IT was the summer of 1997 when news spread about a children’s book that was becoming a word of mouth sensation. I was working for a different newspaper, and recall the first faint rumblings about Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone growing louder by the day.

Everybody was talking about it: booksellers, teachers, parents, journalists, and most importantly children themselves. This wizarding tale turned out to have almost supernatural success, such was its rise to fame. The Herald’s children’s books editor basked in the prestige of securing the first-ever interview with Rowling, an enduring badge of pride (and envy).

The glory was all J K Rowling’s, whose rags to riches life-story helped transform a beguiling debut into a literary marvel. Her publisher must also be credited with immediately recognising its potential and running one of the most inventive marketing campaigns yet seen. With this title, and the rest of the series, Bloomsbury turned a UK bestseller into a global phenomenon whose power continues to cast a spell.

Even today in Edinburgh, crowds of visitors, from as far distant as Japan and South Korea, cluster on George IV Bridge outside the café where Rowling scribbled. For Potter fans this remains a crucial part of the pilgrimage, despite being ruined by fire. Given their obvious disappointment that it is closed they seem not to have heard – or to be bothered – that the author herself has become persona non grata.

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There are some, however, who are deeply worried by how divisive a figure Rowling has become. The recently announced Big Jubilee Read is a 70-strong list of British and Commonwealth titles celebrating each decade of the Queen’s Platinum anniversary.

It includes a slew of well-known names, from Douglas Adams, Kazuo Ishiguro and Douglas Stuart to Margaret Atwood and Hilary Mantel. Rich in Booker Prize winners, the majority of titles come from Commonwealth nations. Of one of the world’s best-selling authors, however, there is no sign. Despite the international renown and influence of Rowling’s work, she had been passed over. When questioned, one of the selection panel said that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had reached the longlist but, after discussion, “A space was cleared for someone equally as good, but whose work was not as well known. There were some very tricky decisions.”

Weasel words, I suspect. Given that the judges’ criteria included “cultural and historical significance in the decade they were published”, what better fits the bill than HP? Is it not strange that, while the selectors included librarians and booksellers, who have benefitted from the tsunami of interest Harry Potter inspired, he has been overlooked? By any measure of literary or cultural merit Rowling’s work ought to have made the grade, so is there another consideration in play?

After all, what children’s novel, in any decade or century, has been such a game-changer? With Harry Potter, Rowling has single-handedly done more for children’s literacy than any librarian or teacher. Most importantly, her novels showed youngsters that reading is fun, thereby helping to nurture a generation of bookworms. Nor are they simple novels. Increasingly complex, they deal with difficult and dark issues in ways young readers can process. Who knows, some of today’s novelists, and those in years ahead, might well have had their imaginations and ambitions fired by Hogwarts. Meanwhile, her first readers are now initiating their own children into the pleasures of her magical world.

But Rowling’s reach goes further than readers. Thanks to HP, children’s publishing was suddenly turbo-charged, as was bookselling. It’s impossible to calculate the number of jobs her enterprise has spawned, even before Hollywood turned them into films. If all this does not qualify her work for the Jubilee list, then what would?

It doesn’t seem far-fetched to wonder if Rowling’s snubbing might be traced to her controversial views on gender. Such is the furore over her comments on what constitutes being female that in some quarters she is viewed as transphobic or a terf – a trans-exclusionary radical feminist – with whom contact is best avoided. Frightened of being tainted by association and thus becoming a fresh target for her critics, some hope to avoid confrontation of any kind by steering clear of her.

If such considerations do indeed lie behind her exclusion from the Big Jubilee Read then it diminishes the entire venture. There should always be a distinction between an artist and their work, an awareness of the divide between the person and their creative output. Countless novelists, musicians or artists have held vile political opinions, or behaved disgracefully in their personal lives. That doesn’t stop us appreciating their work, even while remaining informed about its context.

Rowling’s ostracisation suggests her name is even more toxic than Wagner. Because of his views, and Hitler’s admiration for him, he has long been seen as a poster boy for fascism – not that this stopped audiences enjoying his music or attending the Bayreuth Festival. With Rowling, schools are dropping her name from their houses and buildings, while some of the younger actors in the Harry Potter films have publicly distanced themselves from her opinions. Miriam Margolyes has offered to act as go-between to sort out their disagreement but in the present climate it will probably require a Nobel-winning peacemaker to make any headway.

You don’t need to agree with Rowling’s views on transgender issues – and I don’t – to respect her as a writer, a philanthropist (who has given millions to research to multiple sclerosis) and recognise her right to express her opinion. In a free society everybody is entitled to do so, so long as they do not threaten or harm anyone in the process.

When did we become so intolerant or nervous of different viewpoints? When did we become afraid of being denounced or cancelled, even if our only so-called crime was defending somebody’s democratic right? The UK barely batted an eyelid at Brexiteers stoking racism, or the obfuscations, misrepresentations and lies of our present prime minister and government. Yet one woman’s perspective on femaleness is enough to have her airbrushed from literary history?

Thankfully Rowling’s books continue to be read, and will for many years to come. But sadly, where once there was a celebrated author behind them, now there is a ghostly absence. It seemensorship is at work, and there’s no knowing where it will end.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.