By now everyone is aware of the bombshell dropped into the Harry Potter world by creator J. K. Rowling announcing that she had always envisaged Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore as gay, although she had not made it explicit in the books.
Advocates of gay rights have welcomed Rowling’s statement, although some have said that they would have liked to have had this development made clear in the books itself, rather than revealed as an afterword. Those who already saw the books as evil because its magical aspects appeared like witchcraft to them, now have another reason to condemn the books, seeing it as an attempt by the author to ‘further the gay agenda.’ They fear that by making the most universally admired character in the books gay, young children will become (oh, the horror!) more tolerant of gay people.
But Rowling’s announcement raises a different issue that has not received much attention and that is the question of to what extent an author has control of the content of her books after they have been published. In this case, does the fact that Rowling wrote Dumbledore thinking of him as a gay character actually make him so?
When I read the Harry Potter books, the question of Dumbledore’s or any other adult person’s sexuality rarely crossed my mind. The books are quite innocent in that respect and this is typical for this kind of British boarding school fiction where teachers tend to be portrayed as aloof, asexual figures, with no real life outside the classroom and school. On rare occasions I did idly consider the possibility of whether any romance existed between Dumbledore and Professor Minerva McGonagall that would be revealed at the end. There was nothing in the books to suggest this. It simply seemed like they would make a nice compatible couple, spending a quiet retirement together.
So is Dumbledore gay? One school of thought would argue that if his creator says so, then he must be so. After all, the entire Harry Potter universe is a product solely of her imagination so surely she has the right to determine the nature of each character. But the relationship of the author to her creations is not that simple because another school of thought says that once a book is published, it is no longer ‘owned’ by the author and the meaning of the books now lies with whatever meaning the reader assigns. While the reader cannot change the text in any way or create new facts, the reader’s right to interpretation is on a par with that of the writer.
According to the latter view, since I had never considered the possibility that Dumbledore was gay while reading the books, he is not so, at least to me. Of course, now that this possibility has been raised, a re-reading of the books might cause me to change my mind, seeing in his character things I had not seen before. We all have experienced occasions when a conversation we have had or a film we have seen or a book we have read is suddenly recollected in a dramatic new light because we subsequently received new information. But whether Dumbledore is gay that is something that has to be determined by each reader, not the author.
I recall an author whose novels were sometimes assigned as texts by high school teachers and students would be asked to write essays on what was meant by such and such a passage. The author said that some enterprising students, realizing that he was still around, would track him down and call him to ask what he meant, hoping to get the ‘correct’ answer to their essay prompt. He would reply that he didn’t know any more than they did. He was not trying to dodge the question, he was just expressing the view that once a work is published, the author has relinquished control of the meaning of the work. The same issues arise with the meaning of a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music.
This does not mean that all creators are comfortable relinquishing control of their work. I recall the story of an art museum docent who was horrified to find a visitor painting over a work hanging on the museum wall. Upon arrest and questioning, the ‘vandal’ turned out to be the original artist who had not been quite satisfied with the work he had sold, and had decided to make some changes.
A colleague and friend of mine Professor Christine Cano wrote a fascinating book called Proust’s Deadline (2007) which dealt with the publishing history of Marcel Proust’s epic multivolume novel In Search of Lost Time (formerly called Remembrance of Things Past). The volumes were published over the period 1913-1927, the last three edited and published posthumously after his death in 1922. Proust, like Rowling, had never published a novel before and yet ambitiously conceived of the first novel as an epic work whose story needed many volumes (seven in both cases) to tell. But whereas Rowling’s story lent itself to being split into episodes and she seemed to have been a highly disciplined writer and mapped out the plotline carefully from the start and stuck to it, Proust had a much harder time of it. He was constantly rewriting, backtracking, changing course, and making revisions.
In 1987, long after Proust’s death, one of his original publishers issued a revised version of Proust’s novel based on an original manuscript in which Proust seemed, just before his death, to have deleted a huge 250 page chunk out of one of the novels. This posed a dilemma for Proust readers. Which was the ‘real’ novel: The longer version that had long been considered the canonical one? Or the 1987 abridged version that seemed to represent Proust’s ‘final’ thoughts on his own work? Cano and most Proust scholars think that what was originally published is the final word. Once a work is published, the author’s control over the story is over.
In a very minor way, I face the same problem with this blog. Sometimes, just after I have posted an item, I think of a revision that might improve the text. But I somehow feel that it is not quite correct to make the change, even though it is still ‘my’ work and I am the publisher. Once it has appeared on the internet, to be seen by the world, it no longer seems to belong to me except in the purely technical sense of owning the copyright. The only changes I make to published posts are if I discover a glaring factual error or a typo. I avoid making any substantive changes in meaning.
My discomfort with post-publishing changes may be because I have grown up with the older publishing model, where the appearance of a book was a landmark event simply because of the complex nature of creating a physical object. A bound book in one’s hand has a sense of finality. Internet publishing, where changes can be easily made in a few minutes, has created a new dynamic. As it gains ground, it is not clear when any work will be seen as the author’s final word.
POST SCRIPT: Janeane Garofalo
Watch actress and comedian Janeane Garofalo on a talk show a month before the invasion of Iraq. Notice that she was right about almost everything, unlike the idiotic interviewer. And yet she, and other people who were equally right, are almost never seen or heard from on the mainstream media while those who were wrong about everything (like the interviewer) are still there, this time yelling for war with Iran.