Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Imagining There's No Authors
It isn't hard to do -- in fact, we do it all the time
So, apparently The New York Times is running an ad that has gotten certain overly-online people in a bit of a tizzy. (Here’s an example, but I’m not picking on him in particular; there are plenty of others.) The ad is about a person named Lianna who is described as queer, non-White, a crossword-lover, and a Times reader. I don’t know whether Lianna is supposed to be an example of the kind of reader the Times is looking for, or an example of the kind of person that prospective readers of the Times want to imagine as their fellow readers—it doesn’t really matter. The point is to suggest that the Times has lots of different stuff in it for Lianna, that this is evidence of the broadness of the Times’s appeal, and hence is a reason to read the paper.
Well, one of the things Lianna is into is “Imagining Harry Potter without its Creator.” That is why the ad is attracting criticism. Apparently, this is now the equivalent of erasure or cancelation, which, if more evidence were needed, is the final proof that those concepts have no meaning anymore whatsoever.
It is probably a sign of how old I am getting that I am mystified that this still needs to be said, but imagining a text loosed from the control of its author’s will is what we call “reading.” The voice of the text is the voice we hear when we read, and what is engendered inside of us by our response to that voice constitutes our experience of reading. The reading we achieve may be profound or shallow, sophisticated or simple, informed or naive—but regardless, like any experience of life it will be ours. It won’t really be under our control, not entirely. But it most certainly won’t be under the control of or belong to the author.
The author was pronounced dead before I was born. People have been fooled that she’s be resurrected, but what they’ve really sighted is not the author but a Frankenstein’s monster of misbegotten cultural ideology and corrupt intellectual property laws. Both suggest that there is something akin to theft involved when you “appropriate” a work of art by letting it grow inside of you and thereby become yours, and engender new creativity of your own. But while they can try to restrict our freedom to speak, write and create, potentially even to read, they can’t change the way imagination works, the way reading works.
Ah, you might say, but Lianna is doing her imagining for political reasons, not artistic ones—and those political reasons are censorious. J.K. Rowling has strong and controversial opinions about modern gender ideology, which she finds oppressive, dangerous and misogynistic. She has voiced her views without apology and without pulling any punches. Other people find her views to be oppressive, dangerous and transphobic, and have voiced their views with equal if not greater stridency. That’s the context within which the understand the ad: the attempt by some people to silence, to “cancel” an author. Imaginatively separating her from her work makes that process easier.
But has the issue entirely backwards. Plenty of people already want to “cancel” Rowling, whatever that means (last I checked, she was still a best-selling author). The ad is about approaching the work of someone whose views you already abhor. I wonder how they’d react if the ad was talking about Woody Allen, or Norman Mailer, or Bill Cosby, and separating their work from its authors by an act of imagination.
The Times ad does suggest that its readers would be glad to share the paper with someone who is upset by Rowling’s views, and to that extent its subtext is that readers not only should care about the views of authors, but that they should care about the views of other readers in deciding what to read, which is more than a little pathetic. (Of course, it is advertising, so encouraging people to behave pathetically is kind of its job.) But its text says the opposite. Lianna (who you’re supposed to want to be associated with) isn’t imagining giving up Harry Potter so as to cleanse herself of a tainted association. She’s doing the opposite. She’s imagining away the author so as to let Harry Potter continue to grow inside her.
Isn’t that what we should all want? Isn’t that what we all do, whether we want to or not, when we read? It’s beyond ironic that critics of the ad are appropriating the language of erasure and cancelation to describe someone’s experience of freedom.
Frankly, I would go quite a bit further than celebrating Lianna’s ability to read while imagining away an author whose views she finds upsetting. I’d urge copyright reforms that would allow Lianna to write her own version of Harry Potter. Rowling is notorious for being very controlling in the exercise of her intellectual property rights, which in the existing regime is entirely her business but which I think is a real shame. In the copyright regime that I prefer to imagine, though, she wouldn’t have that option. She’d be entitled to compensation whenever anybody made money from her creations, but she wouldn’t be able to stop anybody from playing in the boundless sandbox she imagined into existence. Intellectual labor really is labor, but intellectual property really isn’t property, so I don’t see why the proper right she has to compensation for her labor in creating the Potterverse should also give her the right to stop other people from building on what she created. Her books are not plots of land. If thousands of Harry Potter fan fictions were published, that wouldn’t take a single thing away from Rowling. Her creation, her Harry Potter, would still exist, just as it is, and would be just as much hers as it is in our world.
Meanwhile, if you are upset that the Times has implicitly taken sides in this particular culture war battle, or has taken the wrong side, you may be reassured that the text of its ad gives you permission to imagine away the Times itself when partaking of whichever of its offerings you continue to enjoy. You can play Wordle to your heart’s content, and imagine as you do that it was brought to you not by a supermassive media black hole relentlessly trawling the digital universe for content to suck into its voracious maw, but instead was crafted personally for you by the spirit of Dumbledore himself, and delivered to you by magic.