J.K. Rowling sought (and was denied) quote approval in ‘New Yorker’ profile

J.K. Rowling at The White House in 2012. (Daniel Ogren.)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

There's a slight chill running through a profile of Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling by Ian Parker in the latest New Yorker.

The very first thing you read is about the height of the conifer hedges in front of her house: 20 feet. The theme continues throughout.

From the opening:

She has a reputation for reserve: for being likable but shy and thin-skinned, and not at all comfortable with the personal impact of having created a modern myth, sold four hundred and fifty million books, and inspired more than six hundred thousand pieces of Harry Potter fan fiction, a total that increases by at least a thousand stories a week.

With allowances for the fact that Rowling has a history with the press, it's as though, just the same, it means we're not gonna have a barrel of laughs on this journey, because after all, Ian Parker is a reporter.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

Rowling's relationship with the press is one of the main themes of the article when you get into it, and that's the source of the chill. She is the celebrity who testified arguably most passionately to the Leveson Inquiry about the behavior of paparazzi in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that objectively other testimony, from other famous people accused in the British press of, say, participating in Nazi-themed orgies or who were photographed topless or spat upon to get a reaction, told far more gruesome stories.

The mythology of Rowling is well established, and it's refreshing to read a version that seems neither the kind of posturing incredulity that's really actually just malice toward the fabulously wealthy subject, nor bowing and scraping:

Rowling has mocked journalists who, in her view, overdramatize her period of hardship—“I laughed myself stupid,” she has said, after a reporter suggested she couldn’t afford to buy writing paper—but she has contributed to this confusion. In 2008, while in a New York courtroom to oppose the publication of an unauthorized Harry Potter encyclopedia, she testified that there had been times when she was “literally choosing between food and a typewriter ribbon.” She has described her first year or so in Edinburgh as a time of “abject poverty,” or “grinding poverty.” Such language seems to blur the distinction between her life and Krystal Wheedon’s. When she spoke at Harvard, she declared that she had been as broke “as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.”

Indeed, it seems, one of the reasons it is necessary for Parker to spend so much time on Rowling's relationship with the press was the difficulty of writing about Rowling. I'm thinking this when I come across a punch-line: The New Yorker denied her request to approve quotes appearing in the story in advance of publication. Take a look here:

If Rowling has become exasperated by the media, the feeling has been reciprocated. When the London Times interviewed her in 2003, it was asked to sign a contract that, according to an account later written by Brian MacArthur, then the paper’s executive editor, “stipulated precisely when the interview would occur and who would be the interviewer and photographer; how and where it would be advertised and promoted in the paper and on radio; and gave Rowling full approval of captions, headlines, straplines, line drawings, graphics, headings, advance trails, quotes and photographs.” Just before publication, there was a gruelling, six-hour argument in the Times offices about what, exactly, was meant by “quote approval.” Rowling was represented by Neil Blair, a British lawyer and a former Warner Bros. executive who had worked on the Harry Potter films, and who joined Christopher Little’s agency in 2001. Blair said that in the interview Rowling had misspoken about her contract with Bloomsbury, and, in insisting that the quote be revised, took a stance that MacArthur found extraordinarily aggressive. MacArthur wrote in his paper that this “left us feeling soiled,” adding, “our self-respect was eroded, our journalistic integrity insulted.” Minna Fry, who was also at the meeting, says that she was, at times, “astonished by what Neil was doing,” and had her head in her hands. “I realized how much was now at stake.” Blair, remembering that day, said he would “swear on the Bible that I was not aggressive at all.” (For this article, Rowling sought quote approval, which was not given.)