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Monday, June 22, 2020

Opinion: The Author Is Not The Work • by Eric Dontigney

So, for anyone who has been disconnected from all news and social media for the last week or two, the once-beloved J.K. Rowling has come under intense fire for anti-trans statements. Since a cis-gendered white guy is not the best person to discuss the nuances of that firestorm, I’ll leave the analysis to the better equipped. The other thing Rowling’s comments have triggered is a more disorganized collection of arguments that Rowling’s position on trans gender identity somehow ruins Harry Potter. This second reaction is troubling because it shows a fundamental failure to distinguish the author from the work.

Unlike actors who often get inextricably tied to roles, authors generally enjoy a life separated from the life of their work. This is a good thing because many, many cherished and revered books were written by truly awful human beings. Norman Mailer, famous for the Pulitzer prize-winning book The Executioner’s Song, stabbed his second wife in a drunken rage. Good old Jack London of The Call of the Wild fame was a towering racist who thought forced sterilization of criminals was a keen idea. Dostoevsky was a degenerate gambler and chronically cheated on his wife, Anna. Charles Dickens left his wife to take up with an actress 27 years his junior. Stories of Hunter S. Thompson’s often seemingly insane actions are too numerous to recount.

The big takeaway here is that all of these famous authors did things or espoused things that we would find unsavory at best and unforgivable at worst. Yet, as a rule, we take their works as having a life of their own beyond the failings of their authors. I don’t think many people would argue that A Christmas Carol is diminished by Dickens’ wandering eye or that Crime and Punishment is less of a masterpiece because of Dostoevsky’s gambling. It’s generally accepted that authors are not the final arbiters of meaning when it comes to their books. Reading is about the relationship between the reader and the text. Readers superimpose their personal lens onto the text, the story, and the symbols. They draw meanings and conclusions based on their own preoccupations.

For example, let’s say you ask a 20-something man and 40-something woman to read The Iliad. Ask them what the story was about after the fact and you’ll probably get a superficially similar answer. It was about the Greeks attacking the city of Troy. Probe a little deeper, though, and you’ll likely get vastly different answers. The young man might focus on the glory or adventure of it all. The more experienced woman might think of it in terms of the futility of war or the needless waste of life. Good luck disproving either perception. All of this, I might add, comes independent of any considerations of what kind of person Homer (who likely never existed anyway) was in life.

The idea that J.K. Rowling’s intolerances detract from the Harry Potter novels is absurd. It assumes that her preoccupations somehow supersede that personal relationship readers have with a text. It also wrongly assumes that no writer can create characters or stories that transcend the writer’s limitations. Writers can and do write characters who are nobler, humbler, more faithful, more tolerant, more giving, more understanding, simply better than themselves all the time. Just as they write characters who are more psychotic, more sociopathic, pettier, and more intolerant than themselves. The only thing that Rowling’s intolerance should change is the opinions people hold about her.

Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

1 comment:

GuyStewart said...

Too bad the people having conniptions have never bothered to read Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's WRITING THE OTHER: A Practical Approach...

Of themselves, they say:

Both are women. Ms. Shawl: African American, practices Ifa, weighs more than currently deemed healthy, have made love with other women, has fibromyalgia.

Ms. Ward: Short, atheist, military brat, liberal, Maine Yankee (but not), chronic neck pain, hearing and vision impaired.

Their story: “…one of the students [at a writing workshop] expressed the opinion that it is a mistake to write about people of ethnic backgrounds different from your own because you might get it wrong—horribly, offensively wrong—and so it is better not even to try. This opinion, commonplace among published as well as aspiring writers, struck Nisi as taking the easy way out and spurred her to write an essay addressing the problem of how to write about characters marked by racial and ethnic differences. In the course of writing the essay, however, she realized that similar problems arise when writers try to create characters whose gender, sexual orientation, and age differ significantly from their own.”

I think this philosophy speaks to such a reaction. Too bad so few people pay attention to it. I suppose it's easier to tar-and-feather someone than to think-and-discuss with someone...

Guy Stewart