Monday, October 29, 2007

Three Little Words

Despite the fact I announced I would have no opinions in re Dumbledore's sexual orientation, I, of course, do and have been arguing them ferociously to the J.K. Rowling in my head. The short version is that while I applauded her mischief and relished the subsequent panty-twisting, I thought she had no business making up her readers' minds about what happens (or, in this case, happened) to Harry Potter and his fellows beyond what information she gave us in the books. By telling us that Dumbledore was gay, she implied that she had the story all sewn up, that readers had only to ask--her--to fill in the blanks she had left. But filling in those blanks, melding a story with one's (or One's, to quote from the hilarious Uncommon Reader) own imagination is what reading is all about. A huge part of the reason the Harry Potter books (volumes one through three, anyway) held so little charm for me was Rowling's insistence upon doing all the coloring-in herself, leaving the reader few opportunities to put his or her own imagination to work. That's why I grumbled that they were books for people who generally preferred to watch TV, and that's why I though Rowling's announcement was a little grabby. (The child_lit railings about whether it was a corrective or a confirmation of the Potter series' "heteronormativity" left me untouched; the only flag you need to fly is your own).

But I've since learned that Rowling's remarks were less peremptory than I had thought. While the newspapers were reporting that she said "Dumbledore is gay," the Leaky Cauldron has posted a rough transcript of the Carnegie Hall q-and-a, and according to that she said (in response to the question "did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?") "I always thought of Dumbledore as gay." That I always thought matters enormously. Writers are as free as readers to mentally embroider or annotate a book; I imagine that a writer has to, even, settling into her imagination a rich landscape from which details are drawn for the page. I'm reminded of Margaret Mitchell being asked if she thought Scarlett ever got Rhett back. She didn't think so, she said. That didn't--and needn't--stop optimistic readers everywhere from imagining otherwise.

11 comments:

Elizabeth said...

I take issue with your initial assertion that if Rowling wanted us to know something about her characters, she should have put it in the book. Don't writers know a lot of things about their characters that aren't germane to the story they are telling, and because those details don't belong in the story, they are left out? Just because something doesn't appear in a book, the author can still tell us about it in other ways.

Jane Austen sometimes gave additional information about her characters. We know that Kitty Bennet went on to mary a clergyman, and the exact amount that stingy Aunt Norris gave to Fanny when she travelled home to her family, and other things I can't remember at the moment.

HOWEVER this does lead me to ponder something that's bothered me for years. I LOVED K.M. Peyton's Flambards Trilogy, and was still a romantic youth of 21 when, years later, Peyton published a 4th book that ripped apart the happy ending she left us with at the end of the trilogy. Now after many more years, I wonder (if anybody out there has read all 4) was what happened in the 4th book inevitable due to England's very deep class structure? Has Peyton ever said why she went back to write about those characters after such a long time? And are there any other children's writers who've revisted the same characters after many years, and in so doing really altered what we thought we knew about the characters?

Roger Sutton said...

I didn't know that about Austen--where did she write this further information?

But I still don't think the writer "knows things" about the character; I think he or she may think things about them, but the author's guess is no better than anyone else's. The book has to be able to stand on its own--if we allow that the author's further or second thoughts should become part of that book, then the book itself always remains a draft.

Melinda said...

I don't think knowing additional things about the characters would reduce the original story to a mere draft. It might add to the story, or make you see things in a different light, the way that reading a good critic can make you say, "Oh, I didn't think of it in that way."

Elizabeth, Ursula K. LeGuin added "Tehanu" to the Earthsea trilogy ... what, about 20 years after "The Farthest Shore" was published. The characters are mostly the same, but "Tehanu" was more of a feminist novel -- not that Tenar was burning her bra or anything. It's less of the male-centered archetypical setup and more female-centered. I don't think I'm making any sense, but I have to get the kid ready for bed in a minute, so, moving on.

I didn't really like how "Tehanu" ended when I first read it (I wanted to see more ass-kicking taking place), but after I read LeGuin's comments about the choices she made while writing the book, I had a better idea of what she was shooting at. So in this case, it helped my reading.

Knowing that Dumbledore might be gay has not improved my reading of the HP books, but it's certainly made me go back and read it! Alas I am so easily swayed.

Roger Sutton said...

But that's a bit different, Melinda--LeGuin found she had more to say about the Earthsea world so she wrote another book. That's always an option. Or, like John Fowles, you can publish a revised edition of a book, as he did with The Magus. I'm just objecting to this idea that an author's back story for a novel, or her further thoughts on it, somehow become a fact about that book because the author has chosen to share something. That reduces every other reader's imaginings about a character to guesses.

JeanneB said...

This discussion brings up my anxiety about an author's public persona versus her books. Roger, taking your argument to the extreme -- and maybe it should go there -- we writers should stay home and shut up. Even when I'm not giving away backstories, I can feel like I'm undermining the book. Like when I'm asked where I get my ideas, and I talk about the bits and pieces of my life I've borrowed for my characters -- does that make my characters seem less "real," less all of-a-piece all on their own?

This is a tough one.

Jeanne Birdsall

Elizabeth said...

Re. Jane Austen commenting further on her characters, I don't remember where I read that Kitty Bennet marries a clergyman. I got the information re. Mrs. Norris' gift to Fanny wrong, though--it is a gift to Fanny's brother William.

The information comes from Jane Austen's nephew, and I read it in a footnote in my Penguin edition of Mansfield Park. The note says "...J. E. Austen-Leigh talks of the 'parental interest' Jane Austen showed in her characters, and he goes on to say that 'She would, if asked, tell us many little particulars about the subsequent career of some of her people.' One of the additional details that Jane Austen gave them was the fact that the "considerable sum" given by Mrs. Norris to William Price was one pound.' Lady Bertram, of course, gives him ten pounds."

Melinda said...

Pish-posh, Roger. I may be easily swayed, but I'm not THAT easily swayed. No reader reads in a vacuum. And no writer is going to keep mum about her books, that's for sure!

Let's say my main character is harboring a few vague ideas about being a mycologist when she gets older, but it's not mentioned in the text because it doesn't fit into the story. If I mention this to a reader, this might readjust her knowledge about the character ("So that's why she liked going mushroom hunting!") but I can't see that it would throw off the overall thematic structure.

Rowling mentioned that Dumbledore might be gay, but my reading of the HP books haven't changed. Let's get metaphorical: The book itself is like one big, finished jigsaw puzzle, and then there are some unrelated parts off to the side. They belong to a similar puzzle, but there's no way to fit them into the finished one.

Roger Sutton said...

I don't think authors need stay home and shut up (well, I guess I could give some examples of some who should but I'm saving them for my memoirs) but I would like them to recognize that, when it comes to commentary on their own work, they don't get to make claims that aren't borne out by the text. To take Melinda's example, the fact that the author thought of the character as a nascent mycologist is indeed a fact--but not one about the book. It's a perhaps valuable and interesting fact about the writing of the book, but that's a different subject. No points, either, for something "my editor made me take out." Which is why the heroine of the book not known as Tomorrow is Another Day is not known as Pansy O'Hara.

Jennie said...

I was discussing Rowling's post-book comments when she started making them. As someone pointed out, Rowling has changed her mind before. (For instance, the character that was supposed to die and then didn't.) So, for all the information that she's supplying now, it might very well change if she were to write a sequel.

That said, I like to talk about those unknowns with fellow readers. And Harry Potter unknowns is a discussion that many people world-wide are having. Do Rowling's opinions not count in this matter?

Because of her mind-changing past, I won't say her interview comments are cannon, but I will respect her opinion more than anyone else's. If anything, she's spent a heck of a lot more time thinking about these books than anyone else has.

Gerard McLean said...

I'm still waiting for someone to find conclusive evidence IN THE TEXT that proves Dumbledore is gay. Rowling's saying the she always thought of Dumbledore as gay just isn't enough.. actually, doesn't weigh in at all as evidential.

Without evidence in the text, all of this is just nonsense going back and forth. The characters don't exist outside of what is written in the text. Not in Rowling's head, not in what readers imagine, not in biographical details of Rowling's life.. just in the text.

Andy Laties said...

I suggested in my response to your initial post on this subject that it could have been a sort of publicity-oriented statement -- implying that J.K.R. might be planning to publish an encyclopedia.

This is from the latest edition of Shelf-Awareness, today (Nov 2):


"J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. filed suit against RDR Books, a small Michigan publisher that plans to publish the Harry Potter Lexicon, a book version of a popular website. According to the AP, the suit "claims that RDR Books will infringe on Rowling's intellectual property rights" if it publishes the book.

Rowling contends in the lawsuit that the book would interfere with her plans to write a definitive HP encyclopedia. "I cannot, therefore, approve of 'companion books' or 'encyclopedias' that seek to preempt my definitive Potter reference book for their authors' own personal gain," Rowling said in a news release issued by Warner Bros.

Roger Rapoport, RDR Books publisher, was "dismayed" by the suit, "but vowed that he wouldn't allow it to block plans to release the Lexicon next month."