At MISTI-Con 2019, Irvin Khaytman (author of The Life and Lies of Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore) and I conducted a conversation on “Discussing HP in 2019,” during a time when fandom is grappling with a number of contentious issues. Our actual discussion went differently, and I don’t have notes for Irvin’s half of it, but here are some of the rough notes I prepared ahead of the panel.
I have feelings about J.K. Rowling, about Cursed Child and the Pottermore Presents extras and Fantastic Beasts. They’re probably different from your feelings. I don’t know how, and won’t know unless I ask and I listen with as much fairness as I can, but they are. I also know that if I listen to other people explain their feelings, I’ll probably want to talk about mine, and they might not be as evolved as I think they are. Feelings about stories can be potent and based on deeply personal reactions. In that sense, there’s something sacred to be honored within everyone’s feelings, and that makes this kind of conversation tricky. I’m going to talk about a few strategies I’ve used to try to reduce discomfort and increase understanding.
One fan’s trash is another fan’s treasure
This is something I learned from the BBC Sherlock fandom. I learned not to call something “garbage” when I hated it, because I found out too many times that I had hurt people who loved that thing or that character – sometimes for reasons I could never have imagined. I learned to ask why people love what they love.
Know who is hearing you
Last month, I saw people discussing anti-trans things J.K. Rowling has said, worried that this means they should avoid downloading Wizards Unite or boycott the Wizarding World theme parks or stop writing fanfic in her universes, even though they wanted to.
If boycotting feels right to you, go for it. But sometimes we don’t want to give up something, even when there are serious issues, because something about it gives us energy and joy and community. In those cases, I think it’s absolutely worth it to hang on. A few dollars more or less from me might make a difference to Warner Brothers. But those few dollars will make a difference if I use them to support books by trans authors, or queer creators, or people of color. If you buy a book, that author will feel the $1.65 royalty they get from you. If you can afford it, give someone a dollar a month on Patreon so they can be supported in getting the content out there that you know we deserve. Borrow books from the library and then recommend them on social media, or circulate recommendations whenever the topic comes up. This is something you can do, it’s empowering, and it reaches people who can actually hear you.
Definitely vote with your wallet and get your objections out there. But I believe in a dual track of action that also focuses on ways to direct our energy that can build community and nourish us. It combats burnout.
Recognize that the story hasn’t changed; it’s the reader
I was appalled when I reread the Defense Against the Dark Arts lesson in Prisoner of Azkaban and recognized that Lupin coaching a class of third-years to mock Snape by imagining him in an old lady dress is a move that has anti-trans bullying in it. It was uncomfortable because I remember laughing. I remember loving a lot of passages that make me uncomfortable now. I have to recognize that my perspective changes with age or greater awareness. But I also try to recall that I actively made peace with some disturbing aspects of Harry Potter when I was younger – it was just so long ago that I don’t always remember it. The anti-fat hatred, especially bad in the beginning of Chamber of Secrets: many readers at the time went through a whole process of confronting it in this author and making decisions about whether to continue in the fandom or not. Sometimes, when we’re confronted by the newness of Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts, we remember the seven-book series as a monolith of goodness. That’s not how we experienced them at the time. There were serious shortcomings in them that we hashed out as a community through years of hiatus and re-readings.
This author specializes in the joy of re-reading
The first time I read the script for Cursed Child, I wasn’t sure what to think. Every subsequent time I’ve read it, I’ve seen something new, and the more seriously I took it as literature, the more I got out of it. It took me years to figure out a lot of things about the original series. So Voldemort was present at Hogwarts for all of Harry’s first year? What was Dumbledore’s plan for Snape and the Elder Wand? Why, exactly, was Slughorn on the run from the Death Eaters? What did Snape think Lupin was trying to do to Harry during book three?
Nobody has to reread Cursed Child, but if you’re at all curious, I encourage it. There are things you can only get from re-readings. I have never fully understood a story from this author on the first reading. That’s what makes her a good writer in the first place and why her stories stay with people. Cursed Child may have been written by Jack Thorne, but the layers in the story and the hints indicated by the wordplay reward re-reading in a way that feels familiar.
The soul of the story
Studies have shown that reading Harry Potter increases people’s empathy toward other groups, even groups that aren’t mentioned within Potterverse, such as gay people or refugees.
Many readers feel distress when Rowling fails to live up to the standards she taught in her own books: for example, in her treatment of Native American cultures and religions in the Ilvermorny backstory. I’ve seen what feels almost like self-blame on the part of fans who recoil from that kind of prejudice, but still feel a profound love for books that will always be a part of them.
Two years ago, I was part of a panel at Readercon called “The soul of the story,” moderated by Cecilia Tan.
The soul of the Harry Potter universe is love in its many manifestations, such as infant thriving, physical growth, grief, and empathy. The flawed human author can convey the soul of the story without being any more able to live up to it than the rest of us. This explains why examinations of race and sexual identity thrive in HP fandom despite the author’s clumsy handling of such issues: fans are responding to the soul of the story, not the text, and acknowledging the difference.
Rowling’s writing has always reflected her demographic: white British Christian cishet educated woman, married with children. I get the sense, sometimes, that some people worry that in order to be principled people, when they recognize an author’s biases, they must give up something they once loved and still do. To this, I say: if your interest naturally moves on, that is one thing. But if you actively feel love, honor that and treasure it, and never be ashamed that you responded to the soul of the story and recognized that this is a different thing from the particulars of the story and the author’s limitations.
It can feel personal when Rowling fails to reach her own standards. Especially if you read Harry Potter in your formative years and it influenced your sense of empathy and justice, you associate with these books a feeling of learning, of virtue, of how to be a loving person. It can feel like Rowling personally lets us down when she falls short. Dumbledore talks about something like that, when he says that being rather more clever than most people, the effects of his mistakes are “correspondingly huger.” It helps me sometimes to keep in mind that it’s an artist’s gift to be able to convey a soulful truth that may be beyond their personal ability to achieve.
Death of the author doesn’t apply when the author is alive and still writing
I have heard the argument that once released, a story belongs only to the readers and not at all to the person who wrote it and continues to write it. I’ve heard people argue that everyone in the world has the right to make more stories in the Harry Potter universe except the person who created it, who should be stopped. I don’t understand those arguments or how people imagine they can be enforced. Short of censorship and totalitarian control, we cannot stop a writer from continuing her work. It’s on us to handle the weight of the authority of her words in ways we can actually control. Irvin has his approach; I have mine, of viewing this influential author’s output as an ongoing work in progress and part of a larger cultural phenomenon that includes fan works.
What would you do if you were her beta?
Sometimes my friends or I are frustrated or angered by something a powerful author has written. In those instances, one of my ways of restoring a feeling of my own power is to ask myself and others: How would you mark up her writing and talk to her if she were your beloved friend and you were her beta? Someone whose friendship you very much intend to keep? It’s one thing to rant and rail, but if you know there will never be an answer, yet you still have feelings, at some point, I feel like you have to turn the rant into something more self-nourishing.
The point of thinking what constructive advice you would give as her beta is not, of course, that you will send her your thoughts and she will thank you and make all the changes you suggest. The point is to turn the frustration into productive critical thinking that will absolutely benefit you in your own work, whether it’s your writing or your confidence in giving feedback to others.
Why I find HP worthwhile
A question during the hiatus before Deathly Hallows was whether HP would go on to be a classic, or whether it would be a soon-forgotten fad. I find it exciting to track how these stories are transitioning right now into second-generation readership. I find Potterverse incredibly useful for teaching how to read clues and layers, something I think is continuing with Cursed Child and the Fantastic Beasts series.
It still astonishes me that a woman became a billionaire by writing books for children. That kind of wealth usually happens through exploitation and oppression, not from telling stories. For something to become a bestseller, it has to speak to something emotional within people. For something to become an international bestseller, across cultures, it’s an important phenomenon that tells us something important about being human at this moment.