Monday, October 22, 2007

Why J.K. Rowling is no authority on Dumbledore's sexual orientation

Contrary to her recent attention-grabbing revelation, J.K. Rowling doesn't know any more about the secret life of Professor Dumbledore than careful readers of her Harry Potter books do. Maybe you saw this AP article over the weekend:

Albus Dumbledore, master wizard and Headmaster of Hogwarts, is gay. J.K. Rowling, author of the mega-selling fantasy series that ended last summer, outed the beloved character Friday night while appearing before a full house at Carnegie Hall.

After reading briefly from the final book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," she took questions from audience members.

She was asked by one young fan whether Dumbledore finds "true love."

"Dumbledore is gay," the author responded to gasps and applause.

Nonsense. Unless she decides to write Book Eight, Ms. Rowling has missed her chance to impart any new information about any of the Harry Potter characters. If the series is truly at an end, then the author no longer possesses the authority to create new thoughts, feelings, and realities for those characters.

Sure, authors "know" many things about their characters that don't ever make it into their novels. J. K. Rowling may have had it in her mind that Dumbledore is gay, or that he eats Fruit Loops for breakfast every morning or that he secretly loves NASCAR and country music--but unless the reader sees or can logically assume those things are true, they aren't true, and they never can be. If something is not true inside a book--that is, in the world and time of the story--then the author can't make it so after the fact.

When a book is closed, its characters no longer exist. Oh, they might live in readers' memories and imaginations, but they can't do or say or be anything more or less than what they were seen to do and say and be inside the book. Which means J.K. Rowling is no more an authority on Dumbledore's sexual orientation than her readers are.


Pattie said...

I sort of wondered the same thing, Brenda. This has been all over the blogosphere the past couple days, too, and it's interesting the different perspectives.

PS: I liked your latest book! :)

Anonymous said...

So glad i read this article... I'd been feeling uncomfortable about JKRs latest revelations (about dumbledore AND others) and now that you have put it into words so persuasively, I absolutely agree with you.

JKR has said that when she reads books she likes to feel that the author really knows everything about that world. And to a point i agree. I also enjoy rereading many of her novels with a different point of view knowing the ending (eg knowing Sirius is innocent in POA). It's similar to rereading Jane Austin's "Emma" in a different light once you know the ending. But author revelations outside the book just feel like cheating somehow.

Anonymous said...

What you say may or may not be true. But to the millions of young readers who have loved and accepted Harry Potter it will be as J.K. Rowling has stated "Dumbledore is gay." It's just another step towards acceptance to that type of a very attractive way...I mean, think about his character...who he is, what he represents...and despite the fact that I've always be firmly against the Harry Potter was a clever move on her part...because so many people are endeared to will make it more easily accepting (being gay). But for us Christians it should firmly draw the line...I'm glad she made such a bold sets Harry Potter apart from the beloved Lord of the Rings books.


Brittanie said...

Do you think she did this to make up for the fact her books have been in recent history referred to as having Christian elements?

Anonymous said...

I think being attached to J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis's works would be an honor, even for people who don't believe like they did.

In my opinion, if that was her intent, she was very successful. But there has always been bold and clear differences between her books and those of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis...for instance, there is dark occultism witchcraft involved in Rowling's books...a practice which has soared among youth since the publication of the Harry Potter books. You will not find that in the Lord of the Rings books.


Neal said...

Well said Brenda! It was clearly a statement just made to generate publicity, which of course worked. She must need to boost her book sales. My immediate reaction was "so what?"

Anonymous said...

You know it is hard to reconcile the fact that these things are not supposed to matter to an enlightened new world, yet for some reason people feel compelled to highlight sexual orientation at every turn. Since it was not relevant to the story line it seems to me to add no value to the story or the character.

It is a shame that these kinds of issue have to be injected in to everything these days, who really cares what the orientation of any of the characters are outside the story line?

Karina Fabian said...

OK, so he's gay. And how did she portray him?
--Living a chaste life.
--Loving children as children and not sexual objects.

Hi love life was a non-issue then and should really stay a non-issue now. That a reporter thought to ask (or was directed to ask)says a lot about how society needs to find scandal--even in fictional characters.

Karina Fabian
editor, Infinite Space, Infinite God

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, Pattie. I'm delighted to know that you enjoyed my book.

[Anonymous #1 wrote] JKR has said that when she reads books she likes to feel that the author really knows everything about that world.

That sounds a little silly to me, Anonymous. Since the author is creating that world, of course she knows everything about it. The trick for an author is not to thoroughly describe her story-world, but simply to make the reader believe, for a little while, that that world is real. That can actually be accomplished by providing very few details. A story becomes real to the reader when the author has skill enough to know which details to give the reader, and when, and how.

Anonymous #2, #3, Brittanie, and Neal: I believe Rowling's "disclosure" was simply a bid for more attention. Here's another excerpt from the AP article:

Not everyone likes her work, Rowling said, likely referring to Christian groups that have alleged the books promote witchcraft. Her news about Dumbledore, she said, will give them one more reason.

That's not a direct quote, but it does sound like she's hoping to stir up some more controversy.

Anonymous #4 (oh, how I wish you nice people would save me some confusion by making up names!) and Karina, you're right that this is a non-issue. But Rowling certainly accomplished her goal, which was to whip up more discussion about her books. She is not a stupid woman.


Becky said...

Well said, Brenda! When I read that in the news, I was like, "Why now? Why reveal such a thing now AFTER the series has supposedly ended?"

I think you're absolutely right about books needing these things IN the framework of the actual story, or the point is moot. That aspect non-existent. The story stands and falls on what it contains in it at the time of publishing.

I think it's also a little of all these things the others have mentioned, as well. JKR is shameless about trying to grab attention for her books, which is silly in light of the sales figures for them, and few authors coming close to such figures. She's not exactly in the poorhouse, either, so it's rather odd that she'd suddenly want her books to be identified within this context.

It's like this strange afterthought that leads me to believe she must have a hidden agenda. Is she outing her character as gay to gain a following from that camp, or having a bit of writer's remorse that she didn't have a 'courtesy' gay character so that people will regard her work as politically correct and properly 'tolerant'? I doubt it was any pressure from her editor or publisher this late in the game. This is a personal issue for her.

Personally, I don't feel her work belongs in the same honorable category as the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While JKR is a talented story crafter in her own right, and judged by many to be a great in our current time, in my mind, Tolkien and Lewis will always be set apart from ALL the rest because their books were decades ahead of their times. They deserve their own unique category, as they were borne of a unique era in history, the product of vivid imaginations drenched in high scholarship, uncommon brilliance and well honed critical analysis done over years and years in countless, lengthy meetings in and around the hallowed halls of Cambridge.

And that's my two cents on the matter.

Anonymous said...

I can't see why you think it wasn't true inside the book. I can't say I'd wondered about Dumbledore's sexuality as I read Harry Potter, but I had wondered about his relationship with Grindelwald - why Dumbledore had been taken in by him, why it had taken him so long to confront him, how he had eventually defeated him.
Being told that Dumbledore was gay made sense of that relationship for me, so I think a more intelligent reader could have gathered it from the text.
As to whether it's a non-issue - for me, it genuinely is. It could only be an issue, in fact, if you accept there's something wrong with being born with a same-sex sexual orientation.

Brenda Coulter said...

I can't see why you think it wasn't true inside the book.

Marianne, I have never read any of the Harry Potter books. I simply took Ms. Rowling's statement and her audience's reaction at face value. She--and they--appeared to believe she was imparting new information. Note how widely the "revelation" has been reported and commented on. Note also what Ms. Rowling said about some Christians now having another reason to hate the books. Apparently, while some HP readers might have wondered about Dumbledore's sexuality, they couldn't have known.

And to clarify: I have no interest in discussing homosexuality on this blog. My post was about the appropriateness (if you will) of authors supplying any additional information on their fictional characters outside of the book.

Fans who clamor for more may enjoy that sort of thing, but I don't think it' fiction.


Margo Carmichael said...

Hi, Brenda, well, fiction or reality, I worry, what example does it set for the children? The same day she said that, JK said she wasn't sure about her beliefs. So maybe she's totally unaware of the warning in Deuteronomy 18, that wizards will not enter the Promised Land. I blogged about it the other day, if you'd like to see it:

Brenda Coulter said...

Margo, I haven't read the Harry Potter books and I don't want to get into a discussion on whether they're harmful to readers. Again, my post was about Ms. Rowling's attempt to add something to her story after she finished telling that story.

Will, I'm sorry, but I felt it best to delete your comment with the link to that risque video. I'm sure you meant only to amuse, but I believe a lot of NRJW readers would have been offended. Hope you understand.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Rowling's comment about her character was unnecessary and unwanted. It was a book directed towards children (although it had a large adult audience) and there was never any mention of sex much less sexual orientation of characters. I don't quite understand why she felt the need to stress that is how she perceived of her Dumbledore character in her own mind when NO ONE I know who has read the book ever thought that about him or noticed any actions or statements that would lead a reader to believe this was something vital to understanding Dumbledore's motivations.

Why she felt the need to generate more sales or controversy is beyond me. Hasn't she had the limelight for long enough?

I agree, Brenda, the series is over. She has no right to 'add' things to her book now that is has been written. The story has been told. The end.

Adam E. Luther said...

A buddy of mine and I have had numerous conversations over Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and other "controversial" books, including the soon-to-be- released Nicole Kidman film "The Golden Compass" which is loosely based on a book series that questions the existence of God. For example many have interpreted that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a battle of good vs. evil, with Christian overtones, when apparently Tolkien never commented as such and since his passing never will.

Some believe, like your article, that when the book is closed there can be no further "interpretation" even with the classics. My friend's one caveat is unless the author comments after the book has been written, and thus reveals his/her intentions and/or true meaning.

J.K. Rowlings comments, if taken at face value, would therefore substantiate my friend's point of view.

I try to think of it as a song lyric before the obligatory accompanying video became all but mandatory for the artist thus a visual "interpretation" of the audible song lyric.

The Dylans' and Springsteens' of the world attempt to withhold the meaning behind the lyric and leave the song's meaning up to the lister.

Brenda Coulter said...

Adam, I'm of the firm opinion that once a book is published, the writer's opportunity to communicate message and meaning has expired. At that point, it is the reader who decides whether a book is "good" or not, based on the meanings and messages she has taken from it.

I have believed that since the day years ago when I told my aunt a joke and she didn't laugh. I explained the joke so she would understand how hysterically funny it was. When she gave me only a weak smile, it dawned on me that once I had told the joke, it was up to her to finish it in her own mind and decide whether or not it was funny. Even after I explained it, she didn't love the joke as much as I did.

A writer's comments about a published novel can be interesting, but when I have already experienced the book, they don't mean a lot to me.

But as you point out, there are two schools of thought on that.

Anonymous said...

I thought Rowling's "revelation" was a ploy for publicity and nothing more. I never once thought about Dumbledore's sexuality. It simply didn't occur to me. I think what made me angry was the assumption that the only way he'd ever experienced real love was in a sexual sense. He loved his mother and sister greatly. He loved his students and colleagues at Hogwarts. Sexual/romantic love is not a prerequisite to knowing what love is. That's why I think it was a stunt - a ploy to cause an uproar. I don't care about Dumbledore's sexuality. Not a whit. As long as he is a great teacher and wizard, his sexual preference is immaterial. He still knew about loyalty, friendship, the power of good and evil, and how to make the correct choice. That is all that mattered to me as a reader, and still does.

nk said...

I'm sorry, but this is seriously really.. stupid and pedantic. You're just making up silly boundaries. It IS her story, and she could write down new info at any time, which she has, in those little extra books she's written. There's one about Quidditch and one about the magical creatures in the HP world, and I hear she's working on a sort of encyclopedia that's going to have lots of info about the world and characters that she didn't use in the books, so it's very possible she'll talk about Dumbledore's sexuality in there.

And as for what other people are saying, about it being a publicity act, I don't think that's true either. Have you guys never written, never made up characters? It's very easy for personality traits like this to just develop and become a part of the character. It's an organic process. Also, it doesn't seem like she'd just take a "normal" character that she'd developed and lived with for years and stick gay on 'im for publicity. She was thinking about this before the last book came out, I read an article that quoted her on it.

AND as for talking about his sexuality in the books. When the hell would that even come up? He never talks about his personal life to Harry. The book makes a point of saying that. And in face, she doesn't talk about the sexual- or even the family-lives of ANY of the teachers. Because it's all from Harry's POV, isn't it? And who thinks about their teachers in that way? Besides, the teachers' lives pretty much revolve around the school anyway, especially in the later books. They don't have time for things as petty as a romantic life.

Anonymous said...

Just my opinion:

When the impact of a book goes beyond the page, you know there's something great present. JK might not have included the information blatantly in the text of the HP series, but just the fact that she knows this information reveals her true professionalism, talent, and ability to create a fully realized story.

It's these small gems of information and detail that sets HP apart from the rest of the world library.

Besides ... she revealed this information because a fan asked about his love life ... she merely revealed that she always thought of him as gay. Can you imagine if she had answered, "I don't know"?

Brenda Coulter said...

she merely revealed that she always thought of him as gay. Can you imagine if she had answered, "I don't know"?

Yes, actually. I can.

What if Rowling had said she thought of Dumbledore as a vegetarian? That would be an equally pointless comment because his eating habits--just like his sexual habits and desires, are not mentioned in the books and have nothing to do with the story.

At least I'm assuming there are no references to Dumbledore's diet in the books. Excuse me if that was a poor example.