• A group of educators and I have been having some deep conversations about problematic authors recently. It’s a subject that I have been thinking about for a long time. In fact, this post has been in the drafts folder for over a year. This subject felt more pressing due to the fact that the project I am currently working on is centered on a book in which the author has become controversial, and that the class I will be offering in spring of 2021 is based on fairytales, which are ripe with problematic issues, many written by controversial authors. Finishing it was just as much about processing my thoughts surrounding this issue as it was about sharing them with you.

    I have been a fan of the Harry Potter books since they first came out. I have taught numerous classes and camps on Harry Potter science, history, and art, and joined related discussion groups and book clubs for personal enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong, this collection isn’t perfect. I have some serious opinions on the pedagogy practiced at Hogwarts, the lack of diversity, and the fat-shaming that occurs, but these books are also brilliant, imaginative, hopeful, and, well, magical. Rowling is a master of words, using literary techniques not commonly seen in writing for the book’s intended age group. It is one of the many reasons adults are as likely to read and love the series as kids are. They are, from an educator’s point of view, deeply philosophical and wonderful in helping to make connections for relevance and meaning. The Harry Potter series made readers out of millions of children and inspired many people to live a more authentic life, giving comfort to be who we are and the courage to stand up for what’s right in a world full of good, evil, and everything in between.

    I had already committed to writing up a new series of book studies with my co-author of Project-Based Learning: Creating a Modern Education of Curiosity, Innovation, and Impact that explored the world of Harry Potter before J.K. Rowling tweeted her support for a woman whose words and deeds were anti-intersectional feminist and transphobic. My heart sank when I read Rowling’s tweet, and the justifiably angered responses to it. Further research showed some other controversial behavior from the author including cultural appropriation and a refusal to have meaningful dialogue about representation, indicating that Rowling is not as sensitive to or educated on some issues as one would hope. For an author who has built a world that has meant so much to so many, including those in the LGBTQ community, like many others, I was confused and appalled. I wanted to hear the voices of those most affected, and one of the most moving and eloquent pieces I found is this  article by Jackson Bird, a devoted Harry Potter fan and transgender activist, that speaks from personal experience on the impact that tweet had on him. Rowling’s stance on this issue seemed antithetical to the messages her writing gave a whole generation, and now the next. What I would give to have a conversation about this with her, since her responses have been limited, so I can understand. I had some thinking to do on how I wanted to approach her work going forward.

    Rowling isn’t the first problematic author I’ve encountered, and she won’t be the last. There are many authors throughout history who have become controversial from offenses ranging from unconscious bias to insensitive and ignorant remarks to more serious crimes. The biggest difference I see is that now, with the world so small and technology so fast, people are more aware of the transgressions than they were before the Information Age. Shakespeare, for example, is considered one of the greatest writers in history but his plays contain outdated Elizabethan ideas about gender and historically oppressed cultures, and offer racist or anti-Semitic treatment of some of his characters. While it seems that in the 19th century Charles Dickens was advocating for the working class and the abolition of slavery, he actually held harsh racist views, including the vilification of Native Americans and advocacy for their eradication. He was also horribly abusive to his wife. J.R.R Tolkien, who wrote one of my personal favorite books of all time, has had scholars debating the racial and gender bias throughout his work for years, even though the author himself rejected any notion of racial allegory. These are a just a few authors whose work has profoundly affected me, but whose personal views are relatively unknown because they existed before social media. Their ignorance, their opinions, their attitudes influenced by the time in which they lived have been analyzed by scholars for decades, but generally the public has remained unaware. This is a stark contrast to the experience we have with more contemporary authors.

    In more recent times, I’ve had my own heart broken by Marion Zimmer Bradley, who wrote The Mists of Avalon, a sweeping portrayal of the Arthurian legends from the perspective of the often-excluded women in the stories. It was years of loving and feeling the power of that book, before the day the author’s own daughter exposed her mother for sexually abusing her and many other children for over a decade. Everyone in my family loved the book Ender’s Game, written by Orson Scott Card who, it turns out, is radically homophobic and racist. Books by Dr. Suess (Theodor Suess Geisel) were a part of my childhood. It wasn’t until my own children’s literary education that I was exposed to his early racist work. I have been absolutely loving the Rick Riordan Presents series, in which the famed author of the Percy Jackson series has been helping to publish fabulous books that center under-represented cultures, letting the authors tell the stories of their own heritage through mythology and folklore-inspired work. One of the books I looked forward to the most was Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, because it was written by a Native author and the story description seemed compelling. Unfortunately, the author has been accused of appropriation and inappropriate disclosure by the Native communities she is writing about, but not actually a member of. Please note that I’m not comparing any of these authors I am mentioning to each other, nor has my responses to their controversies been equal.

    Having studied the Humanities to the extent that I have a degree in it, I’ve interacted with literature, art, music, and every other form of creative, cultural expression and there isn’t a genre nor time period that escapes this complexity. History is full of problematic human beings who have put extraordinary work into the world. I feel the conflict as many do; I don’t necessarily want to support someone whose values diverge from my own, but I also believe that once an artist (of any kind) puts their work out into the world, it no longer belongs to just them. The book belongs to the reader. Case in point, Rowling may have created the world of Harry Potter, but those who love the books have taken that magical world and built something completely new. Through fan fiction, art, philosophy groups, podcasts (shout out to one of my favorites: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text), charity organizations, and more, those books have a life beyond the author.

    There is an essay written in 1967 by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes, La Mort de l’Auteur (The Death of the Author- and yes, it is in fact a play on words inspired by Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur/The Death of Arthur) that rejects the practice of including the context of an author’s personal life or supposed intentions while reading and analyzing their work. His theory is that once an author publishes their work, it ceases to be theirs. Instead, it becomes an independent entity in which the reader must extrapolate meaning and symbolism independent of authorial intention. In fact, by considering the author, one places limitations on the text. An author’s personal views may influence how and what they write, but they have no power over the reader in interpretation. I think this theory is solid, to a point. It’s the way I approach all literature, with the caveat that if an author is intentionally perpetuating harm in their writing, then the Death of the Author theory no longer applies.

    Even if you don’t subscribe to the Death of the Author theory, believing that a text is inseparable from its creator, there’s a problem with seeing this issue as all or nothing. An author’s creative expression through writing is only one part of who they are. We don’t have to like every part of a person in order to gain something from their work. The world is a diverse place, and universal agreement is impossible. In fact, we may see an opportunity to re-examine and either confirm or adjust our beliefs based on exposure to ideas and values that are different from our own. We are also capable of nuance, guiding our responses to problematic authors based on the specifics rather than having a blanket policy when an author causes controversy.

    So which authors do we keep and which should go? Most people would not think of eliminating Shakespeare from our reading lists, and nor should we. His plays are so commonly referenced in our society, which alone is enough. But they also offer, even with their issues, a complex and universal look at the human condition. We can balance his work with more contemporary authors, especially those that are underrepresented, who play with poetic language and similar themes. We can examine the problematic issues that exist in historic literature and search for themes that still exist, or perspectives that have evolved. We can interpret the stories with our modern lens and own the narrative as a reader. You may think that contemporary authors get less of a pass because they live in the same world we do, and therefore should know better. But I would argue that even if we are deeply opposed to their point of view, that the work of controversial contemporary authors may still be of value for all the same reasons as problematic historical authors. This doesn’t mean we ignore or forgive their transgressions, but it does mean our responses can be adapted to each situation. Censorship is as dangerous a reaction as apathy. I personally use the approaches below to weigh my response to each author individually, and decide whether or not I can continue to include their work.

    Ways to Approach Problematic Authors

    So, the question is what to do with the work of problematic writers? Here’s how I have come to approach the issue:

    From an academic point of view, engaging with a text from a critical lens is an essential skill to teach. I can examine any bias or discrimination, with or without the author’s background and worldview in mind, to identify where problems lie, neutralize its effect, and educate my students to be culturally sensitive and critical. I can bring this awareness into my classes and curriculum, modeling the critical thinking and open dialogue that I’d like my students to participate in.

    I can use this flowchart or something similar to make informed, thoughtful decisions about my own personal reading and the texts I bring into my classes and curriculum.

    From a reader’s point of view, I can choose to read, or not to read, anything that makes me uncomfortable. I can reject, without qualm, any text that is intentionally perpetuating harm. Each one of us needs to define our values and decide, based on informed and critical thinking, where our boundaries lie. I can also confront and think more deeply about my beliefs and navigate a text with this in mind.

    I can listen to the experiences of people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, or anyone else who speaks of the harm they encounter from problematic authors.

     I can cut the funding towards those authors by not purchasing new products. If I really want to read something by them, I can buy used.

     I can also support authors whose work might not have existed if they hadn’t been inspired by the problematic author, and/or who are writing from a much more inclusive, diverse point of view. I can also commit to amplifying the voices of authors who are most affected.

    I can donate to charities that are doing important work around the problems associated with the author in question. This could be considered moral offsetting, which it is in a way because I am contributing to campaigns that do positive work on the issues that are directly related to what makes an author problematic, but I also believe deeply in the mission of each organization I choose to back. For example, I support organizations like The Harry Potter Alliance which “uses the power of story and popular culture to make activism accessible and sustainable and Gender Spectrum, which provides education and training to make all kinds of environments more gender sensitive and inclusive.

    I can accept that the reality is that the question has no definitive answer. It’s all nuance and situational. I can do my best using the above strategies to contribute to a kinder, more equitable world, particularly towards authors who are doing the same through their incredible work.

    In the end, my response to each controversial author I come across is different based on using the above approach. In the case of JK Rowling, my desire to connect students with the beauty and magic of her writing has prompted me to move forward with co-authoring the first of what I hope is many book studies on the Harry Potter series. Making sure that problematic elements are addressed is a priority, making the exploration of the text even more interesting and dynamic. Through this approach, I hope my students see that a critical analysis and an open dialogue of both author and book deepens our understanding of self and others.