What Is the Line Between Author and Character?
What is the line between the author and their characters? At what point does a creator’s politics begin to bleed into the text? Now, more than ever, those are questions readers are asking themselves as they engage with books. The results are complicated.
J.K. Rowling’s recent transphobia may not be the true epicenter of this, but it is hard not to think that there is some connection. Rowling’s comments have led to a relitigation of her Harry Potter book series, with readers trying to spot the problematic elements in the series in retrospect. Now, as someone who has been critical of race and other aspects of Harry Potter before this situation with Rowling, I think it is always a good thing to not treat books as inherently so precious that we can’t discuss the issues within it.
I love the comic book series Fables, but once I became fully aware of the politics of its writer/creator, Bill Willingham, it became hard to not see that all over the series.
As someone who subscribes to the New Historicism form of literary theory, which looks to observe literature through its cultural context and other historical factors, I think it is possible to look at a person’s choices and make some judgments when you don’t know much about the politically. However, there is also another element of it: the fact that you are writing characters.
One recent controversy was around Erin Hilderbrand’s new novel, The Golden Girl, where two teens talk about one of the characters hiding out in the attic of another character’s house for the summer without anyone knowing. That leads to this, according to Slate:
“You’re suggesting I hide here all summer?” Vivi asks. “Like … like Anne Frank?” The two friends laugh at this, but Vivi thinks to herself, “Is it really funny, and is Vivi so far off base?”
Some readers found this offensive, and Hilderbrand posted a formal apology after there were callouts of it being antisemitic. In response, she asked her publisher to remove it. “I want to wholeheartedly apologize for this,” she wrote. “It was meant as hyperbole but was a poor choice, that was offensive and tasteless. I have asked my publisher to remove the passage from digital versions of the book immediately and from all future printings.”
When I look at this passage, I just think, this is something silly and melodramatic that I could see teenagers saying that doesn’t indicate anti-Semitism, but more just the way in which teenagers are hyper-dramatic. Can I see it as tasteless? Sure. But then I think back to when The Fault in Our Stars came out and the two characters have their first kiss in Anne Frank’s house. I found that to be much tackier, and I remember seeing people being critical of it, but that never amounted to it being removed.
It also crafts a space in which BIPOC are not allowed to discuss the complex issues within the community without people assuming that they are co-signing issues that are being dealt with. If an author writes a Black character dealing with colorism and part of the story is their character growing, just throwing the book away because they are dealing with internalized issues isn’t the same as the author co-signing things that are problematic.
Characters are supposed to grow and change. Limiting that only causes more problems, especially when so many people have co-opted the term “#OwnVoices” to the point where We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) will no longer use the term:
#OwnVoices was created as a hashtag by author Corinne Duyvis in September 2015. It was originally intended as a shorthand book recommendation tool in a Twitter thread, for readers to recommend books by authors who openly shared the diverse identity of their main characters. The hashtag was never intended to be used in a broader capacity, but it has since expanded in its use to become a “catch all” marketing term by the publishing industry. Using #OwnVoices in this capacity raises issues due to the vagueness of the term, which has then been used to place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations. It is important to use the language that authors want to celebrate about themselves and their characters.
We Need Diverse Books believes in supporting diverse authors and their books, and we will continue to uplift their voices through our programming.
Right now, in the case of Hilderbrand, it is a white woman’s gaffe, but it would be disingenuous to pretend as if this doesn’t also affect BIPOC authors who do not have the same support systems early on.
Calling out long-term issues with authors is one thing, but there is also a climate of taking every infraction, regardless of the level, and putting them on the same shelf as someone who engages in predatory behavior. Holding people to a standard is important, but using social media to reduce nuance and putting all mistakes together doesn’t allow marginalized creators to actually learn or grow.
(image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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