J.K. Rowling Can Say What She Wants

indexBy now, many readers and book bloggers are likely aware of a controversial statement that was made recently by J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, in an interview with a British entertainment magazine, Wonderland.  In the interview (conducted, amusingly enough, by Emma Watson, the young and talented actress who plays Hermione in the film adaptations of Harry Potter) , Rowling allegedly indicates that two of the main characters, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, probably should not have ended up together after all, even though theirs was the primary romance in the series.

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” says Rowling. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

I have been asked numerous times over the last few days for my reaction.  The difficulty, for me, is in deciding which “cap” to put on in my response.  Are you asking me as a fan of the series?  Or are you interested in my interpretation of this as a scholar of literary theory?  Are you curious about how I think about this as a critic and a reader?  Or are you wondering about how I react to this as a writer who considers Rowling a master craftsperson?  There are so many ways to respond to this particular type of revelation, and while these categories are not necessarily mutually exclusive, I can certainly find possible “pros” and “cons” from each perspective.  I will do my best, though, to shape one coherent general response.

index2This statement has unleashed reactions similar to those which arose after Rowling indicated that another of her major characters, the Hogwarts Headmaster and Wizard-extraordinaire, Albus Dumbledore was gay.  Fans then, and now, split along lines of outrage at Rowling apparently “changing” the stories, on the one hand, and excitement over the  added depth (or possible reaffirmation of some fans’ original interpretations or desires about the characters), on the other hand. These kinds of reactions have much more to do with reader-response than with the quality or integrity of the text itself.  Reader-response theory tells us that each reader is going to react uniquely to a book (and to each reading of that book) based on the personal experiences, opinions, background, etc. that she brings to the text at the time of reading.  So, does this mean that people who (re)read the books after learning about Dumbledore or about Rowling’s shaping of Ron & Hermione’s relationship might read the books in a new way?  Possibly.  Do these things harm the text, or change it?  Not in the slightest – they just complicate the reading (for some).

In that first revelation, Rowling was accused by many of being a “coward” for not introducing Dumbledore’s homosexuality into the stories themselves, instead choosing to “drop it” on us in an interview after the fact.  My reaction was quite different; in fact, I had already read Dumbledore as a gay man, especially in the penultimate and final books (The Half-Blood Prince and The Deathly Hallows) where we learn much more about Dumbledore’s past.  But even excluding the clues which Rowling clearly dropped in the novels (and yes, they are clearly there, but it is not surprising or “wrong” if some readers overlooked these) there are two other problems I have with this negative reaction:

First, why does a character’s explicit heterosexuality or homosexuality need to be spelled out at all?  Most readers do not expect all elements of a plot or of a story’s characters, to be explicitly given to us – part of the fun in reading is in discovering these things.  Perhaps Rowling anticipated that more of her audience would have picked up on the nuances than actually did or perhaps she was asked a simple question (“did Dumbledore ever fall in love?”) and she gave a simple answer (“Yes, with a man named Grindelwald”).

Second, fans of the fantasy genre, in particular, should be accustomed to the fact that fantasy writers, particular those of complex, intricate, time-spanning series’ such as this one, often know much, much more about their characters and stories than they are ever able to incorporate into the series themselves; sometimes the additional information comes out in addenda – reissued editions, companion pieces, etc. Just look at all of the supplementary Tolkien works that take place in the lands of Middle Earth which have been released post-publication of the Lord of the Rings series!

Ultimately, I think it is Rowling’s right and privilege, as the author, both to reveal as much or as little as she wants about her characters and also to change her mind as she sees fit.  She is not changing the story, after all, just our understanding of how she came to imagine it and to craft it.  To add insult to injury, for some, is the fact that Emma Watson, our Hermione-incarnate, seems to agree with Rowling:

“I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy,” says Watson.

Emma_Watson_as_Hermione_Granger_(GoF-promo-05)So, the story writer and the woman who played the character for ten years and who knows her (Hermione) with an intimacy second only to Rowling herself, both agree that the relationship at the heart of the series might not be such a fairy tale.  And?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once killed-off his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, only to later change his mind about that.  Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein when she was very young, later looked back on the book with embarrassment and a completely different political perspective.  Writers have regrets, they rethink things, and they talk about it.  So what?  The outrage and hubbub are, in my opinion, just a tad overblown and largely unnecessary.  Sure, the series is the most popular of its kind in perhaps ever, so of course anything slightly controversial regarding it will become a topic of intense, heated, and sometimes hilarious social debate.  But, hey, at least Rowling didn’t follow her first instinct, which was to kill Ron.  Authorial intent is interesting in so far as it generates discussion and gets readers asking new questions, but, ironically, the reality is in the fiction – that world has already been created for us and must be taken as presented.

Let’s just enjoy the brilliance of the stories and the world that J.K. Rowling created.  We can and will react to the books in our own way, so why not let people – yes, even the author- say what they feel needs to be said about them.  In the end, all that matters is the experience you have with the books.  There is no right or wrong about that.

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27 thoughts on “J.K. Rowling Can Say What She Wants

  1. Thank you for this post! I’ve avoided every other post about this subject apart from the initial revelation, but I knew you’d have some valid points. I don’t understand the outrage behind this. Readers have the ability to take a story however they want. This revelation shouldn’t change anything, and there’s also no reason for anyone to upset with Rowling over said revelation. Period. Books can be taken how we want them to be taken. I personally will let the series stand as is.

    Also, since you brought it up, I had also read Dumbledore as a gay character in the series. For me, it didn’t matter that Dumbledore was gay. I’m obviously not opposed to it, but his purpose in the series was to act as the protector and mentor. Many characters don’t see any form of romantic interest, and so with Dumbledore it wasn’t important for the sake of his role in the series. It matters for the sake of Dumbledore, of course, as do all details matter for characters, but that doesn’t mean everything needs to be spelled out in the series. I don’t think it a cowardly move on Rowling’s part at all.

    Like you said, authors change their minds on things, or they leave things out for whatever reason. Both of these instances shouldn’t result in anyone being upset with Rowling. The book is set in stone, and we all get our own opinions and interpretations. To me, that’s the beauty of literature.

      1. Maybe she should uncover something like this every couple years just for the hell of it. It’s somewhat amusing to hear people freak out about it, and I do love these bits of information for what they are.

  2. Once a book, story, or poem is out in the world, it takes on an existence separate from the author and her intentions, and I think it’s fair game for anyone to interpret as they choose, including the author. I don’t think that Rowling’s admission about Ron and Hermione changes the story at all, and I don’t understand why some readers seem so angry. On the contrary, I enjoyed hearing about this because it gave some insight into Rowling’s writing process. I like hearing how authors see their writing differently after it’s outside of their brains and being interpreted by others.

    1. As an aspiring writer, I absolutely love hearing about her process, too, and the many choices she had to make (regrets or not). I do think she did a great job of realistically developing the Ron/Hermione relationship in the final books, as Ron grew and Hermione mellowed a bit – perhaps she crafted it better than even she realizes. But, I also understand the doubt she might have about making a choice based more on her personal feelings than on what would be specifically “required” by the world of the text. Maybe she lucked out in that it really worked, in the end.

  3. Just posted my own, slightly different, take on this. You make excellent points, but I disagree that she should continue to talk about it. Let the books speak for themselves. Regrets, we all have a few. Doesn’t mean we should share them.

    1. Ah, yes, then we completely disagree. I wouldn’t want to curse a writer into permanent silence about her work. And, in this case in particular, she was talking to Emma Watson, perhaps the one person who might best understand the situation (though, granted, it was an interview which would ultimately be publicized widely). In any event, I don’t see the need to mute writers from talking about their works – but that doesn’t mean we need to allow it to change our own experience with them. For me, it just adds an interesting layer to my understanding of her creative process, without detracting from the magic of the stories. I can understand how some might be bothered by this, though.

  4. Excellent! Excellent!
    (And this coming from perhaps the one person who hasn’t read ANY of these books, nor seen the movies!!)
    I know, I know. Maybe they will be on my 2015 TBR list.:)

    But I agree, the author may say as she wishes, and the reader may interpret as they wish.
    I’m certain that every book I read is skewed a little with my point of view anyway.
    An authors original intent my never make it to my brain.:)

  5. I’ve always wondered why Ron and Hermione ended up together. It seemed more like a “we want weddings at the end” thing than like something that would actually happen. Why can’t Ron and Hermione meet other people? (OTOH I do quite like Ginny and Harry. No problems there IMO.)

    At any rate, I agree with your premise. Authors can have thoughts about their books, and talk about those thoughts. :)

    1. Well, I’m one who enjoys the Ron/Hermione outcome (possibly because it reminds me of my own relationship – we are very much an ‘opposites attract’ kind of couple!), so I suppose I could be one of those outraged by this but, you know, I’ve explained why I’m not. :)

  6. I just saw this interview this past weekend. I think you’ve reviewed it very civilly. I agree that as the writer she can reveal whatever plot twists and craft notes she’d like. Readers can be happy with what she chose for publication but I don’t think it’s fair to criticize her for presenting another possibility.
    What I found most interesting is her thought process about marriage for rethinking the romantic outcome. Since I work in a family planning clinic, I see the need for teens to learn about healthy relationships and communication styles. Ron and hermione are cute, but did their actions toward one another really demonstrate respect and longevity in a partnership? I think it’s debatable. And that’s why I just find her comments really interesting.

  7. Excellent post! I love the books as written, and it was clear from the start that JK Rowling was setting up Ron and Hermione to be together. But it’s interesting to me to hear what Rowling thinks about the books and the world even separate from what she wrote — it doesn’t have to become part of my own reading of the books.
    (That said, I don’t think Harry and Hermione would have been any good together.)

  8. I’ve read your post and all comments with an amused expression on my face, Adam. I am not a Harry Porter fan. Infact, I’ve never read any of the series. I only occasionally watch the series on TV when my kids are glued to it, and even then only briefly.
    However, I do believe sincerely that J K Rolling can say or do whatever she wants with her characters. After all she created them. She may not have written out the scripts for the film adaptation but she created the characters in her book the way she wanted. If, later she decides to make some gay or some have some romantic entanglements, all the better to add spice or create just such an avenue for literary debate. Frankly I don’t see the uproar about this.
    Excellent post, Adam;;, as always

  9. Very well written piece!
    When she made the announcement of Dumbledore, I was not surprised. When she made this announcement, I was taken back for a bit, but again, not really surprised. She made very valid points about their relationship, as did Emma Watson. It only makes me left wondering … What would have happened to Ron and Ginny?!?

  10. thanks for the thoughtful analysis! I like your headline, she can say what she wants. It’s amazing to me that people get upset about things like this. I really like the Hermione/Ron pairing because I think it makes sense to pair someone super intense like Hermione with someone more mellow. Interestingly, the comments on I09 really make clear that people are more upset with the Ginny/Harry pairing. Or the fact that these four get married off in high school to begin with…

  11. Interesting piece. I don’t mind Ron and Hermione’s relationship, but what surprised and depressed was Albus Dumbledore being gay…who is Rowling kidding? We all know Dumbedore and McGonagall secretly fancy each other. Dumbledore enjoys female attention too much – the very first pages of the first HP book portray Dumbledore and McGonagall flirting with each other and Dumbledore says that he never blushed so much after saying something about Madam Pomfrey’s compliment. Now after THAT I am supposed to believe in this gay allegation? Whatever the interpretations and additions – never ever ever.

    1. “Gay allegation?” Lol. Interesting choice of words, there. I think Dumbledore’s homosexuality is clearly written into the books – people flirt and blush for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with actual sexuality. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, but thanks for the comment.

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