Books Belong to Their Readers

If you’re a bookish person on the internet, there’s no way you’ve missed what’s gone down since J.K. Rowling admitted that she shouldn’t have put Ron and Hermione together. This has understandably angered a lot of fans, and thrilled a lot of others. To many readers Ron and Hermione seemed the perfect match. Yet some preferred to lust over potential romances between Hermione and Harry, Hermione and Krum, Hermione and Draco, etc.

As John Green seems to repeat over and over again, though, books belong to their readers. To a certain extent it doesn’t matter what the author intends to happen in a book or how they intend it to be interpreted. The reader is the one who actually receives the story and interprets it in whatever way they see fit. This is how that famous English class questions about why the curtains were blue came about. To some readers, the curtains are just blue. They could have easily been any color and no difference would be made. But for another reader, the potential symbolism behind those blue curtains could be incredibly relevant. Part of being a close reader is decoding all of these possible interpretations.

However, books belonging to their readers is important for more than just the reader. J.K. Rowling is pretty well known for self-editorializing her novels long after they were written. A lot of this is harmless, and expanding the world (think Pottermore), but in some cases it can be as devastating as the Ron/Hermione pairing to many fans. Of course an author should always be able to be critical of their own work and point out where there might be failings (this is natural, and shows you’re growing as a writer!), but there are two main lessons we can take away from Rowling’s comment and the backlash it has received.

Lesson One: Stay Honest to Your Story

One of the reasons Rowling cites for putting Ron and Hermione together is that it was a “form of wish fulfillment”. She had originally imagined the two together, and so she stuck to that young idea even as the rest of the plot matured past her original plans. This is common in a lot of stories we write; the story doesn’t always turn out exactly as we had envisioned it. Characters and their relationships grow more complex and plots change. The important thing for us writers to remember is that it’s always our job to remain faithful to the story and not our idea of it. This can be really hard because our stories are, in a way, our babies! But staying true to your story is what makes stories really excellent because they’re realistic, honest, and impactful because of it.

Lesson Two: Support Your Audience

If you’re ever lucky to even come close to J.K. Rowling’s level of writerly fame, you’re suddenly not just a writer but the creator of a world full of characters that are important to people. As such a writer you have a responsibility to uphold that world for your fans. In the case of Ron/Hermione it might not have been so bad to admit seven years after the fact that you’ve grown as a writer and understand that some of the choices you made might not have been in the best interest of the story. Where Rowling might have overstepped is where she said she ought to have put Harry and Hermione together instead. Giving such a clear opinion on how Rowling prefers the story to have gone now somehow changes how a lot of fans are able to view that story. Many of us can probably understand that Ron and Hermione being more of authorial wish fulfillment, but it’s a lot harder to stomach when given a concrete new way we should view the books. Writers have a responsibility to maintain the story for their audience, to maintain a line of trust between themselves and their readers.

In the end, does it really matter what Rowling says seven years after the fact what Harry Potter should have been like? Probably not. We’ll all still eat up anything she puts out, and we’ll flock to every new morsel of the Harry Potter world. But we might be a little hurt for a while. As writers ourselves, it’s important to learn from our contemporaries and what’s going on in our genre, and take what might be failings or missteps by those authors as lessons for our own stories and our own careers.

Happy writing.

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2 Responses

  1. Unconsoled says:

    I think writers should write for themselves. Stein once said she wrote for herself and strangers, which seems to me the perfect answer.
    One should write for themselves–and publish it for the money.

  2. Stella says:

    I totally agree with you! To quote John Green again – I think there’s an unspoken contract between author and reader to tell the story as it’s meant to be told. I respect JKR’s opinion, but at the same time, I think voicing it was a bad idea. There is an entire generation whose whole concept of true love came from Ron & Hermione. And is that wish fulfillment – perhaps! But her books were about an orphan boy taken from an abusive household and placed in a school where not only can he do magic, but he’s a celebrity, he’s rich beyond his imagination and he’s a sports hero. If we were to take all the wish fulfillment of Harry Potter away, what would we have left? A seventeen year old still stuck in a cupboard?

    JK Rowling is in a unique position because she’s just *that famous*. Had she been less well known, this wouldn’t have been treated as so earth-shattering. I think that many authors might look back at their work in retrospect and think, ‘No, it shouldn’t have happened that way.’ It’s okay to think about it as you write it, but I think once it’s out there, once it’s in the hands of the public… it is, as you say, their story. It’s the story they formed in their own heads using your words. And in fact, maybe it’s more important to put forward the concept that *your* sense of the story is just as important as JK Rowling’s, rather than trying to reconcile the two, that might bring some pacification to rabid Romione shippers like myself.

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