Friday 11 March 2016

Harry Potter and the Word of God; or, Reading - You're Doing it Wrong - Catherine Butler

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.


Sue Purkiss said...

With regard to Michelle Smith's view that people aren't interested in what the author 'meant' - this sounds to me like the way literary criticism was taught at A-Level the late 60s: we were given an anonymous poem/piece of prose, and told that we must examine it exactly as it appeared - we didn't need any context (not even knowledge of the author), because the work must be examined and judged on its own merits. (Well, that's how I remember it - I expect someone will tell me I got it all wrong!) This seemed absurd to me at the time, and it still does.

However, on the other side: when I was writing my book The Willow Man, I went to interview Serena de la Hey, the artist who created the eponymous Willow Man beside the M5 near Bridgwater. She spoke about how the statue (if that's what you call it - I've never known quite how to define it) had caught the imagination of so many people, who had contacted her to tell her what they thought and felt about it. Some people saw it as being connected to the tradition of the whicker men which were part of pagan rites - something which she said hadn't occurred to her. I asked her how she felt about that, and she said without an ounce of hesitation that once she's created something, it's not hers any more; it's gone out into the world and must find its own way - people must make of it what they will. I thought that was very interesting.

(But I think she said that she still does own it in a legal sense, so if it's broke, she's the one who has to see about fixing it. And there's an expectation from the public that she will do so, because it's become such an iconic figure. And yet she always saw it as something with a limited life - it is made of willow, after all. So it's not like a book in that sense, because I guess most authors secretly hope their book will go on and on - a bit like Rose on the Titanic!)

Catherine Butler said...

I suspect your late-sixties teachers were more influenced by Wimsatt and Beardsley's "Intentional Fallacy", which lays stress on the text as an independent artefact, than by Barthes' "Death of the Author", which argues that authors should be seen more as rearrangers of existing words and ideas than as fonts of originality. One comes from the Anglo-American New Critical tradition, the other from French structuralism - but the net result is somewhat equivalent in cutting the author out of the critical picture. I agree that it's a somewhat perverse conclusion in both cases, when you consider readers' actual behaviour.

That's very interesting about the willow man (now sadly surrounded by a Somerfield depot - sniff!)! I simply assumed that the wicker man was in the mix.

Susan Price said...

Very interesting piece, Catherine. Thank you.

I think it's ridiculous to try and part a text from its author completely, since every writer is going to shape their writing from the myths - Urban and ancient - which have influenced them, from the books they've read, the times they've lived in, their personal experience, and so on.

I think it's equally ridiculous to expect any reader to shed all of their own influences and experiences and consider a text solely as an expression of a particular writer. All writers of a given time shape each other anyway - which is why you can identify the period of a piece of writing, often from a single line.

And readers influence writers. After I published The Sterkarm Handshake, female readers used to sidle up to me and whisper their sometimes rather frank appreciation of the hero, Per Sterkarm. This took me aback somewhat, since he's a thug. So I wrote the second book, A Sterkarm Kiss, with the intention of demonstrating just what a thug he is - the books are set in different dimensions of time-space, but the character is the same. Readers then explained to me that they were two entirely different men - the good and evil twins, if you like - although for me, the whole point is that the character is identical and only the circumstanes around him change. But, though I might disagree, I'm not going to try and dictate how my readers want to read my books. It's a two-way street.

I've also, as a thorough athiest, had the Christian feeling behind my stories explained to me - but I don't mind this at all. It's all part of the fun and I find it interesting and stimulating as well as amusing.

Perhaps my readers pick up on things I'm not aware of? Even if that's not what's happening, they're entitled to interprete, elaborate, embroider as they please - as I do when I watch a film, read a book, look at a painting.

My brother once painted a still life of a pile of lego bricks, some toy soldiers and a CD player. He painted these things because he wanted to paint and those were the objects available. He liked the bright colours. The CD player was black, made a background, and set off the colour. A friend, who liked the finished painting, gave a long, detailed explanation of how the painting was about the destruction of war - the lego bricks were broken, tumbled walls, the red bricks were blood, the white ones death. I think the yellow ones were propaganda, for some reason. The CD player represented the corruption of media during wartime. "But," said my brother, "that was just what was lying about, that no one else would want to move. They're just objects and colours."

But if that was what the friend saw and understood when she looked at the painting, who's to say she was wrong?

Sue Purkiss said...

Mm. I remember a librarian asking me, after a talk on Warrior King, to discuss the 'gold and silver imagery', which she said she'd really enjoyed. I'd been quite unaware of it - one character had dark gold hair, and another had silver eyes, but that was about it as far as I'd known. Fascinating!

Sue Bursztynski said...

As I recall, Joanne Rowling was amazed at how many of her readers adored Snape whom she described as "a horrible man!" But in the end, she gave him a heroic role to play and had Harry remember him in the middle name of his son. So her readers weren't completely wrong, were they?

I have found myself sputtering, "But, but..." when something of mine is misinterpreted. I wrote a short story some years ago in which a girl goes out with her loutish brothers one fine mediaeval morning to hunt a unicorn. They succeed and she finds herself feeling dirty afterwards. Someone wrote an enthusiastic review on line saying it was all symbolic of the girl's maturing and growing up. I thought, "Huh?" I was too polite to write and tell the author he'd missed the point.

More recently, my novel Wolfborn got a mention in an academic book on the Middle Ages in children's fiction. A university academic, writing about my book! Wow!

Boy, did she get it wrong. Her two pages about it(more than she gave to Tolkien!) showed she had skimmed at least some of it, including the first couple of pages, and missed the point of the rest. It's not that she said anything truly horrible, but she missed some important points.
Still. Sooner or later we will all pass away and people will just have to decide for themselves what we're saying. I recommend Isaac Asimov's short story "The Immortal Bard." :-)

Megen de Bruin-Molé said...

I'm trying to puzzle this out myself! Would love to chat to you about it sometime. I did read a rather interesting article recently called 'What Does it Matter Who is Speaking? Authorship, Authority, and the Mashup' that I think makes some valid points (also with reference to Barthes):