A couple of weeks ago I was asked to write a short article for the online site, The Conversation, on the subject of J. K. Rowling’s use of social media. Social media is not my area of expertise (I’m not even on Twitter), but of course I went and wrote it anyway. It’s here, if you’d like to read it. Luckily, the subject intersects with one that I am interested in – namely, how far (if at all) authors should retain control over the meanings of their work once it’s published.
Please note, I’m not talking here about copyright law or intellectual property, but rather the moral and social force that comes from being the writer of a story, a character, a world. Rowling’s is not by any means a unique case, but it’s an especially interesting one because of her books’ unrivalled popularity and her numerous attempts to steer the way that they are read. To quote my article briefly:
An early and famous intervention was her suggestion in October 2007 that Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay. Predictably, many welcomed the intervention while others were horrified, and yet others complained that it would have been more liberating had Rowling not kept Dumbledore closeted until after publication was complete. […] Since then, Rowling has made extensive use of the internet in the form of her Pottermore website, which allows users to “enrol” at Hogwarts and rewards those who work through its various challenges with insights into the Potterverse and its history not present in the published texts. Like much fan fiction, these additions to the lore of Harry Potter work by elaborating backstories and filling gaps in our knowledge, but because their ultimate origin is Rowling herself they carry an authority that other fan speculations lack.
I was of course far from the first person to write on this subject, and as soon as my article hit the web my browser started helpfully pointing me to other contributions. For example, here is Michelle Smith, also in The Conversation. Smith invokes Barthes’s “Death of the Author” to deny any special status to Rowling’s comments, adding that “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.”
I’m not sure who “we” is in this statement, but it’s certainly untrue of a great many readers. Not only does Rowling have almost 7 million Twitter followers, but at literary festivals, in Sunday magazines, on TV and radio, people are demonstrably interested in what authors mean (as well as in other things about them). Perhaps maintaining an austere indifference to such matters is part of what distinguishes the study of literature from merely reading and enjoying it, but I find that a difficult argument to sustain; indeed, it strikes me as wishful thinking. How much simpler life would be if we didn’t care about authors and their opinions, or let them infect our discussion of literature!
Still, there is a sense that writers should not have an entirely free rein to remake their creations retrospectively. A friend who’d read my article suggested that Rowling’s comments were a kind of “cheating”. But if so, what were the rules she had broken, and who wrote those rules?
Meanwhile, on the very day my article came out another piece on a similar topic appeared in Tor, with Emily Asher-Perrin arguing that Rowling’s writ still ran in the wizarding world because a) it’s hers, dammit, and b) she never said she’d finished playing with it. This may sound like a kindergarten solution to a dispute over a Wendy house, but I suspect it accords with the feelings of many readers. Even some who would describe Rowling’s opinion as just one among many when delivered by Tweet might defer to her right to expand the Potterverse in the form of a new novel.
So, what do you think? If you’re a writer, are you happy to say, “Go, little book”, to push your paper boat out into the great Pond of Literature to sink or swim; or do you try to police (however gently) the ways that it’s read – and what do you feel gives you the right to do so? If you’re a reader, do you instinctively defer to what authors say about their books and their meanings? And why, or why not?
I’d love to know.