Let’s Talk About . . . Problematic Authors

Hi! This is another Let’s Talk About . . . post, a discussion post where my opinions on some of the more taboo topics in books and the blogging community.

Last time, we talked about Adults Reviewing YA Books. Today let’s talk about . . . problematic authors.

Over recent months, there’s been a lot of discussion about separating art from the artist following transphobic comments made by J.K. Rowling. In addition, the questionable pasts of authors like Cassandra Clare have once again came to light when the latest book she co-authored was leaked and she proceeded to send her hundreds of thousands followers to attack a minor who didn’t leak the book, nor did she tag her. And these are only two examples from the past three months! It’s well known that the likes of Rainbow Rowell, James Dashner and Jay Asher are guilty of problematic representation (see about the racist nature of Eleanor and Park here) and sexual assault. So, what does this mean, should we stop reading a book we love because of the author’s behaviour?

Well, this is where it gets complicated. First of all, anyone can be problematic, but calling someone a bitch is not on the same level as being prejudiced or violating someone. On the whole, there are different levels of problematic and calling someone a name in the heat of the moment is forgivable whilst erasing the identity of millions is not. An important thing to remember is if you are not part of the impacted community, it is not your place to forgive the authors. Instead, raise the voices of those who were targeted by the author and listen to what they’re saying. Even if one person forgives said author, remember they don’t speak for the entire community.

I know, if you can’t forgive them, what can you do? You love what they write and the characters have sentimental value to you. First of all, hold the author in question accountable. Don’t pretend you didn’t see what they said or did, call them out via tweets or videos or whatever your preferred form of communication is. Not only should you make it clear where you stand, other people might not be aware if the topic isn’t trending. Once you’ve held them accountable, stop giving the problematic authors a platform. If you’re getting paid to help market their books, cut ties. If you aren’t getting paid, stop putting their books on your recommendation lists. You can still appreciate the books, but don’t promote them to more people because it’ll help the author earn money. We don’t want transphobes , racists or misogynists to earn more money. But, if you really do love a series or want to continue it, shop secondhand! You could donate to a charity that combats the author’s behaviour if you’d rather sell the books too.

I don’t think the solution is to stop reading books by problematic authors because it erases how much some of these books have helped people out of a bad place. Going back to Harry Potter, Evanna Lynch herself has said that series served as an escape from her eating disorder. Furthermore, a lot of dead authors are problematic and are part of the school curriculum — Charles Dickens being the first that comes to mind. I really think the ‘Death of the Author’ theory can be applied to everything. Readers attach new meanings and personal sentiments to books all the time, so the initial intention can be lost and it feels cruel to take a form of comfort away from others. To many, Hogwarts has become a more inclusive place than Rowling ever intended and she can’t take that environment away from anyone because it’s bigger than her.

That’s not say we should erase the name of the authors either — Emma Watson didn’t write Harry Potter and Will Herondale didn’t write The Infernal Devices. If you take away the original author, you take away the part of the art that is the product of the artist. Separating the art from the artist is possible . . . to an extent. No matter how much authors might deny it, their words are a product of them. Sometimes authors will take on personas to make a point — the antagonist slut shaming someone doesn’t mean those are the author’s views — but other times, their writing is coded with their true views. Not everyone reads on a critical level, but pretending a book is authorless is ignoring the flaws of the art. If anything, it’s dangerous to love problematic books uncritically.

The entire point I started this series is because too many people are scared to say what they think in the book community — they don’t want to be ‘cancelled’ — and being silent about a book you love having elements that are questionable is no better. I firmly believe you can reclaim the art, but there is no ignoring that someone created that art. On the whole, I think you can love a book, a world, a cast of characters, but disagree with the author. Most of the time, the author’s views are so engrained into them that they won’t even have realised they leaked through. With all this in mind, be respectful of how others might feel if they were hurt by a problematic author and be mindful of how you need to adapt to make them feel safe visiting your account.

I keep going back to J.K. Rowling, but it’s such a good example . . . Houses! Whilst I’m aware a lot of us are proud of our Hogwarts House, it is blatantly saying that you don’t care about any trans people visiting your account. You don’t NEED it in your bio and especially not when it makes others feel uncomfortable.

Overall, ignorance isn’t bliss. Instead of pretending you didn’t see the author’s misdeeds, combat them. Nobody is asking you to forget how important a book is to you, but there comes a point you need to distance yourself emotionally or you’ll hurt others too. These books aren’t the types of books to share with your children, these are the types of book that hold a place in your heart, but a place that you need to lock away. And if you have no emotional attachment to a book and want to continue supporting that author . . . well, maybe you should reevaluate your priorities. Once again, secondhand is best when it comes to these situations, albeit I’m fully aware that not everyone is as privileged to have such copies available (especially in their own language) as easily as the UK/USA.

AFTER NOTE: I wrote this prior to the early reviews of J.K. Rowling’s latest book — a book that is blatantly transphobic — and feel I should add, I don’t think anyone should read the book, never mind purchase it. Whilst I said secondhand is best, I should clarify that is for books with meaning to you. This new book is not Harry Potter and it has yet to attach any significance to your life, so I will gladly challenge anyone supporting this. It is not educational, it is not valuable and we should especially ask ourselves how it is even getting published. Regardless of how prolific Rowling is, let’s hold the people who got this book to print accountable as well.

As always, I welcome discussion and different opinions in the replies. Reading problematic books can be very divisive and I think it’s even harder if you grew up with them. I sincerely hope nobody would actively seek out or read something problematic if they knew so beforehand.

read it and weep,

10 replies on “Let’s Talk About . . . Problematic Authors”

This is such an important topic! I’m definitely guilty of being afraid to speak up, especially in the Harry Potter case. That story means a lot to me, so it’s hard to just disconnect from that world because J.K. Rowling is sh*tty af. I was always a big “separate the art from the author” advocate, but I realized how hard that is as times went on. Personally, I’m still trying to figure out where I stand, and I’m trying to educate myself. But I agree entirely with you on, at least, doing the small things. Like not buying their books new, removing references to HP Houses on social media, and just not following Rowling online.

Liked by 1 person

What matters is that you’re learning and trying to educate yourself. Of course nobody wants to say something that may be misconstrued, but I think everyone needs to respect still loving a series without supporting the author too. Like I said, books such as Harry Potter have helped people with depression, eating disorders, anxiety etc. People have tattoos! Asking someone to forget all that is not easy, but it is easy to make it clear your account is safe for trans people and you don’t stand with J.K.

Liked by 1 person

Wow, this was such a thought-provoking and well-written post, and I agree with all of your points. Ignorance is hurtful to the real victims, and saying that the author didn‘t write a book doesn‘t solve the problem either. Obviously there’s no real solution here but I firmly believe that in order to ‘experience’ a whole book, we need to be aware of the background of the story or the author, and we must also call out authors for their hurtful behaviour. If not us, who will?

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This is such an important discussion and you’ve written a wonderful, eloquent post Meg. Like so many others, I have grown up loving J.K. Rowling’s stories, but I just can’t support her now in any way after her transphobic comments. I had a Harry Potter quote in my Twitter bio which I removed, and even identifying with a Hogwarts house now feels tainted. Although I had been enjoying the series, I made the decision not to get her new book, and that has been reaffirmed by the fact it is so blatantly transphobic. Of course, she is not the only problematic author and we need to be aware of the background of each book, like you say.

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I’m glad you educated yourself! I think you can still enjoy the Harry Potter universe, but stopping financially supporting her work and endorsing her on social media is the best way to go about it, in my opinion. Of course she’s already a huge author, but that doesn’t mean her stories need to be passed down through generations when they have yet to develop the same emotional attachment most of us have.

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Such an interesting post! I recently discussed this with my boyfriend and we came to the conclusion as you: that you can separate the art from the artist to a certain degree. An author’s believes always make it into a book, there is no way they wouldn’t. And if they’re problematic, it is important to discuss them. To cancel those books completely or to ingore them doesn’t do anything, really. Yeah, supporting that author isn’t exactly great (and second hand is good!!) but when there’s something problematic, I think the most important thing is to talk about it, to talk about why it is problematic, to find solutions, to show people what’s wrong with a piece of art.

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I agree. Ignoring these books, especially when they’re so engrained into the book community and are a prominent piece of modern literature, is worse than any alternative. I think you can enjoy a book without supporting an author PROVIDED you make yourself aware of the background. I’m personally going to try and not financially support authors I now know to be problematic (I have a lot of Cassandra Clare books! Maybe I’m guilty there too) but that is very privileged take and we need to realise that too. Secondhand copies might not always be available in certain languages or certain countries. It also opens the questions of how much does not financially supporting big authors like Clare and Rowling matter when they’re likely set for life? It might only take a hit on smaller problematic authors, but could prevent further or smaller publishing deals if new books don’t sell well.


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