Last year I was at a launch of a new book when I had a conversation with a blogger, someone I like quite well. We were chatting about books we read when we were kids. If the early nineties belonged to Point Horror, then the late eighties were owned by Roald Dahl. However, as soon as I mentioned his name, the blogger gave me an expression between disdain and disapproval. She explained why she disliked Roald Dahl so much. His history of bigotry was her main issue with him, which is something she’s absolutely right to dislike. I agreed it was a side of an important formative influence that I’d rather not dwell on, yet I couldn’t quite forget our discussion. You see, Roald Dahl wasn’t just a formative influence: he was a life-saving presence for me as a child. Without his humour and wisdom, my life would have been far bleaker. He helped shape me into the person I am today, though of course I didn’t realise it at the time. Those books were an essential part of my upbringing, his characters all vital parts of my past. There’s Charlie Bucket, who earned a fortune and a chocolate factory because of his kindness and selflessness. Matilda, who found her own family after righting terrible injustices. The boy who bravely stopped child killing witches from slaughtering millions of children. Danny, the champion of the world, whose life is beautifully rendered on page with sympathy and compassion and love.
George, who poisoned his granny with home-made ‘medicine‘. It seems impossible that the man who wrote these books could also be this bigoted old horror…yet he did, and he was the same man. All those wonderful stories came to me from my library, another life-saving presence, a place I felt safe. To know what Roald was really like actually made me question his stories and everything I assocated with them.
It was difficult. Eventually, I came to the realisation that those books were (and are) far greater than the author. Those stories belong to me, to everyone. I had to make a conscious decision to separate the author from the books in order to enjoy these wonderful stories. Somehow, I succeeded.
Last night JK Rowling posted tweets on her official account that a great many of her fans felt insulting and bigoted. The reaction was a mixture of horror and dismay, which is what I felt too. As a result, it made me think of my conversation with the blogger. For fans of Harry, children who grew up in Hogwarts just as I grew up in a chocolate factory, this must have been devastating. There were a few tweets about cancelling JK Rowling, which is unrealistic because she’s so powerful and wealthy. And so they have a decision to make, one that I also had to make. It’s a tougher choice, because Harry Potter was such a phenomenon, a culture ingrained in our collective literary identities, that for some fans it won’t be possible to just give Harry up. In one significant way, it’s easier for me to look past the author, because Roald has been gone for a long time. Also, I wasn’t a target of his ire. In another way, I understand exactly how JK’s fans feel right now. It isn’t easy to discover your idol isn’t what you wanted them to be. In the end, I chose the stories over the author. I had to. As I sat reading the tweets, all of which kept coming and coming, I just couldn’t quite believe the timing. In America the #BlackLivesMatter movement is finally gaining the power and influence it richly deserves. There’s a killer virus out there, a virus that’s kept me trapped in my house for months. But it happened and fans need to consider what they do next. My instinct is this: if you want to read Harry Potter, you can still inhabit his world without co-signing JK’s personal politics. However, it might not be possible to enjoy those books the way you once did. Really, it’s how you approach it that counts. Your feelings matter. I made my peace with the Roald Dahl’s legacy a long time ago. He didn’t have a Twitter account, which helps immensely.