'Harry Potter' and the triple-word score
It was 30 years ago this month that a woman figuratively stuck at a crossroads in her life was literally stuck for four hours inside a train car somewhere between Manchester and King’s Cross Station.
She was just Joanne Kathleen back then, had not sold more than 500 million books and most certainly did not have a net worth estimated as hovering around $1 billion.
It was, of course, in that stalled British train in July of 1990 that the woman eventually known worldwide as J.K. Rowling had a vision of a boy wizard knock on the door of her consciousness.
It would take another seven years before “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” (as the first of the series is known in the original English) would be published. Since then, it has become the third best selling work of fiction ... in history.
Leading that list is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and — in this circuitous effort to invoke a cliché — what should be the best of times has found Rowling dealing with the worst of times.
The author is in the midst of a social media firestorm over her views on the issue of transsexual identity. Essentially, she initially drew in social media posts this June, and has since restated, a distinction between transsexual women and those who have been biologically female since birth.
Despite her insistence that she supports the trans community, Rowling’s stance has come under fire from multiple directions — including the LGBTQ+ community, members of her own fan websites, and the actors most associated with the “Harry Potter” movies.
At one point, according to media reports, she appears to have deleted a tweet praising Stephen King, with whom she has had a mutual admiration society.
King’s faux pas? Beyond only selling a mere 350 million books, he answered a question about Rowling’s stance by asserting “Trans women are women.”
We live in cultural times hopscotching across the winds of change faster than a golden snitch, but one thing is certain: Social media was created by residents of Slytherin.
Since this is a column premised on the interactive between art and audience, I simply will say that my personal views align with those of Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Stephen King ... and move forward.
This should be some of the best of times for the creator of the Potterverse. Her 30-year journey from anonymity to ubiquity is a pop culture success story to be celebrated.
But now, in a moment wherein audiences are being asked to consider factors beyond what appears on the page, the stage or the screen, Rowling’s moment in the harsh glare of the spotlight is particularly troublesome.
The “Potter” books, after all, always have been cheered for their message of inclusivity (even though she waited until they’d all been written and filmed to acknowledge that Dumbledore was gay).
Will those who grew up with Harry, Hermione and Ron be able to read the stories with their own children, without conflicted feelings about the author? Does this rise to the level of queasiness felt when hearing “Billie Jean” come on the radio?
Can, or should, our suspension of disbelief — in this day or instantaneous judgment — extend to surround the public statements, political leanings or personal transgressions?
How much do we reassess?
While considering those questions, consider this other ongoing story: The world’s Scrabble associations (and yes, there are more than one) are minding their Ps and Qs these days over the effort to remove 238 objectionable words from competition.
Terms such as “redneck,” “greybeards” and “turd” are under consideration for removal — as are far more obvious derogatory words and phrases that, somehow, have been used this long on Scrabble boards without such an organized objection.
The North American Scrabble Players Association, on its website, breaks down the categories into which the questionable words fall as follows:
Anatomical, Political, Profane, Prurient, Scatological, Slurs — sub-categorized into race and color, creed and religion, sex or gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, gender conformity, physical characteristics, and “not in another Code of Conduct category” — and just plain, old Vulgar.
(Typing the previous paragraph gave me pangs of regret that George Carlin did not live long enough to comment.)
In their account of the current brouhaha, Slate magazine quoted NASPA’s chief executive, John Chew’s letter on the issue to the association 11-member advisory board.
“I have felt for a long time that there are some words in our lexicon that we hang onto in the mistaken belief that our spelling them with tiles on a board strips them of their power to cause harm,” Chew said.
“When we play a slur, we are declaring that our desire to score points in a word game is of more value to us than the slur’s broader function as a way to oppress a group of people. I don’t think that this is the time for us to be contributing divisively to the world’s problems.”
And, goodness knows, the world’s got enough problems without more being dumped upon it by Scrabble players.
In the mid-1990s, Slate notes, just about the time where Joanne Kathleen Rowling was writing the first “Harry Potter” novel, several demeaning and offensive words were removed from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary — a decision that faced objections from tournament players ... who continued to use the excised words on what became known as “The Poo List.”
It was unclear at press time whether “poo” fell under the scatological category.
Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin is the greybearded muggle at firstname.lastname@example.org