Dumbledore’s sexuality and the authority of the serial author
As you might have heard, Dumbledore is gay. Or at least so says J.K. Rowling.
I’m less interested in how this impacts our understanding of the world of Harry Potter, the relationships between Albus & other characters, or even the cultural controversies surrounding the series that this announcement has already inflamed. What interests me more is what does it mean for an author to proclaim such information about a character in an already completed fictional world? Presuming that the books are ambiguous at best about the issue of Dumbledore’s sexuality – my interpretation had been that Hogwarts faculty were like monks, forsaking romance and concerns of the flesh for the magical arts – how do we make sense of this authorial pronouncement?
The press & blogs I’ve read seem to be treating it as a statement of fact – it’s Rowling’s fictional world, and thus her statements are canonical. And back when the story was ongoing, I would probably agree with that position. Certainly when trying to understand complex serialized fiction like Lost, I assume that producer comments clarifying a facet of the emerging storyworld can be treated as if it is canonical story information. This is the policy on Lostpedia as well, which offers a good vision of how a number of diehard fans regard authorial commentary.
But something changes once a series is complete. Rowling has written thousands of pages about Hogwarts, and has made it clear that she’s done with the series. She had ample opportunity to make Dumbledore’s sexuality explicit (well, probably not too explict) in the books, but chose not to. Likewise, had she made this announcement between books 5 & 6, she would have helped forge our reading experiences, guiding us to be alert to the cues within Dumbledore’s past with Grindelwald and other moments, and framing textual moments as more explicit than they actually may be. So does she retain her power to control her fictional world after the books have been closed?
As a counterpoint, think about the politics surrounding fan fiction and series like Star Trek. A dedicated community of fans are invested in thinking of Kirk and Spock as gay lovers, writing “slash fiction” exploring their romance. Producers guarding the series assert the heterosexuality of their characters, but the fans claim their interpretive rights to open up ambiguities and subtext freely. I side with the fans here – the producers control the official text as produced for TV and related paratexts, but the meanings are up for grabs once released into the culture.
So for me, Rowling’s outing of Albus is more comparable to Star Trek‘s after-the-fact assertions of Kirk’s heterosexuality than the Lost producers assuring us that Nikki and Paulo are really dead. She is offering a distinctive interpretation of her fictional world – and one that I certainly find engaging and satisfying – but it is not canonical, as it did not appear in the books. Fan creators should be free to write Dumbledore/McGonnigal fiction as much as Dumbledore/Snape stories – both are valid interpretations of subtexts running through the books that explore themes that make the world of Hogwarts richer. Perhaps the het Dumbledore writers will view their work as subverting Rowling’s vision, and the slashers will find themselves in the odd situation of coloring within the author’s lines. But I don’t think Rowling’s statements trump the book’s ambiguities.
Any other meta-thoughts about how authorial announcements impact serialized worlds, whether ongoing or complete?
Filed under: Books, Fandom, Narrative, Not Quite TV | 28 Comments
Tags: authorship, fan fiction, Harry Potter, Lost, sexuality
random thoughts from media scholar Jason Mittell
Check out my books:Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling Television & American Culture
Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture
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