J.K. Rowling– Wising up to romance at last?

Earlier today, J.K. Rowling got everyone’s knickers in a twist when the news broke that, in an interview conducted by Emma Watson (the actress who played Hermione in the Harry Potter movies) for Wonderland, Rowling said that Hermione should have married Harry instead of Ron. (See the story on Hypable.)

With that one statement, Rowling torpedoes not only the one love relationship in the series that she took time and care to really set up (Ron/Hermione), but sinks Harry/Ginny as well. I’ve always felt that the epilogue was forced onto the books. She says she wrote the epilogue first and kept it as a beacon to guide her through the whole series, knowing that the Jane Austen-esque double wedding was waiting at the end.

One of the reasons this particular announcement is causing so much uproar, though, I feel, is that the romantic elements of the Harry Potter books were among the weakest and most ripe for criticism. Reasons below.

For one, I never found Harry/Ginny convincing — perhaps because the majority of their relationship takes place off the page. It begins officially when Harry kisses Ginny at the very end of a chapter, after she’s won the Quidditch match, and the next chapter begins a few weeks later and is the chapter WHERE HE BREAK UP WITH HER in order to go be heroic. So all the actual time they would have spent as boyfriend and girlfriend, the reader never sees. The epilogue is like that, too. How everyone got over their PTSD from the war and then somehow came to the conclusion that marrying their high school sweetheart was actually a great idea? We never see that either. As such the epilogue feels cheap, not earned, and didn’t convince me it was a “fit.” I felt that by the time the seventh book of the series had rolled around, the characters had grown and changed significantly. That’s what characters do, if fiction is convincing. That means maybe they change and grow AWAY from the pin you stuck in the map before you started writing.

Because when you write, it’s a journey. You sell the map to the publisher: that’s your proposal. But then you have to actually go and sojourn through Mirkwood, climb Everest, etc. No matter how good the map is, there are things you won’t know about until you get to them. Rowling’s interviews since the series ended have always contained various bombshells, some more sensical than others. Dumbledore is gay? She considered killing off Ron? And those are just a few.

So this latest revelation that now she thinks she should have put Harry and Hermione together, spoken to the living embodiment of Hermione in the pop culture sphere… I find I just can’t take it that seriously. On the one hand, hooray, I would love to take it as a sign that the Epilogue, which I felt was so, so flawed, perhaps isn’t what it was cracked up to be after all. On the other hand, though, it’s not news that writers are even more changeable than characters, and at some point all that matters is what actually made it to the page.

Speaking as a writer myself, I can say one puts a lot of things into books for a lot of reasons. Sometimes you know the reasons. Sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you figure out the reasons later.

Sometimes you decide that if you wrote the book NOW, you’d do it differently.

Except that NOW you’re not the person you were THEN, and you can only write a book based on who you are at the moment, with the thoughts and feelings and judgments of the time. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS. You are taking a moment in time, a moment in your subconscious, and engraving it in reality where others can see it.

Of course your subconscious can be wrong. And decisions you made for very rational reasons (which can include extra-textual considerations like marketability, genre fit, pleasing your editor’s tastes, etc…) can turn out later to be missteps. Some become albatrosses around the series’ neck.

It’s all right. Writers are human. We can regret the relationship decisions we made for their characters as much as many humans regret the relationship choices they make in their real lives. The thing that I find notable about this is that I find ALL Rowling’s relationship choices to be suspect: All the Hogwarts staff are tragically single? Every single one? Really? (Pottermore has only added to that.) And between the epilogue and other interviews she has given, it appears that everyone, secondary characters included, ends up with someone from their high school clique. Really? I find that all to be evidence of a very limited imagination when it comes to romance. This isn’t a huge problem exactly because the Harry Potter books are NOT romances. They’re a fantasy struggle of good versus evil. Parental love is far more important in the books than romantic love–which is perfectly appropriate for a book about an orphan that begins when he’s ten years old.

Nowadays, though, Rowling has been stretching her wings into literary satire (The Casual Vacancy) and crime fiction (as Robert Galbraith). Perhaps now she’s beginning to see how romance might have figured in the latter books of the series, or at least in the leap to the epilogue “nineteen years later.” (I’ve always wondered, why nineteen? Judging by the age of the kids, that means everyone had 6-7 years of therapy after the war before they got back together? Clearly that’s when the torrid Draco/Harry affair would have taken place… Ahem.)

At any rate, as I said, I felt the characters had grown and changed by the time the seventh book rolled around, and maybe they should have been given a chance to continue on those trajectories, instead of being pinned by a predestiny that Rowling had dreamed up before she herself had been through the journey. Because the JK Rowling of today is not the JK Rowling who was writing Goblet of Fire. And the JK Rowling who was writing Deathly Hallows wasn’t even the same person as the one writing Goblet of Fire. You change, you grow. You can only be the writer that you are at the moment you are writing. And once the book leaves your hands, the WRITING lives on as a testament to that moment, to those thoughts, to those feelings.

Anyone who tries to claim things a writer says later are as important or “canonical” as what lands in the book is simply wrong. We have to go by what ended up on the actual pages exactly BECAUSE writers can change their minds and their feelings, as Rowling’s have. Unless it ends up on the page, it’s even wilder speculation when it comes from the writer than it is when a fan speculates! What gets on the page is the tip of the iceberg of the writer’s imagination. That 10% you can see? You can also think of it as the cream that rises to the top. The rest is fascinating to think about, but it could be dreck. That’s why it didn’t end up on the page in the first place, sometimes.

I know there were many fans in the early days of Harry Potter fandom who were rooting for a Harry/Hermione relationship. Maybe they were picking up on the mixed signals JKR was putting into the books because of her own ambiguous feelings. But if we’re going to talk about mixed signals, well, we Harry/Draco shippers have a whole lot of evidence to present on that score…

Ahem. Revere J.K. Rowling for her achievement: these books are something far more significant and more subtle than anyone could have dreamed when “a kids series about a boy wizard” began to be published lo these many years ago. But don’t revere her opinions on what didn’t make it to the page. Consider them as curiosities, as something to tweak your critical faculties. But don’t take them as law. There is far too much going on in a writer’s head (and heart), and the reasons things end up on the page really do vary, with wish fulfillment, revenge, political agenda, favoritism, reactions to criticism, artistic ambition, and sleep-deprivation ALL playing a part. She’s not the person now that she was then, and the person she is now is not the writer who wrote those books.

The books exist. We must take them as they are. And so should J.K. Rowling.

P.S. Jo, please just go write a romance if that’s what you want. I guarantee lots of people will want to read it!

ctan
Writer, editor, baseball fan, bisexual, eastern healing therapist, etc...

14 Comments

  1. Beautifully said! As a teacher of literature, as opposed to (primarily) an author, I’d have to agree. I think the kind of background information we’re given makes a difference, too. I’m willing to give more credence to the information in Fantastic Beasts, Beedle the Bard, and Quidditch Through the Ages. Maybe they count as the books themselves.

    I think it’s interesting what the author has to say, but once it’s published, it’s out there.

    I see this problem when teaching Shakespeare all the time. It’s the obsession with biography, with finding out what he “really” meant, and that leads to coming up with fake candidates for who “must have” written his plays–when a play is probably the most collaborative and mutable forms of literature!

    1. So true, so true.

      I’m having a hell of a time with the background stuff in Pottermore. It’s like it’s nice to see all these background notes, but once you start reading them you realize that, among other problems, they contradict the canon in some places, and they contradict each other often. So they’re a fascinating glimpse into ideas the writer had, but you can’t really take them as LAW, either. Or, you know, the books are the Torah and Pottermore is the mishnah, or something like that…

  2. Ohhhh, yeah. For all the reasons you so eloquently break out, I have always felt the Harry/Ginny relationship was pastede on yay. It was like she had built Ginny to be a revisit of Lily and was absolutely convinced that Harry and Ginny were her OTP, but was utterly unwilling to do the work of convincing the readers of that pairing.

    She also has the Lois Lane/Superman problem — the idea that 19 years after these people were child soldiers, they would somehow still be with people who were kind of their childhood sweethearts but not always, just because they all had some sort of shared history.

    And there’s so much more evidence for Harry/Draco than Harry/anyone else it’s just not funny. “I’ve got to see what Draco Malfoy is doing inside you!!!”

    Also, if she’s going to backpedal this way, JK needs to roll out an apology for being so nasty and mocking toward Harry/Hermione shippers. She did it in interviews, and then she put in that vicious little scene in book 7. I’m not and never have been an H/H shipper, but reading that scene made me SUPER uncomfortable.

    Hermione/Ginny 4ever! ;)

    1. As I recall it, it wasn’t JKR who was vicious to the Harmony shippers, it was other fans. There’s an interview she did with The Leaky Cauldron where the Leaky folks used the words “delusional” to describe Harry/Hermione fans, and JKR disagreed–that’s the only one I can think of. I managed to miss a lot of that, just because I was so deeply in slash fandom that I only heard about what was happening in Harmony-land sort of second hand.

      I still don’t really understand why so many who loved the idea of Harry/Hermione we so invested in it getting onto the page, and once it seemed like it wasn’t going to happen, it was like they lost the will to imagine it anymore. I didn’t understand that at all. Almost EVERY fanfic ship exists because it’s NOT something that is going to make it to the page, and I don’t just mean slash because there wasn’t going to be a gay love story on the page in the book (just tragic ones off the page, don’t get me started on Dumbledore and Grindelwald…). I mean other het ships too, like Luna/Harry, Hermione/Draco, etc. I never understood how if Snape DEATH couldn’t sink the Snape/Harry or Snape/Draco ships, why did Harry kissing Ginny burst the Harmony bubble? What if Ginny turned out to be just a convenient fling? An oedipal thing? Or whatever? I’m not saying the Harmonians were wrong in any way, or “did fandom wrong,” I’m just saying I didn’t understand what happened, and clearly I do it differently, I guess.

      1. Yeah, I was always somewhat baffled by that. Maybe it was because it *seemed* so “logical” according to the usual narrative conventions.

        I never actually thought Harry was likely to be good relationship material for ANYONE. I’ve always suspected that if Harry and Draco got together, Draco would eventually dump him for being too dysfunctional…

        1. I think the whole “hero has to get the girl” convention was driving a lot of it, yeah, especially since it seemed like Hermione was “the girl” for a lot of it. I remember when Dan Radcliffe started doing the interview rounds of like the Today Show and Good Morning America around the 3rd or 4th movie, and of course the twee interviewers couldn’t help but ask him about stuff like, tee hee, you’re a teenage boy and what about your character and Hermione when are they getting together?? Because there was completely an expectation on their part that of course that was going to happen.

          (And each time, Daniel could have said “well you ignoramus if you had read the books you’d know that shortly I’ll be mooning after a Chinese Scottish girl” but he didn’t. I do remember him saying, a couple of times, “oh, she and Ron are totally a thing, though, you know?”)

  3. This feels to me like “Sayers syndrome” – an author who has fallen in love with her own creation, and, since she can’t be with him herself, places the character she’s written as her own virtual clone in that position instead. It’s a little bit funny and a little bit tragic, IMO. And I couldn’t agree more about the epilogue – I kind of liked Neville/Luna (although I did and do think that if Harry, against all odds, turned out to be heterosexual, he’d have been likelier to wind up with Luna than any of the others), but Hermione/Ron was kind of a yawn and Ginny/Harry just stupid.

    Although het stuff doesn’t do much for me, I must confess to a sneaky fondness for fics in which Hermione winds up with Draco. Aside from the whole “visible symbol of redemption” thnf, I think they’d be rather good for each other.

    1. I thought Neville/Luna made a lot of sense (and in fact the Hollywood movie versions went with that) but JKR came right out and said in an interview that felt “too neat” so in her mind she married Neville to one of the really boring girls (Hannah Abbott), and sent Luna off adventuring the world. In other words, in JKR’s world, no one ever really changes from her first childhood impressions of them, and all the heroic development of Neville, as well as all evidence of what he’s interested in (herbology, etc) is completely erased and he supposedly becomes a tavern keeper.

      It’s really interesting to me that the Hermione/Draco ship only really launched AFTER the series ended. I think because until then a lot of people never really thought about what was going on with Draco. Especially after MOVIE number 6 came out, which showed much more of Draco’s angst from the outside POV instead of from Harry’s rather biased POV, a ton of fans suddenly realized, hey, there’s a lot going on with this kid. We’ve been hating him as a one-dimensional villain for laughs all these years, but he’s rather a victim, and also rather smart.

  4. I think the first three books are literature for the ages. Accessible to quite young audiences, but so well told and conceived that they are the proper myths of our time.

    But beyond that, she had the universe and characters that people had become attached to, and a few scattered good ideas, but it was not nearly of the same quality. She can weave a yarn, so she dutifully did, using the elements she had already established and an admittedly erudite view of the times we all live in. But the increasing complexity of older characters just wasn’t her thing. Romance was only a part of that. The exaggerated brooding was another. The brooding was close enough to realistic, though its constancy was a stretch. But it wasn’t entertainingly told.

    The stories started out as variations on what she would have told her then pre-literate child. She would have done better, IMO, had she been interested in writing more stories in the same vein.

    1. I think a large part of the dip in quality of the later books also falls on the shoulders of her editors, who stopped editing her and having full re-writes, and instead tore the manuscripts from her hands and published them as nearly first drafts. She has said that Order of the Phoenix, which has so much CAPSLOCK HARRY would have been shorter and with much less Occlumency and brooding if she had been given the opportunity to thoroughly rewrite it. But by that time the income of the entire book industry was hinging on her publisher making their deadlines and there wasn’t time. A shame, as I think the books would have been richer and better if given that chance.

  5. Thank you for such an interesting article. I enjoyed reading both it and the comments to date. I agree with a lot of the points made.

    With regard to the whole marrying school chums bit – I think the number of suitable “mates” that these magical children would come across, would be pretty small. There is no mention ever made of any other magical school in GB, so one can only assume that all the magically gifted children went to Hogwarts. As Hermione was a bit of an oddity in having Muggle parents, then most of the kids would have been pretty much immersed in a wholly magical world where the only “mates” they came across went to Hogwarts. If you see what I mean!

    1. Among the things JKR tried not to answer in the canon: exactly how many students go to Hogwarts, how large the magical population is, etc. She said she was vague on purpose. So we can only speculate! You have got me thinking about this now.

      There definitely is a somewhat limited population, but I can’t imagine that each girl’s mating prospects were actually restricted to the 7-8 boys named in her year at Hogwarts. And we have a fair amount of evidence that it’s acceptable for wizarding pairs to be quite far apart in age: Bill/Fleur (7 years apart), Remus/Tonks (13 years apart).

      One of the questions that comes up all the time for me: did everyone in the UK actually go to Hogwarts, or only the privileged? Did Stan Shunpike go to Hogwarts, for example? And is there higher education in the wizarding world? If there is, I can’t imagine Hermione wouldn’t have gone on to university and probably graduate studies, as well. One presumes there is some form of higher education, else where/how did Snape become a Potions “Master”?

      I kind of thing rather than there only being limited prospects, it’s more likely JKR is more comfortable playing with the dolls she already has in her toybox, rather than inventing new ones. But you could be right–it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *