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Why it’s a problem that J.K. Rowling builds diversity into her novels – post facto

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling has engaged fans on, among other things, how to pronounce Voldemort’s name. Reuters/Eliana Aponte

In his essay The Death of the Author, French literary theorist Roland Barthes proclaims that language is the origin of all texts. Authors then enter a “death” once their works are published, and the author’s interpretation of such work is of no more relevance than that of any other reader.

Barthes’ point is particularly relevant to the work and subsequent pronouncements of J.K. Rowling.

Since the publication of the final book in the Harry Potter series in 2007, Rowling – via Twitter as well as public talks and lectures – continues to illuminate apparent truisms within the fictional universe of her books. Her proclamations range from:

  • the way in which Voldemort’s name should be pronounced;

  • why Harry Potter named his son after Severus Snape; and

  • specifying the religious and sexual orientations of certain characters who inhabit Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Through her pronouncements Rowling refuses her literary death and attempts to position her personal voice as indicative of an ultimate narrative.

Rowling’s failure

The Huffington Post recently ran a piece which argues that Rowling’s continual disregard of her literary death only contaminates the beloved book series if readers allow it to.

The article suggests that one should refuse Rowling’s persistent tinkering and cast it as inconsequential. Although there is merit to this point, it does little to acknowledge Rowling’s failure at writing meaningful diversification into her books.

During her 2007 promotional book tour, Rowling attempted to “out” Albus Dumbledore, a lead character in the book series. Her response was met with the attending audience’s thunderous applause, causing her to respond:

I would have told you earlier if I knew it would make you so happy.

There is an implication here that by telling us earlier – within the books themselves – the author would have made us unhappy. Herein lies a base fear of much authorship within the Global North to disrupt readers’ heteronormative literary assumptions. Such assumptions are to remain intact if readers are to be “happy”.

Rowling’s posthumous stab at diversification was widely celebrated and caused her to assert the place of a LGBTI community within Hogwarts, as well as the presence of a number of Jewish characters. Neither were written into the books.

Rowling recently commended an interpretation of her work which reads Hermione Granger, a Hogwarts student, as black. This once again met with resounding approval from fans.

JK Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series. Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

We should, for numerous reasons, encourage decolonising interpretations of popular literature. But we should condemn Rowling’s cowardice at not explicitly disrupting the heteronormative assumptions that are couched within her writing. As Barthes argues, such a disruption only carries credence if it is written into the work, rather than after the fact.

A lack of diversity

Many readers’ homogenous assumptions were confirmed by the Harry Potter film adaptations, two of which are co-produced by Rowling. An estimated 99.53% of the dialogue across the eight films was delivered by white cast members.

It may be argued that it is not mandatory for all fiction to disrupt heteronormative thinking. But it seems clear that Rowling’s novels are not averse to antagonising some readers. However, the larger project of antagonising or problematising Western literature appears beyond their agenda.

Had Dumbledore been written as gay, Granger as black, or Anthony Goldstein as Jewish – three interpretations which have been asserted or endorsed by Rowling since publication – she may have diversified her fiction with a legitimate and powerful literary voice.

It may also be asserted that Rowling’s later interpretations and commendations are a signal of her guilt for what she has since realised to be an evasion of diversification in her fiction; her post-publication attempts at transformation effectively being better late than never. But such an argument acts to divert focus from Rowling making no attempt to dismantle or even acknowledge the oppressive social structures that birthed her implicitly homogenous character creation.

Rowling’s repeated assertion in the public sphere of such diversity represents her negation of meaningful, difficult, and necessary personal reflexive engagement with the social and political reasons her fiction lacks explicit diversity.

With the death of her literacy voice, Rowling’s interpretative voice – albeit more prolific than most – remains as insignificant as those passionately asserting their own culturally prejudicial readings of her work. Rowling’s reflection, rather than her inconsequential interpretive reparations, would be a far more significant means of engaging with the lack of diversity in her novels.

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