I’m writing a novel. Last month, I wrote a twenty-seven page character outline. In it, I detail my protagonist’s first crush, her favorite summer sandals, and the first time she cried so hard she passed out. I don’t think any of these details will make it into the book.
Then, I wrote about her parents. I wrote about their unhappy marriage, the son they lost to SIDS but never talk about, and her mother’s affair with her therapist. I don’t think any of these details will make it into the book either.
My novel follows my protagonist’s story for one year in a dystopian future, but I know her entire life. I know her parent’s lives too. I know the full names and birthdays of every raider she meets on the road and whether they’d prefer chocolate or vanilla ice cream.
I’m what you could call an architect writer, and so is J.K. Rowling.
Rowling is under extreme scrutiny for “retconning:” adding details that weren’t in the books via tweets and interviews. This has ruffled many people the wrong way. Some fans say what’s written is law and Rowling shouldn’t add to her own canon. Some fans claim she’s forcing detail in an attempt to complete a diversity checkbox because, let’s face it, Hogwarts is very white.
But Rowling – while a personal inspiration and someone I’d very much like to have coffee with – has never been a literary god to me. I don’t believe in literary gods because writers, like me, are human. We forget this too often and crucify our idols the moment they stumble.
Rowling has stumbled for sure, but I think there are a few literary areas where the criticism surrounding her is inappropriate at best and harmful at worst. I’d like to talk about four of them.
At the start of this post, I gave examples of the sheer amount of information I have about my work-in-progress. I’m an architect writer; I need to see the origins of the webs I’m spinning.
Rowling is an architect writer too. She’s always been transparent about how much information she has on the Wizarding world.Her editors have forced her to cut major characters and plotlines from her completed manuscripts.
I do not believe for one second that Rowling is “making up” lore to appease fans. I think she had it – and has had it – for a very, very long time.
How did we forget this part? We asked Rowling for a Harry Potter Encylopedia.
Did we forget Mugglenet? Did we forget the hours spent reading and rereading interviews, dying for a pebble of information between each book release? Don’t you remember her website with all the secret, hidden easter eggs that would tease us with clues about future books? We begged Rowling for information, and for years she was tight-lipped about the Wizarding World.
Now she’s finally answering our questions, and we’re acting affronted, ungrateful, and shaming her for the very thing we demanded for over twenty years.
The best example of this is the Dumbledore and Grindelwald debacle. In an interview in 2007, a fan specifically asked about Dumbledore’s love life. Again, Rowling was asked, and she answered. Here is the exact transcript below:
Question: Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?
“My truthful answer to you… I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. [ovation.] … Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more because falling in love can blind us to an extent? But, he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that’s how I always saw Dumbledore. In fact, recently I was in a script read through for the sixth film, and they had Dumbledore saying a line to Harry early in the script saying I knew a girl once, whose hair… [laughter]. I had to write a little note in the margin and slide it along to the scriptwriter, “Dumbledore’s gay!” [laughter] If I’d known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!”
It’s Harry’s Story
In my novel, my protagonist falls in love, develops a deep, emotional friendship, and overcomes her abuser. These three characters are essential to my her character arc, but when they leave the scene, they cease to exist. Why?
Because the novel isn’t about them; it’s about my protagonist. Their backstories, quirks, hobbies, sexualities, traumas, and experiences only appear in my work if they directly affect my protagonist’s character arc.
Harry Potter is about, well, Harry Potter – he’s in the damn title of every book. It’s not Dumbledore’s story, Hermione’s story, or Ron’s story (although I think there’s a fan fiction written from the POV of Ron). Rowling wrote Harry Potter’s story – and Harry’s a bit of a narcissist. He doesn’t really care about the inner lives of the people around him when it doesn’t directly affect him. So why would we, as readers, reading a story about an unobservant, slightly narcissistic, adolescent boy know about Dumbledore’s sexuality – or anyone’s sexuality? We wouldn’t because Harry wouldn’t.
This is good storytelling: Rowling commits to her point-of-view and her protagonist. It would’ve been disingenuous of her to write about the private or personal lives of other characters unless Harry specifically stumbled upon them (like he did in Chamber of Secrets with Filch’s Kwikspell letter).
That doesn’t mean Rowling didn’t know about the other students at Hogwarts. Again, Rowling is an architect writer and probably does know much, much more about her secondary and tertiary characters than she put in the book. So, if we ask for this information, why shouldn’t Rowling – as the architect of her world – let us know what she already has written?
Harry Potter Belongs to Us All
Who owns a book once it’s published? Is it the publisher? The writer? Technically, they get the royalties, but what about the fans? Don’t the readers own the world too? Don’t they also get a stake in the story, especially a story like Harry Potter that’s shaped a generation and spawned countless fan fictions and fan arts and analytical essays? Who owns Harry Potter?
We all do.
We all have authority over Harry Potter. Fan art and fan fictions are valid. Cosplays are valid. Re-imaginings are valid. Opinions on the characters, their choices, and their portrayals are valid.
Rowling’s voice is valid too. If she says wizards vanished their poop before indoor plumbing was invented, then that’s what they did. We don’t have to like it, but we also can’t tell her she’s wrong.
Once art is published, the artist and the audience begin an open relationship. Feedback is valid, but an author’s authority is also valid. Rowling has stated that The Cursed Child is canon. I’m not very happy with this, but I can’t deny her author authority over her own world. In the same way, Rowling can’t deny her fans the freedom to explore the series creatively through their own interpretations of fan art and fan fiction. It’s a two-way street.
Plus, Rowling has been kind to the creative community for years. Some of these fan fictions are not PG. Some of them assassinate her main character’s personalities and motives. Some of them are straight up erotica. Instead of shutting them down, she’s let them grow. Now her fans are shutting her down, and I think that’s a bit hypocritical.
But… The Criticism Is Valid
Okay, I lied, there are five points.
While I think the hyperbolic memes that have driven Rowling off Twitter have gone above and beyond productive civil discussion and into the realm of harassment and deconstruction, criticism of our media and art is valid. In fact, it’s essential.
Rowling’s books are not perfect. I think if she wrote them today, they’d read very different in both in content and style. Criticizing Rowling’s work doesn’t necessarily mean we dislike it; it means we care about improving our literary standards.
Exempting art – any art – from criticism stifles our ability to grow.
For many years, Rowling’s Harry Potter books felt above criticism. As I mentioned before, the fandom looked at Rowling like an infallible god. That was wrong. Our artists are people, not gods. They shouldn’t be immune to constructive criticism. How else are we to mature as people – and as a society – without it? I think a lot of the criticis regarding Rowling’s writing, content, and the Fantastic Beasts movies are valid.
But we need to stop with the character assassination. We’ve fallen into this trap where criticism equals an unyielding personal destruction by a social media mob. That’s not okay. We need to criticize in a way that allows for positive change, and we – the Harry Potter fandom – haven’t been doing that.
If you’re looking for the perfect role model, the beacon of justice and temperance, the hero who never misspeaks and never has a bad day, is always at the forefront of changing attitudes and values, and has a closet full of stylish cardigans but absolutely no skeletons, I have bad news for you:
You will never find them.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
I’m not sure how this whole “Rowling Retconning” debacle will end. I don’t blame Rowling if she never returns to the public sphere; she doesn’t owe us anything, especially at the cost of her mental and emotional health.
I wrote this blog because, as a writer, one day I will begin a relationship with my work and my readers. I will receive reviews, praise, hopefully some awesome fan art, and – yes – a lot of criticism. It’s inevitable, and I want to listen to it with an open mind. I’ve said this before in some of my other posts, but I don’t believe in peaking as a writer. I will always work on my craft.
But the literary world is harsh and unforgiving right now. My stories aren’t full of sunshine either: they’re about flawed characters that make lots of bad decisions – like me. Am I doomed to fall victim to the plague of public character assassinations? I’m letting you know right now: my closet is full of noisy skeletons. Don’t ever look to me as a literary beacon.
I believe, as readers, writers, and literary critics, we need to revisit our goals: when we share hyperbolic (and often cruel) memes about Rowling retconning her own story – what are we trying to do? Are we really trying to open a discussion about literary ownership, architect writers, and the value of additional information after a book is published?
Or are we spitefully enjoying the fall of a literary god we created in the first place?
I think I know the answer.