Authorial intent vs. reader response

Everyone has a favorite childhood book, whether it is a picture book, graphic novel, book series or literary classic. Reading is an integral aspect in the development of a child’s cognitive functions. Books stimulate critical thinking and allow children to expand their view of the world while learning important moral lessons. But what if the novel you treasured in your childhood was suddenly changed by the author? That is exactly what is happening to the Harry Potter series.

The Harry Potter series was one of my favorite stories when I was a child, and I cannot doubt the cultural impact and significance it still holds. It remains the best-selling book series in history, with over 500 million copies distributed worldwide. However, the magical elements of the original Harry Potter books seem to be diminishing in an increasingly convoluted world of written spinoffs (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”) and prequels (the “Fantastic Beasts” films).

Despite my personal complaints about the franchise, author J.K. Rowling and her interactions with fans bring up a more important question about literary analysis: authorial intent vs. reader response (i.e. whether the author has power to change what has previously been written).

Authorial intent, as defined by the Oxford University Press, argues that “the creator of a text possesses a privileged understanding of its meaning” and “any interpretation that contradicts this understanding must defer to the author’s intentions.” On the other hand, reader response asserts that the interpretation of texts is “separated from their authors,” and it is ultimately the reader’s role to analyze textual evidence and derive meaning within reason.

For example, at an audience question-and-answer in 2007, Rowling revealed that a character, headmaster Albus Dumbledore, was gay. The problem does not lie in a character being gay. (In fact, the LGBTQ community is largely underrepresented in media.) The underlying issue is that the books contain few allusions to Dumbledore’s sexuality, and any presumed references seem too vague or based on gay stereotypes to be used as definite evidence. Just because a character is pronounced to be a certain sexuality or race does not mean a novel offers good or accurate representation.

Rowling is constantly adding to the original story, giving detailed back stories to minor characters, attempting to cover up plot holes or adding in shallow representation in an attempt to make the franchise seem more progressive than it really is. Rather than allow her audiences to extrapolate from the text itself, Rowling defends her own opinions about the series.

I believe an author has every right to reveal their intentions behind a piece of work. However, the responsibility to decide whether that intention was achieved and accordingly examine theme and purpose ultimately lies with the audience. A well-written novel should trust its audience enough to refrain from adding addendums and footnotes addressing every disagreement that occurs among readers.

A fundamental characteristic of art is to generate discussion among people from different backgrounds, each with their own unique perspective. If authorial intent was used as the only gauge to analyze a piece of text, a novel would only have one meaning. Embracing the mentality of reader response allows audiences to take an author’s intention into context but ultimately form their own opinions based on the text alone.

By Sarah Aie, Copy editor-in-chief 
Editorial cartoon by Justine Constantino