When Harry met sexism

IT'S no revolutionary thing to honour JK Rowling, the brains behind wizard icon Harry Potter and now a globally respected philanthropist. Indeed, she's been invited to give Harvard's graduation day commencement address in June. It's a logical choice: Rowling's story is as epic as any fantasy novel and her lone rise to genius/mogul status suits Harvard's credo of individualistic excellence.

By Bidisha (Guardian News Service)

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Published: Thu 29 May 2008, 8:13 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:33 PM

Or maybe she's just a pathetic waste of space. Writing in the university paper, the Harvard Crimson, student Adam Goldenberg rips into Rowling as "a flash in the pan", "a petty pop culture personality" who "tricked parents into letting their kids read books filled with sex, murder, and homosexual role models". Furthermore, "writing bedtime stories is lame".

Goldenberg's attack isn't new. Rowling-bashing has been a feature of the Potter myth from the start. First came academic Harold Bloom, mocking her style with zeal. Then AS Byatt jeered at the infantilism of adult Potter fans. Thus men and women united in putting a gifted woman in her place. Earlier this week children's laureate Michael Rosen gave an interview with the Scottish Sunday Times in which he said, correctly, that the Harry Potter books are hard going for children under six. The media jumped all over it, trumpeting his "denunciation" of Potter as unreadable dross.

Rosen has refuted this mass misquoting, picking up on the acceptability of belittling Rowling. I agree, but the issue doesn't stop with her. It extends to all female fantasy writers, world-creators and myth-makers. According to the backlash, Rowling is swell for dim kiddies, along with Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones (but none are as good as CS Lewis or Roald Dahl, of course), while Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve are worthy of adult analysis. Critics ignore the tough heroines created by Tamora Pierce and Trudi Canavan, but acclaim Lewis Carroll's creepily pliable Alice, who obediently consumes whatever cupcakes and potions she finds in Wonderland. Darren Shan and Garth Nix are rising stars thanks to the Potter-fuelled fantasy bandwagon, but there's no casual namedropping of female speculative authors Robin Hobb, Mary Gentle or Malorie Blackman, whose Noughts and Crosses is a modern classic.

A subtle mechanism is operating here, clanking into gear to restore the dominant man-worshipping default mode while reserving a few token high-priestess places for the ladies. In speculative fiction that would be Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and Ursula K Le Guin, geniuses all. These women are the real deal, rightly worshipped for their vision, philosophical trenchancy and pertinence. But apart from the hallowed three it's men-only when it comes to casual recommendations of mainstream books. In terms of which books sell plentifully and are acclaimed among knowledgeable fans, speculative fiction is not male-dominated at all - quite the opposite. It is the critical establishment which marginalises women. Bestselling female contenders remain unacknowledged while their male counterparts are robustly namechecked, absorbed reliably into the official history of the genre.

Readers who rave about the scope of Lord of the Rings are simply unaware of the awesome complexity of Katharine Kerr's Deverry sequence of Celtic fantasy novels. They hail William Gibson's prescience, oblivious to Marge Piercy's prophetic sci-fi masterpieces Body of Glass and Woman on the Edge of Time and Liz Williams's intelligent, knotty novels like Darkland.

Speculative fiction — whether that is historical epic, space psychodrama or telepathic warrior quest - has always been about infinite possibilities. Why is it so hard to imagine a world which acknowledges the importance, multitude and sheer brilliance of its women writers?

Bidisha is a London-based novelist and critic

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