Blurbs and Reviews: On Auctorial Authority

Tyndale sent me a link this morning to a thoughtful and flattering online review of How Harry Cast His Spell that I recommend to you. The story of the woman’s experience with a Harry Hater and how both she and the woman came to fresh experiences of the novels after looking at them in a different light is a good one.

I’m curious, too, of what you think of this paragraph in the review:

One argument Granger makes would cause a bit of discomfort for any writer, I believe. He admits he has not met Rowling or discussed her views of her work with her. But he challenges the assumption “that only authors understand their books, and everyone else who interprets their fiction is just guessing.” Rowling, he states, “certainly does not have a monopoly on interpreting her books.” That seems to take things a bit far.

I don’t find that a controversial argument but it seems to have struck her as absurd. Is it a common place that only authors know what their books really mean? Or just this woman’s belief?

And there have been three more five star reviews on The Deathly Hallows Lectures‘ Amazon page. Along with Travis Prinzi’s Harry Potter and Imagination, DHL makes a wonderful gift! Thank you for the kind reviews and for supporting your favorite Potter pundits with book purchases.


  1. I think she’s missed the point, John. Of course, in this day & age when people seem to have trouble thinking for themselves it’s easier for someone to just tell them what to think about something. But if this is the case then, as I’ve argued before, we would need Rowling standing over our shoulders as we read explaining every single thing to us.

    Of course, I think it is a commonplace idea that if the author wrote it, then they must know what they meant. They wrote it! How could they not know? But anyone who has ever written themselves a note & then read it later & said, “What the heck did I mean by this,” knows that an author does not always know the meaning of their own work.

    So, to answer your question more directly, yes, I think it commonplace that people think only an author really knows what their books mean. But no, I don’t think it a proper belief.

  2. I think it’s a fairly common assumption. Until all the discussions with all of the folks here, I think I just assumed that the author would be the all-knowing source of the meaning of her writing. But, I’ve since changed my mind, so maybe there is hope for this woman too.

    Now that I think of it, perhaps that’s the reason that Melissa Anneli shies away from asking more probing or challenging questions. If she believes that the books can only have the interpretation that Jo intended then why would she ask something that goes in a different direction? And maybe Jo herself doesn’t see that there can be a meaning there that she didn’t set out to include.


  3. I find it to be a very regular thing that the assumption is always that an author knows more about her work than anyone else. “Authorial intent” is still the dominant way of looking at a book in pop culture, in my experience.

    Isn’t this what fuels the “books-plus-everything-rowling-says” view of canon, after all?

  4. As a writer I do not know the meaning in my own stories, not completely, in fact hardly at all. I think it’s rather common for authors not to know what their own books mean. It is definitely a common and usually false conception that the author knows the most about their book. They certainly have a say in the matter, sure, but they are not the ultimate authority on it. That belongs to the text itself. It is possible of course that readers and the writer of the article are simply confusing the meaning of the book with the intent of the author, something that is not always the same thing.

    Jeffrey Overstreet was just talking about how he loves to hear comments from his readers that reveal some new meaning he didn’t think of in some part of his own books. The interview where I heard that can be listened to here:

  5. Dave the Longwinded says

    I’ve belabored this point to death at The Hog’s Head. I fall firmly in that camp that the author has no greater purchase on the meaning of her work than her reader.

    I don’t know any “great” artists, but as someone who has worked around serious artists most of my adult life, I can say that many of them are not always fully aware of every detail they’re trying to embed into their work. And even if they do have a clear idea of what they want to say, they do often run into problems concerning how to say it.

    Besides, many authors have flatly lied about their work — sometimes just to mess with critics and the press, or especially within contexts in which they feel as though they must hide something.

  6. Ann Rice has recently released an autobiographical work entitled, “Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.” I have not read the book, but heard her being interviewed on the radio about it. She had written all of her vampire novels as an atheist, but has recently returned to the Catholic faith of her childhood. On the radio she expressed that she had not seen her books this way, but her readers told her that the vampire books she had written were really about herself and her experiences of living in this world in the absence of God. I found that statement quite profound on its own, but an extremely interesting contrast to the laments expressed on this blog regarding Rowling’s insistence on continually telling us what she meant in her books.

    I continue to find many examples in the Potter series that seem to reflect a deep theological understanding and often wonder whether these are just coincidences or that Rowling really planned them that way. In any case, I think it would be quite common for people to see meaning in art regardless of whether or not the artist specifically meant for that meaning to be there. Why should anyone be surprised by that?

  7. laments expressed on this blog regarding Rowling’s insistence on continually telling us what she meant in her books

    I missed something. Help me out.

  8. Since the end of the series Rowling has come out with statements from time to time elaborating on the “meaning” of certain aspects of her books, sometimes to the exasperation of some of the contributors here. The most “exasperating” of which was probably the gay Dumbledore issue. For awhile there seemed to be a new statement a week and I seem to remember a number of people here stating they wished she would just clam up and let the books stand on their own. Those are the laments I was referring to. I guess I assumed they’d still be fresh in people’s minds as this thread is not all that new. I apologize if I have misread something here.

    In any case, I thought it was interesting that on the one hand we have an author who let her readers tell her what her stories mean, while on the other, an author that seemed to interfere in readers interpretations.

  9. Okay, I see where I missed what you were saying.

    What HogPros object to is an expansion of canon beyond accepted limits (usually the 7 books, some add ancillary titles like Beedle, the Schoolbooks, others don’t). That would include Ms. Rowling detailing characters lives post Deathly Hallows with respect to qualities and actions she didn’t think were important enough to write into the original story line. The argument is these additions distract from and diminish the focus of discussion of what the books are about.

    You read those objections as folks not wanting her to be continually discussing the meaning of the books.

    But — to her credit, and correct me if I’m wrong, she has never done more than point to themes, along lines of sight to find keys to her work, and mention books she likes to unfold the meaning of her work. We applaud the fact that she says next to nothing about meaning.

    And, yes, I am glad she has stopped, at least temporarily, with the flow of new canon details (the color of Neville’s eyes, the number of George’s children, etc.).

    Your last sentence, consequently, leaves me scratching my head:

    On the one hand we have an author who let her readers tell her what her stories mean, while on the other, an author that seemed to interfere in readers interpretations.

    When has she interfered in reader’s interpretations?

  10. I suppose “interfere” is poor word choice. I am trying to echo your comments about Rowling’s extra-canonical expansions. As you say, they “distract and diminish the focus of discussion of what the books are about.” So in this sense I am saying that these distractions can “interfere” with that discussion and with what readers might otherwise come away with in their absence, not that she interferes directly.

  11. I think the struggle here is common to all forms of communication … it’s just the large scale of this one that makes it seem extra-ordinary. But it really all goes back to the that old bromide which runs something like “I know you understand what you thought you heard me say. However, I’m not sure you understand that what you thought you heard is not what i said.”

    Rowling has her intentions with her writing. Every writer does; s/he has something to communicate. She alone knows what she intended to say.

    But the writing has a reader who reads through his/her own perspective. It’s possoble for a reader to recognize things that the author never realized were there or intended to be there. The perpsective of the reader also allows for interpretations other than what the author intended.

    Is one right and the other wrong? Well, the author certainly has a right to say what s/he meant … to clarify the meaning and intentions behind the written words. But the reader also makes his/her own interpretation of the that writing and is free to express what s/he “heard” in the writing.
    But who has the right to arbitrate which is the true/only/correct understanding? Only the author can say for certain whats/he meant. But the reader read whatever s/he read … and may very well read it differently than the author intended. Does that make the reading wrong? Maybe … maybe not. It’s really a matter of perspective the whole way through.

    I’ve heard tell of an Old Testament student who read Jezebel as a heroic figure, standing up to the men who tried to silence her and living her life as she saw fit, refusing to yield her own convictions to the opinions of others. The Biblical writer obviously did not intend for Jezebel to be understood in this way … but a reader could take this perspective. (She’d be out of bounds in most OT classes, but she can argue this.)

    To put Rowling’s works (and words) into some sort of “canon” is a bit over the top. She told a story … a story she wished to tell that was rooted in her own experiences and perspectives and imagination. She told it well. But did she tell it in such a way that it could not be viewed from any other angle? Absolutely not! The potential to be read/understood from a number of perspectives is part of what makes for a great story … and a piece of what made Harry Potter the phenomenon it was … and what will give it staying power in years to come.

  12. Trudyk wrote: “But who has the right to arbitrate which is the true/only/correct understanding? Only the author can say for certain whats/he meant. But the reader read whatever s/he read … and may very well read it differently than the author intended. Does that make the reading wrong? Maybe … maybe not. It’s really a matter of perspective the whole way through.”

    Good comments all around, Trudyk. I’d only add to your comment I quoted that, yes, it is possible to say that a reading is right or wrong based on the text. Maybe there’s a lot of leeway in many instances. But it is possible to say that sometimes a reading is completely off. To use an extreme example, if someone were to posit that the series is about baking cakes, you could say their reading of it was cracked.

  13. Arabella Figg says

    As a writer, I find this discussion interesting. I just wrote a column about a Christmas creche/atheist sign fracas at the Washington State Capitol (that gained national notoriety), for our newspaper, The Spokesman-Review. I know what I meant (to both validate and satirize each side). But I’m wondering which side–Christian or athiest–will feel my work supports their views.

    I’ve not heard the word “interpretation” used here. But it’s key to understanding how Rowling’s series is received. She meant one thing by writing it. However, people interpret through their own filters. Thus you have those who love the series, but can’t see (or they deny) the Christian elements; or those who love the Christian elements but are blind to her postmodern satirization skewering (we think–ah, interpretation!) religious fundamentalists in Pius Thicknesse.

    How the reader interprets a writer’s work may mystify the author. Writers tend to be possessive of their work and meaning, probably more so than visual artists. But, really, human understanding is very fluid, and meaning and interpretation will flow together and separately, if that makes sense.

    We’ve had an all-time record-breaking, city-paralyzing snowstorm here (28″ in 36 hours–with three more storms on the way) and little Flako is perplexed that he can’t see out the slider doors. He perceives snow as a frustrating new wall–a matter of interpretation…

  14. blacks_descendent13 says

    Having recently read “How Harry Cast His Spell,” I think people can believe what they want to believe, but in order to figure out why this series alone is most popular you have to delve into the meanings of the books. And re-reading the series for the umpteenth time, this book that John has wrote seems to fit everything in. I believe it’s the first book that I have read that isn’t anything close to what I read, meaning that more than just ‘words coming to you’ had to go in it. This book’s more like a research book, but better.

    To asnwer the question, I think people can decide for themselves. I’ve tried to tell others about what I have learned from this book and one just said “Its one man’s opinion.” I guess then from that perspective, every book is “one man’s opinion,” including the Bible. I believe that in order to create a best seller, you have to put more than just creative thought into it. And putting a meaing into it that more than one person can pluck out of it is possible the point of authoring any book. If only the author alone knows what everything means, then it’s kinda bogus. If it’s a truely great book, every one who reads it will more or less understand what the meaning is.

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