J.K. Rowling and the Battle for the Books
Harry Potter readers have been given a wealth of information in supplemental books, interviews with J.K. Rowling, and posts on Rowling’s official website: information we use to help in our understanding of the books and the world Rowling has created and to try to solve mysteries in the books’ plots, and much information that we enjoy simply for its own sake. According to currently dominant literary theory, however, “the author is dead,” and we ought not to be listening to a writer talk about her own books, much less letting her influence how we read and understand those books. Will J.K. Rowling’s communications to us outside of her books have a lasting effect on the interpretation and estimation of her works, or will her words have no long-term impact, as modern literary theory demands and predicts? That battle is being fought right now, and we – all of us – are in the thick of it.
The “Death” of the Author
Much of the excitement of the last sixty years in literary theory and literary criticism has been about the proper relationship between authors, the texts they write, and the readers who read the texts. In 1946, in an influential essay called “The Intentional Fallacy,” two critics named William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley argued that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.” 1 They further stated:
The poem is […] not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public.2
This general idea was expressed in more vivid terms by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”: “we know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.” 3 Or, as the concept is more commonly expressed: the author is dead.
Of course, the proponents of this idea – and there are many of them, as this is a dominant idea in current literary theory – are not so foolish as to literally believe that authors are zombies, or that they drop dead the moment they finish writing. But they do believe that in terms of having anything useful or helpful to say about their own works, authors might as well be dead. The only intention of the author that counts is what is contained in the text, as understood by readers who interact with it. Any interpretation the author might care to share about his or her own works is, at best, no more relevant than the interpretation of any other reader. Or, to put it in proper literary jargon, the author’s intent is not privileged above other interpretations. (I hope that Wimsatt, Beardsley, Barthes, et al expressed themselves clearly in their original essays, because anything they might have tried to explain later would, by their own precepts, be irrelevant in determining the meaning of what they wrote.)
It is generally agreed that the author’s role is finished when the work is completed and published. After that point, the text must speak for itself – or, at the most, those few remaining critics who have not altogether abandoned authorial intent might ask the author to clarify what he or she intended (note the past tense) by including certain elements in the text. The writer’s contribution is frozen at the point of time that he or she finished writing.
But it seems that nobody has informed the authors of that. Authors, being people, have responses to their own works and they also have responses to the readers who read their works. Just as readers and critics judge authors by how they write, writers judge readers by how they read, and critics by how they criticize. Authors may change their feelings and beliefs about their own work after seeing how the audience responds to it. Many authors are disposed to defend their work against criticism, answer questions, clarify what they see as misunderstandings, and in general do whatever they think will help to enhance reader enjoyment and guide critical discussion into what they see as fruitful paths.
It is no use to say that authors ought not to do this; the fact is that they do do this, have always done so, and probably always will. One might argue that readers and critics ought not to listen to them, but the fact is that whether we respond with uncritical acceptance, scornful disagreement, or something in between, we generally do listen. One might argue that these author outpourings are ephemeral and future generations will have the opportunity to confront the text in a pure and untainted form, but in fact many of these post-textual authorial contributions are preserved and handed down. We know that Jane Austen said that Pride and Prejudice was “light and bright and sparkling,” 4 that J.R.R. Tolkien insisted that The Lord of the Rings was not an allegory,5 and that William Wordsworth said poetry ought to be “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” from “emotions recollected in tranquility.” 6 It is hard to calculate how much these authorial comments and others like them might have influenced our collective understanding of these authors’ works, but it would be very surprising if they have had no effect at all. The very fact that the words are still remembered and discussed argues otherwise.
In this context, we can regard J.K. Rowling’s communications with her readers in interviews and question-and-answer sessions, in the two supplemental books, and on her own website as part of an ongoing struggle for control over how the Harry Potter books will be read and understood. Not acknowledging that she is “dead,” not accepting that her opinions about her own books are considered to be inapplicable and irrelevant in most modern literary theories, not being content to send her books out into the world and otherwise keep her mouth shut, J.K. Rowling uses the tools at her command – creativity, humor, and her absolutely unique knowledge about the world she has created – to guide and shape how readers (and critics) respond to her works. This essay will examine how that works.
Why the Author Speaks
In brazen defiance of the Intentional Fallacy, I am going to speculate on what motivates J.K. Rowling to give information to her fans outside the books. I suspect that if we asked her, Rowling would say that she gives information to her fans primarily because they want it. Every day she must receive dozens or hundreds of letters brimming with questions and requests. Reporters want to interview her. Her publishers and agent probably encourage her to “do publicity” – why sell only 22 million copies of a book when with a little more effort from the author you can sell 25 million? It is easy to imagine that to her it seems like the world at large is constantly demanding that she give us more information about her books.
The situation is complicated by the Harry Potter series being a work in progress, even though each published individual book is a finished work. Readers anxious to know what will happen next and eagerly seeking clues to solve a mystery will naturally ask even more questions than readers of a self-contained finished work. And even those literary theorists who most resolutely avoid the intentional fallacy will admit that while a writer’s intention may be irrelevant in interpreting her finished work, it is certainly not irrelevant when it comes to what she will write next. For most of us, receiving clarification about exactly what Rowling meant in the first six books is not simply a matter of interest; it is something we feel we need to fuel our speculations, form our theories, feed our hopes, and calm our fears about the seventh book.
Even so, it really is up to Rowling what kind of information she gives us. If she wanted to, she could refuse to say anything about what will happen in future books and how she intended past books to be understood, limiting herself to answering questions about her writing process, her favorite authors, how it feels to become so famous so fast, and so on. The fact that she doesn’t limit her answers like that argues that either she can’t resist our pleas or she actually wants to give out information on her books.
Rowling gave a fairly clear statement of her motivations in communicating with her fans in her Welcome Message on the opening of her website on May 15, 2004:
I receive so many thousands and thousands of letters these days that it is impossible to read, let alone answer, them all. A proper website seems like a great way to communicate directly with Harry Potter fans. Everything on here was written by ME, J.K. Rowling. This is where I can tell you the truth about rumours or news stories, where I can share the extra information I haven’t put in the books, where I can give you hints and clues about what’s going to happen to Harry next, and where I can announce I’ve finished book six… and no, that’s not going to happen very soon.7
Rowling says she wants an efficient way to fulfil her social obligation of answering her fan mail. Second, she wants an outlet to clarify, confirm, or deny what she sees others say about her and her stories, either in the press (“news”) or more informally, perhaps in online forums (“rumours”). Third, she wants to give her fans “extra” information that didn’t make it into the books themselves. And fourth, she wants to give us “coming soon” announcements – hints and clues about events in upcoming books and announcements of when the books will be ready for release.
I will divide these motives into three categories – the practical motives of publicity and public relations, the writer’s impulse to give pleasure to others, and the desire to influence how she and her writings are perceived. We can pass over the first category fairly quickly – it is easily understood how things like giving hints and clues about future books and announcing when she has finished writing serves the purpose of building anticipation for the release of those books, presumably increasing sales – or, at the least, pushing sales forward into the first week or the midnight release party. It is widely believed in the bookselling industry that if fans feel an author is listening to them, if they have interactions with her, learn about her personal life, and receive answers to their most pressing questions, they will be more likely to continue to be fans and to buy her future books. Of course, given Rowling’s level of success, this is hardly likely to be a primary concern for her, but she might well feel a responsibility to her publishers and the many whose income depends on her book sales.
The second category is also fairly self-evident. Rowling enjoys writing, her fans enjoy reading what she writes, and this mutual pleasure is not limited to formal books bought and sold for money. She has created a huge amount of background information for her universe for the purpose of writing her story. It is pretty obvious that she loves the world she has created, and she shares additional bits of it with us because she thinks we will love them as she does. And, by all available measures, we do love them. Whether you look at sales figures for the two schoolbooks Quidditch through the Ages and Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, or hit counts on the jkrowling.com website, or auction bidding on items like the Black Family Tree, or ticket sales at events like “Harry, Carrie, and Garp,” or simply the eager comments and discussion at places like The Leaky Cauldron every time she releases an new bit of information, Rowling gets plenty of feedback telling her that additional items will be enthusiastically received.
But it is the third category of motives that I want to discuss – the things Rowling says that seem to be intended to influence our understanding and interpretation of her works. This is where her choice to communicate with her readers interacts with the ideological battleground of modern literary theory. This is where her future reputation can be affected, not only by what she says, but also by how she says it – and even by her choice to speak at all.
The Risks of Speaking Out
It might seem strange to think that Rowling takes risks when she speaks about her books, but I believe she does. “The author is dead” is not just a random concept; it is part of a system of beliefs that has meaning and consequences. For instance, many readers and literary critics place a high value on ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning – they will find Rowling’s works of more literary merit if they can simultaneously be interpreted in a number of different ways. If Rowling is successful in establishing one interpretation as the correct one, it diminishes the books in these people’s eyes.
Similarly, the current climate of literary theory encourages different sorts of appropriation of books by their users/readers. For instance, some readers might interpret Rowling’s portrayal of Remus Lupin and the prejudices he faces as a werewolf as a metaphor for homosexuality, and they might find this interpretation personally meaningful or feel that it makes the books more useful and valuable to society. If Rowling explains that she intended Lupin as an illustration of a different kind of prejudice…
Professor Lupin, who appears in the third book, is one of my favourite characters. He’s a damaged person, literally and metaphorically. […] His being a werewolf is a metaphor for people’s reactions to illness and disability.8
… this could perhaps damage their relationship with the book series, especially if her explanation becomes the only accepted interpretation of Lupin’s condition. Another kind of appropriation encouraged by current theories is fan appropriation, as described by Henry Jenkins in his well-known work “Textual Poaching.” 9 The less J.K. Rowling says about her own intentions, the more freedom fans have in their own fan fiction, theories, and other imaginative interactions with the books. People can be extremely attached to their own interpretations, to the point that Rowling explaining her intentions is seen as an attempt to “control” their readings and invalidate any interpretations that don’t match hers.
A good example of readers becoming offended at Rowling seeming to want to control their readings is the case of Draco Malfoy and readers who have a crush on him. In the World Book Day online chat of March, 2004, Rowling said:
Actually, this is a really good place to answer a question about Draco and Hermione, which a certain Ms. Radcliffe is desperate to have answered. Will they end up together in book six/seven? NO! The trouble is, of course, that girls fancy Tom Felton, but Draco is NOT Tom Felton!10
A few months later at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Rowling made the same point more strongly:
I make this hero—Harry, obviously—and there he is on the screen, the perfect Harry, because Dan is very much as I imagine Harry, but who does every girl under the age of 15 fall in love with? Tom Felton as Draco Malfoy. Girls, stop going for the bad guy. Go for a nice man in the first place. It took me 35 years to learn that, but I am giving you that nugget free, right now, at the beginning of your love lives.11
Some Draco fans were offended, first that Rowling would presume to guess why they liked Draco – there were many who indignantly pointed out that they had loved the character long before Tom Felton was cast to play him – and second that she thought she had the right to dictate who they should like or not like in her books. This free nugget of romantic advice for the under-fifteen set not only offended quite a few Draco-enthusiasts (of all ages), but it is repeatedly mentioned as evidence by people making certain criticisms about the books – mainly criticisms that the morality is simplistic and black-and-white, or that the narrative voice has a double standard, letting the “good guys” get away with bad behavior while the “bad guys” are harshly condemned and narratively punished for the same or comparable bad behavior.
Another statement that has brought criticism to Rowling was her comment, offered a couple of different times, that she didn’t intentionally write in the fantasy genre and, in fact, didn’t consciously realize that she was writing fantasy until, as she put it, “I suddenly thought, This has got unicorns in it. I’m writing fantasy!” 12 Her first comment, published in Newsweek in 2000, doesn’t seem to have attracted much notice, even though she also said “I don’t really like fantasy.” 13 However, she repeated the same sentiment in a Time Magazine interview in 2005:
It wasn’t until after Sorcerer’s Stone was published that it even occurred to her that she had written one. “That’s the honest truth,” she says. “You know, the unicorns were in there. There was the castle, God knows. But I really had not thought that that’s what I was doing. And I think maybe the reason that it didn’t occur to me is that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy.” 14
Perhaps because the author of the article, Lev Grossman, also made scathing remarks about the fantasy genre or because Rowling’s fame has grown since 2000, this statement immediately attracted negative attention from the community of fantasy writers, who were offended that Rowling spoke so dismissively of their – and her – genre.
Best-selling fantasy author Terry Pratchett wrote a letter to the Sunday Times criticizing the article and mocking Rowling for not realizing that she was writing fantasy.15 A week later, there was a panel discussion at the WorldCon science fiction and fantasy convention debating the contention “Harry Potter Has Set Children’s Fantasy Back 50 Years” 16 This was almost certainly planned before the Time Magazine article was published, but the tone of the panel seems to have been quite negative, perhaps influenced by the article. A week after that one of the members of the Worldcon panel, fantasy author Jane Yolen, spoke slightingly of Rowling’s writing ability in Newsweek’s online “Arts Extra.” 17
It seems likely to me that Rowling’s repeated comments about not being much of a fantasy reader might have been intended partly to contradict the frequently-made assertion that the Harry Potter novels were influenced by or modeled upon earlier works about wizarding schools by fantasy authors such as Jane Yolen or Diana Wynne Jones. Obviously, if Rowling is unfamiliar with the fantasy genre and hasn’t read these books, any similarity between them and her books must be coincidental. If that was her intent, it seems not to have worked. Yolen repeated the charge in rather strong terms in her Newsweek comments: “I always tell people that if Ms. Rowling would like to cut me a very large check, I would cash it. […] I have kids who write to me all the time and say, ‘I thought you had stolen Harry Potter, but my teacher pointed out that you published it eight years before Harry Potter.’ ” 18
The Rewards of Speaking Out
Considering the pitfalls inherent in off-the-cuff statements, not to mention the possibilities for inadvertent misquotation and distortion by reporters and the sheer number of comments by Rowling that have been reported to the public, it is not surprising that some of them may have struck a wrong note with portions of her audience. However, the fact that a small number of Rowling’s statements have brought her criticism and been used to cast her writing in a bad light does not necessarily mean that she would have been better off to remain silent. Common sense tells us that if you have a point of view to get across, it will probably be more effective to present your point of view than to remain silent and hope that people will spontaneously come to the same conclusions you did. If this is true in general, it must be particularly true of someone like Rowling who has not only the skills of a professional writer to move and amuse people, but the economic and media power of her enormous popularity, which guarantees that anything she might choose to say will at least command a hearing. It seems to be universally believed that if Rowling chooses to advance an opinion on subjects such as Romanian orphans, single parents in Britain, Multiple Sclerosis, or girls with unrealistic body images, her words (and, of course, her fundraising potential) will be hugely influential. Is this any less true if she chooses to advance an opinion on her own works? I think not.
Two types of situations where you will find most public relations experts agreeing that it is almost always worthwhile to make a public statement as soon as possible are when there is a harmful misconception that you can clear up or when you have done something wrong that you can apologize for. Rowling seems to have a clear grasp of this: two sections of her website, the “Rumours” section and the “Rubbish Bin,” are devoted mostly to the clearing up of misconceptions, and she has not hesitated to acknowledge and apologize for her errors with great humor and grace. Probably the most memorable example of the latter is her response to the Frequently Asked Question “What is the significance, if any, of Mark Evans?” Speculation was running wild on this barely-mentioned character with the same last name as Harry’s mother. Rowling pulled out all the stops when she halted the frenzy of theorizing, lavishing her response with humor and self-deprecation:
I couldn’t answer the poll question before now, because I’ve been making arrangements to take my family into hiding. It takes time to arrange fake passports, one-way air tickets to Bolivia and twenty-four hour armed security.
Why should I resort to such desperate measures? Because after you’ve heard this answer, I’ll have to disappear for my own safety.
Now before I get down to it (you can guess what’s coming, can’t you?) I am going to put up a feeble pre-emptive defence. Firstly, you were all spinning highly ingenious theories about Mark Evans, so I thought that you would welcome the chance to hear the truth about him. Secondly, I tried hard not to raise hopes or expectations by adding the crucial words ‘if any’ to the question. Thirdly… there is no thirdly. I’m just killing time.
(Takes deep breath)
She continued in this vein as she explained that she had simply chosen a common name without thinking about it being the same as Lily’s name, finishing with:
Well, that’s that. The car with false license plates is at the door and I’ve got to glue on my goatee. Goodbye.19
In my opinion, this tour de force performance was strikingly successful and any tendency for readers to be annoyed at the unintentional Evans red herring was completely disarmed. I rarely even see it pointed to as an example of Rowling’s tendency to make errors, even by her severest critics (though it is often used as a reminder that not everything in the books is a Significant Clue).
I also believe that something of this sort was needed for Rowling to be able to prick the bubble of rampant Mark Evans speculation without an angry backlash. I can’t prove this, of course, but I can compare it to a less well-executed debunking of excited fan speculation way back in 2000. I refer, of course, to the famous “wand order error” near the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where the sequence of James and Lily emerging from Voldemort’s wand contradicted canon accounts of the order in which they were killed, leading to much elaborate theorizing about possible explanations. If I am remembering correctly, this error was quietly corrected in later editions of the novel several months after the release date and then a brief statement was issued by Scholastic and Bloomsbury confirming that there had been an error and the new editions were correct. My recollection is that there was a fair amount of anger and disgust when fans found out that all their eager speculation had been for naught, and this episode still tends to be prominently mentioned, even six years later, whenever anyone discusses Rowling’s (or her editors’) fallibility. Some longtime Harry Potter fans still hold a bit of a grudge about the wand order debacle – a fact mentioned by Steve Vander Ark in his wonderful Lumos presentation on the history of the Harry Potter fandom, “Neither Here Nor There.” 20
Speaking broadly, and allowing for some missteps, Rowling’s relationship with her readers seems to be improved when she explains herself and responds to questions as opposed to when she remains silent. With some exceptions, readers seem willing to forgive her errors and to accept her pronouncements on factual questions such as whether Pensieve memories are subjective or objective and when and under what circumstances people can see Thestrals. And once Rowling has given an official answer on some such knotty issue, it appears that she can depend on reporters, website administrators, and reader discussion both online and in person to spread the word to her readers. After that point, anyone raising the issue is almost certain to be told the official version. And, from what I have seen, they generally quickly accept it.
Types of Authorial Influence
Only the most extreme of the “author is dead” literary theorists – using paradoxical phrases like “fortuitous flaw” and “unintended intent” – would deny a writer the right to acknowledge and explain her own errors. From there, the types of guidance an author might provide about her own books are considered increasingly suspect and problematical. I would divide these into four categories of increasing seriousness, as follows:
1 – correcting and explaining her own errors,
2 – clearing up simple reader misapprehensions,
3 – trying to influence how readers think and feel as they experience her books, and
4 – trying to influence critical judgments about the books.
As we move from one to four, I would say that most literary theorists would become increasingly uncomfortable with Rowling having input into the process. The first category concerns only her. The second category starts to infringe into the reading and interpreting process. The third category is firmly in the sacred realm of reader response, and the fourth category invades the even more sacred realm of critical response and consensus.
Additionally, as we go up the ladder there is more potential for the author’s incentives to be different from the incentives of the people she is influencing. We can assume that almost everyone has the same objective in category 1 – a clean and error-free version of the text. In category 2, some people will be grateful to have their misapprehensions cleared up so they can understand the work better, but others prefer their own readings and would rather continue in their misapprehension than go through the annoyance of seeing their views publicly contradicted. This becomes even more true in category 3 – we can understand that the author wants only the best and most satisfying reading experience for her readers, but there is no way she can possibly allow for all their different tastes. To use superficial examples, some readers will happily wallow in hints and even spoilers about future events while others will find their reading experience diminished if surprises are telegraphed in any way. Some will enjoy hearing the author explain subtleties of Sirius Black’s character that they may have missed (or rejoice in finding that their own conclusions are shared by the character’s creator), while others may find hearing an “official” view of Sirius to be annoying or even infuriating. Finally, in category 4, Rowling’s incentives can be assumed to be different from ours. If she is like most people, she will naturally prefer to have her books judged on their own terms, based on what she was actually trying to accomplish, and – ideally – judged positively. Readers and critics will naturally prefer to judge the books on their terms, based on their own needs and preferences, and they are more interested in judging them objectively (or non-objectively, in service to some agenda of their own) than positively. Even people who are cheerfully willing to take Rowling’s word on how many students Hogwarts has and whether Ginny is the ideal girl for Harry are not necessarily willing to accept her judgment on whether her books show teenagers realistically, or exemplify Christian values, or reflect feminist principles.
But whether she “should” or not – whether or not her doing so is a violation of the precepts of modern literary theory – I’d argue that Rowling does influence interpretations of her work as described in categories 3 and 4. And, what’s more, I’d argue that she does it rather successfully. In the last two sections of this essay, I will examine how.
Influencing How Readers Experience the Books
First, I would argue that it is perfectly natural for Rowling to try to influence how readers experience her books. That is the normal behavior of an author while writing the text, after all. Writers manipulate their readers. They play with their emotions, mislead them, confuse them, dazzle them, dole out information in slow dribbles, and in general try to conduct them on a magic carpet ride of tension and release, anticipation and fulfillment, puzzlement and enlightenment, despair and joy beyond hope. This is Rowling’s habitual relationship with her readers, and it is asking a lot of her to suddenly change her personality when she is communicating with them by some other means than through the text of a book and suddenly become hands-off and laissez-faire. If she thinks that some readers have gotten a bit off the rails and that it will adversely affect their experience of the books, I think it is perfectly reasonable from her perspective to want to nudge them back on track.
Here are some examples – some joking and some serious – of Rowling attempting to guide her readers through their reading process.
She tells us who to keep an eye on:
…everyone should keep their eye on Snape, I’ll just say that, because there’s more to him than meets the eye, and you will find out part of what I’m talking about if you read book four.21
She tells us what to speculate about:
If you want to speculate on anything, you should speculate on these two things, which will point you in the right direction. […] If you want to wonder about anything, I would advise you to concentrate on those two questions. That might take you a little bit further. 22
What not to speculate about:
[on Neville’s mother passing secret messages with gum wrappers] …the theories on the sweet wrappers, are really out there. […] that’s a classic example of, “Let’s just shut that one down,” because it doesn’t really lead anywhere very interesting even if they’re wrong. […] Dumbledore’s family would be a profitable line of inquiry, more profitable than sweet wrappers. 23
And what we really shouldn’t speculate about:
[on the rumor “Lily Potter Was Once a Death Eater”] How dare you?! 24
She tells us which characters we shouldn’t look forward to seeing:
…you don’t get a lot of Dudley in book six—very few lines. I am sorry if there are Dudley fans out there, but I think you need to look at your priorities if it is Dudley that you are looking forward to. [Laughter]. 25
Which characters we should feel sorry for:
Squibs would not be able to attend Hogwarts as students. They are often doomed to a rather sad kind of half-life (yes, you should be feeling sorry for Filch). 26
And which characters we should definitely not be cheering on:
Albus Dumbledore – a younger Albus Dumbledore – goes to inform another famous pupil of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry that he has a place at the school (crowd cheers). And you really shouldn’t be cheering that particular one (crowd laughs). Snape I can kind of see but – anyway…. 27
One might think that a few comments of this sort scattered over the years and only heard or read by a fraction of readers wouldn’t have that much of an impact, but I would argue that since 2004 or so Rowling has taken control of the Harry Potter fandom in a very real sense, setting the tone and guiding the topics of discussion. Rowling has said that she first became aware of the extent of her online fandom during her “first mammoth session” on the internet,28 which possibly took place in early 2003 when she had a new baby and had just finished writing Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.29 Before that point, Rowling says several times that she finds the discussion on the internet “scary” 30 and prefers to stay away from them.31 After that point, she displays increasing awareness of online discussions, using words like “shippers,” mentioning things that she has seen online, and, eventually, creating her own website.
This is a very subjective impression, but I can date my first inkling that J.K. Rowling was changing the way she related to her fans to her televised interview with Jeremy Paxman upon the release of Order of the Phoenix in June of 2003 when she said the following:
JEREMY PAXMAN: Unlikely pairings? Not Hermione and Draco Malfoy or anything like that?
JK ROWLING: I don’t really want to say as it will ruin all the fan sites. They have such fun with their theories … and it is fun, it is fun. And some of them even get quite close. No-one has ever – I have gone and looked at some of it and no-one’s ever … There is one thing that if anyone guessed I would be really annoyed as it is kind of the heart of it all.32
Rowling didn’t actually say that she wanted us to try to figure out what “the heart of it all” is, but the challenge was there. Some of us had come quite close, she said, and her talk about “the fan sites” seemed to imply that she would continue to watch us and see if we would be able to annoy her by guessing correctly. From what I remember, Harry Potter fans on many different sites immediately started speculating on this question. I know I did.
Unlike previous interviews where Rowling seemed to be speaking primarily to the fans who were actually present, in the Paxman interview she seemed to be conscious that her words would be heard by all her fans (“it will ruin all the fan sites”). Rather than answering whatever questions she happened to be asked, she started volunteering the information she thought would be most interesting and useful to fans. And – perhaps most important at all – she provided a mechanism by which we could respond to her – the “fan sites.”
The next significant thing I remember Rowling doing was opening her own website in May of 2004 – her own bully pulpit, a place where she could entertain us and speak to us on her own terms, with no reporters or television interviewers intervening. And one of the first things she did on her website was to begin issuing awards to fans – both the fan site awards and the special tidbits that we got as a reward for solving the puzzles she set for us on the site. I very much doubt that this was in any way a deliberate tactic on her part, but I’m sure you can see how powerful this was in setting the tone of the relationship between us. With one stroke, Rowling established herself as an authority over her fans – judging the quality of our websites, setting tasks for us to perform, and (in the “Rumours” section) giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to many of our fan theories such as the “Snape is a vampire” theory and the “Dumbledore is time-travel Ron” theory. Sometimes she mentioned individual fans by name (or online nickname), with words of praise or gentle teasing. It was electrifying. Most of us were thrilled by her attention and perfectly willing to jump through any hoops she cared to set us to get rewards like sneak peeks at Book Six and perhaps, we fervently hoped, a title and release date!
I believe that by interacting with her fans online, spending time reading our forums, even famously venturing into a Mugglenet chat room,33 Rowling grew in confidence. As she exerted herself and used her talents to communicate with us and entertain us, she naturally took on a leadership role, the same role that she has in her books with respect to her readers. Being a Harry Potter fan became more than just reading a series of books – it became a game, a treasure hunt, with J.K. Rowling firmly established as the game master. To my mind, this shows clearly in her first major interview after opening her website, the Edinburgh Book Festival in August of 2004.34 This was the interview where she offended Draco fans (and to some extent, Snape fans) by advising them to “stop going for the bad guy” but this was also the occasion where she gave us the instructions quoted above to speculate on why Voldemort was not killed when his Avada Kedavra curse rebounded onto him from Harry and why Dumbledore chose not to try to kill Voldemort at the end of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. She made it clear that she came to the session intending to give us that guidance – it was her lesson plan, you might say.
And ever since that time, jokingly and seriously, Rowling has continued to set puzzles for us and lead us in our speculations. On her website, she spurred us on to speculate about such things as the identity of the Half-Blood Prince and who would be the next Minister for Magic. In an answer on her “FAQ” section to the question “What did Dumbledore’s Howler to Aunt Petunia mean? (‘Remember my last’?),” she teased us “Now let the speculation begin, and mind you type clearly, I’ll be watching…” 35 In March of 2006, she even tested us: she gave us W.O.M.B.A.T. exams on our knowledge and understanding of the wizarding world. In my opinion, nothing could more clearly establish that Rowling is the absolute authority on the facts of her fictional world. Reader response theory? In Rowling’s fandom, reader responses receive marks like “Outstanding,” “Acceptable” and “Troll.” Of course, we get fancy (and very amusing) certificates as well, to keep us happy – and eagerly awaiting another chance to test our knowledge on the second W.O.M.B.A.T. Rowling has promised us.
Just last week, we got a new assignment in the “Extra Stuff” section of Rowling’s website: we are supposed to speculate on why Dumbledore had James Potter’s Invisibility Cloak at the time of the Potters’ death, given that Dumbledore could make himself invisible without a cloak.36 Are we doing it? Of course we are! I have already seen three essays on this topic, and there are now thirty pages in the discussion thread on that topic at the Leaky Lounge.37 Most of Rowling’s fans are willing to follow her lead, because most of us have learned from experience that this will add to our enjoyment of the books – or at least not detract from it. We trust her to provide an entertaining fandom experience for us just as when we are reading one of her books we trust her to provide a satisfying reading experience. Rowling works hard to keep us entertained and challenged, sharing funny anecdotes, doling out clues, and slowly building our anticipation for the release of the next book. In return, we allow her to set frames around how we experience the books – the questions we ask, the expectations we hold, the aspects we most look forward to.
Does this influence our experience and interpretations of the books? How could it not? Rowling is able to focus our attention where she thinks it should be focused, gently prepare us for shocks such as the death of a beloved character, reinforce her thematic messages and character portrayals, explain seeming errors, and clear up any confusion as soon as it arises. In many cases, she can stop us from setting our hearts on some unrealistic expectation that she knows won’t come to pass. And, simply by communicating with us, she creates a rapport that makes us want to give her and her books the benefit of the doubt. Will this matter in the long run? I think it very well might. For one thing, there are possibly millions of us reading her website and being influenced by her words. For another, while the critical consensus is bound to change and evolve over time, we – the original Harry Potter readers – are providing the starting point. We are bending the twig from which the tree of critical response will grow.
Influencing the Critical Consensus
The most effective way for a writer to influence quality judgments about his or her work (besides improving the quality of the work!) is to influence the criteria by which it will be judged. Most critics, in fairness, will attempt to judge a work in relation to what its creator is trying to do. William Wordsworth wanted his poems to be considered as “emotions recollected in tranquility” and for the most part he has gotten his wish. Current literary norms make it harder for writers to choose the frames through which their works will be viewed, but they haven’t made it impossible. J.K. Rowling has already made many statements that people tend to refer to when discussing her works, statements that I believe will influence critical discussions of her place in literature.
First, Rowling is canny enough, or simply modest enough, to know that declaring one’s own work to be good is rarely effective, and generally counterproductive. On the rare occasions that she discusses her own skills as a writer, Rowling is humorously self-deprecating. For instance, her New Year Resolutions for 2006 included the following:
4. Follow advice from critics on how to be a better writer.
I always try to act on constructive criticism. When I fail, I attempt to embrace my faults and call them my ‘style’.38
She has always refused to try to analyze the cause of her great popularity,39 and when she inadvertently referred to her own upcoming book as “exciting,” she was quick to disclaim: “You don’t know! You might read six and think, Ah, I won’t bother.” 40
But Rowling has not failed to establish the criteria by which she wishes her work to be judged. Probably the most-mentioned one is her aspirations in respect to plot – she considers a tight, well-crafted, and surprising plot to be supremely important:
Because I had all these characters early on, and I felt I knew them inside-out, I concentrated on putting a massive amount of effort into each plot. I really love a well-constructed plot. In fact, plot is such an important framework to me when I write, that before I had finished the first book, I had plotted all seven books about Harry.41
She frequently mentions Jane Austen’s Emma as her ideal for plot construction:
“I love a good whodunnit and my passion is plot construction. Readers loved to be tricked, but not conned,” Rowling says, warming to her theme. “The best twist ever in literature is in Jane Austen’s Emma. To me she is the target of perfection at which we shoot in vain.” 42
She has said several times that it is important to her to wrap up all her loose ends:
JEREMY PAXMAN: Are you going to have a lot of loose ends to tie up in 7?
JK ROWLING: Oh god, I hope not. I’m aiming to tie it all up neatly in a nice big knot… that’s it, good night.43
A second standard that she has often mentioned is that she considers her works to be character-based and wants them to reflect the realities of adolescence, most particularly the changes that take place in respect to hormones and social/sexual development:
…mine are very character-driven books, and it’s so important, therefore, that we see these characters fall in love, which is a necessary part of life.44
I want Harry Potter and his friends to grow up as well as older, though I’ll keep it all humorous, well within the tone of the books. I want them eventually to be truly 17 and discover girlfriends and boyfriends and have sexual feelings – nothing too gritty. Why not allow them to have those feelings? 45
She is quite explicit that she wants her books to be funny:
One rainy afternoon she told her sister, Di, the story of Harry and gave her those first chapters to read. “It’s possible that if she hadn’t laughed, I would have set the whole thing on one side,” Rowling says today.46
In more general terms, Rowling has often repeated that her most basic goal is to write entertaining stories of the kind she herself likes to read and that she aspires to an audience from about age eight up to adulthood.
I would also like to think that readers enjoy my stories because they are simply good stories. I’ve had so much fun writing them and I hope kids have as much fun reading them.47
I set out to write something I knew I would enjoy reading, at the age of… I was twenty-five when I had the idea, and I thought I would enjoy reading it. I was twenty-five and I knew I would have enjoyed reading it at twelve. […] I always find it quite patronizing – ‘What do children want?’, as though they’re a separate species. They are… the same as us, with less life experience. So I never write with an imaginary focus-group of eight-year-olds in mind, I write entirely for myself.48
She has repeatedly and vehemently stated that it is not her goal to teach moral lessons to children:
Children’s books aren’t textbooks. Their primary purpose isn’t supposed to be “Pick up this book and it will teach you this.” It’s not how literature should be. You probably do learn something from every book you pick up, but it might be simply how to laugh. It doesn’t have to be a slap-you-in-the-face moral every time. I do think the Harry Potter books are moral books, but I shudder to think that any child picking one up would get three chapters in and think, Oh, yeah, this is the lesson we’re going to learn this time.49
However, she has indicated the themes that she believes are important in her work, primarily the theme of death and loss:
Death is an extremely important theme throughout all seven books. I would say possibly the most important theme. If you are writing about Evil, which I am, and if you are writing about someone who is essentially a psychopath, you have a duty to show the real evil of taking human life.50
She feels it is important to show the true face of evil:
Because I, I’m dealing with evil, I’m t— I’m trying to examine what happens to this community when a maniac tries to take over, and, erm, that… with all its ramifications[…]. And if you are going to write about those kinds of things, I think you have a moral obligation to show what that involves, and not to prettify it, or to minimise it.51
She has stated several times that she views her works and morality as part of a Christian religious framework:
“Yes, I am [a Christian],” she says. “Which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’ve been asked if I believe in God, I’ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.” 52
And, finally, she has clearly indicated that she wants her works to promote tolerance and acceptance:
Sometimes I get asked ‘What would be your recipe for a happier life?’ And I’ve always said ‘A bit more tolerance from all of us.’ 53
I would hope that it has made people think, I mean I do not write the books thinking what is my message for today, what is my moral, that is not how I set out to write a book at all. I am not trying to criticise or make speeches to you in any way, but at the same time, it would be great if the people thought about bullying behaviour or racism.54
She does not want her books to be seen as sexist:
McCormick: This is a question from Bridget from Toronto, and she’s 12. Bridget’s wondering, “Why did you create a magical society where men and women play such traditional roles? It seems most of the women Wizards pitter and patter around the house while the men do all the dark work.”
Rowling: […] no, I don’t think that’s true. I’ve said this before. I sometimes feel frustrated in that I’m just over halfway through the series. It’s like being interrupted halfway through a sentence and someone saying, “I know what you’re going to say.” No, you don’t. When I’ve finished, then we can have this discussion, because at the end of book seven, then I can talk about everything in a full and frank way.55
She also does not want to be judged as promoting prejudices based on weight and appearance:
from the “Rubbish Bin” section of her website] JKR has no right to talk about the glorification of unhealthily underweight women in some sections of the media, because there’s a fat boy in her books.
There have been several variants of this story, all of which were written by people who had either never read past chapter two of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’, or chose simply to ignore what the rest of us fondly term ‘facts’. I thought of listing all the many characters in the Harry Potter books who are on the plumper side, to demonstrate what a very diverse group of personalities they are, how they include several of my most important, admirable and lovable characters, and how ‘overweight’ in no way equates to ‘bad’ in my fictional world…56
I believe this set of quotes represents the opinions of J.K. Rowling that are most likely to contribute to the lasting critical judgment of her works. Some of them have become important because she has said them so many times – clearly showing that they are essential to her. Others are important because they address issues that critical discussion tends to concentrate on or because they represent her attempts to defend her work against criticism that it has already received.
From J.K. Rowling’s perspective, her books will be a success if they are entertaining and funny stories, moral but not preachy, with a meticulously well-crafted, surprising plot, and interesting characters who grow up in a realistic way. She believes the most important themes to be found in the books involve death, loss, and evil, and hopes that they will encourage tolerance and discourage racism and prejudice, including prejudice against women or the overweight. It is not at all certain, of course, that those who discuss and write about Rowling’s books will accept these as important goals or – even if they do – that they will agree that Rowling has succeeded in meeting her own standards. But it is very likely that her statements will contribute to the discussion in some way. The more vividly-phrased, entertaining, and persuasive her words about her own books are, the more likely they are to be remembered and discussed.
It remains to be seen how the Harry Potter books will fare in the judgment of history; most serious critical consideration will probably not begin until the series is complete. It remains to be seen whether any of J.K. Rowling’s words about her own works will be quoted and remembered, whether her work will be viewed from the perspectives she herself prefers, or whether her many expressions of authorial intent will be austerely disregarded, as literary theory demands. But no one will be able to say she hasn’t tried. Rowling’s great popularity has given her numerous opportunities to influence how her work is viewed and she has seized many of them. She has refused to be “dead” and has staked her claim on her own works. We will have to wait and see whether and to what degree posterity accepts that claim as valid.
1. Wimsatt and Beardsley, “Intentional Fallacy,” paragraph 1.
2. Ibid., paragraph 4.
3. Barthes, “Death of the Author,” paragraph 7.
4. Austen, “Letter to Cassandra Austen.”
5. Tolkien, “Foreword,” x-xii.
6. Wordsworth. “Preface,” 173.
7. The Harry Potter Lexicon, “Welcome Message.”
8. Fraser, “Harry and me.”
9. Jenkins. “Fan Writing as Textual Poaching.”
10. Rowling, World Book Day Chat.
11. Rowling, “Edinburgh Book Festival.”
12. Jones, “Return of Harry Potter.”
14. Grossman, “Hogwarts And All.”
15. Pratchett, “Pratchett clarifies Rowling remarks.”
16. Mitchell, “Writers debate Harry Potter.”
17. Springen, “Writing Dynamo.”
19. Rowling, “What is the significance, if any, of Mark Evans?”
20. Vander Ark, “Neither Here Nor There.”
21. Rowling, Interview by Christopher Lydon.
22. Rowling, “Edinburgh Book Festival.”
23. Anelli and Spartz, “TLC/MN interview Part Three.”
24. Rowling, “Lily Potter Was Once a Death Eater.”
25. Ibid., “Edinburgh Book Festival.”
26. Ibid., “Squibs.”
27. Rowling, Evening with Harry, Carrie and Garp.
28. Anelli and Spartz, “TLC/MN interview Part Two.”
29. BBC Newsround, “JK Pottering about Internet.”
30. Mzimba, “Transcript of Interview”: “Friends of mine were telling me what’s on there and I’d never gone looking before. First time, I thought I was never coming back, it’s too scary. Some of the stuff that’s out there is very weird.”
31. Ibid., “Newsround talks to Rowling”: “For my own mental health it’s best not to go onto the internet and type in Harry Potter too often because it’s scary!”
32. Rowling, Interview by Jeremy Paxman.
33. Rowling, “Chatroom Uninterested in JKR’s Theories.”
34. Ibid., “Edinburgh Book Festival.”
35. Ibid., “What did Dumbledore’s Howler to Aunt Petunia mean?”
36. Ibid., “NAQ.”
37. Leaky Lounge. “James’ Invisibility Cloak”
38. Lexicon, “New Year’s Writing Resolutions,” #4.
39. Examples include MacPherson, “Potter goes to Washington,” Garcia, “Pottermania in Vancouver,” and Richards, “January Profile,” among others.
40. Grossman, “Hogwarts And All.”
41. Loer, “From Quidditch to Sorting Hat.”
42. Boquet, “Wizard Behind Harry Potter.”
43. Rowling, Interview by Jeremy Paxman.
44. Anelli and Spartz, “TLC/MN interview Part Three.”
45. Renton, “Story behind Potter legend.”
46. Dunn, “From Dole to Hollywood.”
47. Loer, “From Quidditch to Sorting Hat.”
48. Rowling, Interview by Nigel Ballard.
49. Jones, “Return of Harry Potter.”
50. Rowling, “Harry Potter and Me.”
51. Rowling, Interview by Nigel Ballard.
52. Wyman, “Frank words for religious right.”
53. Rowling, Interview by Shelagh Rogers.
54. Ibid., “Cub reporter” press conference.
55. Ibid., Interview by Shelagh Rogers.
56. Rowling, “JKR has no right to talk.”
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