Should We Kill The Author?

Over the past few years, many troubling truths have surfaced in Hollywood and in the literary world about media that I either consume(d) or held near and dear to my heart.  As a child, I admired Bill Cosby.  Mom and I bonded over his family friendly comedy.  As a teenager and college-aged woman, I religiously tuned in to Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion on Minnesota Public Radio.  As an adult, I was a fan of any movie that featured Kevin Spacey.  My husband and I binge watched Season 1 & 2 of House of Cards before he deployed to Afghanistan.  Now the author of my favorite childhood book series featuring a boy wizard named Harry is being (rightfully) criticized for her transphobic Twitter comments. 

As a fan, an author, and a human being who strives to be compassionate and accepting of everyone, what am I to do about this?  

In terms of Cosby, Keillor, and Spacey, I’ve cut all emotional and monetary connection with their work and I haven’t looked back.  (I did mourn for a bit about Keillor but then I re-listened to some of A Prairie Home Companion and suddenly his jokes about attractive young (barely legal) midwestern daughters in his fictional rural Minnesota town doesn’t seem as funny.  (As a midwestern woman who was sexually objectified by a much older man while working).

But with J.K. Rowling, I’m having a difficult time “killing the author” for many reasons.  Woah woah woah!  I’m not plotting Rowling’s murder!  Call off the SWAT team NSA.  

I’m referring to the literary theory discussed in the 1967 essay La mort de l’auteur (“The Death of the Author”) by French literary critic Roland Barthes.  The one sentence summary of this theory (that you can read about on Wikipedia or watch the intelligent and eloquent YouTube Lindsay Ellis discuss — see References section for link) is this: 

“Barthes’s essay argues against traditional literary criticism’s practice of incorporating the intentions and biographical context of an author in an interpretation of a text, and instead argues that writing and creator are unrelated.”

For the non English majors/fans of literary criticism out there, what this means is that when we consume media (particularly literature) is that to get the fullest understanding of a work, you must also understand the history of the art’s development, the author’s biographical background, and the culture, politics, and worldview at the time. 

For example, how many of you have seen this oft-quoted meme about why English teachers are frustrating?

I have done this with my students.  I have led them towards a conclusion in a novel based on what I know about an author’s biography or the history behind how that book came into creation.  (I do insist with my students that my way of reading a novel is not the “right” way).  But I tend to put a lot of emphasis on authorial intention when I read and when I teach literature.

Take Herman Melville’s whale of a tale novel Moby Dick. You can be like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation and appreciate the novel at a surface level. 

Or you can be like me and dive down the rabbit hole about the real whale ship Essex and how a giant sperm whale sank the ship which forced its survivors to resort to cannibalism as they floated in whaling boats in the Pacific Ocean and then read Moby Dick with that historical lens from now on.

In my professional English major opinion, there are a few works of classic literature in which knowing the historical context and an author’s background/biography is essential to fully appreciate the work.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet comes off as an overly long play (one of his longest in fact) featuring a depressive, overly emotional, and possibly insane teenage boy brooding about his father’s murder if you don’t spend a little time learning about the historical background.  (And what a historical background it is … go do some light reading about Queen Elizabeth’s rise to the throne.  She’s a fascinating monarch).

But what should fans do if we learn or suspect that our favorite author(s) hold bigoted or hateful views?  Should we “kill the author” so we can still enjoy their work?  If that’s your sole motivation, I’d argue no.  Saying “JK Rowling’s opinions about trans people don’t matter in terms of Harry Potter” is almost like saying “I’m not racist/homophobic because I have a POC/gay friend.”  It’s coming from a place of guilt, and in this current climate, I’m learning a lot about how white guilt can be just as bad as outright racism, and I think excusing Rowling because you like Harry Potter is ignorant of this difficult and nuanced issue.

Okay…so then what?  Obscure and little-known-actor Daniel Radcliffe spoke out in regards to Rowling’s comment and published his response on the Trevor Project website.  (See Reference section for the link to his full response).  Part of what he said spoke volumes to his integrity and nicely answers this question of whether we should “kill the author.”

He says, “To all the people who now feel that their experience of the books has been tarnished or diminished, I am deeply sorry for the pain these comments have caused you. I really hope that you don’t entirely lose what was valuable in these stories to you. If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, nonbinary, or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred. And in my opinion nobody can touch that. It means to you what it means to you and I hope that these comments will not taint that too much.”

I interpret Dan’s response here as an unequivocal ‘yes’ in that we should practice Death of the Author theory for Harry Potter.  Not because doing so makes what Rowling says right or that it validates her argument, but because, for better or worse, Rowling’s work has already “killed” her.  Yes, she may still tweet comments about the lore and background to her world.  Yes, she may consider herself the God of her Harry Potter universe.  But her fans have taken it from her.  They’ve escaped into it, adopted it, changed it (there are over 1 million works Harry Potter fan fiction out in the world), and they’ve grown with it.

However, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold scrutiny to what Rowling says.  Because of Harry Potter, Rowling has the platform, the fame, and the considerable wealth to enact serious change.  People look up to her.  She has inspired people to become authors themselves!  (Including me).

Like it or not, she is a representative of the human race and she is a person in a privileged position.  Unlike you or I, Rowling’s words reach others.  Her opinions are heard.  Therefore, when she tweets hateful and uneducated crap like this and has outed herself as a bigot, I think it’s time for us to part ways as artist and fan.

So transwomen who haven’t had a phalloplasty doesn’t count as women? What about cis-women who’ve had hysterectomies and no longer have ovaries and a uterus? C’mon … this is 2020!

The controversy that came from this is justified. 

Folks, I am not an expert in LGBTQ issues.  I am a cis-gendered white woman trying my best to be an ally and to educate myself about LGBTQ issues.  As a teacher, I’ve had students come out to me as gay.  I’ve had students who are transgender.  I watched one student, whom I adore with my whole heart, transition throughout his four years and can now legally change his name.  I don’t know if it meant anything to him, but when I heard the superintendent read out his legally changed name at our rescheduled graduation, I teared up.  

So this issue of whether we should divorce an author from their art isn’t an easy issue to solve.  It’s a complicated and nuanced issue that requires deep introspective thought in what you value as a consumer of that art and what you believe is right or wrong.

As an author myself, I know that words matter.  The worlds we create in fiction start off as our own creation.  Our writing is like our baby, our child.  We spend years agonizing over creating it.  We worry, fret, and fear that the cruel, cold world will reject our “baby.”  But when that creation goes out into the world and is welcomed by a fan base, suddenly our art is no longer our own.  It belongs to the world.  It’s the world’s child now.

Just like with growing up, we go out into the world with our views, values, beliefs, and prejudices informed by how we were raised (our parents and our community), and hopefully those views, beliefs, and values are challenged and changed a little.  So then when we go back home for a holiday, the parents whose opinions we once held as truth and gospel suddenly are brought into a more critical light.  Our parents can still be our parents.  They can still love us while holding shockingly outdated, bigoted, or “old-fashioned” views on issues that are important to us.  That doesn’t mean we don’t love them less, but that also doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t question their opinions as fans have done with Rowling.

I’m a teacher.  I know more than most that what I say matters.  I have the hearts and minds of the youth in my hands.  I’m responsible for their education, but I’m also a role model, a mentor, a listener-to-problems, a problem-solver, and sometimes a surrogate parent (or cooler older sister/aunt).

So … if you’ve read this far, I appreciate your attention and I hope I’ve outlined my point clearly enough without seeming wishy washy.  Death of the Author is a fascinating literary theory even when not colored by current events, but even so, I think it is the duty of every fan of any work of art whether it’s “high brow” capital “L” Literature or modern popular “popcorn flick” type of works.

We are all fans of something.  Knowing authorial intent — or an author’s political and personal viewpoints — can help us make an informed decision whether we should “kill the author” or even if we can.


Garrison Keillor Investigation

Daniel Radcliffe’s response to JKR’s tweets

Youtuber Lindsay Ellis’s fascinating analysis of Death of the Author theory and JKR (NSFW language) guest starring Fault in Our Stars author John Green.

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