By Annick Smithers
A question that many a Harry Potter fan has asked themselves this year is: what should I do with all my favourite books? J.K. Rowling has come under fire for expressing her transphobic opinions on Twitter, and many fans are now turning their backs on the author who has previously meant so much to them. Perhaps it’s time we reconsider who we read and start supporting authors who use their platform responsibly.
On June 6, Rowling responded to an article on Twitter which mentions “people who menstruate,” objecting to the word choice and instead preferring the less inclusive “women.” To further explain her stance, she went on to write a 3600-word essay explaining her fears of allowing trans people into women-only spaces. The essay, which contained many misconceptions about trans issues, including a study which has now been proven to be flawed, has exposed Rowling’s misguided views and transphobia. She has received a lot of backlash for this, and it has left many of her fans disappointed.
In The New York Times, Julia Jacobs collected fans’ opinions on the controversy and the ways in which they are dealing with their feelings towards the author. Some fans feel like they cannot return to the wizarding world, as the books no longer provide an escape for them but have become “stress inducing.” Many, however, will continue to revisit the franchise as they do not want Rowling to take away the comfort that the fandom has provided them. Many actors starring in the Harry Potter films have likewise distanced themselves from Rowling’s views and state their support for the trans community. In The New Statesman, Amelia Tait writes that Rowling’s views are “an insult to anyone who believes in treating others with dignity and respect,” and expresses her disappointment in the author who has done exactly the opposite of what her books encourage.
While these statements have done enough harm for both Rowling’s reputation and that of the trans community, more recently, the author has been criticised again. A plot device in her latest novel, Troubled Blood, is considered to be tone-deaf by many, especially in light of her previous remarks. In the novel, a serial killer wears women’s clothing to trick his victims. A review in The Telegraph has interpreted this as Rowling’s way of saying: “never trust a man in a dress,” which resulted in many opponents of Rowling dismissing the novel without having read it. While this interpretation certainly coincides with the views Rowling expresses in her essay, many critics say this review misconstrues the matter. This immediate dismissal does not, of course, advance well-informed discussion.
Despite these negative reviews, however, the book made it to the first spot on the UK book charts. This shows how little effect the public dismissal has on the novel’s lucrativeness. Because of this, Alyssa Rosenberg in The Washington Post argues against “the reflex to dismiss instead of to explore” which a lot of people seem to resort to in today’s ‘cancel culture.’ She writes that “denying you ever liked Harry Potter doesn’t negate her power to persuade and entertain” and suggests fans consider what made the books so influential in the first place.
But what if it is too painful to return to childhood favourites when the author has exposed their controversial opinions? Is it still possible to enjoy them and to separate the art from the artist? While this question is now a particularly relevant one, it has always plagued consumers of art. When it comes to literary interpretation, not having to take into account authorial intent can be useful in developing one’s own interpretation. For those purposes, the author is dead. But when supporting an author has direct social consequences, things are a little more complex and who the artist is should matter.
In this day and age, separating the artist from their art is almost impossible. Historical pieces of literature seem to lend themselves to unbiased scrutiny. For instance, while we can gather some of Shakespeare’s personal opinions through his works, he does not have a Twitter account to clearly state his views. Now, authors can let their views be heard loud and clear and make sure that not just their writing, but also they themselves, are in the public eye. They appear in interviews, and almost every physical copy of a novel contains a mini biography of the author. Compared to 500 years ago they are much more present in their work; publishers make sure you know whose book you are reading. Of course, it is always possible to remain oblivious about well-known writers, but the marketing of books tends to involve the author. It is, therefore, much harder to separate contemporary writers from their books.
The case of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter is especially interesting, of course, because Rowling has always been reluctant to hand over her interpretive authority to the reader. When fans wanted to know more about the characters and the fictional world, Rowling has always been too glad to give answers (during an interview she revealed she always pictured Dumbledore as gay, though you wouldn’t know from reading the books). She has always made sure she herself remained an integral part of the Harry Potter world. This makes the situation, therefore, so much more painful for fans.
When an author, then, decides to let their personal opinions be heard, they should know the consequences of doing so. Twitter is a treacherous place to express one’s personal views as there is hardly room for well-explained opinions. In the case of Rowling, this makes her words even more strident. With almost fifteen million followers on Twitter, she has a wide-reaching audience and with that comes a big responsibility. She was bound to know fans were going to distance themselves from the Harry Potter fandom and she would anger and disappoint them. This means that when she wrote her essay, she thought that letting her misguided ideas be heard was more important than the people that have supported her and gave her the platform she is now using to cause harm.
But just because J.K. Rowling has made her views clear, does that mean that every author that shares something you don’t agree with should be condemned? Surely you don’t always agree with the opinions of every writer you read. The problem that results is that every author will be held to different standards. Rowling certainly won’t be unique in her views and many writers will continue to be read despite having the same views or much worse. Surely, we could never read Shakespeare or Tolkien again, if we want to avoid all authors whose opinions aren’t up to today’s woke standards, yet Rowling is now the one being condemned. This double standard makes condemning one author for expressing their views troublesome. Other authors have recently come to Rowling’s defence, saying that the attack on her is yet another instance of misogyny. While there certainly can be an element of truth in that, fans have been complaining about Rowling’s Twitter behaviour for a while. After all, Rowling has been given the benefit of the doubt before, after liking transphobic tweets a couple of years ago.
While many critics and fans have criticised Rowling, and her views haven’t gained much traction online, the use of her platform to spread misinformation about a sensitive subject is harmful. Rowling has a huge platform and her essay contains misconceptions about trans issues that only work to further undermine the position of an already oppressed group. She could have, of course, kept her views to herself to avoid controversy but she had to let them be known. Though they were written out of a place of concern, as she is afraid women-only places are being threatened, her concerns are misguided and wrongly put the blame on trans rights.
Now, many fans are no longer acknowledging Rowling as the author of the Harry Potter books and simply won’t refer to her anymore. Fan sites have distanced themselves from Rowling and have condemned her views. She has lost some of her most devoted supporters who run sites like The Leaky Cauldron or Mugglenet. Some will continue to enjoy the wizarding world, but now without supporting Rowling financially. This is one way in which fans have disarmed the author. Rowling’s trans-disarming spell has backfired, and she has ‘Expelliarmussed’ herself.
Still, Rowling will continue to profit from the wizarding world and the reputation it has given her. While the responses by fans and critics suggest a total denunciation of the author, she has hardly faced any financial consequences, as the success of her latest novel proves. Rowling will continue to write books, and they will continue to be published. The truth is, the controversy will hardly affect her daily life, even though her Twitter feed will continue to be spammed by people who oppose her views. Grandparents without a Twitter account will continue to buy Harry Potter merch for their grandchildren who are also not on Twitter. Waterstones won’t stop selling Ravenclaw notebooks or the latest books by Rowling, and Primark won’t get rid of their Gryffindor pyjamas and Dobby the House Elf socks. Rowling is too well-established for any real consequences to reach her.
What, then, should Potterheads do with their favourite books now that their creator has betrayed them? Obviously, at the end of the day, it is for the reader to decide whether they want to support Rowling. The publishing industry will continue to promote authors despite their personal opinions and the controversies in which they are involved. While Rowling might not have faced any financial consequences so far, she has certainly had her share of online shaming. The amount of animosity Rowling has received is, of course, never justified, but she should use her platform responsibly and know the consequences of her words. If a writer chooses to not just create fictional worlds but also comment on issues in the real world, they choose to open themselves – and not just their art – to critique. They should therefore also be held accountable for when they are causing harm, and since the publishing industry won’t stop selling books by controversial authors, the book-buying habits of consumers can be crucial.
The choice, then, is simply down to the individual. There is no harm in continuing to enjoy books that already occupy a spot on your bookshelves, especially ones that have meant so much to readers. It is future choices that matter most. Buying a book should be a conscious and informed decision because by spending time and money on a book, you are supporting its author. While a world in which the art and their artists can be separated seems alluring, it is not the world we live in and that should inform our book-buying. As the literary space is becoming more open and accessible to different voices that have not been heard before, we should support writers who are using their voice to encourage acceptance, and not to cause harm.
Annick Smithers is one of the RevUU’s copy editors. She finished her English Language Bachelor’s degree last year and is now pursuing the English track of the Literature Today Master’s program. She’s mostly interested in the role of language and literature in society. Some of her favourite authors are Ali Smith, Angela Carter, Kazuo Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman.
Author image by Lee Russell
Jacobs, Julia. “Harry Potter Fans Reimagine Their World Without Its Creator.” The New York Times, 12 Jun. 2020.
Kerridge, Jake. “Troubled Blood by Robert Galbraith, review: JK Rowling fails to Strike again.” The Telegraph, 13 Sept. 2020.
Rosenberg, Alyssa. “There has never been a better time to read J.K. Rowling’s books.” The Washington Post, 24 Sept. 2020.
Tait, Amelia. “As J.K. Rowling makes her stance on trans issues clear, Harry Potter fans are speaking out against her.” New Statesman, 14 Jun. 2020.