J.K. Rowling announced the names of some new wizarding schools recently. Actually, she’d announced most of them a few years ago, but people hadn’t noticed. Then they did, and some fans and readers took issue with her announcement. For what she said, or what she didn’t say, and also how she said it. While there were valid reasons for this particular upset, I couldn’t help thinking—this happens to J.K. Rowling a lot.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means when a writer creates a fictional world. And what she’s entitled to in creating it. And how fandom handles their decisions to interact with it. And when it’s “time” to walk away, if such a time ever exists. I’ve been thinking about it because Rowling has done something unprecedented with her world—shifting mediums as she tells her story—and what she does will inform generations of creators. I’ve been thinking about it because I’m happy to have more Potter in my life… but not everyone feels that way.
When J.K. Rowling finished the Harry Potter series, the world buzzed about what her next step might be. Would she write more books about Harry? More in the Potter universe? Books in completely new worlds? Would her new stories be genre-based? Would she retire with her massive wealth and sit atop a mountain of galleons like a respectable dragon? Rowling claimed that a Potter encyclopedia would happen at some point, but that she had no plans for more books in her wizarding world.
But nowhere did she claim she had left the universe for good.
If we want to get specific, Rowling first said she that had no plans to write anymore Potter books following the release of Deathly Hallows… but that she knew she couldn’t be certain on that account: “Um, I think that Harry’s story comes to quite a clear end in Book Seven but I’ve always said that I wouldn’t say ‘never.’ I cant say I’ll never write another book about that world just because I think what do I know, in ten years time I might want to return to it, but I think its unlikely.” That was in an interview with Jonathan Ross in 2007. By 2010, she had told Oprah that another book was possible in an interview. And she was careful about holding onto the rights for Potter, refusing to let Warner Brothers develop it as a movie series unless they guaranteed that she would be able to dictate any sequels they ever created on film.
And yet, it seems that some fans did interpret these statements as an admission that Rowling was done with Potter—that the encyclopedia would fill in some gaps of knowledge, and then they would be left to their own fannish devices. Because when people think of their favorite book series, it rarely occurs to them that said series might be allowed to continue in a different medium. It’s one thing to write more books or to adapt Rowling’s story to film… but to expand that universe with more films that fit alongside the books she wrote? And also a two-part play following one of Harry’s kids? And those little “articles” written by Ginny Potter about 2014’s Quidditch World Cup? Who knows what could come after that—a webcomic? A virtual reality Hogwarts?
It is important to note that these are not reboots—they are continuations. More importantly, they are continuations that are not other books. And that has proved fascinating when it comes to how fans and audiences interact with different mediums, what they consider “official” in their favorite universes. Take the infamous “Pottermore” website, for example.
Now retooled in a shiny new blog-friendly format, when Rowling first launched Pottermore it was heavily maligned for its over-cluttered layout, impossible navigation, and other issues. The first problem was that you had to register for the site to read any of the interesting material, and registering was a trial in and of itself. (You couldn’t even pick your own username, one was assigned to you. Mine was “StoneStrike” with a bunch of random numbers tacked on.) The second problem was that the content was presented in a ridiculously complex format, forcing the user to pace virtually through rooms or environments designated by chapters in the books. Eventually, Rowling’s team got wise and started to inform Pottermore registrants of relevant new content, but it was always a pain to locate.
Despite these annoyances, the website contained a lot of new and descriptive backstory for the main series—details about wand lore, magical political history, and even Harry’s own parents were all included. Even though Pottermore appeared to contain information originally planned for the encyclopedia, Potter fandom seemed dismissive of it. Could it be that they respected the idea of a bound and printed book more than what was published on the internet? Did putting this information on Pottermore make it less valid to Rowling’s readers? It would hardly be surprising if that was the case—many people feel the same way about anything published online at all. We believe that books are more carefully researched, vetted, and edited than what we find on the internet. We believe that the printed word has more weight.
This is not the only time Rowling’s say-so has been deemed less-than adequate, though; her outing of Dumbledore at a Deathly Hallows reading after the book’s release has often been a sticking point with fans. Some believe she played it safe by never putting it in the books, some believe she wasn’t obligated to if it wasn’t relevant to Harry’s story. Still others insist that if it didn’t appear in the books, Dumbledore’s identity as a gay man didn’t “count.” Again, there was an issue of presentation, the idea that words spoken were somehow worth less than what was printed on the page. So how will Potter fans react to new content when it’s shaped into other forms of media? After all, most fans of the series would never call their film counterparts “canon.” But Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them will be an extension of canon in every sense, even if originates on screen. And that’s going to change some things.
There are plenty of fans who would prefer if Rowling left the Potter-verse alone. She got Harry’s story out, and now they want room to roll around in her sandbox without her continued input. The idea is that fandom has been filling in the information gaps with their own ideas for years now, their own creations. Every time Rowling puts her stamp on another piece of Potter media, or makes an announcement via Twitter, she’s drawing more lines for the fandom community to color inside. And some people wish she would just stop adding lines, stop making harder to color, stop ruining the beautiful pictures they had already put so much love and time and creative energy into.
This sentiment bugs the heck out of me, though I understand why some fans might feel that way. J.K. Rowling is the reason why Harry Potter exists. It is her creation, her intellectual property, her playground, her toy box, her fill-in-your-own-metaphor. We have no right to tell her when she should walk away, even if we’re not fond of what she offers next. Because—and this is the really important part—she never decided she was done with it in the first place.
This sets Rowling apart from some of her creative counterparts. There have been plenty of situations where creators have stepped away from their works (intentionally or not) and found subsequent material lacking or far from their original vision. This occurs often in the comics community; writers and artists creating characters who are then taken up by new writers and artists, those characters then changing beyond their recognition. It creates a different relationship with fandom in those instances—situations where the community has to make their own decisions about what they consider “valid” or canonical.
Television and film are incredibly fuzzy in this regard; for example, Gene Roddenberry lost his controlling interest of Star Trek when he sold it to Paramount in the early seventies in exchange for a third of the ongoing profits. From that point on, Paramount was never obligated to give Roddenberry control over any Trek project (though they did for the first couple seasons of The Next Generation, fearing that fans might turn away from the show if he wasn’t involved). It has created an interesting atmosphere for Trek fans—there is a camp who prefers that Star Trek always adhere in spirit to something they call “Gene’s vision” of the future. On the other side, there are plenty of fans who are perfectly happy for new writers and creators to experiment on the Trek landscape, citing how often it led to good content, like with Nicolas Meyers’ story for the sixth film The Undiscovered Country and the Deep Space Nine series as a whole (which Roddenberry was dubious about at its early conception prior to his death—many of his friends and coworkers have disputed whether or not the show would have pleased him at all).
Then we have situations like George Lucas’ involvement in Star Wars, something that polarizes fandom communities the world over. While there are a core group of fans who believe that Lucas should have leave to do whatever he likes with his behemoth creation, many were distressed and angered over his revisionism with the original films, and the lack of cohesion brought by the prequels. His sale of Star Wars to the Disney empire brought another wave of concern, parried by relief. Then Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released without any input whatsoever from Lucas, and his ire came out—he publicly aired his grievances with the film in a long interview with Charlie Rose, insisting that Disney had taken a “retro” approach to prey on nostalgia, and that he would have done something much different (though he has neglected to give specifics on what his plans were).
To be clear: George Lucas sold Star Wars for millions upon millions of dollars. He washed his hands of the thing, beloved to him or not. And then when he didn’t like what he saw, he had no problem telling the world that the creative team who put so much hard work into Episode VII had not lived up to his expectations. I point out these examples because I have no intention of suggesting that the creator is always right (and “right” is too vague of the word in the first place, but there isn’t another word that seems to work better) about their own work, or that they are entitled to stomp on the efforts of other creatives for extending a mythology that they’ve effectively let go.
And yet J.K. Rowling has done none of those things. She has not ceded control of her rights to the Potter characters, she has not maligned the filmmakers and producers and actors who have had access to her work. She has never made a big announcement to the world that she was done with Harry Potter for good, that she never wanted to hear his name in relation to hers again. Instead, she took a brief break from her universe (a very brief one, if we’re counting her substantial involvement with the first eight Potter films up until 2010), and then dove back in when she had more stories to tell.
So what is the problem then, exactly? Rowling has always been quite active on social media, constantly answering the questions of fans via Twitter, and making her positions on the Potter-verse clear. For some, it is a treat—such as when she recently dismissed fans who had any problems with the casting of black actor Noma Dumezweni as Hermione in the upcoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. For others, it is an opportunity for Rowling to make herself look good in places where they believe she’s fallen down on representation and other important issues.
For example, when one fan asked Rowling whether or not there were any Jewish students at Hogwarts, she gave the name of Anthony Goldstein, a Ravenclaw who appears in the books. Another fan asked whether or not LGBT+ students were welcome at Hogwarts, which Rowling answered in the affirmative. Then when Rowling announced the names and backgrounds of four new wizarding schools—three which had already been identified on Pottermore in previous years—there were fans who were displeased that Uagadou, a wizarding school in Uganda, was listed simply as an “African” school. After all, Africa is an entire continent, not a country, and two of the other schools—Castelobruxo and Mahoutokoro—were listed by their respective countries, Brazil and Japan. (Though Ilvermorny, in the United States, was listed as the North American school, interestingly.) When Rowling was confronted with the mistake, she apologized and quickly corrected the error, informing fans of Uagadou’s precise location and changing the listing on Pottermore.
Rowling seems to have little issue with being taken to task when she’s questioned over the world she has built and how she represents it. But some fans view her behavior to mean that she believes she’s allowed to make herself—and her books—look better by being revisionist about their content. (And this is a big issue between fandom and creators, as the constant drama of George Lucas’ revisionist attitude over the original Star Wars trilogy proves; very few fans accept the idea of a creator editing their original content for the sake of a glossy CGI sheen.) After all, we don’t ever see LGBT students at Hogwarts, so why would be assume that the school was a safe place for them? Hogwarts celebrates Christian holidays, but does Anthony Goldstein get dispensation to go home during Jewish holidays as a Jewish student? Is it meddlesome overall to write a series of books that are primarily concerned with the magical world of the United Kingdom, and then open up years later about that wizarding world as it exists around the globe? Or is it a reasonable expectation of Rowling’s gradual worldbuilding?
Even if Rowling is adding these aspects into her world as a way of making her series more inclusive after-the-fact… is that actually a bad practice? Of course it would be better if Hogwarts had been more diverse from the beginning, if these books had shown an even wider variety of students, if we learned more about the wizarding schools and cultures outside of the UK and Europe years ago. But that doesn’t mean that Rowling is adding these elements to make herself “look better” to her readers. Writers are human, just like everyone else. They improve at their craft over time, like every good artist does. Just because Rowling’s books are concerned with equality and activism and the rights of sentient beings doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn about those topics ever again as a result. You don’t “learn equality” and then pat yourself on the back for the rest of your life. And if an author looks back at their work and finds it lacking, and they have the ability to expand it, to make it more inclusive—why would it be wrong for them to do that? Because they weren’t perfect at it the first time? Because fans think they should be allowed to fix it on the author’s behalf? Because there’s a half-life that authors and creators have with any given world they create?
And when I say all of this, I’m not trying to suggest that what fandom creates has no value. It does. It has momentous value. Fandom investment is its own currency, a covenant that they make with artists that they love. If that’s the case, what makes new creator-sanctioned material such a threat? The change in mediums is clearly a shakeup in this case, but fandom’s reticence to accept different types of media for one story is a symptom of this problem, not its cause. Do fans resent the idea that Rowling might be covertly revising her world in an effort to keep creating with the times? Perhaps, but that doesn’t account for where hostilities over revisionism and retconning come from in the first place.
What seems to bother fandom at large is the creator’s eminent domain over their own work. And while that may sound unreasonable to some, it is important to keep in mind that fans often put their whole lives into stories they adore—their hard-earned pay, their brainspace and their words, and their precious, precious time. When fans pour so much into their communities, only to have their thoughts and creations discounted once the author (or filmmaker or artist) has their say, it can lead to a lot of hurt… and sometimes a fair share of anger as well.
It’s ironic because when a creator expands their own universe, they are essentially doing the exact same thing that fans are doing every day—scribbling in the coloring book. But the work of a creator gets a stamp of authenticity from the general public that the work of a fan does not, and that lack of legitimacy can sting. (How many times have you tried to make an argument about your favorite TV show/book series/movie only to have someone say, “But the writer said _____ in an interview! So you’re wrong!”) Emotional investment aside, it changes nothing—fans can still create to their heart’s content. They can have their own narratives, alternate universes, theories and thoughts. But it doesn’t give them leave to wrestle a story away from a creator who hasn’t completed their narrative, regardless of quality or intention going forward. Fandom gives fans an infinite amount of space to explore the worlds they love… and that’s all. Yes, the subtleties of this social contract are complicated, yes, it is true that creators don’t always create content that fans enjoy. But we can celebrate the importance of fandom and fan works while still respecting an author’s right to create. And we should.
Because without all of these things, we would be left with very little to love.
J.K. Rowling Twitter top pic found here.
Emmet Asher-Perrin has a lot of headcanon built around Albus Potter that she knows she’s going to have to tamp down when she sees The Cursed Child. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.