Right now, the most meta thing on the internet is the subreddit r/cormoran_strike discussing reviews of The Ink Black Heart on Goodreads. The subreddit, dedicated to discussing the series of detective novels written by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling, is largely pro-Rowling and has been drawing attention to the overwhelmingly negative and dismissive one-star reviews of the book on Goodreads, calling it a concerted effort to discredit the author and tank the book; the Goodreads page of the book is, currently at least, firmly anti-JKR with most reviewers making no effort to hide the fact that that is indeed their intention.
But this is the internet, the battle is unfolding in real-time, and although a mere couple of days ago most of the top reviews on the page had more to say about the writer than the book itself, a few thoughtful and nuanced reviews have since appeared—who knows, by the time you read this, there may even be a semblance of balance. It is worth mentioning at this point that The Ink Black Heart is a scrupulously detailed examination of toxic fandoms and, one suspects, a shrewd pushback by the writer against the kind of hate she has faced over the past few years following the revelation of what many see as her transphobic attitude.
So, to recap this baby, folks on Reddit are dissing book reviews on Goodreads dissing an author who in her book is dissing exactly the kind of behaviour people on these platforms are exhibiting. Isn’t the internet a glorious thing?
It’s hard to tell if Rowling is being clever, or manipulative, or vindictive with this novel, which is such a realistic representation of many of our online interactions today that a reader could forget this is fiction. However, any writer would recognise the impulse that has, in all probability, led to this book—‘here is so much dramatic material, why waste it?’
The mystery at the centre of The Ink Black Heart starts with Edie Ledwell, co-creator of an online cartoon also called the Ink Black Heart, a darkly comic animated show set in London’s Highgate Cemetery about a disembodied cartoon heart and his friends. The comic becomes a surprising sleeper hit, especially among teenagers and young adults, and a highly engaged fandom develops around it. Soon, some people have created an unofficial game based on the cartoon, and the most active fan-base are the players of this game. Edie and her co-creator Josh Blay are heroes in this world—until they happen to gently mock the game in an interview and announce that they are moving to Netflix from the more accessible (and free) YouTube. The backlash is vicious—and depressingly, predictably, directed largely at Edie, the female co-creator.
Meandering through in-game chats, Twitter and Reddit threads, Tumblr posts and text messages—thankfully interspersed with conventional prose involving real names and not the unreadable word-soup of internet usernames—Galbraith/Rowling builds up a narrative of love turning to hate, and the kind of behaviour that has come to be associated with toxic fandoms—gatekeeping, bullying, hitting out at the original creator for selling out or betraying the ethos of the original work.
Ultimately, the book is about intelligent and engaged adulation, the warm red blood that keeps any creative person alive and creating, turning into a dead, dark thing. Rowling is, perhaps, more familiar with this phenomenon than any other author on the planet.
A fandom is a strange, intense thing with a curiously repetitive internal dynamic that is only analogous to the way religious cults operate. Talking about its peculiar dynamics, which he observed and portrayed in his debut novel Accidental Magic set among members of a Harry Potter fandom in the early years of the 21st century (yes, this is all unbelievably meta), author Keshava Guha points out that three characteristics define fandoms. “One is how unimportant individual backgrounds and demographic identities were in that setting…. Two, the identity that mattered most was one internal to the fandom, (such as) your “ship” or the romantic pairing you affiliated with.... Shipping a couple was like supporting a sports team—the same quality of unconditional, unquestioning loyalty. Three, the most significant risk posed by fandom was a loss of perspective,” says Guha, adding that his novel is neither a celebration of fandoms nor an indictment of them. In his book, two characters decide to get married more or less exclusively because both are Harry Potter fans. “What happens next is an illustration of how dangerous the loss of perspective can be,” says Guha.
It is this loss of perspective that The Ink Black Heart demonstrates to chilling effect. Reductive reasoning, targeted misinformation, the ability to manipulate others using the mask of anonymity (a real-life Cloak of Invisibility, if we really want to stretch the Harry Potter metaphors), the assumption of power that happens very quickly in any online grouping, and a certain capacity for cruelty that the internet often reveals—these all become plot points in the novel through a series of connected events and conversations.
In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book that deconstructs internet culture wars, author and podcaster Jon Ronson writes: “I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt...But it always comes as a surprise. In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.”
There is this idea that powerful, famous people should not be affected by being told by a random person on the internet that something they have shed blood, sweat and tears over is rubbish because they are, in the random person’s opinion, a bad human being (one Goodreads reviewer calls TIBH an “awful book by an awful person”). By showing, in graphic detail, the persecution of Edie Ledwell in the book, Rowling tears into this idea—channelling a very palpable sense of pain and fear into an era-defining work.
“It is tragically true of Twitter that Rowling and her critics are unable to argue with the assumption of good faith on the other side,” says Guha, who sounds dismayed about the fact that many writers and institutions have failed to stand up for Rowling (“whether they agree with her or not,” he emphasises) in the face of threats of violence. In fact, several professional reviews of The Ink Black Heart have painted Rowling as someone appropriating victimhood while making fun of her critics with a narrative intended to show them as out-of-control sociopaths.
This is neither fair nor accurate, because there are no good or bad people in this book (with the exception of Robin Ellacott, always the moral compass of the series) nor are there perpetual victims and oppressors. As usual, in the words of a famous XKCD comic about futile online arguments, someone is wrong on the internet.