In his essay The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes argued that the only way to read a book was to separate it from its author. According to Barthes, authorial context and intent wouldn’t provide insight into the meaning of the text. Instead, it would limit the amount of meaning a reader could take from it. Giving a text an author before you analyse it was nothing more than a convenient and simple way to understand it. For Barthes, the meaning of a book wasn’t dependent on who the author was but on who the reader was. As we can never really be sure of what an author intended, trying to understand a novel based on who they were as a person would always be flawed. The author, thus, becomes not a God but merely a “scriptor”. They aren’t imposing meaning but merely translating putting the meaning on paper for the reader to untangle themselves.
It’s an interesting idea that, as a New Historicist at heart, I’ve never been able to fully embrace but it does raise some interesting questions. Most importantly for this post, who owns a book? If the meaning and message at the heart of a novel are dependent on the reader then the text never belonged to the author. They are completely detached from the novel and, therefore, their opinions and actions should have no bearing on your enjoyment of it. I guess that would at least explain how Charles Dickens can still be seen as one of the greatest English writers of all times despite being an absolute monster to his wife. Or how The Catcher in the Rye is described by so many as their favourite book despite being a massive creep.
Separating a creator from their creation has been more relevant in our society recently. With the #metoo movement unmasking so many awful men, we constantly have to reevaluate our relationship with great works. Can you still think Annie Hall is a great film if you also think Woodie Allen is a questionable figure? Really, it comes down to the individual and, I admit, I’ve been quite good at avoiding any real standpoint. I guess there’s never been anything I’ve loved enough to have the experience ruined by the creator coming out as a dick. But, thanks to J.K. fucking Rowling, that’s all changed. Anyone who has been a reader of this blog for a while will know that my relationship with J.K. Rowling has been a bit fraught in recent years. I can’t say that I’ve approved of some of the announcements she’s made regarding the Harry Potter series but I was still able to ignore that. I’m not sure I can do the same for her recent transgressions.
It doesn’t help that the recent Black Lives Matter protests have got me thinking about how active I am in standing up for what I believe in. It has forced me to realise that I have a long way to go before I am the activist that I thought I was. I’m trying to change and it’s not just with regards to issues of race. So, when J.K. Rowling recently started tweeting nonsense about transgender women and quoting unscientific resources to make her point, I really had to reevaluate my stance. I don’t have a massive platform but, after her first statement, I wrote about it on Instagram. In her most recent Twitter outpouring, Rowling made another TERF statement comparing gender identity services to gay conversion therapy. I was angry but, at this point, unsurprised. I have considered writing about it on Instagram again but, if I’m honest, the idea of photographing any of her books just made me feel weird.
It felt as though any image of her work was, despite the message of the caption, supporting her as an author and, subsequently, supporting her views. Earlier I brought up Charles Dickens but this situation isn’t exactly the same. I don’t agree with Dickens’ behaviour but he’s been long dead. He’s not actively posting things on Twitter that have the potential to harm innocent people. You might think that is hypocritical or that my dislike of Rowling is because of pre-existing bias. You’d be wrong. If I buy a copy of A Christmas Carol it isn’t supporting him in the same way that it would be for Rowling. Rowling is alive and has a huge platform to spout her ideas. This is because of fans like me who have bought the books, promoted the books, bought the merchandise, watched the films and consumed everything we possibly can. We have inadvertently given her the power and the confidence to be able to speak out against trans people.
By buying her books or even posting about them is giving her further strength and clout to spread her false information. As of now, being a Harry Potter fan is being a J.K. Rowling fan and being a fan of her as a writer is given her permission to keep spreading her lies. I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s true. She has become a much bigger author than we’ve really seen before and we have seen her slowly reveal herself as a, for lack of a better term, TERF. Remember back in the day when she would like a transphobic post and then release a statement about being too old for social media? Those were the good old days. Now Rowling is so comfortable with her position as an influential figure that she is no longer trying to hide her opinions. Why? Maybe because she knows nobody can really touch her from the pedestal we have all helped put her on.
And Rowling is dangerous. She’s spreading false information as science, retweeting vicious articles, and is doing so under the guise of an ally. You see Rowling is even more dangerous than someone who is straight-up anti-trans. She believes that she is both pro-trans and pro-science. She is doing her best by everyone. This makes her dangerous for many reasons. She is not only more likely to find supporters for being slightly less radical and unethical but she can also be used as a champion by more extreme factions. She is the perfect front for the anti-trans movement because she is more palatable yet is advocating many of the same things. And her fans will listen to her. After all, she has situated herself as an ally to all and has used her vast wealth to help people J.K. Rowling and her fans have crafted this benevolent persona over the years that even coming out against trans people won’t break the illusion for many people.
And it’s all because of how situated she is within her own work. J.K. Rowling is Harry Potter. There can be no separating the two. She inhabits every aspect of this fandom in some way. You can’t have Harry Potter with J.K. Rowling just as you can’t have J.K. Rowling without Harry Potter. Which must mean that being a fan of the books is being a fan of the writer. Which must mean that being a fan of the writer is advocating her power and position of influence. So, can you be a fan of the books while you oppose everything Rowling believes in? I don’t think so. Or at least, I don’t think I can. Which is upsetting and worrying. The idea of turning my back on a series of books that meant so much to me and helped me become the person that I am is kind of terrifying.
Hell, I’m writing this and I’ve already lost count of the number of Harry Potter editions and merchandise in my eye line. I’m invested. But the idea of promoting these books on my Instagram channel or showing any hint of fandom in public makes me feel a bit sick. I can’t do it without, in some small way, allowing her to continue down this path. I can’t do that without, inadvertently, agreeing with her viewpoint. The idea of the death of the author was supposed to provide an emotionless approach to literary theory. This isn’t an emotion-free situation. Just because you want to believe that you can separate the books from the author it doesn’t mean that you can. And J.K. Rowling isn’t a scriptor. She is the books and everything that came out of them, which mean her transphobic views are also part of them. So, wearing my Ravenclaw badge in public suddenly becomes something more sinister than merely showing house pride.
Yet, and I promise I’m nearly finished, the idea of turning my back on these books is scary. They’ve made up such a large portion of my life. I owe them so much and I love them more than a lot of books I’ve read. It’s part of my identity. It’s not as easy as just throwing everything away and starting again. But, I’m not sure I can continue being blind to Rowling using the power these books and us, as fans, have given her to spread something so hateful and harmful.