Dear JK Rowling,
You are one of my heroes. Harry Potter forever changed the world of a little girl obsessed with magic, and your books sparked my desire to write. That being said, we need to talk.
I love that you are so involved with your fans, really, I do. Few writers find the time to indulge your fans as much as you do. You are kind and polite, yet you don’t take shit from anybody, and always manage to say what needs to be said. However, here are a few things that maybe didn’t need saying:
As the creator, you have every right to defend your characters and the world they inhabit. When someone insults your world and your characters, no one can blame you for setting them straight. But sometimes, fans like to reimagine characters and stories in ways that are very different from how you originally intended. Some of these interpretations, like a racebent cast, have become pretty popular, and this example in particular is important to many people who do not often see themselves reflected in popular media. The power to reimagine and reinterpret our favorite books is part of the beauty of reading. Because there is usually no pictorial element, we can imagine the world however we like.
When you publicly shut down fan theories about things that were not directly addressed in the book, or even things that were, it takes away that power. It stops being defensive and becomes possessive. That sounds like a strange thing to say, after all, they are your books. You wrote them, and you own every bit of them. But that doesn’t mean the stories don’t also belong to other people. When you write something, it’s yours. But when you share that creation with other people, they take partial ownership as well. Everyone who reads that story interprets it in a different way and imagines a story of their own. That story belongs to them.
I like to think of it this way: Writers are gardeners. They plant the seed, and they have full ownership of that seed and the flower it becomes. But birds and bees and insects will be drawn to it and carry its seeds elsewhere. Different species and varieties of that flower may start to grow, and soon, that single flower is in the middle of a vast garden. The gardener can oversee and may even dig up the plants that they don’t want in their garden. But in doing so, they are destroying a living thing and farming a very homogenous patch of land.
That’s how stories create communities. When we read and react to something, our interpretation becomes part of the story. When a book becomes the cultural artifact that Harry Potter has, that garden becomes global. Questions and theories abound, and it is impossible for the author to even fathom any kind of control over it.
When you tell fans that their interpretations are wrong without question, what you are really saying is: “These characters are mine. They were never yours because I lent them to you, how dare you try to change them.”
Becky Stone summarizes the similar effect of the numerous epilogues and sequels of the series: “It was a door slamming in the face of the readers’ collective experience, pinning the characters down like butterflies on a display card right when I wanted to be able to imagine them moving on into a world of infinite possibility.”
Though she is specifically referring to the Deathly Hallows epilogue, the heart of the matter is the same: we are reminded that these stories aren’t ours and that our interpretations don’t matter.
I don’t think you have some ulterior motive to crush all creativity among your fans. I think these books are your babies, and that you want desperately to protect them. But from what? Because here’s the thing: just because someone reads a story differently than it was intended, that does not change the validity of the original, just as the original does not change the validity of the interpretation. A single reimagining does not soil or replace the other, they exist simultaneously. In reality, there are hundreds of thousands of Harry Potters, and they all look different.
Ms. Rowling, I admire you and all the work you have done to bring this beautiful series into the lives of children and adults everywhere. Write as many sequels, prequels, or spin-offs you want. Continue to keep this world alive. But don’t pin down your butterflies. Let fans have their own versions of this thing you created, because all they’re really doing is immersing themselves fully in your creation. Let them. The world will be richer for it.