Writer Wednesday: Can an Author be Separated from Their Work?
It’s another Writer Wednesday and today we are touching on a controversial topic that is highly relevant to current events. Literature and art are complex, societal experiences. Creators put forth their work, these efforts of ink, imbued with blood, sweat, and tears. Every story an author creates, every piece an artist crafts, contains part of their essence as a person. In turn, these creations are shared to the populace at large, a shared collective experience across a spectrum of enjoyment and entertainment. These creations, depending on factors of exposure, success, and culture saturation, then become part of our pop culture canon. The creations we reference in passing, so part of our collective consciousness that people who have never directly read or experienced the work still recognize it.
So, what happens when the creators of these works turn around and behave badly? What happens when the taint of transphobia, racism, sexism, or antisemitism comes into play? Can an author truly be separated from their works, and, more importantly, should they be?
Lovecraft, Campbell, & Legacy
Let’s talk about an author’s legacy. Once an author has died, the body of their work takes on a life of its own in the collective memory. How many people read the works of Jane Austen and gloss over the ‘gypsy’ incident in Emma or the presence of racism in Simone de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay? In every English class I can remember, we studied Austen’s wit, cultural impact, and societal commentary. The gypsy incident was a footnote if mentioned at all. For an author like Austen, there is also the context of accepted societal norms and world views for the century she lived in. These are books written centuries ago when world views were a far cry from what they are today. While some of Austen’s work contains problematic elements, the complete body of her work has stood the testament of time.
Comparatively, we can look at author H. P. Lovecraft or John W. Campbell, two male authors in the fields of Horror and Science Fiction who were considered pioneers and forefathers of their respective genres. Both of these men lived into the 20th century, John W. Campbell passing as recently as the 1970’s.
Lovecraft left such an impression on the horror genre, thanks to his Old God Mythos, that the term ‘Lovecraftian’ exists as its own subgenre, but in recent years there has been much contention over the canon of Lovecraft’s work due to his racism and homophobia. Likewise, John W. Campbell’s racism has been a topic of hot debate, to the point where the World Science Fiction society renamed the John W Campbell Award for best new author to the Astounding Award in conjecture with the Hugos.
That separation of legacy from the author is particularly poignant with the recent controversy sparked by the Hugo awards. Due to the Covid 19 epidemic, the Hugos were hosted online, and the event MC GRR Martin drew back lash and ire not only for his seemingly deliberate mispronunciation of names for several nominees, but his incredible tone deaf opening speech, where he waxed at length about the greatness of John W. Campbell. This seemed like a deliberate thumbing of the nose to the incredibly diverse nominees of this year's Hugos, and tainted the big win the night saw for BIPOC in the science fiction and fantasy community. I highly suggest reading Natalie Luhrs very excellent post about this titled ‘George R.R. Martin Can Go Fuck Off Into The Sun’ linked in the resources below.
Martin’s controversial speech did several things to bring this hotly debated subject to a boiling point, not only on the matter of posthumous authors but the behavior of authors in the current literary climate. This brings us to another very public and ongoing issue with an author at large.
Rowling, the Consumption of Worldviews, & Societal Influence
If you’ve been living under a rock in the social media spheres, you might have missed the initial blow out of J.K. Rowling’s very public and hotly debated posts concerning topics of transgender rights. Rowling may be the absolute best, or worst, living example of an author’s legacy tainted by their behavior. The Harry Potter series has such a colossal influence on the collective consciousness of multiple generations of readers. It is also because of that massive popularity that Rowling’s platform is a dangerous outlier. Has any author in recent memory had such a large platform and vast reaching influence to promote their world view? Can you think of one? Possibly Stephen King, who Rowling had a notable blow out with over twitter, but Rowling is a modern phenomenon, a representation of the intersection of art, culture, and social media.
Can we separate the work, Harry Potter, from the author?
“The problem is not necessarily consuming these perspectives. Books shape our worldview – oriental stereotypes originated in literature. But reading with a critical eye should be a prerequisite. If you consciously consume the book you will be offered a different perspective on the world, the fundamental aim of literature, without passively accepting certain ideas. -Ellie Williams-Brown”
When you have an author who is still alive and inserting their world view and influence into the reader consciousness, then no, you can’t separate an author from their work. Their work is a living thing, twisted and mutated by the worldview they exert on their audience. My perceptions of the wizarding world have changed greatly over the years, due to what J.K. Rowling has done since then. My perceptions of A Song of Ice & Fire have changed greatly due to the actions of Martin. The collective consciousness of today’s literature and art is shifting towards diversity and inclusiveness, where the critical eye is more focused than ever on the legacy of authors, living and dead.
The Distance between Life & Death
Can an author be separated from their work? When it comes to living authors, probably not. Social media has created a unique conscience in the literary community where authors are more present than ever before, while their personality and behaviors are under a microscope, for better or worse. Today’s authors puts forth more of their private lives and personalities than authors of the past. We, as authors, sell our personality as much as we sell our stories. We, as readers, are more connected to the lives of our creators than at any period in the past. However, when it comes to posthumous authors, a separation does take place of a sort. While the behavior and world view of an author isn’t excused, it becomes easier to isolate the work from the creator, and possibly easier to sift out the world views ingrained in a text. By no means, should we ignore or dismiss that world view, but it becomes static and easier to untangle.
Whether you believe an author is integral to their body or work or if the ownership of their work is taken away once it enters the collective consciousness, it is important to acknowledge the existence of an author’s worldview and how it colors our present and future perception of their work.
What do you think of this topic? Talk to us in the comments below!
Resources & Further Reading