Harry Potter and the Death of the Author

Editor Ella Williams delves into the ongoing dilemma: can we separate art from the artist?

Ella Williams
23rd July 2020

“Aww I love Daniel Radcliffe, the author of Harry Potter” jokes one Twitter user. “Cannot believe Harry Potter literally apparated himself into existence...” ponders another. Sadly, she-who-shall-not-be-named has not dematerialised completely as the online muggles cry “expelliarmus”. On the contrary, author J. K. Rowling has been taking to Twitter louder than ever with views that have riled up Harry Potter fans once again. In doing so she has reignited an age-old debate: can we really separate art from the artist or is she welded to her work in the social media age?

To those uninitiated in the J. K. saga, Rowling has been a purveyor of controversy on Twitter for years. Accusations of “queer-baiting” were thrown  when she claimed that Dumbledore had actually been gay the whole time back in 2007. “I’ve always seen Dumbledore as gay” she explained with an irritating matter-of-factness, “He fell in love with Grindelwald, and that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was”. In 2015, Rowling made it known that Hermione was now officially black, despite no mention of this fact among any of the books and white actress Emma Watson taking the role in the films. Most recently, she has diverted her attention to the transgender community... 

Joanne has been treating us to titillations of terfery since last December

Joanne has been treating us to titillations of terfery since last December: first, she liked a tweet containing “gender critical” views, before hinting at support for various anti-trans figures in the following months. But she made her glittering debut as an out-and-proud TERF* last pride month in a series of transphobic tweets under the guise of biological facts about womanhood and followed this up with an entire essay clarifying her views on the topic. The aim of this article is not to delve into the reasons why her statements are strawman arguments that have perpetuated unfounded fear towards transgender people, but Em Richardson has done a thorough analysis in an article you can read here. Rather, this is to explore the dilemma that has arisen as a result, as fans desperately scramble to reconcile their love for the franchise with the potential harm that is being caused by Rowling’s resulting power and influence. 

To begin, I want to note the inconvenient fact that I don’t think there is an easy solution to this dilemma. It’s not as simple as Harry Potter = good and J. K. Rowling = bad. It’s a question that has been toing and froing through years of literary theory. The viewpoint many have cited in the case of our friend J. K. is that of Roland Barthes, who coined the idea of  “Death of the Author” in his 1967 essay. Simply put, Barthes rejected previously-held methods of literary criticism in which the context and authorial intent were central to grasping a full understanding of a text. Rather, he argued that once a book, film, or painting has been put into the world it no longer belongs to its creator in any significant sense. The Author becomes one in several voices that can engage with a piece of work; their authority becomes inconsequential. 

"Death found an author writing his life" - E Hull, 1827, Credit: Wikimedia

The idea here is undoubtedly a useful one. Surely you can enjoy a piece of art without approving of everything the author has ever done? This would write off most of our classics, every poem produced by a problematic-Grandad-type or timeless novel written by a sexist old man. The concept seems to be a case for viewing art in its own right, a product of pure creativity to be engaged with on merit alone. But an idea which relies on the ability to divorce the work from the media portrayal of its author enters muddying waters as our society becomes increasingly invested in “celebrity” lives. In our new digital age, the rise of social media is based upon the ability to follow the lives and thoughts of artists and creators. In a way, Rowling’s latest Twitter spree has brought this problem to its extremes and provided the perfect counter-argument to the Barthian view: Harry Potter is both one of the most widely sold franchises of all time and its author one of the most vocal online, and using her resulting fame to spout actively harmful views. 

You can try to apply a practical solution: do not support this artist financially, you might say. Do not buy her books or merchandise, do not empower her with your money. But this does not take into account the other artists that have contributed to the franchise. The actors and actresses, film directors, book cover designers, illustrators, editors will all lose out if you boycott their work completely. In this case, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson have both publicly shunned Rowling’s views, the author to which they owe their whole careers. Nor does it address the more fundamental question about how our almost inescapable insight into Rowling as a person changes the way we now read her work. Many marginalised groups online have used Rowling’s wizarding world as a means of escapism from the hardships they face in their everyday lives. Many read Harry’s story as one of acceptance for those cast out by their families. Trans people have reported seeing their own stories in Rowling’s. When the Sorting Hat initially tried to insist Harry was a Slytherin, for example, he rejected this categorisation and knew that he connected more with Gryffindor. Harry is haunted by a sense of imposing in a group to which he does not belong in the following books, a kind of Gryffindor-in-name-only, until Dumbledore reassures him that his own gut sense of self has been perfectly valid all along. These readings are likely to be impacted by an awareness of the author’s own views, whether we mean to consider them or not. 

At what point, in the continuum between tweet, twitter poem, self-published zine or fully-bound book does this become a view worth listening to and adding to our understanding of the story?

Image: Wikimedia

Even more fundamental is the fuzzying lines in what constitutes a publication of art at all, and where the artist ends and the art begins. Traditional mediums of literature like novels and poetry have entered the online world in the form of eBooks and Instagram poetry (a phenomenon which I’ve explored more in depth here). In the case of Rowling, she has made sure to keep herself as an ongoing part of the books’ narrative, adding to the story after the fact. Especially in the social media world, it’s not clear how this online retconning can be distinguished from an actual book sequel, one which you might read on the very same screen. Both might change the way you view her previous works, both provide new contexts and both are written by the same person. At what point, in the continuum between tweet, twitter poem, self-published zine or fully-bound book does this become a view worth listening to and adding to our understanding of the story? If we want to separate art from the artist, surely we have to know which bits we consider to be art at all, and where exactly that detaches itself from the person writing. 

The problem I’m getting at when applying a Barthian view to a present day situation is this: we are trying to apply an academic and theoretical solution to what is an ethical and often emotional problem. Separation of art and the artist works in theory, but crying death of the author when she has already become such a prevalent part of the franchise as a whole is looking at it the wrong way around.  If we want to separate them, it was already too late when we started following her thoughts in the millions, and not just when she used that platform to say something we didn’t like. The reality of the present situation is that J. K. Rowling is Harry Potter- in every sequel, prequel, twitter take or celebrity appearance- and that’s a fact we cannot un-know, no matter how many JSTOR articles we dig up to explain why she isn’t.

Image: Harry Potter Folklore on YouTube

So what do we do? Well, the first option is to cancel modern society, block our ears and return to Nokia brick phones with cool stickers on the back. I’d be down for this one, but this is an article about looking for realistic solutions so I’m happy to admit defeat here. We could try to cancel Harry Potter completely, both financially and in practice, and boycott all the films and books in an attempt to diminish Rowling’s voldemortian power. Or we could (and the option I’d propose) do the precise opposite and engage even more. Because when we recognise that Rowling and Potter are inextricably linked we can critically analyse the problems in both. We can respond to Rowling’s regressive views on gender identity, we can point out the inconsistencies and the flaws that leech into Harry Potter. From the exotic fetishisation of Asian character Cho Chang as an object of unsubstantiated lust for Harry, the antisemitic implications of banker goblin characters with hooked noses, the questionable “muggle” slurs for a genetically inferior group. Whether you agree with them or not, these things all came from a real-life woman with her own complex history of racist, sexist and transphobic views, and that makes them worth talking about. Let’s try to view this art with the understanding that neither it, nor its Author, are infallible. 

*TERF has become the commonly used anagram for a “Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist”

Featured Image: Joanne on Facebook & Twitter, Frame- Wikimedia Commons, Book covers- Flickr

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