Critiquing Patrick Rothfuss and JK Rowling, or: Being a Writer in Virtual World

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Well, y’all… it’s been a while. Too long a while. I meant to start writing on here again ages ago but between the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the last year just generally being what it was for me personally and for the world, it just didn’t happen.

But I’m back now. Why? Because I stumbled across an article featuring two writers that have influenced me that I couldn’t avoid talking about.

This morning, I stumbled across this article about author Patrick Rothfuss (author of the Kingkiller Chronicles, aka The Name of the Wind and its successive books). During a recent Twitch stream, he stated he’d long had issues with the ethics of Rowling’s books before it became “fashionable” to hate on her.

My reaction to this is… well, to put it in Minnesotan terms, uffda. There’s a lot to unpack here. So let’s start at the top. I stumbled across this article on a Rothfuss fan page I follow on Facebook. The comments were full of people defending Rowling and, despite it being a fan page, people criticizing Rothfuss for taking so long to finish his next book (for context, it’s been ten years since the most recent book in the Kingkiller Chronicles was released). I had a sudden jumble of emotional reactions to this, which I’ll outline below.

  • I’ve critiqued and criticized JK Rowling plenty in the last months (not here but on other social media and among friends and fellow writers). My partner is trans and Rowling’s stance is problematic, to say the very least. I personally am having a difficult time remaining a Harry Potter fan given what she represents now (thankfully, things like StarKid’s Very Potter Musical exist, which is where my appreciation for Harry Potter now lies). That being said, anyone who defends Rowling so vehemently makes me… uneasy. It’s one thing to still appreciate her writing and what she’s created, it’s another to say she’s a misunderstood person. I’m not here to talk about Rowling though – honestly, the less said the better. If you want to talk about Rowling though, can I please direct you to some wonderful Youtubers who are killing it with giving a powerful explanation of why Rowling’s words matter so much. Contrapoints and Lindsey Ellis are queens and watching their videos have been a wonderful discovery in the otherwise dumpster-fiery last year. Also, if you’re about to argue with me and say anything transphobic or TERF-y, just don’t And if you comment about it, know said comments will be ignored. 🙂
  • Rothfuss’ mention that he’s been critiquing Rowling before it was “fashionable” to do so is… not great. Ignoring the hipster vibes it emits, the core of it is bad vibes. Like banding together to hold Rowling responsible for transphobic remarks is somehow doing it to be trendy not because trans rights matter (“cancel culture” has made things complicated and so has performative activism via social media but those are essays for another time). It very reductionist and not helpful.
  • Yes, Rowling’s books have flaws. I will bemoan how Hufflepuffs deserve better for the rest of my life but I’m curious what criticism Rothfuss is really trying to make. I don’t begrudge him for making the criticism – I appreciate writers who can critique one another. But his criticism felt… well, maybe it felt a little out of left field. What brought this on? Why now? Why on this stream? And why about her books and not directly about the transphobia? We can’t know. But it did lead me down the rabbit hole of something entirely different…

What is it like to be a writer in the 21st century with a social media presence? This is something I’ve been contemplating a lot in the last few months. I’m nowhere near being a published writer, but as someone who’s waffled between addictive social media use and wanting to delete all accounts forever, it’s something I certainly feel conflicted about. And so, I’ve decide to discuss it in a blog (the irony is not lost on me, I can assure you).

There was a time, not long ago, when writers were not expected to engage with fans. They could be as social or reclusive as they wished. Now, however, there seems to be a focus on authors engaging with fans online, representing their work, and showing they’re working in a craft that really doesn’t provide a lot of visibility to the creation process.

What changed? Is it simply the advent of social media becoming more popular? Is it authors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman among many, many others having strong social media presences? I certainly don’t have the answer here. I could do some researching but I threw my researching into… something else.

The thing about having a social media presence is that social media and media in general can also reflect upon you. As I thought about Rothfuss’ criticisms of Rowling I began to wonder, what critiques are out there on Rothfuss? I majored in Cultural Studies and Psychology in undergrad, and even though criticism exhausts me, it’s an important part of writing, cultural understanding, and personal growth. Even Rothfuss mentions he hasn’t done the best representing diverse characters (though unlike Rowling, he says, he hasn’t revised characters after the completion of a series). So I did some digging into criticism of Rothfuss’s work.

  • Swan Tower has an in-depth critique of The Name of the Wind in terms of how it represents women. It lists every female character that is introduced, how much time is given to them (speaking-wise and other), and whether they play a significant role to the plot. The results are disappointing – as is the case with far too much of sci-fi/fantasy, most of the women have limited roles and the roles that are prominent are to aid the main character or be desirable objects. Overall, the main takeaway is why? Why do men keep writing women like this? Why don’t they write more female characters and why don’t they do it better? I have to admit that I was taken back by the stark lack of women in this book when reading this post – I sensed it when I’ve read it previously, but I don’t think it really hit me until now. It does help explain why I’ve been unable to shake connecting this book to the less-than-feminist ex I gifted it to…
  • The Cozy Scholar considers whether Kvothe (the protagonist of the Kingkiller Chronicles) is actually a Mary Sue, if the flowery beautiful language is written not in earnest but as an ironic, cynical joke, and if overly long fantasy novels might be about… something of a different size. The answer in their eyes is yes.
  • Evidently Rothfuss’ had some conflict with his editor and she alleged he hadn’t written anything for year (info from Newsweek and Kirkus Reviews). This was shared over Facebook and soon taken down but it had an impact, especially on those already believing the last installment int he Kingkiller Chronicles was not coming.
  • Fantasy-Faction takes a perspective – it addresses a sentiment that Rothfuss hates his fans and poses that this is probably not the case. A lot is going on in the author’s life, many things fans are not privy to, and being continually asked about when the next book is going to be finished. It mentions struggling with perfectionism, something that many writers (myself included) fight against. What I appreciate about this post is that it reminds us we are talking about real people when we talk about authors. Real people who have the right to privacy, who make mistakes, who are ever growing and changing.
  • Likewise, a commenter in this Quora post reminds us that Pat Rothfuss is a human being with mental illness, extreme fan pressure, and only so many hours in a day. Though much of this might be gleaned via parasocial relationships, it’s a very important view.

Over the course of coming across these articles, my mood and opinion swayed drastically. I was angry and disheartened, feeling gullible that I’d been taken in by another writer I thought was sensationally but was highly problematic. I moved on to shock and then dismay at the interactions with fans and editors. And then, I realized what I was really trying to understand: human beings are complicated.

It sounds reductionist, but I promise you it’s not. All too often I forget how complicated I am, how complicated my partner is, how complicated all the people I care about and all the people in the world are. Social media, in all its good, can also dreadfully bad at showing nuances. Most of the time, social media is good at showing quick headlines, snapshots, blurbs and hot takes. To dive deeper takes a little more time and investment.

When I remind myself that Rothfuss is human, made of the same brains and stuff and flaws as me, it becomes a lot easier to understand how something like this Twitch statement happened. You feel like speaking out, you feel compelled to speak out, but you don’t want to say what’s already been said. You want to show a certain depth, to avoid looking like the cynic people have critiqued you to be. And you end up saying something, maybe a little less than perfect. But when you struggle with perfectionism, maybe this is progress. Or so I hypothesize.

I started this post not knowing exactly where exploring the original article would take me. I felt the urge to share the article in the first place to defend Rothfuss. Then it became criticism. And now it’s… whatever this is. An analysis of internet presence and thoughts on being a writer undergoing change.

While drafting this today, I was listening to the latest episode of one of my favorite podcasts. The hosts of Sawbones were discussing what it’s like to listen back to their previous episodes before the pandemic really became what it is now and how cringy it is to hear themselves be so wrong. But they also appreciate what those episodes represent – new scientific data that allowed them to grow and improve, which is really what the heart of their show is. They also talk about the sudden internal rage they feel when people are not taking certain precautions (ie: wearing masks) and how much they hate feeling that fury at a person they don’t know at all. This resonated with me for a lot reasons. Not only have I been feeling that same fury towards a lot of folks over the last year and feeling bad about it, but it’s something I’ve struggled with a great deal over the course of my whole life. I’m proud of responses I’ve had to people in my life, whether it was an emotional response or judgement or some mix of the two. But I’ve grown a lot in the last year – I feel like I’m always growing and changing and sometimes it feels a little frightening, like I’m never going to stop and settle down into a steady person. But maybe this is a good thing. I’m a completely different person than I was a year ago. Choices I made in June 2018 let alone January 2020 seem like the belong to a person I don’t know. It feels like a growth towards being better person and being a little wiser.

This perspective also resonates with what I’m seeing in this Rothfuss-Rowling situation. Not only does it reflect my response (sudden upset met with a changing of opinion when I had more information) but I imagine it might kind of like what Rothfuss is going through. What if it’s taking him so long to write his next book because he’s a radically different person than he was when he wrote the first two and he’s trying to accommodate for that? What if he’s grappling with problematic representation of women and wants to do better but the structure of the protagonist and the world doesn’t allow for that? What if his call for Rowling to be a more responsible writer is the same call he’s given himself and other writers around him?

Of course, this is all hypothesis – there’s no way to know what Rothfuss is really experiencing. Somehow fans are led to expect certain things from their authors – books released within a certain amount of time, certain kinds of online interactions and posts from them, knowing as much about them as they want to know. But writers aren’t like this. They are more than their writing production and they are more than whatever they share on social media. Putting them up on a certain pedestal – either via parasocial relationships or perfect hero – is dangerous. Because writers are human and the odds of them disappointing you somehow compared to that pedestal are quite good.

I say this because I am incredibly guilty for pedestaling my favorite writers. I’ve done this with Rowling, I’ve done this with Stephen King, I’ll do this again and again and again. I’d like to think I’m getting better at it. But it’s difficult – in a world that forces us to see in binaries, we don’t want to accept that two seemingly apposing things can be true at the same time. Rowling can have influenced a whole generation of kids and she is also transphobic. Rothfuss can be aware of needing diversity in writing and still have problematic female characters. What’s important here is the consideration of growth.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m lambasting social media – I use it, I have mixed feelings about it, but in the pandemic, it’s been a godsend. It’s wonderful to be able to connect with people who are oceans away and to connect with people I’ve never met in person. Again, it’s not a binary. It’s both wonderful and awful. What’s unique (for better or for worse) is that it allows us – readers, writers, general people -to see comments about ourselves and our own remarks overtime. And we can see how people respond to those remarks.

I don’t know if Rothfuss has said anything further since his remarks on Twitch but, while it was less than perfect, it shows growth and at least a consciousness that his work could do better to represent his own world. From the comments on this article, it seems a lot of readers consider diversity and representation “fluff” and pointless PC-pandering. I, swallowing anger at people I don’t know, wish I could talk to them. I’m a queer woman who has rarely seen any character represented in fiction that is anything like me. Consider if I was from another minority group even less likely to be represented. (What to know what it’s like to be a black woman reading sci-fi/fantasy? Read this post from Medium.) Writers have a responsibility, like Rothfuss says – a responsibility to create worlds are as wondrous and diverse as our own. And when they don’t do that, or refuse to acknowledge they aren’t doing it, that’s where the disappointment comes in.

People will continue to say Rowling has been wronged, that her books are diverse, and there’s nothing I can say here that will change their minds. People see what they want to see in books – I know this from my own experiences. I can only hope that people will challenge themselves to think more about the world and gain a better understand of what diversity really is in writing and why it is so vital. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep hoping fruitlessly that Rowling will change her tune and due some own personal growth, and hope that Rothfuss hasn’t given up on this third book. Until then, I’ll keep plugging away at my own writing and trying to regrow what I’ve got here – writing about writing.

Thank you if you read this far – while I managed to do quite a bit of writing during quarantine (despite the difficulties of it), I haven’t much with this blog. One reason is related to what I’ve mentioned here regarding writers and social media. I don’t really know how I feel about an internet presence while I work on publishing my novel. Perhaps this is a chance to ground myself and work through that.

Published by ginmusto

Writer. Blogger. Amateur Baker.

2 thoughts on “Critiquing Patrick Rothfuss and JK Rowling, or: Being a Writer in Virtual World

  1. Great post. About your concerns about having an internet presence, I feel that it is somewhat important for an author to do so, because there’s also the marketing side to writing, something we writers don’t sign up for but have to do. Anyway, thanks for this post!

    Like

  2. Thank you so much for reading, Stuart! I really appreciate that insight – it’s true that from a marketing standpoint, there’s a certain advantage. It’s encouraging to know that other writers are feeling similar conflicts but moving forward with an online presence anyway. Thanks again!

    Like

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