Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On the other hand ...

From Salon:

I am a devoted reader and admirer of J.K. Rowling, and it honestly pains me a bit to say this, but from a literary perspective, she's out of control here. Her abundant generosity with information is surely a response to a vast, insatiable fan base that does not have a high tolerance for never-ending suspense, ambiguity or nuance. As she told the "Today" show's Meredith Vieira back in July, "I'm dealing with a level of obsession in some of my fans that will not rest until they know the middle names of Harry's great-great-grandparents."

Rowling naturally wants to provide answers for these heartbroken obsessives who perhaps are too young to know the satisfying pleasures of perpetual yearning and feel that they must must must know how much money Harry makes and whether Luna has kids.

It would also be understandable if, after more than a decade of telling stories about this world and these characters, Rowling is unable to stop. She has been a great and comprehensive builder of a fictional universe, and she's famous for keeping reams of folders containing the back stories and astrological signs of every major and minor character ever to appear in her pages. One of the things that made the Potter books so good was the sense that Rowling had utter mastery over every corner of her realm. Who could blame her for wanting to keep the kids happy by doling out bits of it? It's not as though Rowling would be setting a precedent: J.R.R. Tolkien spent much of his post-Middle-earth life tinkering with the details of the world he created, and delighting and gratifying his adherents by providing them with additional information about it.

But when too much of the back story (and, more disconcertingly, the future story) gets revealed –- especially in an age in which an author is not simply sending letters to readers as Tolkien did, but making utterances that will be disseminated and analyzed by a global network of Web sites -- it seems to have not so much a gratifying effect as a deadening one.

My brother, an adult reader who has been irritated by Rowling's loquaciousness and was sent over the edge by this latest round of fortune-telling, said to me this weekend, "If she wants to tell us what happens, I wish she would write it in a book, because until she does, then as far as I'm concerned, she's just describing what's showing on the teeny TV screen inside her head, and that's not playing fair."

Given the ample -- somewhere north of 5,000 pages -- text that Rowling has already provided, from which her diligent and enthusiastic readers can mine theories and opinions of their own, her pronouncements are robbing us of the chance to let our imagination take over where she left off, one of the great treats of engaging with fictional narrative.

Would we be better off if Sofia Coppola had held a news conference after the 2003 premiere of "Lost in Translation" to announce that Bill Murray had whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of the movie that he'd had a great time with her in Tokyo? Perhaps Shakespeare could have stepped onstage after the conclusion of "Measure for Measure" and informed his audience, "Isabella accepts the Duke's proposal and they marry a few weeks later."

Salon book critic Laura Miller argues that the plot-driven, perpetually unfolding nature of Rowling's series makes it seem reasonable that she would continue to spin tales from it. That events in the Potter universe would continue to unfold makes more sense than the good-versus-evil climax with which she ended the last book. Miller says, "It doesn't surprise me that she secretly thinks of it as going on and on ... because that's the kind of material it is. It is not, say, 'Crime and Punishment,' where the very underpinnings of the story demand closure."

It's true that one of the strong draws of so much fantasy literature is the fluid, on-and-on quality that allows readers to believe that we've stumbled upon a world and that it continues without us, right next to us, perhaps -- that we might one day wander through a closet and meet Mr. Tumnus, or that the weirdo on the subway in the purple cape might simply be out celebrating the demise of another evil wizard. In this context, it's natural to feel that the future of the Weasley-Potters plays ceaselessly on Rowling's internal TV screen and that she's just sharing it with us.

But it's precisely the fans' feverish speculation about what happens to Rowling's characters, and what she might have meant by X or Y, that makes her behavior so surprising. Rowling's books were great in part because of their insistence on an ambiguity that was more sophisticated than her younger readers were used to (Severus Snape: good or bad? Albus Dumbledore: wise or gullible? Petunia Dursley: wizard hater or wizard lover?) and which readers have argued over for years. Why would she choose now to quash further imaginative and critical speculation by administering massive doses of Authorial Intent?

I suppose it's nice to know that in Rowling's mind, Harry is a successful auror. But in my mind, based on the seven books I devoured, Harry, whose greatest gifts were as a teacher, is the Defense Against the Dark Arts professor and eventually the Hogwarts headmaster. I suppose in the minds of other readers, Harry might manage a Quidditch team, or work for his uncle Vernon at Grunnings or something. I'd love to have that conversation with those other readers; I'd also love to have it with Rowling, in a Tolkien-style exchange. But when Rowling declares to an international audience what Harry's adult job is, then the possibility for such an exchange is over. Speculation over what Rowling might have wanted us to surmise about her hero's future is over. Bully for Harry, boo for the notion that fictional characters take on lives of their own in their readers' minds.

Read the rest here.


Anam Cara said...

I agree whole heartedly!

I think JK Rowling can't bear the thought that with the end of the series, she will be ignored. She has grown used to the publicity and doesn't want to give it up - so she will continue to dispense tiny bits until she dies or there is nothing left for us to imagine. How very sad - for her and for us.

Dr. Alice said...

I agree as well. It must be very difficult, after the level of work and concentration she's put into the series, to stop - but she should. Ambiguity is the mark of a great work; it's what fires our imaginations, as you said. I wish she were more comfortable with telling her fans to take a hike and figure out for themselves what happens next.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Rowling just jumped the shark - that's it, there will still some interest, she'll still sell some books, but she blew it in a couple of different areas. Oh well, c'est la vie!

Anonymous said...

I never thought that I would say this, but I do wish she would just shut up. Maybe she should stop doing tours and the like for a while until she gets over her own obsessions and the fans get over some of theirs.

One of the things that I liked about this series was that it seemed so apolitical, and now here she is dishing about what she was REALLY thinking. Blech. Who cares? What was once a fun diversion isn't anymore.