J.K. Rowling is on a roll with her 12 Days of Christmas series (she, like everyone else, is apparently not aware that the 12 Days of Christmas refer to the days between Christmas and Epiphany, not the 12 days preceding Christmas), and a recent reveal concerns everyone’s favorite bully: Draco Malfoy. His backstory, and future, came out in a brand new story that contextualizes him as a product of parental regret and bitterness who has a chance at reforming into a better person as he grows older. It’s truly a touching Christmas story. Yet Rowling’s perpetuation of her multibillion dollar franchise is getting a little tired—and one of the most tiring things about it is the endless retconning.
Rowling’s decision to cling to the series makes sense. These are the books that made her career, and perhaps more importantly, contributed to a radical shift in the culture of young adult and middle grade fiction, propelling the category from a handful of shelves at the bookstore to a massive industry complete with film and television adaptations. We can thank Rowling more than any other author for the YA renaissance, but there comes a point when it’s time to let sleeping characters lie, rather than dredge them up in endless spinoffs.
This isn’t just about allowing a series to stand on its own for a new generation of readers, though. Rowling seems driven to generate new content for Pottermore and other ventures to keep the franchise alive forever, but more critically than that, she appears determined to keep updating the text to make it relevant to the latest trends in media, pop culture, and publishing. Since she can’t exactly go back and rewrite the series, let alone recall her entire body of work and issue updated editions, she’s settled for the time-honored tradition of making sweeping retroactive declarations about her work.
Michelle Smith at the Washington Post notes that this is a reflection of her desire to maintain control of her work and force the canon to bend to her will: “Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters.”
And the hottest trend in publishing right now is diversity, which isn’t at all a bad thing. The We Need Diverse Books movement, powered by the force of Internet organizing, propelled the topic into the public eye this year, with readers and writers alike demanding a broader scope of diversity in fiction. Editors and agents responded, with more and more actively requesting diverse work, and while publishing’s lineup of diverse characters is by no means where it should be, we’re starting to see concrete movement. More books with characters of color, LGBTQ characters, religious minorities, and other groups we don’t see represented in mainstream texts are going under contract, and they’ll be hitting shelves in the coming months and years, which is fantastic news.
This is tremendously good news for upcoming work, but it’s not so great for authors with older series that, bluntly, aren’t very diverse. Like the world of Harry Potter, where most of the characters are white, with a vague religious status usually assumed to be Anglican, non-disabled, and straight. Minority characters stand out starkly from the text because they are so unusual—Kingsley Shacklebolt, for example, is black, while Padma and Parvati Patil are of Southeast Asian descent, and Mad-Eye Moody is missing an eye. Explicitly gay, lesbian, and trans characters are nowhere to be seen in the books.
Now, Rowling wants to change that. The most obvious “big reveal” happened in 2007, when Rowling announced that Albus Dumbledore was gay. For the sharp-eyed reader, this might not have been a terribly big reveal—his close relationship with Gellert Grindelwald was a pretty significant clue. Yet, the point stands: Nowhere in the textual canon is Dumbledore explicitly outed as gay, while the sexuality of other adults in the series is most definitely on display. Ron’s parents, for example, can’t seem to keep their heterosexual hands off each other. Rowling likely knew that Dumbledore was gay at the start of the series, but she made a calculated decision to keep him in the closet, and readers should hold her accountable for that.
“The book wasn’t about Dumbledore being gay,” she said, yet she normalized plenty of heterosexual relationships. If showing love and attraction on the page suddenly refocuses the subject of the book, then, arguably, the entire series is about Harry, Ron, and Hermione being heterosexual.
Magically announcing that a character is gay at precisely the moment when writers with LGBTQ characters are being praised for being brave, bold, daring, and innovative is, to say the least, suspect. Yet, that’s exactly what happened with Dumbledore, positioning Rowling to take advantage of the wave other authors had struggled ferociously to create in the first place. While authors like Malinda Lo, Nancy Garden, and David Levithan (author of the famous and radical Boy Meets Boy) fought for the inclusion of gay characters in middle grade and young adult fiction, Rowling was able to swan in with her Dumbledore reveal—an action that would have been much more impressive if she’d just made him explicitly gay in the first place.
She’s also commented that she wishes she had matched up Harry and Hermione (something plenty of fanfic writers have done for her), which is a pretty outstanding example of retconning if ever there was one. Rowling admitted that one of the key relationships of her series didn’t resonate with her as an author—after the fact, and only after millions of fans worldwide had lobbied for a Harry/Hermione pairing. (There’s hope, fans—divorces happen in the wizarding world, too.) Notably, this particular instance of retconning launched a thousand memes ranging from imaginary George R.R. Martin regrets to Shakespeare‘s own shoulda-woulda-coulda.
Now, we’ve learned that Hogwarts included Jewish wizards (Anthony Goldstein, could you have a more stereotypically Jewish name?)—another example of deviously timed retconning from Rowling. While religious diversity may have been implied (much like Dumbledore’s orientation), it wasn’t explicit. For young Jewish readers, there’s no real clue that the people they’re reading about might be Jewish, that people like themselves could take part in the fantasy world of one of the most famous children’s series of all time. Instead, Jewish characters were tacked on like an afterthought.
What will Rowling retcon next? Is Minerva McGonagall transgender? Does Severus Snape have autism? Does a minor character we’ve never heard of use a wheelchair for mobility? And how does she deal with all those stairs? The possibilities are limitless—which undermines the value of the original canon, but also makes Rowling’s own credibility suspect, as it makes her seem determined to take advantage of new trends in publishing as people push for greater diversity and radical inclusion. Rowling’s chances for being a diverse author lie in the future, not the past—she could be writing books that include diverse characters, and she could be writing their diversity directly into the text, instead of talking about it later for media attention.
As a tremendous force in the publishing world, Rowling shouldn’t be praised for “bravely” coming out with these post-publication revelations. Instead, she should be pushing herself to be radical where it counts, learning from past publications and applying that knowledge to future books. If one of the world’s foremost bestselling authors started routinely including diverse characters, it would mark a radical revolution for the publishing industry—one every bit as radical as the change she wrought when an editor at Bloomsbury finally picked up Harry Potter and decided to give him a go.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.