The Death of the Author is probably something you’ve heard about before. It’s a common idea in the world of literature and, even if you don’t buy into the premise, it challenges you to think about the importance of the author in the process of reading and interpreting their work once it has been published. Whether or not people agree with it as a concept, the Death of the Author is a contentious discussion that needs to be had: by writers, readers and critics alike. So what is the Death of the Author? Does it have a rival school of thought? How much should we buy into it as a concept? Well, I’ll try my best to answer those for you, and give my opinion on what relationship a writer should have with their work. So bear with me! You’re in for a lot of information!
What is the Death of the Author?
Well, in short, it’s a theory about how people should read books, which has been extended to apply to pretty much all media. According to this theory, once a writer has finished producing and publishing their work, they lose all control they have over the way in which it is read and interpreted. Essentially, the author becomes “dead” to you, as you ignore all of their comments or intentions and create interpretations of your own.
Their additions to the story do not matter for Death of the Author if they aren’t down in print. There’s no point in an author trying to add details through Twitter (I’m looking at you, J.K. Rowling) because, to people who support this school of thought, those additions are no more than fan theories. People who agree with the Death of the Author argue that it is essential for being able to form your own ideas about the media around you, instead of simply relying on what the author tells you they’re trying to say.
Of course, there are other, more nuanced approaches on how to use the Death of the Author when you are reading. Some people argue that it is actually the writer’s role as a writer that dies once their story is released to the public. They would then become basically just another consumer, so opinions on their work would matter no more than yours or your friend’s.
The good thing about this approach is that it allows you to think and create something entirely for yourself. Instead of relying on the writer to think for you, you’re encouraged to fill in gaps independently and come to terms with the fact that sometimes, you’re not going to get all the answers you want.
The Death of the Author encourages people to engage with a story in an active way, instead of just passively consuming. As a result, we can thank it for the creation of amazing fanfictions that shake things up and change or add to the original story in exciting ways. Heck, to some extent we can even praise this theory for adaptations of a story into other mediums, such as films, theatre plays and TV shows. By killing off the author, people are able to justify creating their own art based on their favourite work and making it something that belongs to everyone.
But isn’t that just plagiarism?
There is a fine line between engaging with a story and outright stealing, mainly whether or not you make money from someone else’s ideas without their permission. Fanfictions and fan-made films are supposed to be non-profit and designed to help us to enjoy the work in new and different ways. They aren’t supposed to be made to replace the need to buy the original source material, but rather for people who have already seen or read it.
The best kind of fan-made material doesn’t step on an author’s toes because it encourages people to read the original or (even better) it only makes sense if you’ve engaged with the thing that inspired it. Basically, in the theory of the Death of the Author, you’re not trying to steal from the writer by making their work your own. You’re not supposed to try to make money from what they’ve created or anything like that. Your interpretations are supposed to be for you and made to enjoy what they made better with people who are interested. Don’t take this as me giving you permission to go and plagiarise from your favourite stories!
Is there an alternative?
Yes! The opposite stream of thought is called the Authorial Intent theory. It suggests that a writer is actually completely in control of how people read their story, and that we as readers have no right to make theories if the writer doesn’t approve of them. According to this theory, the writer is the ultimate authority for their own work, so if you want answers, you can always ask the author (provided they’re able to answer your questions).
People who agree with this will tell you that the writer’s intentions for a piece of work matter a hell of a lot more than anything you could think of, and so if the writer has said that they didn’t intend for their story to be read in a certain way, you’re wrong for thinking that at all. Of course, just like with the Death of the Author, there are more sophisticated approaches to this (some of which feed into my own views on the subject). For example, a lot of people who agree with Authorial Intent will argue that everything is uncertain until the author confirms or denies it, so you can think what you want of the things the author has kept their mouth shut on. You won’t be wrong for thinking those things, but they would argue that it is ridiculous to go against the writer’s personal views.
The good thing about this view is that it offers people the chance to gain closure from their favourite stories and allows them to think of the author’s universe as a real thing that can be cracked and understood. Relying on the author for facts encourages interaction between creators and their consumers, and means that people will have somewhere to turn if they want to understand the story better.
It can actually be pretty important if people are interpreting a book in a negative way: if my story was being picked up by racist or sexist people, I would certainly want to clarify that their interpretation has nothing to do with my intentions so that my more impressionable readers aren’t influenced in a negative way. In my opinion, the difference between the Death of the Author and Authorial Intent is pretty much the same as the difference between philosophy and science: both ask questions about the universe, but the purpose of science is to find facts (like Authorial Intent) whereas philosophy focusses more on ideas and different points of view (like the Death of the Author).
So what are the bad points?
Both of these theories fall flat. Neither of them works when it comes to trying to question media and the implications in the real world because they’re just too darn simplistic. However, let me give you some information on why each one individually is not enough.
The Death of the Author
For the Death of the Author, it means that people are quick to dismiss anything the writer says and gives room for negative and damaging interpretations of a story to circulate. People are quick to criticise and demonise authors for attempting to correct old issues, simply because it’s “too little too late”, and authors who have spent a lot of time working on their writing lose a significant amount of involvement in all discussion. When a writer wants to fill in some gaps, they’re forced to publish a sequel or a prequel as opposed to being able to add to the story’s lore in a more organic way.
That’s if the people even accept the additional published material in the first place! Some Death of the Author supporters will dismiss anything that was published after the author initially laid down their pen, which leaves authors in a sticky situation if they want to allow their characters and universe to grow. It can be quite narrow-minded when people misunderstand this theory: people start to dismiss an author’s comments and jump to the Death of the Author theory as soon as an author destroys their personal head-canons.
That was actually seen with the possible Sirius Black reveal on Twitter. J.K. Rowling answered some questions in a tweet, but didn’t give any information on which questions she was referring to. This led to many of her followers believing that she was claiming that Sirius Black is not gay, which led to a massive hate campaign against her. People began saying “J.K. Rowling is over” and generally claiming that a single character’s sexuality ruined the whole story.
The thing that I noticed the most about many of these critics is that they jumped to the Death of the Author argument as soon as it suited them (quite literally saying she was “over”). If they were really long-time supporters of the theory, something she said out of print wouldn’t matter so they wouldn’t feel so outraged. However, with their personal head-canons in jeopardy, they quickly jumped on the bandwagon of killing her off and claiming he will always be gay to them regardless of what she says. It was a coping mechanism designed to make them feel a little better about the fact that she disagreed with their interpretations of the character’s sexuality. That does nothing other than make the followers seem spoilt and hate-mongering, which is actually really damaging for the theory at large.
There is an even bigger problem with this kind of reaction, though: while it does spark up a lot of debate about and interest in her poor LGBTQ+ representation, taking Rowling’s authority away from her means that she can now hide behind the Death of the Author as a way to avoid having to speak about the lack of diversity and other issues in Harry Potter: “It’s not her fault you read it that way. You could have interpreted any one of the characters as part of the LGBTQ+ community.”
It’s much more difficult to criticise Rowling for her lack of LGBTQ+ characters if she’s, metaphorically speaking, dead. She can’t respond and change her ways if you’re not giving her the chance to engage with and offer more information about her characters and the general Wizarding World universe. If the author is dead to you when you’re reading their story, sure, you’d be free to interpret every character as how ever you wanted, but there would also be no problem with diversity or any other issue unless you were personally racist, sexist or had generally bad views. It would be down to you to interpret the story well, so it would take all the responsibility of adding good messages and representation out of the writer’s hands.
In terms of the Authorial Intent theory, there is also a lot wrong with it. It means that readers don’t engage with the story as much as they could and results in them not making associations between the text and the world around them unless the author does it for them. If people weren’t able to put their own interpretations upon a text and were forced to rely on the author for their interpretations, the work would pretty much cease to have any sort of cultural relevance as soon as the time in which the author was writing had passed.
If we relied on Shakespeare’s personal explanations to dictate how we read Hamlet, we wouldn’t only be unable to read the story meaningfully at all because of the lack of information about what Shakespeare thought. We would also not really care about Hamlet, because the issues Shakespeare was personally commenting on would have passed centuries ago. The ability to think about your favourite stories for yourself is the thing that keeps them alive. As soon as they no longer have relevance and you no longer make your own interpretations, stories lose their ability to comment on the issues we’re facing today, and you lose your ability to be a free-thinking person.
What I mean by “free-thinking person” can actually be described using the same Sirius Black incident. While there was an angry Twitter-mob out for Rowling’s blood for possibly ruining some of her readers’ personal head-canons about Black, there were a substantial number of fans who simply accepted what Rowling said and moved on with their lives. They didn’t question it because if Rowling said it, that’s all that’s important (if she even did say it to begin with).
The implications of Sirius being straight and Dumbledore being the only gay person in a cast of over two hundred characters never really seemed to cross their minds. When it did, it was often to say “well, that’s just how the story is. Diversity wasn’t a big issue when Rowling wrote the books and you should write your own stories if you want gay characters. This is her story.” The problem with this is huge for two reasons: one, it means they’re not applying the issues of diversity in their worlds to Harry Potter and are acting like it was written in a vacuum. Two, they seem to forget that Rowling would be nothing without her readers.
The reason so many people, myself included, dismiss Authorial Intent as a theory is how much of a passive reader it makes you. If you spend your time being a sycophant and simply accepting something because the writer says so, you’re basically allowing other people to think for you (which is particularly Orwellian) and you’re forgetting that you matter as a reader. The most important thing to remember about stories is they aren’t just stories, as I mentioned in a previous blog post.
Literature, films, TV, plays, opera, songs… none of these things were written in a vacuum and they all reflect the way people think. It’s our jobs as readers to think about what the point of the story is: what the writer is trying to say to us and how they’re saying it. You can’t escape this because it happens subconsciously whether you like it or not. The difference is that if you buy into Authorial Intent, you’re allowing the author to try to convince you without giving up much of a fight or making your own mind up. That can be really dangerous — especially if you’re reading something like Mein Kampf. Not buying into something just because an author says so arms you against being influenced so easily by propaganda. You won’t be completely safe, but you will build up a tolerance.
So clearly neither of these theories hit the nail on the head. Clearly, they both have glaring issues that we need to reconcile. We need a middle ground.
What do we do then?
So I, a student who has spent way too much time thinking about this, am going to take it upon myself to come to a conclusion. As someone studying history, I think that my subject has great merits when it comes to coming up with a great middle-ground theory. As a history student, it is my job to fall somewhere in the middle of the Death of the Author and Authorial Intent without flip-flopping between the two when it suits me. You see, historians have three jobs:
- Interpret the facts you have.
- Fill in the gaps with educated predictions.
- Assess the significance of that particular historical event.
We make sure we consider the historical facts and try our best to ignore people’s personal biases and opinions. We base our predictions and assessments on the evidence we have and come to our own conclusions afterwards. If new information comes our way (a new historical document is found or they excavate the bones of an old king for you to find out that he did actually have scoliosis so Shakespeare wasn’t completely wrong about his hunchback), we can’t just ignore it!
If we did, we would be laughed out of academia. In fact, if we let other people’s biases affect our own readings really obviously, we’d be laughed out of academia, too! We aren’t supposed to pick and choose the information that suits our pre-made argument, but instead, we’re supposed to assess all of the information we have and come up with a conclusion based on that. If we get more facts, we’re happy! We’ll assess it and see if it changes our interpretation at all. So that’s why I’m going to call my theory the Historian’s Approach.
How does the Historian’s Approach work for media? They’re completely different subjects, after all! Well, before I get into this, I suggest turning the kettle on and making yourself a nice tea — or even a coffee. This might take a while to explain!
The Historian’s Approach
This particular approach is about analysing the story you’re reading and being able to differentiate between facts and the author’s intentions. Rather than simply dismissing everything that a writer says post-novel, we should be able to see the difference between them providing more information about the story and trying to force their own views and interpretations upon us. This is helpful because it enables an author to engage in an interesting dialogue with their fans, whilst also giving people the room to have their own ideas and thoughts about the story.
Basically, the author can be held accountable for their actions and creations, but there is still some responsibility being placed on us as readers to read the text in an appropriate way. It is a much more balanced view on the relationship between the creator and their consumers, in my opinion, as it means that both are significantly important in creating a sense of what a story means for our everyday lives.
How to think about this theory is tricky, so I’m going to break it down for you.
Facts Vs Intentions
First thing’s first, we need to be able to separate the factual information we’ve been given from the interpretations the writer has placed on it. If you studied history at secondary school, you might be familiar with the necessity of having to analyse a source’s nature, origin and purpose. Basically, all sources are interesting and provide some information about the historical period, but it is important to be able to separate the facts from the intentions. Every single piece of writing has a bias, and being able to identify the biases in a historical source arms us with a much better view of the period in question.
The same applies to the stories you read. Writers create a story and use that to express their views and feelings, whether they’re aware of it or not. So it is important to be able to distinguish what is factual information in a story from what isn’t. Among many other pieces of information you might encounter in a story, these things are all facts:
- Physical appearances.
- Character motivations.
- Character emotions.
- What characters definitely thought.
- What characters said.
- What characters did.
You might be a little confused with “what characters definitely thought”, but think about it this way: if I asked you to tell me what you thought when you read that list, you could tell me factually what crossed your mind at that moment. It is simply a fact that you had that though, even if it was in your own mind. You can’t take it back whether you actually believe that single thought or not. It’s almost the same as saying out loud, but you’re the only one capable of hearing it first-hand. Complicated stuff, I know!
So with that all in mind, what do the writer’s “intentions” mean? Well, it’s probably the easiest thing to explain and the most difficult thing to fully understand and put into practice. Intentions are simply what the writer means when they put their story together in that particular order, using those characters and those particular words. It’s the things that they want you to think about but rarely ever say explicitly. It’s the things that are left implied in a story and are used to comment on events and ideas present in the real world. This can apply to whether you think the characters are nice or not, whether war is necessary and many other things. You don’t have to agree with the author on their political views or interpret their story in the way they want you to in order to enjoy their work.
Severus Snape is a great example of this, but if you haven’t seen the whole of Harry Potter, I suggest skipping to the next paragraph. Rowling can tell us what Snape’s motivations were when he was doing the things he was doing. She can tell us that it was a fact that he was working for the good side all along. She can tell us that he was in love with Lily and that he wanted to help Harry for his mother’s sake. Those are all factual details that she has personal control over in the Harry Potter universe.
What she doesn’t have control over is how we react to those facts personally, even though she may try. Writers use emotive language and choose when they give us the information they do in order to affect our interpretations of the story. In Harry Potter, Rowling chose to reveal all of Snape’s good qualities after his death so that we felt more sympathetic towards him. The intention there was to make us feel as though his sacrifices redeemed him for how he bullied the students in his care. However, the way we feel about him is personal to us and we don’t need to accept her intentions just because she’s the author. The facts might never change, but we, as individuals, like and dislike different people depending on our personal circumstances, views and personalities. All she can do is give us the facts and hope that we come to the conclusion she planned.
This is the same as the old idiom: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink”. An author can use facts and literary devices to lead us to their intentions, but it is up to us whether we buy into them or not. I mean, even when characters tell us outright what they think of something, we are allowed to agree or disagree with their opinion, even if we can’t dispute the fact that they think that in the first place. However, if someone tells you their sexuality, it would be insensitive, rude and ridiculous for you to say “I don’t care what you think. You’re gay and that’s what I’ll always believe”. You may have some doubts about whether or not they’re telling the truth, but those are beside the point. You have no right to tell someone they’re wrong about their own sexuality in real life, so you have no right to tell an author they’re wrong about their own character’s sexuality, either. That takes the Sirius Black “J.K. Rowling is over” mob out of commission.
Filling in Gaps
History as a subject is full of knowledge gaps that can be ridiculously frustrating if you’re completely invested in the period you’re studying. There are many reasons why this might happen. Sometimes, sources might be euphemistic, for example when they’re talking about the possible homosexuality of James VI & I. This might be because of the lack of language to discuss LGBT matters at the time, or because it was dangerous to speculate that a king’s sexuality was outside of the accepted conventions. Other times, it could be because of the truth behind the quote “history is written by the victors”.
There is a plethora of information about the actions of monarchies and nobilities all around the world because they were usually ones with the education to write, the legal ability to express themselves and the money to afford paper. More often than not, however, it is because facts get lost through the passage of time (if they were ever written down in the first place). Either way, historians are given the task of gap-filling. They are called to use the information they have to make educated guesses on what they think is behind the absence.
Good authors will almost always leave gaps deliberately. They may do this for many reasons. For one, authors like Derek Landy show that they’re aware of the power they could have, and then choose to empower their readers by not dictating absolutely everything to them. This is a great thing for writers who want to allow their fans to be part of the creative process, being ambiguous so that readers produce their own content based on the original.
I can’t tell you how many different pieces of art based on Skulduggery Pleasant’s signature head tilt I viewed when writing this blog post, but I can tell you that every single one of them was different and gave me quite a bit of information about the artist because each one was the artist’s own personal version of Skulduggery. That makes me believe that Landy is ridiculously underrated as an author: he really realises the importance of a consumer’s ability to make a story their own.
Some things are better left unsaid in writing. As I mentioned in my blog post on exposition, over-explaining can run the risk of making it seem like you’re treating the audience like they’re stupid and you might take the fun and mystery out of your story if you say too much. Plus, authors might tap into your fear of the unknown by not telling you everything. Sometimes, gaps and ambiguity add to the sadness a story is trying to create. Knowing when to not say really does make you a better writer. As a reader, you need to be armed to deal with these gaps and know how they affect your interpretation of the story.
There are some important questions you need to ask yourself when confronted with gaps:
- Why has the writer chosen to leave this information out?
- Are there any other points in the plot which I can turn to in order to give me more information?
- Is there an obvious answer to what is missing?
- Can I get any clues from the way both the author and the characters react to this?
- Is it important that I come to a conclusion about the missing information?
If you don’t follow this thought process, you could be filling in the gaps with some really pointless, irrelevant and silly information. That is the difference between an intelligent, interesting theory and one that seems ridiculous in the canon of the story. The next time you watch a theory video on YouTube or talk about a theory with someone close to you, try thinking about how credible it is in the story. The more credible it is, the more intelligent and well-thought out it seems. That’s because you can really see that the theorist has gone to the source material for their information, just like any self-respecting historian would do. Whether or not we buy into it, the Pixar Theory seems ingenious because we can see that it considers the smallest plot point and doesn’t just appear out of nowhere.
Considering the Original Books as Ultimate Authority
Just as with the Death of the Author, the most important thing to do when using the Historian’s Approach is to consider the books, and only the books, as the ultimate authority. Anything the author says or produces after the publication of the originals is supplementary information and important, but also secondary to the authority. This is essential because it prevents the mishaps and issues that come with listening to the author’s interactions with the fans, particularly on the internet: they may sometimes contradict the existing material and you need to be able to either to reconcile this with educated guesses or prioritise one of the sources.
Of course, the books are a lot more reliable and constant, being down in print, than an author’s memory, which may suffer from an occasional lapse. Then, if the creator wants to change the material in the authority, they will have to reprint their books or make an official public announcement that there was an issue with some details in the original. That does resemble the Death of the Author and helps to establish the fans as just as important as the writer, saving them from a creator’s whims.
This saves you in a second way. Many readers will simply consider any information as canon if they like it, regardless of whether or not it fits the original canon. To refrain from getting confused and contradicting yourself, the Historian’s Approach arms you with the ability to be able to dismiss certain information as non-canon without seeming like you’re only doing it to suit yourself. With history, you have to be able to discredit a piece of information with the facts you have in order to dismiss it.
If you simply don’t like it and that’s the thing that makes you ignore it in your own critical analyses, your argument looks weak, and it makes you seem a lot less able to handle facts that throw you a curveball. The same is true of literature, and it is best to avoid this at all costs if you want your views to be taken seriously. The alternative is, therefore, using the ultimate authority (the books) to decipher what’s canon or not.
For example, I really disliked the Cursed Child as a script. The story seems silly and lacks the depth of the original Harry Potter books. The characters are difficult to relate to, and their whole journey seems far-fetched, even for a world with magic wands and flying, invisible horse creatures. I just couldn’t buy into it. Lucky for me, the creators of this particular play gave me a way out: the time travel laws. Harry Potter time travel has been well-established and, contrary to common belief, actually made a little bit of sense in the Prisoner of Azkaban.
You weren’t able to actually change time because it was a fixed thing in which you were either always supposed to go back in time at that moment, or you weren’t. Harry watched himself doing the patronus in the present even before he went back in time to do the patronus because things were always supposed to happen that way. It’s complicated, but makes sense and establishes why people couldn’t just go back in time and kill Voldemort: it would create a paradox whereby they would never have a reason to go back and kill him if they did go back and kill him.
But the Cursed Child messed up this time travel law, allowing Albus and Scorpius to go back in time to change some of the key events, particularly in the Goblet of Fire. To make matters worse, they only have a half-hearted explanation about magic progressing since Harry’s days to justify changing the very laws of physics that the universe goes by. So the universe of the Cursed Child doesn’t work the same way as it does in Harry Potter. If that isn’t a fair reason for claiming that they aren’t in the same canon, I don’t know what is! The discrepancies are absolutely appalling, so thank God I don’t have to accept them!
From there, any historian would ask themselves what the value of the writing was, even if it was factually incorrect. Everything is written for a reason, and so even lies have the ability to reveal a lot about their time period. So I did the same with the Cursed Child. I supposed that there was a reason it was authorised by Rowling herself and advertised on the very much canon Pottermore. So it was up to me to find the value and purpose of the play even if it has no logical, canonical value to the ultimate authority.
Based on the fact that it was about, not written by Rowling herself and that life pretty much goes back to the way things were in the beginning by the end of the play, I would come to the conclusion that it was pretty much an authorised fanfiction or “what if” scenario designed to allow Rowling to show people what would have happened if Harry had tried using the time-turner on Voldemort. Rowling has always condoned fanfiction and fan theories, after all! My conclusions were based on the evidence we know for sure and were used as a way of reconciling the errors between the authority and the play. If a piece of material has been published by (or with the blessing of) an author, it has a purpose even if it’s not factually true for their world.
Unrevealed and Unknown Facts
When you’re writing a story, do you think of every single detail in an hour? Do you have every letter planned out before you even set your pen to paper? The likelihood is that you don’t, and that the story evolves over time as you write it. Heck, you might even think of more details after you’ve finished writing and the story is on shelves! Maybe you won’t have space to include all of those details you’ve been sitting on for twenty years. You shouldn’t be criticised for thinking about your story and adding information as time goes on. These characters have most likely been with you for a long time, and it’s difficult to stop thinking about them.
Characters grow as we write them, and this has some similarities to how we grow as people. We aren’t born knowing everything about ourselves. Take sexuality, for example. While we’re all born with a sexuality in our futures that we can’t control, no one is born gay or straight because no one is born already capable of sexual attraction. By the time you’re a teenager, you begin to have an understanding of your sexuality because adolescence is the time when you discover sexual attraction.
It doesn’t matter how “effeminate” or “masculine” a child is because those are gender stereotypes that I’ll probably go into in another post. All that matters is that you eventually reach an age where you gain a sexual identity, and a complex sexuality. This remains undefined until you choose to identify it, and before you find out your own sexuality, you can hardly blame other people for making assumptions. I mean, you didn’t know, so how could anyone else?
As far as other people are concerned, you simultaneously have no known sexuality and the potential to have any one of them. That applies to most things about you. No one can know specific details without getting to know and understand you as a person. When it comes to writing, this is even more pronounced. Sure, you probably had a specific sexuality long before you were able to understand and come to terms with it. You also have to be funny or outgoing or dedicated before you describe yourself as those things. Characters, on the other hand, are thought into existence.
The more you think about them, the more of a presence they have and the more specific little character details they possess. Before a character has a sexuality, they have no sexuality. Before they have a personality, they have no personality. Both real people and characters need to be understood, but the difference is that people still have a personality whether you understand it or not. Authors write their characters into existence through a process of understanding and exploring.
That’s not to completely ignore the idea of a character who acts and speaks independently from the author. Thinking about your characters as people, and not as puppets to drive a plot, is a great way to make sure that you avoid making them say and do things that don’t fit their character. However, in order to make anything they do in character or out of character, you need to first think their personality into existence so you have something to work with. And just like real human beings, sometimes you’re able to think of a detail before you can come up with the specific name or definition of it. Sometimes you’re challenged to think of your characters in new and different ways and sometimes they evolve as you discover more about yourself.
I have a point here. The point is the issue of “retconning” characters and stories for a modern age. From a historian’s perspective, we’re supposed to look at two very different times when we’re exploring any historical period: the past and the present. Most of the time, when you’re coming up with your arguments and analyses, you’ll realise that a particular historical event means something new or different today; that it represents something now that no one from the time could have predicted or possibly even understood.
This is true of literature, too. In a world where gender as a concept is being challenged, a work like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando means something very different to what it meant even in the twentieth century. When writers get involved with current events and want to include the issues in the canon of their stories, why do people see that as so much of a problem? If a writer didn’t understand the full ramifications of race issues when they began writing, it is a good thing that they’re willing to engage with topics when they become more aware of them.
In particular, I’m talking about the ridiculous Death of the Author arguments made to try to discredit J.K. Rowling’s inclusion of a Korean woman as the snake, Nagini, to the canon of Fantastic Beasts. The people at the time hadn’t seen the film and I have my own issues now that I’ve actually seen it, but one of the biggest arguments used as a warped Death of the Author point was that Rowling was “retconning” the Harry Potter canon to “make herself seem more inclusive”. That’s ridiculous for many, many reasons.
For one, just because Nagini’s story was never relevant or revealed (I’m not sure why people ever thought that Harry would have any clue that his enemy’s snake used to be human, though it is severely hinted in the book nonetheless), it doesn’t necessarily even mean that this was a new inclusion. Rowling claimed to have been sitting on this idea for decades, and there is no reason not to believe her! She has already made it clear that she has way more details about her characters than she’s actually revealed, and that’s fair enough! You don’t get the space to talk about everything you want to in a book, or even seven. Pottermore also lacks a lot of details, and it is more than possible that she wanted the reveal to be a surprise when it did come out.
But even then. Even if she wasn’t sitting on this for twenty years, why would it matter? Why can’t she add to a character after the publication of her story? Why do people resort to ad hominem arguments about wanting to “seem diverse” to try to kill off Rowling when she actively attempts to engage with today’s issues? It’s a good thing that Rowling is willing to add to her cast when confronted with people asking about her lack of diversity. It’s a good thing that she’s building different races into her storyline.
Historians are aware that historical events can mean a lot to a modern audience. They’re aware that times change and so does the way in which we’re tasked to look at history. They’re aware of looking at old information with a new lens. If they weren’t, we wouldn’t have modern diagnoses of illnesses of old monarchs. So if the people who are supposed to be stuck in the past can look to the future, so can we.
Being Prepared for New Information
Historians and archaeologists are always finding new information as technology improves and we look for historical information in different places and in different ways. Archives can be explored more or archaeological sites can be excavated, just to mention two of the many ways in which things can change. Sometimes, these pieces of information really do shake up the historical narratives and force historians to engage with their facts in different ways.
Let’s take the bones of Richard III as an example. Before his bones were discovered in a car park in Leicester, there was a lot of contention regarding whether or not the king had a hunchback like he does in the Shakespeare play about him. Some historians believed that the detail was designed to make him seem more grotesque and inhuman in order to justify Henry VII’s takeover of the throne.
This was a fairly sustainable argument back then because, taking educated guesses into account, very little of the rumours of the time and Richard’s actions in the play were actually proved to be true. We don’t know if he did actually kill his nephews who disappeared in the Tower of London, there’s no proof that he said “my kingdom for a horse”, and there were tyrannical kings who ruled for a long time, so it seems unrealistic that he was so bad he needed to be usurped. So it’s likely that Shakespeare made up a lot of the events in his play to make the Tudors seem justified in taking over. Of course, back then it was fair enough to see his hunchback as yet another attempt to dehumanise Richard III and make him seem like a monster.
But then they discovered his bones and everything changed. Richard III actually did have quite a severe case of scoliosis, so the “hunchback” is impossible to avoid when you look at how curved his spine is. Suddenly, all the historical documents, textbooks and arguments saying that Richard probably didn’t have a hunchback seem outdated. They were good for the time, but things have moved on since then, and so should historians.
Even more importantly, failing to consider the bones in any further arguments would mean that it would be pretty easy to discredit you and make your arguments seem silly and unfounded. That’s because it’s not a historian’s job to alter the facts or ignore them, but rather to use the evidence they have to come to educated predictions. If the evidence changes, it’s their job to change their arguments too in order to say relevant and on top of things. Historians make up narratives by being led by the evidence they have presented to them. They do not make a narrative and then find facts that suit it, ignoring anything that doesn’t work. An ability to incorporate details into work is essential for a historian, even if the details are latecomers. Historians have to be extremely adaptive.
So it works the same way for literature by the Historian’s Approach. Sirius Black not being gay is an undeniable fact (if she did even say that in the first place) and ignoring it does nothing but discredit your argument. Yes, sometimes these new facts will completely destroy your preconceived headcanons, but being able to take this in the stride is the thing that makes you a good critical reader. The most important thing to realise is that open spaces in a piece of literature are fair game.
If Rowling hasn’t revealed details about a specific character, location, object or anything else, you’re welcome to fill in those gaps, as I mentioned before, with your own educated guesses. If these guesses prove to not match the canon once she’s revealed the details, that’s okay! You were possibly right before, and now it’s time to think about and engage with the new information.
I know that it can be frustrating when it seems like writers aren’t representing diversity in a way you’d like, or when their political views seem problematic. I know it can be hard when you spend so much time thinking in a certain way, just to have your theories and ideas disproved by a single unclear tweet, but adapting to this and coming back stronger than before is the thing that sets the amazing critics from people who are stumped by small details.
Plus, that’s what fanfiction is for! Fanfictions aren’t known for keeping 100% to canon, but that’s what makes them the perfect medium for disgruntled or frustrated fans. Some of the best fanfictions explore how things would be if most things were kept the same, but one or two details in a story were changed. Black’s sexuality is one of those things. If you have issues with Rowling’s LGBT representation, that is more than fair enough. She has a cast of over 200 characters and only one of them is confirmed to be a member of the LGBT community!
However, the best thing to do is talk about that and show people what it would be like if things went your way. Ignoring the fact that he’s straight doesn’t do anything if you’re trying to argue that Rowling doesn’t represent the LGBT community very well. Accepting that he’s another straight person in the Wizarding World universe is the first step in being able to hold an author accountable for what they write and what they, as the writer, are responsible for changing.
Holding an Author Accountable
The best thing about the Historian’s Approach is it arms you with the ability to hold an author accountable if you think they’re failing in some way. Killing off an author makes you way too responsible for how you read a story and accepting everything they say gives you no room for criticism. If you accept their facts but not their opinions and intentions, you’ll be left with the ability to assess what’s actually there and find faults with the writer’s intentions.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll accept the fact that Snape did do good things, but you may begin to question what Rowling is saying about redemption and bullying because her intentions are clearly to make us feel as though Snape redeemed himself for the way he treated his students. It’s difficult to criticise someone if they don’t have power over your interpretations of their story, but at the same time, it’s difficult to begin a discussion about their shortcomings if they have all of the power.
So maybe it’s time for us to think about writing and consider its implications. It’s time for us to pick a side: will you kill your author, let them control you or meet them somewhere in the middle?
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