“She’s creating it, and whatever she creates becomes part of the story.”
June 1, 2016 4:43 PM   Subscribe

J. K. Rowling Just Can’t Let Harry Potter Go [The New York Times] J. K. Rowling always said that the seventh Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” would be the last in the series, and so far she has kept to her word. But though she’s written many new things in the intervening nine years, including four adult novels, she’s never been able to put Harry to rest, or to leave him alone.
“Some people say the canon is within the actual covers of the seven books and that anything she says afterward you should take as opinion,” Ms. Anelli said. “Others say that anything she says is true, no matter if it’s on Pottermore or on Twitter or wherever — no matter what she says, it’s canonical.”

Readers in the first camp consider the material in the seven books to be inviolate, immutable. Hearing new details about things they hadn’t realized were open to interpretation feels like cognitive dissonance, as if someone were tampering with the wording of the Constitution. “It’s dispiriting to be faced with daily reminders that one of your former heroes is still tinkering with a world they thought you left behind perfectly preserved in childhood,” Heather Schwedel wrote recently in Slate.
Related:

- ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ Photographs Are Released [The New York Times]
Producers of the new Harry Potter stage play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” have released the first official photographs of several of the show’s actors in costume. Previews of the production, in which the action takes place 19 years after the end of the final “Harry Potter” book, start June 7 at the Palace Theater in London. The play (a two-part show that visitors can watch in a single day or over the course of two days) centers on Harry as a middle-aged Ministry of Magic employee, whose son, Albus, is coming to terms with his magical powers. J. K. Rowling co-wrote the story on which the play, by Jack Thorne, is based.
- J.K. Rowling’s Twitter Feed Is Slowly Ruining Everything I Love About J.K. Rowling [Slate]
Reading Rowling’s Twitter updates, it’s dispiriting to be faced with daily reminders that one of your former heroes is still tinkering with a world they thought you left behind perfectly preserved in childhood. “Stop ruining Harry Potter,” the New York Post put it more bluntly earlier this month. Others have worried about Rowling “falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.” I decided to revisit Rowling’s early tweets to pinpoint where it all went wrong, at least for me. [...] Back then, she was the platonic ideal of the author-tweeter, only poking her head up from her self-imposed exile (writing stories for us, her fans) for an announcement here and there. The impulse to engage with fans, to fly off the handle, if you will, is always there, so those who choose not to tweet can seem somehow better, more principled than the rest of us. Ah, but then J.K. Rowling took to Twitter with gusto, and she has never really stopped since.
- Science or Magic? UK Scientists Test Reality of Harry Potter Spells [The Guardian]
In the papers Gillyweed – Drowning with Gills? and Revealing the Magic of Skele-Gro, both published in the Journal for Interdisciplinary Science Topics, students at the University of Leicester analyse two spells used by Rowling’s young wizard: Gillyweed, which enables its eater to grow gills and thus breathe underwater, and Skele-Gro, which repairs broken bones.

Gillyweed, which is eaten by Harry Potter when he is attempting to swim to the bottom of a lake in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was investigated by natural science students Rowan Reynolds and Chris Ringrose. Looking at the size of Harry’s gills in the film adaptation of Rowling’s novel, they estimated them to be 60cm2 in surface area. They then estimated the oxygen content of the Black Lake, and the maximum oxygen use of swimming, and found that the average 14-year-old boy “would need to process 443 litres of water at 100% efficiency per minute for every minute he was underwater”, meaning that water would need to flow at 2.46 metres per second.
posted by Fizz (125 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Reading Rowling’s Twitter updates, it’s dispiriting to be faced with daily reminders that one of your former heroes is still tinkering with a world they thought you left behind perfectly preserved in childhood."

In other news, it's dispiriting to be reminded that you've left childhood and childhood heroes behind. Sheesh.
posted by praemunire at 4:50 PM on June 1, 2016 [26 favorites]


J. K. Rowling of course has every right to continue thinking about and expanding on the world she's made. Even George Lucas, bless his heart, never overstepped his rights as a creator (though Lucas was never as singularly responsible for Star Wars the way Rowling was for Potter). That being said, fans have the right to enjoy the creation in their way, be it to continue enjoying every new thing, or meticulously creating edited versions of beloved movies, or pretending the author of your beloved series died tragically moments after submitting her final manuscript.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 4:55 PM on June 1, 2016 [7 favorites]


I like the fact the new Harry Potter film is about a middle-aged couple. I'm hoping it will ditch the magical realism for social realism, and will be very Alice Munro or Raymond Carver. The climatic scene will be Harry and Ginnie arguing about wallpaper patterns (but the argument of course is about something completely different, and completely submerged).

Probably back to the magic and spells, though.
posted by My Dad at 5:00 PM on June 1, 2016 [19 favorites]


UK Scientists Test Reality of Harry Potter Spells

Wait, isn't there a thread complaining about magical thermodynamics just down the front page?

Yes, magic usually doesn't work.
posted by GuyZero at 5:04 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


This isn't that hard. Rowling's continued musings on the Potterverse are only as important as you choose to let them be. If you hold that Dumbledore is gay is your friend argues that there is no evidence for that in the script, well, you both get to be both right and wrong, because "Dumbledore is gay" refers to a fictional character and isn't the sort of statement that gets to have a truth value.
posted by 256 at 5:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [19 favorites]


"Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics... they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."
posted by stevil at 5:25 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


Man, Rowling's Twitter feed is very... quotidian.
posted by My Dad at 5:25 PM on June 1, 2016


It's her art to do with as she wishes.
posted by soakimbo at 5:26 PM on June 1, 2016 [12 favorites]


You could just....stop reading if you like.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:28 PM on June 1, 2016 [17 favorites]


I love the idea of some famous person tweeting huge amounts of boring, mundane trivia and local gossip, driving away fans in droves, until the only people following her are the friends and family she actually cares about.
posted by straight at 5:29 PM on June 1, 2016 [56 favorites]


I love when people are just openly in love with the characters they created because I know I'm with a kindred spirit. When I fall in love-- it will be forever...

I know many see this as weakness, but I don't, I see it as strength and beauty and power of an eternal flame of love that refuses to leave. Harry Potter became a real boy. Usually by the time that happens you're eyes are loved off. He managed to keep his eyes even.

I'm still waiting for her to do sincere and well made apology on the native appropriation/mishandling- but I don't think she's beyond redemption. If all our blunders were broadcast we would all be ashamed and there would be no hope of redemption for any of us-- but at the same time- if you are in a position of power you have a greater duty to...well...

use it well.

Be sloppy. Be imperfect. Be too emotional, too honest, to open about needing love while just as ready to give it. Shine brilliantly and beautifully, failed and broken and glorious and still full of life and love and power to change the world and make it better.
posted by xarnop at 5:37 PM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]


I follow Rowling on Twitter. My experience is that she uses Twitter more or less like everyone else I follow on Twitter.
posted by baf at 5:43 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


That Slate article is one heaping serving of "I found out that an author whose books I like is a human person and my life is now ruined."

Oh, Slate. Don't ever change.
posted by duffell at 5:44 PM on June 1, 2016 [17 favorites]


"I'm sorry," Rowling was heard to say "I can't hear you over the literal dump truck of money backing up to my front lawn."
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 5:45 PM on June 1, 2016 [50 favorites]


Harry Potter and the Beaten Dead Horse.
posted by JHarris at 5:52 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


I, for one, am waiting for the JJ Abrams reboot.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:55 PM on June 1, 2016 [14 favorites]


It’s dispiriting to be faced with daily reminders that one of your former heroes is still tinkering with a world they thought you left behind perfectly preserved in childhood

Oh please. If the author of a beloved book series adding some new stories to said series is "dispiriting" then get ready for a lifetime of pain as pretty much every last media-related memory of your childhood will get pillaged by corporations for unnecessary remakes, reboots, nostalgia-laden commercials, etc. by the time you hit 40.
posted by gatorae at 5:58 PM on June 1, 2016 [28 favorites]


I follow Rowling on Twitter. My experience is that she uses Twitter more or less like everyone else I follow on Twitter.

Everyone I follow on Twitter more or less uses Twitter like @fart.
posted by My Dad at 5:59 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


what's today's tweet
posted by Greg Nog at 6:00 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


Her first two Cormoran Strike detective novels -- featuring a one-legged war vet who is also the illegitimate son of a 70s rock star (hence the gonzo name) -- are a lot of fun. The third suffers from bad plotting, but still has its moments, and I look forward to a fourth. I suggest you check them out.
posted by Palindromedary at 6:02 PM on June 1, 2016 [11 favorites]


Is that recommendation predicated on having found anything redeeming in the Harry Potter books, or does it stand on its own?
posted by 256 at 6:06 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


If you think that a work of art undergoing post-completion revisions and sequels is the worst thing that could happen, consider: the art you love could also have been tinkered with without the artist who created it involved. Which could be far worse.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:09 PM on June 1, 2016 [6 favorites]


I have read entirely too much fanfic to even consider the books canon, let alone random tweets from Rowling. HP is so, so much bigger than the idea of "canon" could ever encapsulate, thanks to the internets, and so popular culture adaptations etc will always just seem like particularly well funded fanfic to me, regardless of who put it out there.

Not to get all death of the author in here, but the actual content of the books kinda sucked, and if I had written them I'd be tempted to make it better too (though, that doesn't seem to be the direction any of this is heading on Rowling's part)
posted by zinful at 6:11 PM on June 1, 2016 [18 favorites]


"Reader, I unfollowed her. Actually, to be more accurate, I muted her."

God, that was a nauseating read.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 6:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [11 favorites]




This impulse to revere texts as sacred is a powerful one.
posted by amtho at 6:30 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


Dumbledore gave me a handy in the sauna—dude is gay.
posted by roger ackroyd at 6:32 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


So...basically, this is Adrian Mole with Grammelot instead of Ian Dury?
posted by Smart Dalek at 7:24 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


Is that recommendation predicated on having found anything redeeming in the Harry Potter books, or does it stand on its own?

As a book reviewer, I read the first Harry Potter novel right when it came out in the U.S., and liked it well enough... but never felt like reading another one. Last month I got around to reading the first Cormoran Strike novel, and will definitely read at least the second one.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:32 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


Would they ever have written this inane article about a male author?
posted by kokaku at 7:33 PM on June 1, 2016 [18 favorites]


J. K. Rowling is not your bitch.
posted by newdaddy at 7:40 PM on June 1, 2016 [23 favorites]


I thought I was odd for wondering if the Bruce Wayne kid in Gotham will grow up to be Ben Affleck Batman.
posted by marxchivist at 7:44 PM on June 1, 2016


I relate to this in a tiny way.

Last year I cocreated a Twitter bot that some people liked, and I've continued to add stuff and revise it ever since. There's definitely an urge to keep tinkering, but equally there's a fear that you'll ruin it, by adding a Jar-Jar Binks or changing it so Greedo shot first.

Sometimes people do say "you've ruined it with X new thing, I liked it better before" and I always listen to them (sometimes they're right, and I backtrack). But ultimately I guess, as soakimbo above says, it's my decision?
posted by dontjumplarry at 7:49 PM on June 1, 2016 [3 favorites]


This is really too complicated for a brief comment. Author, novels, characters, fans...

I am reminded of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous character, THE most famous fictional character ever (until Harry Potter, I guess). Doyle killed him, and then brought him back to life, faced with an audience hungry for more. Rowling's move seems a little ambivalent, but, as the Supreme Pontiff said, "Who am I too judge?"
posted by kozad at 8:06 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wrote about this topic a long time ago (when Rowling announced Dumbledore was gay and people freaked out a little about it), and when I wrote about it the point I made was that authors always know more about their universes than goes into the books -- they pretty much have to -- so when an author speaks about something relating to their universes that's not in the books, unless it directly contradicts what's in the printed work, then it should be considered canon, on the grounds that the author is figuratively god of that universe. So when Rowling says something about the Potterverse, it's the word of god.

I've occasionally had people tell me (about one of my books or another) about a fan theory they have relating to character/events/whatever, and my feeling about that is mostly that if it makes them happy to believe it, fine, but at the end of the day my universes are what I say they are and that only I have the right to define them canonically. Fans are free to make whatever headcanon they want, but the real deal comes from me. If they don't like that, that's on them, and I don't concern myself with it. I'm not obliged to accede to their wishes or demands, if they run counter to my own.

What I do like is when fans ask questions about my universes that I have not considered yet, and my own consideration of those questions makes me look at my universes in a new way -- which consequently might factor into how I write further in those universes. If you're a fan who wants to have an influence in the development of the universe, asking good questions (rather than making demands) is probably the way to go with that.
posted by jscalzi at 8:06 PM on June 1, 2016 [79 favorites]


Remember, Tolkien was fiddling with his universe long after he finished the Lord of the Rings. Whoever said above that Rowling is not your bitch pretty much nailed it. As the good Mr. Scalzi points out, she's god of that universe. To the author of that Slate piece: Lighten up Francis.
posted by Ber at 8:17 PM on June 1, 2016 [7 favorites]


Fandom has battles and passionate arguments over these issues in every mythos because part of fandom is taking an individual ownership of the mythos.
posted by humanfont at 8:20 PM on June 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


when I wrote about it the point I made was that authors always know more about their universes than goes into the books

I recently read a book (I can't remember which one) whose major flaw was that the author didn't know this. So, the protagonist would meet a friend in a cafe, a friend whose appearance in the cafe was important for the story but who appeared in one other scene, if that, and the introduction of the friend would include the friend's personal history, details of his most recent haircut, a few comments about his sexual practices, and a detailed description of what he was wearing, along with commentary about whether it was the sort of thing he usually wore or was a departure for him. All so he could have a cup of coffee ("he usually drank espresso, but having had too much caffeine that morning already, he opted for a decaf cappuccino") with the protagonist, and exchange a dozen lines of dialogue to move the plot along.

It felt to me like the poor writer had done all this thinking about her characters' backstories and she didn't want to waste it, so she bogged her book down by putting every irrelevant bit of it in there.

I recently finished my first real work of fiction (since it's a romance novel, I revised that sentence where I had written "serious work of fiction"), and encountered this myself. There is so much more about my people than fit in the book! And at the same time, there are a couple of things I don't know the answer to because the book didn't require me to figure it out; one of my characters had a lover who died, and it gets brought up, but not discussed in detail, and I don't know how the lover died because I never had to figure it out for the sake of the story. It's like how Rainbow Rowell says she doesn't know what the three words are on the postcard Eleanor sends to Park at the end of Eleanor & Park. She says she can think of a number of possibilities, but she'd told as much of their story as was hers to tell.
posted by not that girl at 8:21 PM on June 1, 2016 [13 favorites]


Would they ever have written this inane article about a male author?

Thousands have been written about George Lucas (even mentioned in the FPP), I imagine if a male author wrote a book or series that was as culturally huge as Star Wars or Harry Potter and decided to tweet or expand or whatever on it he'd get the same response.
posted by edeezy at 9:23 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


I feel the same way about people who complain that current runs of comic books "ruin" the characters. You don't like Cap in Hydra? Don't read the new ones. They haven't ruined anything. Everything you enjoyed is still out there and you can reread it whenever you want and ignore everything past May 2016. No one's forcing you to watch The Cursed Child. Just ignore it. You don't get to control what an author (or anyone else) does. You just get to decide what you pay attention to.
posted by greermahoney at 9:28 PM on June 1, 2016 [2 favorites]


Would they ever have written this inane article about a male author?

I can dish up some sweet Jonathon Franzen hate, if you like. Got some David Brooks contempt lying around out back, and some sneering remarks about Dan Brown, too.
posted by My Dad at 9:29 PM on June 1, 2016 [5 favorites]


Would they ever have written this inane article about a male author?

Yeah, there's a lot of gendered issues out there, but I don't think this is one of them.
posted by greermahoney at 9:31 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


I would read the book about the decade Harry and Hermione and Ron spend working out whatever grief/trauma issues they have following the end of the series. But I say that as a reader whose favorite part of all the Harry Potter books/films is when the three protagonists were miserable, bored, lonely and bickering in the woods.
posted by thivaia at 9:52 PM on June 1, 2016 [11 favorites]


Extending mythologies is what humans do. This whole concept that canons are limited and uniform and religiously (heh) protected even from their creators...that's new.
posted by effugas at 10:22 PM on June 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


Fans are the theologians of a secular age.
posted by honestcoyote at 10:51 PM on June 1, 2016 [19 favorites]


only I have the right to define them canonically.

Says you. Copyright conveys a limited monopoly over various aspects of written works to the author, but the right to define canon isn’t specified as one those aspects. So readers aren't required to buy into your canon if they don’t want to, and it doesn’t even have to be limited to a single reader’s "head canon” as, depending on how they go about it, writing about your books (i.e. scholarship not fanfic) is probably fair use. If they want to try and persuade your other readers that their ideas about what your books mean and what is canon are better than yours then they can (in the US. at least). Which isn’t to say that you or your publishers couldn’t sue them anyway, but if they can afford lawyers they would have a decent chance of prevailing.

Or, of course, readers can even believe that there is no such a thing as canon, in which case you have nothing left to define outside the text itself.

Once you send your babies out into the world they are largely on their own (author tweets notwithstanding).
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:38 AM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


I think Rowling mainly wants to clarify the stuff about Dumbledore, because apparently a lot of people read the books and somehow completely miss the fact that Dumbledore is a time-traveling Ron Weasley.
posted by straight at 12:51 AM on June 2, 2016 [12 favorites]


"Not to get all death of the author in here, but the actual content of the books kinda sucked, and if I had written them I'd be tempted to make it better too (though, that doesn't seem to be the direction any of this is heading on Rowling's part)"
...But there is a really weird and interesting and notable way in which, as a result of tremendous effort, her own alchemical machenations, and the absurdity of the internet, J.K. Rowling is the author who lived. There is of course much more to the Potterverse that has barely anything to do with J.K. Rowling, but the extent to which she has continued to be intimately involved in the development and reception of her stories long after she wrote them is incredibly novel.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:02 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


when an author speaks about something relating to their universes that's not in the books, unless it directly contradicts what's in the printed work, then it should be considered canon, on the grounds that the author is figuratively god of that universe.

This requires us to accept a whole bundle of notions about the nature of fictional universes that no-one is obliged to agree with. I mean, sure, you're absolutely entitled to make the assertion that your views are canon, and to regard them as such, but no-one else has any obligation to treat your views in any particular way. They can quite reasonably say "I'm responding to the text as written" and discount your views. A piece of fiction, even the most deeply imagined one, is, I would very strongly maintain, not really a factual account of events in an imagined universe. And without that prop, I cannot see where the authority to make post hoc additions comes from.

I think it's entirely reasonable to say that the author's thoughts and additions to a text are often more interesting and insightful than anyone else's, in light of the intimacy with them that you describe. But when it gets to making philosophical claims about the truth or otherwise of these statements, I think that authority is pressed well beyond what it can sustain.
posted by howfar at 1:11 AM on June 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


One time, I fed my little brother calamari. He loved it immediately and vociferously. Asked for seconds. Then he found out calamari meant squid and he claimed it was making him violently ill. Went to the bathroom and fake wretched.

It seems many people who loved Harry Potter went to the bathroom and fake wretched after they heard one of its characters was gay and another one was black.

I don't know that it's a jumping off point for a conversation about the after-the-fact relationships of authors to their works as it is evidence that some people need to grow the fuck up.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:43 AM on June 2, 2016 [9 favorites]


I mean, I realize there are other things she has added or expanded upon that rankle people. But if you subtract the segment of the complainers focused on gay Dumbledore or black Hermione, it seems like the ranks of dissenters get substantially thinner in a hurry.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:52 AM on June 2, 2016


Would they ever have written this inane article about a male author?

Didn't you read the bits about King? He's been criticized more by his fans than from professional book critics. Or GRRM?
posted by Beholder at 2:30 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


dances_with_sneetches: "I, for one, am waiting for the JJ Abrams reboot."

Lens-Flary Potter
posted by chavenet at 3:13 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Hasn't the woman earned the right to write fan fiction, if anyone has?
posted by amtho at 3:29 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Quinbus Flestrin:

"Copyright conveys a limited monopoly over various aspects of written works to the author, but the right to define canon isn’t specified as one those aspects."

Well, no, that's entirely wrong. I literally own my universes (and will for 70 years past my death, which is sort of ridiculous, but even so), so regardless of whatever people want to pretend about the universes I create, only I can say what about the universes is accurate, i.e., canon. People can make non-canonical additions through fan writing, or speculations, interpretation and commentary; these various thing may be popular or not, but what's canonical isn't a popularity contest. It's about who has the right to control the work, which is to say, who has the copyright.

Conversely, there may be things which are canonical but unpopular -- see Episodes I - III of the Star Wars canon -- but no matter how much older fans whine and moan about them, they're there like a huge sodden lump and can't be wished away until/unless Disney, the current owner of the Star Wars universe, decides to make them, like the Extended Universe, non-canonical. Which I wish they would! But they probably won't.

Which points out the exception to the "I solely have the right to make the canon" rule -- if I sell or license my universes to a third party, they may have the right to make canonical changes to the universe without my approval, depending on what rights I have ceded. For example, the people who own the TV rights to Old Man's War have a (limited) right to make changes to the storyline of the books, and to fiddle with what I've already established in the universe. If those changes ever eventually make it to the screen, there will be two iterations of the OMW universe: The TV version, over which I will not have complete control of its canon, and the book version, in which I retain full control. In George Lucas' case, I don't think he retains any control over the Star Wars universe -- he's like the rest of us now. So he may gripe (or not) about what's being done about his universe, but it's non-canonical griping now. Very well-compensated non-canonical griping.

"Or, of course, readers can even believe that there is no such a thing as canon."

Yes, that can be their headcanon, if they so choose. As a practical matter, however, this is also wrong, and like choosing to believe that speed limits are for other people solely.

Mind you, I'm aware that we are having a schism in underlying understanding of the ground rules here in determining canon -- you're pursuing an argument based on popular consensus and critical persuasion, whereas I am basing an argument on the fact that I (and other creators) legally own our universes for a term of copyright, and within that term have a right to say what is officially and legally in that universe and what isn't. But, you know. That seems pretty much the definition of what "canonical" is.

Howfar:

"They can quite reasonably say 'I'm responding to the text as written' and discount your views."

Indeed, that can be their headcanon. Mind you, that could be easily remedied by me, as the author, making explicit in a textual addition to the universe the things that I have only previously noted as commentary. In which case, "the text as written" for that universe now, canonically, has the things I've noted.

Which is sort of the point, isn't it: I, as creator, have the exclusive right to make to additions/emendations to the universe for the term of copyright, which will then have a fundamental impact on the critical/cultural apprehension of the work(s) in question.

I mean, you know, look: I indulge in headcanon as much as anyone: My Star Wars series has four films in it, my Alien series two, The Matrix doesn't have any sequels and there are tons of book series which for me end well before the author decided to stop writing in them. Creators are the gods of their universes but their omnipotence doesn't necessarily come with good sense. But it's their right to build out their universes as they see fit, and for a significant amount of time, we as visitors to those universes have to factor that in to our understanding of those universe. I don't confuse my headcanon with canon.

To your (and Quinbus') point, in the fullness of time, the culture will always win out over the author, to a greater or lesser extent (and to the extent that an author's work survives in the cultural consciousness at all after their death, which is rare enough). Our general understanding of Huckleberry Finn comes from the novel with him as the star, not from the two additional books in which he appears, which only Twain die-hards even know about these days. Nevertheless those two additional books exist, Finn is in them, and, canonically speaking, if you really want to know about him (and, as an interesting aside, Twain's understanding of him), you might want to acknowledge they exist.
posted by jscalzi at 4:04 AM on June 2, 2016 [27 favorites]


What on earth? I can't think of this kind of scrutiny being levied on any other popular or genre author who's put out a large number of books in a single universe over their career. "Bujold just can't let Barrayar go." "I think Bill likes the Yoknapatawpha County people, and it's a little hard for him to let go."

Also skeptical about how much of this is Fear Of A Black Hermione, honestly.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 4:16 AM on June 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


I think Rowling mainly wants to clarify the stuff about Dumbledore, because apparently a lot of people read the books and somehow completely miss the fact that Dumbledore is a time-traveling Ron Weasley.

I mean, the evidence is clear, both within and without HP-specific literature.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:02 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


jscalzi:

"They can quite reasonably say 'I'm responding to the text as written' and discount your views."

Indeed, that can be their headcanon. Mind you, that could be easily remedied by me, as the author, making explicit in a textual addition to the universe the things that I have only previously noted as commentary. In which case, "the text as written" for that universe now, canonically, has the things I've noted.


I don't think so. It's entirely reasonable to read Catch-22 and analyze it and interact with it without reading or acknowledging the existence of Closing Time. The fact that the author came back 33 years later and told us what he thinks became of Yossarian is fundamentally irrelevant to understanding Catch-22.

The text is capable of standing alone, and future sequels, edits or extensions merely create a new text. Of course, it seems strange that, when discussing Han Solo's character, if you are talking about a Han who shot first, you have to specify that you are talking about the original theatrical release of Star Wars. But you can still choose to talk about the original release, just as you can choose to talk about any of the later editions. That confusion and ambiguity is a very good reason why a responsible author might want to avoid making endless little corrections like this.

I really feel like every time Rowling sends out one of these tweets, she is essentially creating a spin-off universe and forcing her fans to choose between the previously existing text and the new one she is positing. She's absolutely entitled to do this. But she doesn't have the power to make the old text go away.

And per your argument that Rowling legally owns the universe: yes, she owns that intellectual property, but if she makes changes to it, she also legally owns both versions. I think it's a little backwards to try to argue that the law has any actual bearing on matters of literary analysis, but even if it did, the law acknowledges changes to existing works of fiction as being new works of derivative fiction. Harrison Ford's voiceover from Bladerunner didn't fall into the public domain when the Director's Cut was released.

Basically, we're just arguing in circles about the age-old question of authorial intent. And the fact that there are several very well-developed schools of academic thought with differing views on the subject suggests that there probably isn't an objectively correct way to think about these things.

Still, I hold that fictional universes don't exist and "canon" is a largely useless term. And if you go back and make textual changes to support your authorial commentary, you have not meaningfully changed a universe, you have simply created a second text with which to confuse your fans.
posted by 256 at 5:11 AM on June 2, 2016 [11 favorites]


I think this:
"Even George Lucas, bless his heart, never overstepped his rights as a creator "
is not true because for star wars, this:
"Everything you enjoyed is still out there and you can reread it whenever you want and ignore everything past May 2016."
is not true.

Rowling, Lucas, whomever have the right to modify their art as they wish.
One can argue that Herbert Jr. has the right (legal at least, and presumably moral) to produce more Dune works, because I can (and I aggressively do) avoid them and don't consider them canon. That's their right and mine.

But Lucas modified the original in more than cosmetic ways, and then insists that's the only version you can have. Attention should be paid to the interest of those who are yet unborn, who should be able to see this generation as it saw itself, and the past generation as it saw itself.

So long as I can go and read Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone as it was in 1997 I can then stop whenever I want and call it canon. I'd not begrudge anything else they want to do, even if it means letting their son write prequels.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 5:21 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


I think Rowling mainly wants to clarify the stuff about Dumbledore, because apparently a lot of people read the books and somehow completely miss the fact that Dumbledore is a time-traveling Ron Weasley.

So if Ron is really Dumbledore, and Dumbledore is gay, does that mean Hermione is really just his great big beard?
posted by briank at 5:49 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


And Dumbledore's beard is white so that proves Hermione Is Black to be false. No wonder so many people are obsessed with ronbledore
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:00 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


"That's not the King James Version!" a woman shouted from the back of an city council meeting during a debate on an LGBT rights ordinance I attended 25 years ago.

The fixation with "canon" and "worldbuilding" remind me so much of the way that fundamentalist Christians treat the Bible. Fundamentalists have minimal logical consistency for their method of interpretation because God is the Only Objective Truth, but fiction readers and authors really have no grounds to make claims about the objectivity of their fiction stories about figments of the imagination. Responsible historians and biographers don't do that about unquestionably real events and people, at least not without a massive appendix citing primary sources.

And really if you read very far in the humanities outside of the copyright era, or religious studies outside of Fundamentalist pinheads, you find that canon isn't as important as SFF makes it out to be. Folklore and religion are quite comfortable with multiple narratives that differ on trivial details like whether Han shot first, which is the ridiculous level where most canon disputes reside.

Never mind that that the information model of "canon" strikes me as fatally flawed when put up against the reality of creatively interpretive agents and a lossy channel of transmission. You can either flood the channel with more and more direction or you can realize that ambiguity in interpretation makes the work beloved by a broader audience than yourself.

There's also issues of craft involved in treating ephemera as authoritative. The major work of creative work isn't creation, it's destruction. Most ideas don't make it "in print" because they turn out to be bad ideas on closer examination or get pushed off the page by better ideas. The red pen is as essential to literary art as the black one, and without a structured revision process, adoption of ephemera as equally (or more) authoritative can make things worse. How strongly should we consider Rowling's off-the-cuff comments about reconsidering epilogue relationships given that they're plowing forward with a stage sequel?

Not to mention that the "journalism" following Rowling's twitter for every juicy bit of reinterpretation gives her a much bigger megaphone than most authors.

Copyright law is completely irrelevant to this discussion. It's mixing questions of legality with questions of interpretation, and there's lots of copyright-protected work by authors who embrace open narratives with no singular interpretation.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:01 AM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


This whole "Is J.K. Rowling ruining Harry Potter with Twitter?" question is boring and stupid and distracts from the truly important topic of how wonderful J. K. Rowling's Twitter account is.

I have a lot of friends who turned to Harry Potter for solace as troubled youths and now turn to J.K. Rowling's Twitter for solace as troubled adults. What a lucky author to get to grow up with as a kid.
posted by rorgy at 6:12 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


okay but you guys are missing the most important part which is that the robes albus severus potter is wearing in that photo have purple piping. PURPLE IS NOT A GRYFFINDOR COLOR.

Or maybe it's grey piping. Idk.
posted by cooker girl at 6:14 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


And as a personal bit of annoyance, it's really nice that Menzel, Isaac, and Hamill are open to LGBTQ interpretations of the characters they perform via back channels such as interviews and twitter. But that's not on-screen representation either.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:17 AM on June 2, 2016


Slowly but surely, as the social conversation continues ever forward, I'm starting to realize that Harry Potter is an entrenched part of the literary landscape and not just a fad, and that maybe I'll probably have to read a book.

Then again, I have never seen It's a Wonderful Life, either, and if I've gone that long...
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:33 AM on June 2, 2016


Books belong to their readers. We are all free to embrace or ignore whatever Rowling does. We're free to believe that Ron is a time-travelling Dumbledore.

I don't accept the notion that an author is "ruining" something for us by messing around with it. It's fine, important even, to criticize an author's choices - witness the consternation over that latest Captain America comic or the complaints about Rowling's clumsy handling of indigenous cultures re: non-European wizard schools. But that doesn't mean we can't pick and choose what we like about a work.

I did appreciate that the NYT piece wasn't dismissive about fandom like many articles often are.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:06 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


If you've never read Harry Potter before and only know it from the cultural buzz around it, you may wind up being pleasantly surprised. It's rough in a lot of ways, but has all manner of delightful little touches to it; Rowling is both a good and a serious writer, and I get the sense that her editor didn't take her nearly as seriously as they ought've. And the world itself is way more self-aware than it's given credit for: its depiction of magic is playful, tongue-in-cheek, and satirical in a way that bleeds into the series' deeper themes of xenophobia and bigotry.

Which gets at another important thing, and that's: the series (and Rowling) takes its politics seriously. Harry himself is a tabula rasa of sorts—he's an outsider to this world who, minor spoiler, inherits a shitload of money, and subsequently is unaware of the ways in which other people struggle without his knowing it. But he also grew up in a miserably class-obsessed household, and tends to intuitively stumble towards not being a piece of shit (though he makes a lot of shitty flubs and the book knows when he does, even when he doesn't). The series as a whole is something of a leftist (and gently Christian) inquiry into what it means to become a good person, and its plots and characters all weave around this in a way that felt really satisfying even when they left gaping plot holes open. By no means is it a perfect series, but it's excellent when it's not being flawed, and I get the sense that it opened a lot of doors for Serious Material Aimed At Children, both culturally and capitalistically. (Homestuck and Steven Universe, two also-wonderful things with loud, irritating fans, both give me strong HP vibes.)

That said: while the series is an epic and a bildungsroman, it's a comic epic, not a tragic/dramatic one. It gets to the serious stuff by means of a lot of humor. If you go in expecting a satire before you expect any other kind of story, I think you'll be pretty damn pleased. As a fantasy it's got a lot of weak structural bits, and as a leftist fairytale there're a lot of race-and-gender critiques you can make—the series depicts racism across magical species pretty well, but mostly leaves unmagical racism unexamined, and while it addresses sexism/patriarchal nonsense in some clever ways, that only ever happens around the edges. As a satire, though, it's close to phenomenal, creating all sorts of delightful and whimsical contraptions that expose nasty bits in our society, and ever-so-gradually letting that nastiness fester until it's dark and unescapably hurtful.

It constantly asks: "Why, in a world this strange and funny and fascinating, would people ever let themselves get caught up in being nasty and ugly and mundane?" And then it shows you why and how.

A lot of the non-canon surrounding the series critiques it in ways that I appreciate (and some of it critiques the series in total bullshit ways *coughYudkowskycough*). Some of it is demonstrably better than the source material. (The movies, at least; maybe the books too.) But the series itself is good and worth reading. For what it's worth, the first three books mostly serve as charming one-offs—don't let that fool you. The fourth transitions the series into something much larger and grander, and books five through seven are better than any YA series has any right to be.
posted by rorgy at 7:12 AM on June 2, 2016 [18 favorites]


Oh and I forgot to mention but that Slate piece is so entitled! Not to mention the gratuitous disdain for Scotland and rugby and whatever else. JKR is a person! Let her tweet about rugby! The whole piece was just: "This person is not acting exactly as a wish therefore they are wrong and bad. How dare they express opinions on things I don't care or know about! Back to your tower my scribbling slave!"

Ugh.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:15 AM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


People are so - surprising in what they chose to get her up about. Actually the truth. Might be more along the lines of 'media outlets are so misleading in how they portray peoples' reactions.'

Why shouldn't Hermione be 'black?' Enriches the character if anything. Much less Dumbledore - how does this do anything but improve him? Like the revelation of his less talented brother, it provides depth.

Rowling should do whatever the hell she likes and if she wants to write another seven books, why not? There's plenty of 'material' there and elaborations wouldn't hurt at all...
posted by From Bklyn at 8:15 AM on June 2, 2016


She has the right to keep creating. You have the right not to read (or watch) what is produced. She is also remarkably nice about fan fiction. Which she doesn't have to be. I hate fan entitlement in all forms.

Also, I hate to break it to you, but Ron, although a time traveler, is not Dumbledore. (Speaking of fan fiction)
posted by Hactar at 8:29 AM on June 2, 2016


Note that it's not that the books are "inviolate, immutable." Authors can release new editions in the tradition of Steven King and Mary Shelly. Authors can publish sequels that retcon, reimagine, or reconsider details of earlier work, a path taken by Tolkien, Pratchett, Le Guin, and Bujold.

There's no reason to consider undeveloped ideas equal to developed ones. I suspect a part of why "word of god" is so inexplicably popular right now is the mass media infatuation with celebrity bullshit. Let's give Steven Hawking a byline to talk about alien invasion and the afterlife! Let's create programing with five celebrities sitting around a table improvising opinions! Let's run a headline on Evan Rachel Wood's retweets about Amber Heard's bisexuality! We have a celebrity environment where what people say is given more weight than what they create.

If an idea is so damn important for me to consider as a reader, it's worth developing. It can be as lean as Bujold's drabbles appended to Cryoburn. But I'm not obligated to sift through ephemera about your vacations, cats, and community politics to find the singular brilliant idea that changes everything about your great novel.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:42 AM on June 2, 2016


I love JKR's Twitter because she has used it to intervene in a deadly feud between two small Scottish libraries. Never having read the series I'm agnostic about Harry Potter but I agree with the others upthread that the Robert Galbraith books are definitely worth a read. I've enjoyed them very much.
posted by orrnyereg at 8:44 AM on June 2, 2016


256:

"It's entirely reasonable to read Catch-22 and analyze it and interact with it without reading or acknowledging the existence of Closing Time."

Sure, as a casual reader. But your thesis adviser is probably not going to be happy with you when it comes time to write your final paper. Heller wrote Closing Time specifically as a companion piece to Catch-22, and it revisits several characters and tells their continuing story. You can choose not to read the book, but canonically, what happens to Yossarian in CT is part of the overall arc of the character in the Catch-22 universe, and if your assessment of the character, based solely on the first book, is contradicted textually by the the second, your analysis is vulnerable to criticism and your thesis unlikely to garner you your masters degree because you didn't read fully enough.

(NB that Catch-22/Closing Time are an interesting case because of the 33-year gap between the books and the first book was an instant classic; there was probably a lot of scholarship that ended up running into the rocks of the updated canon of that universe.)

Essentially your argument is that you can ignore the author if you don't like where the author went with things, which is fine if you're consuming for enjoyment -- it is the essence of "headcanon" -- but might be true only in a very limited sense for serious critique (for example, if your argument about a book/character in a series can be confined solely to what's in the text and the rest of the series has no bearing, which is a neat trick, and is probably highly arguable but can be done).

"yes, she owns that intellectual property, but if she makes changes to it, she also legally owns both versions."

Yeah, no, this is a tortuous construction to try to make your argument work. When a creator adds to their universe, they are not creating a separate alternate universe for every work (unless they very specifically state what they are writing is not canon or exists in a slightly alternate version of that universe -- which is a thing, for example, that John Varley did for a couple of his novels which started in the framework of a universe that he already created but then changed sufficiently in the details for him to note he'd branched off). Barring that acknowledgement, it's all the same universe. When I add to the Old Man's War universe (currently six novels and several short stories), it's all the same universe; it's not ten different alternate versions of that universe.

That said, I can write something in the world and then specifically note it's non-canonical -- at the end of The End of All Things, I include an early alternate versions of the first chapters of the book and note it's not officially part of the story. Are those alternate chapters interesting from a process and intent point of view and worthy of analysis (to the extent any of my work is worthy of it)? Sure. Are they canon? Nope, and anyone making the argument it should be considered so runs up against my legal ownership of the work and my ability to control it. Which means, incidentally, that your assertion that it's backwards to have the law have bearing on analysis is highly contentious.

CBrachyrhynchos:

"Copyright law is completely irrelevant to this discussion."

Oh, this is so very delightfully wrong, although I certainly understand why you might wish it to be otherwise. In point of fact, when the author is alive (and owns the copyright, which is an important thing in this discussion), their ability to state what is accurate and inaccurate about their own universes is paramount because they alone have the ability to create in that universe, unless they choose to let others in to make canonical changes (which presumably they approve of, or at least have agreed contractually that they have no right to stop). Critical analysis that doesn't acknowledge this, or that is not aware of this, is going to have some rough sledding.

In a more general sense I find textual analysis that doesn't take into account real-world conditions surrounding the writing of the text to be, at best, naive. There are reasons texts are shaped like they are, and they include what venues are buying, what political conditions are, and, yes, what the state of copyright is at the time of the writing. As an example in my own body of work, any purportedly serious analysis of my book Fuzzy Nation which did not understand the vagaries of US copyright law as it relates to my book is likely to miss something basic and essential about the text, which will compromise the analysis.

I understand the drive to divorce the author and the text -- and I also agree wholeheartedly with the idea that once your work goes into the world, it's apprehended in as many different ways as there are people who read it -- but to ignore the fact that the creator (usually) controls the universe over the course of their life (and 70 years beyond that) and has a legal and creative right to say what's "true" about it and what isn't is, bluntly, willful ignorance. Or, to use another word, headcanon.
posted by jscalzi at 9:01 AM on June 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


Sorry, but I can't help but think of how this reminds me of Metafilter. It was (originally) matt's baby and yet he was constantly being asked either for changes (ponies!) or told to put things back because people didn't like the change (themes, titles, etc, etc, etc, etc).
posted by terrapin at 9:21 AM on June 2, 2016


jscalzi, I'm at a loss to reconcile what you're saying with everything I was taught about literary criticism as a creative writing major up to around the 500 level, ten years ago. My professors put in serious effort breaking down my adherence to authorial intent. Has New Criticism fallen far enough out of favor that its tenants can be casually laughed off, as above? I'm honestly asking; you would certainly know better than me! Maybe my university was clinging to an already-dying approach to literature.

Is it again the case that the Lord of the Rings is not even a little bit a Christian allegory because Tolkien said it wasn't, as attested in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien?
posted by gilrain at 9:23 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


jscalzi, I'm at a loss to reconcile what you're saying with everything I was taught about literary criticism as a creative writing major up to around the 500 level, ten years ago. My professors put in serious effort breaking down my adherence to authorial intent.

The opinions jscalzi's putting forward here are very old-fashioned, and would get him laughed out of any serious English department. Now, I hasten to add, whether they're wrong, that's another matter. Personally I find differing attitudes towards "canonicity" and the authority of the author are more or less useful tools for differing tasks. I'm old-fashioned enough that often I find the question of "what the author meant" to be an interesting one to chew on, and, for that purpose, I find a severer attitude towards "canonicity" and a greater belief in the very existence of an author to be more useful. But, as a human thinking generally, I reject any claim to the moral authority of the author to determine the meaning of a text and cannot challenge the right of any reader to respond to a text just as it comes to him/her, complete.

Speaking generally, SF/F, at least older-school SF/F, loves to generate little closed universes of meaning that a diligent student can claim mastery of and claim authority and credibility thereby (while excluding others that lack this authority/credibility), and this requires strong concepts of "canonicity" and authorial identity and authority to maintain. Any literary criticism post-about-1950 doesn't really fit into this model and hasn't been assimilated. As I said in the first paragraph, whether this is a good or bad thing depends on what you're trying to do.
posted by praemunire at 9:47 AM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


jscalzi:

I think we're fundamentally differing on the idea that there can be true facts about fictional universes. And I don't mean this in a glib way, it's a serious distinction. If an author writes a book and then later releases another version of it with a different ending, I really don't think that there's a meaningful way in which we can say that that fictional universe exists in one state but not the other, regardless of the author's statements about which ending is now canonical. Instead we have two separate works each of which suggest their own equal universe.

Vitally, I think you are mistaken to say that the author's legal ownership of the work implies any sort of legal (or moral or logical) authority to dictate the facts of the fictional universe the story occupies. "Canon" is not, I believe, a legally protected concept. Rather, it's a concept that seems to largely be the invention of the particular group of amateur literary critics collectively known as fandom. Notably, while you have some legal protection against me writing a sequel to Old Man's War, you don't have any legal protection against me publicly stating that one of the characters in the novel is a secret Mormon. You can say "No, he isn't" and we can argue about it on Twitter, and most of your readers will probably side with you over me, but nothing curtails my ability to make statements about facts in your created universe. And, fundamentally, I'm not convinced that it's even possible for me to be wrong.

Is Dumbledore gay? There isn't really an answer to that question in a strict sense, since Dumbledore is not a real entity. But of course, you can still argue about the evidence regarding Dumbledore's sexuality within the universe. To do so however, you need to decide whether you are accepting as your corpus the novels themselves (in which case, the answer is "who knows?") or the novels plus subsequent tweets (in which case, the answer is "Apparently, yes.") But it doesn't seem at all obvious that one of those answers has primacy over the other.

This last bit is an aside at this point but, as for Catch-22, I agree that anyone writing serious criticism on the book should probably read Closing Time. That said, I think there is still a lot of room for and value in analysis of Catch-22 that intentionally does not use Closing Time to inform it's insight into Yossarian's character. Catch-22 is an important book, and the much later publication of Closing Time didn't change anything about Catch-22 itself. A serious critic can absolutely choose either to consider Catch-22 or to consider Catch-22-plus-Closing-Time and draw different, but equally valuable, conclusions taking either tack.
posted by 256 at 9:49 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Says you. Copyright conveys a limited monopoly over various aspects of written works to the author, but the right to define canon isn’t specified as one those aspects.

Though that plus a well-funded corporate legal department can bring a lot of force to bear; for example, Warner managed to destroy a Russian Potter-inspired book titled Tanya Grotter and the Magic Contrabass.
posted by acb at 9:50 AM on June 2, 2016


I indulge in headcanon as much as anyone: My Star Wars series has four films in it, my Alien series two, .... I don't confuse my headcanon with canon.

But at some (admittedly vague and nebulous point), a near-universally shared headcanon becomes canon, or else the term "canon" itself becomes meaningless. The fact that some people may not include The Phantom Menace in their Star Wars personal canon becomes problematic in discussion only because there are so many others who do include it in their canon. (Or, for that matter, the fact that the book of Tobit is included in some Christians' biblical canon and not in others' — to take an example from perhaps the oldest of disputed canons.) But if every SW fan agreed to ignore TPM when discussing SW ("Midichlorians? Never heard of 'em."), then in what meaningful sense is TPM "canon?" Disney can shout until it's blue in the face that TPM is still canon, but that would have exactly zero impact on anyone else's discussion of the SW universe, if no one listened to them.

So if your fandom agrees that books 1, 2, 3, and 5 in a series were all great, but book 4 was such utter nonsense that they are going to collectively ignore it, then book 4 is for all intents and purposes not canon. Perhaps you're technically correct that you alone get to say that book 4 is canon, but if that's the case then you are a pope with no followers.

(The bizarre assertion that the right to define canon is tied to copyright ownership also raises uncomfortable questions about who gets to define canon for works in the public domain — the only possible answers would seem to be either "everyone" or "no one," neither of which is satisfactory. It would be very strange indeed to suggest that my Sherlock Holmes-in-Wonderland fanfic could be "canonical" for both Holmes and Wonderland just because both are in the public domain, but it seems equally strange to suggest that a living author who voluntarily placed their work in the public domain could no longer add to its canon.)
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:03 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Oh, this is so very delightfully wrong, although I certainly understand why you might wish it to be otherwise.

Well, no, because you're trying to impose questions about law onto questions about literary interpretation, using a very limited set of historical conditions that don't even apply to the majority of writers today, much less if we're going to consider how to approach Shakespeare where there's little reliable ephemera or Dumas pere where we have a fair amount.

Of course, Rowling owns the rights (under law) to everything related to Harry Potter. She also owns the rights to a large portion of her ephemera, whether it's about Harry Potter or not. That they're both protected by copyright by the same author says nothing about whether a tweet and page 45 of Philosopher's Stone are equivalent in determining interpretation. "Word of god," advocates would say that yes, they are, but I've never met a "word of god" advocate who really lived up to that. Are we to rely on "word of god" that first-edition Oompa Loompas were totally not racist?

Then you get into franchise works like Captain America. There's no question that everything about Cap is copyright protected. But if historic Cap is apparently not very authoritative to last week's Cap, it's reasonable to consider whether the reverse is true. A better method of interpretation is to treat Cap as a theme and variation among multiple artistic teams with some consistent iconic features and the rest constructed however Marvel/Disney editorial chooses to construct him.

Fermat aside, people usually don't get credit for scribbles of ephemera that are not further developed. (Fermat was likely mistaken, or pulling our leg.) Note that the Dumbledore situation is frustrating for reasons entirely unrelated to whether Rowling has a copyright on the character or her ephemera expressing interpretation. It's that she keeps getting LGBTQ cookies for a character who's comparatively (internally and externally with other works) developed in a way that relies on subtext and plausible deniability. It's nice that Rowling, Menzel, Isaac, and Hamill all support LGBTQ interpretations of characters through ephemera, but such statements do not change the historic biases regarding LGBTQ characters on the page or screen.

You seem to be debating on the misapprehension that I'm putting fan-interpretation equivalent to text. No, I'm taking the position that primary texts are text, ephemera is ephemera, and commentary is commentary. I, frankly, don't have the time to read much of your work (or much of any work these days). Demanding that I read your blog as well in order to come to a clearer interpretation of what you really meant is beyond my means.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:17 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


And that's setting aside the problem that "canon" makes demands of fiction that many of us consider with extreme skepticism regarding nonfiction.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:23 AM on June 2, 2016


Well, no, that's entirely wrong. I literally own my universes (and will for 70 years past my death, which is sort of ridiculous, but even so), so regardless of whatever people want to pretend about the universes I create, only I can say what about the universes is accurate, i.e., canon.

Well, no, it’s entirely right.

This is why it is so misleading to call it intellectual property — it’s essentially a power grab by misdirection. What you or you assigns own are some specific rights relating to your creation: principally the exclusive right for a limited, if quite long, time to sell copies* and make derivative works. What these rights encompass has extended somewhat over time, but Title 17 specifically allows fair use beyond your control for writing about your work. Saying what your work means and which specific features of your book count as canon will likely fall into this area.

You can control fan fiction because it is (probably, see The Wind Done Gone as a possible counterexample) a derivative work, but "the fair use of a copyrighted work... for purposes such as criticism, comment..., scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.” And if it doesn’t infringe copyright you don’t have any control over it.

Whether or not a thesis advisor would approve of any given interpretation is another red herring: their interest is related to the regulations connected to conferring academic credentials and not to the general spreading of ideas about an author’s works to a wider audience. They are not legal gatekeepers of ideas either.

I don’t know enough about the moral rights given by other jurisdictions, but which don’t exist in the U.S., to have any idea if they grant the sort of right you are attempting to claim about what your works mean and which features of the story are important and “count” or which other imagined aspects (Dumbledore is a Venusian!) would illuminate understanding of the story, but in the U.S. we are legally on the same footing as you when we make pronouncements about what your works mean.

*The first sale doctrine means that once sold such a copy can be altered and resold, so if I want to buy copies of a book and go through them with a Sharpie to, say, blank out all references to a specific character and then resell them I probably can.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 10:30 AM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


Isaac Asimov wrote an essay a long, long time ago about a reader who wrote him about some symbolic interpretation of the Foundation trilogy. "I didn't put that there," he responded, to which his interpreter said: "It's there if I found it there."

Asimov then, he said, wrote J. R. R. Tolkien about The Lord of the Rings' stance against technological advancement, which Tolkien refuted. The essay in question was about how liberating Asimov found it to treat his interpretation of a work as the important and interesting thing in question, and how he came to terms with people treating his own material the same way.

Later, I read an Orson Scott Card essay about Foundation as a seminal work work of religious fiction within the SF canon. What I've read of Asimov suggests he never saw his own material the same way, but Card's essay was fantastic and incisive, and made me appreciate Foundation more anyway. Now I do the same with Card's own fiction, both for critical "fuck this guy" reasons and for deeply appreciative ones. And I'm glad to have that freedom myself.

I know people for whom the Harry Potter movies are canon and the books are just curiosities. Those people are despicable, of course, but they're not wrong to treat the series that way. They're just wrong to find anything of value in those films whatsoever.

It's interesting to me, meanwhile, that jscalzi made a passing reference about there only being one Matrix movie, because I just watched The Matrix this weekend and chased it down with The Matrix Reloaded, and I've consistently found that I prefer the second movie to the first (though it's been years since my last viewing). A part of that has to do with the things I enjoy in cinema, but in 2016 my preference was stronger than ever for extratextual reasons. The freed humans in the first film deliver all their lines with an incredible smugness; in the second movie that smugness is replaced with a kind of quiet earnest faith. Part of me prefers that purely for drama's sake—but, let's be real, the bigger reason is that a bunch of smug assholes have reinterpreted The Matrix as a misogynist, libertarian screed, and lines like "[Your eyes hurt] because you've never used them before" suddenly have a nasty, stanky-ass resonance to them.

But that word, "extratextual", is misleading. I don't dislike that facet of The Matrix purely because some assholes liked it. I dislike it because their interpretation is valid—because they found enough in that work to reach a theory/way of behaving without it feeling dishonest to the work. The smugness was there all along. If I'm suddenly allergic to it, it's because I've grown enough to notice it, and not because somebody else suddenly changed the work.

Similarly, I only went back to watch The Matrix Reloaded after reading interview after interview with the Wachowskis that made it clear how seriously they took philosophical inquiry, and after watching enough of their other work to decide I should maybe take their filmmaking seriously. So I went back and, rather than seeing the "deep conversations" as psych-thriller fluff, found a lot in there to appreciate, and could appreciate the rest of the film as revolving around those themes in organic, honest ways. The movie didn't change; I did. But my interpretation, both before and after, mattered more to me than the film did, and that would be just as true if I had strong feelings about some piece of Matrix fanfic as it is with the original movies. Context is everything, always, no exceptions.
posted by rorgy at 10:37 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


I'm responding to several posts here so this will be long.

gilrain:

"My professors put in serious effort breaking down my adherence to authorial intent."

I don't think there's anything wrong with challenging and interrogating the intent of authors, to be sure -- authors are unreliable narrators of their own process because they are human, and there are some things they don't know about themselves. And as noted before, if authors say something about the work that is contradicted in the text, then it's remiss not to call them out on it. At the end of his life Ray Bradbury said some things about Fahrenheit 451 that were flatly contradicted in the text, and as a result I don't believe most people gave his later interpretation much credence. As I noted earlier: Authors are gods of their universes, but it doesn't mean they have good sense. It's perfectly fine to question them and to challenge their assertions.

But ignoring authorial intent entirely seems sort of stupid to me, yes. With the case of Dumbledore, we know Rowling's intent to have him be gay is not only a latter-day proclamation; we also know that during the development of the movies, for example, Rowling steered screenwriter Steve Kloves from including a line in the script where Dumbledore remarks wistfully about women he'd known. There's enough evidence, textually and extra-textually, to support that, and any serious examination of that aspect of the books and character should include that. If it's not noted, it's likely to be incomplete.

"New Criticism" as you describe it seems fine as an intellectual exercise but in practice seems a bit like "trickle down economics," i.e., divorced enough from reality to be questionable. I'm sure your 500-level professors might disagree with me, and that's fine, because at the end of the day the difference between them and me is I own the universes I create and know I have a say in their composition and disposition, and they don't.

Toward CBrachyrhynchos point in a later comment, I think it's perfectly acceptable (indeed responsible in a critical way) to question authorial comment on their universes in tweets, interviews, etc, especially if it appears at odds with the text. But ignoring it completely (when you know it exists) because it doesn't comport with your headcanon version of that universe suggests laziness and possibly truculence. Headcanon -- even headcanon shared by more than one person -- does not trump canon as created by the author. Critical interrogation via Bartleby the Scrivener ("I prefer not to consider the author") is not how I would go.

Praemunrie:

"The opinions jscalzi's putting forward here are very old-fashioned, and would get him laughed out of any serious English department."

Finally, I'm the reactionary!

As noted above, I think it's perfectly fine for critical readers to call authors on their shit and also to interrogate the text in ways the authors themselves have not (or cannot, or are unwilling to). That can be beneficial to the wider understanding of the text, and incidentally, possibly useful to the author. However any person wants to approach and interrogate the text is fine with me, and I know I've benefited as a writer from it. Certainly from my point of view my intent and my execution do not always match up. But then again, if I know an interpretation is wildly variant to the factual nature of my universe (or the development thereof), interesting or not, I'm still not going to give it much credence, nor would I suggest others do so.

256:

"I think we're fundamentally differing on the idea that there can be true facts about fictional universes."

That's fine that we disagree; you just happen to be wrong about it. The true facts about the Old Man's War universe are what I say they are (although I would note they would need to be supported in the text, or I would need to show them persuasively in other sources). If you say, for example (and as people have) that there's a connection between my Old Man's War universe and the universe of The Android's Dream, another novel of mine, I might find it interesting and creative and neat that you thought of it, but inasmuch as I know that the two worlds were intentionally designed to be different universes, and there's no substantial textual evidence that the two overlap, I can definitively say that they hypothesis is factually wrong. Not uninteresting, and possibly creating a useful discussion about how I develop my universes and what things about them are similar (for example, how I get around "faster than light" travel because I believe that FTL is physically impossible BUT I still need to get people around the universe faster than light can go). Just not factually accurate.

DevilsAdvocate:

"But at some (admittedly vague and nebulous point), a near-universally shared headcanon becomes canon, or else the term 'canon' itself becomes meaningless."

I don't see how the second half of that sentence logically follows the first half, nor do I agree that the first half is correct, at least for the span of time the copyright can be enforced. It doesn't matter if everyone agrees to pretend the prequel Star Wars series doesn't exist -- so long as Disney maintains it does and moves forward in the creation of future Star Wars material with that understanding, then it's canonical.

Now, does this mean the owner of a canon of work can't agree with the crowd and change the canonical nature of its properties? Indeed not -- it seems like 20th Century Fox may be doing that with the Alien series, and snipping Aliens 3 and 4 from the canon to make way for the new Neil Blomkamp film currently under development. It works the other way, too -- Disney snipping off the EU to the howls of many Star Wars fans.

I think we don't disagree that after term of copyright is over, the canon of a property is open to cultural judgment -- as, in my opinion, it should be. But under the term of copyright, it's another matter.

CBrachyrhynchos:

"Well, no, because you're trying to impose questions about law onto questions about literary interpretation"

I'm not trying, actually. I am telling you it's a thing no matter how much you wish to deny it. You can disagree, but it doesn't change the actual fact of the matter. Nor is your "franchise works" argument at all persuasive; indeed it makes my point -- the rights holder makes the rules for their own universes, including creating rules that allow for multiple variants of characters and criss-crossing timelines, origin stories, etc (seriously, comic book continuity is a fucking nightmare -- and also a perfect example of how the market shapes stories).

"No, I'm taking the position that primary texts are text, ephemera is ephemera, and commentary is commentary."

We don't disagree much here, as far as I can see, although I would note that commentary from the author is probably best considered privileged, and given certain (not unchallengeable) credence above the commentary of others, and that the author certainly has the option to create additional text to bolster their commentary if they so choose.

With that said, your comment that you don't have time to read authors' blogs, etc for their commentary is neither here nor there about their privileged position with regard to the nature of their universes. Along the lines of "ignorance of the law is no excuse," just because you aren't aware of certain canonical facts of a universe because you can't be bothered doesn't mean they don't exist.

Quinbus Flestrin:

"Well, no, it’s entirely right."

Wrong again! The short version is that, one, you're confusing (or intentionally conflating) commentary for canon; they're separate things. Two, again, it doesn't matter whether the commentary is popular. Lots of things are popular and also wrong. Three, the thesis adviser point isn't a red herring; it's to the point that commentary without intellectual rigor is likely to be problematic and easily set aside.

"In the U.S. we are legally on the same footing as you when we make pronouncements about what your works mean."

Sure. But you're not on the same legal footing as to what is correct regarding the canon of the universe, which is my point. You can comment all you like! Please do! But that's not the same as ownership, or the ability to say what exists canonically in the universe. That belongs to the copyright holder exclusively, for the term of the copyright.
posted by jscalzi at 10:43 AM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


There are good and considered reasons why scholarship has little time for the notion of "canon" as it is being applied here. I mean, it's absolutely fine for a serious author to make the assertions that jscalzi is making here, but I don't imagine that many scholarly readers will accept them.

The idea that truth values apply to the notional universes that we pretend underpin our works of fiction is not one that I can take seriously. What is the truth status of Trotter, the shoe-wearing hobbit who eventually became Strider, the king of Gondor and the West? Any? I sincerely doubt it. And yet Tolkien's world's were as deeply imagined as any (with the possible exception of Glorantha) ever have been. There's just no "there" there. When a person says "Dumbledore is gay" they are not making a statement about a thing in a universe, even though it looks like they are. Who they are doesn't matter, because the thing that is being said is, in itself, not the sort of thing that can be "true" or "false" in the sense we tend to mean.
posted by howfar at 10:54 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


Is Dumbledore gay? There isn't really an answer to that question in a strict sense, since Dumbledore is not a real entity. But of course, you can still argue about the evidence regarding Dumbledore's sexuality within the universe. To do so however, you need to decide whether you are accepting as your corpus the novels themselves (in which case, the answer is "who knows?") or the novels plus subsequent tweets (in which case, the answer is "Apparently, yes.") But it doesn't seem at all obvious that one of those answers has primacy over the other.

While this is true, I think jscalzi's entirely correct that JK Rowling could publish a book, tomorrow, that was a prequel to the Harry Potter series and was all about the adventures of a young Dumbledore and could describe at length his affairs with other men and also make it clear that he is (or isn't) a time-traveling Ron Weasley, and that would render the questions about "is Dumbledore gay?" pretty silly, and even if you were to insist "I'm only talking about the original series!" when you asked the question, it is unlikely that anyone would pay much attention to you. So in essence what you're doing here is declaring that a tweet has less authorial power than an entire novel would; while that feels reasonable to me, I'm not sure it's a rigorously logical position to take.

(The bizarre assertion that the right to define canon is tied to copyright ownership also raises uncomfortable questions about who gets to define canon for works in the public domain — the only possible answers would seem to be either "everyone" or "no one," neither of which is satisfactory. It would be very strange indeed to suggest that my Sherlock Holmes-in-Wonderland fanfic could be "canonical" for both Holmes and Wonderland just because both are in the public domain, but it seems equally strange to suggest that a living author who voluntarily placed their work in the public domain could no longer add to its canon.)

I think it's reasonable to say that "canon" Sherlock Holmes cannot be changed any longer; the passage of time has established it and while any one can monkey around with Sherlock Holmes as we see fit, nobody can actually permanently change Holmes canon anymore.

I will note that I don't think this is connected to actual holding-of-copyright, either; it is purely a function of the passage of time. "Captain America was always secretly a HYDRA agent" is not now canon Captain America purely because Marvel says it is, even though Marvel retains the copyright, because there have been decades for a "canon" Captain America to gradually solidify and he's never been a HYDRA agent for any of that. If Captain America continues to have "was always a secret HYDRA agent" as his backstory for many more decades, that canon may shift, but it would take a similarly long period of decades. This is what makes the Catch-22/Closing Time example an interesting one - 33 years is arguably long enough for "what is canon" to begin to solidify, then when the original author comes along and attempts to add things after all that time it's a much murkier situation.
posted by mstokes650 at 10:56 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Also, given enough money, I could buy the Mona Lisa and slash it up with a knife. I don't think that would say anything useful or significant about the work, despite my legal right to do it.
posted by howfar at 10:57 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


jscalzi, the concept of "canon" is simply shorthand for a particular set of conversations about fictional works, conversations that draw a particular line around a set of fictional stuff and says, "This is the stuff we're currently talking about."

There's absolutely nothing in copyright law that requires anyone to have those particular conversations or draw those particular lines.
posted by straight at 11:27 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


I have to say that sometimes, my readers have better ideas than I have. So for me, while I know why I wrote something the way I did, and the reasons and backstory that I created, if somebody thinks of something better and it doesn't conflict with other work going forward, I'm happy to change my mind.

I do a lot of school visits for my books, and teens are wonderful and so excited and think so deeply about stories. At one of my last visits, they asked me a question about a first book in the series (is this what X really meant?) that-- if I hadn't had a sequel already in print that jossed it-- that I would have absolutely integrated as the meaning of X. It was just that good.

Basically, in my opinion, when I write a book, I am half done. The other half is completed by the reader-- their interpretation is just as valid as mine. But, what I write is what I write, and if I proceed with the next book based on my interpretation, that becomes canon.

And if you don't like my canon? Ignore it! Write fan fiction! Go back to the part you liked, and like it and ignore the rest. I can't ruin my stuff for you, because you can do what you want with my stuff. I believe what I believe about Harry Potter, and JK Rowling's new information is sometimes interesting and sometimes bleh, and I take what I like, and ignore what I don't.

Frankly, that's the sign of a piece of literature becoming a permanent part of literary consciousness-- when it grows beyond its creator. As an author, I own my copyrights, but that's all I own and all I want to.
posted by headspace at 11:30 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


I have to add that I could argue with myself on the points above, but mainly in order to question my premise that we ever make truth claims of the kind we think we do. That, of course, is an extension of the poststructuralist free for all against the rights of all gods, rather than just those of fictional universes. How much I'm inclined to indulge that extension depends on my mood.
posted by howfar at 11:30 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Straight:

"jscalzi, the concept of 'canon' is simply shorthand for a particular set of conversations about fictional works"

No, it's not. What you're describing is "commentary." "Canon" is about the authoritative content/design of the universe in question. These are in point of fact separate things. Describing commentary and canon as the same thing is like calling a whale a giraffe.

Headspace:

"And if you don't like my canon? Ignore it! Write fan fiction! Go back to the part you liked, and like it and ignore the rest."

Yup. I don't mind when people have their own headcanon for my worlds.
posted by jscalzi at 11:37 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


"Canon" is about the authoritative content/design of the universe in question.

Can you give an illustration of the legal effect of this authority? Is it in any way distinct from the ability to prevent the publication of derivative works etc? Because if it isn't, I think it's something you're laying on top of the legal framework, that doesn't really relate to it.

What you're saying seems to be equivalent to saying that owning a piece of land gives you the exclusive right to plan walks there, because you have the exclusive right to actually walk there. I mean, sure, you are the person with the valuable interest as it relates to any planned walks, but that doesn't make any difference to the reality of anyone's plans qua plans.
posted by howfar at 12:01 PM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


What you're describing is "commentary." "Canon" is about the authoritative content/design of the universe in question. These are in point of fact separate things. Describing commentary and canon as the same thing is like calling a whale a giraffe.

Who says "'Canon' is about the authoritative content/design of the universe in question"? You? Webster's Dictionary? The word is used in different ways by different people. 'Canon' certainly isn't defined anywhere in copyright law.

I don't understand how you think the concept of 'canon' can even exist apart from commentary. It's an arbitrary line we draw when we're talking about stuff to delineate the stuff we're currently talking about. It's empirically false to claim that when people use the word 'canon' they're always talking about whatever the author says is canon (or whatever the author has published, or whatever the author has published and tweeted or whatever definition you're claiming is the only correct one).
posted by straight at 12:04 PM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


scalzi: With that said, your comment that you don't have time to read authors' blogs, etc for their commentary is neither here nor there about their privileged position with regard to the nature of their universes. Along the lines of "ignorance of the law is no excuse," just because you aren't aware of certain canonical facts of a universe because you can't be bothered doesn't mean they don't exist.

Don't you see an economic conflict here when it comes to the relationship between big media and the audience? We're replacing the expectation that an artist produce a reasonably clear artistic vision with the expectation that the audience engage in a never-ending time sink and money pit of social media, enhanced editions, DLC, and secondary works. Can one talk about the "canon" of a work if one has not purchased the latest secondary media product? And can we talk about "canon" at all when it changes from week to week as everyone and their uncle involved provides "privileged" commentary?

As I implied above, novels are novels, movies are movies, songs are songs, games are games. It's not my responsibility to apprehend meanings and interpretations that you did not get onto the page after months of revision.

Regarding "canonical facts of a (fictional) universe." Well, we'll just have to agree to disagree. I think it's bad theology when talking about actual canons. I'm not going to grant that fictional canon is much more than the arbitrarily constructed and reconstructed elements developed via the text.

mstokes650: While this is true, I think jscalzi's entirely correct that JK Rowling could publish a book, tomorrow, that was a prequel to the Harry Potter series and was all about the adventures of a young Dumbledore and could describe at length his affairs with other men and also make it clear that he is (or isn't) a time-traveling Ron Weasley, and that would render the questions about "is Dumbledore gay?" pretty silly, and even if you were to insist "I'm only talking about the original series!" when you asked the question, it is unlikely that anyone would pay much attention to you. So in essence what you're doing here is declaring that a tweet has less authorial power than an entire novel would; while that feels reasonable to me, I'm not sure it's a rigorously logical position to take.

"Is Dumbledore gay?" is a pretty silly question regardless, although it's the state of SFF fandom that we tend to be flooded with such "is" questions since we can't advance beyond a superficial level of analysis of "what happened?" ("Beatty is Montag's captain: T/F")

Is he gay? Of course he's gay. Is this treated more ambiguously than similar adult characters in the series? How does development of Dumbledore's relationship with Grindlewald compare with similar development in similar works for a similar audience? To what degree did ambiguity about that relationship influence the presentation of conflicts around that relationship? If we get more original work about that relationship, great.

Many artists do not have an all-encompassing vision of a fictional universe that remains relatively constant through multiple iterations. A fair bit of fiction is exploratory.

Why would we even consider tweets to be on the same level as a rigorous and iterative process of constructing meaning? The strength of a novel, screenplay, or short story doesn't come from its word length. It comes from the process of development, editing, and discarding ideas as necessary to produce a coherent work.

So sure, I'd like for Rowling to do an explicitly gay Dumbledore story or for Kasdan (or someone) to do a bi Luke Skywalker story. That's not just to provide an unambiguous "yes they are," but because the extended process of doing so would force them to wrestle with questions about what being LGBTQ means within that fictional setting.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:06 PM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


This whole discussion bemuses me. I didn't realize how controversial it was to say "official canon is what the author/rights holder says it is." That seems obvious on its face to me. The EU books used to be considered Star Wars canon. When Disney obtained the rights to Star Wars, they declared only the movies would be considered canon, as well as releases going forward. Many people were upset by this, but nobody seriously claimed they didn't have the right to make this declaration. It's simple fact now. Similarly, the Database on the official CBS owned Star Trek website is labeled "The official Star Trek Canon". Because they are the authority on that. They get to decide. Canon is not a democracy, it's not what most fans wish it was - it's what the owners say it is. And yes, it can be changed after the fact. Sorry to disappoint, fans, but Greedo shot first. It's canon.
posted by Roommate at 12:20 PM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


One might consider it merely an amusing side-note that the term "canon" as applied in fandom derives from attempts by Jewish and Christian religious authorities to compile lists of authoritative scripture, but I think it's an important thing to remember. The historical canon process happened entirely without the participation of any original authors of the works included in the canon, and indeed many of the works in the canon either have contested authorships. The original canon, ironically, was actually fanon!

But I don't think the etymology of the term is a non sequitur at all, actually, because it seems like the fundamental argument in this thread can only be resolved by agreeing on just what the Hell we mean when we talk about "canon" anyway. jscalzi's concept of canon mainly revolves around the idea of who is authorised to generate new works in a universe. Which it would, since that activity is the source of his livelihood. But the other concept of canon is, I think, closer to the original meaning, and closer to traditional usage of the term in fan communities. This other concept of canon is more of a social or cultural agreement on what works are considered to be important or relevant to understanding a serialised story.

The early Christian Church, who invented the term "canon" in the first place, were mainly interested in putting together a definitive story of God's message to mankind. The Humanists who created the idea of a literary canon were mainly interested in putting together a definitive story of Western civilisation and its values. I won't say that the idea of canonicity as ownership is wrong per se, but it's definitely a novel invention that doesn't quite fit with traditional uses of the term.
posted by tobascodagama at 12:20 PM on June 2, 2016 [7 favorites]


Who says "'Canon' is about the authoritative content/design of the universe in question"? You? Webster's Dictionary? The word is used in different ways by different people.

I've been involved in various fandoms, online and off-, since the 1970s, and I've never not understood that "canon" is what's on the page/screen from the official creator/s, and "fanon" or "headcanon" is something different, and "expanded universe" occupies a space somewhere in between.

Just as a data point.
posted by Etrigan at 12:26 PM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Canon" is about the authoritative content/design of the universe in question.

So the the canon is the text, and we have no problem. If on the other hand the canon is the text plus the interpretation of which elements are important and what it all means, then that’s part is the commentary. I don’t dispute your unique rights to the text, just to the interpretation.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:29 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Reading this thread makes me glad I participate in neither fandoms nor my local colleges' English departments.
posted by rorgy at 12:29 PM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


I didn't realize how controversial it was to say "official canon is what the author/rights holder says it is."

The word doing the heavy lifting here is “official” — sure the rights holder can define an approved official canon, which we can take or leave just as we take or leave any of the works to which it relates. The rights holders want to control how you consume the works and would like to control what and how you think of them, but that’s just overreach.

The fact that some fans sometimes have weird relationships with what is in the books, what is in the official canon, and what is in their own version of the canon (dismissively called "head canon”) and strong opinions on the subject is another matter entirely.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:38 PM on June 2, 2016 [6 favorites]


I've been involved in various fandoms, online and off-, since the 1970s, and I've never not understood that "canon" is what's on the page/screen from the official creator/s, and "fanon" or "headcanon" is something different, and "expanded universe" occupies a space somewhere in between.

Just as a data point.


Right, and I think it's important that we not lose track of this. People use the word "canon" in a meaningful and useful way to delineate the set of text they are discussing. In most scenarios that's pretty straightforward. The concept of canon lets us quickly dismiss Prentice/Slothrop slash fan-fiction when we are discussing Gravity's Rainbow, but it gets a lot murkier in a lot of scenarios.

When we ask whether Rowling's tweeted assertions about facts in the Potterverse that do not appear on the page are canon, there really doesn't seem to be a clear answer. And the reason for that is that canon is not a real thing, it's a literary criticism shorthand. There are no actual facts about the Potterverse, and so Rowling isn't in a privileged position to know them. Instead there are some works of art. Which must stand and fall on their own.
posted by 256 at 12:41 PM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Aww, cmon this is fun rorgy!

Though your comment makes me more willing to derail this argument about canon by belatedly going back to your original comment about Harry as a bildungsroman and a comic epic.

I wanted to first link to a fantastic comment navelgazer once made on Potter as bildungsroman. It's long but super insightful imho.

Second I wanted to add a couple more lenses through which to read and comment on the Potter books. One way, especially given Rowling's post-Potter writing, is to look at them as classic whodunit mystery novels. This idea is discussed by AJ Hall here but I've seen it pop up in other places too and it's an interesting alternative to looking at the series as an epic. Some of the plot holes I associate with Harry's actions from book to book make more sense if you're in the same mode as Hercule Poirot, who always so conveniently solves the mystery and toddles off to his next case, leaving the messy aftermath to happen offscreen.

Another perspective to consider is that Hogwarts makes a heck of a lot more sense when viewed as part of the genre of British school stories. There's more of Linbury Court or the Chalet School in Hogwarts than anything from the 1990s. (And I'm not just saying that because I secretly pine for a good Hogwarts-St. Trinian's crackfic.)
posted by Wretch729 at 12:49 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


The word doing the heavy lifting here is “official” — sure the rights holder can define an approved official canon

Well, yes (and I actually considered leaving that word out) - When we ask questions like "Is 'Dumbledore is gay' part of canon?" We are referring to the official canon. (and the answer is yes, by decree of the authority Herself).

And I don't think the term "headcanon" (or "fanon") is negative or dismissive at all - it's just an easy and obvious way to distinguish the world of fanfic, "what if" scenarios, and even "well here's what I think, because the author hasn't answered (or I don't like her answer)" from the One True Canon.
posted by Roommate at 12:50 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm with jscalzi on what is and is not "canon," but I must gleefully nitpick this bit -- it's all the same universe; it's not ten different alternate versions of that universe -- because in the OMW series, does not each Skip take you to an alternate universe? Surely, the story has been in dozens of universes by now.
posted by chimaera at 12:54 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


(Oops I never added the JKR as mystery writer link. It's here.)
posted by Wretch729 at 1:13 PM on June 2, 2016


Roomate: A central problem is that the concept of "canon" as used in fandom is nonsense and unnecessary. Lucasfilm put a lot of work in maintaining consistency of narrative across all their licensed products. Doyle didn't. In fact, the concept of "canon" came about as kind of a joke that reconciling all of Doyle's inconsistencies was rather like justifying fundamentalist Christianity. It's all based on the notion that characters and settings are consistent and objective, therefore all fiction about them must be consistent and objective and point to a consistent and objective reality.

It rarely ever works that way in practice, but hey, if you want to do that for your product knock yourself out.

Now where this gets to be a big old mess is "word of God." Rowling often makes what appears to be off-the-cuff comments on her own work. Sometimes she contradicts herself. Because she's arguably the most successful children's author living right now, this often makes mainstream news. Last year, she says in an interview that Granger-Weasley may have been a bad idea. This week, we have casting pics for the Granger-Weasley family in a co-authored play.

The obvious answer that Rowling is not "God" and sometimes makes statements of opinion and process that don't necessarily reflect what is published or produced. (Although I'd love to see Voldemort vs. Trump.) But that seems exceptionally controversial here.

Some canon purists are already throwing fits about the play's cast. Which is one of those debates that "canon" tends to promote about whether Noma Dumezweni or Emma Watson better matches the description of the "real" Hermione Granger and which side is objectively wrong. Given that Rowling has endorsed both actresses for the character, it's safe to say that Rowling likely has a more flexible opinion about the "canon" than those fans. But I suspect that's always been the case.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:19 PM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


The EU books used to be considered Star Wars canon. When Disney obtained the rights to Star Wars, they declared only the movies would be considered canon, as well as releases going forward. Many people were upset by this, but nobody seriously claimed they didn't have the right to make this declaration. It's simple fact now.

Yes, but consider what exactly they mean by that. They mean that when they make the movie Star Wars: The Force Awakens, they intend that story will be a continuation of the story of the earlier movies, but not connected to the stories in the EU books.

If you want to talk about a particular EU book and fan fiction about the characters in that book, then for purposes of that discussion, you might label (some of?) the EU books and the earlier movies "canon" and the fan fiction "not-canon." The meaning of "canon" depends upon the context of the discussion.

Sometimes, the word "canon" is used to try to figure out, when we talk about a particular story, which other stories is it a continuation of? Which other stories does it make sense to refer to in order to understand this story? (Can a tweet be a story?)

Sometimes we mean, Which stories did the author intend to refer to and continue when telling this story? But it's not always possible for an author to completely control what is canon even in this sense. The makers of Batman v. Superman might claim that Man of Steel is the only other story that should be considered canon, but simply by using the characters Batman and Superman (rather than creating new characters from scratch), the movie can't help but be connected to previous stories about Batman and Superman in all kinds of different ways. (The shot of Robin's costume with a taunt sprayed on it really only makes sense in reference to other stories featuring Robin and the Joker.)

Other times, the word "canon" is used to try to argue which stories ought to be connected to each other. Which collection of stories is the most artistically satisfying?
posted by straight at 1:50 PM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


So I think maybe what jscalzi is trying to say is, "I am the only one legally allowed to sell stories about the OMM characters I've created, and when I write those stories, I decide which other stories I'm going to intentionally connect them to." That's a common definition of "canon," but hardly the only one.
posted by straight at 2:02 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Given that Rowling has endorsed both actresses for the character, it's safe to say that Rowling likely has a more flexible opinion about the "canon" than those fans. But I suspect that's always been the case.

Which reminds me of the way Ann Leckie handles questions about canon. She almost never gives a direct answer about anything that isn't in a published work. When people ask stuff like, "How much do you know about the Presger anyway?", she answers that she has a whole bunch of stuff written up in a private wiki and then completely neglects to describe what any of it might be.

But, when people ask questions that are clearly meant to get a confirmation of their personal headcanon, she takes a very different approach. Sometimes, when something would be totally out of character or violate something that is clearly established in a story, she gives a fairly direct "no" with an explanation of why not. But, other times, when there's no such contradiction, she says something along the lines of "Wouldn't that be interesting?"

I like that approach to alternative canons and interpretations.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sorry to disappoint, fans, but Greedo shot first. It's canon.

I'd like to point out that it's (roughly speaking) the fandom element of Metafilter that's pushing the "canon is real" line, and the English Lit/Philosophy side of things who are sceptical about it. It's not people demanding a right to control some precious commodity that authors are jealously guarding, it's largely an expression of doubt that the commodity exists at all, or, insofar as it exists, cannot be produced by anyone at any time.

The idea of "canon" in the Holmes and comic book sense, of a real and consistent world underlying a set of fictional works, is entirely the product of fandom. And it's fine, but it is merely one way of looking at those texts, and holds not one greater jot of authority or authenticity than any other way of looking at those texts.
posted by howfar at 2:09 PM on June 2, 2016 [5 favorites]


But you're not on the same legal footing as to what is correct regarding the canon of the universe

jscalzi, these are the rights the Copyright Act of 1976 gives you: (1) the right to reproduce (copy) the work into copies and phonorecords; (2) the right to create derivative works of the original work; (3) the right to distribute copies and phonorecords of the work to the public by sale, lease, or rental; (4) the right to perform the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, [etc.] or other audiovisual work), and (5) the right to display the work publicly (if the work is a literary, musical, dramatic, [etc.] work.

The word "canon" is nowhere mentioned in there. If I were to go on record maintaining my theory that, say, the narrator of Old Man's War was simply describing an illusion induced in his brain and in fact "he" was a trans lesbian in 2016 Peoria, Illinois, working at a Stop 'n' Shop, you simply could not go to a court and demand that it make a finding that I am in error, or that you alone have the right to determine what is true in your work. There is no such cause of action. Truly. There isn't. (If it helps, IANYL, but IAAL, and I have done work in this field.)

I am telling you it's a thing no matter how much you wish to deny it.

As an assertion of fact, this is rather bare, don't you think? You mean that your own method of constructing meaning around texts requires that the author be the final arbiter of its meaning. There's a decently coherent (or, at least, not any more incoherent than the leading alternatives) theory which agrees with you. But it's not the only one. If I say to you, "The Author is flat dead, your opinions on your books are utterly irrelevant," you can say, "No way!" and I can say "Yes way!" back and forth, but there's really no binding authority you can point to which gives you (or me) the nod. Even if the law did--which, as I just explained, it doesn't--people can reject the moral or intellectual authority of the law.
posted by praemunire at 2:14 PM on June 2, 2016 [8 favorites]


While I think that Rowling has muddied the waters a bit. I also think that the Wizarding World has exploded into a monster of a franchise. She's in the impossible position of curating demands for something that's massive, multimedia, intensely beloved, and internally consistent. She needs a bit of slack IMO.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:18 PM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


straight - I think you are kind of right, and as praemunire points out it's not like there's a legal definition of "canon". But that's kind of my point - in the absence of painstakingly laying out the terms of a discussion ("we're including Books A and B, and comic C, but not spinoff D or fanfic E"), the generic reference to canon in a question like "is this aspect of a character/story part of canon?" would almost have to refer to authorial (or rights holder) intent. If everyone just refers to their own headcanon without context when discussing a work then they're just talking past each other.

And yeah, when you're getting into Philosophy and Symbolism and Criticism and purposefully ignoring authorial intent, then canon doesn't even come into it. How can it?
posted by Roommate at 2:30 PM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Barring exceptional corporate interference, the best documentation for authorial intent is almost always the work itself. Often it's the only document we have. But I'm deeply skeptical that ephemera or post-publication interviews can do better.

Speaking of authorial intent, I currently have Fahrenheit 451 on my desk, and Bradbury's intended meaning--discussed as early as 1960--is plainly spoken by multiple characters.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:37 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


That's a common definition of "canon," but hardly the only one.

Well, it's the only one with any weight behind it, because copyright. Everyone freaking because Rowling's "canon" conflicts with their fan-canon is arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin while owning neither angels nor pins. Buncha sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The word "canon" is nowhere mentioned in there. If I were to go on record maintaining my theory that, say, the narrator of Old Man's War was simply describing an illusion induced in his brain and in fact "he" was a trans lesbian in 2016 Peoria, Illinois, working at a Stop 'n' Shop, you simply could not go to a court and demand that it make a finding that I am in error, or that you alone have the right to determine what is true in your work.

Oh, come on. You know damn well that "canon", as considered in any kind of "right of the creator" sense, is covered by both the right to allow copies of the original work and to allow derivative works. You don't need the damn word "canon" directly in there for the law to cover the fact that the creator (or copyright owner(s)) of stories, characters, and milieus keeps the right to decide what "officially" happens to and with those characters, stories, and milieus, which is . . . Ta- Daaa!!! Canon.

Furthermore, you know damn well that no-one, least of all jscalzi, is claiming to be some kind of Thought Police, taking people to court over privately held theories. And what the heck do you mean by "go on record"? Do you mean publish a story about the narrator of ONW (without Scalzi's permission) expounding your theory? Because, that would be a copyright violation.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:25 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Do you mean publish a story about the narrator of ONW (without Scalzi's permission)

That's clearly not what's meant. It means, for example, an official statement of a point of view. The point here is that the notion of "canon" adds absolutely nothing to the legal rights actually provided by the law. You can talk about it as if it means something legally, but it just doesn't. If all "canon" means is "the rights of a copyright holder", then why not just skip using the word canon entirely? It's just confusing.

And no-one is accusing anyone of being the thought police. But jscalzi made some broad claims about what should be regarded as the definitive interpretation of a piece of fiction (e.g. Dumbledore is gay) and Metafilter is a place where we talk about stuff like that for fun. The majority of people whose academic background is in this field were inevitably going to disagree with jscalzi on this, because his view of things does not, from the perspective of modern critical approaches, take into account real and recognised difficulties with the notion of authorial intent. That doesn't make what he's saying stupid or malign, it just means that there are good reasons to disagree with him and people are talking about that stuff.
posted by howfar at 5:40 PM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


You know damn well that "canon", as considered in any kind of "right of the creator" sense, is covered by both the right to allow copies of the original work and to allow derivative works.

So canon can have nothing to say on whether Dumbledore is gay because it has nothing to do with copying or a derivative work, until such time as JKR writes a Potter book where it’s explicit and her tweets and opining on the subject carry no special weight.

If canon is purely prospective then fine, though authors aren’t constrained to be consistent with earlier works; if canon is descriptive about what has already been written, copies and derivative works don’t come into it.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 6:41 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Word of God is Word of God because copyright (for Rowling and Scalzi) unless it isn't, then it's just commentary that can be safely ignored (for Bradbury and Dahl) because something something copyright!

"Canon" as used in this context suggests that somewhere floating around Rowling's brain there's a model with an idealized Hermione Granger running around an idealized England and any interpretation from the color of her hair to the knot in her shoes must be evaluated against that ideal. A non-canon interpretation suggests that a few character traits are essential (Granger is almost always the smartest witch in the room) and the rest are open to negotiation and interpretation.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:47 PM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


One last thing, given that fandom has a huge problem with stalking and harassment, do we really want to encourage more obsession with artist ephemera as essential to interpretation?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:14 PM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


For a nice demonstration that canon means nearly nothing, we need only slide over into the neighboring territory of Big Comics. Same copyright law, but so many reboots, retcons, and rethinkings that the concept evaporates. There may be a semi-coherent storyline behind the current company-wide reboot, but older versions don't disappear, nor is the current storyline binding on later authors. There's no fact of the matter of whether Batman is a wisecracking guy in tights or a grim avenger of the nights.

It's not surprising that authors are big into authors' authority. But authors can be almost as inconsistent as DC. E.g. I don't think there can be a "canonical" answer to the question of whether Hari Seldon's psychohistory was genuinely predictive or not. The Asimov of 1951 would have answered differently from the Asimov of 1982.
posted by zompist at 9:44 PM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


And yeah, when you're getting into Philosophy and Symbolism and Criticism and purposefully ignoring authorial intent, then canon doesn't even come into it. How can it

It's not not really a matter of ignoring authorial intent. More the reassessment of authorial authority. And notions of and related to canon are pretty vital to this sort of approach, both as exemplified in New Criticism (drawing on Eliot's 'Tradition and the Literary Talent most notably) and in its "postmodernist" successors. To quote Derrida on the importance of context
The phrase which for some has become a sort of slogan, in general so badly understood, of deconstruction ("there is nothing outside the text" [il n'y a pas de hors-texte]), means nothing else: there is nothing outside context.
And authorial intent and popular reactions are both part of that. More recent approaches like new historicist and gender and culture based theories all rely deeply on context. Authorial intent is an absolutely fundamental aspect of context. Literary criticism and critical theory are not some sort of high fallutin pastime disengaged from the real functioning of texts, they are an attempt to engage in an honest and supportable manner with those texts. It's not about capital letter 'Symbolism' or what have you, it's about thinking as clearly as possible about what texts are and what they do. So, yes, canon matters, and it's illuminating to think about what it means to different people and in different contexts.
posted by howfar at 12:58 AM on June 3, 2016 [6 favorites]


I like the idea of going back to the (already mentioned) religious definition of canon as a authoritative list of (specific versions of) texts which lets us sidestep questions of interpretation. This grounds the question of canon in real-world artifacts (sort of - can we identify a text with physical object that contains it?), and avoids the problem of whether statements about fictional worlds can have truth values (they can't though).

Fiction makes statements but it also makes implications, and as we go down that road it gets murkier and murkier. Direct statements made by the text (assuming a reliable narrator) are pretty easy to identify with the text itself. Implications are fertile ground for analysis and theories, but get progressively more and more dangerous to identify with the text itself as you move away from direct statements, and there's no hard dividing line between those categories anyway. So let's play it safe, and say that canon is (authoritative) text. "Headcanon" to my mind, lives in the realm of interpretation, so isn't strictly the same kind of thing. Or maybe that's evidence that "canon as text" is hopelessly out of date but I'll run with it for the moment.

After that the big question is who has the authority to make lists of texts and name that list canon. This authority is, if not related, at least neighborly with the legal right of the copyright protected author to produce derivative works, but it's not quite the same thing either. And going by the example of religious canon, it's not strictly necessary for there to be a single canon promulgated by a single authority.

In the case of fictional works, the author is certainly a authority, but as has been hashed out here already cultural memory (or fandom) has it's own kind of authority. Legal rights-holders have a kind of authority which is often divorced from the actual creators of the work by contract or because the work (like a movie) is ultimately collaborative and has no clear "author".

Ultimately I think my answer is that canon has limited usefulness in the abstract, but can more productively interrogated in the context of individual authorities and what ends they hope to use that canon towards. Conversely, outside of individual traditions, fandoms, communities, or authorities, the question of canon is moot. The criteria for canonicity are going to vary wildly depending on goals of those defining (or receiving) that canon, history of the work, history of the community around the work(s), etc. etc. to the point where the idea of canon divorced from the specific details at play is sort of meaningless.

That's not a "there is no canon" statement, because I think "canon" does have some kind there there, but the more I think about it here the murkier and murkier it looks.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 6:44 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


And going by the example of religious canon, it's not strictly necessary for there to be a single canon promulgated by a single authority.

This is kind of why I brought it up. Because I don't think there's anything wrong with having apostates and heretics who throw out certain "authoritative" works or include some random crackfics. And, just like religious canon, you end up with a kind of consensus canon that most co-religionists agree on, most likely based on authoritative source (Word of God, in either sense), where everybody understands that people with different canons are, indeed, unorthodox.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:18 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]


After that the big question is who has the authority to make lists of texts and name that list canon. This authority is, if not related, at least neighborly with the legal right of the copyright protected author to produce derivative works, but it's not quite the same thing either. And going by the example of religious canon, it's not strictly necessary for there to be a single canon promulgated by a single authority.

The problem with "word of god" to my mind isn't about authority, it's about labor. A serious problem facing the arts these days is that anyone thinks they can fake it with a good idea, a sharpie, and a smart phone. As a result, many artists are simply not getting paid for hours of labor invested into iterative development, the result of which may very well be that the "good idea" turns out to be the wrong one.

Fannish devotion to "word of god" via ephemera and work-in-process serves to devalue much of the labor behind the arts, which is often tedious, not very creative, but critically necessary for a work to make sense outside of the artist's mind.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:45 AM on June 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


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