Fired From the Cannon

Oct 12, 2015

5 mins read

Note: that this was written before Disney brought Star Wars and the subsequent changes to what determines the cannon.

This post stems from a comment I made on an opinion piece by Michelle Smith on The Conversation 1 which dealt with how the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling should be interpreted in the light of statements by J. K. Rowling after publication. This was deemed especially pertinent when it concerned controversial issues such as homosexuality. Some commenters consider it to be jumping on a progressive bandwagon and/or attempting to retain influence over the text. In general Smith sided with the popular and standard “Death of the Author” argument which in a post-strucualist manner advocates a plurality of interpretations.

However in reading the article I was prodded onto a line of thinking I have often mulled over, that is that the “Death of the Author” argument to my mind does not fit well with a text which is a serial work. Specifically, the way J. K. Rowling has continued to comment on her works raises interesting questions about what is “the text” of Harry Potter. Is it just the seven novels? if so, why? or are they individual texts?

I would argue that most readers of the Harry Potter books would not contest the assertion that latter books influence the interpretation of the earlier books when assessed retrospectively. To read the first two books and surmise that the story of Harry Potter ends there is of course possible. However this is emphatically not how the vast majority of readers have interacted with the books over the past 17 years. Rather you read them all with the books themselves having a definite continuous sequence.

In this case “the text” is considered the whole of the series. This is reinforced by the flashbacks (or “memories in the pensive”) in the final books which prompt reassessments of the actions and motivations of key characters such as Dumbledore and Snape.

So if installments like books 6 and 7 which J. K. Rowling wrote after the earlier works can count towards the entirety of the text why not other information she later introduces through other mediums? Why are the novels privileged over tweets and her responses in interviews? Of course one could choose to disregard these later outputs, but why do they carry less weight than a novel? Why should J. K. Rowlings intentions be so much more authoritative when she writes them down and sells them from a store?

I guess what I’m saying is that whenever I see a discussion about “The Death of the Author” it always seems to treat “the text” as a stand alone easily defined whole. When in reality this is increasingly rarely the case. A singular text does not allow for stories presented in series in an age where aspects of a story can be presented in a cross media fashion through channels such as film, video games, visual art, and words on a page among many others.

It is worth remembering that post-structualists like Barthes and Foucault by and large wrote within and are interpreted by a discipline concerned with mostly “traditional” texts such as stand alone novels and poetry. A better understanding of Harry Potter could be gained by supplementing such analysis with a comparison to other cross-media texts. For example, Star Wars. In communities interested in such cross-media texts the question of authorial authority is re-framed as “canonicity” or “continuity”. Ignoring the religious implications it is worth noting that this inherently implies a broader more fluid notion of a text with potentially multiple authors or contributors and multiple levels of canonicity which increase in order of precedence. Thus for one “reader” there is not one interpretation of the text, let alone the author. Rather it requires accepted fictional logic which maintains the suspension of disbelief created by the narrative.

In today’s fractured media environment it is intriguing to consider the possibility that texts like Harry Potter and the relationships between authors and their audiences cannot be defined as neatly as a classic stand alone novel. Thus while having written the Harry Potter novels forced J. K. Rowling to relinquish complete influence of intention upon publication, this does not mean she has lost all influence.

In the Star Wars community the most authoritative level of canonicity is termed G-canon. These G-canon sources override any other conflict in the interpretation of the Star Wars universe. G-cannon stands for George Lucas Canon and include anything he has to say on the subject 2. While ultimate interpretation rests with audiences and readers I would not be surprised if fans of Harry Potter confer J.K. Rowling with a similar status.

  1. The ‘death’ of J. K. Rowling: Why it doesn’t matter what she has to say about Harry Potter by Michelle Smith ↩︎

  2. Overview of Star Wars canon ↩︎