Problematic Authors: Can You Separate The Art From The Artist

DISCLAIMER: Even though most of the authors mentioned in this article have engaged in damaging behavior, it is essential to respect their pronouns. After each person is introduced, their pronouns are included in parentheses for your reference.

Reading is a wildly popular hobby made all that more prevalent with the rise of social media. With the increased connectedness and dispersal of information that comes with the internet, it didn’t take long for a larger community of book lovers to form. Within these communities, people can talk about their favorite books and authors, and eventually, they were able to help expose some of the uglier parts of publishing as a whole. In particular, it became increasingly more accessible for readers to learn of the less than desirable actions taken by some of their favorite authors. Most recently, authors such as Emily A. Duncan, Jay Kristoff, and JK Rowling. With these recent discoveries and subsequent discussions on how to handle the situations, many argued that readers should be able to separate the author’s actions from the contents of their books. This push to separate the art from the artist sparked even more discussion about if it was even possible.

Emily Duncan (she/they) is a dark fantasy author known for writing the Something Dark and Holy trilogy. The first book, Wicked Saints, was met with moderate success, and their subsequent books performed similarly. When they reached their maximum popularity, it was within groups dedicated to Young Adult Dark Fantasy books and were never quite able to crack mainstream popularity. Even within these somewhat niche groups, fans began noticing and discussing some of the anti-Semitic tropes Duncan had weaved into the foundation of her magic system and world-building. Since the book wasn’t wildly popular outside of these small communities after readers exposed the problematic elements, any traction the series had previously picked up died for the most part. As we already established, Duncan’s books are rife with anti-Semitism (mainly in the form of blood libel). That alone is enough to definitively state that fans cannot separate the art and the artist since their craft makes them problematic. Other authors recently exposed Emily Duncan for attacking other authors, specifically authors of color, unprovoked to make matters worse. On Twitter, fellow YA author Rin Chupeco (they/them) vaguely discussed events that had been occurring through Slack (a messaging software). She explained how an unnamed author “called another Asian author ugly… and trashed their book because they had similar themes and were supposed to release on the same week”. In the replies to the tweet, other young adult authors corroborated their story and provided additional examples of the unnamed author’s inappropriate behavior. A few days later, Rin Chupeco exposed this author to be Emily Duncan. Ultimately, Duncan apologized for both the anti-Semitism in their work and her actions taken against other authors. Still, the response to their apology shows that most readers found it to be both unsatisfactory and disingenuous.

Jay Kristoff (he/him) is a sci-fi and fantasy author who writes for young adult and adult audiences. He’s best known for The Nevernight Chronicles and The Lotus Wars and co-authoring the Illuminae Files and the Aurora Cycle with Amie Kaufman (she/her). His books have been met with great success, and his name is recognized in almost all young adult reading circles. With the release of the Nevernight Series, some fans pointed out that Kristoff appropriated some elements of his story from Maori culture. Unfortunately, these voices were drowned out by avid fans who insisted that Kristoff only took inspiration from the culture and wasn’t appropriating their traditions. However, over time as the voices of critics were heard by other readers, many agreed that his work was indeed appropriative. When Stormdancer, the first book in the Lotus Wars Series, was released, readers raised many more concerns. His use of Japanese culture and characters was a textbook case of misrepresentation and fetishization. In an interview, he openly admitted that he stated that the only research he conducted on Japanese culture was when he“Drank lots of saké. Ate pocky until my eyes bled. Had my friends yell curse words at me in Japanese while I trawled Wikipedia and watched anime. Read old Japanese fiction. Watched Seven Samurai around 3,000 times. Slept with all six volumes of AKIRA under my pillow.”  This response is racist, and his works directly reflect those views. He also severely mishandled the subject of sexual assault in Stormdancer. Like in the case of Emily Duncan, the problematic nature of Jay Kristoff exists both within their work and within their presentation of self to the public, which makes it impossible to separate his problematic elements from his books.

Of all the authors on this list, JK Rowling (she/her) is easily the most successful and recognizable. As the author of the Harry Potter series, Rowling has been a household name and hailed as a literary legend for years. This past summer, Rowling retweeted an article about creating more equality in a post-covid world for people who menstruate. She added the commentary, “‘People who menstruate’. I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” When referring to people who get periods, this language is exclusive to transgender individuals and biological women who do not menstruate. In the replies to her tweet, many were giving her the benefit of the doubt and educating her on why her comment was harmful. Instead of taking it as a learning opportunity, Rowling doubled down on her transphobic remarks and released a lengthy statement defending her actions. Shortly after, she promoted an Etsy store selling transphobic merchandise and announced her new book with a questionable premise. Her latest novel is a mystery whose main villain is a male serial killer who poses as a woman to lure victims. The premise of Rowling’s book, paired with her recent tweets, comes off as strongly transphobic, an attack aimed at trans women. In comparison, there isn’t as explicit transphobia in the Harry Potter series, Rowling’s other harmful actions regarding that series. Years after the books were published, she claimed that various characters were part of minority groups to get diversity points without putting in the work actually to write minority characters in the Harry Potter canon.

In some cases, it may be possible for people to separate the art and the artist, but most of the time, it isn’t significantly when the art itself exposes the harmful ideas they hold. Many artists put all of themselves into their art, including their problematic tendencies, which means their art upholds destructive beliefs. If you still feel like you can adequately separate the art and the artist, it’s essential to make an effort not directly to support people who actively harm others. If you feel like you have to read the books by those authors, try to borrow them from friends or purchase them second-hand. The great thing about reading is that there is an infinite number of books written by many authors that you can read instead. Chances are, you’ll be able to find a book with a similarly exciting plot without all of the problematic elements. 


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