Red Hen Publications — Commentary Collection: At the End of Time
The Potterverse Essays

On Books, Reading, & Fandom


The day that we all knew would one day dawn, has dawned, its sun has traveled across the sky in its course, and, ultimately, has set upon the story of Harry Potter and the Dark Lord.

So. The end has come. The axe has fallen, and it us up to us to decide how we are going to deal with the resultant mess.

Or, whether to simply walk away from it.

Rather a lot of people have done exactly that. These are the readers who were merely readers, and not fans. For them, the story is over. Whether they liked or disliked the final installment of the series is immaterial. It’s over. He’s dead, Harry. Move on. A lot of them probably wandered back to see the two last movies, but they didn’t really intend to stick around. They never did.

Many, if not most, of those whom the publishers have most ardently courted and acknowledged over the past decades will also be in this category. Which is to say the young kids and the Middle-school set. These readers all have some pretty heavy demands on their time and attention without maintaining a continuing reference to Harry Potter as well. They have a whole Real World to figure out, and a limited amount of optimum time in which to do it. Along with the considerable challenge of finding their own place in it. No one can fault them for leaving Harry where Ms Rowling left him, and getting on with the job.

But I rather suspect that a great many of the fans that the publishers had determinedly averted their eyes from, and never acknowledged any more than they could avoid, which is to say, the adult fans, aren’t going to disappear anything like so conveniently. Not at all. This segment of the fandom has no intention of “going quietly”.

Although a number of them have, in fact, gone.

Indeed quite a few of them have already departed as noisily as they could manage. In a sulfurous-smelling cloud, in fact. And upon the whole I cannot much blame them. My opinion of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ was a matter of public record well before the previous rebuild of the Red Hen site was posted. My opinion has not changed. Indeed, it has intensified.

But, however eager many of us may have been for the day that Ms Rowling would be forced to turn the finished work over to us, we are not by any means finished with it yet. And we won’t be any time soon. She sold this series to the public, and quite a lot of that public is determined to keep it. It no longer belongs solely to “The Author”.

After all, The Author is dead.

The moment that Rowling signed off the final manuscript, she ceased to be “the Author”.

“The Author”, is not an actual person, after all, but a function. A function which does not exist at rest. Ms Rowling will, by courtesy, be acknowledged as having been The Author for the rest of her life. And as a consequence of having been The Author she is the only person (along with her publishers, agents, lawyers, and the rest of the whole conglomerate) who has the legal right to commercially profit directly from the story, the characters, and any other copyright material contained in the books.

But once a book has been published, The Author has no further power to affect it. Not unless the book goes into a new edition which has been rewritten or re-edited. And “The Author” never had the power to interpret it. Interpretation is, and has always been the function of “The Reader”. That function doesn’t exist at rest, either.

Once a book is longer being written, “The Author” ceases to exist. Ms Rowling is now is as powerless to modify the text of the books, as they currently stand, as we are. Regardless of how many ex-cathedra statements she may try to make in interviews, if she didn’t put it in the books, it isn’t in the books.

And, indeed throughout the first flurry of post-release interviews, one could not help but feel a certain degree of irritation with Ms Rowling’s apparent determination to push the Reader around and tell him how he should be reading the text (particularly when she couldn’t stick to the same story for more than 2 days running, and would immediately contradict herself). From my 3rd-party vantage point, if she has not presented her view of the story arc in a manner in which those views are the ones the reader will effortlessly form — and be satisfied with — then she has not done her job properly.

As of the summer of 2007, the Harry Potter sector of “Fandom” was suddenly more or less at the same point as the following of a popular television series is, exactly at the point that the show has been canceled, and the last episode aired, after a successful run of several years. There might be rumors of a movie or a mini-series with the promise of whatever new material those could introduce, but upon the whole the official canon is considered to be closed. Nothing that Ms Rowling choses to say now will affect any of the text as it exists within the covers of the books.

And we want it that way.

If it had to end, we want it to be over. We do not want the former-Author pushing us around and telling us what to decide about her work. It’s rude, and it’s uncalled for.

We will quite willingly listen to what she has to say about what she thought she was doing, but her opinions now no longer weigh with us any more heavily than out own. Nor should they. Particularly not when what she tells us contradicts what she has already told us — in writing, inside the books — and, moreover, changes every time she speaks of it. We are The Reader. The interpretation of the text is our function. Neither our function nor our purpose ended with the handing of money over to a cashier in a bookstore. That is where it began.

And we are now at liberty to pick and choose just what we will or will not concentrate upon, from the now allegedly complete range of the material that is currently available. Just as are the fans of that now defunct television series.

If we are fic writers, we can dismiss a weak 6th season from our own fanfic’s story arc, or choose what we consider promising from it, and dismiss the rest. In Potter fandom, “the rest” certainly includes any off-canon supplemental information contained in either Rowling’s statements about the books from interviews, any released notes, official website Easter eggs, the Black family tapestry sketch, or the films. Or, for that matter, Pottermore.

In fact, to be strictly accurate, by this point in time, much of the draw of fanfic is that it is not canon. Neither The Reader, nor the fans, have the power to affect canon. However, once canon is closed, we are now free to think “outside the box”, to the best of our ability, now that we know the actual dimensions of the box, without needing to try to anticipate whatever new curves The Author might decide to pitch at us. Canon compliance is no longer a major, or the major, consideration.

If we are artists, the same applies. Although artists have always had a reasonably free hand in interpreting the appearance of the characters.

If we are theorists, our already posted interpretations, wherever they diverged from the now revealed completed story arc thread are now unapologetically alternate interpretations, or potential plot bunnies.

• • • •

And while we are at it: let us disabuse ourselves of the fallacy which attempts to convince us that there are multiple “fandoms” out there. It is all just Fandom. It wears many different costumes, plays in a number of different sandboxes and writes its scripts to different standards on a case-by-case basis depending on just where you happen to be standing and the direction that you are currently looking. But really, it’s all the same thing. In fact, it is a very large thing, and no one can be everywhere at once in it. Fans explore Fandom at their whim. Sometimes they find one area and stay there for their entire period of involvement, or more usually they shift back and forth among a selected range of its general “play areas”.

Fandom operates very much like the food court at a mall. There’s the Chinese place, and the pizza place, and that counter with the logo of a hamburger chain that’s been around since the ’50s, and then there is the yogurt counter, and I guess you would call it an Italian place, since it serves pasta as well as pizza, and there’s somewhere that you can get a salad, and a deli. And maybe one day there is suddenly an Indian place or a Japanese place, or a créperie.

What you get at any of them is all is very much like what you would get at any other restaurant of the same “genre”, but you know perfectly well that you are not actually in China, or in Italy, and you are certainly not in the 1950s. Everything comes to you at at least one remove from its alleged source, but it’s tasty, it’s in the right style, it’s close enough, and you enjoy it.

Oh, sure, you could always stay home and cook dinner yourself. But sometimes that’s no fun, and if you are out in the mall already, why not let someone else do the dishes? And maybe sometimes you just want to go to the mall with a group of your friends and have pizza together.

And, after you’ve been going there a while you may decide that the food at the Chinese place is too oily, and the pizza is too salty, and that the people at the counter at the ’50s place are just plain rude, and you stop going to those altogether.

But nothing says you can’t try someplace else, and there is always someplace else. And maybe after a while you notice that the rude cashier is gone so you go back. And Fandom is still Fandom, whether you are dealing with a open-ended series, or one which was always known to be working toward a specific and final conclusion.

• • • •

The Harry Potter franchise of fandom was probably at its high-water mark in 2007. The books were complete. There were still two (eventually three) movies to go. It seemed possible that attrition could be delayed during the period that the final movies were in production, since each film seems to have brought in at least a few new fans of the series. But eventually the film series would be complete as well. By then, the casual readers and viewers will have wandered off in favor of whatever is generating a buzz at that point, leaving only the fans.

And there would still be a lot of them around. But they won’t be making headlines. The media will have moved on to monitor whatever is generating that new buzz.

An early salvo in most of the periodic attempts to start an in-depth Literature/Fiction/FanFiction discussion that tended to crop up on most of my lists usually had someone pointing out that most of the fandoms that generate reams of fanfiction are media-based followings tied to television, movies, or anime, rather than to books, and someone generally asks if this says something about the nature of JK Rowling’s work.

It’s a good call. There is a wide, but not often formally defined divide between “literature” and “storytelling”. There is also a wide separation in the reader or viewer’s reaction between having the “whole” story, and having only a part of it.

Book-based followings tend, like the media-based ones, to be character driven. It is the characters that the fans follow. The characters, and the situation, whether the situation is a time, a place, or a whole alternate reality. There are fans who are there for the worldbuilding rather than just the leading actors. But plot is usually secondary, and that is the part that the fans are most eager to unravel and rework to their own preferences.

In a media-based fandom, you have only the appearances of the characters, and whatever backstory gets dropped in as exposition. The followers of such a fandom usually are attempting to fill in the blanks. “Literary” fiction, or even most popular mainstream fiction usually already tells you everything you need to know. There is rarely any reason to expand upon it. Only occasionally does a character or a world manage to escape the page and refuse to be confined to it. In most cases the source for these escapees will be genre fiction. Which is to say, fantasy, science fiction, mystery and the like.

Ms Rowling to all appearances has quite deliberately given us a series with a lot of blanks to fill. And, what is more, she has done a less than stellar job of plugging the gaps herself. Even those gaps which really needed to be plugged. I think that if she had nailed down the plot and done a sounder job of consistently dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s, and making sure that the numbers added up, there would have been a far smaller group of people itching to work out what was going on, themselves. A hole, after all, constitutes an invitation to poke a finger in it. Plus, there is something about a certain level of rat’s nest which just makes you want to roll up your sleeves and straighten it out, and some pieces of machinery are so bizarre that they positively scream to be taken apart to see how they fit together.

Most popular media forms tend to fall into the category of pure storytelling. Rowling is a marginally competent writer. But she is a compelling storyteller. And, until the summer of ’07, probably more to the point, her story arc, although it had generated some 3300 pages of material, was still open. And therefore, to the fanfic community, a great many things still seemed possible in it. And where they were not, the fan author was as likely as not to just give an annoyed huff, and to proceed on their original course into what was now an AU (Alternate Universe).

One of the major differences between literature and storytelling is that in most “literature” the characters are so solidly nailed down that their actions attain a level of the inevitable which leaves the reader with very little wish to “play” with them. You’ll notice that although there have been any number of “Tolklones” professionally published in the past 40 years, there were bloody few LotR fanfics sitting around on the web before the first movie came out. Tolkein, after all, had done a very good job of dotting ‘i’s and crossing ‘t’s (even if whole areas from his secondary world were simply missing).

Although in all honesty I do have to admit that a fair amount of something quite recognizable as LotR fanfic was generated back in the Go-Go-Gandalf days of the 1970s.

In those days this fanfic usually just played with Tolkein’s world and culture and generally featured OCs (original characters) in that world, rather than Tolkein’s own characters. At that point there was no compelling collective fantasy surrounding the leading characters, as simplified and interpreted by flesh-and-blood actors. Tolkein’s characters had not yet been cut down to size through being subjected to celluloid processing.

Admittedly, I do clearly recall Tolkein fandom back in the late ‘60s through the ‘70s when the college-age demographic seemed to have gone collectively nuts for LotR. It really did behave very much in the same manner that the current lot which has gone collectively wild about Harry Potter. I’m sure that I’m not the only person who can recall that period. But Tolkein’s trilogy has been around for close to 60 years by now, The Hobbit since 1938, and they have both had time to become absorbed by the surrounding culture. Harry Potter has not. Harry Potter references are still topical references.

Still, this sort of furor is not typically the response to published fiction. Does anyone try to create a world in which Tess of the D’Ubervilles goes adventuring with a grown up Jim Harker to find another pirates’ treasure? Or even an AU in which she meets a decent sort of fellow who will take her away from her miserable life? Of course not. It is seldom enough that anyone even manages to write — or, more to the point, to get published — an actual “sequel” to a widely beloved literary work. (‘Pemberly’, ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, etc.)

The only exceptions to this rule are almost without “exception” to be found in the field of “popular” (i.e., non-literary) storytelling. How many libraries could we fill with Sherlock Holmes pastiches? Or apocryphal Oz books, for that matter. To say nothing of novels inspired by media-based fandoms like Star Trek, or Star Wars. Or, if we want to go back to our roots; King Arthur and Robin Hood.

In Literature; even the supplementary characters may be clearly etched miniature portraits without detracting from the principle players. In classic storytelling; the supplementary characters are roughed in with just enough detail to tell them apart. We have their general appearance and their main “schtick” as a distinguishing characteristic, but we typically know little of their inner lives. Nevertheless, they are usually still distinct presences inside their “universe”. This is another kind of gap which cries to be filled.

The viewpoint character of the storyteller’s craft, otoh, is often a predominantly empty, neutral mask for the reader to observe that world and the story’s actions through.

Either method of defining character is a positive invitation for the reader to grab the wheel himself and take that particular universe for a spin. And Rowling uses both methods, extensively.

• • • •

I’ve said this before; to my eyes the closest equivalent I’ve seen to the Rowling phenomenon both regarding the dispersion of the work worldwide, as well as its sheer popularity, and the solid, but unremarkable writing style, was the work of Agatha Christe. Another competent, but really very basic, writer, another brilliant storyteller (note: plotting is not writing). However, in a Christe novel everything is subordinate to the plot/puzzle du jour, and every book is brought to a conclusive ending. She was also much better at plugging her gaps.

It occasionally feels as if that one of the main pillars of the original Mystery genre, the classic “puzzler,” died with Christie, for very few later authors appear to have attempted it since her death. Or at least not with such a resounding success. Christie seems to have been the last author from the “golden age” of the detective story who was still consistently able to pull it off, too.

However, I must admit that I haven’t seen a lot of Agatha Christe fanfic floating around the web. Nor have I felt a need to go looking for it. I’m just fine with what Christie claims took place in her stories.

Until the summer of 2007, with Rowling we were still dealing with an as yet unfinished story arc, throwing us collectively into what would be the same position as a reader who is three-quarters through ‘Evil Under the Sun’ or ‘Ten Little Indians’ and coming up with their own theories of what was actually going on. And it was gradually becoming unclear whether our interest in the story would survive Rowling’s explanation for how it all worked out. In order for it to do that, the story would almost need to be either very good, or very bad.

And, for as long as canon-compatibility was still a possibility or a goal, with each volume of the series, the fanfic authors’ field of potential directions in which to take their own iteration of the Potterverse was narrowed further. I expected that it might be interesting to see how well the HP fanfic community would weather the ultimate conclusion of the series. Nobody is writing many fanfics about the murder of Roger Ackroyd these days.

In the event, I’ll have to say that I found the explosion of immediate response fics after DHs was released to be very heartening. And very unlike the response to HBP, which seems to have stalled the ficwriters for months afterward.

My own suspicion is that while the Potter juggernaut is far too big to stop on a dime, and that the fandom per se will continue for long after Rowling has finished with it, it certainly won’t continue forever. Quite probably not even into a whole new generation (although the books themselves may remain popular with new generations of children).

Or at least not as Rowling has left it. Rowling keeps reminding us all that it isn’t Star Wars. I rather suspect that it isn’t even Oz. Oz, after all, has managed to hold the fans’ interest for over a century. Indeed, we’ve passed a full century since that particular Author’s quite literal, physical death.

Parts of the Potter fandom will soldier on, as long as the current fans retain interest. There is certainly discussion fodder left lying around to keep the current fans nattering on for years to come. But the bulk of the mainstream of the fandom may gradually become a ghost town.

And the fact that so many of the current fans appear to be actually media fans rather than “book” fans will not help. Movies disappear far more quickly than books. At best dwindling into “cult classics” clung to by what is a usually fairly small following. And frankly, imho, the Harry Potter films are just not good enough examples of filmmaking to justify that. Or at least the first two certainly weren’t, and they needed to be.

I’m willing to bet that once we get a full twenty years down the track, those parts of the fandom which will still be functioning most actively will be the die-hard Snapefans — who will probably outlast anything else in the series, with, very likely, a solid remnant of the Snape/Granger crowd tagging along, as well as the Malfoy groupies (father and son), i.e., exactly the parts of the original story that Rowling is most dismissive of. There may also quite possibly be some scattered Marauders’ era (and earlier) “historians” and the apocryphal stories about the main series characters’ kids. And there will be comparatively few of those. And several of those groupings will be largely overtaken by Slash City.

Plus, of course, a lingering remnant of actor fics and the blatant media crossovers.

In short, all of the segments of the current fandom who already know that what they are playing in is an AU where Rowling would never go.

Because, no, except for the thinly disguised actor fanfics, which like the poor are ever with us, I really cannot foresee very many general HP fans signing on, or many new canon-based fanfics being written — particularly not by the Middle school set, who discover the series after it is already complete — now that Rowling has supposedly closed the circle.

Harry Potter has left the building.

But WE are still occupying it.