Let’s Talk About: Separating the art from the artist

I never thought that I’d be doing two discussion posts within a week of each other that basically boil down to “Yes, _____________ are people too,” but here we are in 2020.

It’s no secret that J.K. Rowling has caused some uproar in the bookish community lately. Her long history of transphobic comments along with her recent essay defending herself using questionable data have caused many readers to distance themselves from her work. Her anti-trans opinions have been analyzed all over Twitter, book blogs, and bookstagram. This week, I’ve even received news alerts about things she’s said. Many readers have said that they no longer feel comfortable reading her work and no longer feel comfortable following people who support her. And who can blame them?

I’m not trying to make anybody feel bad for supporting Rowling’s work. I know that, for my generation especially, Harry Potter was a very formative book series. These are books that came out while we were the age Harry was in the books. I, along with most of my classmates, read each book as it was released. We waited in lines at midnight, we talked about the books between classes, we faked sick so we could stay home and finish them. There were parents who would let their kids take a day off so they could just marathon the books because they were so excited. And while I enjoyed the books as a child and teenager, Harry Potter is not a series that’s followed me into adulthood. It’s not a series that I’ve ever felt the need to reread or buy merch for or bring up in everyday conversation. But I also don’t feel that way about most books. Anyway, all of this is to say that I understand the impact that Harry Potter has had on the bookish community and even people who don’t consider themselves readers. For many, it was their first (and maybe only) experience with middle-grade and YA fantasy.

But at some point, an author’s behavior can be too much. At some point, it’s no longer possible to separate the art from the artist.

In case you missed it and have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick summary of Rowling’s recent controversy.

  • December 19, 2019: J.K. Rowling tweeted her support for Maya Forstater, a woman whose employment contract was not renewed after she shared anti-trans comments and purposely misgendered people on Twitter.
  • June 6, 2020: Rowling tweeted criticism of an article titled “Opinion: Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate,” stating that “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
  • June 6-10, 2020: Rowling received hefty blowback for her statement and tried to defend herself by saying things like “One of my best mates just called me. Self-described butch lesbian.” and “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction.”
  • June 10, 2020: Rowling posted an incredibly long essay on her website trying to further defend herself. Andrew James Carter breaks this down better than I ever could, so please read this Twitter thread below if you haven’t already:

Now, I do want to clarify that I don’t believe in cancel culture. I think that it’s very possible for people to grow and change, to educate themselves and become better. I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of cancelling someone for something that they said years ago without giving them to opportunity to educate themselves and correct their behavior. What I do have a problem with, though, is public figures who continually spread misinformation or repeatedly act badly, who double down after being called out, and who use their platform to actively do harm.

In this day and age of having the internet at our fingertips, where almost anybody who’s reading this blog post probably has a smartphone with the entirety of Google in their hand, there’s no excuse for being misinformed. There’s no excuse for trying to push those misinformed beliefs on impressionable young readers. There’s no excuse for trying to invalidate the identity of an entire group of people.

My opinion on trans rights is pretty simple, and it’s the same as my opinion on anybody else’s rights: the way someone else lives their life literally has no impact on you. It costs you zero dollars to just treat someone the way you want to be treated. Trans women are women, trans men are men, nonbinary people are nonbinary. Why are people so concerned with someone else’s genitalia? It’s creepy. I’m getting a little distracted here, but what I’m really trying to say is that when you’re a public figure, and particularly a public figure because you write children’s literature, you have a responsibility to behave appropriately. There is no excuse for alienating and invalidating an entire group of people.

There’s an interesting concept called “death of the author,” which began in the mid 1900s and says that the author’s beliefs and behavior shouldn’t influence any interpretations of their writing. This concept is frequently used in arguments to support authors who’ve done problematic things, but for me, there’s only so much you can set aside.

What I think it’s really important to talk about is that even if you can keep Rowling’s personal opinions and the fantasy world she’s created separate, by supporting her books, you are supporting her. Every book, every piece of merch, puts money back into her pocket. We vote with our dollars, and I don’t know about you, but my dollars are not going to support a woman who can’t seem to stop tweeting out transphobic messages.

My point, after all of this, is that there comes a certain point when you can no longer separate the art from the artist. There comes a point when an author’s actions ruin the art.

If you’re looking for a new YA fantasy series to immerse yourself in, I would recommend literally anything by Tamora Pierce. She’s an incredible author who writes stories about female empowerment, she’s one of the few authors I’ve actually re-read, and best of all… she doesn’t tweet out harmful messages.

Please feel free to share any other author recommendations in the comments.

What are your thoughts on J.K. Rowling and separating the author from their work? Let’s talk in the comments!

Find me all over the internet: Goodreads | Twitter | Bloglovin’