(Content Warning: mentions of transphobia, anti-Semitism, and racism)
Unless you have somehow managed to stay offline for the past three years, you have probably heard at least some of the controversy surrounding Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Since first being accused of transphobia in 2018 for liking a tweet that described trans women as “men in dresses” she has only dug herself in deeper, her actions culminating in an open letter where she attempted to defend her views by likening hormone therapy to gay conversion therapy.
The response from her fanbase has been one of disappointment and anger. Harry Potter stars Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson both condemned her actions along with thousands of others. “I don’t know who this J.K. Rowling person is,” joked one Twitter user, “Daniel Radcliffe wrote Harry Potter”. This became a commonly presented idea; people who were still fans of Harry Potter sought to distance the author from the work in order to still enjoy it without supporting her.
Roland Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’ essay dictates that once an author has put their work out into a public space, it is no longer theirs anymore, and can be interpreted by readers however they want. So, if I want to read The Great Gatsby and interpret Nick Carraway as gay, Barthes argues that that is as valid as any real views F. Scott Fitzgerald intended to convey. In this way, the author’s views shouldn’t impact how you consume their works.
However, knowing the author’s views does affect how you read their writing. When I first read Harry Potter, as a ten-year-old entirely ignorant of J.K Rowling’s transphobic views, I barely paid attention to her description of the villainous journalist Rita Skeeter. Coming back to it as an adult it’s uncomfortable to see the parallels between the way the characters “heavy-jawed face” and “large, masculine hands” are described and TERF rhetoric about trans women.
Villain coding groups that an author dislikes is not uncommon. From the anti-Semitic character of Fagin in Oliver Twist, to Gus, the violent runaway slave in Thomas Dixon’s ‘The Clansman’ (an incredibly racist romanticisation of the Ku Klux Klan), fiction has been used to justify hatred for hundreds of years. So, being aware of an author’s prejudices is certainly important when you look at the characters they choose to villainise. Claiming death of the author here can be irresponsible, as divorcing works from their social context can weaken the impact of the author’s choices.
But there is a difference between classics and modern fiction. No matter how many copies of Great Expectations I decide to splash out on, Charles Dickens isn’t going to benefit by virtue of having been dead for almost 150 years. This isn’t the case with authors like J.K. Rowling; the more copies of her books you buy, the more influential she becomes. A single tweet from J.K. Rowling can reach millions of people, she is the richest author alive, and her influence is boundless. But does this mean we shouldn’t read her books? They are still hugely popular and despite reflecting some problematic views they, like many classics, have a huge cultural impact. And, like it or not, they are still fun to read, and evoke childhood nostalgia in many readers.
The solution is simple: we need to consume media critically. Fiction doesn’t exist in a vacuum. For all the talk of the death of the author, a piece of writing can never be truly removed from its cultural context or its author. As long as we remember this, there is no reason to stop reading. Though maybe next time you feel like diving into the world of Harry Potter, borrow the books from a library instead.