Author’s Remorse and Reader Authority: What Writers Can Learn from J.K. Rowling

I made decisions that I regret, and I took them as learning experiences…I’m human, not perfect, like anybody else.
-Queen Latifah

The latest Potter news throwing the internet into a tailspin is an interview with J.K. Rowling in which the author admits that marrying Harry’s best friends Ron and Hermione may have been a mistake. A fan argument (read as: war) that had grown dormant since the books and movies came to a close has now erupted with renewed force. Harry/Hermione fans rejoice that after all these years, legitimacy has been bestowed upon their interpretation of the characters’ relationships. Ron/Hermione fans are flipping out and arguing that Rowling’s doubts couldn’t be more wrong and that she got it right when she published the infamous Deathly Hallows epilogue.

This isn’t the first time Rowling has dropped a bombshell on fans via post-publication interview. However, do her interviews make a difference in how fans feel about the series and characters? Do the fans have to accept what Rowling says only in interviews? In more general terms, does what the author have to say outside of the published work make a difference? Let’s talk about what we as writers can learn from Rowling’s high-profile controversy.

First off, let’s discuss what I like to call “Author’s Remorse.” Much like the phrase it shamelessly parodies, Author’s Remorse happens when writers regret their choices only after the commitment has been made. Years down the road, authors may wish that they had ended the series differently or changed how they treated characters. However, now that the work is published and out there, it’s too late to do anything about it.

The force that probably most instills Author’s Remorse is my other phrase of the day: Reader Authority. Writers write what readers read, an obvious enough statement. Once the book is in the hands of the reader, however, that person may interpret its characters, themes, and stories very differently from the next person who reads it, who may interpret differently from the next person who reads it, and so on. In fact, all of these people who read the book may interpret it differently from how the writer intended in the first place!

As a writer first and reader second, I personally believe that readers have that right. Readers can theorize and bounce ideas off of each other, create fanart and fanfiction, or just read their books knowing that the characters in those pages are friends they’ve spent time with and understand. There will always be the official information provided within the work, but if something isn’t outright stated, readers have as much right as authors to fill in the blanks. Published works belong to their authors, yes, but those stories and characters also belong to their readers and are held in the hearts of fans who’ve gone on the adventures those pages hold; that is Reader Authority.

Author responses to fan theories and questions, as well as their interviews, beg the question of whether what authors say outside of the published book should be taken as fact. In my opinion, the book itself is the author’s opportunity to say what s/he needs to; if it isn’t in the book, the author’s word still carries some weight but doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of official information.

Rowling and the Harry Potter series probably aren’t the best examples, as both are so famous that most people will hear any updates, but take into consideration lesser-known authors with smaller fan bases. Perhaps their readers don’t know that an author was interviewed at some point and made a statement that wasn’t included in the manuscript that went to print. That information will not be part of those readers’ understanding of the book. It’s only fair to hold Rowling to the same standard as other authors; if someone were to read her books without any knowledge of what she said in interviews, they might never know what else she was thinking.

To know an author’s thoughts outside of the published book is like finding deleted scenes or bonus features in a movie. Perhaps they’re extra tidbits to enhance our experience of the books, or else alternate endings. Sometimes the author’s thoughts don’t align with their readers’ opinions, and so we ignore them and stick to what’s officially in the books.

As writers, remember that your readers add their own flavor to whatever you write, and that their opinions and interpretations are valid. As readers, remember that writers know these characters better than anybody—and that, in a way, writers are the biggest fans themselves of those characters and stories.

Don’t let yourself experience Author’s Remorse—unlike the buyer’s version, there’s no receipt for returning once you’ve been published. If you have something to say that you feel is important for readers to know, write it! If you have something you might want to say, ask yourself if it’s truly necessary, or if the readers should have their fun. No book is one person’s story; invite others in.

xo P

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