The Problem of the Alive Author

14th November 2016 | Margaret Graton.

The reader can only exist once the author dies – this is an idea famously explained by Roland Barthes. Traditionally, once a book was published, it seemed complete, reprints and subsequent editions aside; it was out of the author’s hands and straight into the reader’s. Authors today simultaneously have more and less control over their works than ever thanks to the utilization of digital spaces like blogs, news outlets, and social media. As an example, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe has grown in many ways, and Rowling has faced both support and backlash from fans due to the frequent and very public additions and changes she’s made. Meanwhile, J.R.R. Tolkien’s texts, published both as books and letters, have quietly become canon with approving readers. This leads me to wonder…is there a problem with the alive author?

use-this-rowling-oneFor many fans, additional writing by J.K. Rowling was the best of news. They devoured the material she released in interviews and on Twitter, mapping how it all fit together. The first major Harry Potter addition was Pottermore, the digital publishing platform for new short stories and other material. The site allows fans to complete quizzes to discover their house, patronus, and wand (by the way, I’m a Ravenclaw and my patronus is a Wildcat). On the other hand, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which alters the “original” Potter story, was not completely written by Rowling, and fans feel it does not do the Potter universe justice. Other examples are the uproar caused when Rowling re-wrote Dumbledore as gay [1] and when she worried about Ron and Hermoine’s happiness, wondering if she’d made a mistake in not pairing Harry and Hermoine [2]. These additions change the story but do not wholly exist within the canon printed under Rowling’s name.

In contrast, Tolkien lived in the pre-digital era and created Middle-earth primarily for247842722_086d2515f8_m himself and his children, making room for his invented languages and characters to exist. He, too, edited his work post-publication; he used world-building to explain the changes in the second edition of  The Hobbit. He claimed that the 1937 publication was Bilbo’s manuscript and the updates in the 1951 version were from Frodo ’s knowledge of the “true” events[3]. Since 1973, the J.R.R. Tolkien Estate has been publishing through the leading Tolkien patriarch (and original fan), Tolkien’s son, Christopher. He is still the expert on not only understanding his father’s handwriting but also at hypothesizing his father’s intentions and where uncharted material might fit. Christopher is very thorough and allows us to see the changes that occurred in the development of the Middle-earth canon, especially in Tolkien’s letters and in the History of Middle-earth, where the etymologies of Tolkien’s languages were published. The changes are published simultaneously with Christopher’s final decisions on such matters. At some point, though, the content will cease. Tolkienites are faced with an avid editor but a dead author.

While we are still receiving new content from Tolkien, it deepens fans’ love and knowledge of the world he created, whereas Rowling is seemingly alienating fans that have been with her since the beginning. Does it matter if fans are upset? Perhaps not. As much as Rowling engages with her adoring followers on Twitter and listens to their concerns, she’s got to keep the money flowing, and she can only accomplish this by staying relevant. It’s tempting for an author to keep working with their material, especially in a digitally connected age when “one more edit” is possible. However, editing published works enters a new realm: it might cheapen work that has already been done if it’s no longer considered finished. Moreover, as many fans “grew up” with Rowling’s writings, they feel like they are “owed” something by her, which isn’t really the case. However, what they may be feeling, but not expressing, is cheated of the place of “reader” because Rowling refuses to “die.” The Tolkien Estate, while still releasing material, is continuously adding to the overall vision. Nothing about Middle-earth feels cheapened, even as we see the creative process, changes and all, that reflect the entire story, published as canon, in contrast to Rowling’s method. She wants to have it both ways: adoring, loyal fans and complete, autonomous control over her work: essentially, the ability to change whatever she needs to, sometimes seemingly without prior planning, though she claims otherwise. Roland Barthes was right: at some point, the author must relinquish their work; they must die and let the reader carry the torch.

About Margaret

A transplanted Georgia peach, Margaret is working on an MSc in comparative literature; her research interests include translation, fantasy and magical realism, and ecocriticism. When she’s not studying, she might be found hill walking, baking, or let’s face it, buried in a book in any of the wonderful Edinburgh coffee shops.

Article edited by Ryan Edwards.

[1] “BBC NEWS | Entertainment | JK Rowling Outs Dumbledore as Gay.” BBC News. BBC, 20 Oct. 2007. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

[2] “JK Rowling: Hermione Should Have Married Harry, Not Ron.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 Feb. 2014. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

[3]”Editions of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.” Editions of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2016.

Photo credit for Tolkien:

Photo credit for Rowling:

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