Death of the Author

There are Harry Potter spoilers in this post AFTER the break.

Amazingly enough, as a children’s literacy professional, I am on several email discussion lists about (wait for it) children’s literature. Shocking, I know.

So, just in case you live in a cave, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out on July 21st. Hopefully you won’t be surprised to hear that most discussion lately on these lists has revolved around the adventures of some teenage wizards and final showdown with big bad Lord Voldemort.

But here’s what’s gotten everyone’s panties in a twist–the fact that J. K. Rowling has the GALL AND NERVE to go on live television and in live chat sessions with fans and give them information about the lives of her characters that didn’t make it into the epilogue.

Now, I’m no literary theorist. But, apparently, there’s a school of thought by one of the big philosopher names I’ve never read nor studied, about the Death of the Author. And that’s what these people are arguing for. The book is the only evidence we get of the story– everything beyond what is on the page is up to the reader. If she hasn’t published it, it doesn’t count. And therefore all of her interviews, answering fan’s questions, are narcissim and unfairly intrusive on the reader’s experience.

Excuse me?!

Seriously? An author who has spent over a decade crafting the life of this young man doesn’t get to say what he does as a career because she couldn’t work that piece of information into the epilogue?

These are the same people that are upset because some fans fail to recognize that these characters aren’t real. So, if Harry Potter is not a real boy but rather the spawn of Rowling’s imagination, why doesn’t Rowling get to say what happens? She thought him up. Every single action of his has been controlled by her. Why doesn’t she get the final word on his career choice, even if she didn’t work it into the text?

Most authors, if asked that question, would have said “What do you think happens?” I’m sorry, but that’s a crap answer. I have several ideas on what happens, but it wasn’t my story to tell. I didn’t spend years laboring over these characters. You did. Answer the damn question.

What did I think happened? I thought Harry, who is rather wealthy and has only ever wanted a family, became a stay-at-home dad. Rowling says he became auror and completely revolutionized the department. I’m ok with that. I like that answer. And I think Rowling’s answer is more valid. She made him up. She killed him. She brought him back to life. She should get final word on his career path.

She wrote this story. She made these people up. She knows a hell of a lot more about them then even the biggest fan. Was I disappointed with the epilogue? Sure. It didn’t end with “He grows up and marries you.” Which, like Lisa Simpson, is what I wanted to hear. But, I will admit, that would have been a rather odd ending, as I’m already married. And Harry Potter isn’t real.

How do I feel about the story she’s still telling in the press? I love it. I love the extra information. She invented this world, she gets to embroider it. I love that Luna is a naturalist. I was curious as to why none of the kids we met at the end were named Fred. I’m glad to know that George was on top of that. I’m relieved to find out that, yes, Hermione successfully unmodified her parents’ memories, because it would have been too heartbreaking otherwise.

It’s Rowling’s world. Let her play in it.


10 Responses to Death of the Author

  1. Will says:

    I’m with you insofar as saying that J.K. Rowling isn’t violating some sacred trust when she talks about what she plans to happen. However, I don’t think that “What do you think happens?” is a cop-out. Lots of writers don’t know what’s going to happen until they write it. In fact, Rowling is notorious for planning things (Arthur Weasely’s death, “scar”, etc.) that don’t pan out when she writes them. If she were to write a sequel set after the epilogue, she might very well find that Harry Potter in fact was a stay-at-home dad and not an auror.

    Basically, although I wouldn’t say that author’s thoughts outside their writing are worthless, I definitely privilege the information that’s in the book. Everything else is in flux, at least potentially.

  2. TheGnat says:

    A major part of the field of Media Studies is studying how an author ceases to truly “own” their own works. While the author is certainly the creator, at some point in the process as the work transitions to the reader/viewer, the work changes. You could say that media studies types think of works in the same way as Schroedinger’s Cat. By being observed, it’s state is determined, or in this case, changed. That’s why I never think of “well, what do you think happens?” as a cop out. And some philosophers would argue that Harry Potter *does* exist beyond J.K. Rowling’s control, that that which is imagined is also an entity. I’ve certainly felt that way about most of my role-playing characters. At some point they become developed well enough that occasionally, they end up doing things that surprise me. If what Will says is true, then without actually writing it, Rowling might *not* actually know what will happen to Harry in the future. 🙂

  3. Jennie says:

    If you don’t know, it’s not a cop-out, but several of the people in the discussion are authors. Really well-known ones that I’m in utter awe of. And that’s what they say to any sort of question that wasn’t directly answered in the text. I mean, if they’re asking about something you haven’t explored, that’s fine, but if you know the answer, then dude, there’s an answer.

    And I agree that Rowling might change her mind. Original versions had Harry’s parents living on an island and Hermione’s dad seeing the explosion and rescuing young Harry.

    I think my main gripe is that people think she’s ruining the reading experience and that it’s narcissism when she claims she knows more than she’s written. Dude, of course she knows more than she’s written. I have a feeling most authors do.

  4. Jennie says:

    Sure, Harry Potter exists in world outside Rowling’s control. Just look at the pronunciation of Voldemort. In the early audio books it’s pronounced the French way (which is how Rowling pronounces it, with a silent “t”.) In the later ones and in the movies, it’s with a final T.

    But I don’t think that makes Rowling’s ideas on what happens on the same level as any random fan-ficcer (which is what one person compared it to). I still think her ideas on where this thing would go are more valid than anyone else’s, even if they aren’t set in stone.

  5. Jennie says:

    An interesting sidenote– Rachel Cohn has said (most noticeably in the flap copy for her book Shrimp) that she wrote Shrimp because readers kept asking her what happened next, after Gingerbread, and she wanted to know those answers, too.

    Not all authors know everything, I know. But Rowling has some very deep-rooted ideas about her characters. Sharing them doesn’t ruin my reading experience at all.

    Gnat– do you read the Thursday Next books? There’s a great scene in the latest, First Amongst Sequels in which Thursday’s in a book that’s being read.

  6. TheGnat says:

    Jennie, I think it *is* a bit narcissistic and a bit of messing up the reading experience. Part of the reading experience of reading anything is using your own imagination to try to think of things that aren’t written. It’s narcissism (but only a little) because in my opinion, the only purpose it serves is to keep attention and interest on her. Authors who won’t give answers tend to be a lot less in the spotlight. Most authors have “deep-rooted ideas about their characters”. It has a lot to do with the nature of writing.

    Of course, in Western society, we really do think of an author as a god of his own works, especially with the way we treat copyright. In Japan on the other hand, people can *sell* fanfiction legally, and rarely is there a complaint by the original author. There’s usually praise, encouragement, or enjoyment by the author.

    “voldemort” sounds like “Vole of Death!!!” to me. I suspect the name isn’t supposed to invoke the image of a tiny shrew-like creature with black ribbons tied to it’s ears…

  7. Jennie says:

    But I think it’s silly to suggest that the media spotlight wouldn’t be on her anyway right now. And I give JKR a lot of credit. She has no problem with fanfic as long as you don’t make a profit on it and is even ok with NC-17 rated fic as long as minors can’t access it. (In the way you can really make anything online inaccessible to minors.)
    There aren’t a lot of authors who are down with that.

    If you have a pretty good idea on a question that wasn’t answered in the text, I don’t think it’s wrong to share that with your fans. If you have a strong idea about what’s going to happen, and you aren’t planning on incorporating that into a sequel, why not share it?

    I think leaving it all up to the reader because “now it’s in your hands” seems a bit fake to me. Pretending you no longer have control over characters that you created and put through the ringer for our enjoyment or to make some sort of point dealing with your personal agenda seems so… affected tortured artiste. If you want to couch it in “I think she went on to do….” that’s fine. And a lot of what Rowling has said recently has said “I think…”

    Plus, she’s isn’t giving a lot of information on what happens post-epilogue. She’s just filling in the epilogue holes.

    I do love the image of a shrew like Voldemort with black ribbons on his ears…

  8. Jennie says:

    Also, what about when Bradbury came out a few months ago and said that we’ve all misunderstood Fahrenheit 451? (Which Geek Buffet discussed here. Was he wrong to do so?

  9. Dana says:

    I don’t think it’s bad for JKR to answer a question about what she thinks directly. Nor was it wrong of Ray Bradbury to tell people what Fahrenheit 451 was all about, in his opinion. The main difference is that Bradbury was hitting back at the world for misinterpreting him, and wants his answer to be definitive, whereas JKR was simply answering a question she was asked, and not issuing a press release stating, “All speculation about what happened to Harry Potter post-book must follow these guidelines, as clearly my imagination is the only one that counts here.”

    I’d say that just because she has relinquished some power over the interpretation of her books by letting them out alone into the world doesn’t mean that she is now never allowed to answer questions about them again. Jennie’s right; she’d be in the spotlight right now anyway.

  10. […] with a bit of reference to Jennie’s post about the concept of Death of the Author: Her characters continued living their lives even if she hadn’t mentioned them for decades. She […]

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