Which Harry Potter facts and stories are official? Is it true that Hermione Granger kept her last name after marrying Ron Weasley, or that Dumbledore is gay, or that Hogwarts had Jewish students? J.K. Rowling says these are true, anyway. But are they really? After all, they’re only in Rowling’s interviews and Twitter feed, never in the books. I’m inclined to accept only what’s printed in the books (otherwise she could say that Harry and Voldemort actually had coffee dates every Wednesday and we’d have to take it as fact), but others devour every new statement and treat it as canon. At this point, Rowling might as well release new editions of the Harry Potter books with all of this extra information.
This, of course, would further complicate the controversy. But there’s no news here: questions of textual authority existed since the days of papyrus and stone tablets. Erick Kelemen defines textual authority as “the likelihood that a given element in the text can be ascribed to the author or conforms to the author’s intention or wishes.” (1) In other words, textual authority is the extent to which the text resembles the author’s original intent. The processes of editing, publishing, and printing provide the opportunity for new elements to enter the work. These might include the editor’s ideas, formatting changes that shift the reader’s perception of the text, and typesetting errors. For many textual critics, these new elements do not represent the author’s intent, and therefore do not accurately represent the true text.
Is the original or earliest text necessarily the author’s intent, though? My own experience prompts me to disagree. In writing two full novels, I can tell you that my first text often does not represent what I actually envisioned for the story. For example, my second novel originally included a lengthy scene where the main character comforted his father about the death of his grandfather. It was ultimately unnecessary to the plot as a whole, which had nothing to do with either the father or the grandfather. I removed the scene, even after I thought I was done with revision and had reached a final draft. Did this violate the author’s original intent? The change wasn’t present in the original revised text, so Kelemen’s definition of textual authority would find it lacking. However, the change certainly aligned with my intent of creating a stronger, tighter novel without extra fluff, which would suggest that it does have authority. I would like posterity to remember the tighter version of the story, not the version with a useless scene.
However, as Kelemen suggests, a book is solely not the author’s pure intentions printed neatly on the page. Rather, it combines the work of copyeditors, proofreaders, typesetters, publishers—you get the idea. The author had the original idea and did the bulk of the writing work, but an editor’s voice is also present in the final text, and we shouldn’t ignore this influence. Writing is not a one-person endeavor, and “despite Romantic claims to the contrary, few if any works are the result of a single moment of inspiration and creative activity.” (2) My novel was not the work of a single spark of genius on my part. It was formed, created, destroyed, rebuilt, and tinkered with over a long span of time, during which my ideas and goals for it changed. At the same time, I incorporated my friend’s feedback in the form of spotting a few typos, my brother’s feedback of passages that sounded “unintentionally suggestive” (actual quote), and an online writing group’s feedback on structural changes.
What does this mean for textual authority? The story is mine, but not exclusively, since many people can lay claim to a small piece or change. However, novels and other fiction works typically list a single author. Otherwise, my “unintentionally suggestive” passage would have to contain a footnote reading “revision suggested by author’s brother, 2014,” and so on. But this would get unwieldy, so we let these outside changes remain anonymous. Instead, I take sole credit for every word in the text. As editors, we remain in this background; unless a work reads “edited by ___” in addition to the author’s name, the moments where we questioned and shaped the author’s intent go unnoticed. As the article acknowledges, some textual critics “argue that authorial intention can encompass the revisions suggested or pressed by the author’s pre-publication readers, such as a spouse or a publisher’s editor.” (3) Based on this, we might define an editor’s job as helping the author find the clearest path to her true intent.
However, it remains true that as a work becomes further removed from the original, more errors can be introduced. For example, it’s entirely possible that I made a mistake when retyping the previous quote, thus reducing textual authority and adding my own influence to the words. Kelemen describes this when he writes that “each time a text is copied from one document to another, the process of copying will likely preserve variants in the exemplar (the version being copied) and introduce more variation of its own.” (4) A stray mark made by the author’s pen on a handwritten manuscript might be interpreted by a typist as a colon, which might become a period when copied by a later typist from a faded book page. It’s like a game of telephone, where the phrase “make a dragon wanna retire, man” might end up as “break the wagon on our tour, Dan,” which has zero meaning in common with the original. Even in less drastic cases such as a colon turned period, a text’s meaning can still change significantly, obscuring the authorial intent that we’ve been seeking throughout this essay.
This, of course, is where textual critics come in. With careful study of different editions of a text and their variations, a textual critic can pinpoint which changes are likely to have been introduced by publishers, typists or typesetters, editors, or even the author herself. This is not to say that textual editors themselves cannot change meaning or introduce errors; textual editors are just as prone to making mistakes as the rest of us. A textual editor might also mistype something, or might misinterpret a previous editor’s change. A textual critic might write at length about how a previous editor’s removal of a semicolon changes the meaning of a passage, but what the critic doesn’t know is that the editor just happened to hate semicolons. Even textual editors cannot escape some amount of subjectivity; as Kelemen writes, some would say that “the greater weight editors wish to give to a piece of evidence, the more authority they will claim it has.” (5) In other words, without the ability to read an author’s mind and thus uncover her intentions, some decisions will be biased by the attitudes of the textual editor.
While we may never be able to determine an author’s original intent, we can track these changes over time and use them to infer what she likely meant. However, as I stated earlier, I would argue that revisions by the author do not necessarily contradict the idea of textual authority—changing a text is changing an idea, changing the mind. Authors are human, too, and have the freedom to change their minds like the rest of us. Or they may simply have received input from an editor or other reader that helped improve their expression of their intent. Though my novel’s deleted scene was part of the original manuscript, as well as later revisions, it ultimately conflicted with my authorial intent, and therefore had to go. Textual critics might call this later text less authentic, but to me, it’s a closer match to the novel I originally envisioned.
Maybe this is what J.K. Rowling is doing with all of her Twitter additions to Harry Potter—she’s incorporating others’ feedback and her own new ideas into her existing work. However, unlike my novel’s revision, she isn’t changing the text itself. She’s just making statements about what the text should have meant, which is not the same as revision. Right now, the only Harry Potter text with textual authority is the original book series. In time, maybe we’ll see Rowling publish a critical addition with all of her added notes. Until then, I challenge all of us, as editors, to think critically about authorial intent and textual authority in each piece we edit. After all, isn’t it our job to smooth the path for the author to push aside the weeds to find a clearer way to express her intent?
1. Erick Kelemen, Textual Editing and Criticism, 48.
2. Ibid, 43.
3. Ibid, 46.
4. Ibid, 43.
5. Ibid, 48.
Kelemen, Erick. Textual Editing and Criticism: An Introduction. 1st ed. New York: W.
W. Norton & Company, 2009. 29-73.