Navigating cancel culture in the literary world
The literary world has long grappled with the issue of separating an author's work from their personal life. However, in recent years, the rise of cancel culture, the practice of boycotting an author or a work of art for perceived social or political reasons, has made this task even more challenging. With social media providing a platform for individuals to publicly call out problematic behaviour, authors are finding themselves in the spotlight more than ever before. In this context, the intricacies of 'cancel culture' in the literary world and the impact it has on authors, readers, and the wider publishing industry, are worth delving into.
Amélie Wen Zhao, the French-born and Beijing-raised author, began her journey with Blood Heir (Delacorte Press, 2019), the first book in a trilogy. Her success story started with a Twitter pitching event for marginalised creators, where she found her agent. At 18 years old, Zhao immigrated from China to the US. Her fantasy series, which loosely retells the story of Anastasia with a diverse cast of characters and a hefty dose of blood magic, was sold at an auction to Delacorte for a high six-figure deal. Soon, Zhao's presence in the young adult community did not remain limited to being the author of a buzzworthy debut. She became an enthusiastic and a vocal participant in the discourse happening there, one who knew how to communicate effectively and engage with issues of diversity.
However, on Twitter and Goodreads, advance readers of Blood Heir accused the author of indulging in problematic world-building by putting a slave auction scene in her novel, in which an apparently Black slave girl (her skin was described as "bronze" and "tan") dies in a white character's arms, in an act of self-sacrifice. Many refused to give the book a chance, immediately backing out of their pre-orders of it.
Zhao, expressing that she never intended Blood Heir as an allusion to slavery in the US, initially postponed the book, explaining that the slavery storylines "represent a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labor and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including in [her] own home country". After some deliberation and a lot of changes, she went forth with publishing Blood Heir in November 2019. Her publisher, Delacorte, had a group of multicultural academics evaluate the work—including an expert who studies human trafficking in Asia.
The skin tone of May, the abovementioned slave girl, is not referenced in the final copy, but it is interesting and maybe problematic to think that in a now-deleted tweet, Zhao had posted a mood board for Blood Heir where May appeared to be represented by Black actor, Amandla Stenberg, in character as Rue from The Hunger Games (2012).
Nevertheless, those who are still attacking Zhao should give her the benefit of the doubt. Although I am sure she knew about American slavery, we need to be reminded that she did not grow up around the narrative of American slavery. She grew up in Beijing, and in the end, she listened to the criticism and made changes.
On the other hand, JK Rowling has faced criticism in recent years for transphobia, as well as calls for a boycott by trans activists and allies. Despite being given ample opportunities to retract, reconsider, and apologise, she has made her stance abundantly clear on the matter. This has been hard for lifelong fans of the Harry Potter series to reconcile with. For many of us who have cherished Rowling's books and incorporated her fictional universe into our personal identities, the magical bubble around Harry Potter popped with her views. Transphobia manifests in lack of access to healthcare, in workplace discrimination, as well as in violence and hate crimes against transgender people even today. This is why, with its tangible connection to the Wizarding World, we cannot just let Rowling's comments fade into normalcy.
Cancel culture is best treated as a collective decision to minimise the cultural influence a person and their work have moving forward. While Rowling's anti-trans stance recently saw her production company's profits plummet and an attempted boycott of the Hogwarts Legacy game, many are also widely against the TV reboot of the Harry Potter books in development.
Rowling's controversial views have further coloured every aspect of how the series is read today. Among other things, there are echoes of anti-Semitic tropes in Rowling's portrayal of the goblins and of fatphobia in her treatment of characters like Dudley and Hagrid. This isn't to suggest that the novels should be rewritten or that the "offensive" parts be removed, as was recently the case with Roald Dahl's books.
Earlier this year, the works of Dahl, who died in 1990, were rewritten, with the phrase "enormously fat" edited to "enormous" and "most formidable female" rephrased to "most formidable woman", among numerous other examples from his most famous books. Some needlessly "sensitive" edits include changing "black" to "dark," even when the connotations are not racial, or "attractive" to "kind".
People who opposed the edits include author Salman Rushdie, who described it as "absurd censorship," and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Later, Puffin and its parent company Penguin Random House UK announced that—alongside the edited versions of Dahl's children's books—they would also release The Roald Dahl Classic Collection, which will feature 17 stories with Dahl's original text. But why were the books edited in the first place?
There is no denying that Dahl has long been controversial. In the first edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the Oompa-Loompas were Black pygmies, enslaved by Willy Wonka from "the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle" and paid in cocoa beans.
Dahl rewrote the characters in the late 1960s to "de-Negro" them (his words). For Mel Stuart's 1971 film starring Gene Wilder, the Oompa-Loompas became green-haired, orange-skinned figures. By a 1973 edition of the book, they had become "little fantasy creatures". In 2020, the Dahl family issued an apology for the author's history of anti-Semitism.
Replete with elements considered anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and at times racist, Dahl's works were not devoid of criticism. And that is the wrong that the publishers wanted to correct by editing his books. In a contemporary setting, changes made to Dahl's works may seem necessary. However, this matter cannot be dealt with in a black-and-white manner.
Dahl is only a prominent example of a growing trend across the board for content that nobody can find offensive. Publishers have become so terrified of stepping on anyone's toes or getting "cancelled" that they are shying away from anything that might attract controversy or negative attention.
Literature, by design, is meant to be provocative. Racism, sexism, anti-Seminitism and other kinds of prejudice should not be tolerated, but removing all offensive language and portrayals from venerated works deprives us of the opportunity to challenge the texts and have critical conversations about the world's troubled past as well as its current issues in relation to them.
Recognising Dahl's complex character, including both positive and negative qualities, allows us to appreciate his storytelling talents and the joy he brought to millions, despite his problematic beliefs. Similarly, by acknowledging the controversy surrounding the Wizarding World's creator, we can educate ourselves and others about the harm caused by transphobia and other forms of discrimination, while still recognising the positive impact of the Harry Potter series on so many people's lives.
History is full of problematic authors who have put extraordinary work into the world. What we can do is think for ourselves about what we choose to read and why, and how we talk about it.
Shababa Iqbal is a journalism graduate from Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), who likes Jane Austen's novels and Disney movies. Email: [email protected].