JK Rowling’s intensely offensive new title has taken the romance out of romanticising famous creators.
When I first heard about JK Rowling’s new book – a crime novel about a “transvestite serial killer” – I felt a mix of emotions that are, by now, all too familiar. The fresh stab of rage and disgust at seeing proof of a view so offensive to my own, followed by the usual dulled sadness that my once favourite author was so painfully out of touch with her fans, and finally, an overall exhaustion at the general situation.
I think a lot of people collectively groan whenever JK Rowling floods Twitter with controversy on top of controversy, especially as she is regarded by many as an author whose relevance has long passed. But it becomes particularly infuriating when said controversies are used to make a splash and sell books. The buzz around her new release was generated from indignation and hurt – and Rowling’s book is selling marvellously because of it. She’s hardly the first artist to use this kind of schtick; the world of pop culture is full of artists and influencers who rely on any kind of publicity to feed their fame.
It is true that pop culture is very much based on shock value. From articles with click-bait titles to celebrity feuds, all corners of society use hype and scandal as commodities to be traded for relevance. Artists capitalise on controversy to sell tickets and albums, and though this is in itself quite problematic, it is usually relatively innocuous. Sometimes though, it can have very real and very negative effects.
In JK Rowling’s case, for example, her insensitive new book might seem distasteful to some, but to others, her transphobic views are attractive. Her influence has real, harmful consequences on the lives of trans people who still face discrimination or worse. And yet, the only consequences she will likely experience is financial success and a temporary spotlight. There are dozens of others too, in every form of art, who act similarly. PewDiePie, for instance, has made multiple racist and antisemitic comments, yet continued on to become one of the world’s most successful YouTubers. These artists, among many, many others, survive on the publicity that they get from such scandals; publicity that we allow them to achieve. The only thing to do would be to starve them of the press and not allow them to manipulate bad publicity the way they do good publicity.
Yet why can’t we leave them alone? Why do we still fan the flames and give these people the attention (and the money) that they don’t deserve? Social media has blown up the already problematic idea of “celebrity” into an obsession. We act like voyeurs; following, liking, and retweeting artists and influencers, only to either worship them for what we like or castigate them for what we don’t. They in turn use our fascination to acquire more fame, more attention, and more influence. As easy as it is to hate morally awful artists, we have to acknowledge that we are part of the problem. Our culture functions off the back of artists and our connection to their work, but we’ve become too clingy. Instead of letting artists we dislike fade into irrelevance, we allow them to remain famous through our criticisms and our morbid interest in scandal. Our time and our emotions would be better spent on artists whose opinions and actions are more deserving, rather than those who rely on negative attention to make a profit.
Of course, I’m not saying that problematic behaviour should never be addressed: I can understand the urge to fight back against every damaging voice on the internet – especially those with a big platform. Solidarity on social media, in the face of prejudice and intolerance, can be both beautiful and powerful. But the more we respond to celebrities who are determined to be malicious – and the more virulent our response – the more they thrive. Standing up for justice and equality is of vital importance, but a more effective way of doing so is to suffocate the flames lit by those with everything to gain from striking the match.