I guess I’ll eventually need to make my official statement on Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (preview: I cried twice, and not because it was bad), but today I want to write about a concept suggested by a criticism I’ve heard several people make: It feels like J. K. Rowling (and her collaborators, though they generally aren’t mentioned) is writing fan fiction. (This is not inherently a criticism, but I think that’s generally how it’s meant.) Personally, I didn’t feel like I was reading fanfic; I felt like I was reading a play (as I truly was), which meant that the dialogue was often self-consciously stagy. But that’s not what I want to write about today. Today, I want to explore the question of whether it’s possible for J. K. Rowling to write fan fiction about her own source texts.
I explored this question in my doctoral dissertation, which you can find in its entirety in the Proquest Dissertations and Theses database (just search Tess Stockslager; I’m the only one). And my conclusion was that, yes, Rowling can–and does, on Pottermore–write Harry Potter fan fiction, because she is a Harry Potter fan. One of the main premises of my dissertation was that Rowling (like Charles Dickens, the other author I wrote about) plays the roles of author, reader, and character with regard to her own work. The author role is obvious; I’ll write another post sometime about the character role, but for now, let’s think about Rowling as a reader (and, I would go so far as to say, a fan) of her own work.
After the Harry Potter books were finished and the films, on which Rowling worked in an advisory capacity, were complete, Rowling made what many people interpreted as a deliberate move away from Hogwarts–almost a 360 degree turn. Her next novel, The Casual Vacancy, is decidedly non-magical, takes a rather cynical view of human nature, and is definitely not for kids. The same goes for the detective novels she has written under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. And in an hour-long interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2010, Rowling made it clear that she was striving for closure of the Harry Potter chapter of her life, even if it meant going through a process a lot like grieving the loss of a loved one.
But then Rowling started writing increasingly lengthy pieces for Pottermore about her character’s childhoods, their secret loves, their future careers–in other words, the stuff of fan fiction. She wasn’t altering the plot of the seven novels or chronicling a new battle between good and evil. She was just having fun with the characters she loves. The Pottermore pieces hit their climax in summer 2014 with a flurry of writing from Rowling on the Quidditch World Cup, coinciding with the real-life FIFA World Cup. After that series of pieces appeared, it seemed that Rowling was no longer interested in pretending that she was no longer interested in Harry Potter. First we heard that she was writing the screenplay to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a film that promises to significantly broaden the scope of the wizarding world, and then we heard about Cursed Child.
And cynical people said that Rowling was doing this for the money, because Potter fans will buy anything with the lightning-bolt logo on it (that last part is true). But that explanation for Rowling’s new HP work doesn’t make sense to me. She doesn’t need the money. She donated the royalties from the three Galbraith novels to a soldiers’ charity. No, Rowling isn’t doing this for the money; she’s doing it for the same reason that anybody writes fan fiction–because she loves the world and the characters, and she doesn’t want the stories to end. The only difference, of course, is that when Rowling writes fan fiction, the whole world pays attention.
I could say a lot more here–I could tell you about all the times when Rowling, in interviews, has used the word “love” in connection with Harry Potter, the character, and has said that he’s like a son to her. But there’s no question in my mind that J.K. Rowling is a fan of the world she created–and not primarily because she’s the one who created it, but because it’s real to her. Which is exactly how I feel about that world too.