The Death of the Reader

by Wardog

Wardog joins the Harry Potter free-for-all
I shall begin, like every other Harry Potter article on Ferretbrain, by saying that Harry Potter 1-3 are above average children's books. They're well edited, tightly plotted, action-packed children's books with just enough depth and darkness to appeal to adults as well but their primary audience is definitely children. The world presented is a child's world in which school is the most important place in the universe and the Headmaster of a school is unquestioned in his role as one of its most politically powerful figures. Defeating evil is, essentially, equivalent or, in fact slightly less important, than winning the house cup. For the first three books, Draco Malfoy - socially powerful bully that he is - has a far greater impact on Harry's world than Voldemort.

From an adult's perspective, of course, this is all complete madness. Why does Voldemort, Dark Lord of the Sith...err..., why does he never go to war during the school holidays? And why does his plan for taking over the galaxy involve becoming Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher. Yes yes, I know, so he can recruit a juvenile army of dark wizards but seriously, aren't there grown up people he'd be better off corrupting? And if somebody told you that your son's Head of English had decided not to be Prime Minister and instead came to work at Scumville Comp, you'd laugh in their face. But the point is, these are children's books and they were marketed as children's books. They're even delightfully short. Books 4 onwards, however, are a very matter indeed.

It can be argued that this has been the point all along and that the power of the later books derives from the brutal overturning of the all sources of adult authority Harry previously thought he could trust - in essence, that the process of growing up must mirror a parallel process that amounts to the loss of innocence. Thus all the people Harry idolised are revealed to be flawed (Sirius, Dumbledore, James, Remus), the people in power turn out to be corrupt (Fudge, Umbridge etc.), places of sanctuary rapidly become places of restriction (Hogwarts, in Book V) and so on. Intelligent readers (aka my friend David) have occasionally tried to argue me out of my frustrations with the later books by claiming that much of my resentment springs from their failure to deliver what I was looking for i.e. a jolly romp with comically named characters and cool magical items.

But, ultimately, attempts to argue for darkness, depth and disillusionment in the Harry Potter universe always ring hollow to me because they never quite fit within the established terms of the books. If a text suddenly demands that you start questioning the assumptions of the world and the characters in it, then the text has to be strong enough to withstand such questioning. As Dan is fond of pointing out, this is one the weaknesses of Season Six Buffy; the show seems to forget, suddenly, that Buffy is a metaphor for growing up and instead asks the viewer to treat her like she's a real person with real concerns such as how she's going to pay the rent on her house. This is not only much less interesting than watching her kick vampire ass it just draws attention to trivia you might otherwise not have questioned, for example if the Watcher's Council has a fund for over the hill watchers, why doesn't it also have a fund so that the Chosen One can get on with saving the world instead of having to get a job in fast food.

In Harry Potter, by asking its readership to start questioning the world established in the first three books, JK again only draws attention to how actually stupid it is when you stop and think about it for a moment. If we're expected to cringe and shudder at Umbridge's methods, are we also meant to question what the hell Dumbledore was doing employing a complete incompetent to teach Divination and didn't the Board of Governors have anything to say about it? I know she made one prophecy once but the fact of the matter is that I can't imagine any of the Hogwarts teachers getting onto a PGCE course without difficulty. And if, in fact, we are meant to view Dumbledore's repeated failures as a headmaster as foreshadowing the fact that he was once a little bit tempted by the pleasures of world domination then it is only fair that we also question why the hell he got the job and wasn't there somebody on the interview panel who thought being a powerful wizard and being a decent headmaster were perhaps not similar skills. Again, Umbridge's "I will not tell lies detention" is genuinely terrifying but the fact she can get away with it leads one to wonder why previous detentions involved jolly romps in the hilarious named forbidden forest full of monsters with an irresponsible half-giant and was that, in fact, any more appropriate.

Perhaps it has as much to with the changing nature of the media, increasing communication between authors and fans, the immense power of the internet to foster fandoms and bring obsessive compulsives together, and Jk's forthcoming, teasing style of interacting with her (vast) public but I think she must be of the most talked to and talked about authors I have ever encountered. And, by encountered you understand, I mean read about on the internet. But it's not like people were chasing James Joyce down the street asking to know about the lanky galoot in the brown mackintosh at Paddy Dingam's funeral and was he, perhaps, Ron from the future. The endless alternate worlds of fandom aside, JK's communicativeness and her public's willingness to listen to her and ask her for her arbitration on matters of no consequence seems to have granted her an unheard of amount of authority in her position, not so much as author, but as creator and even as God.

JK has always encouraged fan speculation but speculation and interpretation are very different indeed. Speculation, like guessing the murderer in an Agatha Christi novel, is an intellectual exercise with a "right" and unquestionable answer. You can't turn round and say "no, Poiret got that wrong, it was actually this guy who did it." Similarly, you can't turn round and say RAB is Rupert Addlepate Bungstock, once the text has established RAB is Regalus A-whatever Black. Speculation can always be controlled and, like a particularly inflexible GM, JK has always carefully directed her audience towards the questions they should be asking of the text. Who is RAB? Why does Petunia flush? What's the deal with the Half-Blood Prince (and was a disappointing deal that was). But, ultimately, the succession of tantalising small mysteries are there to distract the reader's attention from other things they might be thinking about, specifically their own interpretations of the text.

To take an example at random, some time last August, JK and some other less rich, less famous people attended a charity event at Radio City Music Hall in New York. During the course of the evening, an audience member brought up a matter of trivial detail ("Aunt Petunia is said to be oddly flushed when Dumbledore announces that Harry will be returning only once more to Privet Drive") which JK praised as an excellent question. Later Salman Rushdie introduced himself and his family, explaining on behalf on his young son that they did not believe Dumbledore was truly dead, citing quite specific textual "evidence" from the 6th book: "Our theory is that Snape is in fact still a good guy from which it follows that Dumbledore can't really be dead, and that the death is a ruse..." Now, looking specifically at the events of the 6th book this seems at least plausible to me, especially if you decide that Snape's moral hokey-cokey will ultimately put him on the side of the good guys and we know, from book 4, that killing curses require a certain amount of conviction.

I don't actually subscribe to the theory but then I'm not a young child and I don't care if the irritating, sherbet-lemon sucking coot is dead. However, most of the "evidence" that Dumbledore is probably very definitely dead comes from knowledge and assumptions drawn from outside the text. I know, for example, that JK likes to think she's dark and, therefore, she's likely to make a point of death being final. I also know that, even though in these sorts of genres death isn't quite the handicap it used to be in the olden days, having an actual corpse is generally considered proof of lasting deaditude. And, finally, I know that JK is all about her seven book arc and that it is an important part of the hero's journey to lose the mentor figure. It's, like, the rules.

But, as it turns out, the clash of titans represented by Kyra Versus Random Kid, was irrelevant because JK's response was this: "But I see that I need to be a little more explicit... and say that Dumbledore is definitely dead." It's a slightly awkward example because whether Dumbledore is dead or not is very much something that can be true or false within JK's imagined world (it is, essentially, a fact) but until the its veracity has been thoroughly established by the text itself then it is certainly not JK's place to explain, justify and interpret her own books for her readership. I would even go so far as to say that, perhaps for a young child fond of Dumbledore, part of the experience of reading book seven is hoping for a miracle that will bring him back or hat his death was nothing but a clever ploy all along. That very personal experience of hope, resignation and, finally, a sense of loss akin to grief can teach someone far more about death than JK's constant over-written references to the cold, unfeeling stars looking down on the arbitrarily massacred secondary characters lying below them. In fact, one of my (many) frustrations with the final book is that being "definitely dead" didn't in any way prevent Dumbledore turning up an giving one of his interminable plot explanations. Talk about the worst of all possible worlds.

In the flurry of interviews (this is a good example) JK has given following the release of the seventh book she has repeatedly been called upon to explain, not only the events of the book but the actions of the characters within it. Does Neville end up with Luna, clamour the fans. Was Snape redeemed? No and yes, replies JK Rowling, saving everybody the trouble of actually having to think about it for a second. I'm not a rabid deconstructionist, I don't believe there is nothing outside the text but I certainly do believe that JK Rowling shouldn't be standing there on the text's doorstep, telling her readers precisely how to interpret and respond to it. In bald terms: it is the writer's job to write. It is the reader's task, and the reader's pleasure, to interpret what is written. If you can dig up enough textual evidence to support a Neville/Luna tendre then it has the potential to be there. Although why you'd want it to be eludes me.

Similarly, in the epilogue of the seventh book, Harry offers us Rowling's final evaluation of the characters of Snape and Dumbledore. Snape is the "bravest man" Harry ever knew and, despite having essentially raised him to be a sacrificial lamb, Dumbledore has been re-instated as a beloved mentor figure. This is not explicitly stated in the text but if Harry had really come to a mature understanding as Dumbledore as a flawed control freak capable of sending a seventeen year old boy to his death he wouldn't be naming his child after him. Readers usually think what protagonists think, it's the way it works, especially in books where there is relatively little deviation from the protagonist's point of view so Harry's attitude to both Snape and Dumbledore in the epilogue becomes a statement of authorial authority.

The rather-late-in-the-day revelation of Dumbledore's moral ambiguity is irritating in a book that should have been concentrating on the final climatic battle between good and evil and love and death. On the other hand if you take it to its logical conclusion, not, in fact, that Dumbledore raised a hero but that Dumbledore deliberately and callously created a martyr then it becomes rather interesting. Or it would be if the epilogue, and the book in general, allowed the reader any such space in which to manoeuvre. Dumbledore is not, actually, open to interpretation because Harry's love and admiration for him remain unchanged, as demonstrated by the fact he named his child Albus. And I don't think at that stage we're meant to be questioning Harry's psychological health.

Snape, also, suffers a fatal loss of complexity. Although the fact that Harry stiles him brave probably suggests he has not entirely forgotten how entirely horrid Snape was to him for seven books but, in JK's world view, being mean and petty and traitorous and selfish is less important than having been in love when you were sixteen. Changing sides because the bad guy suddenly threatens a girl you want to boink is significantly less morally sophisticated than changing sides because you suddenly realise you've joined the Nazis With Superpowers but, regardless, I could tolerate the Snape Loved Lily revelation because, as far as I was concerned, it didn't make Snape one jot more sympathetic. This isn't to say I don't like Snape (he and Gilderoy Lockhart are my two favourite characters) but I have always liked him because he is unattractive and unsympathetic and petty. The disaster at the end The Order of the Phoenix occurs not because Kreacher betrayed Sirius for treating him like shit but because Snape couldn't get over himself for five minutes to teach Harry occulemcy and because Snape always seemed so untrustworthy a spy that Harry dares not trust him to alert the Order when he blurts out his fears about Sirius. However, the idea that love can be selfish is not a possibility in JK Rowling's world and Snape's infatuation with Lily Potter redeems him so completely that even the boy he ruthlessly bullied for seven years is willing to immortalise him in the naming of his children.

JK herself admits that Snape is, basically, kind of horrible (not her words) but she insists that he is brave and, in her rather simplistic worldview, bravery - that irritating Gryffindor virtue - is an attribute so overwhelmingly laudable that it eclipses all others. It is depressing beyond belief that it essentially transforms Snape - the only remotely admirable Slytherin - into a Gryffindor-at-heart. Furthermore, although acting as a double agent for a half-mad, unpredictable mass murdering psychopath is quite brave, it strikes me as being rather less brave to do it because you've been manoeuvred into it for the price of saving someone you happen to fancy. On the other hand, acting as a double agent for a half-mad, unpredictable, mass murdering psychopath because you decide that your conscience can't countenance working for him any more is bloody brave. It's a very personal decision with only nebulous and general benefits, whereas doing it for an individual is directly related to your own desires.

The Harry Potter books are not written to be read in any sense that I would understand it. They're there to be passively received and carefully cross-checked against the author's (externally established) intent. It's like a hundred and fifty years of literary theory never happened. I'm unsurprised that JKR's next work is to be an encyclopaedia because it's obviously what she wanted to be writing all along. I'm not, by any means, saying she's deliberately being sinister and trying to oppress her readership but as the books have progressed there's been an increasing preoccupation in establishing a set of approved readings. An encyclopaedia, even of one relating to an imaginary world, is still a way of introducing sources of absolute truth into something that should be as fluid and incalculable as the differences between my imagination and yours. What astonishes and horrifies me is not that JK is trying to do it but that everyone keen for her to do so.

I think this is the major reason the epilogue of the seventh book offends me as much as it does. I mean, there are others, of course, most related to the fact it stinks. But by establishing her characters, precisely as she wants them, nineteen years on from the events of the book, JK pins them down in perpetuity. I would like to think that the characters went on to pursue lives not entirely and absolutely determined by what they did (and who they did) at school. Oh foolish me. Also it strikes me as particularly low thing to do for a writer who owes so much to her fandom. It's the equivalent of those girly posters on Sirius's wall (he was never even the slightest bit gay ever!); a rather petty attempt to establish enduring canon relationships exactly the way she wants them: Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione. And Scorpius and Albus-Severus. Obviously.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wendy B at 22:02 on 2007-08-15
Excellent points. Bravo.

In my opinion, Jo wasted a tremendous opportunity. She should have written the 7th tale from both Harry and Snape's perspective. After six years of a Harry-filtered world, it would have been so illuminating if she had allowed Snape a real voice so we could understand what drove him, besides the fact that his boss offed his fantasy girlfriend. I believe Jo dislikes the character of Snape as she certainly begrudges fandom's interest in him. Instead she gives us a confusing answer to the question of whether Snape was good or evil. Answer: he was good, evil, AND in it for himself. If she hopped off her precious Harry filter and just let go of the narrative misdirection writing techinque (which had limited value in the final book) it could of been a great tale. Instead...blech.
Arthur B at 22:23 on 2007-08-15
Rowling is never going to give up narrative misdirection. It's her one and only trick, and ever since she was able to steamroller her editors into publishing whatever she writes she's even got sloppy at that. The next two books she's got planned after the Potter encyclopedia - the new children's book and her project for grown-ups - are going to be terrible.
Wardog at 10:32 on 2007-08-16
Many thanks, Wendy - I think there's my original review knocking around in the archives somewhere, but Dan's is much better because I was still in a weird state of denial that the book was as bad as I suspected it was.

I didn't realise JKR begrudged fandom their interest in Snape; I thought she certainly hated the popularity of Lupin because books 5 onwards are basically a character-assassination piece on the poor guy, which is a shame because I always rather liked Lupin and I thought his flaws (his desperation to be liked, his inability to stand up to his more confident friends, his general sense of divided-identity) were rather cool. I sometimes wonder if interest perhaps peaked when it became impossible in everyone's minds for him to look like anybody other than Alan Rickman :)

But the books have *always* been about Harry so I suspect offering a new perspective and point of view in the final book would be massively jarring, not that I wouldn't have welcomed anything that stage! I think one of the reasons that Snape worked so well was because he was elusive and, therefore, seemed infinitely more complex than JKR actually thought he was. I quite liked the fact he was in love with Lily Potter but I wish he'd been allowed at least one other character trait.
Wardog at 10:34 on 2007-08-16
Hmmm...Arthur...your reference to narrative misdirection now has me imagining some kind of bastard-monster consisting of bits of JK and bits of Joss Whedon. The pain!
Arthur B at 12:32 on 2007-08-16
As far as Lupin goes, it's pretty clear to me that he was meant to show up in Prisoner of Azkaban, be a red herring ("It's always the Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher!"), and go away again. Then the collective howling of fandom when he didn't have a bigger role in book 4 prompted Rowling to drag him out in book 5, only to commence running him down and emphasising his essential irrelevance.

It's strange how the Harry Potter books seem to have been shaped in some places by JK's response to her fans - even when she doesn't give the fans what they want, she ends up doing things precisely because it's not what the fans want (witness Sirius's girly posters). It'd be interesting to see how the series would have turned out if Rowling had been completely isolated from the fandom.
Wardog at 14:19 on 2007-08-16
Dan pointed out a while back that since JKR wrote the prologue eighty years ago (or whatever) and Teddy Lupin is in it, Lupin's arc was probably always pretty much the same. Although I think in interviews she talks about how important it was to her to kill parents so ... who knows the hell is going on? Also, is it me, but do you think he dies at the battle of Hogwarts just so he can show up with the Suicide Club?

But then I suppose books have always been shaped to *some* extent by fans and fan demands - look at Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur B at 14:33 on 2007-08-16
I'm not convinced that the epilogue we got is, in fact, the epilogue she wrote way back when and put in a safe in case she died before writing book 7 or something, simply because there's a nigh-total lack of exposition: I suspect she scrapped or heavily rewrote the old one since it was no longer necessary.
lessofthat at 01:14 on 2007-08-28
"What astonishes and horrifies me is not that JK is trying to do it but that everyone keen for her to do so."

You're right to be horrified, but not to be astonished. Look at the screechy, barely sane arguments in the various fandoms about what is and is not canon. Or the existence of Star Trek and Star Wars technical manuals. Fans (I mean the word in the geeky, semi-stalkery sense, not the generic one) don't want literature, they want an alternative universe they can buy maps of.

"bravery[..]is an attribute so overwhelmingly laudable that it eclipses all others"

Susan Sontag said, correctly, that courage was a morally neutral virtue. She was talking about the 9/11 hijackers at the time.
Wardog at 15:03 on 2007-08-28
I know I shouldn't be astonished but it's necessary for me not degenerating in a pile of embittered, contemptuous goo that I am.
Whenmarshmallowssnap at 20:47 on 2007-08-28
I didn't appreciate all the 'fluff' Rowling put in that should have been good narrative. I thought most of the Dumbledore backplot was kind useless and didn't really add to the story. Also, it was so unlike for Team Potter (as Dan likes to call them) to sit in a tent twiddling their thumbs, that I wondered vaguely if JK Rowling didn't have anything remotely interesting to write and settled for the trio wasting their time pointlessly. Plus, I fell through so many plot holes, I broke both my ankles.

"...a rather petty attempt to establish enduring canon relationships exactly the way she wants them..." Thank you for that. I did not like the fact that she controlled every single aspect of the characters' lives so that nothing is left to the readers' imagination. I wish Harry ended up with Cho Chang, and became an ex-convict. It would have added spontaneity to an otherwise boring and disappointing finish of the epic (read:really long and ingratiating) Harry Potter series.
Arthur B at 14:29 on 2007-10-20
Have you seen this? Not content to pull the rug out of the "Sirius is gay" crowd, Rowling has now declared that Dumbledore was gay all along, and was dating Grindlewald until that whole "Wizard-Hitler" thing caused them to split up.

Now, let's see what's objectionable about this...

- Author assigning attributes to a character which they never even hinted at during the actual books? Check.
- The one canonical gay relationship in the entire series being a terrible mistake on Dumbledore's part? Check.
- A homosexual, who was previously evil (or at best a collaborator) and in a relationship, is now unquestionably good and rigorously asexual. Implications that gays are better off living a celibate life? Check.
- Rowling jerking the fans around like puppets, and them applauding her for it anyhow like Winston Smith at the end of 1984 knuckling under and loving Big Brother like all the rest of the beaten-down herds? Check.
M Harris at 06:09 on 2007-10-21
Also this:

The Potter books in general are a prolonged argument for tolerance, a prolonged plea for an end to bigotry, and I think ti's one of the reasons that some people don't like the books, but I think that's it's a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.

[Loud applause.]

This entire interview is quite... freaky/weird.

The website it is on is this (I don't know how to make it into a link like Arthur B did):
[Linkified by webmaster]

You might want to read the answer to the question about Nazi parallels.
M Harris at 10:30 on 2007-10-21
Oh no, I'm reading comments about this on Mugglenet and I want to kill people.

"anyway i think you choose to be gay or straight. i don't think ur born gay. and since ppl. are judged by their actions/choices, i don't think gay ppl. are all that great. don't jump on me now, just sayin wat i think."

"It has to be a joke. The Harry Potter fandom would have been much smaller otherwise. Personally, I would not have read and loved the series if one of the main characters had been gay. What kind of "children's book" would that be? That type of "lifestyle" may be acceptable in Britain, but its not viewed so favorably everywhere (like the entire Southern United States). While there are exceptions here, they are the extreme minority."

And then these idiots:

"JKR is genius! A gay Harry Potter That takes true guts. This proves JKR is God. :D"
Arthur B at 13:35 on 2007-10-21
So, Rowling says

...I think that's it's a very healthy message to pass on to younger people that you should question authority and you should not assume that the establishment or the press tells you all of the truth.

which I agree with, and I think it's a shame that that message doesn't actually come through in Harry Potter. The most frequently-appearing authority figure in the books is Dumbledore, who is basically 100% right all the time. True, he isn't actually massively important in the grand scheme of things, but he's the supreme authority in Harry's world, and it turns out that all of his plans are for the best even when they involve convincing Harry to go get himself killed. The bad guys in the establishment and the press, meanwhile, are always quite obviously bad guys, and Harry usually finds what they have to say objectionable from the get-go.

The lesson seems to be "Trust your instincts: if the person in authority seems nice and trustworthy and is saying things you want to hear, they're probably good. If they seem harsh and unfair and are saying things you don't want to hear, they're bad." That's not exactly a helpful anti-authoritarian message.
Wardog at 09:47 on 2007-10-22
God, I genuinely tried to rise above this and not think about it. But, no, I'm pissed off. I'm fucking pissed off.

"If I'd known it would make you so happy, I would have announced it years ago!"

If it was in any way relevant or important you should have included in the goddamn books!

I was re-reading my Roland Barthes for school the other day and I found myself asking myself whether he was really still relevant or his conception of the Author-God actually exsisted - and JKR has proven the answer to both questions is a resounding yes. I genuinely can't quite believe this. It's not the way books work. It's not like Dickens turned up at his famous lecturers and started giving extra information about the life of Tiny Tim after the end of A Christmas Carol.

Also Dumbledore's sexuality is completely irrelevant, just like his brief flirtation with nazi-ism is completely irrelevant. He's presented as a 2D mentor figure and all the backplot in th world can't change that.

Dan H at 18:54 on 2007-10-23
"JKR is genius! A gay Harry Potter That takes true guts. This proves JKR is God. :D"

If the internet hadn't destroyed my faith in humanity many years ago, I'd actually assume that one was a joke.

I find it utterly hilarious the way that JKR's "prolonged argument for tolerance" is so hidebound by her middle-class value-system that she genuinely can't see how - well - completely intolerant it is for, for example, the one canonical homosexual relationship in the entire series to have been a colossal mistake that wound up causing the wizarding equivalent of the second world war.
Melissa G. at 18:51 on 2009-12-08
This is a really late comment, but I've been HP-obsessed the past few weeks. And I just want to say that what bothered me most about the "plea for tolerance" aspect was actually that she had a slave race that actually enjoyed being slaves and if we took that away from them, they'd turn into sobbing drunks. The idea that slaves like being slaves and they'd have nothing without slavery is so archaic and horrific an idea that it pains me to see it played for laughs with Winky.
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