Yes, Writers Can Be Wrong About Their Own Stories

Of course, as my friends pointed out to me, it depends what you mean by “wrong.”

As Joseph says,

“[Rightness or wrongness in literature is] 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. (See comment in previous post)

I like the idea that works of literature are sort of like persons. We can be mistaken about them. We can be mistaken about them even if we ourselves gave birth to them–if we were their authors.

In my previous post, I mentioned that the whole J. K. Rowling regretting her Ron and Hermione romance was making me think about the relationship of authors to their own writing, and that I believed this has something to do with God’s relationship to Creation.

Theologians often say that we are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis) insofar as we have free will–we can choose to love or not to love. The more we choose to love, the more like God we are. In other words, we, as creatures, are better the more we conform to our Creator.

1) Now I think that being in the “image and likeness” of God has lots of other repercussions as well, and I am starting to wonder if literature is one of them. Not only do human beings share in God’s creative act when they beget children–they also share in God’s creative act (analogously) when they “beget” literature. Like God, they create entire worlds, possibilities, lives and choices. Unlike God, human beings are not capable of bestowing free will in a true sense on their characters as God does upon us. Whether they like it or not, characters conform to the will of the human author.

2) God, obviously, is always “right” about his creation. He is right in the sense of composition–how He created us. He is right in his perspective–He sees us as we truly are. Though some people quarrel with the whole “free will” plot element, since that leads to sin, suffering and death, Christians nevertheless believe that this plot twist is essential to God’s greater story for us, and will make sense when we finally arrive at the last chapter. (See also the chapter on the crucifixion and resurrection.)

3) Human beings, however, are not always right about their “creations”–whether we are speaking about real children or fictional characters and plots. They can be wrong in the sense of composition–how they raise their children or what qualities and techniques they use to make their characters. They can also be wrong in their sense of perspective–human beings do not see their own children, or their own stories for that matter, as they truly are.

Again, 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. (Ibid)

It is in this last sense–interpretation–that I believe J. K. Rowling is mistaken or “wrong” about Ron and Hermione. It is in the former sense–composition–that I believe she is “wrong” in her resuscitation of Harry in book seven.

But Amanda raises an interesting question:

But […] 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. (Ibid)

In response, I would also claim that while J. K. Rowling believes her error lay in the composition of Ron and Hermione’s romance, I believe she is actually wrong in her interpretation. This is rather a bold thing to claim, because obviously I am not J. K. Rowling and she knows better than I do why she was motivated to create the story that she did. Maybe those reasons were “personal,” as she stated. Yet whatever they were, I think her composition of that particular romance was, in fact, successful and appropriate, even though she believes now that her composition was flawed.

I could write an entire post or two on why I believe she is wrong, but I will contain myself to just a quote from Rosenberg’s article:

[…] It’s so sad that Rowling appears to be treating Ron and Hermione’s relationship as a kind of fan service that she was too weak to resist. Love isn’t always immediate, and it doesn’t always come from a place of strength. Sometimes love is strongest between people who have seen each other at their ugliest and most damaged. […] Ron knew Hermione when she was a priggish scold and a coward. Hermione knew Ron when his privilege was exposed and his will broke. That they love each other anyway, and that they help each other become heroes, is a truer illustration of the power of love than the idea that it’s magic. (Rosenberg)

But apart from enjoying Rowling’s books, what actually gets me interested in all this is the question of authority: who has it in literature?

In some ways, I am inclined to the think the author of a work has more credible authority on the meaning of that work than most readers. I see this all the time in the classroom. There are many letters in which Flannery O’Connor expresses her frustration at the lack of understanding among her readers.

And yet, in both the Rowling and Woolf example, and in others, I am finding that oftentimes authors don’t know their creations quite as well as they may believe.

This seems to me to be rather mysterious but also very natural.

When Flannery O’Connor says, “I write to discover what I know,” she is hinting at a rather remarkable truth about language — that it is not only expressive, but revelatory. The one who speaks–or writes–has just as much to discover in the process of writing as the reader does in the process of reading.

In some ways, the finished work has a kind of integrity apart from the author. It is a created thing, and while it does not exactly have free will, it does have a kind of independence.

This is why readers can find things in a work an author never intended to put there. But sometimes those things are very much there. Sometimes the reader sees things the author does not.

It is very amazing to me that works of literature can actually contain truths that the creator did not intend or even understand. We see this most especially with Scripture–because of hidden Divine inspiration behind the human authorship–but we can also see it in more ordinary pieces of literature.

The truth about human relationships can be discovered in J. K. Rowling’s work even if she herself has not discovered it.

Serena brought to my attention a wonderful article that follows this line of thinking:

“What J. K. Rowling’s Ron and Hermione Bombshell Tells us About True Love and Harry Potter” by Alyssa Rosenberg

A taste:

[I]t is interesting to me that Rowling apparently regrets what I see as some of the most sensitively written and emotionally well-realized passages in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as an error of judgement.

Brianna also found a great article about this whole shenanigans you should read:

“Why we shouldn’t care who Hermione Granger dated” by Marama Whyte

A taste:

Following the bombshell, many Potter fans have divided angrily along the old shipping lines – Harry Potter vs Ron Weasley. But one character has been distinctly overlooked in the heated debates that have followed – Hermione Granger, the woman at the centre of both (potential) relationships. It seems like everyone has their own opinion on who Hermione is best suited for.

But why do we care?

Yes. Why indeed?

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.