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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

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Noblesse Oblige We have in Plenty, but Precious Little Droit du Seigneur
Did I mention that I've been dipping my toe into the world of authors and their pesky post-facto thoughts about books?

I don't see that Rowling is doing anything different from any other author who writes a series of books set in the same universe and/or employing the same characters. I mean, no-one ever complained about John Buchan writing yet another yarn about Richard Hannay. All that's changed is that- instead of writing more books- Rowling is using media that weren't available to an earlier generation.

Then the question arises of when she is producing "another yarn", and when she is merely commenting on existing yarns - which of course anyone is free to do. It's not an easy distinction to make.

I think it's interesting what Rowling is doing- and it's perhaps something that's never been done before- which is why people are disconcerted; she's produced a core text of seven novels- and now she's adding to it- embellishing it in all sorts of ways- with tweets and co-authored plays and screenplays and all sorts. I expect others will follow suit...

I think it's interesting what Rowling is doing- and it's perhaps something that's never been done before- which is why people are disconcerted; she's produced a core text of seven novels- and now she's adding to it- embellishing it in all sorts of ways- with tweets and co-authored plays and screenplays and all sorts. I expect others will follow suit...

What Rowling is doing now is writing fan-fiction about her own invented universe. It's quite different from continuing to write sequels. She can do what she wants, but I don't find this admirable.

I must distinguish this, however, from two situations where I find post-publication authorial interjection entirely desirable:
1) Polite responses to enquiries asking, not for more information outside the books, but clarification and expansion on what's in them;
2) Less-polite rebuttals to critics who think they know better than the author what the book means. Critics can say what they're reminded of, or what they see in the book, but when they declare what something in the book actually is or really means, they're trespassing into territory where the author's word should be law. We got this a lot from critics who said that Tolkien's Ring was an allegory for the Bomb.

I wonder whether allegory is a special case, in as much as to say that "X is an allegory of Y" may be a shorthand way of saying that "the author intended X to be an allegory of Y". It was this element of intent, as I take it, that for Tolkien distinguished allegory from applicability.

On the other had, an assertion such as "There are homoerotic elements in the relationship between Frodo and Sam" seems (whether or not one agrees with it) to be more about the text and/or possible ways of reading it, and less about what Tolkien intended. I don't think any of these cases are clear-cut, though, any more than the nature of intent itself is unitary, stable or well defined.

Whether there's a difference depends on how the critic puts it. So far, almost every serious discussion of the homoerotic elements in Frodo and Sam I've seen has carried its own distinct air of either 1) "I'm determined to see homoerotic elements whether they're there or not," thus saying much about the critic and exactly nothing about the work, or 2) "Frodo and Sam are gay lovers whether the author knows it or not," which is the critic declaring a certain knowledge of the work denied to the author. Both these fail my credibility test. It'd be possible to make a fair point out of a homoerotic reading, but I haven't seen anybody do it.

enquiries asking, not for more information outside the books, but clarification and expansion on what's in them

Do you find that to be a clear-cut line? I find it to be the farthest thing from.

I also think a strong argument can be made that literally anything an author says outside the actual text counts as more information outside the book.

In a rigidly pedantic sense, yes. But in practice there's a difference.

Saying "Dumbledore is gay" in response to a specific question about his non-standard-heterosexual reaction to a romantic situation would be the one. Just up and saying "Dumbledore is gay" without any textual evidence one way or another was the other.

I didn't mean it in a rigidly pedantic way. I guess I don't see the distinction quite as clearly.

Do you mean that you actually don't see a distinction, or that you don't think the distinction is significant?

Right now I honestly don't understand what the distinction is. I'm not arguing that there isn't one, but I don't currently comprehend what it is.

The situation in which she said it was somewhere in between, I think. It was in response to a question about whether Dumbledore ever found "true love". Perhaps, as far as she was concerned, the evidence was there in the text, for those with eyes to see.

In this particular case it's not just about whether (or how far) she went beyond textual evidence, but also about what her audience was prepared to hear. For example, there's no evidence in the book that Dumbledore is straight, but had she answered that he just never found the right girl it's highly unlikely that her remark would have been subject to the same kind of interrogation.

So far as social meejah I can't abide Rowling. She wrote a very lucrative series of kids books. Why the hell she feels qualified to pontificate (like some mad old lady with a cat) on Scots independence, or anything outside Potter is stupefying.

She's not the only person on Twitter who feels entitled to pontificate, from what I hear! I don't blame her for that, so much as other people for treating her as an expert - if indeed they do.

That's another fine line - between a celebrity who thinks their fame makes them into an expert on every subject and one who decides that if they're going to have all this influence, they might as well use it to promote what they consider good causes.

Example of case 1, the genuine expert on his own subject who's turned into an ignorant blowhard on topics he knows nothing about: Richard Dawkins. Example of case 2, the celebrity who uses his fame to promote good causes: Sean Penn.

I haven't been following Rowling in detail, but I think she falls into case 2. Even if you disagree with her on Scottish independence.

There is the Pontiff of course. Quite a few gasp in awe at her utterances, which reminds me, I must away and bomb TERFs.

Lovely.

I think the narrator (the last narrator, who is always third person, the narrator who reports the speeches of all the figures on all the levels in a fiction, including the speeches of any first person narrator) -- I think the narrator has complete authority over the work. The question is whether JKR can continue to be a narrator once the work is done. Or can continue to create authoritative narrators. What about the later Henry James? Is the narrator of the later Portrait of a Lady the same as the earlier? At some point we discriminate between two still authoritative narrators, and we always distinguish them from the unauthoritative. Be "we" I mean "me."

At some point we discriminate between two still authoritative narrators, and we always distinguish them from the unauthoritative. Be "we" I mean "me."

This is true as an observation of human behaviour, but ultimately I don't know why we have to do this - that is, I can't see any reason to label one the false god, one the true, beyond a kind of neurotic urge to have everything neat and hierarchically tidy. If we were interpreting laws in a court there would be a point to it, but it's not obvious what the point is when we're talking about something as irreducibly multiple as story.

One base-line philosophical insight about truth is that if a statement is true there is something that makes it true. What makes a statement true in fiction? Only what an authoritative (= omniscient) narrator says, since there is no fact of the matter that can make it true, unlike in the real world. So the question becomes who's authoritative. I do think that's a psychological question -- that is it's about whatever aspects of human psychology make stories absorbing. Which is stuff I am writing about. One important datum is that good stories in all cultures regularly and reliably beat daydreaming. Probably because nothing makes a daydream true, whereas the author or narrator or story-teller makes a story true, relatively independently of our daydreaming wish-fulfillment. The truth of the outcome makes a difference: in happy endings part of the happiness is that something is making that happy ending true, fulfilling our wishes (that is, the omniscient narrator who isn't affected by our wishes or daydreams: e.g. that Little Nell would live or that Tiny Tim would, or that Catherine and Tilney would marry). Whereas if you can pick your own adventure, really you're heading in the direction of daydreaming. So you need some principle, even if it's an arbitrary one, to grant truth-making authority to. Authors are decent first approximations for that principle. (Hence "Franklin W. Dixon" and "Nancy Keene.")

That said, I'm as subject to the urge as anyone else!

I like your piece.


As a writer, I think that a work has to stand on its own. If you ex-post-facto it up with "Dumbledore is gay," then what you're basically admitting is that you think it's important to convey this, but you didn't bother doing a good enough job of writing to convey it in the actual books, so you're doing a patch job now. Which is fair enough, I guess, insofar that as much I enjoyed the HP books, I've always thought the world-building and characterization were pretty crappy.

As a critic, I fundamentally don't much care what the author thinks zir text means, for a couple reasons. One is that interpretation is a different activity than writing; there's no reason to suppose that someone good at the latter is good at the former. Another is that what the writer thinks something means does not change what the words on the page say, and if a critic can support zir argument using the words on the page, no amount of nuh-uh-ing from the author makes that evidence go away. Conversely, a writer can insist and insist that a meaning is there, but if nobody actually can pick it up from the words on the page, well, authorial intent plus $2.75 will get you on the subway.

But I think there's a difference between authors elaborating on their fictional worlds and authors trying to assert control over critical interpretation. Dumbledore is gay? Sure, why not. They're her characters. That's just world-building. It's her job. If she says "Dumbledore is gay and you can see that in the first book," however, I'm going to have to assume that she's hallucinating new text in there.

I cannot accept Proust's death-bed excision of the first two hundred pages of Albertine Disparue and the claim that he made her sexual orientation unambiguous there. (Even with the excision, I hasten to add, I don't think her orientation is ever unambiguous.)

I think that's fair. It's one thing to add something that you didn't write--OK, readers can take that on board. But once something has been published and read, to try to take it back...well, I guess you can try, but I don't see how it can work unless you actually erase your readers' memories.