Monday, March 13, 2017

J.K. Rowling, Megan Whalen Turner and Authorial Intent

Recently, a very popular YA author wrote a lengthy post responding to some criticism that had come up regarding her most recent release. It's not the first time a YA author has defended their work, and it won't be the last, but it IRKS ME SO MUCH.

I understand the instinct to want to defend your work and your decisions, I really do. It's almost a basic human instinct to get defensive. But in my opinion, defending your choices against criticism doesn't make you look any better. When authors defend their work, as a reader that tells me that they don't really care about their readers  and what they think; all they care about is making sure that they cover their own behind.

It is the nature of publishing that once a book is out in the world, it isn't solely the author's anymore. Authors need to let go of their books, because by publishing their work they have already given it over to their readers. The author can't and shouldn't try to control response to it. By the time a book is out in the world, it doesn't matter what the author thinks or intended anymore. It matters what the readers think. To me, authors insisting on their interpretation as the only good and true interpretation demonstrates blatant disrespect for the readers, who are the reason they have a career in the first place.

It is amazing the difference in fan-author interaction and fan communities when the author doesn't insist on their own interpretation, either through defense of their choices or otherwise.

Hermione Granger by fridouw on DeviantArt
For example, J.K. Rowling has now become known for touting out very specific interpretations and facts about the extended universe of Harry Potter, often via Twitter. She maintains significant control over her work and the interpretation of it, often disregarding the explosion of fan interpretation through fanction, fanart, headcanons, and so on, that often reject or ignore her intention.

The feminist (Canadian!) Harry Potter podcast Witch, Please often discusses the tendency of J.K. Rowling to assert her control over the text, and comments on how her interpretations are often not even that great. In one episode, they commented that "when Rowling as a reader revisits her own texts and offers interpretations of them... she's a much shittier reader than many of her fans are." (Their discussion is around 1:19). The Witch, Please ladies then go on to say that fan interpretations of Harry Potter are often much more varied and diverse than JKR's, and often make room for difference and representation that are not present in that text.

I think that's a really cool thing about fan involvement and interaction with a text; fans can take a book that might have shoddy representation, make it theirs, and find that representation in the text through their own interpretation. It's super powerful. I think it's sad when authors like J.K. Rowling can't acknowledge that and can't let go of their own work and give it completely over to their readers.

I couldn't find the quote, but in the episode of Witch, Please that I listened to they made a comment on something J.K. Rowling had tweeted about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, something along lines of "fun fact: did you know that..." and then some behind-the-scenes "fact" about the world of Fantastic Beasts. The ladies on the podcast just cracked up, making fun of how it's not a fact, it's made up. Of course people didn't know it, because it's just inside J.K. Rowling's head. It just solidified for me how ridiculous it is for authors to insist on their own interpretation of their work. It's like the author sees herself as a queen, dictating the rules and order of her world to her lowly subjects. But that's just not how books work.

Queen's Thief art by artist
Now, in contrast with J.K. Rowling who jumps in all the time with random and often offensive tidbits is one of my favourite authors, Megan Whalen Turner, the author of the Queen's Thief series. Megan Whalen Turner is known among all Queen's Thief fans for her "not telling" policy; any time any fan asks her any question about her work or what she intended by something, all she says is "not telling". Yes, this often drives Queen's Thief fans crazy and sometimes they would give their right arm just to hear a snippet of what she might have been thinking when she wrote a certain scene. BUT I appreciate so much the different atmosphere it creates in the fan community.

It's the difference in how it makes me feel as a reader. J.K. Rowling's approach makes me feel that my own interpretation and identity is not worth anything to her, because she obviously feels that what she thinks is the most important. Megan Whalen Turner's approach makes me feel that my opinions on her work are valued and meaningful, which in turn makes me feel like she values me as a reader of her work.  In Megan Whalen Turner's "not telling" she is in essence saying that my interpretation as a reader is a lot more valuable than hers, which is actually pretty amazing when you think about it.

I don't know about you, but I much prefer when an author values me and my opinions as a reader, rather than telling me I'm wrong all the time.

Please comment with your thoughts! I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, so I'd love to get some discussion going in the comments or on my Twitter @asherlockwrites!

How do you feel about authorial intent? Do you care about what the author intended, or does it not matter? What is the effect of authors asserting control over their work? What do you think about authors defending themselves against critique? 

Oh and if it's your thing and you want to keep up with my weekly (!) posts (I'm admitting it out loud so now I am committed), you can now follow my blog on Bloglovin'!

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