Sunday, November 29, 2015

What does J.K. Rowling know about Harry Potter anyway?

This exchange turned up in my timeline. No doubt I was meant to laugh at Harry Potter Fans and praise Matthew Hankins for condemning mansplaining.

But I think the Harry Potter Fans tweet is fine.

Behind Hankins' contempt lie a number of connected and faulty aesthetic theories: that a work of art has one fixed meaning; that its meaning derives solely from the author's intentions; and that those intentions are somehow transferred from the author's mind to the book, which it then inhabits as a sort of ghostly substance.

The truth is different. As soon as a book is published the author loses control of it. There is no single correct reading of it that derives from her intentions. Readings multiply as its readership multiplies.

You could even argue that the better a book is, the more diverse the possible readings are, It this sort of fluidity of meaning that keeps the classics alive and makes us still want to read them.

Good criticism may reveal things the author was never conscious of. Here is G.K. Chesterton writing about Charles Dickens:
It seems almost as if these grisly figures, Mrs. Chadband and Mrs. Clennam, Miss Havisham, and Miss Flite, Nemo and Sally Brass, were keeping something back from the author as well as from the reader. When the book closes we do not know their real secret. They soothed the optimistic Dickens with something less terrible than the truth.
This is brilliant imaginative criticism - and it would be just as much if Chesterton were discussing a woman writer.

I will confess that I have read little by Rowling - because I found her a dull writer when I tried. But my prejudice is that everything in the Harry Potter world is that way because she says so. The stories failed to take on a life of their own that surprised their own author.

So it may be that Rowling's telling of the stories is the only possible one. But if that were true it would be a sign of her weakness as a writer not her strength.

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