Category Archives: Harry Potter

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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Filed under GENERAL Bookish Thoughts, Harry Potter

The Message on Manhood in Young Adult Novels – Or, What Should We Teach Boys?

Think he’s a good little boy? {PD}

“But as we debate ad nauseam whether, for example, Bella Swan is a dangerous role model for young women, we’ve neglected to ask the corresponding question: what does it tell young men when Edward Cullen and Jacob Black are the role models available to them? Are these barely-contained monsters really the best we can imagine?”

– YA Fiction and the End of Boys, by Sarah Mesle

When I read the above quote, I realized it was a huge question than I’ve never considered. To be upfront and honest here, I’ll admit I don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of all books with male protagonists, or even know what the best-sellers in the YA genre are (other than the really major ones like Twilight and The Hunger Games). But I’ve always hated how Twilight teaches young girls that romance will be magical and perfect, and how The Hunger Games allows Katniss to string along two guys forever without ever caring how that makes the guys feel. I’ve always considered what the impact will be on girls, likely because I am a girl. But yes, what do books teach young boys?

Well, my first instinct is to say boys don’t read Twilight because they want to be like Edward. Will boys actually want to become a moody, sparkly boyfriend who tries to keep his girlfriend safe by disabling her truck and not allowing her to go anywhere, all as a result of reading Twilight? Maybe not, but that doesn’t erase the fact that there really is no message for boys about how they should be, just like the only message you can take from it for girls is a really bad one. And stereotypes aside, boys do read, and some even read Twilight. We worry so much about teaching girls to be strong, independent and intelligent, that sometimes we forget to wonder what we are teaching boys.

Part of the problem is, as Sarah Mesle says in the article I quoted above, that it’s difficult to figure out how our society actually thinks men should behave. We have lots of stereotypes, of course: the overgrown child who lives in his parents’ basement, the slacker who plays videogames all day…or the womanizer, the muscle-bound dimwit, the emotionless action-hero. The great thing about literature is that it can examine stereotypes such as these, and subvert them. But replace them with what? Good values for men appear to be not abusing any power advantage their might possess as a result of society structures, and probably not getting too absorbed with their masculinity. Because we are not sure, in contrast to many cultures before us, that masculinity is really a very good value.

So we skirt around the issue, neglect to think about it, and forget to talk about it. But maybe literature is a good place to explore the place of boys and men in our modern world. After all, “how can a boy become a good man, if he doesn’t know what that would mean?”

Like I said above, I am by no means an expert on the YA genre, but let’s take a quick look at a few I have read. I mentioned Twilight already, and I really hope both boys and girls aren’t taking lessons on how to behave from those characters. Masculinity appears to consist of being a tightly controlled monster who is tightly controlling of female characters. Another big hit was The Hunger Games, with two nicely contrasting male characters. In this book, I got the feeling that Suzanne Collins was actually attempting to include a message to boys – that’s it’s okay not to be the big, manly hunter, and that boys who like baking can be useful in tight situations too. For some readers, it seemed to work, considering Peeta is a pretty popular character. I got annoyed at how being a decent guy meant letting a girl walk all over you, but maybe Collins was attempting to show passivity as not being bad either. (I still can’t buy that). And last up is the Harry Potter series, whose popularity seems like eons ago now that all these other book series have cropped up – but hey, it was a major series, and it had a boy as the hero. Harry Potter does have something to say about a boy growing up, and takes an oddly old-fashioned approach to it. He learns to take on responsibility, self-sacrifice and concern for others, not too different from the 19th century heroes Sarah Mesle talks about. But then, the wizarding world is a bit of a throw-back itself. How this journey would play out in the bland world of Privet Drive isn’t really explored.

(All the same, would you count Harry Potter as a good role model for boys? Have you read any YA books lately with an interesting take on “manhood”?)

Sarah Mesle’s argument is, in the end, that the rise of feminism should not mean the end of conversation on what “manhood” is for boys. Because one of the points of feminism was to gain new perspectives on both genders. Now, I have a funny relationship with feminism in general, because I do not agree with everything feminists talk about, but I can agree with this. Both masculinity and femininity can be taken to an extreme, both can be abused. We shouldn’t be afraid of pointing out stereotypes, or criticizing what traditional views of males and females get wrong. But we can’t focus on one side of the conversation only, and instill what we decide are good values in our girls, without setting up some sort of target for the boys to shoot at. And this includes the way writers write for them.

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Filed under Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Misc. Books, Twilight

Famous Now, Famous Always? Not Necessarily…

Fama, the Roman goddes of Fame

Photo by Brunswyk, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Fleeting Fame

Just imagine – you’ve got it made. You’ve climbed to the pinnacle of your career in acting, writing, music, or whatever, and now everyone in the world knows your name. This is what you’ve been dreaming about since you were a kid. A household name. Yeah, that’s you. You bet a hundred years from now, people still will be talking about you.

Wait a minute – what do you mean, that’s not a guarantee? Doesn’t being famous grant you some sort of immortality?

Strangely enough, it doesn’t. Just ask Rudolph Valentino, or maybe Joan Crawford. Both were hugely famous movie stars in their day, Valentino to the point that young female fans attempted suicide when he died. Nowadays, you’ve probably only heard his name if you’re into silent films or something. So will people know who Will Smith or Angelina Jolie are in the next century? Perhaps only as the answer to a trivia question.

This works for authors too. For example, when Jane Austen started out, Sir Walter Scott wrote a review of her work, praising her writing skill. This review was a big deal – if you see J.K. Rowling praising someone else’s book, and she’s telling you it’s the most fantastic thing since sliced bread, you’re more likely to buy the thing. So obviously his name on a review, praising her, meant he was a big deal, and he was trying to use his fame to help her out. Now, Walter Scott isn’t completely unknown (I’ve actually read Ivanhoe), but he’s not the first thing you think of when you think of ‘literary superstar.’

When I was a kid and the Harry Potter phenomenon was just starting, my mom mused about whether they’d be known as classics in the future or not. I was like, of course! How could they not be, when every kid I knew liked them? But now I’m not so sure. People’s opinions towards even acknowledged classics changed over time – Shakespeare had his audience in stitches, and Dickens was so popular people would line up to get their hands on the next installment of his serial novels, but nowadays your average reader finds them inaccessible. They’re still famous, of course. But tastes could change so much in the future that they find Harry Potter twee, or too grim, or who knows what.

Or maybe the Huns will invade and burn all the libraries. That’s happened before…

In the end, we have no idea what’s the key to being remembered forever. Building gigantic pyramids named after you is one strategy, of course, unless everyone else does it too. It is strange how some kings/generals/authors/famous people are remembered, whereas others who were more famous at the time were forgotten. Of course, I’d argue fame isn’t the most useful thing to pursue, anyway. While I’d love it if every kid in English class was forced to read my books in a hundred years (and dissect exactly what I meant with that metaphor of a tree), I don’t write because I base my hopes on that.

I write because I hope some people are entertained by what I write, and maybe even think a little more deeply about some of the issues I present. If I achieve that with my writing in my lifetime, I should be satisfied.

 

Why do you think some famous people are remembered, while others are forgotten despite their fame? Is being famous worthwhile?

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Filed under Harry Potter, Misc. Books, Randoms & My Life

Writing Characters of Different Ethnicities

There Be Pitfalls Here

I have trouble when writing people of different ethnicities, just like I have a problem with setting stories in places I haven’t been to. If you read every word of every story I’ve ever written, you might wonder at the complete lack of multi-ethnic main characters. There’s a reason so many of my stories are either set in Canada, a vague fictional town, or fantasyland. As I mentioned in Getting Your Setting Right, how inaccurate is a writer allowed to be, before readers won’t forgive them anymore?

And ethnicity is a pretty important thing to get right, since ethnicities have been stereotyped all over the place, and people have even written about other people without realizing they’re perpetuating stereotypes.

It might be less of a big deal if I stereotype Americans or French or something – sure, everyone in that country might hate me, but I could probably go on writing. But if I pull out an inaccurate or insensitive portrayal of an ethnicity that has historically been discriminated against, that’s a whole other story. Besides all that, I have absolutely no interest in perpetuating inaccurate stereotypes about people, even accidentally.

All of which makes me a little nervous to explicitly describe a character as being of one ethnicity or another. My main worry, I guess, is my own ignorance. In the history profession, historians have huge arguments over who’s allowed to write the history of peoples that have been discriminated against. Can anyone do it, or just members of a culture? This came about because history was so often written from a Caucasian perspective, by historians who thought they were being fair and accurate, but only revealed their biases. For example, writing the whole history as a story of doom and gloom and continual oppression by colonialists, without describing any of the strengths of that culture. See, the issue is these historians thought they were accurate, but they really weren’t able to get themselves into the heads of people so different from themselves. And I can see the same issues arising in fiction.

Now, it’s hard to say only First Nations people can write novels with Native characters in them, or whichever ethnicity you want to talk about, because maybe then not enough of these stories get written. But writers who write them are taking a risk. We have to be humble when trying to get inside the head of someone who might have a different. And I guess I have humbled myself out of writing these at the moment. Part of being a writer is stretching yourself and getting inside the heads of people other than you, so this might not be the best thing. All the same, I’m not going to write until I feel I can portray something relatively accurately.

After all, it’s common enough for movie and TV writers to insert flat characters just for the sake of looking more ethnically diverse – see TVtropes’ pages on “Token Minority” and “Five-Token Band.” If the characters are there just for looks, and aren’t developed at all, this seems a little pointless to me. The other pitfall is to make the only important thing about the character their ethnic background. If everyone in your story is specifically labelled as being from one ethnic group or another, you risk reducing your characters to mere categories. I liked how JK Rowling managed to make it clear that Hogwarts was not a 100% British school, but she didn’t feel the need to describe Cho Chang (for example) as having an Asian background. This is one way of handling it, though it’s true most of these characters were not major characters in Harry Potter.

So, there are several pitfalls to experimenting with characters of different ethnicities. I think it’s good for writers to consider for a while exactly how they’re going to deal with these before they start. What about you – how would you approach writing about characters with different ethnicities? Or when reading, have you noticed authors doing this well, or poorly?

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Filed under Harry Potter, On Writing

Breaking the 10 Simple Rules for Writing a Novel

Maybe check if you’ve got paper first…. (Writer John, by Onomatomedia. (Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0))

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. — W. Somerset Maugham

 Well, while surfing the net I stumbled across a lovely article advising people on how to write a novel in 2012 – you know, if that’s your New Year’s Resolution or something. And some of the advice is good. You really shouldn’t try to write a book based on what topic you think is “hot” right now (vampire novels are probably going to get stale pretty soon, by the way), or get distracted about what the “proper” way of going about writing is. But while lists like this usually bring up some decent points, there are always a couple rules that can be ignored or broken without hurting the novel too much.

For example, I’ve read numerous books that included the phrase “laughing eyes” or “warm eyes,” and have been guilty of using such phrases myself. Now, I don’t RECOMMEND you use the phrase, and I should probably re-edit several passages where I use the phrase. But I’d just like to point out that some editor probably noticed the poor author used a hackneyed phrase on page 282, and the book got published anyway. Remember, Twilight included the sentence, “He lay perfectly still in the grass, his shirt open over his sculpted, incandescent chest, his scintillating arms bare,” and it became a best-seller. My point is – you can’t predict this kind of stuff.

To take another example, a widely quoted review of Lord of the Rings complained both the work AND the characters were “anemic and lacking in depth.” You know how writing advice goes on and on about how you can’t have flat characters in your work? Well, as much as I love Lord of the Rings, I can’t claim the characters are the deepest things the literary establishment has ever seen. That, and the book goes through pages upon pages of description, poetry, and random characters that pop up and are never seen again. A classic? You bet.

Lastly, I’m going to mention Harry Potter. These books captivated me as a kid. I still have fond memories of them (though, sadly, I can’t love them as I once did). But some of the plot twists in them don’t exactly make much sense. The first book practically ends in a deus ex machina, just after a couple of kids get through protections that are supposed to keep the evilest wizards alive out. And the fourth book – tell me why the whole caboodle with the Triwizard Tournament really was the easiest way to get Harry to Voldemort? That’s still one of my favourite parts of the series, by the way.

So I feel better about the chunk of the list I’m planning to ignore. I’m not going to start outlining every story I write, because my mind doesn’t work that way. Shoot, I don’t even outline blog posts or university papers. I’m not going to shoe-horn a sex scene into every book just because it’s a “part of life.” And I never, ever have a title for my works till I’ve written a good part of them.

I guess my point is, readers and publishers overlook many, many faults in novels. Writers get nervous, because there’s absolutely no way to predict which faults they’re going to overlook. Perfectly reasonable, but you can’t let that stop you, and you’re never going to achieve perfection anyway. Just keep writing.

 

Ever read a novel yourself that broke all the rules but was fantastic anyway?

 

(Yes, finishing my current work-in-progress is one of my aims for 2012, but I really don’t need to finish another novel. I need to get the ones I have finished in publishable shape, and submit them. I’ve got so many stacks of writing, because apparently I find writing itself far more fun than the mundane reality of trying to get a book published. But in 2012 – who knows?)

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Filed under Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, On Writing, Twilight