Can Writers Be Wrong About Their Own Stories?

*Spoiler alert if you have not finished the Harry Potter series. You have been warned.*

So, apparently J. K. Rowling shocked the Muggle world today by admitting that she is second-guessing Ron and Hermione’s relationship:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she adds. “I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.” (via CNN)

Um, what?

You’ve got to be kidding me.

So, apart from the fact that this interview will probably be the cause of much consternation amongst some of my students, it also got me thinking.

1) First of all, though I have some reservations about the series, I have always been a big fan of Ron, Hermione and their relationship. They seemed to me to be two of the most lovable and best-drawn characters–surpassing Harry himself by far. Their relationship, too, always struck me as endearing and authentic.

2) What never seemed authentic to me was something even more central to the plot: the whole Harry sacrificing-himself-at-the-end-and-dying-but-not-really. It seemed like a very poorly executed semi-Jesus-like resurrection that had none of the gravity and devastation of the real thing. The way the Potter series built to its final climax, especially within the context of its semi-pagan magical universe, it seemed proper for Harry to die for his friends, and stay dead.

In fact, I believe the series would have been much better if Harry had died. (Most of my students protest vehemently).

3) I think Rowling is wrong about Ron and Hermione, and about Harry’s cheap resurrection at the end of the series.

4) But can authors be wrong about their own stories?

I am usually inclined to say no.

On the one hand, I despise any kind of literary criticism that attempts to explain a story in terms of its author’s own psychology, history, and sexual/social/economic/political anxieties. Furthermore, I am usually much more aligned with the New Critical school’s attention to the dignity and authority of the text itself than most other approaches that seem to foist their own agendas on a text.

But Rowling herself seemed to apply the very sort of literary criticism I hate to her own work:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really,” Rowling says in the interview. “For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.” (emphasis added)

So, according to Rowling, she was wrong about her own story. She gave into personal wishes and ignored the demands of “literature” by putting Ron and Hermione together.

I think this personal wish fulfillment (or, perhaps, pressure from her readership?) was much more obviously the case when she resuscitated Harry from the odd limbo-esque train station.

But apart from all of this, what about the real question?

It first occurred to me in a meaningful way in college when I was reading Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. There’s a strange moment in that story when I really thought Woolf might be wrong about her own character. I was afraid to say this outright in my paper, so I raised the question and moved on without really answering it.

I add this because I believe Woolf to be a far superior writer to Rowling (obviously) and I don’t think the answer is simply: mediocre/bad writers are often wrong about their own writing, good writers never are.

There’s a curious relationship between a human author and his text that reflects something of God’s own relationship to creation that, I suspect, is involved in all this.

More to come.



See also Leah Libresco’s take: “Fantastic News! (with one bitter note)” over at Unequally Yoked

And Elizabeth Scalia’s take: “Harry and Hermione, Agape and Narrative Thrust – What Do You Think?” at The Anchoress

Oh so many thoughts.



See the really long comment I added for this post, in which I copied and pasted a bunch of awesome thoughts from friends who commented on this on Facebook. I plan on replying and incorporating some of these into my next post, so I thought it only fair for you to see the lively discussion.

2 thoughts on “Can Writers Be Wrong About Their Own Stories?

  1. My Facebook replies are too good not to post here:

    Will: spending time in MFA-land has persuaded me that authors are very very very very often “wrong” about their own texts. this is not necessarily a problematic thing.
    17 hours ago · Like

    Amanda: What if you ask the question from the other end of things, and on a much smaller level? So, when you’re writing, and you’re about to write the next sentence, can the next sentence be “wrong” in any non-technical sense? I mean it can be wrong grammatically, but maybe that makes it right stylistically (like e.e. cummings). Maybe all JK meant was that ron and hermione getting together was thematically wrong. I’m not sure you can treat a work of literature as the kind of entity that can be “wronged” in a personal sense.
    16 hours ago · Like

    Joseph: No one said anything about “wronging” the work of literature. It’s about properly understanding it–just like I can be wrong about what you’re thinking, even though in doing so I’m not necessarily “wronging” you. If a moral element sometimes creeps into our language, it’s because misunderstanding someone often involves “wronging” them morally, and works of art, while not persons, are kinda like persons; we like pretending they’re our friends.
    14 hours ago · Unlike · 1

    Will: except for Finnegans Wake. nobody wants to pretend like they are friends with that.
    14 hours ago · Like · 1

    Joseph: The question of composition is an entirely different one from interpretation; the author who misunderstands her work is like the parent who misunderstands her child after the child grows up, while the author who errs in writing her work is like the parent who raises her child poorly. Can a compositional choice be incorrect? Yes, if it makes the composition worse than some other easily accessible option. Works of literature are often wrong, that is, worse than they could have been. Though it’s difficult to precisely define “easily accessible,” it’s basic logic is pretty clear; we can’t blame Harry Potter for failing to be Hamlet, but we can say, for example, “Dobby was a pointless character and the book would have been better without him.” Unfortunately people often succumb to this weird fantasy where everything the author does is right because it’s what she did. It’s BS.
    14 hours ago · Like · 1

    Joseph: Or, pretty much any postmodernist novel, Will. Who wants to be friends with Blood Meridian or White Noise?
    14 hours ago · Like

    Will: I know many people who claim to be true bosom buddies with White Noise. I always back slowly out of the room when they tell me this.
    14 hours ago · Like

    Joseph: Oh, and as far as the Ron-Hermione thing goes, I pretty much stopped paying attention to what Rowling said about HP when I realized she just says something shocking every once in a while b/c she’s afraid people will forget about her.
    14 hours ago · Like

    Amanda: But Joseph, Rowling wasn’t talking about being wrong in her understanding of the Harry Potter books, she was talking about being wrong in composing it. Of course anyone can misunderstand a work that’s written, but can you misunderstand it when you’re writing it and then say you wrote it wrong afterward? Being wrong in her compositional choice is what I think Rowling meant… being wrong in some technical aspect of her writing. But Maura seemed to be positing that authors can be wrong about their works in another way, and I’m curious what way that would be.
    I also disagree that works of literature are “wrong” because they are “worse than they could have been.” I’m pretty sure that makes all literature wrong and that seems like an abuse of the word “wrong.”
    14 hours ago · Like

    John: I think that there is a way that authors can, in a sense, be wrong about their own work. Perhaps the best examples would be those who have movies made of their book and actually think changes made for the sake of the movie are actually truer to the spirit of the work, e.g. Stephen King and “The Mist”.

    Rowling says she was wrong in sticking too closely to the original concept when the way events were playing out as she wrote them were leading in a different direction, but couldn’t she also be wrong in the sense of projecting something onto the characters that others who have now followed the major events of six years of those characters’ lives don’t see?
    11 hours ago · Like

    Joseph: Amanda, your last point is the reason I insisted on “easily accessible way.” All works of literature could be improved, but not all works of literature could be improved by trivial changes. Some works of literature are local maxima.
    8 hours ago · Like

    Joseph: I also don’t see any reason why an author couldn’t, as you said, “misunderstand it when you’re writing it and then say you wrote it wrong afterward.” That’s something that happens often in real life, and literature is part of life–there’s not necessarily anything metaphysically special going on with authorship. I’m going to appeal again to the parenting analogy. “I misunderstood my child when I was raising it. I see that now.” A parent could easily say that, and be right about it. A parent could also easily say it wrongly; just because she now thinks she made a mistake, doesn’t mean she did.
    8 hours ago · Like

    Joseph: The parenting analogy is useful because the other natural analogy, to practical crafts e.g. table-making, provokes the intuitive response “But we all know what good and bad tables are, while we can’t say for certain what a good or bad work of literature would be!” True–in this way works of literature are more like children. It’s difficult to say what makes a child good or bad, or to say how much of that is the parent’s responsibility, but still, we’re comfortable making all sorts of judgments about child-rearing, and letting parents make judgments about their own childrearing. I see no reason why authorship in particular should make us wary of such statements.
    8 hours ago · Like

    Joseph: Rowling saying “I should have written it so Harry and Hermione got together, I only wrote it otherwise for personal reasons” is rather like a mother saying “I should have let my child take up an instrument, I only didn’t because I hated piano lessons as a child myself, but I realize now he would have enjoyed it.”
    8 hours ago · Like

    Molly: I always wanted Harry and Hermione to end up together…I’m still disappointed. Ron was so…average. Likeable, but average. It just seems like in real life Hermione would get bored with Ron.
    7 hours ago · Like

    Maura: If it’s okay with everyone, I’m including some of your great ideas as a comment on this blog entry. I’ll only use your first names. That way, I can more easily respond to the things you have said in my next post. Message me if you would rather I not use your comment.
    2 hours ago · Like

    Molly: Side notes on your updates: I am totally on board for Unequally Yoked’s reasoning that Ron and Hermione shouldn’t have ever ended up together…but she loses me with Luna and Harry (goodness gracious. no.) I don’t dislike Ginny and having read the first comment on the Anchoress’ post about Harry just wanting a family and an ordinary life–it’s not that I think Ginny is a bad match for him, I just wanted to see him and Hermione together (or at least acknowledge that a Ron and Hermione match up was at best unrealistic.)

  2. If it was any other author, I would be devastated if they said they wanted to change the ending for their characters. If C.S. Lewis said “You know, realistically, Lucy would probably end up like Susan…” I’d probably throw a fit. But J. K. Rowling – or her fans, I’m not really sure who started this – has already tried to make her “characters” into “people.” I’m talking about how Hogwarts and Harry have a timeline in the real world:
    I think it’s pretty ridiculous to say “Harry Potter started Hogwarts in 1991 and now he’s 30-something.” I think Rowling has already made too big a deal out of her characters (including the discussion of Dumbledore’s personal life), and anything she has said since the last book was published is just a publicity gimmick. She can write another 7 books with this “alternate timeline” of Hermione getting together with Harry and people will buy them. But to put Rowling next to fantasy writers such as Tolkien and Lewis, not to mention Woolf, doesn’t make sense.

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