Hey, Massive readers! I am Peri Miller, a third year communications student based in Albany. Welcome to Booked In, where I’ll be offering my take on books and book related topics.
Once a book has been published and hits shelves the world over, does it fully belong to the author anymore? Which takes precedence: intent or interpretability? The “Word of God,” as it were, or the perception of the masses?
This a particularly sticky subject of high and heated debate for decades. Many might be aware of the “Death of the Author” concept, named for the 1967 Roland Barthes essay of the same name, which essentially posits a method of interpretation wherein the author is irrelevant. The book and the author are entirely separate entities. “Word of God” is when the creator of a work retroactively offers additional information about the world, plot, or characters of the story. Whether or not one believes in Death of the Author is what determines just how ‘canonical’ that Word is.
I’m sure the example I’m going to address will be unsurprising. Recently, it seems I can’t go near any internet news feeds without seeing something about Harry Potter—more specifically, some new snippet of info dropped from J.K. Rowling’s twitter into the hungry proverbial mouths of dedicated Potterheads. Rowling is one of the most relevant contemporary figures with regards to DotA and Word of God. Why? Simply because she can’t leave her own creation alone. Sure, many of the addendums and factoids about the series and its world are interesting. But, just because the author said it, does that make it unequivocally true within the bounds of the pages of the books?
The first and perhaps most notable Revelation de Potter was the 2007 reveal that Dumbledore was, in fact, gay. The reveal triggered a wide range of reactions, from support and kudos to accusations of a publicity stunt. The claimed intention of the reveal was to spread the message of sexuality having no bearing on one’s personality, strength of character, or brilliance—a good, noble, and true message, to be sure. Or it would be, at least, were it at all present within the main text or subtext of any of the seven books.
Alas, ‘tis not. It makes sense, yes, that Dumbledore is gay, when the evidence is examined in such a context. But the only reason it’s accepted as canonical is because of the Word of God—the creator popping in ex post facto to say, hey, by the way, he’s gay. Well, okay. That’s all well and good if you believe that the author has the ultimate authority over the interpretation of their text. Intent over interpretation. Perhaps, however, the reader is the one with the authority. Interpretation over intent; the text completely divorced from the author. Books are written to be read, after all. Dumbledore being homosexual is, then, merely one interpretation. I have no doubt that Rowling wrote Harry Potter intending Dumbledore to be gay. But honestly, with what evidence exists within the text, he could just as easily be sporting a lizard tail under his robes.
If you haven’t gathered already, I’m of the belief that if an author wants a particular aspect of plot or character to be accepted as unambiguous truth, they should make it explicit within the book(s). Otherwise, all justifiable interpretations are fair game. With regards to Dumbledore (and other retroactive sexuality “reveals”) a definitive in-text disclosure would have created a more powerful—and undeniable—message of acceptance.
Instead, it’s all up to the reader: a choice between the Death of the Author or their Word of God as gospel.