J.K. Rowling is Not Dead – But Why Does She Want You To Know What Harry’s Up To?

Hogwarts Coat of Arms, by Jmh2o. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1

Hogwarts Coat of Arms, by Jmh2o. CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1

J.K. Rowling, as the infamous Rita Skeeter, wrote a follow-up to Harry Potter. Harry has a new scar. He and Ginny might be having problems. Ron’s hair is thinning, while Hermione’s hair is – still not behaving. And so on.

Heresy, you might cry. The Harry Potter series is finished. Who does this J.K. Rowling person think she is, going back and adding stuff? This is just as bad as the time she declared Ron and Hermione should’ve never gotten married, and that Harry was Hermione’s One True Pairing after all. She went and wrote a whole sappy epilogue, naming each and every one of their children, and why did she do that if it was all a mistake?

Does an author have a right to do this – this is the question.

The Stakes:

This is a legitimate argument. This is legitimate because it’s a question that faces all authors and readers – is the printed word the final word? Or can the author go back later and say she or he did it wrong, and really it all should’ve turned out completely differently? Or, most shockingly of all, should we bow to the readers, and agree that whatever the readers feel happened is what really happened, even if it’s completely delusional?

This is essential because on one hand we’ve got English teachers refusing to explain literature, and asking us what we think happened, because it’s our feelings and our mistaken understanding of whatever it was Shakespeare was really getting at that really matters… and then on the other hand we have fans endlessly hounding authors for every little detail of their fictional world. What is truth? Who gets to decide? (And doesn’t this line up with some other of our culture’s debates over truth or the lack of it?)

The Harry Potter series illuminates this dilemma perfectly, in a way perhaps no other series ever has.

My Too-Simple Solution

Take the Ron/Hermione/Harry debate. If you want to get Harry Potter fan riled up, do bring this up. I met a couple random strangers on a sunny evening in Paris, and this was a topic we debated, because we all knew about Harry Potter. And most people will take sides, as to whether the books support either pairing. But that’s not the fundamental question. The fundamental question is – can an author go back and change something she wrote down as actually having happened? In this case, say Ron and Hermione’s relationship was a mistake?

Here’s what my position was that sunny evening in Paris. Basically – what the author wrote should be it. The printed word is what the reader experiences, so a couple verbal sentences tossed off in an interview shouldn’t be able to contradict anything. Now, if the author wants to go and write another sequel, and explain how things didn’t quite turn out as well as the previous book presented them, well then, go ahead. But respect your work and stand by it otherwise.

This seemed entirely reasonable to me at the time, but now I realize it’s not quite that simple.

Modern Fiction is More Than the Printed Word

Because we don’t live in a world where our experiences are limited to the printed page anymore. It’s not a singular experience between the covers of a book, or an episode of TV viewed once, or a movie you only caught in theatres. No, nowadays our stories can be watched and re-watched, and we can compile characters lists, and lists of tropes, and make vast encyclopedias of every little detail of a work we love. And we create, most importantly, fan communities. And somehow author’s works are not mere stories, but worlds, and these world spill beyond whatever medium the story was originally told in.

Obviously, this is all thanks to the internet. And Harry Potter’s popularity has been fueled by the internet in a way few books before it ever were. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was published in 1997. And during the late 1990s, traffic on the internet was growing by about a hundred percent a year. How much of that traffic was on Harry Potter fan websites and communities I’m not sure, but there was a good chunk of it that drove the fan experience.

So the readers’ experience with Harry Potter likely goes beyond the printed page. We’d debate and predict endless theories of what would happen, and view each others’ fanart, and look at fanfiction. And this runs right up against another darling literary concept, and drives this whole debate.

Killing ‘Death of the Author’

There’s a lovely little concept known as ‘death of author’ – in other words, it’s the idea that an author’s own interpretation of their work is no more valid than anyone else’s. Whatever their intentions are, it’s not important, so endless debates over the author’s intentions are meaningless. What matters is what the reader gets when reading it. Authors tend to not love this idea, of course, not in the least because in theory someone could declare what you wrote means the opposite of what you meant.

This is a concept J.K. Rowling seems to have devoted her Harry Potter series to fighting. Whether this was intentional, I’m not sure. But it’s plain as the nose on your face that she doesn’t believe in it.

Obviously, she does think she has the creative ability to add details to the story after the fact, whether it’s by announcing Dumbledore is gay, or Ron and Hermione’s relationship was a mistake, or hinting Harry and Ginny may not be completely happy. She happily feeds her fan communities the details they clamour for. And you know what? She’s always done that – she’s always extended the world of Harry Potter beyond the printed page.

Between the releases of her books, she used to post elaborate puzzles that led to clues for the new book’s title, or hold polls as to which question about the book she should answer. And then, when the series was done, she granted interviews to a couple of webmasters of incredibly popular Harry Potter websites, to fill in all the details that the series hadn’t addressed. Including, incidentally, her opinion at the time on Harry-and-Hermione (that believers in that ship were ‘delusional.’ How times change!) Lastly, she’s created Pottermore. That’s like spitting in the face of ‘death of the author.’ This author is definitely alive!

Does this give me hope? Does it give me the authority to tell readers what I really meant when I wrote those ebooks you see over to the right of my blog? You know, I suddenly find leaning towards the readers’ side. Because, come to think of it, I don’t always want to know every single details about these fictional world. And some of these details I would like to know – I’d like to experience them on the printed page, finding them out through the eyes of another character, rather than from the mouth of the author herself. That almost collapses the suspension of disbelief, injecting the reality of the author too firmly onto a fantasy. That’s not what I’m advocating for.

Oh dear, I’m going to argue for, of all things – balance. Once again. You need to leave the reader with some freedom to own their own experience in a book. But you don’t have to hand over the reins.

 

What do you think? Who should get the final say? And do agree J.K. Rowling is dealing a blow to death of the author?

 

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10 Comments

Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Harry Potter

10 responses to “J.K. Rowling is Not Dead – But Why Does She Want You To Know What Harry’s Up To?

  1. To add to the complexity of this discussion you could also mentions the many different types of writing… obviously history is out, but what about poetry versus fiction?

    One thing that intrigues me is that in fiction the subconscious has the opportunity to imprint itself, and so the author may write a message without intending it. In a sense, that author may learn things about their own fictitious world!

    But also I love that layers of understanding unintended by the author will probably exist in good writing too. I suppose I’m siding with the “rights of the readers”.

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    • I love that you mention history, because the influence of the author on the writing of history (vs. the truth of what actually happened) is a MAJOR TOPIC in the study of history. That’s why I love it 🙂

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      • Intriguing, have an example?

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      • It’s a general theory about history – that every author (or group of authors) who attempts to write down ‘what happened’ will inevitably pick and choose which events to write about (because no one can write about everything that happened in the world) and create a timeline of events in order to create a narrative. However, each author that writes about a historical event can have radically different conclusions about the ‘meaning’ of the event, and each conclusion can be backed up by the rest of his or her writing. So what is ‘the truth’?
        According to postmodern theories that really influence the study of history today, there is no way to get at ‘the truth’ of ‘what happened.’ Every historical account will inevitably be influenced by the author’s perspective, or by the perspective of the sources he happens to be using (since not everyone in history had a chance to write stuff down). Therefore, there is no ‘window to the past.’ There is only a historical account that may tell us more about our own society’s perspectives and biases, as compared to ‘what really happened.’
        Now, I think there’s several important point to this type of historical theory that’s worth thinking about, especially humanity’s ability to find truth on their own (the theory basically says we can’t). However, I do believe in such a thing as truth, and that it is revealed to humans, so that is where I depart from this theory. I just like how the theory points out the weakness and flaws in our abilities, in contrast to the way some disciplines (like science) may confidentially insist they understand something about reality because of how their discipline works. 🙂

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      • Well said Harma!

        I can certainly see the point of what your getting at and can see how this is the case. Though, I do have hesitations about how far this skepticism can go.

        For example, I know many historians today will find similar accounts of the same event written by different authors, and through these are able to check what is the same, what isn’t ect. For example, the bible mentions Pilate, as does another secular record kept by a man with the last name Flavinus! (And what a name!)

        To second guess every historical piece of work seems excessive to me, granted we assume that every historian wasn’t blatantly out to deceive the future generations.

        Taking literal word may be dangerous, but is it not possible to conclude that some truth must exist within most historical works?

        Have I understood correctly?

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      • Hmmm, it is very difficult to explain – it makes your mind go round and round if you think about it too much. 🙂 In this point of view, it’s not so much the historical ‘facts’ or events themselves that are significant, but rather the PERSPECTIVE the author is viewing them through. Yes, through comparing sources we can clearly see that Pilate existed, or the French Revolution actually happened, etc. But each historical record is going to present that fact in a different context. For example, you could present the French Revolution as people freeing themselves from despotic tyranny of the king, or as France’s descent into chaos that would last for many, many years after the revolution. Either way, the historical ‘facts’ might be similar – beheading the king and all that – but in the ‘freedom’ version the author might put some of these facts in a positive light, while the ‘chaos’ version might deliberately lead the reader to think everything that happened was negative. And the point of this theory is to be AWARE of the fact the authors have a perspective, and not just unthinkingly accept what you are reading.

        Because when it comes down to it, everyone has a perspective, or worldview, that influences everything about the way they think. That’s why this is important for more than just history. 🙂 I am a Christian, so way back in the back of my mind I will always be interpreting what happens to me according to that framework (eg: that there is a God who exists, good and evil exist, etc.) I’d argue that this is ‘correct,’ of course, but the real point is, the way I’d describe what happens to me (as ‘God’s plan,’ maybe, or something like that) will be different than someone who does not believe in God. Because our fundamental worldviews are not the same. I also have a female worldview, which means my perspective on some things will be influenced by that, and might be different from yours. And so on.

        In the end, by recognizing everyone has a set of underlying assumptions that they apply to every thought and action, including the historical work they do, helps me understand why people can come to such radically different conclusions on things. When people try to convince me about things, it helps me step back and consider where exactly they’re coming from. What assumptions are they making that differ from what I would assume in the same situation?

        Anyway, that’s all very difficult to explain, especially in the form of WordPress comments. But very interesting! Hope that makes it a bit clearer?

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      • Indeed, thank you.

        Here’s the question on my mind. I feel like, to a limited degree, it is possible to discern whether an author places a slant on his history, or simply explains facts. The use of language for example, whether it be “heated” or “loaded” language, if you will, can reveal an authors bias.

        Do you believe there’s history free of bias? Have you read any? Do we want a history free of bias?

        It seems to me that history (as a study) has improved in the sense that many historical accounts have been looked at from a more objective perspective. To use your example, modern historians may simply discuss the nature of the French revolution and not within the context of “good” and “bad”.

        But now that I think about it, and I think about the way my Classics course was taught. Not totally objective. Perhaps, not even close…

        Hmm, delicious food for thought, thank you Harma. 🙂

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      • I’d say ‘no,’ I don’t think there’s any history completely objective and without ‘bias’ (bias is a bit of a loaded word, implying that the influence of the author’s perspective on a work is negative – since we often argue there’s no way to avoid this influence, we don’t necessarily characterize it as negative).
        Many historians strove very hard to produce very objective, definitive histories that now, when we read them many years later, we clearly see how the author was tied to the perspective of their times. The things we write nowadays might look very objective to us, but mostly because our society makes the same underlying assumptions as the author. In a couple decades, we might realize we were not as clear-sighted as we thought. 🙂
        Academic historians nowadays have mostly abandoned trying to write a completely ‘objective’ history, and instead state their background, influences, and possible biases upfront, so the reader can clearly see them.
        This just means, in the end, history is not as simple as lining up the facts in the right order. Of course it’s still worth studying, and we learn so much from it. But it’s not simple. But it’s more than the ‘boring list of dates’ that non-history students think it is, which is one of the reasons I love it.

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  2. I am sympathetic to “rights of the reader” because I think a work can always be MORE than what the author intended – the author’s subconscious can influence, or the circumstances of the readers can cause them to get more meaning from the story. However, I have been forced through too many literature classes where I felt like I was being forced to read TOO MUCH into a story – way more than the author intended, and more than the story could really support. Also, being an author, I’m not a huge fan of any theory suggesting I’m ‘dead.’ 😛

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  3. Pingback: Must-Reads at Stories and Stuff in 2014 | Stories and Stuff

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