Is Dumbledore Really Gay? (And Other Questions of Textual Authority)

Anne Kopas

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.



Add yours →

  1. First off, I have to say how much I love your title. It’s eye-catching and culturally relevant, peaking potential readers interest before they even really know what you’re writing about. I think a big part of the reason people do take J. K. Rowling’s Twitter updates about Dumbledore being gay, etc. is because she knows her characters better than we do. They’re really just figments of her imagination. It would have been a bit weird/brought on added controversy to include Dumbledore’s sexuality explicitly. What would it have added to the story if we were to have had this fact from the get-go? It’s an interesting question. One that Rowling seems to be continuing to explore as of late. I felt that your paper came full circle as your concluding tied back to your introduction.

    In terms of “textual authority,” I started to think about an author’s dedication page. This could potentially be a place for an author to thank the otherwise unknown helpers who supported them along the way. If we as writers were to give credit to ever person who offered advice or help, the list would never end–it would surely make for a boring page or two of the book (if one was to physically write out each name as a form of thanks).


  2. You had my attention from the beginning!

    Your analogy about the game of telephone couldn’t of been more spot on. When you say, “However, it remains true that as a work becomes further removed from the original, more errors can be introduced,” it makes me think about all the great work out there that’s become so distant from its original. But, I think it’s wonderful that you remind us all that “authors are humans too.” It’s sometimes difficult to keep in mind that books aren’t just these magical things that grow on trees (well maybe they are,) someone actually had to come up with the ideas on the pages. The following that you brought up is also very crucial to keep in mind, “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.” Perhaps an idea didn’t flow well, perhaps the author had a better idea, we don’t know. But whatever the case may be, the piece is going to be better (or worse,) and there’s really nothing readers can do. Editors can offer their insights and fix mistakes, but when it comes to the ideas and content–they need to stay true to what the author wants.

    I am now excited to see if J.K. Rowling does come out with a critical edition of the Harry Potter series. Could you imagine? Fans everywhere would go crazy–in a good way. I think it would be beneficial for the series and for Rowling herself, it could bring her back into the spotlight and fans would be as happy as ever.


  3. Anne,
    You took such an interesting approach to the concept of textual authority by incorporating both your own experiences and a popular series that appeals to many in your audience (me included). Our editing course has made me think on a deeper level about the implications of, as you say, having only the author’s name on a work of fiction. It is important to recognize that “an editor’s voice is also present in the text…and we shouldn’t ignore this influence.” It’s true that editors (among others) have a significant influence on texts as they appear in their final form; however, I think that many do not recognize this. When I read as an adolescent, I gave credit solely to the author for my favorite stories. Eventually, if I came across a mistake, I would wonder why the author herself hadn’t recognized it and corrected the error. Now, it’s clear that the work of countless people goes into a manuscript, then a published version, and most of those people will remain nameless. However, I think your point that an editor’s job is to help “the author find the clearest path to her true intent” is so important. This is a concept that Joey McGarvey, in her visit to our class, made as well. Editors are needed to make sure that the best version of a story is the one that gets published, as I’m sure J. K. Rowling’s editors did for her.


  4. “Writing is not a one person endeavor.” Beautiful. True. There are so many valuable and complex points in here, specifically that the birth of a writer’s first concrete text is not the final and ultimate version of the piece. It’s sort of funny that we even still argue about this! Especially as a modern writer I can wholeheartedly admit that nothing I’ve ever written is presentable or even represents what I intend on the first try. Why would we try to give the first version of another piece of writing absolute authority!?

    Similarly, I got to thinking about the JK Rowling situation (naturally). Because she is the original creator of the series, does she have the authority to alter the text’s meaning after it has been published? I agree with you that the text itself has supreme reign until she decides to publish a new edition. I once heard that after you write something down, it is completely out of your control. Readers can interpret your words in any way they want to, and you sort of have to be okay with that as an author. I think this is relevant to the authority issue. Ultimately, readers can ascribe any level of authority to anything or anyone they want to because it is no longer in the author’s hands. No one can tell you how you’re supposed to feel when you look at a painting, so why would we try to force that on a different kind of art.


  5. Katie Ballalatak May 11, 2016 — 3:19 am

    I have to say, you’ve managed to tackle a difficult topic with impressive elegance! Your article flows nicely; I never got confused about the points you were trying to make. In fact, I think you bring up some fabulous points about textual authority and choosing to focus on Harry Potter as an example was extremely helpful.
    What really caught my eye in your article was your argument about authors being human and having the freedom to change their mind about their story. Revisions are a necessary part of the editing process; I bet if you were to ask J.K. Rowling about her first draft of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” she would say that she made much needed changes– and the rest of the world benefits from that.
    However, with that being said, I think that people (and writers in particular) have a fascination with the writing process and “first” drafts. First drafts and the author’s “first” written intent provide interesting context and reference to the revisions that are actually published (I am reminded of the collection of Sherlock Holmes handwritten manuscripts we looked at during our tour of the book archives at the U of M). But first attempt doesn’t always mean first intent and I don’t think that authors would do anything that would go against their vision for their piece.
    And I’m totally supportive of the idea of J.K. Rowling publishing a critical edition of the Harry Potter series; I hope this happens someday!


  6. Alexis Gaither May 11, 2016 — 5:44 pm

    Unfortunately I was gone when you read this in class, so I’m glad I have the opportunity to comment on it! As others have said, how could I not be intrigued by that title?
    Studying J.K. Rowling’s wizarding universe is a really interesting way to look at textual history in the 21st century—it’s not like Shakespeare had the opportunity to tweet out clarifications on his sonnets or have Universal Studios asking him to help with the creation of a Midsummer Night’s Dream theme park. I think one could argue that being able to ask a writer about his/her work isn’t always a good thing, but ultimately the world has gained some awesome insights into J.K. Rowling’s characters.
    I loved your commentary on the different hands that touch each book—it gives some great perspective on the importance of textual history. I wrote my textual history essay on a Hemingway book that was published posthumously, and the amount of hands touching the book ended up being a problem. People wish that they could ask him the same questions we’re able to ask J.K. Rowling today about his characters, the plot, his writing process, and (of course) the ending. But as you said, authorial intent is a lot more complicated than that.


  7. Hey Anne,
    Really interesting idea for you to tackle in your article. I also responded negatively when J.K. Rowling began asserting all of these new ideas and facts into the Harry Potter series after she’d already published it. While none of it seems to conflict with the already published plot, I didn’t see the need for it. Readers everywhere speculate on the parts of books that aren’t written and wonder about subjects that weren’t specifically touched upon in the books, but other authors don’t feel the need to expand on their writing through Twitter. However, most authors are not of J.K. Rowling’s caliber. The idea of authorial intent is way more complicated that I at first realized. At first, I just assumed whatever was on the page is what exists and nothing else matters. However, in an age where authors are able to interact with their audience on a much larger scale, new paths can be explored. One of my favorite topics we discussed this semester was the publication history of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I had no idea there were two distinct editions of the text and it makes me question which one I read back in high school. I’m hoping to one day sit down and read both editions, comparing the two and deciding which I personally like better. Like Dr. Easley has mentioned, some feel the first edition is the best as they believe it’s truer to Shelley’s original vision. However, like you and your novel, perhaps the second edition is truer to her original intent, as she was able to return to the story and edit it further. I’m not really sure where I stand on the subject, as I believe published books should remain unchanged. But in a world where music can be remastered and books can be republished, who is the authority? The reader or the author?


  8. Morgan Alexander May 11, 2016 — 6:39 pm

    The topic of textual authority is so fascinating and you bring up really good points in this post. The point about the author’s original intent was made stronger when you used your own experience. It makes sense that an author would want to make edits to improve their work even if it strays from the original plan. I think oftentimes writers begin with the intent to write about one thing and then ultimately end up going in a different direction that is usually for the benefit of the piece as a whole.
    It is also interesting to consider to what extent other people put their hands into various works. For example, your brother’s suggested change to your work. I loved your sentence “we might define an editor’s job as helping the author find the clearest path to her true intent.” I think this is a very good description of an editor’s job and it reminds me of the what Joey McGarvey said (that Kaitlyn recalled in class the other day) how people say that editors need to get out of authors ways, but in reality an editor’s job is to help authors get out of their own way. Intent behind writing is a tricky business because it can be unknown, misinterpreted, or unacknowledged. This relates to Harry Potter in that we read the books not knowing the background information Rowling knows about her characters until she decides to share it with us. This can arguably alter the reading experience. I also liked that you included a link to the article about information released by JK Rowling about the Harry Potter series as an example.


  9. First off, you completely grabbed my attention with your title. Harry Potter has made an impact on many people’s lives, that drawing this in to talk about textual authority was the perfect way to go. I have always found it interesting how Rowling has continuously added more and more details, characteristics, and events to the world of Harry Potter. Now, I completely understand your position when saying that what Rowling writes on twitter, or on her blog, or anywhere else that is not a publicated novel, it can not truly be considered to be of textual authority. However, to me, what you say about making changes to a piece f=before the final, is still considered to be of textual authority, seems as though it should be the same after the fact. This is still what Rowling wants her readers to know. Now, these would have more authority if in a novel, but I would not say that it lacks authority all together.
    Finally, I just want to give praise to your last line “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?” Beautifully worded and crafted.


  10. Katherine Lawin May 12, 2016 — 1:15 am

    I’d like to begin by stating that this is a fantastic essay, very well structured and nicely supported. I really enjoyed reading through your analysis of textual authority. I think that sometimes we forget that authors are just as human and changeable as the rest of us (even if we are authors ourselves, as in your case). Like political correctness or inflation, our values and goals change over time. I think that anything an author writes can be considered “their original intent,” which I realize is not very helpful when performing a textual analysis. However, this view does support publishing many editions of a text. Within historical and cultural context, I believe that each edition of a text can very nearly stand on its own. Although we cannot account for typing mistakes or misprinting a text, I think that your statement, “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” can be amended to read, “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 her altering perspective… or her change in personal values and beliefs.”

    When you state that “writing is not a one person endeavor,” as touched upon by Jadea, I think that this can possess a focus more narrow than the team of editors, publishers etc. involved in the production of a novel. As most novels are produced over the span of a year to several years, the author themselves is likely to alter greatly during that time. Writing that once seemed sound, fitting well within his/her narrative, may one day read as juvenile and unimportant. There is such variation between the first breath of an idea and a published novel that even the author themselves may not have the full authority to interpret the meaning. Reading, especially of creative fiction, is such a personal action, and one whose comprehension changes not only on the part of the author while writing, but also the reader who may revisit a book many times throughout their life. I think that you approached a very difficult topic with great skill, and reading your essay, quite obviously, sparked quite a bit of further thought.


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