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Just Ignore the Author Behind the Curtain

J.K. Rowling says that Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series is gay.

I hate it when an author makes statements like this about their story after the fact, and I’ve learned through experience to simply ignore them, unless I happen to be specifically interested in the author’s writing process (which, in the case of Harry Potter, I’m not). My feeling is that if a fact didn’t matter enough to actually make it into the book, then it ain’t so. That doesn’t mean that it ain’t not so, either. But once the story is finished and distributed, the author doesn’t get to fiat it into existence.

(In Rowling’s case, I also wonder why she bothers to bring it up now. Cynically, I suspect it’s just to keep her name in the news, now that Harry Potter Mania is fading.)

John Scalzi weighs in on the subject:

Do these facts mean that Dumbledore’s sexuality is unimportant to who the character is? Absolutely not. The moment Rowling said (or discovered, however you want to put it) that Dumbledore was gay, it made a difference in how she perceived him and how she wrote him. The only way Rowling’s statement of Dumbledore’s sexuality would be irrelevant or should be ignored by the reader (should they hear of the fact at all) is if there were proof that Rowling was tacking on the sexuality of Dumbledore after the fact of the writing, i.e., that Rowling had no conception of Dumbledore’s sexuality through all the books, and then is throwing the “dude, he’s gay” statement out there now just for kicks.

I’m in agreement with John on many things, but I think he’s got this one exactly wrong. I think his error is in confusing the story with the author; while the two are clearly linked, they’re not the same thing. Once the author has finished the story, it becomes a thing unto itself, experienced completely independently of further input from the author. In effect, once the story is finished, the author becomes just another reader of the story, her opinion no more important than that of any other reader for the purposes of interpreting and experiencing the story. Anything she left out of the story is not part of the story, even if it factored into how she wrote it. If it was left out, and it can’t be reasonably deduced from the text, then it’s not part of the story, and in this case, not part of the character.

Essentially (and I know I’m not the first one to say this), once the story is finished, it’s no longer the author’s story, it’s the reader’s story. I mean this in the experiential sense, not the legal sense, of course: The reader doesn’t own the story, but they do own their experience of reading the story, and their interpretation of the story, and I think it’s entirely fair to base that entirely on the story, and completely disregard elements which are not in the text.

I think part of the point of fiction is that it’s an experiential and interpretive thing. Having the author come down from on high and state “this is so” when it’s not even in the story undermines that part of the experience, and cuts out the possibility of interpretation.

John also says:

Going back to Rothstein, the best you can say for his argument is that it notes that Dumbledore doesn’t have to be gay for many of the influential events of his life to have had an effect on him. To which the correct response is to say, yes, well. And this would be different from the lives of actual gay people exactly how? We go through any number of events in our lives without our sexuality front and center — it would make sense an author would model a character similarly. But it doesn’t mean that at the end of the day that sexuality doesn’t matter to who the character is.

The crux of the issue is this: If you can’t perceive that the character is gay, then does it matter to you whether the character is gay? John thinks so, I don’t. It’s a matter of perception, because reading fiction is entirely a matter of perception. But once a story is finished, that something else went on behind the scenes, that the writer intended something which didn’t come through in the story, means that those elements actually don’t matter. Because if they did matter, then they’d be present in the story.

Which means that I’ll believe John Perry is allergic to blueberries when it shows up in one of Scalzi’s novels, and not before.

I don’t really care whether or not Dumbledore was gay, but having read the books, I see no strong reason to believe one way or the other. Unlike Ceej, who has some smart things to say about the whole brouhaha, I don’t think the Grindelwald stuff is compelling evidence.

Your mileage may vary, but the important thing is that it’s your mileage, not J.K. Rowling’s.

4 comments to Just Ignore the Author Behind the Curtain

  • I first saw Rowling quoted as saying, “I always saw Dumbledore as gay.” (I think it was here.) The implication is that she saw him that way, but the reader is free to think what s/he will.

    Then again, you link to Time magazine, which flat out quotes, “Dumbledore is gay.” I would tend to trust Time, as they have fact-checkers and rarely take quotes out of context.

    I find the whole issue about as interesting as the debate on whether or not Wagner’s music is anti-Semitic. That is, it can be interesting, but just barely.

  • Like I said, I’m pretty indifferent about whether Dumbledore is gay or not. However, as an example of interpreting fiction, I think it’s a useful thing, and that’s a subject which does interest me.

    It’s similar to the question of whether you-know-who is a you-know-what in Blade Runner.

  • Sorry, I didn’t mean to be ambiguous. I was trying to compare the issue of authorial intent issue to the issue of Wagner’s music.

    Whether Dumbledore is gay is a separate issue. I read the story when I saw the headline, so I guess I must have some interest, but to me Dumbledore is pretty much an asexual character. Then again, I didn’t care much for the whole Ariana/Grindelwald backstory.

    I saw the original Blade Runner, but neither of the newer editions. I’ve heard the newer ones make for a better film. I’m not sure how the implication that Deckard could be a replicant would matter much. Actually, I think it would weaken the ending (keep in mind I haven’t seen the revised ending) in that Deckard’s motive for fleeing with Rachael could be considered less pure if he thought he himself might be a replicant.

  • Brian: the “original” ending of Blade Runner was tacked on (along with Harrison Ford’s voiceover) at the studio’s insistence, after some unfavorable screenings. The whole bit of them flying north (over repurposed extra footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining!) isn’t in Ridley Scott’s “director’s” or “final” cuts.

    While I prefer the director’s cut, I think a good case could be made for giving BR the Criterion Brazil treatment, and I’m under the impression that’s what will be done with the upcoming box set: one DVD with the “original” version that most people first saw and another disc with the “director’s vision.” If Lucas had done that with the Star Wars trilogy to start with–instead of initially insisting that the “original” movies didn’t exist, and then semi-reversing himself and doing a re-release with inferior transfers of the originals–he might have looked like a bit of a hero instead of an arrogant jerk.

    Michael: I think I’m very much in agreement with you. It’s interesting as a writing issue, not an orientation issue, if it’s not in the text it’s not really there, and Ceej is spot-on except that he thinks there are clues in Grindelwald that I just missed entirely. Rowling may have accidentally proven that authorial intent can’t be the controlling thing, since the logical extension of that gets fairly absurd fairly quickly.

    I also have to think that the idea of “authorial canon” almost has to be a recent side-effect of mass-communications and copyright extensions. I have to wonder if Dickens would have even thought he owned any of his characters to the extent a lot of commentators seem to be assuming is the case to the point that they consider the alternative “absurd.” And writers like Lovecraft gloried in being ripped off, encouraging pastiche and viewing it as a complement. But those were days in which copyrights were short, and an author’s speech about his latest book was heard by a few hundred people at most.

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