Retconning Against the Reader

A (somewhat) brief thought regarding the latest reveal from JK Rowling, fully cognizant that those comments are outside the context of the full interview yet to be released:

I don’t care.

There, I’ve said it. I love the Harry Potter series, and JK Rowling can drop bombshells like these until the end of time and I do not give a single shit, because they don’t matter.

Remember when George Lucas actually went back and reedited Star Wars to try to convince us all, belatedly, that Han Solo wouldn’t have shot first? Shockingly, this didn’t work particularly well, because we all know that Han did shoot first. Moreover, we remember how that incident shaped our understanding of the narrative, and so we reject the change. He can’t change how we experienced the story.

I’m not even going to address what Rowling’s comments would mean for the story and why they’re problematic in that sense. To me this is a demonstration of the conflict between authorial intention versus what is actually in the text.

Now, those two don’t have to be in conflict, and I’m also not here to convince anyone that the author is dead. However, the author is separate from the work. Milton can proclaim he’s writing to justify the ways of god to man all he wants, but that doesn’t mean it’s what he’s actually doing. And even if you’re of the camp that believes that is what he does in Paradise Lost, the fact remains that once the work is out there in the wild, people are free to interpret it however they damn well please.

Authors may violently disagree with those interpretations, and I’m sure they’re appalled by some of the things that crop up in fanfiction if they learn of them. They may also be surprised and impressed by interpretations. But in the end, what the author and reader have in common is the text.

The problem with trying to retroactively change work because an interpretation bothers you is that you’re trying to control what your audience thinks, and that fundamentally undermines your art. I want people to think about and interpret art. Every person who reads the same book is going to have different impressions, they’re going to fixate on different parts and come away with different thoughts and perspectives and that is beautiful.

So if an author tries to tell me that my thought is wrong when it is backed up in a complete narrative, that’s the same as telling me they don’t trust me to do my own thinking. I’m never going to be okay with that.

I would have loved for the Harry Potter series to have explicitly gay characters. I don’t know why that never made it into the books; there’s very likely a good reason. But in the books Dumbledore’s sexuality is a non-issue, so I can’t give her any credit for treading that ground. No matter what she intended for him, it’s not in the text.

You know what is in the text? That epilogue that I despise, that lays out clearly her intentions for the futures of the characters. And I hate it for how it unnecessarily interferes with and limits the interpretations readers can take when she has to know how inspired her fans are by her stories to create their own. But however much I hate it, it’s in the text and nothing will change that.

So upon reflection, after some perspective and growth as a writer, JK Rowling thinks she would have written some friendships and romances differently than she did. Whatever, that’s totally cool. But for the shippers who are now either despairing or triumphant? Would have is not the same as did. Of course it’s interesting to hear the author’s opinions of her own work, but they don’t actually change anything.

Although, I suppose if there is an upside to all this controversy, it’s that people may be actively engaging in more discourse about narrative and how story works than usual, and I’m all for that.

Maybe in their fictional future Hermione and Ron will break up and she’ll somehow get together with Harry. Or maybe they’ll have lots of couples therapy and have a healthy relationship forever. Maybe Hermione will say fuck it none of you deserve me and fly off into the distance. Maybe she’ll take up dark lording out of spite and the conviction that she’s better than everyone! Possibilities abound.

And this is when reader imagination gets to fly. Because the one thing Hermione won’t do is go back in time and travel through dimensions to have JK Rowling rewrite the Harry Potter books so that none of what we’ve read happened. Even if she’d made some kind of egregious error, she can’t go back and undo it. None of us can.

I’m in enough danger of drawing on Barthes without bringing in Pirandello, so let me wrap this up. To summarize as eloquently as I can: no take backs.



    1. Retconning generally refers to when an author introduces new information to try and change events that have already occurred in the story previously.

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