Doctor Cleveland's picture

    J. K. Rowling Is Wrong About Her Own Books

    So, J. K. Rowling has told an interviewer (the actress Emma Watson), that she paired off the wrong characters at the end of her Harry Potter series. Instead of marrying Harry's right-hand girl Hermione off to his left-hand boy Ron, Rowling has decided that she should have married Hermione to Harry himself. So, Rowling concludes, she was wrong when she wrote the books. In fact, she's wrong now.

    Almost anyone who's taken a college literature class has been told that figuring out the author's intentions isn't the point of reading a book, that the author isn't the final judge of what the work means. That claim sounds weird to lots of people: of course the author gets to decide what the work means! She wrote it! Professors just don't have any common sense! [Cue jokes about pointy-headed academics who believe in the "death of the author."]

    But it's not just a pointy-headed theory. It's common sense about the way books work. And Jo Rowling has given us a perfect example. The books don't mean something different because she's changed her mind about them. They don't get better or worse because of how she feels about them at a given moment. The book is the book. She wrote those books, but now they are their own thing, and she doesn't get to tell you how to read them.

    Rowling's current claim is that the Ron and Hermione match, which she painstakingly builds up over the seven books in the Harry Potter series, is motivated by her own "personal" desires, rather than by artistic considerations:

    "I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfilment. That's how it was conceived, really.
    “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron." 

    What that sounds like, as far as I can tell, is that Rowling paired up Hermione, a character who fairly clearly represents an imagined version of Rowling's younger self, with a character whom she initially based on someone from her own early years. If I've got that right, Rowling sees the Hermione and Ron relationship as a story of her adolescent self getting a boy who got away. Of course, only Jo Rowling herself would read these characters this way, since none of us read Ron as Sean Whathisname that Jo Rowling had a crush on in sixth form. Why would we? We have no idea who Sean from Sixth Form is, and we don't care.

    More the the point, although Jo Rowling might have intended Ron and Hermione as wish-fulfillment versions of Young Jo Rowling and Her Teen Crush, the characters aren't actually Young Jo and Teen Crush. They're independent characters. The reader figures out who Ron and Hermione are from the things they say and do on the page. There is no Ron or Hermione separate from the Ron and Hermione on the page. They don't have any other existence. They're characters in a book.

    Now, if Rowling says her reasons "have very little to do with literature," that suggests that marrying those two characters off is an artistic mistake. Rowling is saying that her books would have been better books if Hermione married the main character in the end.

    But Jo Rowling doesn't get to decide this either. She wrote the books she wrote. The rest of us decide if they work or not. If Rowling wants to persuade us that her ending stinks, she has to make an argument for that just like the rest of us.

    Would wedding bells for Ron and Hermione have been better? It would certainly have been a more obvious ending: main male character marries main female character. And some people have clamored for that on the internet since the nineties, because they feel it's a story-telling imperative that Male Character #1 pair off with Female Character #1. But it's hard to feel that adding yet another cliche would improve the Harry Potter books. The problem with these books isn't that their points aren't too obvious or on-the-nose.

    It's much easier to argue that Rowling's actual ending works quite well. The three main characters end up as part of a large happy extended family, with Harry marrying Ron's sister. It's a classic Dickens conclusion. And it creates a nice structural completion. The main character is an orphan who is repeatedly depicted as longing for a family. (At one point, the character looks in a magic mirror that shows you your heart's fondest desire. What he sees is himself surrounded by hordes of relatives.) In the first book, he's hapless and alone at the station where he's gone to catch the school train, and he gets taken under the wing of Ron's family. (It's worth pointing out that we meet Harry's future wife in that early scene, before even Hermione has been introduced. The book is setting things up already.) In the last scene of the series, Harry is putting his own children on the school train, surrounded by his in-laws and his old school friends. The character has what he's been shown to want most: he wished to be part of a family like Ron's, and now he's a member of Ron's family. And his own children have their parents to put them on the train, as he did not.

    It works, because it's a decent story. "Orphan gets family" is more specific and interesting than "hero gets girl." The hero always gets the girl. It's also nice to see the boy hero actually, you know, form a genuine friendship with a girl. That the Harry Potter books don't girlfriendzone the female lead is a point in their favor. And it's also pleasing that the main female character is allowed to have a marriage where she will be the senior partner. But most importantly, the ending works because it's structurally satisfying. The last scenes of the book recall earlier scenes and rhyme with them. Structure is one of Rowling's best things.

    Rowling now objects that the Ron and Hermione match lacks "credibility," meaning they wouldn't be a good couple long-term. But that's just silly. The one thing you learn in a college English class before "the author isn't always right" is that characters are not real people. What's going to happen to Ron and Hermione in the future after the book ends? Nothing. They only exist in the book. If Jo Rowling belatedly decides that they're maritally incompatible, so what? She depicted them as happily married in the last scene of the last book. Jo Rowling now imagines them as growing estranged and needing marital counseling. I imagine them growing more compatible as one of them matures and the other learns to live with his more benevolent quirks. I mean, that's what Jo Rowling's actual book suggests. Who am I going to believe? The person who put the words on the page? Or the words on the page themselves?

    Rowling is talking about the characters in terms of psychological credibility. But the characters don't actually have independent psychologies. They're parts of a story. And the Ron and Hermione characters are structurally paired for hundreds and hundreds of pages. The plot provides the ending that it has prepared the readers for. Rowling complains that it was "the plot as she first imagined it" but it's the plot as she actually executed it, and she executed it pretty thoroughly. She started laying the trail of breadcrumbs for the Ron and Hermione ending from the start of the series. She didn't drop even a crouton on the Harry-loves-Hermione trail. The thought is never presented as crossing either character's mind. Providing a different set of romantic pairings would require her to rewrite all seven books. It would be like saying "I think Pride and Prejudice ends wrong. Elizabeth should be with Bingley and Jane should be with Darcy." Effecting that change would require you to change the whole book, start to finish.

    If Rowling wants to rewrite her entire series to have a "better" ending, I'm sure her publisher will indulge her. But that doesn't mean it will be better. George Lucas re-edited Star Wars to reflect his second thoughts, but the rest of us are free to prefer his first version and most do. Han shot first, whether George likes it or not. He's the creator. He's not the decider.
    The great W. H. Auden decided late in his career that some of his famous early poems needed to be improved and that others should never again see the light of day. When rewrote his poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," he was mostly right; the rewritten lines are better poetry. When he decided that "Spain, 1937" should never be published again, he was wrong. "Spain, 1937" is a great poem, whether Wystan likes it or not. He doesn't get to tell the rest of us not to like it. The author gets to write the book. But that's the end of her job. She has to leave the reading to us.


    I agree that the books work as written. And I wonder if JKR was just trying to give Emma a boost by stirring up a hornet's nest.

    But, I do follow the very popular and intellectual fanfic HP and the Methods of Rationality, in which there is a wonderful preromantic, competive dynamic between Harry and Hermione, and a challenging friendship between Harry and Draco. Both work very well, but HPMOR is a very different take on the HP universe.

    Donal, how is he getting around the copyright?

    Like all HP fanfiction, he notes that the characters and license belong to JKR and publishes his work for free.

    I hate to admit this is all new to me.  I found this article, and now I know.  I think.  Thanks for that link, Donal.  Fascinating.

    That was interesting. Here's a crossover fanfic by someone that occasionally posted here:

    In a crossover, you mix characters from two or more stories. Thus Lelouch vi Britannia might go to Hogwarts, or Harry Potter might be confronted by a Shinigami, or Hermione might meet the B-Rabbit.

    I've been nursing a crossover plot between Aubrey-Maturin characters and Higurashi, but I can never find time to do it justice.


    Hmmm.  Someone who posted here?  Curiouser and curiouser.

    I think Jo Rowling loves being an imp.  Dumbledore as a gay man works for me, but it infuriated a lot of people, I suppose, and I can almost see her winking and grinning.

    When I read the first couple of books I assumed Harry and Hermione would end up together and when it looked like it was going to be Ron I thought that was a dumb move.  But because she highlighted Harry's need for a family, and because she made the wonderful Weasleys Harry's protectors and his second family, bringing Ginny in as Harry's girlfriend made absolute sense.  If he had married Hermione that bond would have been lost.

    Harry and Hermione may have been a better match intellectually, but Hermione needs Ron to show her the real world and to make her laugh.  At least that's the way I got what Rowling was going for.  By the way, Hermione needed a real family, too, and she got it with the Weasleys.

    It doesn't bother me that Rowling is now changing her mind.  What's done is done.  I love them all--including and especially Jo Rowling.  (I'm not surprised that Emma Watson thought Hermione should have been with Harry.  It would have upped her own position in the films.)

    I always thought analyzing what an author thought while writing a book was pure folly and a waste of time.  You've put it well--it doesn't matter.  A book is what we think it is.  With the information we're given we get to put life into it, we get to imagine the setting, we get to give meaning to the characters' words and decide for ourselves why they do what they do and even how things will go after the book ends. 

    It becomes our book after the author completes it.  If it's a good book, that is.  Harry Potter's world is ours now.  And I think nobody knows that better than J.K. Rowling.  Still, she's having fun and who deserves it more than she does?

    Might be folly, but why a waste of time? Isn't that part of the fun?

    I thought I explained that in my comment.  Why try to second-guess the author's motives or create a mystery when the solution will always be up in the air?  It adds nothing to the book itself and in the end there are no real answers. 

    The exercise always seems a bit pretentious to me.  Most writers don't think about their own methods or motives and usually find it pretty funny that readers think they know what the author was thinking when this happened or that happened or whatever.  They would much prefer that you just read the book and forget about how it came to be.

    Trying to figure out what the author was thinking is different from analyzing the story.  I'll agree that that is fun. 

    I say the author matters. Not that the author is god of the text or that the reader is prohibited from arguing with her, but I believe that what Rowland says about her own work informs the text in a way that no reader can. To put it crudely, her words are her own, just as my words are my own, and your words are your own.

    I have no grand theory to justify my belief that the writer has unique authority to interpret her own words; I just feel it in my skin. Yes, I'm familiar with the postmodern theorists who dismiss this feeling as some kind of primitive literary superstition. They remind me of the logical positivists who once insisted that words had to be reducible to empirical atoms in order to be meaningful. The logical positivists had a good run for a few decades until the academic community acknowledged that a theory of language has to explain the way people actually communicate rather than how philosophers believe they should communicate. Similarly, I believe that a literary theory should strive to explain how we read, not how the scholars think we ought to read (with sincere respect to one of my favorite scholars).

    I have no grand theory to justify my belief that the writer has unique authority to interpret her own words; I just feel it in my skin.

    There's really some argument about this?  Seems pretty obvious to me.  We as readers may feel  we "own" a book by the very act of reading and enjoying it, but the author gave birth to it.  It'll always be hers.

    The post-modernists who dominate modern lit theory often argue that the author's intentions are not relevant to understanding the meaning of the text. The text stands on its own, as it were. Dr. C has attempted use J. K. Rowling to present this idea in layman's terms.

    While I support his effort, I still don't buy it (though in my post-superbowl beer stupor, I didn't make my case very articulately.)

    You seemed to be pretty articulate but then you were talking way over my head.  I didn't get any of it but I thought the words were purty.

    But on to this comment:  Since we're usually only guessing about the author's intentions, they could be right.

    Of course the author matters. But I remember JKR speaking before a crowd, and poking fun at the poor, desperate Harry-Hermione 'shippers after the release of one of the later books. So it is odd for her to do an about face at this point.

    What does "unique authority to interpret her own work" mean?

    No, seriously. I am not contesting a writer's right to control works and characters she created, both artistically and economically. The "Death of the Author" doesn't mean that anyone stopped believing in copyright, or that writers write their work.

    The point is that the author controls the work's creation (although this is often more collaborative than the story of the author-as-heroic-genius wants to admit). But the author doesn't get to control the meaning of the work. She can be wrong about it and you can be right despite her.

    Now you say that the author has "unique authority". But not sole authority: she's not "the god of the work." So how far does that authority go? Does Rowling get to tell us her ending is wrong? Does she get to tell us whether her ending is believable or not? Does she get to tell us what to like?

    Look, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a retraction to The Canterbury Tales, repenting of his sinful and blasphemous fictions. Does his unique authority over his text extend to being able to tell us not to enjoy "The Miller's Tale?" I say that in this case Geoffrey Chaucer can fuck right off. W. H. Auden didn't want me to read "Spain, 1937," and he had the right to keep that poem from being reprinted while he was alive. But he can't keep me from reading it, and when he tells me that poem is immoral ... well, in this case Wystan Hugh Auden is just being stupid. He's wrong about his own poem. He can fuck right off too.

    I would never rule out the author's insights about her own work completely. They are valuable. But the author does not get the final word.

    The author also has access to a good deal of context about the creation of the work, and that can be very illuminating. But sometimes it can be misleading. Apparently the Ron character was inspired in part by an old high school friend. And she perceives the character in part through the lens of how she thinks about that person. But actually this means she cannot see the character as the reader does, as just the character in the book.

    And at some points, the writer's identification with the real-life model may actually distort her perception of the character. If the reader can only see the character in the book as he appears in the pages, but the writer can't fully separate that character from the real person who inspired him, then the reader sees the character more clearly. Her knowledge of her intentions clouds her perception of what she actually got on the page.

    Let me bring it back down to the practicalities of writing. One of the first things you have to learn writing fiction (or anything else), is that what you mean to get down on the page doesn't matter. What you actually got down on the page does. If you wrote a character that you wanted to be likeable and charming but no readers like him, you did not write a likeable character. (And if he's based on a real person you like, so what? The person in the book is not that person.) You write the work, and then you let it go. You can't do people's reading for them.

    And the idea of the author's special authority devolves pretty quickly into letting the writer do the reading for you. Any writer tempted to do that should cut it out and get back to writing something else. I'll do my job and you do yours.

    Thanks, Doctor. Let me draw a few distinctions that I should have made in the first comment, rather than just yelping my defiance.

    1. I am talking about the author's authority to interpret the meaning of her work, not copyright or anything like that.

    2. That authority does not include the right to retract or amend a published work. We can all agree that Star Wars and Star Wars "Special Edition" are not the same movie. If Rowling were to rewrite the ending to the Harry Potter series, it would be a different work.

    3. The author's authority to interpret the meaning of her work is mediated by time. After writing something, she may not remember what she meant. She might develop different attitudes that warp her perspective. In an extreme case, she might be struck by schizophrenia and hallucinate about what she meant.

    4. The author's authority may also be mediated by consciousness. She may have subconscious intentions that she is not aware of.

    5. Still, even though the author is not "god of the text," as I put it, she retains a unique authority because unlike everyone else, she was there. She can usually remember what she intended when she wrote a particular passage or scene. She can testify, first hand, about what she meant.

    I believe that the core of our disagreement lies in the last part of point 5, "what she meant." I hold fast to the old-fashioned idea that the author's intention (even if subconscious, forgotten, or disowned) holds the key to understanding the work. I cling to this idea because it is a fundamental part of communication. If you write a comment, and I don't understand what you're getting at, I can ask you to explain what you mean. Other people might pipe in--he means X or he means Y--but you can correct them by saying no, I mean Z. Of course, you can forget, you can lie, etc., etc. but in ordinary circumstances, you have the authority to clarify the intended meaning of your words. I don't see how we can diminish the author's special authority as you would have us do without losing this basic notion of what it means to mean something.

    Now in practice, the author is not usually around to clarify her meaning. She can't do the reading for her readers because she's not there, so the readers have to make do with the text itself (and the commentary of critics and scholars). But if the author gives an interview in which she explains what she means in a puzzling bit of text, of course her fans flock to read it. That's not intellectual laziness. That's people making use what resources they have to make sense of the text. That's their acknowledgement that writing is a form of communication between the author and themselves in which the question, "What do you mean?" is both natural and appropriate.

    Well, first of all, you have conceded MORE than I would, so who's the post-modernist now? (I would  never deny the author the right to control publication of their works. Auden was wrong to suppress "Spain, 1937," but his rewritten "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" was better.)

    In fact, you've already accepted a great many of the points that the movement to dethrone the author And some of the hard-core expressions of that movement, such as the phrase "The Death of the Author" are responses to an earlier time when the cult of the Author was much, much stronger.

    As for intention, I'd say two things. There are public statements which are judged irrespective of their avowed intentions. If someone says something racist, anti-Semitic, or otherwise hateful, but says that they intend no hatred, we don't believe them. Because some speech acts don't just communicate intended meanings. Some speech is a deed. (Think about fighting words, which create a legal situation.)

    Literature is also a kind of deed: the meaning being communicated is not the whole story. The features of the language itself (its sound, its connotations) is part of what creates the total meaning. Literary language isn't strictly communication, but the creation of a free-standing object made of words.

    Now, since (as you rightly point out) my real *ahem* intention in the original post is to present a piece of lit-theory in an approachable way, let me try to recap those points.

    The critical de-emphasis on the author, which is sometimes talked about as scary or irrational, includes:

    1. Most of the things you say. The author may not be fully aware of his/her intentions, and doesn't get to be the absolute, unquestionable authority, etc.

    2. The idea that the author does not get VETO power over the reader. If I see something in the Harry Potter novels and J. K. Rowling says it isn't there, that does NOT mean it isn't there.

    If I point out that Rowling's books are full of riffs on or rewrites of famous scenes from classic English novels, with Harry temporarily playing the role of an Austen or Bronte character, and Rowling says she didn't mean to do that ... well, she did it whether she meant to or not. The author doesn't get to veto the critics.

    3. The author isn't the sole creator. If Rowling decides to release an expanded "author's cut" edition of the Harry Potter books, including all the stuff that editors persuaded her to cut, that isn't necessarily better. The editor, for example, isn't just a hack diluting the author's genius. The editor helps make the book better.

    If you think this is a small point, there is still an enormous amount of energy spent on trying to separate Shakespeare's contributions to his own plays from anyone else's, with the usual presumption being that everyone else who touched the work just diluted Shakespeare's genius. But that only makes sense if you start with it as an assumption. Nobody ever suggested an improvement that was a real improvement? Nonsense.

    Well then maybe we're in agreement here and yet...the gist of what I took from my college post-modernism courses and what I also see in your post is an attempt to dissuade readers from trying to figure out what the author intended. What the author intended by her words is supposed to be irrelevant or at least no more important than other experts' interpretations of her words. The text is supposed to stand on its own.

    In opposition to that view, I insist that understanding the author's intent is crucial to interpreting the text. My only caveat is that it's possible for an author to misrepresent her own intent. I doubt that anyone would have disagreed with that caveat even in the "dark ages" of author worship. And if this caveat were post-modernism's primary contribution to literary theory, it would not have been controversial or revolutionary.

    I insist that understanding the author's intent is crucial to interpreting the text. My only caveat is that it's possible for an author to misrepresent her own intent.

    OTOH, it seems hard to believe that the author's intent shouldn't figure in to an interpretation of the text somehow. She was there, as you say, so how is it possible that she doesn't have a somewhat higher standing than most other people when it comes to knowing what XYZ means.

    OTOH, it isn't just that the author may "misrepresent her own intent." What if her intent never made it through the words she chose to use and publish? Words don't mean whatever we want them to mean (unless, maybe, we have an entirely private language with words assigned meanings only by us). They mean something independently of what we have in our heads when we use them.

    This line is more blurred in fiction and poetry than it is in non-fiction prose. But still, JK can't come back and claim, against all the obvious and metaphorical and historical meanings of her words and how she put them together and other aspects of the text, that her words mean something entirely different from what they mean.

    If that were true, then one of Doc's students could write a paper and say, "Doc, I had a long talk with JK yesterday, and she told me that XYZ mean exactly what I said they mean in my paper Wand As Phallic Metaphor in Harry Potter. They don't at all mean what all of you less well-connected folks think they mean. If you don't believe me, here's the tape of the call for your edification. Please change that D- to an A+."

    Regarding the first OTOH, the author's intent and the author's interpretation aren't the same. According to my understanding of post-modern theory, the author's interpretation of her own text is relevant but not necessarily superior to others' interpretation of her text. By contrast, the author's intent, what she meant to convey by the words, is irrelevant. According to the theory, it doesn't matter that she was "there" because what she thought and experienced while creating the text is not related to its meaning. I agree that this is counterintuitive, and indeed I believe that folks like Derrida intended it to be counterintuitive.

    Regarding the second OTOH, of course we're constrained by language. If we speak gibberish or use words in radically unconventional ways, we fail to communicate. That said, even conventional language is ambiguous. Part of communication is using clues to figure out which of several possible interpretations best represent's the speaker's intent. And no one can answer that question better than the speaker.

    PS The essay example is a bit silly, since a good essays involve far more than getting "correct" answers, but I would say that Rowland's opinions about her own books are indeed relevant to interpreting them. A student who cited one of her interviews to argue for his interpretation would be on solid ground, imo.

    The other problem, of course, is that in many ways the author's intention, even a living author's intentions are not fully knowable. So you've substituted a new problem.

    For some reason, your comments about words not meaning whatever we want them to mean, brings to mind Lewis Carroll:

    Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
    Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
    All mimsy were ye borogoves;
    And ye mome raths outgrabe.

    And, of course:

    "When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less."

    "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master— that's all."

    Humpty Dumpty makes the maximalist case for authorial intention.

    Oh, my. . .enlightened

    What the author intended by her words is supposed to be irrelevant or at least no more important than other experts' interpretations of her words. The text is supposed to stand on its own.

    In opposition to that view, I insist that understanding the author's intent is crucial to interpreting the text.

    Well, what do you mean by "crucial?"

    I would say that focusing on the author's intent has very frequently taken reader's eye off the ball, distracting them from the book and focusing them on the author.

    The conditions of writing the Harry Potter books, and all the thoughts and emotions that went into them, everything PRIOR to the book, is outside the book. Rowling's nostalgia for her school days, her long-ago love for a teenaged friend, the experience of single motherhood, etc. etc. etc. might provide context. But it's not the text.

    Rowling famously kept extensive, exhaustive notes on her side characters and their world. Those are useful documents. But what to do with things that were in the notes but never made it into the books?

    If the author's intention is really crucial, then those minor characters have to be understood in the way the author understood them. The unpublished notes, as expressions of the author's intentions, are more "real" than the published book. They tell us how Rowling thinks of those characters. If what she thinks of them is the crucial thing, then her notebooks tell us the crucial truths.

    If the text stands on its own, then the published books are the real thing, and the unpublished notes are things that might be enlightening and might not. But we would never claim that a particular event or character should be interpreted differently because there's some sketch in an unpublished notebook somewhere. We would never say that X is actually a more sympathetic character because there's a redeeming story about him tucked away somewhere in an early draft. And we would certainly never say that readers are wrong if they find that character unsympathetic because they don't know the unpublished thing. That's stupid.

    (The extreme version of this is, say, trying to understand Shakespeare's plays better by going to Warwickshire and looking around his parents' house.That confuses the meaning of the plays with the person who wrote the plays.)


    The thing is, outside of academia, authors' notes, interviews, even clothes and houses really do matter to people, and they actually do change the way we think about the art. You see this effect very dramatically in pop music. Fans are often dying to know what a favorite songwriter meant by some cryptic lyric. They want to know who broke the singer's heart, where he grew up, and why his songs are so sad. Our fascination with Shakespeare is not so different. Was he gay? If the text stands on its own, it shouldn't matter. But I guarantee you that if we somehow found out, it would change the way most people think about his plays, not to mention Sonnet 20.

    Postmodernism belittles and dismisses this way of engaging with art. Lit professors try to teach unenlightened undergraduates to suppress the instinct to scrutinize the author's intentions. But in doing so, I think they miss something important about how people actually understand and appreciate art. To reiterate my original comment, I believe that a literary theory should strive to explain how we read, not tell us how we ought to read.

    Deep sigh. Deep breath.

    Let's start with "outside of academia" ... I take it that your position is that folks inside academia are being unrealistic and denying the way people in the "real world" read things. Great. Let me suggest that the question isn't whether people inside or outside college walls do a thing. What matters is whether the thing they do is actually logical or coherent. (If we're going to play the "outside of academia" game, there are lots of odd beliefs that flourish outside classrooms.)

    I get that people are interested in reading things in a certain way, and that they enjoy reading things in a certain way, and that they attach meaning to reading in that way. I am not denying that people believe this way of reading is meaningful.

    What I'm saying is, if you put almost any weight on those ways of reading they collapse pretty fast. Academics avoid that way of reading because we have seen how fast it falls apart.

    What looks to many outsiders like a group of arbitrary and bullshitty academic rules are, in fact, attempts to reduce the amount of bullshit.

    People "outside academia" go to Emily Dickinson's grave to feel closer to her poetry. That is a nice thing to do. But it is mostly bullshit.

    People "outside academia" travel thousands of miles to look at period furniture in Shakespeare's parents' house (because his own house was torn down centuries ago). That is enormously touching, and a testimony to how much they love his work. But face it: it's bullshit.

    People "outside academia" spend time they could spend on other things going through all the Sherlock Holmes stories making up elaborate extra plot points to explain away little inconsistencies. They clearly have fun. But it's bullshit.

    People "outside academia" try to figure out what this or that singer meant by a lyric, and that's fun. But it's bullshit. You will never work it out, because really, you can't. It's just goofing. A pastime.

    And J. K. Rowling giving little interviews telling her fans this or that to stir them up is kind of bullshit, too. It's not a heinous crime. It's mostly mischief. But her telling you to read Dumbledore as gay is really just bullshit. The character is not gay in the book, he's got no life outside the book. Saying he's gay is just rereading the book for  people. (Did she imagine him as gay? Maybe. Who cares? On the page or it didn't happen.)

    Academics who work on literature have a set of rules for arguing about what happens in a piece of writing, and what counts as evidence, and how much that evidence counts. If those rules sound like bullshit to you, they're actually designed to screen bullshit out.

    Okay, clearly this got to me:

    Postmodernism belittles and dismisses this way of engaging with art. Lit professors try to teach unenlightened undergraduates to suppress the instinct to scrutinize the author's intentions. But in doing so, I think they miss something important about how people actually understand and appreciate art. To reiterate my original comment, I believe that a literary theory should strive to explain how we read, not tell us how we ought to read.

    I don't agree that I should "strive to explain how we read."

    I certainly don't agree that I am belittling my students.

    Everybody knows how to read for pleasure: how to enter the imaginary world of the story, how to identify with the characters, how to grasp any morals on offer. I do that too, when I read for pleasure. My students don't need to be taught to do that. But they DO need to be taught ADDITIONAL ways to read.

    I would never say that reading for pleasure is wrong, and I don't tell my students that. But I do tell them that they need to have other ways to read as well.

    When I'm teaching film, for example, I expect my students to think and write about the FILM ITSELF, not the story in the film. Cuts and editing matter. Camera angles matter. And, bear with me now, those things are REAL in a way that the story the film tells is not. There is no James Bond. There *are* three films called Casino Royale (two straight, one a parody), each composed of a particular sequence of images to create a certain effect. The series of pictures is an actual thing we can talk about.

    When I teach literature, the actual words on the page are something we can talk about productively. And I focus my students on talking about it.

    Everybody knows how to read for pleasure: how to enter the imaginary world of the story, how to identify with the characters, how to grasp any morals on offer. I do that too, when I read for pleasure. My students don't need to be taught to do that. But they DO need to be taught ADDITIONAL ways to read.

    I'm with you, and I felt the exact same way when TA'ing computer science class. Everybody knows how to code for pleasure: how to create a program to print "Hello World", how to generate a fractal, how to calculate the Fibonacci sequence. I do that too, when I code for pleasure. My students don't need to be taught to do that. But they DO need to be taught ADDITIONAL ways to code. wink

    Don't take my humor too seriously, as I realize I'm comparing apples to oranges, but I stand by my point that I think you might be assuming too much about your students. That said, it sure would be nice if everybody knew how to read for pleasure.

    Edit to add: this does not subtract from your larger point, however.

    Sorry, I didn't meant to piss you off. I certainly never accused you of belittling your students. But you are most definitely belittling one way that people engage with art. Illogical, incoherent, fun, goofing, not meaningful, bullshit--these are your words. I'm all for teaching students additional ways to read, but the belittling does not add a new way. It subtracts an old way, closing it off as an accepted method of study.

    This is the part that reminds me of the logical positivists. They were trying to confront what they saw as the scourge of Hegelianism and the pop-philosophy of the masses. They found those ideas to be illogical, incoherent, not meaningful, bullshit. So they just ruled them out by defining meaning in such a way as preclude language that was not reducible to experience. They recognized that ordinary people used "natural language" to communicate but dismissed it as inappropriate for serious philosophy. What they ended up with was a stilted logical syntax that was interesting and important but had little to do with what language is.

    The postmodernists, who ironically came out of the Hegelian tradition, were not so different. They also wanted to change language to preclude the practices of their predecessors and the masses. They did it by inventing new words (différance) and re-purposing old ones (hermeneutics). And I believe that their project has been just as artificial. To be specific, I don't agree with you that visiting Emily Dickenson's grave or Shakespeare's parents' house is bullshit. I don't agree that making up Sherlock Holmes plot points or debating Rowling's comments on Dumbledore is bullshit. These are natural and indeed meaningful ways of engaging with art. Redefining the practice of interpretation to exclude these and other efforts to communicate with the author does not produce better interpretations, it produces a certain kind of interpretation that offers some insights into the text at the expense of others. Trying to convince the rest of the world that this is what interpretation ought to be is a losing game because the other parts that you dismiss are also part of what interpretation is.

    PS To clarify, I'm not suggesting that holding a seance at Dickenson's grave is an effective way to understand her intentions just that the pursuit of an author's intentions is a meaningful way to understand the text.

    Apparently, I can't bring this discussion to a conclusion. I tried emphasizing how much we agreed, and you kept pushing. I tried showing you that I was getting upset, and you kept pushing.

    The practices you accuse me of belittling, the practices I called bullshit, are specific practices and I gave specific examples. Are you saying that trying to understand Emily Dickinson's poetry by visiting her grave is not bullshit? Because that's a piece of rock, actually.

    I've given you a long series of specific, concrete examples, in the original post and in this thread, of instances where either 1) reader's investment in the author led to an odd or silly result or 2) the author him or herself offered interpretations that are pretty shaky.

    Why don't you come up with some specific, concrete examples of the author saving the day and setting people right by offering his or her own interpretation?

    I'll be offline until Saturday, because I've been invited somewhere to give some talks.

    Interesting disagreement. I have certainly been exposed to a lot of people that do far more than just read their favorite stories. I've dressed as minor characters from several animes so I could share my daughter's cosplay experience. Darkon shows a lot of people that take role-playing a lot farther. Fan-fic stories evolve with constant review and commentary from readers.

    Had JK Rowling written HP on, there would have been some commenters telling her to get Harry and Hermione together, and others accusing her of putting in Hermione as a Mary Sue. And others would have demanded that Snape get some romantic scenes ASAP. Rowling for her part, could have teased the readers with a stream of misleading author's notes.

    I find myself wondering if storytellers, both those that traveled and those that stayed put, considered printed books - which could not be modified or embellished to suit the circumstances of their audience - to be bullshit?

    "But Jo Rowling doesn't get to decide this either. She wrote the books she wrote."

    Ha!  Tell that to George Lucas!  I kid, but in a way I don't.  Add advances to technology to the ever expanding notion of copyright that you've written about before and... you get Harry Potter the Deluxe Edition with THQ Sound and Hermione Marries Harry and Greedo Shoots First.  Artists, so long as they are wealthy and influential, no longer have to let go. Which is too bad because the right of audiences to decide over time is where the fun lies.  Everything else is just a private diary.

    She can do whatever she wants with the Harry Potter books but the originals will always be out there.  We'll always have a choice about which ones we read.

    The same with "Star Wars".  I think the original three or four were the best and didn't even watch the others.  I can do that because the originals didn't go away just because the new ones appeared.

    I have a feeling the same thing will happen with "Hunger Games".  But once I've read the first three I don't care what they do after that.  (I'm only in the middle of the first one and I'm surprised at how good it is.)

    Well, Lucas is especially powerfully.  His unretouched works are now hard to find.

    I don't know what you mean by "unretouched works".  I still have a VHS player. . .

    Unless you own VHS copies of the original Star Wars trilogy before Lucasfilms enhanced them, they are now hard to get.  You can only really buy the new ones in most places.

    I don't know what mine are but I do have VHS tapes of Star Wars.  The first two, anyway.  Didn't know about the "enhanced" versions.  I think I remember buying them within the year they came out.  (Waited until the prices went down some, of course.)

    I hope you're storing them in an argon-based atmosphere.

    You make an interesting point, Dr. C, but since you've argued for it so clearly here, I'd like to see your take on reader-response criticism as it applies to this passage from Voltaire. If you're feeling up to it, you can also take on this bugaboo from Nietzsche.

    No thanks.

    Sixty years ago ,pretty much to the day I went over to the Square to hear Stephen Spender reading his (revised) poems. It was of course wet underfoot and snowing.

    There were about 10  of them , About equal to the number of undergraduates waiting. There were booklets on table at the back of the rooms with both the original and revised versions. Many about life  on the Republican side in  the Spanish Civil War. One about  a dead 19 year old British volunteer.

    Which contained the heart breaking line

    Surely a better target for a kiss.



    Ultima Ratio Regum.  Heartbreaking, indeed.

    Love the idea of binding together both the old and the revised poems.  What a treasure.  I hope you still have it.


    It'll end in tears, I tell you. 


    All this "free love" and "threesomes" and "freesomes" and "hot butterscotch poured all over your panda's hootchy bits," well... let me tell you. That sort of preversion never works.

    Best leave it to the pros.

    Harry & Hermione. Pshaw.

    Hmm...maybe Rowling finally got around to spending some time with the "Ron" character from her own life and decided he was a great bore after all, and that she would indeed have been better off with the "Harry."

    Hindsight is a revisionist witch....;^)

    I'm so glad all you all's are so much smarter than me, or at least sound like you are. I became losted about three sentences into the whole thing.

    But, never mind that.

    Here's what I think.

    In that interview, JKR throws out the possibility she may be thinking of a "part two" series in which Hermione dumps poor, poor Ron because she got tired of fixing his screw ups; Harry leaves Ginny because she got fat like her mum; then at a wizard convention in Paris, Hermione and Harry meet up and have a torrid rebound affair while fighting off a crap load of new bad wizards.

    And then what?

    I don't know!

    Who's writing this? Me or JKR?

    That's all I gots.

    Fifty Shades of J

    I gotta read that book one of these days.

    And mebbe a few others. smiley

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