In this article, Ellie Williams-Brown and Shivani Sahaya discuss whether works of literature can be separated from their authors and if continued engagament with the work is problematic, as well as further countering arguments on literary theory, after J.K. Rowling’s transphobic tweets in June revived this age-old debate.
The ultimate vote and censure is withholding your money.
An author is not separate from their creation, their work reflects their worldview. This may be from what they include – Jane Austen’s passive ‘gypsy’ incident in Emma – the casual racism in Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay – or what they excluded.
The problem is not necessarily consuming these perspectives. Books shape our worldview – oriental stereotypes originated in literature. But reading with a critical eye should be a prerequisite. If you consciously consume the book you will be offered a different perspective on the world, the fundamental aim of literature, without passively accepting certain ideas.
Authors are made complicit by their content; and we are culpable by how we consume it. You cannot always separate the process of consuming literature and supporting the author. Someone might disagree with J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments, but buying the Harry Potter books and associated merchandise has direct financial implications which allow her to retain her platform and continue to spew hateful rhetoric. The ultimate vote and censure is withholding your money. For dead authors, this is less problematic. You can buy a copy of Peter Pan and support Great Ormond Street Hospital. However, if an author is alive you can decide if you want them to profit from a work which either contains and perpetuates toxic perspectives.
Each one of my creations is a distinctive, intricate, and deep-seated reflection of who I am at the time.
J. K. Rowling’s recent tweet, deeply entrenched in trans-misogyny, sparked fierce debate about whether we can ever separate an author from their work. As someone who believes herself to be a creator – of movements, of words, of ideas – I can promise you that each one of my creations is a distinctive, intricate, and deep-seated reflection of who I am at the time. You don’t have to be a bestselling author or an artistic director to have experienced this: as Ellie has already pointed out, you can be a flustered university student like me and many others. But there is no escaping this truth.
If you are shaming, misrepresenting, or marginalising a community in other terrible ways outside of your work, your hatred will – consciously or subconsciously – still manifest itself in it. And if we continue to engage with problematic literature non-critically and without proper understanding of its textual implications, then we are fuelling a very insidious problem. While many of us grew up reading and loving novels like Matilda and The BFG, not as many of us are aware of the appallingly bigoted things that its writer has said on record; but Dahl’s writing is very blatantly racist, misogynistic, and offensive to people with disabilities or disfigurements (by often using disability and disfigurement as representations of villainy).
This entire discussion is an important one, and we’ve decided to counter some arguments that we feel are often used to justify a work being treated independently.
Countering the “Death of the Author” – the idea that the text may be written by the author but created by its consumer:
It is true a text exists insofar as it is read, but it is naive to disregard the biases and experiences of the author when analysing the text. Viewing Maurice, for example, solely inside its social context is limiting. However, it is more reductive to ignore E. M. Forster’s homosexuality, removing the ending’s power and an understanding of the author’s experience he draws from.
The separation of a literary work from its creator strengthens our argument that these texts are not inherently problematic because of their author. When consumed with an awareness of the creator’s bias and range of literary perspectives, these texts contain the author’s biases, but are not an embodiment of them.
Countering that not all work involves or centers around the writer’s prejudice:
Setting a work in a fantasy world rather than within a realist framework isn’t a justification for its problematic content. Similarly, setting a work against a backdrop of the American Civil War isn’t a prerequisite for it to be read as racist. Regardless of a work’s theme or an author’s intent behind a story, the fact of the matter remains that an audience’s perception will most likely vary from that of its creator, who must consequently be held accountable for their work.
Countering a work being a product of the period to which it belongs:
While it is true an author may have been conditioned by the world at the time of writing a work, it is important for contemporary readers to critically evaluate the literature we engage with. This is possible to do. For example, you can read Crime and Punishment without killing a pawnbroker. This is mediated by the need to read a range of perspectives. Consuming a variety of literature, or any content, is rarely a bad idea. Diversifying genres, background of authors, or perspectives, enriches the reader and prevents a stagnant worldview, allowing access to a range of views and preventing influence solely from one.
Photograph: Patrick Tomasso via Unsplash