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.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Review of the novel Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

The Harry Potter series wraps up at long last: After publishing the first three books in 3 years, it took another 8 years for J.K. Rowling to write the last four. Of course, each of the four is twice as long as any of the three, so there you go.

If you’ve surfed in here and haven’t yet read the book, be advised that there are spoilers after the Read More link below, although I’ve tried to keep the first half of the review free of them.

Deathly Hallows starts, as the other books do, at the end of the summer between school years, but this time the book promptly heads off into new territory: As Harry is enemy number one where the resurrected Lord Voldemort is concerned, and since his mystical protection will evaporate as soon as he turns 17 (which is the age of maturity for wizards), the Order of the Phoenix plans to hide Harry for his protection. Not everything goes as planned, but Harry finally ends up in a safe house.

While preparing for the marriage of Ron’s brother Bill to Fleur Delacoeur, our trio of heroes (Harry, Ron and Hermione) start planning how they can go about finding the remaining Horcruxes containing fragments of Voldemort’s soul, since if they can destroy them all, then they can bring about the dark wizard’s downfall. Unfortunately, the downfall of some powerful forces on the side of good in the wizarding world leave the three on the run from the ascendant dark lord’s forces, with precious little idea of how to proceed other than trying to stay one step ahead of their pursuers.

Their adventures on the road involve personal conflicts, a variety of traps, and learning some surprising facts about Harry’s family and Dumbledore’s history. They also learn of the existence of the Deathly Hallows, some powerful magical artifacts which could turn the tide against Voldemort, but which – like the Horcruxes – are well-hidden, if they even exist at all.

I freely admit that the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, sapped my enthusiasm for the Harry Potter series. It became clear to me that J.K. Rowling was no longer being edited, and she really needed a strong editor, because she too easily fell in love with her own typing. Phoenix badly needed to be cut at least in half, and Half-Blood Prince, though better, was also too long and had long stretches of boring in it. So I didn’t approach Deathly Hallows in a very forgiving frame of mind, since it was another giant tome.

That said, Hallows has some things to recommend it. It’s a very different book from its predecessors, having very little of the “kid’s stuff” feel of those books: It’s all deadly serious, and Harry and friends are mostly left to their own devices, as Rowling puts them in the role of the “last, best hope” for the good guys. The story has finality written all over it: The stakes have never been higher, and the story revolves around Harry’s and Dumbledore’s backgrounds (much as Prince revolved around Voldemort’s), bringing a strong feeling of coming full circle.

But, dammit, the book is still too darned long. It takes nearly a quarter of the book to finally get Harry and company on the road looking for Horcruxes; the pages before are a very, very gradual build-up of elements of the story, and once again I wished Rowling would just get on with it. Heck, the whole first chapter is completely superfluous and should have been cut. I’m still of the mind that Rowling simply fell in love with the sound of her typing, and had enough clout to keep her words from being edited, even though she really, really badly needed some serious editing.

The book takes some strange turns once Harry is on the road, and some of them don’t ring true. And then it still takes quite a while before the shape of the story becomes known. Eventually, the conflict becomes not just the one between the forces of good and evil, but the temptation of the Deathly Hallows for Harry: To follow the course Dumbledore set for him to destroy the horcruxes, or to go for the seemingly-certain victory by seeking the Hallows. This is actually a surprisingly sophisticated conflict for what is otherwise not a very subtle series, and I wish more time had been spent on it, rather than the noodling around which occupies the first half of the book. (The insight into Dumbledore is not uninteresting, but it’s not essential either. A lot of it is spun out of whole cloth just to increase the suspense in this volume, with little connection to earlier volumes.)

Deathly Hallows feels so divorced from the rest of the series that it makes several of the early books feel even less relevant: Goblet of Fire can be boiled down to Voldemort returning from the dead, Order is little more than giving Harry a reason to hate Voldemort because of what he does to Sirius Black, and Prince is partly Voldemort’s backstory and partly the set-up for this book. It feels like you could read the first three books, and then just skim the next three to get to the “good stuff” that’s in here.

And as usual I think the cover of the U.K. edition (pictured above) is much better than that of the U.S. edition. Mary GrandPré’s art is not at all to my taste, so I’m glad to have the British editions instead.

The bottom line in my opinion is that this book is more suspenseful than the two before it, and feels more necessary to the overall story, but Rowling still needed to be seriously edited to cut down the volume of extraneous material and make the story more streamlined and enjoyable. She could still surprise and delight, but not like she could in the first three, shorter books. My final feeling is that I’m glad the series is over because I don’t think I could have pushed through much more of her verbiage, and that’s not a good epitaph for any series. The core magic of Harry Potter was the feeling that Harry was a normal boy who found that he was really extraordinary, but that magic is far in the past. Deathly Hallows is just a straightforward adventure story.

Beyond this point are spoilers for the book, so don’t continue if you don’t want to be spoiled!

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