A few years ago I was in a discussion group and and the book we were discussing was Lord of the Rings. We were working our way through the entire book and we’d have these fascinating discussions about the philosophy of the stories. One of the members of the discussion group, however, was a big Tolkien fan and he’d bring in letters or other ways in which we’d learn Tolkien’s view on his own book to dispute whatever point we would be making. I found it immensely annoying - it just totally shut down the discussion. Now we have the Author Himself Telling Us All What He Really Meant. What then was the point of discussing it - the Oracle Has Spoken. What was the point of even reading the story - why shouldn’t he just tell us what he really meant and be done with it?
This is why I think J.K. Rowling made a terrible mistake during her American tour. While I think it would be helpful to hear about her views of the process of writing, or writing as an art form, or to discuss - at length even - what books have influenced her and why, she just gave us too much definitive information on this tour and effectively has nearly shut the discussion down.
As I wrote about in my essay “Iceberg Ahoy” in the book “The Plot Thickens,” the skill of a writer is to tell us just enough information (i.e., Hemmingway’s iceberg analogy) to keep the story going, but not to much - allude to more that is under the surface. This was Rowling’s brilliance in her writing - she gave us enough to sweep us into the story and carrying on discussion that should have lasted into the next century - but not too much to squash the reader’s own journey into the imagination. Her tour of America nearly undid all her skill. It was as though she’s had a “minder” who finally was given the “heave-ho” after the books were completed.
As some may know, I’ve become a Bob Dylan fan and have been spending the last few years trying to play catchup on his lifetime vocation of music. It’s take me three years to get to where I am now, which may mean I might understand the new arthouse film that is about to come out, “I’m Not Here.” But one of the frustrating (wonderful?) things about Dylan is that he very rarely talks about what his songs mean. Early on he might and sometimes something will slip out (but is he telling the truth or fooling around, one never knows). But he really doesn’t tell us what his songs mean. He wrote an entire “first volume” autobiography and still didn’t really tell us what his songs mean - he spent virtually the entire book explaining how he wrote them, not what they mean.
This of course is frustrating - but also an important key to his success and the explosion of his myth. He follows the iceberg theory as well - gives us just enough information but not enough to explain it all to us. We have to work on his songs, we can’t be passive. We can have “aha” moments but until one can sit down with another Dylan fan and argue over the points, one is never going to be sure if one is up the tree or out on a limb or swinging carefree on the mark. But the point always is to make the case from the song themselves and Dylan provides very little to explain it and if he does he isn’t always to be believed.
There are times when I re-read the Dumbledore interview and if Jo Rowling were Bob Dylan you could make the case she was pulling everyone’s leg bigtime, except no one has a sense of humor about such things they are so politicized (with reason) right now. But there is a sense that you could almost imagine the Weasley Twin side of her chuckling.
But if not and she’s serious about all the “revelations” and “opinions” she’s given (and there’s no reason really to seriously doubt her) then she’s spoiled the fun, she’s told us the answer (yes, even after we begged her to) when the better way is to turn the question back to the audience and ask, “What do you think?” and turn the questions back to the audience and have a conversation about it, rather than embarking in that almost celebrity mindedness that everything she says is holy writ. If that is true, then the story is truly “her” story and she owns it like a piece of property to control as she wishes and her audience either gets it or we don’t. But she knows all. Well, that’s a lot of things, but it doesn’t further her story to live beyond herself, to live larger than herself. It might be wise for her to go back to the way it was, when she said little, and if there is something she must say to put it in a book and be done with it. Make the case and tell the story and we’ll judge if she pulls it off. It’s like cheating to tell us all about Luna and her adventures (what was all that stuff about her and Dean and nothing coming from it - what a fascinating and unlikely match that might have been, you could almost see that Dean was entertained by Luna and he offered her stability and sense, but no Jo says she went off to the woods and met someone we’ve never heard of, poor Dean - all that time and it was all for nothing).
And Neville and Hannah - where’s the support for that? Was there any hint in the text about them at all? No, so it becomes almost like gossip, not storytelling. J.K. Rowling toured America gossiping about her characters. I bet a few of them, not the least being Dumbledore, would have liked for her to put a sock in it.
Now we see she is narrow-minded toward something she calls “American fundamentalists.” But she does not define her terms - is she talking about Calvinist Baptists or Evangelical Armenian or what? Isn’t it a stereotype of religious Americans and somehow the British are so much more enlightened? If I were to walk into a Baptist meeting I’d be anything but a fundie - I’m sure they’d find me a progressively liberal. But if I were to attend one my own home denomination, Episcopalian, meeting I’m sure they’d be quick to call me a fundie because I’m not unitarian and I call Jesus by His first name. Jo Rowlings sweeping generalities tells us she doesn’t know America very well and her bias toward her own nation shows. She’s the enlightened one and we’re a bunch of right wing nuts. Maybe she’s trying to be funny.
It was way more fun to discuss her books before she started to explain them to us. I know the temptation must have been great - who knows, perhaps the temptation is great for Dylan sometimes. But his music is strengthened by his silence and perhaps this would be a good time for Jo to get thoughtful and reflect that maybe Harry doesn’t belong to her anymore, that he let her into his life for a spell and now he’s moved on and she’s now like the rest of us, trying to figure out what it all means.
ZR (my HP post name)
Thanks for the comments, friends - I appreciate it more than I can say that I could post that reflection and get such great comments! And I admit I’d love to read Tolkien’s letters - but again, I might maintain that a work must be able to stand on its own and the author also stands in the shadows and in no longer the oracle - but that may be the fruits over my own rebellion regarding the creative writing workshops that go gaga over authors. A book is a book except when it’s a ego-driven self indulgence. Authors are terrible about figuring out when that happens until it’s almost too late or - like Dylan - they crash.
But I seriously doubt that happened to Tolkien, it was indeed how the letters were used to interpret the text and I still find that troubling. If an author has more to say, write more story. A story takes on a life of its own and can suddenly surprise the author. Jo Rowling is into her “plan” and no one can say it doesn’t work. But at some point, if her work is great (and I think it is) she has to step aside and give it away. Perhaps what we saw was a public process of her doing that.
You all have given me more stuff to think about! Thank you! I do quarrel however on calling Rossetti’s masterpiece and “infernal parody.” I saw the original at the Tate in London (I didn’t realize it’s in Chicago now - are you sure that’s the original?) and it was extraordinary. Here it is: http://www.rossettiarchive.org/img/s168.jpg
Rossetti was a troubled man, one of the great PreRaphaelites. Again, there is much in the Potter series that lends itself to PreRaphaelite paintings. But the one of “Beatrice” based on the likeness of Rossetti’s late wife (who died I believe from an opium - a toxic potion if there ever was one - overdose) is very Lily-like. And notice the two figures in the background - one is Dante and one is Rossetti himself. We know of another Rossetti/Dante-like character who also lurked in the background and probably knew much of the turmoil those men knew in their art.
From the PreRaphelites to the Beats we see similar themes of the suffering hero who meets a tragic end, a gothic view of sin - certainly not themes of sweetness and light but the peril of the mortal soul. I must read John’s post on Dante before the weekend.