Sunday, February 02, 2014

J. K. Rowling Is Wrong About Her Own Books

So, J. K. Rowling has told an interviewer (the actress Emma Watson), that she paired off the wrong characters at the end of her Harry Potter series. Instead of marrying Harry's right-hand girl Hermione off to his left-hand boy Ron, Rowling has decided that she should have married Hermione to Harry himself. So, Rowling concludes, she was wrong when she wrote the books. In fact, she's wrong now.

Almost anyone who's taken a college literature class has been told that figuring out the author's intentions isn't the point of reading a book, that the author isn't the final judge of what the work means. That claim sounds weird to lots of people: of course the author gets to decide what the work means! She wrote it! Professors just don't have any common sense! [Cue jokes about pointy-headed academics who believe in the "death of the author."]

But it's not just a pointy-headed theory. It's common sense about the way books work. And Jo Rowling has given us a perfect example. The books don't mean something different because she's changed her mind about them. They don't get better or worse because of how she feels about them at a given moment. The book is the book. She wrote those books, but now they are their own thing, and she doesn't get to tell you how to read them.

Rowling's current claim is that the Ron and Hermione match, which she painstakingly builds up over the seven books in the Harry Potter series, is motivated by her own "personal" desires, rather than by artistic considerations:

"I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfilment. That's how it was conceived, really.
“For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron." 

What that sounds like, as far as I can tell, is that Rowling paired up Hermione, a character who fairly clearly represents an imagined version of Rowling's younger self, with a character whom she initially based on someone from her own early years. If I've got that right, Rowling sees the Hermione and Ron relationship as a story of her adolescent self getting a boy who got away. Of course, only Jo Rowling herself would read these characters this way, since none of us read Ron as Sean Whathisname that Jo Rowling had a crush on in sixth form. Why would we? We have no idea who Sean from Sixth Form is, and we don't care.

More the the point, although Jo Rowling might have intended Ron and Hermione as wish-fulfillment versions of Young Jo Rowling and Her Teen Crush, the characters aren't actually Young Jo and Teen Crush. They're independent characters. The reader figures out who Ron and Hermione are from the things they say and do on the page. There is no Ron or Hermione separate from the Ron and Hermione on the page. They don't have any other existence. They're characters in a book.

Now, if Rowling says her reasons "have very little to do with literature," that suggests that marrying those two characters off is an artistic mistake. Rowling is saying that her books would have been better books if Hermione married the main character in the end.

But Jo Rowling doesn't get to decide this either. She wrote the books she wrote. The rest of us decide if they work or not. If Rowling wants to persuade us that her ending stinks, she has to make an argument for that just like the rest of us.

Would wedding bells for Ron and Hermione have been better? It would certainly have been a more obvious ending: main male character marries main female character. And some people have clamored for that on the internet since the nineties, because they feel it's a story-telling imperative that Male Character #1 pair off with Female Character #1. But it's hard to feel that adding yet another cliche would improve the Harry Potter books. The problem with these books isn't that their points aren't too obvious or on-the-nose.

It's much easier to argue that Rowling's actual ending works quite well. The three main characters end up as part of a large happy extended family, with Harry marrying Ron's sister. It's a classic Dickens conclusion. And it creates a nice structural completion. The main character is an orphan who is repeatedly depicted as longing for a family. (At one point, the character looks in a magic mirror that shows you your heart's fondest desire. What he sees is himself surrounded by hordes of relatives.) In the first book, he's hapless and alone at the station where he's gone to catch the school train, and he gets taken under the wing of Ron's family. (It's worth pointing out that we meet Harry's future wife in that early scene, before even Hermione has been introduced. The book is setting things up already.) In the last scene of the series, Harry is putting his own children on the school train, surrounded by his in-laws and his old school friends. The character has what he's been shown to want most: he wished to be part of a family like Ron's, and now he's a member of Ron's family. And his own children have their parents to put them on the train, as he did not.

It works, because it's a decent story. "Orphan gets family" is more specific and interesting than "hero gets girl." The hero always gets the girl. It's also nice to see the boy hero actually, you know, form a genuine friendship with a girl. That the Harry Potter books don't girlfriendzone the female lead is a point in their favor. And it's also pleasing that the main female character is allowed to have a marriage where she will be the senior partner. But most importantly, the ending works because it's structurally satisfying. The last scenes of the book recall earlier scenes and rhyme with them. Structure is one of Rowling's best things.

Rowling now objects that the Ron and Hermione match lacks "credibility," meaning they wouldn't be a good couple long-term. But that's just silly. The one thing you learn in a college English class before "the author isn't always right" is that characters are not real people. What's going to happen to Ron and Hermione in the future after the book ends? Nothing. They only exist in the book. If Jo Rowling belatedly decides that they're maritally incompatible, so what? She depicted them as happily married in the last scene of the last book. Jo Rowling now imagines them as growing estranged and needing marital counseling. I imagine them growing more compatible as one of them matures and the other learns to live with his more benevolent quirks. I mean, that's what Jo Rowling's actual book suggests. Who am I going to believe? The person who put the words on the page? Or the words on the page themselves?

Rowling is talking about the characters in terms of psychological credibility. But the characters don't actually have independent psychologies. They're parts of a story. And the Ron and Hermione characters are structurally paired for hundreds and hundreds of pages. The plot provides the ending that it has prepared the readers for. Rowling complains that it was "the plot as she first imagined it" but it's the plot as she actually executed it, and she executed it pretty thoroughly. She started laying the trail of breadcrumbs for the Ron and Hermione ending from the start of the series. She didn't drop even a crouton on the Harry-loves-Hermione trail. The thought is never presented as crossing either character's mind. Providing a different set of romantic pairings would require her to rewrite all seven books. It would be like saying "I think Pride and Prejudice ends wrong. Elizabeth should be with Bingley and Jane should be with Darcy." Effecting that change would require you to change the whole book, start to finish.

If Rowling wants to rewrite her entire series to have a "better" ending, I'm sure her publisher will indulge her. But that doesn't mean it will be better. George Lucas re-edited Star Wars to reflect his second thoughts, but the rest of us are free to prefer his first version and most do. Han shot first, whether George likes it or not. He's the creator. He's not the decider.
The great W. H. Auden decided late in his career that some of his famous early poems needed to be improved, and that some should never again see the light of day. When rewrote his poem "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," he was mostly right; the rewritten lines are better poetry. When he decided that "Spain, 1937" should never be published again, he was wrong. "Spain, 1937" is a great poem, whether Wystan likes it or not. He doesn't get to tell the rest of us not to like it. The author gets to write the book. But that's the end of her job. She has to leave the reading to us.

cross-posted from Dagblog

1 comment:

Renaissance Girl said...

Nice Boomtown Rats reference. If that's what you were intending. I'm choosing to believe it was.