“For some he was a war hero, a philanthropist and a profoundly altruistic man. For others he was a bully, a misogynist, and even an anti-Semite.”
Can you guess which author these words refer to? Here’s a hint: he was a children’s author recognised for his imaginative and humorous stories. Some of his most well-known books include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda.
You probably know the answer — the person being referred to is none other than Roald Dahl.
Apparently, the well-loved children’s author was not so universally well-loved after all. The article from which the earlier quote is taken describes how others have perceived Dahl as intellectual yet arrogant; determined, yet selfish; a source of joy for the world, yet also controlling and disloyal.
True, accounts may be subjective. But questionable personality aside, Dahl’s books also contain problematic elements, such as traces of misogyny and unrestrained cruelty against children.
This discussion might seem irrelevant, considering it’s been decades since Dahl passed away. But his books are still around — as are other authors similar to him, whose actions and/or works have potentially problematic aspects.
An all-too-relevant question
Unlike Dahl and those writers who are no longer alive to reap the benefits of their work, problematic authors today are still very much benefitting from their readers’ support.
Let’s take J. K. Rowling as an example. Her series of controversial behaviour includes:
- Retroactively forcing token diversity into her stories.
- Then essentially backtracking when the opportunity for meaningful representation comes.
- Inappropriately using elements of other cultures without considering the implications.
- And, most recently, voicing her support for a problematic figure in the name of non-intersectional feminism.
Another example is John Boyne, whose recent book about a transgender teenager has been critiqued, including by people in the transgender community, as harmful.
All of which raises an all-too-relevant question: should we support literature with a problematic context? In my opinion, the response depends on whether it’s the content that’s problematic, or the author (or both).
If the problematic aspect is more so the content than the author, I would find out exactly what the contested elements are. Not all errors in judgement are on the same level; for example, I am more forgiving of, say, Stephenie Meyer’s questionable depiction of relationship dynamics than John Boyne’s harmful depictions of a minority community.
If the issues don’t fall too far from my values, I am open to giving the content a chance.
Moreover, while I’m a supporter of Roland Barthes’ theory, the death of the author (see the next section), the author’s intentions somewhat matter to me. For example, I never got the feeling that Stephenie Meyer actively promoted toxicity in her books.
In comparison, while John Boyne may have had good intentions, his defensive reaction to criticism — including critique from the very community he wrote about — seemed to indicate a troubling readiness to stifle minority voices in favour of his own.
So, I would feel all right supporting an author whose error in judgement doesn’t seem to reflect an underlying prejudice. Even better if the author acknowledges their error and actively works to better themselves.
But what if the author him/herself is problematic?
I have made no secret of my admiration for J. K. Rowling’s work. But after learning that our values are very different on important issues, I now feel qualms about continuing to support her. While some of her questionable decisions may stem from ignorance rather than malice, there is a limit to how far I can turn a blind eye, particularly when questionable actions are repeated without any indication of growth.
Yet, I still remain a fan of Harry Potter. The series might have its faults, but it also has redeeming qualities in my eyes. This is where Roland Barthes’ theory, the death of the author, comes in.
Barthes believes we should look inside ourselves for the ultimate author of a piece of work. We should look through our own interpretations and create new ideas and meanings, rather than focusing on the author and their ideas, methods, beliefs or ideologies.
Taking this theory forward can facilitate the process of separating the author from their work. But that still doesn’t mean I feel good about supporting someone who, in my eyes, has questionable values.
As a compromise, I would find alternative (but still ethical) ways of consuming the content while limiting the amount of support I contribute.
This might mean buying the books in charity shops, where proceeds go to a good cause, or borrowing from the library. It might mean not indulging in as many experiences as I otherwise would have — for example, I haven’t watched the latest Fantastic Beasts movie and don’t intend to watch the future ones.
In this case, I find it most productive to consume the content that holds value for me while limiting my support for the problematic creator when possible.
Problematic all around
Finally, what about cases where the author is not only problematic but deliberately perpetuating harmful content?
This would be a pass for me. If both author and content are toxic and unlikely to change, I see no reason to give them my support in any capacity.
Let’s face it: not all creators are the best people producing the best content, and this will likely always be the case. In light of this, should we stop giving them our time and money? Not necessarily.
A creator’s perceived character flaws don’t necessarily mean their work lacks value. And we risk overstating the creator’s influence if we always put them above their work, rather than letting the work speak for itself.
Ultimately, each person’s decision on this subject is based on their values and outlook. What is problematic to me might not be the same to you, or the degree of controversy might hold different weight for us. So, the subject is too nuanced for a simple yes/no answer.
No matter where you stand, however, I think it’s important for us all to:
- Establish what our values are and how far we are happy to deviate from them.
- Think critically for ourselves and make informed decisions.
- And be open-minded when listening to differing perspectives, particularly when people (e.g. people of colour or members of the LGBTQ+ community) speak from experience to they tell us something is harmful.
Let me know what you think on the subject — how far is it acceptable to support problematic books and/or authors? I would love to discuss.
Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you next time.