a bit too late.

That being said, it seems to me that the Harry Potter books have been attacked more and more on Twitter lately for two very wrong reasons.

The first one is the lack of diversity in the books. Of course, in 2020 people will confront a popular writer on Twitter for not having included enough diversified character in the books in their opinion. Hogwarts has become such a universal place in people’s imaginations that they feel it should include students from every religion, with every skin color, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, ancestry and so on.

Of course, if such character hasn’t been mentioned in the books, a Twitter user will have the right to blame Rowling for not making her books diversified enough for all kids to rely to them. Has it prevented kids from said minorities to identify with the books and enjoy them back in the 2000s? I believe not. A book will always have the possibility to be more diverse, as it will always be possible to criticize a novel for not being diverse enough, and that’s the beauty of diversity: there are as many diverse people as there are people in the world.

J.K. Rowling, as well as the people criticizing her for that lack of diversity, should not forget how readers’ imagination plays a huge part in the reading of a book. In a series of books set in a wizarding school that teaches young wizards coming from the whole country, many secondary characters will never be named or described, leaving that job to the reader’s imagination. If I picture these kids as a very diversified bunch of kids, then be it! If not, it’s fine too, as this is happening all in my head and won’t affect another reader’s way to imagine those characters in their head. To expect a book to make every single kid on earth feel included is foolish, but the Harry Potter books were great for me as a kid as they allowed me to picture my own time in Hogwarts. They were the first novels that gave me enough food for imagination to imagine that me, a young gay teen, would probably be able to find a match in my Hufflepuff common room, and that we could have even gone for a date in Hogsmeade. Did I need J.K. Rowling to tweet the extensive list of gay students in Hogwarts to do so? Absolutely not. Even better, by not being named or described, that character could be anyone I wanted. That’s the power of imagination, let’s not forget kids have that in them.

The second reason is the way J.K. Rowling’s very personal and sometimes controversial views on social issues somehow get mixed up in people’s minds with the books we have read in our childhood years. Again, J.K. Rowling has rightfully expressed several times her views on her Twitter account. She is entitled to do so, as it is what Twitter is for. For some reason I can’t explain, many people on Twitter have reacted in a way that astonishes me: by dissing not only the writer but her books also. If you disagree with J.K. Rowling on her views, you have the exact same right to express it as she does! But why attacking the books? Calling for burning the Harry Potter books because their writer has a different opinion on a social issue seems a bit extreme, to say the least. Claiming that your childhood is ruined because your favorite books as a kid have been written by someone who posted a tweet you disagree with doesn’t make more sense. The Harry Potter books have appealed (and still do) to so many kids around the world because they are about friendship and bravery, not about 2020 social issues. They have helped a whole generation of children get to read and helped grow the imagination of so many people worldwide. Their author posting something you disagree with on Twitter hasn’t turned them evil, they are still the same books you have enjoyed in the 2000s and people still have the right to enjoy them in the 2020s.

Now back to that dream I had a few nights ago. By using Twitter as her main medium of expression, J.K. Rowling has found herself confronted directly with one of the most unfriendly parts of her readers, a part that can react quite extremely when a different opinion is being expressed, one that fights with words rather violently for their own idea of social justice.

After years on Twitter, J.K. Rowling has given the Harry Potter books a very political dimension, and it seems my dream of reading The Many Adventures of Bartemius Bott will probably stay a dream for long.

The magic of the Harry Potter books wasn’t only in the spells that Harry and his friends used on each other, but in the way that we all shared the same love for a series of novels. Most fans my age spent years eagerly waiting for the next time they could step inside Hogwarts after they finished each of the books. And after it was all over, we kept the books nearby, as reading them again and again was allowing us to go back to Hogwarts once more, even after we had read them so many times we knew exactly what was going to happen next. We read for the sake of reading, without any political intent, and enjoyed the books for what they were: a series of children fantasy novels.

By criticizing J.K. Rowling’s every single word since the day she exposed controversial views, are the fans on Twitter ruining our chances of ever seeing a new wizarding world novel for children? Is it J.K. Rowling’s duty to write a book so diverse everybody will feel included, which seems to be absolutely impossible? I’m afraid the wizarding world has been made too political by its own creator for an innocent story to be published in 2020 like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was in 1997. For now I’ll just keep dreaming about Bartemius Bott’s sweet adventures in Honeydukes, the Chudley Cannons finally winning the Quidditch World Cup and the Hogwarts house elves many background mischieves.