No, J.K. Rowling isn’t dead

Barthes was wrong, and you need to stop excusing your favourite authors' racism

Rowling copy

It’s become a pattern: J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, just can’t stop wading back into her fictional universe. She takes to Twitter, or gives an interview to the press. Too often, the results aren’t pretty: Rowling’s interventions can prove unpopular, and alienate fans. Take her recent defence of casting decisions made by the producers of Fantastic Beasts, a Harry Potter spin-off movie: South Korean actress Claudia Kim is slated to play Nagini, Lord Voldemort’s pet snake.

Some fans have criticised this decision as racist: casting an East Asian woman in a submissive, literally dehumanised role reinforces the worst orientalising stereotypes. Many assert that they still love Harry Potter, but can’t endure Rowling. They justify their stance by citing Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’, a poststructural theory which holds that authors are entirely separable from their texts. Readers are free, Barthes says, to interpret a book however they like, and disregard the intentions of the creator.

Certainly, it is useful for Harry Potter fans to critique characters glorified in the narrative, and try to diversify the largely-homogeneous characters. But the fans are wrong to rely on Barthes.

Understanding Harry Potter requires an understanding of Rowling’s original context—which means the author, and her world can’t be stripped away. It is the 1990s to early 2000s context of the original books which gives their message of acceptance and justice for othered groups lasting impact for fans who read them at the time. Indeed, Sofia Stathi’s research reveals that children who engaged with the books became more sympathetic to leftist politics. If fans stripped the implication of Hitler from Voldemort, the text would hold less meaning for our times.

When you consider that Rowling’s imaginary worlds stem from the real world, the link between text and reality— fiction and author—becomes stronger. Her often-bigoted interpretations of our reality underpin the backstory and plots of her novels. For instance, her American history of magic appropriates Native American mythologies in a way which many Native Americans consider a misunderstanding of their cultures. Declaring Rowling’s death cannot avoid this criticism, because the textworld is so contingent on her life and her worldview.

Barthes argues that his approach to literature is superior because we cannot know an author’s true intentions. But with Rowling’s irrepressible Tweeting, we are increasingly aware of her intentions—whether they be defending Snape or outing Dumbledore. No other author has enjoyed Rowling’s position as one of the most broadcasted voices in the world, and her constant online presence has contributed to her mythos. Twitter has granted her more power to reinterpret and control the response to her own works. For every fan who resists her new additions to canon, there are others who latch onto her every word as gospel.

The #MeToo phenomenon has generated fresh debate about whether fans can separate problematic creators from their creations, and whether we should consume those creations regardless. Increasingly, the discussion is pragmatic rather than philosophical: even if the author is “dead” as a matter of literary theory, it’s incontestable that, in the real world, they receive attention, cultural cache and money every time you buy their work. If readers truly want Rowling to “die”, they cannot abdicate responsibility with Barthes; they should stop giving her attention—not to mention royalties.

In fact, there are many diverse fantasy authors today who receive little attention because of the hyperfixation on Rowling’s franchise, whether it be in praise or criticism. Perhaps fans who desire better representation should turn their attentions to these authors instead of clinging to a woman whom they despise