Novels are constantly being pulled into the political sphere and criticized or praised based on the public’s opinion. When we hear that a book is controversial, we tend to assume that its contents challenge a more conservative viewpoint. Take for instance To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Hate U Give, all of them speak out against social problems or injustices.
This narrative flips, however, when it is the author who is controversial rather than their work. With the social media boom of the last decade, readers have been able to keep up-to-date with their favorite authors via Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, and every other social site. While this is a great way to generate new fans and keep readers informed, it comes with a brand new set of consequences that readers, authors, and publishers have yet to come to a consensus on how to navigate. It only takes one person, of malice intention or not, to uncover an author's problematic past. Whether the comment is an antiquated view or a blatant disregard for human rights, debate breaks out across platforms over how to react to the news as readers try to grapple with the fall of one of their favorite authors.
Before making a quick decision about how to handle the discovery that an idolized author is not who we believed them to be, it is important to figure out why we feel the way that we do about the situation. Random celebrities take a fall from the unproblematic-throne almost everyday, from child actors to beloved musicians, we watch as they are exposed for misdoings. Yet, these never seem to leave a lasting impression on the general public, the celebrity either fades into oblivion or remains prominent.
The difference with authors is the deep connection that the readers make to their book. It is natural to feel so attached to a novel that it inevitably becomes a part of your identity. And when we learn that the person who created something we relate so strongly to is actually a worse person than they are good, many of us feel some sort of guilt. Though unjustified, we feel as though we are to blame for enjoying the product of someone who is inherently problematic.
Take for example, J.K. Rowling, one of the most adored authors of our time. That was until the past few years in the wake of her transphobic comments surfacing. Rather than apologize, she only doubled-down on her beliefs, making heinous remarks toward the trans community. For many, these comments shattered their world. It was not some sleazy Hollywood executive, or some washed up actor, or even a jaded author of a classic. Instead, it was the woman who created a world that millions of people devoted their childhoods too. Writers and non-writers alike looked up to her as an inspiration and idol, even.
And that’s exactly why it hurts all the more. It becomes less about separating the book from the author, and much more about separating ourselves from the fantasy that our favorite books exist just for us. It is the acknowledgement that the novels we felt so understood by exist beyond our own interpretation. They have a life outside of our heads. They never belonged to us. If anything, they belong to the author, and they have let us down.
While J.K. Rowling is certainly not the first and will not be the last author making headlines over controversy, her prevalence and fame brought the issue into the spotlight and led to many dividing conversations. Fans, fellow authors, publishers, anyone with a relation to the author and their works are left scrambling over the most ethical way to handle the situation. Questions fly through articles and comment sections. Can we still read the book? Watch the movie adaptation? Buy merchandise? Recommend it to a friend? And most importantly: Can we enjoy the books we still love without feeling guilt?
Though there are no clear answers, a general consensus has developed over time: appreciate the books you already read, stop any further support. There is a movement to hurt severely problematic authors where it impacts them the most, financially. Former fans generate excitement over an author’s newest book only to boycott the release as an act of denouncing their admiration. While this solution appears to be the best option, where readers don’t have to sacrifice their favorite books while still making their anger over the author’s problematic actions known, there are many middle men this tactic fails to address. False-hype for a book does hurt an author’s wallet, but it also causes financial trouble for the publishers, the author's agent, employees who worked to print the book, local libraries, and independent book shops. Still, the others do not rely solely on the success of one book, the author does.
Ultimately, the discussion about problematic authors is difficult to navigate. Our scope of knowledge on the subject constantly expands with each new instance and we are forced to reevaluate our stance. It is important to remember there is no right way to react. Regardless of how other fans respond, each reader must decide for themselves how to approach this complex issue. Whether you continue to immerse yourself in one of your favorite stories or condemn it with a one-star review on Goodreads, the choice is yours so long as you acknowledge the author’s misdoings.