Problematic Authors: Should We Separate the Writer from the Writing?

by Alex Daud Briggs.

J.K. Rowling has had a few controversies over the years but the latest has plunged her into some deep water. Twitter has given everyone a voice and some of our favourite authors have not been saying nice things. Rowling has been found supporting a transphobic speaker and later posting what many saw as a hateful comment regarding trans rights, stating that trans women are not real women. She has since tried to claim that she truly does support the LGBT community but after considering her previous half-hearted efforts (see Dumbledore’s non coming out in The Crimes of Grindelwald), people seem to be done with the wizarding world for good this time.

Unfortunately, Rowling is far from the only celebrity author to have had their true colours revealed in regard to discrimination and hateful rhetoric. From Enid Blyton to Orson Scott Card to Frank Miller, some of the greatest literary minds have made some pretty horrible statements in the world of non-fiction. This creates quite the dilemma for the everyday fan of these works; is it alright to continue enjoying these stories even if their makers have become increasingly problematic? Can we separate the writing from the writer?

One response to a question like this is the ‘death of the author’ argument, the contention that the original writer and their world views should have no bearing on how their works are perceived and interpreted by readers. It makes sense enough- just because the author is a bad person doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy their work or that you condone their actions. Your love is for the world and the characters in it, not the writer on the outside, and there’s nothing wrong with liking a franchise while disapproving of certain elements attached to it. It’s unfortunate, but some of the best pieces of media ever made were produced by less than stellar individuals. Cutting ourselves off from these works can deter us from truly inspiring ideas and themes.

Death of the author, while interesting in terms of analysing texts, becomes harder to justify when looking at the practicalities of the situation. At the end of the day, novels and other media are not made in a vacuum; they reflect the ideologies of their creator and to some extent, promote and normalize them. Furthermore, you’d still be giving the writer support, even if indirectly. Buying their products gives them direct monetary success. Even with pirating, you’re still reading their work and may encourage others to do the same, thus growing their audience base. With older authors who have died, like Lovecraft and Kipling, you could argue that they were products of a very different time period and are no longer able to promote their more extremist views. However, Rowling and similar contemporaries very much are. They inevitably benefit from any publicity that is thrown their way, even if it’s only minuscule. 

Knowing that this is the case, would it be better to cut these beloved works out of our lives completely? It’s easy to look tough and talk about “cancelling” these problematic favourites, but it’s also important to be realistic about our relationships with them. People had their childhood shaped by books like Harry Potter and were encouraged and inspired by them. After all that, letting such a series go cold turkey may be a near-impossible task. I’ve had authors whose work I loved turn out to be pretty bad people. Not only is it extremely sad but you almost feel ashamed that you ever liked their creations in the first place. Even then, you can’t help but feel fond of what they’ve made.

In regard to this, I don’t think anyone should be considered a bad person or feel guilty because they like Harry Potter or enjoyed it as a kid. Ultimately, what you got out of those books is more meaningful than just the projections of their authors. Many people have said that the stories of Hogwarts taught them ideas of inclusivity and empowerment, and Rowling’s personal bigotry should not invalidate that.

As for the practical aspect of author separation, it’s hard to say. The most important thing is to simply be aware of what you’re consuming. An idea I’ve always liked is Stuart Hall’s encoding and decoding model; think about the author’s stance and what messages they’re incorporating into their work through the writing and imagery and then think about what you get out of the text; it could be completely in line with their views or something totally different. This at least gives you a better idea of whether or not what you’re reading is something you find morally troubling, and you can then more easily decide if it’s time to let the author go.  

From there, how much you want to separate the writer from the writing is really up to your own judgement. How much do you love that fictional world, how much of it do you want to experience, and are you willing to support its creator despite disliking their views? If we’re being honest, the best thing you can do is try to cut them away from you even if only by not giving them money- that can at least send the message that you don’t approve of their actions. If you do want to keep reading their books, that’s alright as well, enjoy what you enjoy and don’t feel pressured into stopping. However, you have to come to terms with the fact that a problematic person could benefit from your patronage, which could lead to serious consequences. 

Ultimately despite what cancel culture says, no one can really tell you to stop consuming media you enjoy. It’s up to you to make an informed decision and act on it based on your own personal feelings about both creation and creator.