THE RISK OF ERASING AUTHORSHIP: THE STRANGE CASE OF J.K. ROWLING

NOTE: This post was originally written on 10 January 2022, but it’s published now because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

The streaming on New Year’s Day of the show Harry Potter 20th Anniversary: Return to Hogwarts (HBO Max) may have brought back many sweet memories to the original Potterheads, but was no doubt marred by a conspicuous absence: that of J.K. Rowling. Warner Bros., the franchise owner, explained that Rowling had been invited but declined appearing; others noted that what was being celebrated was the film series, not the novels, and, hence, Rowling’s participation was not required. I have not seen the reunion show, precisely because I believe that there is no point to it without Rowling’s presence. Not only is she the author of the original book series but, as it is well known, she also guided adapter Steve Kloves in his task; let’s not forget that Rowling wrote part of her series (1997-2011) as the films (2001-2014) progressed. Having Kloves and Rowling sit down together to discuss how this overlapping process worked should have been a must for the show.

What irks me most about Rowling’s absence is the hypocrisy: everyone knows she is now a hindrance in the path of the franchise because of her controversial tweets against the Scottish legislation allowing transgender individuals to choose their gender identity regardless of their biology (a similar law has been submitted in Spain by Minister for Equality Irene Montero). Rowling has been branded a TERF (a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), harassed on social media and at her own doorstep, cancelled by the same fans who used to treat her as almost a goddess. Articles about how Rowling has become Voldemort abound, which I am sure would amuse her villain could he read them. Far from apologizing for her transphobic remarks, Rowling has insisted on presenting her views whenever a controversial issue connected with transgender individuals arises, which has only worsened the situation. I don’t wish to discuss here, however, Rowling’s views but the impossible situation in which the Potterheads have placed themselves by reacting negatively to them. My thesis is quite straightforward: you may wish to cancel an author for their opinions, even when they are not expressed in their texts, but if you take that step, you also need to stop finding pleasure in reading their work. The alternative that is now emerging –erasing Rowling’s authorship but still celebrating Harry Potter– is, I insist, hypocritical and downright wrong.

I read in the article by Fatemeh Mirjalilli “Harry Potter Needs to Move on without J.K. Rowling” (https://www.slashfilm.com/722404/harry-potter-needs-to-move-on-without-j-k-rowling/) that Roland Barthes’s ‘death of the author’ theory applies to Rowling’s case. If you recall, Barthes (1915-1980) argued in his 1967 short essay (originally published in English in the avant-garde American journal Aspen) that “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”. He meant, in agreement with other French theorists like Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault (in a way all descendants of the Russian formalists), that literary criticism had been paying excessive attention to the person behind the text, when actually only the text matters. Certainly, the analysis of Literature had been bogged down by the Romantic biographical approach that views texts through the lens of the author’s biography to an absurd, often brutally gossipy extent. Yet, I have always believed that Barthes et al. were great double-dealers attempting to shift the authorial spotlight from the Author to the Critic. I don’t think Barthes would have quietly accepted the death of his own authorship. Unfortunately, his school succeeded and then went too far, so that it is now habitual to read literary criticism (or by analogy film criticism) in which the text appears to have magicked itself into existence with no actual author. Or articles like Mirjalili’s.

The ‘death of the author’ theory has been applied to Rowling already in academic literary criticism, which tends to ignore her biography and reads the Harry Potter series mainly in the absence of the Author, as Barthes suggested. Quite another matter is fandom. What Mirjalili means is that Barthes had given us permission to cancel authors and erase their authorship, which is not the case at all. One thing is saying that Charles Dickens’s texts are open to interpretation beyond what he intended them to mean, and quite another to claim that we are free to take his novels into our hands and deny he had an essential role in writing them because we don’t like his misogynistic views. This is what seemingly is being done to Rowling. There has always been fan fiction about the Harry Potter series (that is, fiction based on Rowling’s characters but prevented from being commercialized to respect her copyright), but Mirjalili is proposing that she hands over her work to the fans for them to do as they wish with it, even eventually erasing her authorship. I am sure this is how the classic author we know as ‘Homer’ was constructed, but this is the 21st century and we have strict views about authorship, beginning with the fact that the law prevents you from stealing it, regardless of the opinions which the authors may voice in their social media. No matter how great a fan you might be, you will never be the author.

Going down a truly dark path, ‘the death of the author’ may be taking a very grim meaning in the Harry Potter case. Rowling does not want to relent, that seems clear enough, and will go on tweeting for as long as Twitter allows her. It is very unlikely that she will accept the erasure of her name from the credits of the films based on her work, or the ones she is herself writing (for the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise), since she enjoys internationally acknowledged legal rights protecting her work. I don’t see any judge granting an association of Potterheads the right to do with Rowling’s work as they please, to develop new fiction or, God forbid, rewrite her original novels to include more diverse characters, on the grounds that they feel offended by her tweets. This means, literally, that the only hope for those who think that Rowling should be kept apart from the Harry Potter franchise is that she literally disappears, even though, naturally, in the event of her demise her heirs would want to defend their own legal rights over her legacy. Talking about ‘the death of the author’ does have this sickening underside: that it runs the risk of becoming too literal, if only as morbid wishful thinking.

The Potterheads who still love anything connected with Harry Potter but hate Rowling’s TERF persona are thus stuck in a no-win situation, complicated by the specific nature of Harry Potter as children’s and young adult fiction. The series is too closely connected to their personal emotions and growth for them to abandon it with no regret; one can renounce rather easily an author read in adulthood but the impressions formed in childhood are quite another matter. Much more so when the text itself is not the actual problem but the opinions which the author has voiced about other issues decades after the beginning of its publication. I am serious when I say that the process of cancelling Rowling must be appallingly hurtful for many Potterheads, for she is not just one among many authors read in childhood and adolescence, but an astonishing exception among them. I have not heard any of my students referring to her as a personal idol, or a kind of surrogate parent, but Rowling created a world in which many young readers felt they were truly themselves. Discovering that this beloved, trusted woman has actually very different opinions from what is now common sense among most Potterheads must be, I insist, devastating. If she is not Voldemort, she feels at least like Dolores Umbridge. This massive generational disappointment must be also hurting Rowling, no doubt, and possibly threatening her emotional wellbeing and sense of personal safety, yet here she has the upper hand, for whereas she may have been emotionally invested in the process of creating the wizarding world, she created it at the margins of the fans and can do without them. The Potterheads, in contrast, depended on Rowling for their emotional fulfilment, hence the sense of betrayal once they have reached an age in which they understand that she defends politically incorrect opinions.

At this point, my impression is that the Harry Potter franchise is starting its decadence and J.K. Rowling will not survive its fall as a writer, though I guess that she is rich enough to live off benefits of her brainchild to a very old age even without her fans’ support. I leave it in the hands of sociologists to research what percentage of her readers will be cancelling her in the short and the long term, and in the hands of her publishers to report the slump in sales that is already possibly happening. I don’t think that the confrontation over the transgender rights she is disputing will abate; this is no storm in a teacup, but an unfolding process with deep ramifications we are very far from understanding (but that could be better understood with more dialogue). I have tried here to separate the novels from the author but the fact is that because of her transphobic tweets many see now the Harry Potter heptalogy as too homogenous in racial, sexual and class terms to be acceptable any more. Not everyone has been charmed by the series, but what is now happening is possibly unique in the annals of literary history: when has a writer ever been abandoned by their readers, like Rowling is being abandoned, but not his/her world?

Fans cannot, I insist, deprive Rowling of her legal rights over her work, pretend that she is disconnected from the franchise, wish that the author’s death did really apply to her case if only in Barthes’s metaphorical sense. Harry Potter belongs to J.K. Rowling to the day her heart stops beating, and until then she needs to be acknowledged for her merits. Criticism of her demerits as an author is also part of the literary game she accepted playing when publishing her work but Potterheads cannot call themselves by that name and reject Rowling’s authorship at the same time. For good or for bad, this is inescapable. Fans can imagine a more diverse, politically updated version of Harry Potter, and negotiate with her in which directions the franchise can evolve, but the original text will always be hers. That’s a way in which an author, pace Barthes, can never be killed unless we cancel copyright when we cancel authors. Perish the thought.

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