Monday, February 3, 2014

Harry Potter and the Literary Revisionist

Posted By on Mon, Feb 3, 2014 at 11:11 AM

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  • Janep

A great many things happened this weekend. The Broncos were beat into submission by the Seahawks. We lost the incomparable Phillip Seymour Hoffman. And yet, one of the most hotly discussed bits of news came courtesy of J.K. Rowling who said in an interview in Wonderland magazine that she mistakenly paired Hermione Granger off with Ron Weasley out of a desire to "[cling] to the plot as I first imagined it."

Rowling's Harry Potter series is one of the few to continue living long beyond its conclusion. The final book was released on July 21, 2007, but fans of the series know much more about what happened to the books' characters after the main events than is usual in the age of one-off novels and trilogies. Part of that is because J.K. Rowling decided to include an epilogue to very neatly finish the series. But she's also continued to speak on the books in interviews, mentioning that Dumbledore was gay not long after the release of the Deathly Hallows and sanctioning the creation of Pottermore.com, which promises to provide back stories for minor characters and describe the entire process of creating a Horcrux.

So, fans are used to Rowling's "late additions," but for some reason this latest bit of postmortem editing really set the fan base off because it was the last thing they wanted to hear. In a lengthy Facebook status, a friend from college called Rowling "narcissistic," saying that the author shouldn't have "pigeon holed" herself into "a corner of inflexible narrative" by writing an epilogue in the first place and that the author should let the series go and leave the editing to the fans. She wasn't alone in her sentiments—the status received more than 50 likes.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder whether my friend's reaction and the positive response she received had something to do with growing up in a culture where literature, from the Bible to the Constitution, feels static. At the typical American high school, students are taught that figuring out what the author meant falls to the academics who've studied their work and that the opinion that most academics agree on is the be-all-end-all interpretation. The Great Gatsby is about the American Dream. Animal Farm is about Communism. The Chronicles of Narnia are an allegory for Christianity. It is exceedingly rare for the authors of our favorite books to join in on the conversation and once they're gone, what little commentary they offered tends to fade into obscurity while the book lives on.

The "problem" with Rowling and her fanbase is that she is still very, very much alive and very, very present for an author of such magnitude. In a way, Rowling is doing what J.R.R. Tolkien did—albeit with much less work on her part—she's continuously adding to her work and enriching an already lively world. At the same time, she's proving that an author is a human being, not a word machine, and as long as she's alive, it's her right to treat Harry Potter as a living document. After all, a parent doesn't stop caring for their child just because they turned 18.

The generation that grew up with the series needs to shake the idea that literature can't live on and that writers can't go back. That's a product of our incredibly narrow view of literature. It's incredible that we have continued insight into the Wizarding World and into Rowling's thought process even if what she says isn't always what we want to hear. Her commentary is a rare privilege, one afforded to or provided by few authors of great literature, and we need to appreciate it while we still have it. If we can edit a Facebook comment over something as small as a spelling error, can't Rowling edit her life's work if something feels wrong?

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