J.K. Rowling has done it again, claiming ‘Dumbledore and Grindelwald had an incredibly intense sexual relationship’… which, naturally, doesn’t come through in source material.
This is the latest in a long line of Potter-comments turning increasing numbers of fans away from Rowling herself, invoking ‘the death of the author’. Lecturer Michelle Smith agrees, discussing Rowling’s retrospective diversity:
If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?
[D]epicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.
To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.
In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.[…]
Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.
When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.
If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.
Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.
So far, so convincing. Many people are sceptical of Rowling inserting representation long after it would have been bold to do so, claiming it was there all along, with scant evidence for it in the text itself. We don’t have to be fully committed to Barthes’ theory to be a bit tired of J.K’s twitter feed.
But I found another perspective, which raises a challenge to how we think about authors and their works – Classicist Caroline Bishop, contrasting modern and Roman views of authorship:
The criticism Rowling faces for her continued dabbling in the wizarding world interests me as a sign of how modern readers punish those who do not conform to the ideal of the dead author. What I find so interesting about this is that authors haven’t always had to stay dead. In fact, I suspect that if J.K. Rowling — spin-offs, prequels, Twitter feed and all — were transplanted back to ancient Rome, or to any period in which its literary tradition held sway, she might find a more welcoming audience.[…]
Roman attitudes towards authorship have not just served as examples for literary criticism that makes a virtue of unoriginality [adaptations, etc]. Their penchant for guiding the reception of their works has long had its adherents among authors, too. Dante’s ‘Letter to Cangrande’, an introduction to and allegorical interpretation of his ‘Divina Commedia’, is one notable case. […] More recently, J.K. Rowling has found herself in the company of several other authors and film-makers who continue to comment upon and expand their universes.
Rowling’s widespread unpopularity […] suggests these practices still make some modern readers uneasy. Perhaps it is because they remind us that claims of the death of the author have been greatly exaggerated. The meddling of J.K. Rowling and her ilk is a sign that authors really do exist, and that many of them can’t resist telling us how we should interpret their masterpieces. But the continued endurance of Roman literature suggests that this stance will always have adherents in addition to detractors. If we like a piece of art well enough to return to it over and over again, as has been the case with Roman literature — and up till now, at least, has also been the case with the Harry Potter books — in the long run we may come to sympathize with an author who finds herself compelled to do the same thing.
Intriguing – but are Rowling’s interventions flops because modern readers expect their authors dead? Or is it just that she’s worse at it than Cicero and Dante?
Are we all committed to authors staying dead now? Or would we have no problem with Rowling’s elaborations on the Wizarding World if they weren’t so, well, ridiculous?
Another point I’d raise is the role of choices influenced by financial incentives, rather than the internal logic of the Wizarding World. Scott Mendelson writes:
There is a real financial risk for a movie like ‘Fantastic Beasts’ having an openly gay lead or major supporting character. And I’d imagine that if J.K. Rowling knew she would be making movies featuring young Dumbledore, she never would have outed him. But now that she has, it’s an artistic conundrum that pits the fanbase against the general audiences, specifically in overseas territories with governmental censorship powers.
If authorial comments are made for commercial reasons, or other reasons separate from the integrity of the works themselves, perhaps this is a reason to be sceptical of their value whether or not we’re that committed to the death of the author.
It seems to me that the critical response to Rowling can’t be out of a wholesale opposition to writers discussing and expanding their own work. There are still people who read the ‘Silmarillion’, and curious fans routinely ask writers about aspects of their works. Hardcore Potter fans didn’t seem to have this much of an issue with Rowling in the earlier years of Pottermore, before things got so weird. I doubt everybody read Roland Barthes in the meantime.
Readers often enjoy writers elaborating on their former works – if the comments and additions strike true to the text, if they’re interesting, if they add value. If what they have to say doesn’t make us feel it was better left unsaid, or appear to have an ulterior motive. Even if author’s statements aren’t an iron law of the one objective right way to read the text, they can still be a worthwhile addition to the experience, similar to hearing what a friend thinks about it.
The problem isn’t writers commenting on their works. If their comments add something, readers will enjoy them – even if we still view the text in a way other than they intended. But if the author’s comments really stretch credulity, even an ancient Roman would prefer sticking to the source material.