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Feminspire | April 21, 2014

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It’s Up to Harry Potter Fans, Not JKR, To Keep the Books Alive

It’s Up to Harry Potter Fans, Not JKR, To Keep the Books Alive

| On 10, Feb 2014

In the Dark Ages when the internet was unheard of, inaccessible, and downright clunky, fans of books or movies had no power. But if there ever was a fandom that was born in the age of the internet and shot to fame and power on its shoulders, it was the world of Harry Potter. We were the first to experience a series over the years as a whole community, not just consuming, but producing. We started fansites, made fanart, wrote fanfiction, penned columns, and spent years theorizing on deaths or plot twists. We criticized, we gushed, we squeed, we demanded answers. We spent hours trying to crack a puzzle on the author’s site for tiny hints of what was to come. In other words, we created a large part of online fandom culture and behavior.

emma-watson-wonderland And as part of that, we got used to having a voice, and a certain amount of influence. We now loudly demand more, and most of the time we get it. A Fantastic Beasts-based movie? Joy. A musical? Coming right up. An encyclopedia? Well, that might be awhile.

But maybe we should be careful what we wish for. Because we might actually get it–and now that we have it, it turns out that we don’t want it at all. This has been the case since last week, when an excerpt of an interview of Jo Rowling, conducted by Emma Watson, was promoted ahead of its release in the magazine Wonderland, which Watson is guest editing. And quite predictably, the fans and the media machine zoomed into action. J.K. ROWLING REGRETS RON AND HERMIONIE’S RELATIONSHIP, the headlines blared.

But now that the publicity machine has died down a bit, everyone seems to have forgotten that the actual interview has been released, and we can read the whole statement within context, courtesy of Mugglenet. Emma asks Jo about Hermionie, and the following conversation ensues:

I know that Hermione is incredibly recognisable to a lot of readers and yet you don’t see a lot of Hermiones in film or on TV except to be laughed at. I mean that the intense, clever, in some ways not terribly self-aware, girl is rarely the heroine and I really wanted her to be the heroine. She is part of me, although she is not wholly me. I think that is how I might have appeared to people when I was younger, but that is not really how I was inside.

What I will say is that I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. 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 with Ron.

Ah.

I know, I’m sorry, I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.

I don’t know. I think there are fans out there who know that too and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy.

Yes exactly. It was a young relationship. I think the attraction itself is plausible but the combative side of it… I’m not sure you could have got over that in an adult relationship, there was too much fundamental incompatibility. I can’t believe we are saying all of this – this is Potter heresy!

…In some ways Hermione and Harry are a better fit and I’ll tell you something very strange. When I wrote Hallows, I felt this quite strongly when I had Hermione and Harry together in the tent! I hadn’t told [Steve] Kloves that and when he wrote the script he felt exactly the same thing at exactly the same point.

…All this says something very powerful about the character of Hermione as well. Hermione was the one that stuck with Harry all the way through that last installment, that very last part of the adventure. It wasn’t Ron, which also says something very powerful about Ron. He was injured in a way, in his self-esteem, from the start of the series. He always knew he came second to fourth best, and then had to make friends with the hero of it all and that’s a hell of a position to be in, eternally overshadowed. So Ron had to act out in that way at some point.

But Hermione’s always there for Harry. I remember you sent me a note after you read Hallows and before you started shooting, and said something about that, because it was Hermione’s journey as much as Harry’s at the end.

…Oh, maybe she and Ron will be alright with a bit of counseling, you know. I wonder what happens at wizard marriage counseling? They’ll probably be fine. He needs to work on his self-esteem issues and she needs to work on being a little less critical… Ron’s used to playing second fiddle. I think that’s a comfortable role for him, but at a certain point he has to be his own man, doesn’t he?

So what does this all mean? A number of things. Jo never quite explains what she means by “wish fulfillment” for Hermionie. What’s clear is that she believes that Ron and Hermionie’s relationship wouldn’t have lasted, because they are “fundamentally incompatible.” She thinks that Harry and Hermionie are a “better fit.” But as the interview goes on, she reconsiders, and thinks that maybe it could work out.

This interview, even in the full context, is disturbing on a number of levels. Some people are of the opinion that once edited for the final time, and released to the world, books are no longer in the charge of their authors. Jo has never abided by that idea, partly because we the readers (and the media world) keep demanding more from her. But this quote from her isn’t just some small character detail. It’s a major shift, with major ramifications. And I’m not so sure that the ramifications are positive. As soon as I saw these headlines pop up, I groaned. Because if there’s anything this interview brings up that should be long left to rest, it’s the shipping wars of 2005, and that all-famed but ill-used word, delusional. We don’t need to dig that up again.

Here’s the thing: I have no ship in this fight. Because although I like seeing relationships unfold and romances blossom just as any other girl raised on romantic comedies and 90s Disney movies, I don’t think that it’s even half the story. There is so much more to life, to characters, and to books than who loves whom. And to be honest, most of me is insulted by these debates, by the idea that Hermionie has to “end up” with someone, and it should be one of the two boys, because what girl doesn’t fall in love with her guy friends? Why can’t we talk about how brilliant Hermionie is, and how driven, and how sacrificing, and how much she cares? How she was the one who willingly gave up her family for Harry’s mission, and did it in a completely rational way? It makes me mad that the romance is always what gets discussed, what grabs the headlines.

But it does grab the headlines, so here we are. And here’s the other problem I have with all the romance in Harry Potter. Because I am not much of a fanfic reader (except for The Shoebox Project, which you really must read if you haven’t, it’s a beautiful novel on the Marauders), I’ve accepted that Ron and Hermionie fall in love with each other, and that Harry and Ginny do as well. I have not, however, accepted the fact that they get married and live happily ever after, and send their five kids off to Hogwarts 19 years later.

Why? Because I refuse to think of the epilogue to Deathly Hallows as canon. I pretend that it does not exist.

Forgive me, Jo, but your inner fanfic writer took over that day, and turned out a very mediocre chapter. The writing is bad, the whole scene is packed with forced emotion, the jokes are terrible, and the name-dropping of the next generation is so obvious it hurts. I know why you wrote that chapter–you wanted to show that Harry, years later, had put the events of his childhood and teenage years behind, and was living a normal, perfectly happy, incident-free life after the war against Voldemort. And I get that, I really do. But that in itself is also a form of wish-fulfillment, and I’m starting to see now that wish-fulfillment isn’t just a one-off problem for you, it’s chronic. You wanted Harry to be happy, and you created for him your version of happiness. And it’s quite a limited, confined version.

As the author, Jo does get to write her story. The epilogue does exist. But I also have the right to be incredibly dissatisfied with it, to believe that the woman who gave us such great books and such great childhoods can do better. To quote Alyssa Rosenberg:

For a series of young adult novels, the most childish idea in the series is that everyone ends up with their first love, or ends up alone…There’s no question that some people do meet the loves of their lives as teenagers. But not everyone does. And Rowling’s refusal to acknowledge that has the effect of freezing a part of all of her characters in their adolescent years, at a moment when their emotions are most intense and their perspective on love is most exalted. That’s a mode of dealing with the world that’s in keeping with epic fantasy, with its absolutist approach to political conflicts. But it also means that there’s something flat at the heart of many of Rowling’s characters, an area in their lives that’s somehow immune from the kind of grand complexities that defines their approach to magic, to technology, to racialized politics, and even to their friendships. Maybe it’s meant to be an act of mercy, a place in the characters’ lives where something is simply a source of joy. But it’s a way of telling love stories that to me, does a small disservice to the characters that Rowling created, who can be selfish, temperamental, close-minded, hysterical, hypocritical, and beautifully silly.

This is exactly what has always bothered me. In this day and age, very few people meet their significant others in high school. Just because these four were dating when they were 17, that means they’ll automatically get married and have families? It doesn’t seem realistic to me. But maybe I’m too feminist, too modern, too metropolitan, and too chronically single to see anything else. My friend Michi Trota has reminded me that it does happen to a fair amount of people. And she points out that another fair amount of people have that expectation–that the person they love at 17 they will love for the rest of their lives. She’s right–there is definitely still an ideal to find your partner early on. Considering Jo’s generation, that’s probably an ideal that she grew up with, even if it wasn’t one that manifested itself in her personal life.

But she’s writing for a new generation, and such a thing is not half as common now. It’s far more common that members of the Potter Generation won’t marry until they’re in their thirties–and that’s if we choose to live a heterosexual monogamous lifestyle. But again, books are a reflection of their authors, and clearly Jo sees a happy marriage and parenthood as the ideal in a stable life. And that’s fine. Not having experienced that, I can’t speak to the joy of either. But if she wanted to create that, she could have made it real. A longer scene, one that is filled with less cheesy lines and name dropping, one that speaks to the simple pleasures of love instead, one filled with details, with realism, with plausible world-building.

Parents often say they just want their children to be happy. And as noble and understandable as that is, I often think that’s a shame. Because someone should–and will–experience more in a life than happiness. They should experience struggle and sadness as well as joy. I love when my friends are happy, but I’m even more pleased when my friends feel fulfilled and accomplished. Happy seems rather simple, rather unrealistic, rather flat. And in Jo’s maternal desire for her characters to end up happy, she has taken away their character. They arrive 19 Years Later with families fully-formed, adult personalities matured. Because Jo wanted them to. And for her, happiness means lack of tension or conflict or emotions that might make someone look bad.

Yes, writers can write what they want. But you’d be a fool to say that the richest and most popular author on the planet doesn’t have some kind of responsibility–not necessarily to her fans, but to the characters themselves. The fact that it’s just now occurring to her that a relationship she cemented with marriage might not at all work out is a problem. Additionally, the way that it didn’t occur to her that differences in personality could be worked through until the end of the interview is also a problem. It definitely speaks to the fact that for all her complexities in plot and character, Jo views romance very, very simply. Her wish fulfillment is the proof of that. And that wish fulfillment does a serious disservice, to Jo, her characters, and her story.

I imagine that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ended with Harry up in the headmaster’s office, talking to the portrait of Dumbledore. Because back then, the story was strong, the writing was believable, the characters were well-rounded, and their fates were in their own hands, not in a passing whim of the author. As John Green has said about books that he has finished:

They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.

I believe that we, the HP generation, the fandom, and all those who have ever read these books, deserve to hold our own canon. Let’s stop wishing for more details, and be content with what we have. Let us write fanfic, dream dreams, and fantasize about all the things we want. These books are in our hands now. And we have known for some time–we are a powerful force, to be reckoned with. We are the ones who keep these books alive.

epilogue-chapter-art

Written by Laura Koroski
Visit Challenge by Geek, her blog about feminism and everything geeky.

  • Rachel Dvorak

    No. You don’t get to write your own canon. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like fan fiction. And dreaming up little “what if” scenarios is all well and good. But we, the fandom, didn’t spend over twenty years writing pages and pages of backstory for each character in the series. Jo knows these characters inside and out. No matter how well we THINK we know them, or we imagine we know them; we will never know them the way that she does. We don’t get to lay claim to something someone else created because…well…because we really, really love it. What people should be doing, is using the Harry Potter universe as a helpful springboard for creating their own original works. Endlessly criticizing the words and ideas of authors you claim to “love” is not useful to anyone. If you think you can do better, prove it. Write your own novel, with your own characters taking bits of inspiration from Harry Potter and other books you love. Hopefully, soon, you’ll have your own fans trying to lay claim to the world that YOU created.

  • Rachel C.

    You can’t liken the Golden Trio’s relationship to high school. No where in high school do you routinely (and almost always at exam time) go up against an evil who has every intent to murder you and all you stand for. They didn’t just grow up together, they fought a war together, became outlaws together, killed, cried, and became renowned together. It would make sense for them to feel so strongly about each other as they share the same nightmares, laughs, and secrets that no other outsider could hope to experience. So it doesn’t disappoint me in the least that the pairings fell how they did, I’m sure the bond of everything they went through in those impressionable years will be enough to tie them together until death. Now whether the marriages are successful is a different matter entirely.

  • Alexandra

    This is a very beautifully written and thought-provoking article. I hadn’t thought of any of this before – and I’m glad that I’ve stumbled upon it now, now that I am more emotionally ready for this sort of discussion (If I had read this when I first finished the books I would have been distraught.) Thanks for bringing attention to all that you’ve covered in this.