Harry Potter and the untrustworthy author

Over the weekend, J.K. Rowling had the dubious honor of being the subject of a new Twitter meme. I won't link to any examples here, but the general idea was to poke fun at Rowling for once again "revealing" (or inventing) new details about the Harry Potter world nearly 12 years after the final book in the series was released.

Unfortunately, Rowling's habit of doing this sort of thing has been going on for quite some time. The immeasurable popularity of the series and her own incredible success has kept her in the spotlight, even if the spotlight has been intermittent at times. It's perfectly natural for eager readers of the Harry Potter series to ask Rowling questions about the books, but it's less natural for Rowling to use those questions as springboards to insert details that are not in the books.

Last week I wrote about both untrustworthy narrators and the reality that all first-person narrators should be trusted only to tell the story from their narrow point of view; a truly objective, impartial first-person narrator would be an inhuman creation (or just an example of really bad writing). J.K. Rowling is in danger, I think, of becoming a variation on this theme--the untrustworthy author, the author who conveniently deviates from her own text to add details, invent new realities, and insert things into her characters' lives and stories that could not be reasonably said to have been there before.

Can authors talk about their own books? I don't think it's impossible, but it has to be done well. If a reader cleverly puts together clues the author has embedded into the story, and asks the author to confirm his or her theory, the author is right to say, "Why, yes! You guessed what I intended there," or "Well, that's an interesting idea, but it's not quite what I meant." In either case, though, the theory has to be backed up by the text. If the book is silent about something, I don't think it's playing fair for the author to say it was there all along in some kind of mystic subtext.

Let me give a hypothetical example: suppose a writer of a realistic novel creates a main character who strongly dislikes the color navy blue, because her mother made her wear an ugly navy blue prom dress. The navy dress becomes a symbol of the main character's uneasy relationship with her controlling mother. Later, the main character must hurry to her mother's side when her mother has been in a terrible accident. As she buys a plane ticket and rushes to pack a suitcase, she becomes frustrated with her jeans and bulky sweaters and the lack of room to pack when she has no idea how long she'll be away. So she runs to a nearby clothing store and purchases a travel suit--pants, skirt, jacket and dress in an easily packable travel knit material. The suit is navy blue.

If the author is asked about this, can she say that the navy suit, too, means something? Well, sure, and it could mean lots of things: the ongoing complexity of the relationship, the main character's desire to reconcile with her mother, the desire of the main character to be hidden and not criticized by her mother--she might even have purchased navy to avoid purchasing a suit in black that looked too much like something to wear to a funeral (but only if the black suit option was shown in the text). What the author could not do is declare that the navy suit reveals that the main character never got over being abandoned by her father for his new family--if that never came up before. The author can't just tack things on after the fact and then be surprised when readers object.

Authors create a kind of contract with readers, and that contract consists of the books themselves. It is, to me, a violation of that contract to shoehorn extraneous material into the texts when all the books are written.

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