Death of the author and J.K. Rowling

Death of the author and J.K. Rowling

©E. Hull, 1827

Sigh. This is happening.

The concept of “death of the author” was introduced by French literary critic Roland Barthes in 1967, the most basic definition of which argues that an author’s intentions and biographical facts (their politics, religion, etc.) should hold no special weight to readers’ interpretations of their writing. That, once published, the text belongs to the reader, not the author—i.e., art should be separate from the artist.

It’s a concept that’s supes tempting to use to make it easier to cope when one of your favorite authors has outed herself as cringey.


Three things first—contradictory, perhaps, but to be fair, this is a tricky subject:

  1. I’m very sad about J. K. Rowling’s recent comments. I’m sad to see this side of her and sad that she’s choosing to die on this hill, in such a weird time, at that. I’m disappointed that she’s using her (highly influential) platform to promote the harmful notion that trans women are a threat to cis women’s experiences. I’m sad she’s alienating so much of her fanbase and colleagues (not to mention sullying her own legacy). Seeing this unfold, and after reading through her 3,000+ word blog post (in which she writes ‘woman’ is not a costume, opposes trans people using the bathrooms of their preference implying they’re predatory, and shows derision for inclusive language like “people who menstruate,” claiming that terms like this are degrading to women, when ironically she’s the one who would like to define women by and reduce them to uterus ownership), this whole thing has felt kind of like mourning to me—I used to really love her and this whole thing is just sad.
  2. Not to be The Onion‘s “Man Always Gets Little Rush Out of Telling People John Lennon Beat Wife” guy, and I know this argument may come off like grasping at straws—and maybe I am—but I think it’s safe to say we all like art created by flawed artists. If we stopped engaging with pieces of art because their creators held a bad opinion, I would hazard a guess that that takes most art off the table for our enjoyment. Am I going to avoid listening to “In My Life” or the Sgt. Pepper album because Lennon was a dick to his family? No. But at the same time I’m not going to justify his bad behavior, nor go around praising him as a peaceful figure. All that said, I understand this isn’t a one-to-one comparison with Rowling, because one of these people has been dead for decades and the other is alive and actively tweeting and influencing.
  3. I will always love the Harry Potter series. It’s been a part of my life longer than it hasn’t, as a 31-year-old who started reading the books at 12. It played a big part in my friendships, my passion for reading and writing. It probably indirectly influenced my decision to become an English major. The culture around the series and its film extensions has been such a source of joy for me and countless others. The same way I won’t give up listening to The Beatles despite Lennon’s behavior, I can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to Harry Potter. But I certainly won’t be going around touting J. K. Rowling as a wonderful author or inspiration anymore.

Now that I’ve got my feels out of the way, let’s revisit “death of the author” (DOTA).

The thing is, as tempting as it to cry “DOTA” about J.K. Ro, it doesn’t really work. DOTA is merely a literary theory about separating the author’s background and ideals that could’ve influenced their work from the text itself. It’s also about separating the author’s intent for the text from our own interpretation of it (e.g., Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is widely read as being anti-meat, but Sinclair really wrote it as a rally for socialism). It’s an academic tool. It doesn’t apply to fuckery being spewed by the author long after the text was published.

So, how do we reconcile our love for Harry Potter with the ickiness of its creator?

The answer: I don’t know.

My take: Continue to love and read Harry Potter if you want to, if it’s so deeply a part of your life and formative years that it would break your heart to let go. I fall into this camp. But trying to morally justify Rowling’s opinions only helps exonerate her and could help continue to feed her influence to spread harmful ideas about a marginalized group. Like the thing, with the awareness that the thing’s creator is problematic, and with the awareness that the way you talk about it or promote it could promote those views.

That said, I don’t know what this form of art consumption—the kind where you like the thing but don’t want to endorse the thing’s creator—looks like yet.

In the meantime—and especially if you’re on the side of Rowling—you can learn more about why the “gender critical” mindset is just thinly veiled discomfort with (at best) or hatred of (at worst) trans people from one of my favorite YouTubers, Natalie Wynn:

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