The Author is Dead. Long Live the Author!
Varun Paleli Vasudevan
23rd September 2020
In a world where the #MeToo has made successful strides in outing gender imbalances in many countries and societies, one does have a dysphoria about turning on the radio and listening to someone or enjoying the music of someone that they know is a paedophile or a sexual abuser. The use of ‘death of the author’ is an entire misdirection to solving this.
We live in a world that is currently exploring the deep distasteful underbelly of sexual abuse and sexual harassment by powerful and prominent men. We see the fall of grace of many prominent figures, some of whom we might have looked up to at one point. It brings a certain form of dysphoria to open your old playlist, or tune into a radio station to hear a familiar voice taking about making the world a better place and hoping that he wasn’t talking about a world where sexual harassment was legal.
The discomfort of coming to terms with the sins of our stars has found a comfortable niche among many consumers of art with the 1967 essay Death of the Author. But before one delves into this, it must be understood that applying a literary theory and examining the ethics of consuming content after knowing the gory truths about its makers are two very separate issues and we shouldn’t conflate the two of them. While it is convenient to separate the art from the artist, the world we live in is not the world of 1967.
Death of the Author is an essay written by French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes. In his essay, Barthes argues against the method of reading and criticism that relies on the authors identity to distil meaning from the author’s work. This type of criticism, that considers the biases of the author and their experiences may seem informed and tidy but is in fact sloppy and flawed. According to Barthes, “to give a text an author” and assign a single interpretation to it, is to “impose a limit on that text.” The idea that the moment we read a book we are also contributing to the text with our interpretation might be a sentiment worthy of sympathy. But, the sheer amount of para-text that exists in the books of today make practicing the death of the author in its truest sense impossible.
Joanne K Rowling, the writer of the beloved book series Harry Potter has come out to the world as a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist or ‘TERF’, which signifies a feminist espousing sentiment that other feminists considers harmful to transgender and gender-queer people. Without getting into detail about the issue of ‘gender critical’ feminism and its effect on the discussion of trans rights whose scope of which is too tangential from the discourse at hand, one must consider the ‘death of the author’ that being used as a scape goat when it comes to holding J.K Rowling accountable.
For many people, Harry Potter has been formative to building their childhood. To see the author who wrote books about acceptance, diversity, and coming together in a time of need, directly ostracising a community trying to seek representation has been very disconcerting.
If these are issues that one cares about, the most natural course of action would be to boycott J. K Rowling. The reason people are calling for a boycott is because of the fact that she is clearly using her platform, wealth and influence to speak against the inclusion of transwomen in feminism and has slowly sat in an echo chamber of views to the point that she feels transwomen don’t exist, and that they shouldn’t be considered women. Rowling has gone so far as to write a book about a cis-gendered man dressing up as a woman to kill women and has been criticised for being tactless and transphobic.
If one truly cares about equal rights for gender queer people and transgender people, and support the principles of intersectional feminism, the logic of Death of the Author cannot be used to continue buying her books. The literature makes the author immortal— the world of Harry Potter cannot be consumed without JK Rowling. This is because para-text is a conception of literary interpretation. Pare-text is the extra material supplied by the authors, editors, printers, and publishers to aid the main text of the published authors.
While J. K Rowling has been open and friendly to the Harry Potter fandom, when it comes to fan-fictions and answering pedantic questions about the characters that exist in the Harry Potter world, she does the very thing Barthes would be mortified by. The British writer exercises authorial intent. Rowling has made various disclosures over the years including claiming that Dumbledore was a homosexual, Hermione was black, and the presence of Jews in Hogwarts, but has made no efforts to establish these characteristics in her books. These aspects only exist in para-text, and according to Barthes, they don’t exist at all. But under the guise of authorial intent, Rowling has often added para-text to books long after they were published. This gradually crept into fan culture and influenced the way people read the text, gradually narrowing the room for interpretation, shutting down any readings that clash with author’s post scriptural content.
It seems difficult for us to cast away another idol because of how formative her books have been for an entire generation. But if J. K Rowling can boycott Stephen King (whose works she considered formative) for speaking in support of trans-rights, then it is crucial that we remember our principles of equality and feminism and boycott her work for her prejudices.
Sources: The Death of the Author essay, Newsweek
Edited by Mridula Kumar