I recently saw a post on Tumblr that read ‘Being gay isn’t a choice, it’s an involuntary thing that happens when J.K. Rowling decides it’s your time’. I couldn’t stop laughing when I first read this because it seemed so painfully true. It perfectly encapsulates the annoyed amusement of many Harry Potter fans that Rowling just won’t let her universe go, but continues to hover over it like a moderating mother hen. Over the last twelve years, she has continued to reveal ‘details’ about her characters such as the sexual orientation of Dumbledore and the possibility of Hermione being black, but only after the books have become best sellers. In the case of Harry Potter, these are specifications that are either unacknowledged or blatantly contradicted in the actual text, with Dumbledore described as having only a close friendship with Grindelwald, and Hermione’s ‘white face’ being explicitly described peering out from behind a tree.
Rowling just won’t let her universe go
The fact that these are groups that struggle with representation in canonical literature makes it difficult not to read Rowling’s decision to include them only retrospectively as a questionable political statement, an attempt to seem inclusive without going to the trouble of actually writing a gay character or confronting these issues head on. It must be queried whether these ‘clarifications’ were pre-made decisions on Rowling’s part or ‘giving readers what they want’ in a mercenary bid to keep her books relevant.
However, this question opens a more general debate over the extent to which an author has the authority to maintain control over the world they create after it has assimilated into popular imagination. Roland Barthes is well known for his ‘death of the author’ theory, the idea that once a work is out in the world the author’s ownership of it becomes irrelevant. This freedom of interpretation which most readers consider themselves entitled to has often resulted in conflict between author and reader. Famously, George Bernard Shaw firmly advocated that Eliza was not to fall in love with professor Higgins in his play Pygmalion; and yet the actors manipulated his language, contrary to his wishes, to do exactly this. Anyone familiar with the play’s musical adaptation My Fair Lady will know it as one of the most famous love stories of all time.
The reader or viewer has always played an active role in shaping the literary work itself
Clearly, the reader or viewer has always played an active role in shaping the literary work itself. However, the development of social media such as Twitter has facilitated a much broader discourse between author and reader, as demonstrated by Rowling using it to constantly expand her universe. With almost every reader having access to platforms where they can challenge the author directly, the modern author is able to have a much wider sense of the reception of their work and respond to it. Because of this, it is now possible for widespread interpretations to directly influence the literature itself, as it becomes impossible to know whether changes made to story-worlds were always part of the author’s intention or originated out of audience response. While some may argue this process undermines the integrity of a literary work, it points to a new and more mutually dependent relationship between author and reader in future literature.
Social media has facilitated a much broader discourse between author and reader
In addition, it seems worth noting that movements among readers to adapt a character often revolve around an issue of representation, such as criticism centred around re-imagining characters from Orsino to Lucy Snow as LGBT. This interest has been responded to by authors with the phenomenon of what has been termed ‘queerbaiting’, depicting close friendships that border on homo-erotic to appeal to the LGBT community without explicitly creating LGBT characters which would risk alienating a wider audience, and this seems to capture what J.K. Rowling is doing. Whether LGBT relationships hinted at but not actually present (as in The Cursed Child) or ignored and then made into a grand and unexpected reveal (as in Harry Potter), Rowling dances around what is ultimately the erasure of LGBT characters in her works. Therefore, it seems that until these kinds of characters are explicitly created within mainstream fiction, readers will continue to challenge authors and utilise imagination to make existing characters their own.
Image by Dallas Epperson via Flickr.