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Rowling’s revelations: Who wants to know

Sunday | October 28, 2007   open printable version open printable version

dumbledoreoop.jpg

Dumbledore, by Lisa, from

http://www.poudlard.org/fanarts/displayimage.php?album=toprated&cat=6&pos=0

Kristin here–

By now anyone who has not lived in thorough isolation from the media knows that on October 19, during a signing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at Carnegie Hall, J. K. Rowling revealed that Prof. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore is gay.

At least in her opinion, some might add.

Rowling’s public revelation that she has long considered Dumbledore to be gay came during a question and answer session in which a fan asked, “Did Dumbledore, who believed in the prevailing power of love, ever fall in love himself?” Rowling replied, “My truthful answer to you … I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.” According to mainstream media reports, after a stunned silence the audience burst into a lengthy ovation.

Rowling has made a few additional comments on this subject since then. On October 22 during a press conference in Toronto, she was questioned about how far back her outlook on Dumbledore’s sexual orientation went. She dated it back to the planning stages, “probably before the first book was published” (Harry Potter and the Philospher’s Stone, 1997). She pointed out, “I was writing for seven years before the first book came out.” (The press conference has been posted in two parts on YouTube, here and here. Some stories from reporters covering the event have slightly misquoted Rowling’s statements. My quotations are transcribed from the video.)

Naturally questions about the Dumbledore outing came at regular intervals during the Toronto press session. Initially Rowling commented, “It has certainly never been news to me that a brave and brilliant man could love other men.” Asked about the political ramifications of the outing, Rowling said that she could not comment on that so soon after the fact. “I can’t really answer that. It is what it is. He’s my character, and as my character, I have the right to know what I know about him and say what I say about him.”

But do we want to listen?

Of course, she has the right. The questions that have been raised by many are, should she? If she does, should we accept her statements as true within the universe of the published books?

Whether she should provide additional background for the series is basically a matter of opinion. Some people, many of them children, want more information and think she should.

Salon.com’s Rebecca Traister has posted a thoughtful essay taking the “she shouldn’t” position. She points out one thing that most fevered accounts of the Dumbledore outing have neglected: “Dumbledore’s gayness is one of the pieces of bonus information about her characters that she’s been dispensing steadily since the publication of her magical swan song, ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.’”

Certainly at the Carnegie Hall appearance, the Dumbledore question came amidst several that Rowling was asked about the fates or motives of other characters. (The most extensive transcript of that Q&A session is on The Leaky Cauldron.) Nearly all mainstream media reports ignored these in favor of blowing up the gay issue, but just as much information about other characters was revealed, and Rowling has answered similar queries in other Q&A situations.

Traister admits that the fans are the ones asking for such information. “Her abundant generosity with information is surely a response to a vast, insatiable fan base that does not have a high tolerance for never-ending suspense, ambiguity or nuance. As she told the ‘Today’ show’s Meredith Vieira back in July, ‘I’m dealing with a level of obsession in some of my fans that will not rest until they know the middle names of Harry’s great grand-parents.’”

Traister adds, “Rowling naturally wants to provide answers for these heartbroken obsessives who perhaps are too young to know the satisfying pleasures of perpetual yearning and feel that they must must must know how much money Harry makes and whether Luna has kids.” I don’t know about heartbroken, but they certainly are curious.

Traister goes on to argue that Rowling should stop giving out information and ruining readers’ own imaginings about what the author left out. She cites an example of Rowling revealing to a fan what Harry’s Aunt Petunia nearly said to him upon their last parting. According to Rowling, it was “I do know what you’re up against, and I hope it’s OK.” Traister is disappointed: “Oh. That’s too bad. Because in my imagination, Petunia was going to say something much more exciting than that.”

Perhaps in many cases, especially about specific details like this, knowing is less fun than imagining. Still, I’m sure some of Rowling’s revelations are more exciting, or at least more interesting, than what we imagine.

Let’s take one small example, Rowling’s explanation for the name “Dumbledore.” Few readers will imagine anything about it or realize that the word actually means something. I have wondered whether Rowling just liked the sound of the word (which appears in Hardy and Tolkien) or she saw some connection between the headmaster and a bumblebee. She revealed the answer in a radio interview in 1999: “Dumbledore is an old English word meaning bumblebee. Because Albus Dumbledore is very fond of music, I always imagined him as sort of humming to himself a lot.”

That’s charming. I didn’t imagine Dumbledore humming as I read the book. Indeed, I don’t recall any scenes where he is alone (presumably when he hums), given how much of the narration is restricted to Harry’s point-of-view. But I am glad to know this, even if it had to come from the author herself. (In the same interview, by the way, she said, “I kind of see Dumbledore more as a John Gielgud type, you know, quite elderly and – and quite stately.” Perhaps a hint of where the gayness crept in.)

If Rowling were to heed Traister’s plea that she stop dispensing extra-textual information, that would mean we adults, who presumably “know the satisfying pleasures of perpetual yearning,” would get our way and the children wouldn’t. (Of course, not nearly all adults would refrain from asking for more information from Rowling.) I think that’s rather unfair, since these are at bottom children’s books. It was initially surprising how many adults ended up reading them, and there are HP fans of all ages. Still, shouldn’t the target audience take priority?

The video of the Meredith Vieira interview and the transcript of the Carnegie Hall event confirm that many of the questions were requests for more information about the characters. Would we really want the author to refuse each of these? How boring and frustrating for those children if every other answer is, “I really shouldn’t tell you. Just use your imaginations”! They want those “pieces of bonus information about her characters that she’s been dispensing steadily.” As far as I can tell, most or all of the bits of information Rowling has given out have come in response to specific questions from fans. She hasn’t been volunteering them right and left. And apart from the Dumbledore comments, the information she gives out has hardly been flooding the media to such an extent that we can’t avoid it if we wish. Given that Rowling has been answering such questions for months, why did commentators wait until this particular revelation to complain?

Who’s J. K. Rowling to tell us Dumbledore is gay?

Quite apart from there being some people who want this information and others who don’t, there is a more theoretical question. As Jason Mittell puts it in a brief essay on his website, “What does it mean for an author to proclaim such information about a character in an already completed fictional world?”

Mittell would accept that Rowling’s statements about that world would become part of the HP canon as long as the series was still in progress. “But something changes once a series is complete.” He points out that Rowling seems to have known all along that Dumbledore is gay, and yet she never made that explicit. “Does she retain her power to control her fictional world after the books have been closed?”

Does it have to be explicit, or will implicit do? Some, including Rowling, would say that there is a portrayal of Dumbledore’s relationship with Grindelwald that hints at his being gay. At the Toronto press conference, Rowling stated, “It’s in the book. It’s very clear in the book. Absolutely. I think a child will see a friendship, and I think a sensitive adult may well understand that it was an infatuation. I knew it was an infatuation.” I must admit that I didn’t pick up on the clues. Not that I’m insensitive, I hope, but because it would not have occurred to me that a popular mainstream writer would include a prominent gay character. (Associated Press writer Hillel Italie has pointed out a few passages that some may have taken as indications.)

[Added Oct. 29: The November 2 print issue of Entertainment Weekly has the results of an online poll, “Did you suspect Dumbledore was gay? (p. 11). 22% said they did. That’s probably self-selecting, as those who did might be more likely to vote. Still, at least some people did figure it out.]

Putting aside that example, though, much of the other information Rowling has been giving out does concern events that occur after the books’ action or are never referred to in the texts, so Mittell’s question remains.

Mittell contrasts this situation with that of Star Trek, where it has been the fans who “claim their interpretive rights to open up ambiguities and subtext freely,” primarily by writing fanfiction. The situation is different, though, I think, because most fans would not claim that their fics enter into and become part of the canon, even though they may meticulously obey its premises. Rowling seems to be claiming the right to expand the HP canon by her statements as well as by her writing.

(By the way, Rowling also mentioned fanfiction during her answers about Dumbledore at Carnegie Hall. I’ve written on her remarks and that subject on the Frodo Franchise blog.)

One can accept Rowling’s pronouncements about the book series or not. But do those pronouncements carry any greater weight than comments made about the HP world by others?

I am aware that in the 20th Century, the “death of the author” was proclaimed. When I was in graduate school, “intentions” was still sort of a dirty word in analysis. If the work cannot stand entirely by itself, then it has to some degree failed, was the widespread view.

There’s some truth to that, and yet there clearly is a very widespread impulse on the parts of readers and viewers to ask living creators for more. Film scholars read interviews with directors and other filmmakers. Some filmmakers have written about their individual works or their craft in general. David has commented here recently, “Do filmmakers deserve the last word?” As he shows, they can dispense misleading information about their own films. Yet not letting them have the last word doesn’t mean we must ignore all their other words. They often have very interesting things to say.

There are points that could be made in favor of a voluble Rowling.

One could argue that the books are not necessarily closed. Rowling could always write more in this universe. Indeed, she has said she probably will write an encyclopedia on the HP world–though she has cautioned this may not be her next project. A summary of Rowling’s July 24 appearance on the Today Show describes the project, partly in Rowling’s words: “’I suppose I have [started] because the raw material is all in my notes.’ The encyclopedia would include back stories of characters she has already written but had to cut for the sake of the narrative arc (‘I’ve said before that Dean Thomas had a much more interesting history than ever appeared in the books’), as well as details about the characters who survive ‘Deathly Hallows,’ characters who continue to live on in Rowling’s mind in a clearly defined magical world.” Presumably much of the information she has given in answer to questions comes from this mass of material, so it may someday exist in print with her as the author.

In the Toronto press conference Rowling gave further information about possible writing projects within the franchise. She said she would probably not write a prequel for the HP series, though she would not rule it out entirely. Asked about the rumored encyclopedia, she replied that it “would be the way of putting in all the information, the extra information on all these characters.” She adds that the proceeds would go to charity and that “It’s certainly not something I plan on being my next project. I’d like to take a little time from Harry’s world before I go into that.”

Tolkien did something comparable. For nearly two decades after the publication of The Lord of the Rings, he wrote drafts of essays on various characters and events. He seems to have initially intended these as an entire volume of appendices, though later he continued because he just could not seem to stop examining his invented world. The resulting posthumous publications of these texts as edited by his son are not exactly canon—not least because they are unfinished and sometimes contradict each other. But they certainly are treated by scholars and fans as illuminating parts of Tolkien’s created world that are not in the novel. Semi-canon, if you will. Perhaps if Rowling does write down all the nuggets of information that she has been tossing out, publication will anoint them with canonical status at last.

One could also argue that HP is not just a book series but an ongoing franchise or saga. The book series may be finished, but the HP universe is larger than it. Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore and other remarks come when there are two films yet to appear. One of these has already been slightly affected. In the Carnegie Hall Q&A, Rowling related how she scotched a scene in the script where Dumbledore reminiscences romantically about a young lady by passing along a note that the character is gay. Given that the object of Dumbledore’s putative past affections, Grindelwald, will presumably figure in the seventh film, it’s quite possible that Rowling’s statements will affect the portrayal of that relationship. While she is not one of the filmmakers, she scrutinizes the scriptwriting process closely, and whatever makes it into the movies might be considered as canon in some sense.

Finally, one could argue that Rowling’s voice is not simply one among many who might comment on the subject of her books. Setting aside aesthetic theory, for most people in the real world her authority as the author simply is more compelling than anyone else’s. Don’t believe it? What if Stephen King wrote a column announcing that Dumbledore is definitely not gay? (Not that he’s likely to do so.) Would we be inclined to believe him as much as Rowling just because he is also one of the most successful current writers and a fan of the series? I doubt it. What if Pat Robertson preached a sermon stating that Dumbledore is so admirable that he could not possibly be gay? Might we not indignantly counter him by saying, “He is, too. Rowling says so.” It’s the only concrete evidence we have.*

Robertson probably wouldn’t make such a claim. Much of the far right is already up in arms against Rowling. They don’t seem to doubt for a minute her after-the-fact statement that she has written a gay character. They not only believe it but they denounce it as part of some liberal plot to promote homosexuality as normal. For once they’re not far off.

Such claims suggest that we might have political reasons to accept Rowling’s outing of Dumbledore as authoritative—and presumably her remarks about other characters as well. We might want the overall theme of tolerance that is so evident in the series to extend to homosexuality. Clearly Rowling does, too. And she knows what it means. At a signing in Los Angeles a few days before the Carnegie Hall outing, Rowling stated, “I take my inclusion on the banned book list as a massive compliment.”

The Timing of the Revelation

Many comments have been made about the timing of Rowling’s announcement. If she’s so proud of having her books banned, why didn’t she speak up before? Was there a hidden, cynical motive for waiting until all the books were published? Was she trying to avoid losing sales by not revealing Dumbledore’s gayness while the books were still coming out? Was she trying to boost sales of the books after the series’ conclusion by stirring up controversy?

I’ve already argued that the second reason is unlikely. Rowling answered a child’s question on the spur of the moment. (The questions asked by the children in such sessions are pre-screened, but it seems unlikely that the assistants who do the screening convey the questions to Rowling ahead of time.)

How much will sales be boosted now that she has told the public about Dumbledore? This series is such a huge seller that it’s hard to imagine anyone, other than gay men, deciding to buy it solely because Dumbledore has been revealed to be gay. Surely no kids would buy it for that reason. OK, maybe a few liberal parents desiring an uplifting book for their kids might buy it for them.

But we know how many right-wingers there are in this country and how successful they have been at attacking the teaching of science in schools and at demanding that books be removed from library shelves, including the HP series because it “promotes witchcraft.” Surely the outing of Dumbledore in the midst of the series would have cut significantly into the sales for the rest of the books.

I doubt Rowling calculated it that way, but if she did, she was being smart. Possibly, though, her calculations, if any, were as much or more ideological than monetary. She clearly is a liberal, claiming that one major theme of the HP series is tolerance and that another is suspicion of authority.

(For a discussion of these political aspects of the books, see Keith Olbermann’s October 22 Countdown segment on the Dumbledore outing, in transcript or video form.)

Consider what outing Dumbledore after the book series ended implies. There are undoubtedly millions of children in this country whose parents oppose equality for homosexuals. Many of those children now have all seven books lined up on their bedroom shelves, and they may own several HP franchise products, including DVDs. They adore this series. For many the books are probably their favorite cultural artifact in the world. Now picture what would happen if those ultra-conservative parents march in and declare that everything Potter is going in the garbage because it’s immoral, pro-gay propaganda—or less pleasant terms to that effect.

I can imagine three basic reactions.

One, the child will respond, yes, take these terrible books away, they’re bad for me. Ned Flanders’ sons would say that. Maybe a few others would. Such kids are already indoctrinated, and we will just have to hope that they leave home someday and discover more enlightened views.

Two, the child starts crying, arguing, and defending the books. The parents give up and go away. Now this child of ultra-conservative parents has and will likely re-read a book series whose content–at least according to Rowling–runs counter to their parents’ beliefs. A tiny victory for tolerance, repeated in many homes across the land. Perhaps Rowling’s series will help guide such children, if only in a small way, to be less bigoted than their parents. Indeed, there is reason to hope so. Opposition to gay marriage is already less widespread among young evangelicals than among the older generation, with 81% of those above 30 opposed, 76% among those under 30.

Three, the child starts crying, arguing, and defending the books. The parents are adamant and dispose of all the books and paraphernalia. As a result, the child is upset by a homophobic act. Some such children may grow up primed to realize that homophobia is a bad thing. Others will presumably recover and become as intolerant as their parents.

I suppose there might be some way that a child who has already read the books could become even less tolerant of homosexuality as a result of Dumbledore’s turning out to be gay. It’s hard to believe, but maybe it could happen. On the whole, though, Rowling’s revelation creates a win-tie situation. Kids are either influenced for the good or they remain the same. She has smuggled liberal ideas into the heart of the enemy’s camp in a form that will be difficult to eradicate.

How much can a mere book series, along with its attendant films and franchise products, affect society’s attitudes toward something as important as equal rights for homosexuals? It’s hard to say. On rare occasions, books do have a real impact in society. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a major factor in promoting abolitionism, the Civil War, and the freeing of the slaves. Apart from the Bible, it was the best-selling book of the nineteenth century. Perhaps a phenomenally popular liberal author of our own times can use her influence for good as well.

Do pre-teen children really understand what’s going on when Rowling says Dumbledore is gay? Conservatives complain about her choice to do the outing to an audiences of kids. But as Olbermann points out in the segment linked above, the HP books contain death, persecution, betrayal, torture, revenge, and all sorts of dark things that caring parents would likely want to discuss with children as they read the books. In comparison, to complain about having to explain a professor’s sexual preference, particularly when it intrudes only subtly into the plot, seems absurd.

Traister’s Salon.com article contains a cheering anecdote. She says she learned of Rowling’s revelation from a nine-year-old friend at a wedding. The child “exuberantly announced, ‘Dumbledore is gay!'” Traister asked whether she was surprised by this, and the reply was, “Well, I always thought he loved McGonnagall, but I guess he only loved her like a sister.” If only all reactions to the news could be so sensible.

[Added Oct 30:  Today’s Star Bulletin (Hawaii) contains an account of three unflappable fans who attended the Carnegie Hall signing and loved it. A photograph taken by the mother of one of them provides the first image I’ve seen of the event.]

*A less prominent figure, John Mark Reynolds, writing on a Christian site, The Scriptorium, makes exactly this claim in his “Dumbledore Is Not Gay: Taking Stories More Seriously Than the Author.” He argues his case in comparable terms to Mittell’s position that the author has no power to affect a book’s content once it has been published.

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David Bordwell
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