Man With Pickaxe: The Myth of Canon

by Dan H

Dan Returns from the Underbelly of Potter Fandom
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Since JK Rowling has temporarily stopped polluting the world with her verbal dysentery, I decided to head over to various sporking sites on the intarwebs and have a go at mocking HP fanfiction instead.

This turned out to be a mistake, because of course people who enjoy mocking bad Potter fanfic are, by and large, huge fans of the original, so alongside the amusing comments mocking people's spelling, grammar and sanity, you also get people saying things like “Oh my god, I hate it when fanficcers act like Harry enjoys being the Boy Who Lived. Don't they realise that he totally hates it and would me much happier being ordinary, as evidenced by all the long melodramatic speeches about how alone he is.”

My poking around in this area led to my discovery of a Potter sub-community called “The Sober Universe” which is basically a bunch of people who insist that “canon” stops with the epilogue, and everything Rowling said in interview is just hearsay.

Sensible people, in other words.

Of course, if you mention these people to the rest of fandom the immediate response is “duh, Rowling INVENTED Harry Potter, what she says happens IS CANON dimwits why are you even IN this fandom?”

This lead to me getting into a frankly terrifying argument with two members of the board (one of whom was relatively sane, although they did claim that 'as a writer' they thought the point of fiction was 'to create a world and share it with an audience' which left me utterly astounded).

The turning point in this discussion (not in the sense of either of us having convinced the other of their viewpoint, you understand, just in the sense of my realising how utterly alien some people's attitudes to things were) was when I posted the following example:

:-)

“Man with Pick-Axe”

In case you're wondering, the two little dots are the man's head and body, the hyphen is his arms, and the bracket is the end of the pick axe. This got really interesting because my two interlocutors (love that word, sorry) both immediately took opposite paths of argument to the same conclusion.

The first insisted that since I created “Man with Pick-Axe” my interpretation was correct, and anybody seeing it as a smiley face was objectively wrong. Furthermore, they seemed to view this as the final clinching argument against the idea that an artistic work could have multiple valid interpretations. By my logic, I was not allowed to say that “:-)” is definitely a man with a pick-axe, therefore my logic was flawed. This was, at least, a self-consistent line of reasoning.

The second took an even more peculiar line of logic. They took the argument that while JK Rowling INVENTED Harry Potter (making her the final authority on how it is to be interpreted) I did not INVENT the smiley-face. Furthermore, they said, their interpretation of “:-)” as a smiley face was clearly the CREATOR'S interpretation and was therefore correct. This is one of the few times when the internet has genuinely made me sad. The idea that somebody can only justify their interpretation of an image by inventing an imaginary creator and attributing their beliefs to that creator strikes me as damning. Do people not learn to form opinions and justify those opinions with evidence any more?

The more I think about it, the more I find the whole concept of “canon” infuriating.

Only A Master of Evil

The film Star Wars which, whatever George Lucas would have us believe, was not released as “Episode Four” tells the story of a man named Luke Skywalker who is trained as a Jedi Knight by a mysterious old man named “Ben” (although his real name is “Obi Wan Kenobi” - incidentally why do Luke and Ben have sensible names, while everybody else is called Boob or Zoofroo or something?) and who fights an evil opponent called Darth Vader.

The backplot of the Star Wars film is simple and compelling. Obi Wan Kenobi had two students, Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader. Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Anakin Skywalker, and went on to become Lord Vader of the Empire, while Obi-Wan retired to Tattooine.

Of course later we learn a whole lot of different information, we learn that Darth Vader and Anakin Skywalker are the same person, we learn that Luke has a sister, we learn that Vader really works for the Emperor who is basically an Evil Wizard. Thirty years of real-time later we learn that Anakin and Obi-Wan were actually trained by the previously unmentioned Qui-Gon, that Anakin went evil for no clear reason other than that everybody in the star wars universe was an idiot, that “Darth” is actually a title rather than a name (and according to the fanwank, is an abbreviation of “Dark Lord of the Sith”) and of course that Only a Sith Lord Deals in Absolutes. We also learned that Greedo Han Greedo shot first.

Star Wars is interesting in that it has pretty much the most fluid “canon” going. Before the franchise got enormous, Lucas had something of a “do what you like with him” approach to the EU, allowing all kinds of crazy shit to get into the timeline, much of which was much cooler than the actual movies (see “Old Republic, Knights of”). About the only franchise with less continuity that I can think of is Dr Who.

The interesting thing, though, is that Star Wars actually works best if you ignore “canon” entirely or at the very least, are selective about what parts you pay attention to at any given time.

For example:

In the original Star Wars, Obi Wan Kenobi confronts Darth Vader. Their dialogue is so utterly famous it's barely worth referencing, but the line I want to single out for attention here is “only a master of evil, Darth.”

Now okay, the actual line is a bit naff – I mean, surely “master of evil” is a pretty cool thing to be if you're a Dark Jedi (the “Sith” were barely a glimmer in Lucas' eye at this point) – but the really crucial point is that Obi Wan is the only person who refers to Vader by what, at the time the film was made, was his first name. It was a humbling and humanising moment for Vader, reminding him that he had once been Obi-Wan's pupil and had, perhaps, failed to learn some very important lessons.

Accepting the “canon” interpretation that “Darth” is actually a title not only strips the confrontation between Obi-Wan and his former pupil of a lot of its impact, it also plain makes no sense. Throughout the original trilogy “Darth” is treated like a name, with “Lord Vader” being his formal title. Sure, you can fanwank it – maybe Obi-Wan was using “Darth” as a term of contempt, to show Anakin how little he thought of his new status as a Dark Lord of the Sith, but then why don't other people use it as a term of respect? The fact is that the way you say a personal name is different to the way you say a title (I'm trying to think of how best to explain it, but I think basically you pause less – titles tend to be run slightly into the name that follows them) and in Star Wars “Darth” is always spoken like a personal name.

I know it's a really minor issue, but the point I'm trying to illustrate is that an awareness of “canon” - of what is supposed to have “really” happened in a fictional setting is actually detrimental to the interpretation of the film. The knowledge that Darth is later retconned into a title actually harms your appreciation of the original Star Wars, because its use as a personal name highlights specific details about the relationships between characters.

This is the big problem with the idea of canon. It frequently involves wilfully misinterpreting a text in order to make it consistent with another text in the same “continuity”. This, further, limits the number of supported interpretations of any given text to those which are compatible with the rest of the “continuity” - which is frequently to the detriment of the texts in question. The classic example here, of course, is Severus Snape, who went from being an extremely complex and interesting character (he is both horrible and good! My tiny mind is blown!) to a two-dimensional cutout (he was ebil, but he was redeemed because he loved Lily Potter the end). Worse, the obsession with “canon” leads people to approach fiction in a horribly limited way, as the gradual acquisition of facts about a secondary reality, with the reader's only choices being to like or dislike the information they are presented with, and their only challenge being to work out what the author wants them to think.

It all comes back to the inability to view a text as a text, instead treating it as a sequence of events that really happened somewhere.

Who Is Harry Potter?

One of the two Potter Fans I was recently arguing with kept falling back on the statement that JK Rowling INVENTED Harry Potter, therefore whatever she says about him is de facto true (or is that de jure?).

Except actually, JK Rowling did not invent Harry Potter.

Sure, she owns the IP, you can't write a book about a boy wizard called Harry Potter without getting your ass sued off, but “Harry Potter” was created by a whole mess of different people – JKR, her editors, Daniel Radcliffe, and for that matter Fandom. It's no accident that “canon” Snape got a whole bunch sexier after he was portrayed on film by Alan Rickman (he actually purrs in HBP). Harry Potter is not a person who lives in JK Rowling's head, he's an idea which is shared in various forms by millions of people all over the world.

This, I think, is what people can't get their heads around. It's the idea that there does not have to be a single, correct answer to any question about a fictional character. The idea that something could be deliberately ambiguous, or intentionally left open to multiple interpretations seems to blow people's tiny minds. The idea that an interpretation that was not intended by the author could still be valid seems to make Fandom physically ill.

In a roundabout way, this is why I'm always so pissed off by people who get all wankey about the “real” versions of fairy tales. Sure, Cinderella's slippers might have been made of fur in one of the older versions of the story, but they're made of glass in the current version, and it's not like “fur” has intrinsically greater merit than “glass” - in fact I'd argue almost the opposite, there's something faintly sinister about glass slippers which adds a harder edge to the whole story. But people persist in smugly telling you that “in the original story the slippers were made of fur” like it means shit.

Just as people can't get their head around the idea that the the Disney animation is just as much Snow White as the Grimm Fairy tale, so they seem unable to accept that “selfish little shit who never shows the slightest scrap of empathy for anybody and clearly revels in his celebrity status” is just as much a description of Harry Potter as “heroic young man defined entirely by his capacity to love, who bears the burden of his destiny nobly yet unwillingly.” Both are entirely true, and both are supported by the text. Only one is endorsed by JK Rowling, but she actually doesn't get to say what her characters personalities are like, she only gets to imply it through the way they behave in the actual, published text. The “canon,” if you will.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
http://poeticalengine.blogspot.com/ at 23:27 on 2009-03-25
You ventured into Harry Potter fandom? Willingly? Huh. Scary.

While I don't claim to have a lot of personal experience with them, I tend to put Canon-Thumpers in the same bag as Grammar Nazis and people who interrupt strangers’ conversations when they hear someone say "I literally died!" and tell them they mean "metaphorically" even when, for all they know, the person is retelling a harrowing tale involving a daring puppy rescue, bikini-clad lifeguards and CPR... it's a very specific bag. Anyway, what I mean is that I think these are all ways for people to make themselves feel better for their lack of imagination and inter-personal skills.

It's not to say that being a stickler for details is always a bad thing - It's not. But particularly with Harry Potter, I don't see why anyone would want to take a fairly basic child fantasy ("I'm not REALLY a boring speccy kid with no friends! I'm secretly the filthy-rich, innately-talented messiah!") and make it fit these strict, joyless rules of Canon.

I would actually say that creating a mental sandbox in which readers can create their own, better, more coherent stories is JKR’s greatest (only?) literary accomplishment. Then I encounter people who not only cared what Harry's third child's middle name was but would actually spend days theorising and fighting their corner on the subject. Then I am forced to wonder if reading a book is a fundamentally different experience for them or if I'm just missing something.

Er, that was a bit of an incoherent response, sorry. Basically I'm agreeing with you. (Also it's my first ever comment, so that's my excuse.)
-Heather-Anne
Rami at 00:21 on 2009-03-26
Welcome to FerretBrain, Heather-Anne!

Hmmm. I'm slightly unsure about the examples you're using, Dan. I don't know if I'd say that you can, for instance, take the first book of a trilogy on its own -- it's part of a larger text, surely, and needs to be read in that context?
Arthur B at 01:40 on 2009-03-26
I don't know if I'd say that you can, for instance, take the first book of a trilogy on its own -- it's part of a larger text, surely, and needs to be read in that context?

This would rather assume that the trilogy was consciously composed as part of a larger text from the start, rather than something the creators improvised as they went along. The Star Wars example is particularly apt because when George Lucas was filming the first one he had no idea whether the studios would let him make a sequel, and whether they'd give him a halfway adequate budget if they did. In fact, Lucas went so far as to brainstorm a range of potential sequels, ranging from the big-budget extravaganza we got to Splinter of the Mind's Eye, a backup story prepared in case Star Wars bombed and Lucas was left making the sequels on a shoestring budget. (Well, technically he paid Alan Dean Foster to brainstorm the low-budget alternative sequel, but that's splitting hairs.) Nothing in Star Wars necessarily leads on to The Empire Strikes Back, or Attack of the Clones, or Knights of the Old Republic.
Shim at 07:23 on 2009-03-26
they did claim that 'as a writer' they thought the point of fiction was 'to create a world and share it with an audience' which left me utterly astounded

Actually, I was inclined to agree with the fan (at least to the extent of "a point of fiction). Then I realised there was more than one interpretation of that comment, i.e. "world" as a setting where all kinds of interesting things happen that people would want to read about, vs. "world" as a set of concrete realities and history that just happens not to be real*. Hmm.

*let's not get into "real", okay?
Jen Spencer at 09:04 on 2009-03-26
I think the reason this happend is because adults took something intended for "the kids" and got into it themselves. Adults are the biggest kill joys ever who need to know they're right and that the world makes sense etc, and who will annoyingly argue themselves to the ends of the earth in pursuit of acknowledgement. People suck.
Andy G at 09:10 on 2009-03-26
I agree with your points about Star Wars/HP canon and continuity, but I'm not sure I quite agree about Snow White etc. Arguably, aren't modern "definitive" versions themselves equivalent to the Star Wars continuity apologists, asserting that such and such a plot is THE story of Snow White and not the countless other variants which have always coexisted? Fairy tales and myths would be a continuity freak's nightmare, as they are inconsistent in plot details and have no author whose intentions they can call on to validate any interpretations.

I also wonder whether different things might matter for Harry Potter and fairy tales. For fairy tales, exact plot details may be of less importance with regard to just why they matter than symbolic motifs. In a plot-driven story, it may be irrelevant whether the main character wears red or green – but not for little Red Riding Hood. In Cinderella, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume those fur slippers have "vagina" written all over them.

If you change details that are really essential to the reason why the story is significant – perhaps features that actually link the disparate versions and make them the same story – I think there is a case for saying that the new "version" is not the "same" story in any way that matters, or that it is a substandard version of it.

I don't necessarily think that I WOULD make that case for the fur/glass slippers thing in particular (it depends on what, if anything, the "core" of these stories is), but I do think that those sorts of things might matter more than they would do for the HP/Star Wars cases that people get so wound up about.
Wardog at 09:35 on 2009-03-26
people who interrupt strangers’ conversations when they hear someone say "I literally died!" and tell them they mean "metaphorically"

These people are scum and deserve your ire. Welcome to Fb, Heather-Anne.
Arthur B at 09:39 on 2009-03-26
In Cinderella, I'm going to go out on a limb and assume those fur slippers have "vagina" written all over them.

If Cinders had one on each foot for the entire ball I can see why the Prince found her so impressive.
Rami at 10:33 on 2009-03-26
the trilogy was consciously composed as part of a larger text from the start
But surely the point is that authorial intent doesn't determine canon(-icity? -icalness?)?
Arthur B at 10:38 on 2009-03-26
In which case why would the fact that a book/film is part of a trilogy matter? Does the publication of a sequel necessarily fuse interpretations of a prequel in place for all time?
Dan H at 11:30 on 2009-03-26
Hmmm. I'm slightly unsure about the examples you're using, Dan. I don't know if I'd say that you can, for instance, take the first book of a trilogy on its own -- it's part of a larger text, surely, and needs to be read in that context?

I think it depends very much on the trilogy, and on how you're approaching your understanding of it.

If it's one of these fantasy trilogies that are basically one ginormous book chopped up into three at arbitrary points then it's a bit pointless to consider one on its own. On the other hand, I'd argue that it's perfectly legitimate to interpret Darkly Dreaming Dexter as a book about a guy who is a serial killer and not as a book about a guy who is a serial killer because he has a demon living in his brain.

Basically I'm very much of the opinion that what is "canon" in 1997 is still canon in 2012, even if the author has changed their mind, or revealed their intent, or whatever. It's obviously less of an issue in things which are highly consistent across incarnations (like the aforesaid big fantasy novels) but to take some examples from across geekdom:

- In Buffy Canon, is magic high ritual involving candles and incantations (like in seasons 1-5) or mystic crack that rots your brain (like in season 6) or powerful redeeming feminine energy (like in season 7).
- In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban does Hermione slap Draco (like she does in the book) or punch him (like she does in the movie and, crucially, like she is described as doing retroactively in Book 6).
- In Blade Runner is Deckard a replicant or a human? Does Rachel live or die?
- And of course, does Han shoot first?
Andy G at 11:34 on 2009-03-26
I think The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings is a great example here – they are clearly inconsistent in many respects and stand alone as stories, but can still claim to add something to the interpretation of each other as prequel/sequel. That probably applies even if you just take the various parts of The Lord of the Rings.
Arthur B at 12:08 on 2009-03-26
The irony there is Tolkien was pretty much exclusively interested in worldbuilding, with storytelling being a happy by-product of that; he referred to Middle Earth as a "secondary creation", after all.

Which would be the point that Dan is getting at: "creating a world and sharing it with an audience" is a legitimate motive for storytelling, but if you treat it as if it must be a motive then you end up treating every fictional work in the same way as you would Middle Earth. This is horrifyingly restrictive.
Rami at 12:10 on 2009-03-26
- In Blade Runner is Deckard a replicant or a human? Does Rachel live or die?
- And of course, does Han shoot first?
Well, with Blade Runner you've got the story, the novel, and the film -- all of which I think are readable in their own way because the novel is based on the story but isn't a sequel or prequel but a new text; and the film is an interpretation of the novel. So it's hard to say.

Han shot first -- that's the way it came out in the first film.

I don't know enough about the others to comment.
Arthur B at 12:44 on 2009-03-26
Han shot first -- that's the way it came out in the first film.

Well, in that case Rachel definitely lives in Blade Runner, because that's the way it came out in the first version of the film...
Rami at 12:47 on 2009-03-26
Well, in that case Rachel definitely lives in Blade Runner, because that's the way it came out in the first version of the film...

I've not seen later versions, so that's what I took from the film, yes. That's Blader Runner. Whether or not androids dream of electric sheep is another question entirely...
Guy at 12:56 on 2009-03-26
I think the thing that I care about in a work of fiction is a kind of internal consistency, what I'd call "world-integrity". If the whole thing more or less feels like it fits together and makes sense on its own terms, then I couldn't give a toss that in book one all the seneschals wore blue shoulder pads and only acolytes wear orange shoulder pads but then in book three then some seneschals wear orange shoulder pads, (or whatever) unless the story made a huge deal out of it at the time. To me picking over these things is like complaining after you've been to the theatre that the backing was just a sheet of painted canvas, and didn't anyone else notice that it wasn't really a field of sunflowers? Anyway... having a perfectly consistent "canon" is no use if your world doesn't feel "real" to me (on its own terms) while I'm visiting it. To me what distinguishes the proper star wars films from the crappy sequels is that while they don't respect the real laws of physics and whatnot, they respect their own rules; things work the way they should work in a fun, pulpy, space-opera adventure. I think in a way the "Rowling is the God of the universe she created!" attitude gets things exactly in reverse. A good creator observes and respects the laws of the world they have had a major (but, I would argue, not exclusive) role in creating and describing, and tries to stay true to what that world calls for in their subsequent ventures into it. A bad creator thinks they can impose order on their creation, or turn it this way and that because its "theirs". But if they do it in a way that doesn't respect what was already there... rather than imposing a new order they just destroy the credibility of the world. As anyone can see by watching the Star Wars sequels.
http://makesitpretty.livejournal.com/ at 13:01 on 2009-03-26
The idea that an interpretation that was not intended by the author could still be valid seems to make Fandom physically ill.

Well, I can tell the fans you were talking to weren't slashers! This sentence startled me, to be honest. All the fandom I know of is precisely about interpretations of the text that weren't intended by the authors. HP fandom as much as any though I don't know it very well.

I wonder if what you were seeing was more a case of people pulling poorly-thought-out arguments out of their ass to reject an interpretation that they didn't like very much? And I suspect it's also maybe something like people wanting to be the Good Fans who respect the author and whose fannishness is more or less endorsed by her and not the Bad Fans whose ideas have been explicitly repudiated by the author; ie very specific to HP because I don't know of any other creators that do that stuff.

I do think the attitude you described in the quote above is quite common in people who just haven't thought about the subject very much. It's just that IME people in fandom are far more likely to have thought about it and rejected it, than the average person.
Guy at 13:03 on 2009-03-26
Aargh, sorry, pedant alert but I wrote "its" instead of "it's" up there and I can't stand to leave it unremarked on...
Arthur B at 13:27 on 2009-03-26
I've not seen later versions, so that's what I took from the film, yes.

So the theatrical release with the voiceover and the drive into the sunset and Rachel being a special replicant, and which is despised by Harrison Ford, Ridley Scott, and most other people involved, is more canonical than the various director's cuts, purely because it came out first?

I think you will struggle to find many Blade Runner fans that agree with you.
Andy G at 13:34 on 2009-03-26
"The irony there is Tolkien was pretty much exclusively interested in worldbuilding"

Yes, perhaps he was the first one to start this sort of "retrofitting" by subsequently attempting to make The Hobbit fit the schema of The Lord of the Rings? I meant to say we don't necessarily need to feel too constrained by this when reading The Hobbit. It could go either way with the films – will the new director allow The Hobbit to be independent from The Lord of the Rings while still sharing a world? Or will The Hobbit be fitted to the same mould as The Lord of the Rings in terms of tonality, plot details and the significance of e.g. the Ring (and, for a film, visual style and sound)? I imagine they'll incline towards the latter given the casting.

I like your idea of "world integrity" Guy. It's much less restrictive than a pedantic insistence on logical consistency, while not suggesting that anything goes.

Has anyone seen some of the Wikipedia entries that try to fit the Simpsons episodes into this kind of "canonical" scheme? That sort of thing really shows up the absurdity of it all.
Dan H at 13:39 on 2009-03-26
Well, I can tell the fans you were talking to weren't slashers! This sentence startled me, to be honest. All the fandom I know of is precisely about interpretations of the text that weren't intended by the authors

To be honest I was overstating (arguments on teh intarwebs get me that way) obviously a lot of potterfen take an active glee in subverting the canon for their own ends, but there's also an insane number of people who get snippy when the writ of Rowling is violated.

Weirdly, for example, people seem to find random "Dumbledore's Daughter" OCs more objectionable now because "Dumbledore is gay".

I'd also suggest that there's a difference between the idea that it's okay to write an AU or to ignore bits of canon for the purposes of fanfic (which most people can get behind) and the idea that those sorts of interpretations are *genuinely* valid. As you say, it all seems to come down to this Good Fan versus Bad Fan thing.

@ Rami

Han shot first -- that's the way it came out in the first film

Interestingly, that's pretty much the opposite of most fandom interpretations. Most Fandoms will insist that the most recent version of a text supercedes the original. So for a while it was "canon" (and therefore a "fact") that Greedo shot first.
Arthur B at 13:41 on 2009-03-26
That's nothing - Stephen King's own efforts to make half his work fit into the cosmology of The Dark Tower is a nightmarish vortex of pain.
Arthur B at 13:49 on 2009-03-26
(My last comment was in response to Andy's indication of the ludicrous lengths people go to in order to rationalise The Simpsons.)
http://makesitpretty.livejournal.com/ at 14:24 on 2009-03-26
Thanks for expanding, Daniel. I haven't really seen that sort of thing in other fandoms, but I suppose it makes a kind of sense that it would happen in HP because the books are so didactic.

Trying to rationalise The Simpsons sounds like geeky entertainment to me. But trying to do so and taking it seriously, that sounds like a world of endless torment.
Sonia Mitchell at 21:29 on 2009-03-26
@Arthur - it wasn't fun to read. I quite like a little self-reference if it's inconsequential for those who don't know the background - for example the fact that the generic prison in King's work is always Shawshank - but by the time TDT got to volume five you were really screwed if you hadn't read Salem's Lot.

Which I hadn't because I wasn't interested in a vampire story. Lucky for me I got a retelling in book five.
Dan H at 23:11 on 2009-03-26
I've read interviews where she praises questions which are basically fact finding for some secondary real harry potterverse and flat out tells fans they are wrong about questions which are about interpretation.

It's the way it strays so easily from one to the other that really narks me. I can just about accept that saying "Harry Goes on to Become Head Auror" is on the harmless side of pointless, but the problem is that it's actually really hard to draw a line between "interpretation" and "inarguable facts about the setting."

Is "Dumbledore was a good teacher" a question of interpretation? Or "Harry is a hero"?

One of the examples I used in my Potter Fandom Argument of Doom was Steph Meyer's Twilight series. If you accept that the author is the absolute arbiter of what is "true" in their world, then Edward and Bella's relationship is *totally romantic and not at all creepy*.

Curiously, the potterfen rejected this on the grounds that the author wasn't allowed to tell them "how to feel about the characters".

So it's okay for JKR to tell us that Harry is a Hero, so long as she doesn't try to tell us how to *feel* about Harry being a hero.
http://fintinobrien.livejournal.com/ at 23:41 on 2009-03-26
So it's okay for JKR to tell us that Harry is a Hero, so long as she doesn't try to tell us how to *feel* about Harry being a hero.

Wow... that's either extraordinarily profound or complete nonsense.

I've spent the last few months posting in a Zelda forum and I've grown to despise canon. At one point I was getting sick of people providing creator quotes and fan translations of the Japanese text to support their points, so I brought up the death of the author. Turns out the death of the author doesn't apply to the Zelda series, as Zelda isn't postmodern.
(another first post. *waves*) I dislike JKR and loathe HP's subtext, but I still draw HP fanart. Some understand the concept of subjectivity in regards to canon. Some even remain critical of the subtext of the series. (I've actually been fortunate in the corner of HP fandom I landed, and rarely leave.) But I have to agree with that larger fandom's defensive about JKR, and has no ability to apply values consistently. The preciousness with which some treat JKR's authorship is appalling.

Fandom replicate the values of canon, to an extent. In HP, power is handed off to those "destined", as assigned and interpreted by those already in power. Instructions on how to interpret the actions of these chosen will be forwarded later. People enter into discussions after paying tribute to the community leaders.

Fanon authorizes and revokes interpretations via it's informal hierarchy and HP fandom interpretive tropes. My personal favorite is "But It's Magic". You can't use logic to fill in gaps, because JKR's world is so...unique. Not derivative at all. *cough* No, really. *cough*

To be fair, plenty of corners of other fandoms operate like this too, not just HP General. I also think the general inability to imagine that interpreting a work of art is subjective is much larger than HP. The idea that interpretation can be "owned" and marketed is an artifact of the overwhelming influence of corporations in the last 15 years. Even dating advice has been framed as "turning oneself into a brand". If a person can be forwarded as branded property, what else can escape?

Oh, another inconsistent canon: Highlander. I've often wondered if low consistency in a canon, leads to a larger fandom. Maybe it works on the same compulsions that make us straighten hanging pictures.
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 04:29 on 2009-03-29
Heh--you mentioned going into HP communities and I wondered if you'd wind up on the one I seem to wind up on periodically, getting skewered for my terrible interpretations of the text. Clearly I not get the way DEs are like Nazis and therefore the good guys are noble!

Anyway, it's funny you mention that moment in Star Wars--it always stands out for me too. (It's like the "big moments" where Dumbledore calls Voldemort "Tom"--except in SW there's some actual emotional weight behind it and also Ben doesn't seem to be helping Darth Vader by not telling anybody us who he really is and so helping them face him themselves.) When we learned that Darth Vader was really Anakin I wound up fanwanking in the other direction. Now when I watch the scene I feel like obviously Ben would be calling him Anakin in that moment--that's exactly what the line means. Only Lucas didn't want to reveal that so he called him Darth. (Okay, really it's that Lucas obviously hadn't yet created the name Anakin Skywalker so he wasn't hiding anything there.) So it's a flaw--the best way to do it really would be for him to call him Anakin without us knowing that's the name of Luke's father, but luckily Alec Guinness' performance sells the moment for what it is using the wrong name. So in that moment Darth is just the name of his pupil in some AU where Darth Vader was maybe Luke's dad's bff instead of his father. (Or maybe his bff who was secretly Luke's father without Luke knowing.)

That was a weird tangent. What I meant to say is I agree. Though sometimes it's odd that people can both be very strict about canon facts and interpretations being up to the author, yet then interpret simple lines in a way that seems to forget they were written by a person trying to put across a point. Again, acting as if these are real events somewhere and maybe the words on the page don't cover everything (as I heard it described once, as if this is a documentary and the author just didn't have the footage), rather than understanding that the entire story is composed of the words on the page, chosen by an author to get something across. So, like, if Harry walks into a room and Ron's there, it's not really as good an interpretation to say that maybe Hermione and Snape were there too. You can imagine it that way if you like, but you can't really call that an interpretation of what was written.
Dan H at 16:04 on 2009-03-30
Clearly I not get the way DEs are like Nazis and therefore the good guys are noble!

Ah yes, the DEs are kind of like the Nazis if, instead of brutally exterminating both their political opponents and a large proportion of Europe's Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and Trade Unionists, they had just spannered around in Austria saying bad words.

Though sometimes it's odd that people can both be very strict about canon facts and interpretations being up to the author, yet then interpret simple lines in a way that seems to forget they were written by a person trying to put across a point.

I know exactly what you mean - it's the way I've had a lot of people try to defend the inconsistencies in Star Wars canon (well we don't know it *really* happened the way it's presented in the film!)

Like a lot of related issues, it seems inconsistent but it's actually based on the same logic. The basic idea is that the secondary world is real, that out of everybody the author knows the most about it. Essentially there's a hierarchy that goes Reality of Secondary World > Author's Knowledge of Secondary World > Reader's knowledge of secondary world.

On the flip side, those of us who reject Authorial Intent as the sole arbiter of interpretation also spend a lot of time arguing about what the author is trying to communicate. Other people's viewpoints tend to look kind of inconsistent when viewed from within your own viewpoint, if you see what I mean..
http://nykinora.livejournal.com/ at 09:24 on 2009-11-16
Again, acting as if these are real events somewhere and maybe the words on the page don't cover everything (as I heard it described once, as if this is a documentary and the author just didn't have the footage), rather than understanding that the entire story is composed of the words on the page, chosen by an author to get something across. So, like, if Harry walks into a room and Ron's there, it's not really as good an interpretation to say that maybe Hermione and Snape were there too. You can imagine it that way if you like, but you can't really call that an interpretation of what was written.


*This.* When I delved into the fandom on a whim (prior to the release of HBP *shudder*) I was new to it all and was simply *amazed* when I first ran into this practice. I remember having long, pointless, pseudo-arguments where people would speculate on a small scene and would then spin out a detailed a fantasy tangent strung together by a series of 'ifs' 'what ifs' 'coulds' and 'perhaps' So far, fine.

But then they would completely lose sight of the fact that they were, y'know, speculating and would behave as if (let's say) Hermione and Snape being in the room 'had' factually occurred in the text and would present it as the basis of an 'argument'.

(FTR I have no problem with 'Ron from the future' or 'Harry drugged with amortentia by evil Ginny' speculations but would definitely have had a problem with those fans who tried to insist that I had to receive those speculations as fact.)

They didn't seem to be able to differentiate between interpreting canon, and a form of imaginative speculation that would be great for a fan-fic but fails as an argument. Reading sub-text and recognising the interstices of a text is NOT a blank licence to make up whatever you like and then treat it as if it were concrete reality. Arguing is not supposed to be an exercise in wish-fulfillment.

I found it so...strange and irritating. It used to frustrate me to no end to be arguing that I didn't *want* argue on the basis of Hermione's secret hidden romance with Ron that her parent's violently disapproved of ('proven' by his Christmas gift of perfume), or Ginny's sexual harrassment at the hand of Zacharias Smith (which 'explained' why she had hexed him.)

I got so tired of the nonsensical reading of this text. On the one hand so many readers didn't seem to be able to differentiate between text, sub-text and simply making crap up (on the basis that since it hasn't been written yet, then gee it 'could' happen and: Possibility=canon)

Yet at the same time, these same readers were the least flexible when it came to allowing other readers to respond to characters as they saw fit, interpret the text or horror-of-horrors... judge JKRs writing.

Suddenly they weren't into "interpretation" at all and were obedient drones of the "but JKR says so!" sect.

Ron from the future? Okay!
Ron being less than loveable and an irritating git? Not okay! Why?

Because JKR based him on her best friend so he clearly she loves Ron and so must you!!!

Ginny is a powerful witch and a great character, because despite doing next to nothing in the text and existing as wallpaper for 5 books. Why? Because JKR says so!

Harry is noble, loving and a highly skilled wizard, and not at all self-absorbed (yet non-introspective), clique-ish, vengeful, dependent, and brainless and utterly lucky to be alive - because JKR told us so.

The books *are* so much more progressive than what you would get in an Enid Blyton text because *gasp* Dean, the Patil twins, and Cho Chang were actually allowed to exist on the same pages as Harry and the gang - and Harry even kissed Cho. And Blaise Zabini is... African! And Dumbledore's gay!

And what a bildungsroman because wow, they snog in the hallways and get jealous - and none of the 'sexuality' it was at all shoe-horned, perfunctory, flat and unconvincing. And that epilogue...

And the series is dark, powerful, deep, meaningful and *totally* doesn't introduce serious topics like classism, race, discrimination, torture, and genocide - only to reduce some of them to level of caricature or comedic relief, use others them in a wholly aesthetic, ornamental way or wholly waive them aside when convenient.

Because white robes and pointed hoods, y'all! And... JKR! says! so!

Sorry...but reading the OP and the responses just remind me of why I found this fandom every bit as creepy and troubling as some HP adherents find some of the Twilight folk - which is for a whole other rant.
Sister Magpie at 17:10 on 2009-11-16
I got so tired of the nonsensical reading of this text. On the one hand so many readers didn't seem to be able to differentiate between text, sub-text and simply making crap up (on the basis that since it hasn't been written yet, then gee it 'could' happen and: Possibility=canon)



Wow--flashback. Yes, I've been there. I remember having a discussion about the actual plot of HBP that came down between two versions: 1) Voldemort, in order to punish Lucius, came up with a nasty plan to saddle Draco with the task of killing Dumbledore, assuming he would either fail and be killed as punishment or die trying. Draco hoped his knowledge of the Vanishing Cabinet (known only to him) could be an ace in the hole to succeeding at this task.

2) Voldemort planned to kill Dumbledore, but could not get in until Draco brought his Vanishing Cabinet knowledge to him. Voldemort, having been given an amazing secret entrance into Hogwarts, told Draco to repair it--and then told him to kill DD. These last two things were nasty afterthoughts to his genuine plan to kill DD via the Vanishing Cabinet.

Everything in HBP leads to the first reading. Every time it's discussed the first interpretation is given. Everyone's actions and emotional states conform to the first version. Especially the fact that nobody who comes into the castle does anything, and the guy who kills Dumbledore was already there.

So in that instance *I* was the one on the side of "not all interpretations are equal" because the second version never came up in the text. Not one person ever talks about Voldemort having been given any information by Draco--which would certainly be there if that was the story. The whole basis of it was: a) wanting Draco to be a little more guilty of bringing trouble down on his own head than he already was, b) thinking if you were Voldemort you'd want to kill Dumbledore and not expect Draco to do it (a question that's neatly answered in the first version because V never expected him to) and c) nobody in the text ever specifically saying that this *didn't* happen.

Iow, if you can make up a complicated story that happens entirely offscreen but hooks into canon in even the most tenous way, it's an interpretation. Even better, a person arguing it will tell you that they've "given you the canon" for this interpretation by explaining how Voldemort couldn't possibly be so stupid as to have done what canon said he did. (Which I find ironic, since Voldemort's side-joke on Draco in HBP is one of the most sensible plans he ever has imo.)

Likewise, a line that clearly states that Slughorn and Charlie Weasley enter a room followed by what looks like all the shopkeepers in Hogsmeade and the friends and family of the non-Slytherin characters can imply a herd of Slytherins entering a room as long as you come up with a convoluted reason that the narrator has some reason for not identifying them.
Gamer_2k4 at 17:27 on 2010-08-16
I think the author's intent for a character takes precedence over a reader's interpretation, but only assuming that the author has represented that character correctly. If the author presents the character ambiguously or in a way that contradicts his own personal design for the character, I don't see how you could argue against the reader's interpretation. However, if the reader's view of the character contradicts something clearly stated in the text, then the interpretation is very definitely wrong.

Incidentally, why is it invalid to think that fiction is intended to create a world and share it? I understand that there are other uses of fiction, such as satire or symbolism. But a very large category of fiction is storytelling for the sake of storytelling. There's no "message" in Star Wars. It's just a fun romp through space, a tale of good versus evil. In cases like that, why shouldn't the author's intent be respected?

Yes, canon changes as the world gets expanded. That's why "Darth" became a title rather than a name. But in the end, it's still canon, and it takes precedence over interpretation. If someone decided that Chewbacca could actually speak Basic and just chose not to, they'd be wrong.

The author's word is law when determining canon. J. K. Rowling DOES get to say what her characters' personalities are like. She made them. If there are two equally valid interpretations of a character, then the one that agrees with the author's intent is the correct one.
Andy G at 18:31 on 2010-08-16
@ Gamer_2k4 - I'm guessing you're coming at the question from an entirely different angle from Dan, because you seem to disagree about basically everything ;) Out of interest, why do you think the concept of canon/what thr author thinks *matters*? The examples you give from Star Wars are things that can be found in the films themselves.

Incidentally, why is it invalid to think that fiction is intended to create a world and share it? I understand that there are other uses of fiction, such as satire or symbolism. But a very large category of fiction is storytelling for the sake of storytelling. There's no "message" in Star Wars. It's just a fun romp through space, a tale of good versus evil. In cases like that, why shouldn't the author's intent be respected?


I think a story is distinct from merely presenting a world. The original Star Wars may not have a distinct message, but the elements of the world do serve to tell a compelling story. By contrast, many fantasy novels and the new Star Wars trilogy are overwhelmed with details about a world for the sake of detail, which is something very different. Again, the question is: why do those kind of details matter in and of themselves?
Arthur B at 11:21 on 2010-08-17
If the author presents the character ambiguously or in a way that contradicts his own personal design for the character, I don't see how you could argue against the reader's interpretation. However, if the reader's view of the character contradicts something clearly stated in the text, then the interpretation is very definitely wrong.

Well, how about a situation where the text makes a statement about a character which isn't actually backed up by the character's own behaviour?

We are supposed, for example, to believe that Harry Potter is brave and honourable, the exemplar of Griffindor values; Rowling is quite clear about this both in the actual text of the books and in discussions of the text, it's absolutely clear that that's her intent. At the same time, she depicts him doing things like subjecting an opponent to hideous agonising pain for the dire crime of being rude to someone Potter likes, which many find doesn't fit their personal ideas of bravery or honour. Similarly, Terry Goodkind asks us to regard the protagonist of his novels as a hero, even when he brutally cuts down peace protestors "armed only with their hatred of moral clarity".

There's two things here: firstly, an author's own ideas about bravery, honour, or moral behaviour might not match the reader's ideas at all, and so inevitably author and reader will interpret different events in a text in different ways - and are we really going to say that the author's moral outlook is inherently superior to the reader's? Secondly, an author might arbitrarily declare that a character is brave, or honourable, or moral, but not actually ever show that character doing anything brave, or honourable, or moral (and might even show them behaving in precisely the opposite way). Should we then believe the author's declaration about the character, or should we judge the character based on how we are actually shown them behaving?
Arthur B at 11:40 on 2010-08-17
Sorry to double post, but just noticed this:

Incidentally, why is it invalid to think that fiction is intended to create a world and share it?

There was some discussion of this earlier in the comments - my personal view is that it isn't wrong to write a story in order to create a world and share it. What is mistaken is interpreting every story you encounter as though it were an exercise in worldbuilding, because many stories clearly aren't, and if you take them as though they were you're just not going to enjoy them because you're going in with expectations which just aren't going to be met.
Jamie Johnston at 12:19 on 2010-08-17
However, if the reader's view of the character contradicts something clearly stated in the text, then the interpretation is very definitely wrong.
...
If someone decided that Chewbacca could actually speak Basic and just chose not to, they'd be wrong.

Is it clearly stated in the text that Chewbacca can't speak Basic?

I know that sounds like a rhetorical question, but I'm actually asking. I don't know the films well enough to know, and I think the answer would help me understand the exact point your example is illustrating.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 15:28 on 2010-08-17
"Why doesn't the ape speak?"

My Mom, on watching "Star Wars", puzzled at Chewbacca's moaning and groaning. That's still my favorite "Star Wars" critique ever!

Seriously, getting back to Gamer24_K's statement: "The author's word is law when determining canon," - well, yes and no. The author's word is law, in that the book is out there. No one can change the author's words once the book has been published. But the author *does not* get to determine HOW his or her words are interpreted.

I am a writer, though a beginner, and I feel quite strongly about this. It is my job to tell a story and present my readers with complex, vivid characters moving through a coherent world. It is emphatically NOT my job to tell my readers what they must think of those characters, or that world, once it exists outside my own imagination. It is the readers' job (or jobs?) to interpret those characters, that story, that world. If I, as an author, find that a character I intend to be lovable turns many readers off, that means I have failed to be clear and need to rewrite or revise to make my character, on the page, match the person I have imagined. To give one example, Rowling does not actually have the right to get upset with those of us who see Snape as a hero. That's what we see on the page. If she did not intend us to see it, she should have revised her text before publication to minimize his (glaringly obvious) heroism.

The author controls the text. The readers control the interpretation of the text.

That is why beta readers are so wonderful, btw. If you have gone wrong, and aren't telling the story you mean to tell, beta readers will let you know so you can fix your words. But the words are the only thing you control. Not their interpretation. I know I'm repeating myself, but I want to be absolutely clear about this. Rowling is a very talented woman in many ways, but her attempts to control the reception of her text actually strike me as unprofessional. Megan Whalen Turner, in contrast, was absolutely coherent and absolutely professional about this when my sister, our colleague, and I interviewed her. She won't even tell readers how to pronounce the names in her books, that's how hands-off she is! I wouldn't go quite that far - there is nothing wrong with a pronunciation guide! - but I admire her consistency and her willingness to let the readers discover their own interpretations of her text.

Just my two cents.
(BTW, Kyra, do you have plans to read or review any of the "Queen's Thief" series in your exploration of YA lit?)
Gamer_2k4 at 19:30 on 2010-08-17
@ Andy G - I think the author's thoughts matters, because, as an (aspiring) author, I like to think that my thoughts matter. When I write, I have a very definite goal for my story and very definite designs for my characters. If I'm writing a character to be selfish or arrogant, I don't want the reader to think "oh but he's a nice person at heart." If that character is truly a good person inside, I'll show that when the time comes.

As for why the world details matter, well, the details often drive the story. LotR would be very bland without the grand descriptions presented. It's nice, to me at least, to think that I'm just seeing a snapshot of a world that goes far deeper than what we get to see. Admittedly, sometimes the world doesn't matter. In Ender's Game, for example, we get only the important details: Earth is at war with aliens and special children are brought up to be fleet commanders. But even that is a world, of sorts: one that the story couldn't exist without.

@ Arthur B - I would consider that ambiguous presentation. "Show, don't tell," right? That saying exists because demonstrating something holds much more weight than describing it. If Harry acts against what's written about him, then the reader has every right to accept that at face value. Remember how I began my post? "The author's intent for a character only takes precedence over a reader's interpretation if the character is represented accurately."

@ Jamie Johnston - From what I know, Wookies' vocal cords can't reproduce the sounds required to speak Basic. I don't remember specifically where I read that, but I believe it's pretty universally accepted.

@ mary-j-59 - I fully agree with you. It's the writer's job to be clear and consistent, and if they fail at that, what choice do you have but to leave the interpretation to the reader? And having said that, I should probably clarify the final statement in my first post. In the Harry Potter cases you're all talking about, it would seem that there really AREN'T two equally valid interpretations of the character. Instead, there's a contradiction between what's said and what's shown, and in cases like that, the reader is justified in siding with what's shown.
Arthur B at 20:05 on 2010-08-17
I think the author's thoughts matters, because, as an (aspiring) author, I like to think that my thoughts matter. When I write, I have a very definite goal for my story and very definite designs for my characters. If I'm writing a character to be selfish or arrogant, I don't want the reader to think "oh but he's a nice person at heart." If that character is truly a good person inside, I'll show that when the time comes.

Which is all well and good in principle, but in practice any text more nuanced than a Spot the Dog book is going to have room for multiple interpretations. Even if you are super-pedantic and overprecise about every single fact you introduce, there's always going to be room to speculate in the gaps between the facts, and even if you are convinced that a character is selfish and arrogant, you don't get to absolutely control how a reader reacts to that character - one person's selfish arrogance is another person's confident pragmatism, after all.

I mean, your thoughts matter because they produce the text in the first place. But once the text is out there it is its own thing with its own life, and readers will appraise it as such.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 22:52 on 2010-08-17
Exactly, Arthur! It is the author (or artist's, or composer's) job to *create* - to make an object that has its own existence, independent of him or her. It is the reader's job to give that thing life in his or her imagination as he/she reads. I hope that was clear?

Obviously, a good writer will produce a coherent text, to which many readers will respond in similar ways. But, even so, there are going to be exactly as many interpretations as there are readers, and the author, in the end, is simply another reader. Two examples:

1. I said I was a beginning writer. Perhaps that's overstating things; I've been a "beginner" for more than three decades, but it's just in the last few years that I developed the confidence and skill to tackle a long form. And, when I had a look at the novel I just finished, I said to myself, "Gosh! so that's the 'message'? I didn't intend that!" And - I hadn't, though I'd started with something not far off from it. If/when I get published, I'll be very interested to see if any readers pick up on the theme I saw in the finished work. My point?

I did have an idea of a story I wanted to tell, and the themes I wanted to address, when I started. As I finished, the story and the themes looked rather different than they had initially. Hopefully, this will happen to the readers, too. But, if some readers don't pick up on the themes I noticed, or even the ones I intended, that's fine. It's their job to read the book in the best way they can, and their interpretation is THEIRS, not mine. Books are not math problems with a single right answer - the one the author gives. Indeed, one of the things I'm trying to say in this paragraph is that the author *may not know or intend* some of the points his/her book ends up making.

The second, better (because it's a great, classic work many of us know well) example is LOTR. Two things to note here:
a. Tolkien was very much in command of his material, and yet he talks about how the book changed as he wrote, and how he became aware of themes in revision that were not at all apparent to him in the first writing. Also-

b. I think most readers don't have trouble distinguishing good and evil in his books, nor understanding the morality he expresses - whether they agree with it or not. But even so, different interpretations are possible. For example, much as I love these works, I could see in them, as an adult, a Jihad by the good guys against the devil-worshipping bad guys. I could understand the interpretation of Shelob as the "dark mother", devouring her children. I can understand readers who find Aragorn boring. I may find these insights uncomfortable; I may even disagree with them, but they are perfectly valid interpretations.

You just can't say that the only interpretations that are valid are the ones the author intends. First, the author may not consciously intend even the most obvious interpretation of his/her work*. Second, a work of art is like a waking dream. The most powerful dream I ever had got interpreted by me and by three friends. Every one of the interpretations was different, every one struck me as true, and every one deepened my own understanding. If that's true of a dream, how much more true it must be of literature!

Sorry for the rant! Gosh, I did go on at length!
*Just as Rowling apparently didn't intend Snape's heroism.
Viorica at 00:54 on 2010-08-18
I think the author's thoughts matters, because, as an (aspiring) author, I like to think that my thoughts matter. When I write, I have a very definite goal for my story and very definite designs for my characters. If I'm writing a character to be selfish or arrogant, I don't want the reader to think "oh but he's a nice person at heart." If that character is truly a good person inside, I'll show that when the time comes.

Well that depends on the author's skill, doesn't it? An author can intend to write a character as noble and virtuous and actually write them as a selfish prick. What someone intends to do and what someone actually does can be too very different things. For instance, Jay Lake didn't intend to write a horribly sexist book, but he still did. J.K. Rowling did not set out to write Harry as obnoxious and whiny in "Order of the Phoenix," but the opinion of more than one reader is that she failed.

Intent is not magic. The emotional response someone has to a text is valid, no matter what the author wanted that response to be. There's a saying I'm rather fond of- "If you drop a weight and break someone's foot, their foot is broken whether you meant to break it or not." You can't dictate someone's response to a text by saying "Because I said so!" For one thing, it would render the whole field of literary criticism pointless.
Andy G at 03:08 on 2010-08-18
@ Gamer_2k4

Don't want to overwhelm you with replies here! But the question I'm really interested is why *canon* matters so much.

Take some literary examples: there are countless different versions of characters such as Odysseus or Robin Hood, all slightly inconsistent. Which is the real, canonical story about either of them? You can either attempt to somehow explain every little inconsistency into a grand complete picture - or simply accept that what is more important is a broader organic kind of unity of theme.

A more modern example is The Simpsons. Various Wikipedia articles try to cram character details into comprehensive biographies, but the show isn't and doesn't need to be interested in absolute consistency.

Once you accept that there isn't some sort of underlying reality or absolute canonical truth, it becomes rather hard to claim that the author has some sort of special authority by virtue of their unique link to this reality.

http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 17:31 on 2010-08-18
Andy G, I do agree that canon matters, because, without canon, there would be no interpretation at all. But canon is a very specific thing. It's the created work, which is now free of the creator and has its own existence. That's all.

The creator of the canon (whatever it is) has no power to determine how other people interpret it. Nor should he or she have such power. That level of control is the death of art, IMHO! The examples you give (Odysseus, Robin Hood and so on) are excellent; they show how stories grow and develop as they are passed down. If people weren't free to interpret them in various ways, wouldn't those stories just die?

The Simpsons, Potter (like it or hate it), Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who et al - the stories that get interpreted in many different ways are the ones their audience are most engaged with. I think any creator ought to be thrilled with that level of engagement, and should stand back and enjoy it, rather than trying to squeeze it into some little box labelled "canon'.

My two cents, as always!
Gamer_2k4 at 19:06 on 2010-08-18
Well, I suppose I don't have to answer you all individually, since the message is pretty consistent all the way through. Yes, there's plenty of room for interpretation in fiction; that's unavoidable. If you leave a work open-ended, as you're bound to do, then people have the right to draw their own conclusions.

However, I don't think it's wrong to close those holes. This happens all the time over the course of writing, most notably in a series. If all we had was the first Harry Potter book, then we as an audience could and would imagine and extrapolate to determine what happens next. We can interpret however we want, and a lot of theories could come up and be valid. When the second book came along, though, a lot of existing theories were necessarily precluded. They simply weren't valid anymore, since the author had given additional information. Repeat five times.

Now, given that it's totally acceptable to close openings through writing (or at least, I haven't heard anyone arguing against the idea of sequels), why is it so much worse to do the same verbally? We still have the author expressing her intent for the story; it's just done in a more transient way. Isn't that your right as a creator of a work to determine what's true within it?
Arthur B at 19:18 on 2010-08-18
Now, given that it's totally acceptable to close openings through writing (or at least, I haven't heard anyone arguing against the idea of sequels), why is it so much worse to do the same verbally? We still have the author expressing her intent for the story; it's just done in a more transient way. Isn't that your right as a creator of a work to determine what's true within it?

Sequels are additions to the text of a series as a whole, though; verbal declarations on the other hand, are the author effectively trying to exert control over the text after it's been let out in a wild, like an interfering parent not letting their child speak for themselves.

If it was important to an author that readers should understand something about a text, the matter in question should have been clarified in the text itself. Otherwise you're actually just failing as a writer.
Jamie Johnston at 23:34 on 2010-08-18
From what I know, Wookies' vocal cords can't reproduce the sounds required to speak Basic. I don't remember specifically where I read that, but I believe it's pretty universally accepted.

Thanks, that gives me a better idea of what you're saying - or I think it does, but let's see.

Up to now I thought your position was something like 'an interpretation is wrong if it is contradicted by either (1) the text itself or (2) a statement made by the author outside the text.' But it sounds like you're saying that the interpretation 'Chewbacca can speak Basic but chooses not to' is contradicted by neither of those things but a third thing, which seems to be (3)(a) an authorized commentary and / or (3)(b) universal belief among people who have an opinion about it. Is that right, or have I horribly misunderstood?
Andy G at 00:28 on 2010-08-19
@ Mary J:

Do we mean the same thing by canon? Roughly, what I understand it to mean here is: what REALLY happened in the universe of a story (which I understand is what is often at stake in debates about canon in sci-fi/fantasy fan spheres). So I mean for Robin Hood, it might be: does the Ridley Scott version get it wrong by saying he wasn't really Lord Robert of Locksbey because that contradicts the canonical truth of the story? Or which of the various contradictory flashback stories about Bart and Lisa's early childhood is the true one?

@ Gamer_2k4

I don't know if this might be a helpful analogy:

If I say "He's the best-looking guy in the room", my intention does matter for the meaning because it's my sentence. Somebody else might think I meant the guy on the left, but actually I meant the guy on the right and so that's what my sentence means. There is a "gap" in the meanig of the sentence that is filled in by our intention.

However, I can't make the sentence "He's the best-looking guy in the room" mean "French cheese is delicious" simply by intending that it to mean that (it CAN mean that - for instance, if a secret code has been established - but it requires more than just intention). In fact, it's impossible to say "He's the best-looking guy in the room" and intend to mean anything else - just try saying a setence and MEANING something different, and you'll realise that "meaning" isn't an activity at all in the same way as saying.

If JK Rowling says "Oh Dumbledore is gay", that doesn't add that meaning to the pages and pages she wrote that contain no suitable gap for such a meaning to be added by her mere intention. Nor can she have intended to say "Dumbledore is gay" by writing countless sentences which fail to express that meaning. No more than I can say "French cheese is delicous" and make it mean "Dumbledore is gay" simply by intending that it should mean that.




Guy at 02:05 on 2010-08-19
When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them - thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.


Whether or not Socrates is right about this is another question, but part of what I'd take him to be saying is that the mode of "writing a text" and the mode of "commenting on a text you've written" are quite distinct from each other, and a person can actually be good at one and bad at the other, or even... just different, actually have a non-unitary perspective on their work because they're in a different kind of touch with it when they're writing it. It's probably clearer when we're thinking about poetry, but I suspect the same thing applies to prose - or at least, the better prose is, the more applicable it is. I think some kind of distinction like this helps to explain the huge gulf between Robert Heinlen's best stuff and his worst - the latter often being a kind of "commentary rendered as story" which consequently falls flat.
Dan H at 15:32 on 2010-08-19


Andy G, I do agree that canon matters, because, without canon, there would be no interpretation at all. But canon is a very specific thing. It's the created work, which is now free of the creator and has its own existence. That's all.


I think that's a slightly different interpretation of "canon".

There's a big difference between "canon" as in "the canon of works" and "canon" as in "a single correct interpretation of events in the works."

In the first interpretation, canon is just a body of text, and where it is contradictory, canon contradicts itself. In the second case, canon is something which is believed to exist independently of the actual texts (often in the head of the author) I think it's the latter version of "canon" which Andy is wondering about.
Sister Magpie at 15:36 on 2010-08-19
Now, given that it's totally acceptable to close openings through writing (or at
least, I haven't heard anyone arguing against the idea of sequels), why is it so
much worse to do the same verbally? We still have the author expressing her
intent for the story; it's just done in a more transient way. Isn't that your
right as a creator of a work to determine what's true within it?


Beyond agreeing with what others have said about how comments are outside the actual text, I'd say there's obvious proof about why the author doesn't have the right to deterimine what's true within the text in outside interviews because outside interviews so often blatantly contradict the text or even each other. Authors can change their mind over time, and with that their intent, and so try to retcon in different meanings. Or else just spin a meaning to answer a question. But that's not really adding to the story, it's talking about the story, and there the author doesn't have that much more authority. They may know more about what they intended or parts of the world they considered true while they were writing but never mentioned, but that authority's limited.
Dan H at 15:59 on 2010-08-19
Now, given that it's totally acceptable to close openings through writing (or at least, I haven't heard anyone arguing against the idea of sequels), why is it so much worse to do the same verbally? We still have the author expressing her intent for the story; it's just done in a more transient way. Isn't that your right as a creator of a work to determine what's true within it?


Two Things.

Firstly, you're conflating *speculation* and *interpretation*.

Wondering what happens next in a story isn't interpreting the text, it's speculating about the story, that's not the same thing. It's a categorically different exercise than the act of interpretation.

Now your interpretation of a text can change for a variety of reasons, perhaps because of something the author said, perhaps because of something that happens in later volumes in a series, perhaps because of something wholly unrelated (I've found - and I suspect Jamie has also - that increased exposure to feminist ideas tends to change your interpretation of a lot of things).

Secondly: The simple difference is that an author's interviews aren't part of the text, they are therefore not part of "the canon".

It's an asinine and possible misleading analogy (because it compares physical things to metaphorical things) but if I make a cake and don't put any cinnamon in it, I can't then say "this cake contains cinnamon". Because it doesn't, if I want there to be cinnamon in the cake, I have to actually put it in the cake as part of the baking process. I don't just get to *declare* there to be cinnamon in it just because it's "my cake".

More subtly, I think the problem is that a text is a nebulous thing.

Take "Dumbledore is Gay". This is a true statement if you're talking about Albus Dumbledore *the character who exists in JK Rowling's head*. It is (arguably) not true if you're talking about Albus Dumbledore, the character who exists in the Harry Potter books. It is true once again if you're talking about Albus Dumbledore, the character who exists in my hardcore Dumbledore/Giles crossover slashfic. The mistake is assuming that the Dumbledore who exists in the Potter books is the same as the Dumbledore who exists in Rowling's head.

To put it another way, what about the statement "Dumbledore is Dead"?

It's clearly true in Book 7. It's clearly not true in Book 1. I suspect if you asked JK Rowling "is Dumbledore dead" she would say "yes". But he's alive in the first six and a half books and he doesn't retroactively become dead just because he dies in book six. Things that happen in later books are not applied retroactively to earlier books, and in the same way things the author declares in interviews are not applied retroactively to your published texts.

More subtly still, consider your earlier example of a character who you thought was selfish or arrogant. Suppose you wrote such a character, and the readers (as you feared) saw him as a good person deep down. Suppose that you then wrote a sequel in which you went out of your way to make that character out to be selfish and arrogant. Your readers would - quite rightly - interpret you as having done a hatchet job on the character, as having changed his personality from the one you actually *gave* him to the one you thought he was supposed to have. It's your book of course, and you can do what you like with it, but you'll actually be ruining your story, just for the sake of limiting your readers' interpretations.
Andy G at 17:23 on 2010-08-19
The simple difference is that an author's interviews aren't part of the text, they are therefore not part of "the canon".


I think even if you *do* regard author's interviews as texts on a par with the actual books, that still doesn't give them any special authority over the interpretation of the actual book.

The reason for this is that separate texts can disagree with each other. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are both texts set in the same world that are inconsistent with each other on a number of points - but as independent texts, neither text can be used to make definitive statements about what *really* happened or what is *really the case* in the other.
Gamer_2k4 at 18:44 on 2010-08-19
Lots of things to say here. Here we go.

@ Arthur B and Sister Magpie - You know, perhaps verbal addendums really are a sign of poor writing, like you say. But isn't that all the more reason to correct that bad writing? If I release a software program that's buggy, it's my right (and probably my responsibility) to go back and patch it. It's just strange to me that there's some unwritten rule that books are the one thing you can't touch after releasing them.

@ Jamie Johnston - Let's put it this way. I don't have immediate access to the original Star Wars book, but it would surprise me VERY much if that issue didn't come up in it (why else would Han speak to Chewie in Basic, without the latter replying in kind?). If it's not mentioned there, then I have trouble believing the Wookie thing is never mentioned in any of the dozens (hundreds?) of Expanded Universe books, RPGs, comics, etc.

@ Andy G - Maybe your analogy is too much of a stretch to work for me (as is sometimes the case with analogies), but I can't say it really helps my understanding. Simply because a sitution doesn't announce "THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE" doesn't mean it can't be that way. With the Dumbledore bit, why does Rowling have to make it explicitly clear in the text that he's gay? Unless he's defined by his romantic relationships (and from what I gather, he's not), it really doesn't add anything to the story other than completeness. Explicitly saying he's gay has exactly the same effect, story-wise, as explicitly saying he's straight.

I don't know if you read Dinosaur Comics or not, but in it, the Utahraptor is gay. It's rarely mentioned at all, though, and the author actually made this statement: "he is gay, guys. only he doesn't talk about it all the time, on account of having interests outside of being gay?" Something doesn't have to have its point made with a sledgehammer in order to be true. Furthermore, if the author can add to the story without contradicting it, what's wrong with that? If Rowling said that Harry's favorite color is brown, why should we disagree?

@ Daniel Hemmens - Since canon can't be contradictory (it's no use saying Lincoln made a law in 1866, for example), then one of conflicting things must be incorrect, even if it's in "official" text. In cases like that, the author's word should be the thing that indicates which is wrong and which is right.

As for your cake example, I'd say what Rowling is doing is more analogous to having made a cinnamon cake, but the people who watched her do it before didn't see her add the cinnamon when they were watching her make the cake. Or, looking at it from another angle, if I say a cup of ice cream is a strawberry sundae, you can argue up until the point that I actually put the strawberries on it. Maybe it wasn't my original intent to make a sundae, and maybe at one point it really was just a cup of ice cream. But now that the strawberries are there, there's no denying that I'm right about what it is now.

You say that Dumbledore's state is different between Books 1-6 and Book 7, and that's true. But that's not necessarily a good example, since it's something the distinctly changes. If a character is alive at a certain point, he just can't be dead at that same point. That's different from information that's not given and therefore is assumed to be false.

There's an anime I watched where we learn in the opening episode that one of the main characters drew a bunch of symbols in a schoolyard several years back. In a later episode, we find out that the other main character was actually the one to draw those symbols, and the first character simply lied about it. And you know what? That's alright. Just because we don't know about something doesn't mean it didn't happen, and just because our understanding is updated at a later point doesn't mean that new understanding invalid.
Arthur B at 19:02 on 2010-08-19
@ Arthur B and Sister Magpie - You know, perhaps verbal addendums really are a sign of poor writing, like you say. But isn't that all the more reason to correct that bad writing? If I release a software program that's buggy, it's my right (and probably my responsibility) to go back and patch it.

Not even remotely a comparable analogy. The patch modifies the program, the verbal addendum doesn't magically go back and rewrite the text. A verbal addendum is more like a blog post on a software company website acknowledging that a bug exists rather than a patch implementing a fix.

It's just strange to me that there's some unwritten rule that books are the one thing you can't touch after releasing them.

People release revised editions of books all the time. Stephen King did it with The Stand. Ray Feist did it with Magician and Prince of the Blood. Tolkien did it with The Hobbit. And so on.

But idly running your mouth off in an interview is in no way comparable to issuing a revised edition of a text.

With the Dumbledore bit, why does Rowling have to make it explicitly clear in the text that he's gay? Unless he's defined by his romantic relationships (and from what I gather, he's not), it really doesn't add anything to the story other than completeness.

On that basis, why announce that he's gay or straight at all if it honestly doesn't make any difference to the text? Why is it important that we know that Dumbledore is gay when his orientation simply never came up in the text? It's like wondering what the names of the guys who cleaned the toilets on the Death Star were; we know they must have existed, just as we know that Dumbledore most probably had some kind of sexual orientation (unless he was asexual), but telling us about that gives us no new insight into the text at all. All the "Dumbledore is gay" thing does is gives Rowling Minority Warrior points for being inclusive without actually doing any of the hard and potentially sales-affecting work of actually including that particular point in the text.

I don't know if you read Dinosaur Comics or not, but in it, the Utahraptor is gay. It's rarely mentioned at all, though, and the author actually made this statement: "he is gay, guys. only he doesn't talk about it all the time, on account of having interests outside of being gay?" Something doesn't have to have its point made with a sledgehammer in order to be true.

The difference here is that Utahraptor being gay does actually come up in the text from time to time - I seem to remember an early strip where it turned out that he and T-Rex had had sex at some point.

There's a difference between subtlety and outright invisibility.

As for your cake example, I'd say what Rowling is doing is more analogous to having made a cinnamon cake, but the people who watched her do it before didn't see her add the cinnamon when they were watching her make the cake.

I'd say it's more like Rowling went out, bought some cinnamon, buried it in the back garden, made a cake, baked it, served it, waited until everyone else had eaten it, and then gone out into the back garden, unearthed the cinnamon, sprinkled it on the crumbs of the devoured cake, and said "voila! cinnamon cake!" and expected everyone to congratulate her on what a great cinnamon cake it was.

The maddening thing is that it fucking worked.
Rami at 19:44 on 2010-08-19
As for your cake example, I'd say what Rowling is doing is more analogous to having made a cinnamon cake, but the people who watched her do it before didn't see her add the cinnamon when they were watching her make the cake.

You know, I think the chef - author analogy's a really good one. If I make a cake and don't put any cinnamon in, but later sprinkle some cinnamon on everyone's spoon (so that if anyone has another bite of cake it will taste of cinnamon) does that make it a cinnamon cake?

More generally, since I baked the cake, does that mean if I tell you it tastes of nutmeg, it actually does?
Gamer_2k4 at 20:04 on 2010-08-19
Never underestimate the power of suggestion. ;)
http://for-diddled.livejournal.com/ at 20:54 on 2010-08-19
"You know, perhaps verbal addendums really are a sign of poor writing, like you say. But isn't that all the more reason to correct that bad writing? If I release a software program that's buggy, it's my right (and probably my responsibility) to go back and patch it. It's just strange to me that there's some unwritten rule that books are the one thing you can't touch after releasing them."

I think there are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, verbal addenda necessarily limit people's interpretations of books, and thereby make them more simplistic and, ultimately, less interesting. (Would Hamlet still be so popular if people couldn't dicuss the prince's motivations for not killing Claudius?) Secondly, these verbal addenda are unlikely to survive for long. All it will probably take is one technological advance to render the internet obsolete, and then people won't be able to access Rowling's interviews. If the books don't make sense without the interviews, then people will just be left with a series of books that don't make sense, and nobody will bother to read them.
Shim at 20:55 on 2010-08-19
As for your cake example, I'd say what Rowling is doing is more analogous to having made a cinnamon cake, but the people who watched her do it before didn't see her add the cinnamon when they were watching her make the cake. Or, looking at it from another angle, if I say a cup of ice cream is a strawberry sundae, you can argue up until the point that I actually put the strawberries on it. Maybe it wasn't my original intent to make a sundae, and maybe at one point it really was just a cup of ice cream. But now that the strawberries are there, there's no denying that I'm right about what it is now.

I can see what you're getting at, but I can't agree that either fits JKR. It also seems to me that these are two different situations. In the first one, I might not have known there was cinnamon in the cake to start with, but I should notice the taste as I eat, or at least detect an interesting taste that affects my experience of the cake. Depending how much cinnamon you put in, that either gives you an unexpected but noticeable message, or a subtle subtext that affects your interpretation of the book's contents. If I don't notice the cinnamon taste at all, I'm afraid you didn't put enough in :) JKR needed more cinnamon.

The second one is more applicable to a series in progress, where characters and worlds and messages develop over the course of the books. The first one might just be vanilla, but each one adds sprinkles or sauce or strawberries until you end up with a sundae. Although I suppose I'm basically eating the sundae as you make it, which is both a bit of strange experience and probably quite irritating for the chef. Discworld has worked out a lot like this, although occasionally early ingredients have been quietly removed in favour of others. JKR basically gave me a big bowl of fruit salad, and slowly started swapping out the ingredients for onions and swede and putting in chicken stock until I ended up with a bowl of soup. Then she said the swede had been carefully prepared to make the soup taste more French, but nobody had noticed it, so either she did it wrong, forgot to actually do it, doesn't really know what French food tastes like, or threw it out there (despite not having taken any noticeable steps) because people admire French cooking.
Arthur B at 23:01 on 2010-08-19
A thought on a different way to put the point: Gamer, which idea of Dumbledore do you think takes precedence, the idea of Dumbledore which is inside JK Rowling's head, which Rowling obviously can interpret better than any of us, or the idea of Dumbledore which is presented in the text of the Potter books, and which can be interpreted by anyone?

I would say that far and away the most important one is the latter. Firstly, because it's the only one with any persistence - JK Rowling may change her mind from one day to the next, whereas the text of the books is set; what's more, one day JK Rowling will die, whereas the books will remain.

Secondly, readers can directly experience the books, but they can't mind-meld with Rowling to see what she's thinking.

Thirdly, if you prioritise the books over the author, then anyone with access to the books can meaningfully take part in the conversation. If you prioritise the author criticism becomes a matter of sitting at the author's feet with your begging bowl hoping for the word of god to come down and enlighten you. I find the former infinitely more appealing than the latter.
Sister Magpie at 00:05 on 2010-08-20
You know, perhaps verbal addendums really are a
sign of poor writing, like you say. But isn't that all the more reason to
correct that bad writing? If I release a software program that's buggy, it's my
right (and probably my responsibility) to go back and patch it. It's just
strange to me that there's some unwritten rule that books are the one thing you
can't touch after releasing them.


See, I think a lot of the times it isn't a sign of bad writing at all. Because there's nothing wrong with the text as it is. The author may have been totally right to leave something out or at least not be damaging the story by doing so. Also I think that frankly sometimes some answers are meant to be there for an interview but not in the text.

For instance, I find it really hard to believe, as some have said, that JKRowling forgot to write the Slytherins triumphantly returning to join the battle at the end of DH. It's inconceivable to me that she would manage to include consistent scenes showing the Slytherins as anything but allies, remember to focus on that empty table when they abandoned the school to save themselves, and then just forget to write them returning and instead write completely different people returning to help. To me that reads more as just spinning off the questioner who asked about them as if it were a flaw.

In fact, that's following a pattern between interview and books. When someone asks if the Slytherins weren't surprisingly worse people than everyone else, that's when we suddenly hear about how there were Death Eaters from other houses and the other Slytherins aren't so bad. This was the same idea--oh, I wrote them as returning! It's a bit like Dumbledore again because it's getting credit for writing something that sounds more morally sophisticated than you did. Even though there's nothing actually wrong with it the first way. It's just having your cake and eating it too.

In the Dumbledore is gay case it's a little different because we could say it was never really touched on one way or the other, so you can see him gay as much as straight. Though I would say it's another case where she wrote something else in its place there. Dumbledore's love life, according to interviews, was in fact totally central to the character. He was in many ways defined by his sexual orientation because the relationship we constantly hear about it DH as being important as a platonic friendship was actually an unrequited love story. In interviews Dumbledore's entire moral compass was thrown off by his love for this guy; in the book he was simply happy to have a friend, with whom he shared some immoral ideas, but when his sister died he rejected both of them. If we follow the pattern the straight characters do we would hear about love being the motivation.

It's not that somebody couldn't say Dumbledore is gay--they say practically every male character in canon could be gay. But there's nothing in canon that actually says that.
Andy G at 00:34 on 2010-08-20
@ Gamer_2k4

But I love analogies!

Here's some analogy that are possibly a bit closer. Let's imagine Enid Blyton gets upset by lesbian readers who identify with George from famous five, and in an interview says that no, those readers are just wrong, she's just a tomboy and fancies men. Or perhaps Tolkien gets terribly upset by all the fan theories about Frodo and Sam, and issues a revised edition which explicitly states "No feelings of a sexual nature existed between the two Hobbits". Have either of those authors thereby defeated the rival interpretations? No, they don't have authority that trumps the other interpreters - they have misrecognised the potential of their own text. And a single throwaway sentence doesn't of itself create that potential - readers can downplay it as something that doesn't ring true, as a strain in the authorial voice.

With regard to the dinosaur from Dinosaur Comics - there's a difference between on the one hand integrating into a narrative the fact that someone is gay but it doesn't matter (as an incidental detail, like the colour of someone's shoes); and on the other tagging an extraneous comment onto a body of text and pretending it changes the entire signficance of what's already been written (it's not impossible for a single sentence to do that, but it has to be fitted into the text in a certain way - for instance, as the denouement of an established mystery, the sentence "You are Tyler Durden!")

Sister Magpie at 00:55 on 2010-08-20
This conversation reminds me of something someone just told me about Harrison Ford doing his first ever appearance at maybe Comic Con?

Anyway, when he took the stage crowds in the audience chanted "You shot first! You shot first!"
Melissa G. at 06:21 on 2010-08-20
With the Dumbledore bit, why does Rowling have to make it explicitly clear in the text that he's gay? Unless he's defined by his romantic relationships (and from what I gather, he's not), it really doesn't add anything to the story other than completeness. Explicitly saying he's gay has exactly the same effect, story-wise, as explicitly saying he's straight.


I don't think Rowling *has* to say in the text that Dumbledore is gay, but her choice not to means that she can't tell people they are *wrong* for interpreting him as straight or asexual or bisexual. By choosing to leave it out, she's left it up for interpretation and thus has no right to whine and tell us we got it wrong.

I have a similar situation in my novel. I have two characters (male) who are (in my mind) romantically involved with one another and in fact, I have a whole long backstory of their relationship, all of which never made into the text because they are side characters. So, while I can say that I, the author, know they are gay together, I really have no right to tell any reader they are *wrong* for thinking/interpreting them to be straight or "just friends". I decided to put the subtle hints or innuendos in, but many people aren't going to pick up on that and it's fine. But I have to accept that not every reader will see my characters the way I do because I can't spell out every little thing for them. It's just the sacrifice you have to make when you put a work of art out there, IMHO.

I may have completely sidetracked the convo at this point, but that's my two cents on the whole issue.
Dan H at 12:13 on 2010-08-20
@ Daniel Hemmens - Since canon can't be contradictory (it's no use saying Lincoln made a law in 1866, for example), then one of conflicting things must be incorrect, even if it's in "official" text. In cases like that, the author's word should be the thing that indicates which is wrong and which is right.


I think this is the basic source of disagreement here. Canon *can be* and *often is* contradictory. We're basically using different definitions of "canon" - your definition is the one that Andy and I are genuinely confused about why people care about.

The analogy you choose to use here is extremely indicative. Lincoln was a *real person* who *really existed* and questions about Lincoln are a question of *historical fact* (assuming you're talking about the real Abraham Lincoln and not a fictional version of Lincoln).

Works of fiction, however, are *not real* and there cannot be a "real" answer about something which is itself not real.

To revisit an example from the original article: there is a real, historically accurate answer to the question "what did Abraham Lincoln have for breakfast on the day he was killed?" I don't know what the answer is, and neither does anybody else, because the information wasn't recorded, but because Abraham Lincoln was a real person the question of what he had for breakfast on a particular day has a definite answer. It's a pointless question, but it's not a meaningless one.

By comparison the question "what did Harry Potter have for breakfast the day he faced Tom Riddle in the Chamber of Secrets" is actually meaningless. Harry Potter is *not* a real person and there *is* no right answer to the question.

I don't know if you read Dinosaur Comics or not, but in it, the Utahraptor is
gay. It's rarely mentioned at all, though, and the author actually made this
statement: "he is gay, guys. only he doesn't talk about it all the time, on
account of having interests outside of being gay?" Something doesn't have to
have its point made with a sledgehammer in order to be true.


I do actually read Dinosaur comics, and whatever Ryan North says, the Utharaptor *isn't* gay, because the Utharaptor isn't a consistent character. Neither the Utharaptor, nor T-Rex, nor Dromeciomimus have a meaningful sexual orientation. You might as well ask where the doctor in a "Doctor Doctor" joke got his (or as it might be her) medical degree.

If Rowling said that Harry's favorite color is brown, why should we
disagree?


We shouldn't. Nor should you disagree with me if I say it's green. It *doesn't matter*.

The correct answer to the question "What is Harry Potter's favourite colour" is "Harry Potter is a fictional character; if his favourite colour is not specified in the story you are reading, it is immaterial to an understanding of that character and therefore the question is meaningless."
Jamie Johnston at 13:26 on 2010-08-20
@ Gamer_2k4:

You can call me 'Jamie' if you like - no need to be formal, and there aren't any other Jamies in this little town (or at least none who go by that name here) so no risk of confusion.

Let's put it this way. I don't have immediate access to the original Star Wars book, but it would surprise me VERY much if that issue didn't come up in it (why else would Han speak to Chewie in Basic, without the latter replying in kind?). If it's not mentioned there, then I have trouble believing the Wookie thing is never mentioned in any of the dozens (hundreds?) of Expanded Universe books, RPGs, comics, etc.

Ooooookay, got it. I got the wrong end of the stick and thought you were saying it was specified in some kind of commmentary, but I see now you're saying it is specified within the canonical texts, but the canonical texts include not only the films themselves but every bit of officially licensed fiction set in the Star Wars universe. Therefore it is stated in canon.

I'm interested to see, though, that George Lucas seems, in an interview quoted on Wikipedia, to have denied that the expanded universe stuff was part of the same canon as the films. Which, if we accept his opinion about that as authoritative, surely means that 'Chewbacca can speak Basic but chooses not to' could be a legitimate (if unlikely) reading of the original films, even if it is flat-out wrong as a reading of the expanded universe?

That raises another interesting thing I've been wondering about - if you'll indulge me in exploring the edges of your thesis a bit more. How far does the author's power of definitive assertion stretch? Does it go up a level to meta-level statements like Lucas asserting that the expanded universe fiction does not occur in the same universe as his films? Does the fact that he says so mean that it's true?

The other stretch, which is maybe more interesting, is how far the author's authority extends along the spectrum of interpretation. 'Dumbledore is gay' is an interpretation of the text (a definitive one, according to your way of looking at it). But so is 'My books are largely about death', which is apparently another thing Rowling has said about the Potter books. Is that definitive? Or, to use an example I'm a bit more familiar with, if Stephen Sondheim says that Sweeney Todd is 'about someone who goes out for revenge and ends up destroying himself' and I argue that it actually has much more to do with aesthetics than revenge, am I just plain wrong, or am I putting forward a legitimate interpretation?

Finally, you said:

With the Dumbledore bit, why does Rowling have to make it explicitly clear in the text that he's gay?

I agree with you here, and with Melissa, that we can't go around saying that Rowling 'ought to' have made X or Y explicit in the text. And I don't think this is quite what anyone here is saying, although the remarks about 'bad writing' sound a bit like that. I think the point is that, as Melissa says, Rowling ought to have made it explicit if Dumbledore's sexuality was important to understanding the story. I'm completely with you when you say that an author shouldn't hit the audience over the head with a character's sexual inclinations if it has nothing to do with the story. But if it has nothing to do with the story then why should there be any authoritative answer? That's where we reach Dan's point about favourite colours and breakfast. If, on the other hand, it does matter whether Dumbledore was gay or not, then shouldn't it be in the text? Isn't the author's job to supply everything the audience needs to understand the story properly, and to supply it within the text? (That's the 'bad writing' argument.) Otherwise how do we know our interpretations of Aristophanes' Peace aren't completely wrong and were flatly contradicted in that exclusive interview published in the lost book II of Aristotle's Poetics?* (That's the persistence / internet-could-disappear argument.)


* (Yes, I know Aristophanes died before Aristotle was in long trousers short chitons, but you see the point.)
Arthur B at 16:45 on 2010-08-20
I do actually read Dinosaur comics, and whatever Ryan North says, the Utharaptor *isn't* gay, because the Utharaptor isn't a consistent character. Neither the Utharaptor, nor T-Rex, nor Dromeciomimus have a meaningful sexual orientation.

Ryan North is actually deliberately contradictory on the matter, it turns out.
Andy G at 16:53 on 2010-08-20
@ Arthur: Not necessarily, you can be gay and asexual.

http://www.asexuality.org/en/index.php?/topic/10127-asexual-gay-men/
Arthur B at 16:59 on 2010-08-20
Except he's also depicted the Utahraptor having a decidedly non-asexual relationship with T-Rex on occasion.

The dinosaurs essentially have no immutable characteristics except T-Rex is the talky one, Utahraptor disagrees with him a lot, and Drom shows up in panel 3.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 18:08 on 2010-08-20
Hi - me again. I think maybe one of the problems we're having in this discussion (if we're having a problem?) is that I, Gamer_2k4, and everyone else has different definitions of canon. I've said repeatedly that canon is the author's written works - period. When it comes to interpretation, the author has no special privileges, but is simply another reader. Gamer_2k4 (btw, I apologize for getting your handle wrong before) has said that the author does have special privileges when it comes to the interpretation of canon, such that what the author *says* about canon is equivalent to a revision - thus, more canon. The rest of the people in the discussion seem to be somewhere in between us two, such that Star Wars canon includes readers guides, novels, and perhaps novelizations as well as the movies; and Harry Potter canon includes the movies and maybe even fanfic - but not author interviews. Have I understood that correctly?

What I think I want to emphasize is that, if the author is not more privileged than the general reader, he or she is also not less privileged. I'm quite interested in what authors say about their works, and like to know what they intend. It's just that, in some cases, the intention does not at all come through in the work - and Rowling is a good example of this. Try as I might, after DH, I cannot see Harry as "naturally good; just a great person". Tolkien, however, is a counterexample.

In one of his letters, he explains that, had Sam not been rough with him, Gollum would have repented on the stairs of Cirith Ungol. This would have (Tolkien explains further) made no difference at all to the physical outcome. The trio would still have ended up in Mount Doom, and Gollum would still have taken the ring from Frodo and plunged into the fire. The difference would have been spiritual. Gollum would have acted, in part (probably not entirely - he was too damaged) out of love for Frodo, to rescue him from the ring Gollum also desired. So his redemption - ambiguous, at best, in the text as it stands - would have been crystal clear. And - unlike Rowling's comments about Harry and Snape - I find this fascinating, and not at all troubling. Why? Because nothing in Tolkien's interpretation contradicts what I see in the text. That's the difference. No, Tolkien's letter isn't canon, according to my definition. It's interpretation. But it's the sort of interpretation that deepens canon. Rowling's statements have tended to make canon more shallow, IMHO.

HTH!
Andy G at 18:15 on 2010-08-20
Gamer_2k4 (btw, I apologize for getting your handle wrong before) has said that the author does have special privileges when it comes to the interpretation of canon, such that what the author *says* about canon is equivalent to a revision - thus, more canon.


That's what I was referring to when I made the analogy to the imaginary Enid Blyton/Tolkien cases - even something that IS regarded as part of the body of the text (as an insertion, for example) can't necessarily force an interpretation over the rest of the text.
http://for-diddled.livejournal.com/ at 16:35 on 2010-08-21
I think that a lot of the disagreement comes from the fact that people seem to mean different things by the word "canon". People like Dan Hemmens and the chaps at Sober Universe seem to use the word to mean something like "The Harry Potter books themselves", whereas Gamer_2k4 seems to mean something like "The imaginary universe in which the Harry Potter books are set" (apologies if I've misunderstood anyone's position). Now, under the first definition, JK Rowling's comments don't count as canon, as they don't appear in the books; unless she writes a sequel showing Harry as head of the Auror Office, for example, the idea that Harry works there after leaving school would not count as canonical, as it would not appear in any of the books. Under the second definition, on the other hand, Rowling's comments in interviews &c. would count as canon, as she naturally knows more about her universe than anyone else, and can therefore add extra information to that found in the books.

(What if, BTW, Rowling contradicted something in an interview that had been stated/implied in the books? For example, Rowling says that Draco ends up marrying Astoria Greengrass [I think], even though pretty much all the evidence in the books suggests that he'd be more likely to go off with Pansy Parkinson. I personally tend to follow the books -- it's that old "show vs. tell" thing -- and just wanted to know what everyone else thinks.)
Sister Magpie at 19:09 on 2010-08-21
In JKR's she has on several occasions contradicted something that was stated outright or implied in the books.
Andy G at 19:15 on 2010-08-21
@ for-diddled: I think there is still genuine disagreement, because I (and several of the others) deny that there is any "imaginary universe" above and beyond the content of the texts. On account of it being imaginary and not real.
Arthur B at 19:29 on 2010-08-21
Hence Dan's comments about Harry's breakfast from earlier - if it didn't happen in the text, then it doesn't exist and there can't possibly be any "correct" answer.
http://for-diddled.livejournal.com/ at 20:18 on 2010-08-21
So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the disagreement is over whether the imaginary universe exists solely in the books, or whether it actually exists in the author's head, and parts of it are communicated to other people via the medium of the books (among other things, in JKR's case)?
Jamie Johnston at 20:49 on 2010-08-21
@ Mary J. & For_diddled:

I think you're both right that the disagreement is largely about what we mean by 'canon': in fact that's necessarily so, because I think what you'd done there is not so much to identify a different disagreement from the one we thought we were having but to re-phrase the same disagreement in different words. Let me explain, because that probably sounds a bit opaque.

What I think we all agree on is the consequence of a given fact being canonical, namely that it cannot be ignored or denied by any useful or tenable interpretation of the work; and, conversely, we all seem to agree that non-canonical facts need not be accepted or dealt with as part of a tenable interpretation of the work. So 'we disagree about whether an author's assertions in interviews have to be accepted in any tenable interpretation of the work' is pretty much the same statement as 'we disagree about whether an author's assertions in interviews are part of canon or not'. Which is not to say that re-phrasing it in that way is unhelpful: often re-phrasing a problem suggests a solution that wasn't evident before. I'm not entirely sure whether that's the case here, though.

Also, I see that I'm not going to get away with my Socratic questioning routine any longer, because you're both hintily asking people to clarify their positions, which is absolutely fair enough. My view, subject to contrary persuasion, is broadly that the canonical, undeniable, necessary-to-be-accounted-for-by-any-proper-interpretation facts are those contained in the final published work, and there are none outside it. Which is basically what you said, Mary J. But of course broad statements like that get a little tricky in some cases. For example, in a series of novels like the Potter books, do they form a single collective canon such that a tenable interpretation of the first book must take account of all the later books? This is where Andy's and Dan's remarks about internally inconsistent canon come in: is internal consistency part of the definition of canon, and does the existence of an inconsistency between The hobbit and The lord of the rings mean they can't be part of the same canon? Or do we posit both that they are part of the same canon and that canon must be internally consistent, and insist as a matter of faith that consequently there must be an interpretation, even if we can't think of it, that resolves the apparent inconsistency?

And, then again, what do we do with adaptations of the original into other media: treat them as part of the same canon as the originals, or as canon unto themselves independent of the originals, or as mere interpretations of the originals? Does it depend on how 'authorized' they are? For example, even if we deny George Lucas the authority to create new canonical facts by saying stuff in interviews, do we nonetheless accept his authority to determine whether tie-in-novels &c. are part of the same canon as the films; or, similarly, do we accept statements by BBC producers about which Doctor Who charity specials are canonical?

I'm inclined at the moment to think that the very idea of canon should be treated as an interpretive tool and not much more than that. You, as the reader and interpreter, say, 'I'm going to regard X as canonical', and you proceed to read and interpret on that basis; and others who are willing to go along with the understanding of canon that you've adopted may find your interpretation attractive or not, but those who don't want to draw the limits of canon where you've drawn them are very likely to find your interpretation unacceptable, and that's okay, because it isn't as if there's a legal requirement for everyone to have the same interpretation or even the same frame of interpretation.

I'm not at all attracted by the frame of interpretation that treats extra-fictional statements by the author of a work as canonical facts that I have to accept when I'm reading and interpreting that work. That's largely for pragmatic reasons. If I choose to adopt a view of canon that means I have to make sure my interpretation of a work deals with not only everything in the work itself but also everything the author has ever said about it, how can I ever be happy with my interpretation? What if there's an interview I haven't read that completely contradicts it? Even if I were confident I'd read every off-hand comment by the author that had ever been published, how could I be sure that the author hadn't said something to a friend over dinner that had never been recorded or published but would nonetheless, if I somehow found out about it, require me to totally change my interpretation? Could I never be comfortable with my interpretation until the author and everyone the author ever spoke to is dead and everything the author ever wrote has been published or destroyed? Surely I couldn't be confident even then, because if the author thought something about the work that was incompatible with my interpretation, that would still mean my interpretation was untenable, and I'd never know! (This is the point somebody above made - sorry, I can't find it at the moment - about needing to be able to read the author's mind.) And that's without even worrying myself with the possibility that Sister Magpie mentioned, namely that what an author says in an interview may not be what the author actually thinks, or may be what the author wishes she'd written but not what was actually in her head at the time she was writing. Which is very close to another thing I'd have to confront if I took this approach, namely that a large part of artistic creation is done by the unconscious mind and what goes on in the unconscious mind is, by definition, not consciously known even to the author. And then there are worries about the extent of the author's power: some people have raised the question whether the author gets to decide not only what a character does but whether those deeds are admirable or not, or whether that character is fundamentally a good person. (Arguably even 'Dumbledore is gay' is an assertion of that kind: it certainly goes further than merely saying that he was once in love with a man.) I would also worry about the extent of the author's powers in other directions, such as I mentioned to Gamer_2k4 in my last comment. And then I'd get really seriously troubled if the work in question were not a novel but, for example, a film: who exactly is the author whose comments I must accept as canonical? The script-writer? The director? Does it depend on the fact in question? If Ridley Scott says that Deckard he directed is a replicant but Harrison Ford says he was playing a Deckard who was not a replicant, whose statement do I accept? Do Hampton Fancher and David Peoples have an opinion about it? (And what on earth do I do with the fact that Ridley Scott says that Harrison Ford has changed his mind and now agrees that Deckard is a replicant, and meanwhile Harrison Ford says that Ridley Scott originally agreed that Deckard wasn't one? If I had to incorporate statements like this into my interpretation I'd surely be on the verge of despair.) And, good grief, what about plays, where each staging has a different set of actors and a different director? Or long-running comic series like The X-Men that have had a zillion different writers, artists, and editors?

In short, I want to be able to interpret a work of fiction with reasonable self-confidence and without having to read / watch / listen to anything more than the work itself, and if anyone wants to say that that's lazy of me I won't argue. I also want to be able to compare interpretations with other people whose opinions I respect and find interesting, and in my experience most of those also tend to do their reading and interpreting without feeling obliged to accept assertions made outside the works themselves, so that's another pragmatic reason for me to take that approach. But obviously it would be hypocritical for me to say that anyone who chooses to regard things outside the work itself as canonical is Wrong. And I'll be inclined to disagree with anyone who says that any approach to what is and isn't canon is Wrong, because I don't really see that there can be a Wrong way to read fiction any more than there can be a Wrong way to write it.

Wow, that was long, sorry. But you did kind of ask people to clarify where they stood, and I guess the place I'm standing in is the sort of place I feel people might need fairly detailed directions to get to without getting lost. But now that I've said all this there's a good chance I can shut up for a few days. :)
Arthur B at 21:03 on 2010-08-21
So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the disagreement is over whether the imaginary universe exists solely in the books, or whether it actually exists in the author's head, and parts of it are communicated to other people via the medium of the books (among other things, in JKR's case)?
I don't like using the term "imaginary universe" at all, because it implies that the books and so forth are a by-product of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding. This is true for, say, Tolkien, but I've never seen anything to suggest that it's true for Rowling, and it certainly isn't true for very many authors at all.
Andy G at 22:50 on 2010-08-21
@ Jamie: Yes! I think I'd just add that it's possible to interpret even something that an author says in a text itself as being non-canonical - because authors can make mistakes (I think there's a famous example where Cervantes gets the name of Don Quixote's donkey wrong).
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 02:39 on 2010-08-22
Thanks, Jamie - that's all very well put - and also complicated. :)

Arthur B, I think you are also right, in that there is certainly an "imaginary universe" in any author's head, but it is not fair to ask any reader to know anything about it beyond what's evident in the published/created work of art. If any facet of said universe doesn't make it onto the page or the screen, it does not and cannot matter to the reader. And canon (that is, the work that is actually out there in the world) absolutely CAN contradict itself, and often does - because we humans aren't perfect, and therefore don't make perfect subcreations.

Now, if an author chooses to revise his/her canon, as Tolkien chose to revise "The Hobbit" to bring it in line with LOTR, I have no problems with that. But an author who has not revised cannot expect to proclaim 'facts" in interviews that are flatly contradicted by her own canon, and be believed. At least I don't think so.

My two cents!
Shim at 12:46 on 2010-08-22
what an author says in an interview... may be what the author wishes she'd written but not what was actually in her head at the time she was writing

This is also a problem with changing social attitudes and so on. Someone might write a book in their youth with elements that make them cringe in later years. Maybe it now seems really bigoted, maybe just embarrassing, maybe the awesome cool heroic character now seems shallow and self-important. But unless they release a new edition where, say, the heroine is textually aware of their patronising attitude to the working class and tries to resist it, it doesn't matter whether they wish they'd written her like that. And in fact, if changed, it would possibly change the complexion of the book, as you say.

I don't like using the term "imaginary universe" at all, because it implies that the books and so forth are a by-product of worldbuilding for the sake of worldbuilding.

I dunno about that (well, the implications you draw are out of my control, but I don't draw the same ones). Any fiction exists in a little pocket "reality" with its own rules and assumptions. In Enid Blyton, smugglers and spies and desperate criminals, however cruel, will not actually harm children in any way. In most books, people apparently find time for food, rest and toilet stops at a convenient time you don't notice even when fleeing for their lives for hours on end, hiding in the Vatican library or going from glamorous party to glamorous party. In Harry Potter, magic isn't Vancian. And certain entities and places and cultures exist in each book, whether real or fictional. I feel like "imaginary universe" is a reasonable term to encompass that framework, and I don't have a better one offhand.

As Mary said though, if there's a more extensive version in the author's head than in the text, we can't really know about that.
Dan H at 11:29 on 2010-08-23


@ Jamie: Yes! I think I'd just add that it's possible to interpret even something that an author says in a text itself as being non-canonical - because authors can make mistakes (I think there's a famous example where Cervantes gets the name of Don Quixote's donkey wrong).


For what it's worth, I wouldn't class that as "non-canon" I'd class it as a mistake *in* canon.

But again, that's because I find the most useful definition of "canon" to be "this particular body of texts" and not "this particular set of self-consistent facts about a secondary reality."
Frank at 16:07 on 2010-08-23
Getting in late.

To me, the author's comments regarding their canon -the published text- is only as canonical as the reader can reasonably interpret it in the text. For inst, I don't give a shit whether or not Dumbledore is gay or not, but I see that it could be suggested within canon. What I was quite interested in was the Slytherins being a part of the fight against Voldemort and no matter how much Rowling says they were there, it is completely unsupported within the canon.

I consider Rowling's talk of the Slytherin rise against Voldemort her own personal fanfic.
Arthur B at 16:10 on 2010-08-24
Any fiction exists in a little pocket "reality" with its own rules and assumptions... I feel like "imaginary universe" is a reasonable term to encompass that framework, and I don't have a better one offhand.

I think any fiction expresses a worldview with its own rules and assumptions. I don't think expressing a worldview is at all the same as constructing an imaginary universe. If you take the idea to an extreme, you end up in a situation where each of us lives in their own little universe - since, after all, all of us have different worldviews.

And what's more, regarding these things as worldviews rather than universes makes it far easier to actually interpret what's going on. Enid Blyton didn't seriously believe that desperate criminals wouldn't dare snuff some kids to stop them blabbing, but she wrote adopting a worldview in which they wouldn't because she chose not to cross that particular line in her storytelling. Similarly, it's just plain stupid to imagine that just because we don't read an account of characters in a story going to the toilet that the story takes place in a strange imaginary universe in which there are no anuses - it's far more helpful to take the view that the author simply didn't consider that sort of thing to be sufficiently important to merit writing about.

The examples you've picked muddy the water a bit, because some of them are about a worldview and some of them are about worldbuilding. The precise metaphysics of spellcasting and the characters and places involved in a story are an example of the latter - from an in-character perspective, they're observable facts about the universe. Criminals not seriously harming kids or heroes not taking regular bathroom breaks are a matter of narrative worldview - from the perspective of characters in the story, of course the Famous Five are in danger from the criminals who've cornered them, and of course people go to the bog, but we're not going to see either of those things happening in this particular story because the author's chosen not to write about them.

The particular worldview an author possesses (or chooses to adopt) can affect the worldbuilding, of course - see Dan's article about Calvinism creeping into Harry Potter - but they aren't the same thing.
Cressida at 22:36 on 2010-09-23
I think the ability to read canon through a sort of double-sided filter is one that would make more fans happy in the long run--if they can only manage it. If season 1, episode 12 says one thing and season 8, episode 3 says the opposite ... well ... sometimes it's possible to view each one as itself and not try to reconcile it with the other. For a certain type of person, at least. But I suspect that some people's minds just don't work that way, and they'll never be happy unless they can square both statements with each other.

By the way, reaching far back, but a response to Arthur B's early comment:

The irony there is Tolkien was pretty much exclusively interested in worldbuilding, with storytelling being a happy by-product of that; he referred to Middle Earth as a "secondary creation", after all.

Actually, when he called it a secondary creation, that doesn't mean he viewed it as secondary to his created languages. He was distinguishing it from the "primary" creation of God.
Arthur B at 22:42 on 2010-09-23
I know, the statement indicates that he considered Middle Earth a worldbuilding exercise. That was sort of the point I was trying to make?
Shim at 14:08 on 2010-09-24
I'll concede the point about ignoring boring bits in narrative.

The examples you've picked muddy the water a bit, because some of them are about a worldview and some of them are about worldbuilding.

I'd argue that's because the things I'm discussing are more of a continuum than two discrete things. Fiction basically bends the rules of reality to the purposes of the story, and it's mostly a matter of degree. For example:
Swallows & Amazons/Jennings > Famous Five/Just William > Alex Rider > Judge Dredd > 40K
is pretty much a linear progression of switching out "real" elements for exaggerated and invented ones (yes, okay, oversimplified). It's just a matter of how much of the world you build, and some things (magic, aliens, robots) looking more "built" than others (attitudes, behaviour).

I think construing Blyton's writing as having its own narrative universe (or "interpretation of reality" or whatever else you want to call it) with its own rules and assumptions is as valid as doing that for, oh, Asimov. I could perfectly well rewrite the Famous Five, replacing all the ne'erdowells with orks but leaving them otherwise untouched. Then does it become an imaginary universe? What about if I move them to Mars? I'm just not satisfied that "imaginary universe" as you seem to be using it has clearly-defined boundaries that can restrict it the way you want to. Things like behaviours are observable facts about the universe as well as magic or time-travelling robots, whereas some things that would have been fantastic in the past are now observable facts (robots, iphones, peace in Western Europe, nominal equality for women). The James Bond world is fairly realistic, but it's an observable fact for Bond that larger-than-life villains a) have bizarre distinguishing features, b) are extremely polite, and c) construct elaborate death traps for their enemies instead of just killing them. In PG Wodehouse, you can easily give a false name to police or impersonate someone else to infiltrate a country house and steal a pig, and everyone will care too much about their good name to sue you. Loads of stories take outrageous liberties with the behaviour of other cultures or social groups, but are theoretically realistic - at what point do they become universes? What about alternate histories? I suppose what I'm trying to get at is what you mean by "universe" and "worldbuilding" in this context, because I don't think they're the same as what I think of, and I think we may just be arguing now because of terminology.

I don't think expressing a worldview is at all the same as constructing an imaginary universe.

Agreed, but I think you're doing some muddying of your own with "worldview". The Potter/Calvinism example is somewhere I'd use that term, i.e. a way you interpret or understand the world. The Blyton one is more excluding something from her stories (violence) that she doesn't think is relevant or suitable for the book and its intended audience. On the other hand, Constable Goon, the Inspector, and the way the kids use their social position in solving cases, are results of Blyton's worldview (specifically, relating to class).
Arthur B at 15:05 on 2010-09-24
Loads of stories take outrageous liberties with the behaviour of other cultures or social groups, but are theoretically realistic - at what point do they become universes?

It's so long since we even had this conversation I barely remember it, but I think there's a very clear line that can be drawn between stories which present themselves as being set in our own world, and stories which present themselves as being set either on another world entirely or a counterfactually divergent version of our own world (so your alternate histories and your vampire high school romances fall into the latter camp).

Shoddy depictions of real-world cultures are an expression of a worldview, not an act of worldbuilding. The author isn't inventing the cultures in question, and nor are they writing about a fabulous parallel universe where the stereotypes they are expressing about said cultures are true; they're just revealing their own biases.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 18:53 on 2010-09-24
Arthur, this may be wildly irrelevant, but don't people who invent alternate histories and imaginary universes also reveal their prejudices? I'd like to (blow my own horn a bit) point you to the second half of a post of mine discussing this issue. This may be another topic for a post by someone here: WHY does so much hard SF seem, to me, anyway, to be so ultraconservative?!

Here's the link: http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/40140.html
Arthur B at 19:56 on 2010-09-24
Arthur, this may be wildly irrelevant, but don't people who invent alternate histories and imaginary universes also reveal their prejudices?
Yes, but it doesn't follow than that that worldbuilding and expressing your worldview are the same thing, or are even always connected (although they will be 99% of the time, if only because any fictional history you write is going to be coloured by your conception of what history is and why historical events happen).
http://orionsnebula.blogspot.com/ at 19:56 on 2010-09-25
Dan, since this discussion has been reopened, I have a comment that is trying to be a question (specifically, it's very nearly the old unanswerable "where does comprehension stop and interpretation begin?).

Everything in this post rings so true, and yet... well, let me put it this way. It's definitely desirable to be able to enjoy both episode 1 and episode 37, even if they contradict each other. At the same time, isn't the meaning of episode 37 generally condition by previous installments? Sure, good writers try to make every movie and even every TV episode stand alone, but can you really interpret Zuko's re-union with Iroh or Azula's beach party properly without knowing the content of previous episodes? Any episode where, say, two long-separated characters run into each other seems to *depend* on the previous installments of the "canon". (In some cases, you could argue that their long-separation is established in the episode itself, but I'm not sure it always is). At an even more basic level, many episodes of an established series will have characters and threats that would be patently unfair if they weren't previously established.

How do you decide what circumstantial knowledge (in this case, from other texts in the "canon") is necessary to properly interpret a piece? Intuition suggests that because Avatar is a television series, previous episodes will be necessary to understand later episodes, while because the Episodes 1-3 are prequels, they will mess up the interpretation of the original. But (although I have serious issues with prequels, which I will get to in an essay), I don't think that's a viable distinction. First, because there are at least as many *sequels* that do things like change a name to a title, and second, because it seems to violate the "found item" rule. You shouldn't be able to prescriptively specify in what order works should be read, right?
Jamie Johnston at 20:23 on 2010-09-26
It's so long since we even had this conversation I barely remember it, but I think there's a very clear line that can be drawn between stories which present themselves as being set in our own world, and stories which present themselves as being set either on another world entirely or a counterfactually divergent version of our own world (so your alternate histories and your vampire high school romances fall into the latter camp).

Not to disagree with your main point, but it may be necessary to finesse this formula (specifically 'stories which present themselves') to deal with stories that will be read by most people as being set in a divergent world but are intended as real-world stories by an author who has bizarre beliefs about the real world (e.g. some of L. Ron Hubbard's fiction).

I too can't remember what this discussion is about so I've no idea whether that's a relevant or important point.
Arthur B at 22:10 on 2010-09-26
Not to disagree with your main point, but it may be necessary to finesse this formula (specifically 'stories which present themselves') to deal with stories that will be read by most people as being set in a divergent world but are intended as real-world stories by an author who has bizarre beliefs about the real world (e.g. some of L. Ron Hubbard's fiction).

I would say L. Ron Hubbard's post-Scientology SF writings don't count as "stories" so much as "symptoms"...
Dan H at 22:59 on 2010-09-28
Sorry, not checked comments in about a week, busy as all hell at work (new term, new building, new chaos)

At the same time, isn't the meaning of episode 37 generally condition by previous installments?


I'm not sure there's a problem here. You can - and should - interpret episode 37 in the context of episode 1 (and for that matter interpret episode 1 in the context of episode 37) but what you should not do is forget that you are working with a created artifact.

You are absolutely meant to watch /The Phantom Menace/ with the awareness that Anakin Skywalker grows up to be Darth Vader - that knowledge creates dramatic irony and the film makes no sense without it. But in this case what matters is an awareness of the *existing texts in the franchise* not the *reality of the secondary world*.

How do you decide what circumstantial knowledge (in this case, from other texts in the "canon") is necessary to properly interpret a piece?


Glib answer: you don't.

Very slightly less glib answer, it depends on what you mean by "properly".

For example, I'd say that to "properly" interpret an episode of /Dollhouse/ you need not only to have seen the other episodes of /Dollhouse/ but should *ideally* also have watched some of Buffy, Angel and Firefly because those are also part of Joss Whedon's "canon" and while Buffy and Angel obviously don't exist in the world of /Dollhouse/ they still form part of a continuous body of works, and similar themes occur throughout all three series. Some insufferably smug people will insist that you can't properly interpret any western literature unless you've read Homer.

Again what it basically comes down to is that interpreting a text has very little to do with the notion of what "really" happened in a secondary creation (which is the version of "canon" which obsesses some people and confuses others) and a great deal to do with the position of the text as a work of fiction which exists in this world.
Robinson L at 18:30 on 2010-12-21
Melissa: I have two characters (male) who are (in my mind) romantically involved with one another and in fact, I have a whole long backstory of their relationship, all of which never made into the text because they are side characters.

*interest piqued* Renzulo and Sordin?
Melissa G. at 19:40 on 2010-12-21
*interest piqued* Renzulo and Sordin?


...I'm afraid I can't answer that question. *whistles innocently*
Robinson L at 20:15 on 2010-12-21
I'm afraid I can't answer that question. *whistles innocently*

*pouts*
Melissa G. at 21:40 on 2010-12-21
*pouts*


If I gave a definite answer, wouldn't that kind of go against everything we've been saying in this article/thread? lol
Robinson L at 00:00 on 2010-12-22
@Melissa:

All right, I'll leave off. But if you want a serious answer to your question, no, I don't think it would undermine the discussion at all. To me it would fit right in with Mary J's earlier comment about Tolkien's letter:

Mary J: Tolkien's letter isn't canon, according to my definition. It's interpretation. But it's the sort of interpretation that deepens canon.

But now I'm just speaking generally; I won't try to pressure you. [insert smiley face icon here]
Andy G at 01:58 on 2010-12-22
But now I'm just speaking generally; I won't try to pressure you. [insert smiley face icon here]


Maybe emoticons could be Rami's next coding project ;)
Melissa G. at 05:47 on 2010-12-22
But now I'm just speaking generally; I won't try to pressure you. [insert smiley face icon here]


If you want me to heavily imply an answer: if your interpretation of the text is that Renzulo and Sordin have romantic feelings for each other, I would heartily and enthusiastically agree with that interpretation. :-)
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2010-12-22
Andy: Maybe emoticons could be Rami's next coding project ;)

Maybe, though I doubt it would've changed my comment at all, I'm too pompous stuck-up old-fashioned to use the little buggers anyway.

If you want me to heavily imply an answer: if your interpretation of the text is that Renzulo and Sordin have romantic feelings for each other, I would heartily and enthusiastically agree with that interpretation. :-)

Well, it probably never would have occurred to me had you not made your initial comment, but once it did occur to me I now strongly suspect those two; I suppose that makes it my interpretation.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 22:46 on 2013-02-25
I've never (and mind, partially this is because I've studied history and church canon and all that jazz) seen "canon" as some kind of objective thing: It's a social construct, whose use is mostly to send certain signals to certain other groups.

Eg. the purpose of canon in a lot of stuff shared universe stuff is basically to point out to readers that "this is stuff that might get refrenced/appear again, the fact that Aunt May became a Herald of Galactus likely won't be." In a single-author written stuff it's basically a way of sorting out what the author thinks is important (or not)

Does anyone HAVE to care about that? No. Feel free to assemble an alternate canon and recruit your own disciples to your schismatic church (or don't and just have a different interpretations) but don't expect to be accepted by people whose identity as a group is centered on a particular canon.

"Canon" isn't a literary/textual construct, it's a social one.

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