Thursday, October 25, 2007

Author/Reader Interaction and Dumbledore's Sexuality

Much ink has been spilled in the past couple of days over J.K. Rowling's revelation that Dumbledore was gay. I'm personally glad she said it for a number of reasons, one of which is a writing reason.

She showed respect for her readers. Giving an honest answer to an honest reader question is a matter of simple authorial courtesy. As an author, my default response to reader questions is to answer them to the best of my ability unless answering them will create spoilers for later books.

Quite a number of people seem to disagree for various reasons political and literary. Of the former I will simply say that I disagree vigorously. On the latter however I am going to go into a little more detail as it is relevant to the core reasons for this blog's existence.

The essentials of the argument are that the text is everything and authors should simply shut up about anything beyond what is on the pages in black and white because many readers don't want the author messing around with their version of the empty pages beyond its borders.

My biggest problem with this it that it gives more weight to the readers who don't want to know the author's thoughts on something than to those who do at a disproportionate cost to the curious.

J.K.Rowling was asked a direct question by a reader who really wanted to know Rowling's answer. If Rowling had the answer in her head, should she really deprive those who are interested so that those who aren't don't have to hear about it?

It seems to me that if an author doesn't answer questions, it penalizes those who want to know the answers far more than answering penalizes those who don't want to know them. With the exception of a few very big names it is astronomically easier to avoid author answers to reader questions than it is to divine those same answers if they're never given. If they stay in the author's head, no one will ever know the author's opinion but the author.

Thoughts? Comments? Does anyone else find the idea of yelling, in essence, "shut up, I'm not listening and I don't want anyone else to either!" at authors more than a bit disturbing?


Michael Damian Thomas said...

I’m a supporter of reader response trumping authorial intentions, but the reaction to the Dumbledore revelation was ridiculous. There is a very simple solution for readers who don’t like her answer: ignore it. For those who want to peer around the corners of an author’s world, let them listen.

Readers can determine their own cannon. If you don’t like what Kevin Anderson is doing with Dune then don’t read the books. You are still allowed to let your own imagination come up with what’s next. If I want to make up my own Second Age stories for Middle Earth, that’s my business. J.K Rowling’s answer does not mean you can’t imagine your own contradictory stories with Dumbledore.

My issue with what happened is that I just wish she had been more courageous. There is no reason with her clout that she couldn’t have made it more explicit in the novels. Goodness knows there needs to be more queer role models in YA fiction.

lydamorehouse said...

As a queer reader, I have to say what I like about the revelation is that a lot of times I worry that I'm making assumptions in the text that AREN'T intended. This can be especially true with trying to guess at closeted/unrevealed queer characters. I tend to hold on to any possiblity with both hands because there have been, historically, so few queer characters in SF/F. (I think this is changing, however.)

And, I agree with Michael. If you don't like it, you can ignore the "clues" the author may have laid for the insiders and go with your previous assumptions. There are characters that I've mentally re-written for lesser slights (For example, I didn't like that Shadowspawn in the Thieve's World's books was supposed to have a mustache so I just mentally skipped any references to it.)

Kelly McCullough said...


Yes, it would have been lovely if she'd made it more explicit in the books, but I'm more interested in giving her credit for taking one big step in the right direction than in grousing about her not taking ten.

I know that's not what you're doing here, but she's taken almost as much fire for not making Dumbledore's gayness explicit as she has for making it public at all and quite frankly that makes me sad. I suspect that the lesson a lot of writers are going to take away from the fire she's taking from both sides is that it would be better to avoid the topic entirely. That's going to hurt those who are yelling at her to do more a lot more than it will the ones who are yelling at her to shut up.

Douglas Hulick said...

Speaking beyond the immediate tumult, I think it is a bad precedent to start expecting authors to keep their mouths shut about what happens off the edges of the page. Just about any writer worth their salt is going to have plenty of things sitting in the wings they didn't use for one reason or another, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't ever be uttered.

Answering questions about events beyond the page are part of the process, IMO. If you have developed your world, characters and stories well enough to generate these kind of questions, then you should answer them. If the reader didn't care, if they weren't invested, then they wouldn't ask in the first place. Since part of what we are trying to do is get people invested in our stories, this only helps further that aim. Yes, there may be some who do not want to know about certain things, but I don't think their desire to shut the door should bear any more weight than another's desire to open it. As others have said, you can always decide to reject the author's reality in favor of your own (which is what happens to a certain degree whenever anyone reads another person's story, anyhow).

I suspect that, had not the revelation been quite so charged (in some eyes), it wouldn't have mattered all that much. This is just as much about what was revealed as the fact that anything was revealed at all.

Michael Damian Thomas said...


I didn’t mean to come off as if I felt that J.K. Rowling should have made it explicit or not done it all. In no way is what she did a bad thing, and she shouldn’t come under fire for it. When I heard the news, my first thoughts were, “Good for you, Jo.” Admitting that Dumbledore was gay is a very good thing, and it made me happy.

If it had been explicit in Deathly Hollows, however, I would have jumped up and down and thought she was one of the coolest writers ever. It would have been one of the bravest things an author in her position has ever done. It would have cemented the character as a gay role model for children. It was a missed opportunity. And to put it bluntly, it also would have clarified some of Dumbledore’s character motivations.

Kelly McCullough said...


Yes, I didn't think that was your point and I apologize if that's the way it read. It was more that I had wanted to talk about that aspect of the tumult anyway. It didn't feel entirely germane to the central flow of the original post so I wanted to deal with it in comments and your note gave me a good chance to do that since it raised the issue.

Anonymous said...

My biggest problem with this it that it gives more weight to the readers who don't want to know the author's thoughts on something than to those who do at a disproportionate cost to the curious

Kelly, I think you just explained the problem I have with fan fiction. I've been trying to get it into words for two or three years now, but never have been able to put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me so much.

If they stay in the author's head, no one will ever know the author's opinion but the author

I agree whole heartedly!

Anonymous said...

In the books, except for a few brief exceptions, we're limited to what Harry knows. I suspect, about ten years down the line, that this conversation took place -

Harry: "Gee, I wonder if Dumbledore ever found a woman to love?"

Ron: "By golly, you're right. Hmm. I wonder."

Hermione: "....Um, guys?"

Tim Susman said...

Michael wrote: If it had been explicit in Deathly Hollows, however, I would have jumped up and down and thought she was one of the coolest writers ever.

I agree, though I have to give her something of a pass because it's not just gay relationships she shies away from in her books. I don't think there's any passage in the books where one character discusses a romantic attraction to another, not Mrs. Weasley talking about how her husband wooed her, not even Cho talking about how she felt toward Cedric. Romance is a mystery Harry and Ron are trying to figure out; they experience it but never really talk about it. Family bonds are the stronger bonds, and those are explored and talked about in detail. If Dumbledore had made some comment to Harry about his relationships, or if someone else had in the books, then (a) it would have seemed odd and out of place, given the tone of the rest of the story; (b) it would have required at least some kind of discussion of how Harry and his friends view gay relationships. All we ever see about that is Dudley teasing him about calling Cedric's name--Dudley is a perfect homophobe, but we don't get anything from Harry's reaction that indicates what he thinks, and Rowling doesn't go into it. So I don't think she was avoiding it out of fear of bringing up the issue or anything. I think she's just not comfortable with writing about romantic love in the first place, and in the second it didn't really have much to do with the story.

Personally, I wanted one of his schoolmates to be background gay, like Seamus going out with Ernie MacMillan or something, and have nobody care. But I'll have to save that kind of thing for my own books. :)

P.S. Tom Riddle? Totally gay. But a bad role model.

Michael Damian Thomas said...

I agree. The books shy away from the sexual and romantic lives of the adults.


The one appropriate place for it was during Harry’s near-death exposition conversation with Dumbledore near the end of Deathly Hollows. It would have been appropriate for Dumbledore to relate this while he was explaining his relationship with Grindelwald in regards to the dark arts. It certainly helps clarify his motivation. If it were mentioned anyplace else, it would have felt forced.

On a related note, J.K. Rowling says that the U.K. wizarding population is only 3000. I would imagine that it would be very hard to date as a queer wizard.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think the thing that best sums it up for me is that prohibiting the author from making information available outside the text is trying to fence of an area where readers can play, fan fiction writers can write, and everyone else is allowed to create their version of a story's reality...

except the original author.

The more I think about it that way, the weirder and weirder it seems.