The Sunday Salon: Pottermore and Authorial Intent

As you may have noticed over the past two weeks, Pottermore, the Harry Potter point and click adventure thing, has finally opened its doors to the rest of the world. I actually managed to get into the beta, but they never sent my e-mail, so I had to wait until two weeks ago to finally register. It’s been fun watching it spread among my college—people have been declaring their Houses all over the place. I didn’t think it would matter to me what House I got sorted into on the website, but I found myself getting nervous when the message from J. K. Rowling popped up before the actual sorting. Luckily, it proved me a Hufflepuff, which I’ve known for years. In any case, while I was exploring the first book’s content on the website, I found myself pushing through just to get to all the new content Rowling has provided. But when I was done, I felt a bit… well, sullied and unusual, to quote Captain Jack.

In a sidebar called “Ghost Plots” that appears pretty early in Pottermore, Rowling talks about the sheer amount of worldbuilding she did over the seventeen years it took to plan and write the novels and spin-off books which resulted in the titular “ghost plots”—storylines for characters both major and minor that were either cut or never made it into the books. Pottermore—and the ensuing Harry Potter encyclopedia—is a way to get that information out into the world. Pottermore, when complete, will boast 18,000 words worth of new content expanding the series. This is just the sort of thing that Harry Potter fandom eats up, which is an appetite shared by other fandoms—why do you think there’s a Star Wars Expanded Universe? So I get it. And I did enjoy reading all the new content, from the behind the scenes stuff to the backstories.

The magical world of Pottermore is now just a click away.

But the reason I felt a bit empty is how the game begins; it tells you that, in order to play the game right, you should read the chapter while you play through it. In fact, the video press release revealing Pottermore’s true nature call it “a unique reading experience”. According to the official blog’s FAQ, Pottermore is “an interactive, illustrated companion to the books”. In certain fandoms, there are hierarchies of canon, especially in fandoms whose stories are told over and over again, such as comics and pretty every Japanese property I’ve encountered. There’s the main story that everyone agrees is canonical, and fans can cherry pick from things that aren’t exactly in continuity to enhance their reading of the text. But the thing is, they know that—if they want to write a story ignoring that semi-canonical piece of information, they don’t have to slap an “alternate universe” tag on it, because it remains true to the actual canon. What gets me here is that I would see as bonus material—the stories that never made into the canon of the seven books—is being presented as canonical here. And by doing so, especially with a fandom that hangs on her every word (other fandoms tend to cackle at the idea of authorial intent), she’s obliterated the blank spaces where the reader’s imagination can run riot. Rowling herself isn’t fond of counterreadings—I mean, she uses the epilogue to let us know who marries who, how many kids they have, what they do. Pottermore, to me, is quite clearly an extension of that.

K and  Harry Potter

So what gets me is that, If I’m doing it right, if I’m reading the books while I’m playing the game, then I can’t imagine what McGonagall got up to during World War II, because I know. I can’t imagine how Vernon and Petunia get together, because I know. I can’t imagine how Quirrell found Voldemort, because I know. And the release of the encyclopedia will, essentially, reveal all, and I don’t want to be asked to part with the fantastic Lily I’ve extrapolated from canon by the author. Perhaps this might sound a little hypocritical to you, coming from a Ringer, but Tolkien left plenty of blank spaces and all his notes have been expressly treated by both the estate and the fandom as, essentially, bonus material, like most fandoms. And ultimately, I think this is the reason why, although it’s a part of my childhood and I still love it, I’m not a huge Potter fan (by which I mean someone active in Harry Potter fandom); in Rowling’s world, there’s precious little room to maneuver.

…Well! Time for a musical interlude from my friend Tally:

Kristen at Fantasy Book Cafe is giving away two signed Kate Elliot books until next Sunday, as well as the Newsflesh trilogy until May 16th. HBO is giving away two crowns from Game of Thrones until next Monday.  The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) Small Beer Press offers several of their books as free downloads, including Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners. If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

How do you feel about Pottermore? And what house did you get sorted into if you’ve joined up?

6 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Pottermore and Authorial Intent

  1. “And by doing so, especially with a fandom that hangs on her every word (other fandoms tend to cackle at the idea of authorial intent), she’s obliterated the blank spaces where the reader’s imagination can run riot.”

    Yep. This also really bothered me about her previous comments concerning the characters’ futures and Dumbledore’s sexual orientation in press conferences and the like. I mean, In some ways I’m always eager for more of the world and characters she’s created, but there are some really uncomfortable assumptions about authorial intent behind it all. All this to say: excellent post as always.

    • I think I’m just realizing that Harry Potter fandom (and the throne it created that Twilight once occupied and The Hunger Games now occupies) doesn’t particularly come out of traditional media fandom (i.e., the kind of fandom codified by female Trek fans in the ’70s), which has a tradition of ignoring authorial intent. Rowling and the fandom, especially the young fandom, have a very particular relationship.

      I think Pottermore is just going to start to creep me out as more and more books go up… but I’ll still be checking for the bonus material.
      Thanks, Ana!

  2. I think you’ve pinpointed exactly why I eventually moved on from Harry Potter super-fan status. I used to be wildly involved on FanFiction.net and various websites that are mostly all defunct now, but once the books were nearing their completion, it wasn’t fun anymore. Oh, it’s still fun to read and become entirely immersed in the story, but the creativity is gone. You’ve summed this up perfectly in this post.

    • Yeah—so much fan activity was focused on speculation about what would happen next in the series, because it was the way we could wonder about these characters. But if we know what happens to them well into their adulthood, we can’t daydream about them anymore. Thanks, Lu!

  3. I’ve seen a lot of people say they don’t like being unable to imagine things around the edges of the Potter books, and usually I think I am a person who likes imagining things around the edges! But I am still mad excited about the encyclopedia. I DO want to know all the things JK Rowling made up about that world — she made them all up! How could I not want to know?

    • It’s good to be excited! There’s definitely a readership for it. I think I’m just starting to realize that Harry Potter fandom, which was often the first exposure to fandom for my generation, has a very particular relationship with Rowling in a way that other fandoms don’t.

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