07 February 2014

Regrets in Wonderland?

by Dixon Hill 

     An article to be published in the quarterly lifestyle magazine Wonderland, today, generated so much buzz beforehand, that I was struck by a question that hadn’t occurred to me before: At what point should an author “just let go” of a long-published work?

     This question was prompted when I heard of recent remarks attributed to J.K. Rowling, concerning her Harry Potter series.

     For those who have somehow managed to avoid reading the books or seeing the movie, I should explain that Harry Potter, the main character in the series, has two best friends at school: Ron Weasley, and Hermione (“Her-my-oh-nee”) Granger. I doubt I’m giving anything away by telling you that, at series end, it is perfectly clear Harry has married Ron’s sister, Ginny, while Ron has married Hermione.

     Supposedly, however, J.K. Rowling feels she made a mistake by pairing her characters off like that. UK-based The Sunday Times quotes Rowling as telling Wonderland magazine:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.

“I know, I’m sorry. I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.

"I think there are fans out there who know that too, and who wonder whether Ron would have really been able to make her happy.”*

     Rowling would not be alone in feeling a desire to alter previously published work, of course. I’m sure we’ve all suffered from that sudden late-night realization that we missed a great opportunity to do a better job on a story that’s been out for some time. Sometimes—and it just rots my socks when this happens!—inspiration seems to strike only after the iron has grown stone-cold. 

     Pointing this out does not denigrate the work of J.K. Rowling. Many great authors have revised their works between publications. Certain Russian writers were rather infamous for continually “correcting” their works. A version of Stephen King’s The Stand was released with a load of stuff that had been cut from the original. (I thoroughly enjoyed both versions!) And, Dean Koontz has conducted major rewrites of books released under his own name, which had originally been published under pseudonyms.

     But, the interconnecting action, here—it seems to me—is that these writers edited the work so it could be published in a newer version. And, I get the idea this isn’t Rowling’s aim (though, I’d remind the reader, I’m hardly infallible in the “famous-authors-I’ve-never-met interpretation department”).

     One possibility is that Rowling and the Harry Potter franchise were hoping to remind people that the books are out there, as well as drumming up extra notoriety for a new project. Rowling is currently penning the screenplays for a new film series set in the witch and wizard world of New York, 70 years prior to Harry Potter’s fictional birth.

     As for the book series: It’s been long enough, since their initial release, that there are probably quite a few kids who haven’t yet read them. My youngest son, until recently, being one of those kids.

     I began reading the Harry Potter series to my first two children after hearing about it on National Public Radio. By that time, the first two or three books were out. After we finished those, we had to wait about a year for the next one. And thus began our annual Harry Potter count down. We never stood in line for a midnight release, but I don’t think we ever waited longer than a week afterward to obtain the newest book either.

     Those two kids are now young adults of 18 and 24. But, until a few months ago, my eleven-year-old son had only seen the movies. At his insistence, however, we’ve been buying a new set of the books one-at-a-time, just for him, and I’ve been reading them to him. Why am I reading aloud to an eleven-year-old?

     Well, for one thing, I enjoy it. And, also … because he’d heard the stories, all his life, about the way I read the books to his older siblings. They liked the way I did the characters’ voices, and told him about it. My 24-year-old son still holds a grudge against the movies, because he claims I did a much better job of portraying Mad-eye Moody’s character than the actor in the film. (I interpreted Moody as a cross between a drill sergeant and a crazy major I once knew. The major was crazy in a good way—militarily speaking, at least.)

     So, it’s possible Rowling’s remarks were a sort of publicity stunt intended to bolster book sales or interest in upcoming films. But, I think it might have had a kinder aim.

     I suspect Rowling was trying to give a nice hand-up to Emma Watson, who played Hermione Granger in the movies. Rowling has indicated, in the past, that she identifies with the character of Hermione, as she wrote her. And, there can be no doubt Miss Watson has done a lot for the franchise.

     Thus, when Rowling learned that Watson was guest-editing this edition of Wonderland, I think it only seems natural that the famous author might provide a good, provocative sound-bite quote, which could be expected to boost magazine sales for that issue.

     Revisiting the question I used to kick-off this post: “At what point should an author “just let go” of a long-published work?” I find it easier to answer the reverse question, “When does it make sense for an author to discuss the shortcomings of a previously published work?”

     After examining potential reasons why J.K. Rowling seems to have chosen to do this, I think we’re left with two primary times when it makes sense:


  1. It makes sense if an author wants to boost interest in previous work, or a new project that’s linked to that work. Then s/he can raise a contentious question concerning a certain plot element, hoping his/her remarks will find their way to multiple media outlets. 
  2. It makes sense if an author wants to help out a friend in the media. By providing a quote that becomes “the talk of the town” s/he might help temporarily increase interest in his/her friend’s work. 


     The kicker here, of course, is that the author has to be famous enough that millions of people will be interested in s/he says about the work. Otherwise, national media probably won’t carry the story.

     What does all this mean to me and my own cold-iron inspirations? Not a lot I suppose. I may still start awake, some night, realizing how the addition of a few sentences here and a paragraph there might have added a world of depth to a piece—a depth I almost struck, but missed. But, as things stand, I suppose I might as well just roll over and get back to sleep … after sneaking into my office and jotting the notes into my computer.

     After all, who knows what the future may hold in store?

     See you in two weeks,
     --Dixon

* The majority of my sources attributed this last quote to J.K. Rowling, though a few others attributed it to Actress Emma Watson. The Wonderland article containing these quotes had not hit the newsstands prior to my writing this blog, so I had no way of being certain. Thus, I attributed the quote to J.K Rowling while adding this note for clarification.

8 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Dix, I don't believe Rowling's impulse to second-guess Hermione's fate was prompted by market considerations. She has achieved the fiction writer's dream of creating characters so real that millions of readers believe in them. As for the author, they're her children. No wonder she's still concerned about their future and whether they'll be happy.

Anonymous said...

I dunno', Elizabeth. With all due respect to Ms. Rowling and her fans, she has an uncanny way of getting herself and her work in the news on a fairly regular basis, with one thing or another. In fact, the regularity of the timing seems uncannily opportune. If there's a business and publicity aspect to her leaked pen names, new projects, and even this rather schoolgirlish comment about the romance between characters she has already told us involve her own alter ego doesn't make Ms. Rowling any less a master of storytelling. But it might teach all of us something about what it takes to keep making sales once one has penned an epic masterpiece. Perhaps art alone is no longer enough.

Dixon Hill said...

my internet connection is on the fritz this morning so I am responding via my cell phone.

Elizabeth, I'm sure you're right about the characters being so real to her that these are true thoughts in her head. My question is: Why voice those thoughts in the media? While she may indeed simply be sharing those thoughts with her readers, I wonder if she is not also trying to do something nice for a young lady who has furthered the franchise.

Anon: I too have noticed certain timing, but -- even if the timing is intentional -- I have to say that I certainly don't think it's vilifies anyone. And, certainly, timing can sometimes just be serendipitous.

Dixon Hill said...

my internet connection is on the fritz this morning so I am responding via my cell phone.

Elizabeth, I'm sure you're right about the characters being so real to her that these are true thoughts in her head. My question is: Why voice those thoughts in the media? While she may indeed simply be sharing those thoughts with her readers, I wonder if she is not also trying to do something nice for a young lady who has furthered the franchise.

Anon: I too have noticed certain timing, but -- even if the timing is intentional -- I have to say that I certainly don't think it's vilifies anyone. And, certainly, timing can sometimes just be serendipitous.

eviljwinter said...

Honestly, I think she should have left well enough alone. The idea of Harry and Hermoine, especially with the way Ginny was written, would never have worked for me.

It's like Stephen King's annoying habit of revising The Stand every few years because he hated the jacket Randall Flagg was wearing in the last version.

Fran Rizer said...

Dixon,
I enjoyed your blog, but I'm not here to comment on Rowling or King. I have a suggestion for you and your eleven-year-old son. Not all of the time, but some of the time, try the "every other chapter" reading when an adult reads a chapter and then the young person reads the next. Aeden and I still read aloud alternately sometimes, and I'm not too modest about my grandson to say he is a splendid reader. This will teach your son to read with the same expression and voices as his dad! In addition, it's a lot of fun.

Dixon Hill said...

Evilj: I have pretty much the same take on the Harry Potter love angle.

Fran: That's a wonderful idea! :-)

Leigh Lundin said...

I’d read that Rowling said Hermione and Ron would need counseling. Hmm.

Growing up without television, my favorite times were those when my father read, particularly H Rider Haggard. I’m glad to hear other families establish this as a new tradition.

When the movies first rolled out, I knew children who said the audio books were far superior to the movies. Not only did Jim Dale and Stephen Fry do find jobs, but it allowed the children to use their imaginations.