Are Authors Separate From Their Works?
Finding a new author to check out has got to be a bookworm’s favourite way to get out of a reading slump. A single spontaneous read that turned out to be way better than expected is more than enough to kickstart a reader’s journey to find out more about the brilliant writer and their other works that promise the same potential.
According to my mother, I was a picky reader growing up, and would quite literally judge books only by their covers: the cover design and the blurb. I would always make a beeline for the same shelves that held the titles of my favourite authors that I knew would not disappoint me. So imagine my initial apprehension when my father brought the very first Harry Potter book in the series home as an early birthday present — I had never heard of the series and let alone J. K. Rowling until that very moment. Little did I know that the Harry Potter series would go on to shape my childhood and reinforce my love for the fantasy genre.
From the world she was able to create for the original series, Rowling has expanded the lore of the series through plenty of additional installments that take place in the same wizarding world — the most notable spin-off series, the Fantastic Beasts series, released its first movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in 2016. Besides books and movies, there are many famous attractions all around the world that promise fans the magical Hogwarts experience. For example, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studios Japan reproduces Harry Potter on an overwhelming scale with meticulous attention to detail. I was lucky enough to see it in person towards the end of 2019 before the Covid-19 Pandemic became an international health concern.
Universal Studios Japan, The Hogwarts Castle.
Universal Studios Japan, The Hogsmeade. It resembled a village for wizards and featured an array of shops that carried merchandise like Harry Potter House robes and scarves.
All Eyes on Rowling
However, Rowling caused an uproar online because of her insensitive comments in recent years. NBC News reports that Twitter users claimed that Rowling's tweet was "not only exclusionary to transgender people but also to cisgender women who did not have periods". Her statements have been called transphobic and she has even been referred to as a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist).
When looking online to find out more about what people had to say about her actions, I chanced upon Yu’s “Opinion: Harry Potter’s Magic Fades When His Creator Tweets” which conveyed the immense disappointment the trans community felt because they “once revered” Rowling. Since Yu identifies as nonbinary, meaning their gender “did not categorise neatly as man or woman”, they felt especially let down by the author that created “a wizarding world that meant everything” to them.
With Rowling thrust into the spotlight, everything about the Harry Potter franchise is being re-evaluated. For instance, many former fans have criticised her for being racist because of her choice of stereotypical names for non-white and non-British characters. According to Medlen’s “Is JK Rowling Racist? JK Rowling Naming Characters Explained”, white characters were given “magical-sounding”; even Harry’s owl was named after a renowned figure, St. Hedwig, who was the patron saint of orphans. On the complete flip side, the only East Asian character was named Cho Chang, a combination of two common surnames from two entirely different Asian cultures. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of what former fans have to say.
Cancel Culture, But For Books?
"For those of you who aren't aware, cancel culture refers to the mass withdrawal of support from public figures or celebrities who have done things that aren't socially accepted today." — Demetria Slyt from Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Despite many boycott efforts where individuals take it upon themselves to educate the ignorant via social media platforms like YouTube and TikTok, the beloved cultural phenomenon for over two decades is still thriving and nowhere near “canceled”. This raises the question: How about newer works that have only been published in no more than the last ten years, are they more susceptible to cancel culture?
Thanks to the prevalence of social media platforms like TikTok, there seems to be a new instantaneous formula for success. BookTok is a popular community on TikTok for like-minded readers to connect with one another and discuss their favourite works. Titles that are popularised on the platform tend to do well because they have a loyal community of fans who do the promotion work for them. For example, Colleen Hoover’s It Ends with Us took the community by storm and soon enough, everyone was visiting their local bookstores to snag a copy for themselves. Personally, I’ve seen local bookstores like Popular and Kinokuniya open entire sections to showcase popular BookTok books or just all of Hoover’s works.
But it is worth noting that these TikTok-made titles may fall as quickly as they rise — if readers found about these titles online, they could easily rely on the same online platforms to find out about the author and more. Readers did not hold their tongue when the official It Ends With Us Colouring Book was announced on Hoover’s social media. Hoover has already been criticised for the glorification of sensitive topics like domestic violence in her popular titles, therefore the idea to promote her not-so-child-friendly book with a child-friendly product was perceived as incredibly “tone-deaf”. Furthermore, Hoover faced further controversy when her 21-year-old son was accused of sexual harassment by his victim 16-year-old @theonottlovebot on Twitter in Feburary 2022. Although Hoover did deny allegations later on in November, the possibility of her own son committing the very same acts of violence Hoover condemned in her hit title sent fans spiralling.
TikTok user turns the spines of Colleen Hoover's books away from view.
I never thought that the notion of cancel culture could infiltrate the literature world but it does make sense that some people see authors and their works as a single entity like how they usually already do for actors and their works. Rather than going full-out to boycott an author, readers may operate on a guilty-until-proven-innocent mindset and opt for a quick fix by simply dissociating themselves from the author and their works altogether in order to not implicate themselves. Meanwhile, the rest of us might be torn between completely abandoning a series we have grown up with, or simply accepting the fact that the writer of our favourite series is a horrible person.
Explaining Our Inner Conflict: Cognitive Dissonance
According to Festinger (1957), cognitive dissonance happens when two elements of knowledge “are in dissonant relation if, considering these two alone, the obverse of one element would follow from the other”. In other words, we humans are uncomfortable when an individual’s behaviour does not align with our thoughts and beliefs. For example, when someone who is known to be cheerful suddenly acts depressed, you would probably be curious as to what caused this abrupt change in character and mood. And as your curiosity grows, you may start to feel more and more restless until you can come up with a satisfactory explanation, or simply accept the fact that they were not who you initially thought they were.
Everyone has a different mental tolerance when it comes to cognitive dissonance. While some may be comfortable with actions that do not necessarily match up with their beliefs and vice versa, others might find the need to resolve any dissonance immediately. Therefore, we see readers either change their attitudes and beliefs (those who believe that authors are separate from their works so that they can go on to support the franchise without supporting Rowling) or avoid these situations that would increase dissonance (those who choose to stay ignorant of what Rowling has done).
So, Are Authors Separate From Their Works?
My three personalities when Rowling made the headlines for her tasteless Twitter comments.
The Harry Potter series has made such an impact on my childhood that it is difficult to completely “cleanse” my life of it — I still keep the Hufflepuff-themed card holder I got from Universal Studios Japan back in 2019 and go around asking people “Do you know which Harry Potter house you belong to?”.
Many Potterheads were absolutely devastated and heartbroken when we found out that our childhood author was not who we thought she was — a heroine that whisked us away into a magical world where we sought refuge from the real world. The way I see it, rather than labeling all Harry Potter fans transphobic and racist or calling people who reject the entire franchise narrow-minded, everyone stands to benefit from discussions that delve deeper into how different people rationalise their actions against their beliefs.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford University Press.