Harry Potter Canon

Today I listened to lesson 10 on the MuggleNet Academia podcast, which questioned what constitutes Harry Potter canon. While the podcast was interesting, there was much that I disagreed with and so there are two areas I want to address in this post; firstly, the debate surrounding Harry Potter canon; and secondly the way in which literature and film (and literary studies scholars and fan studies scholars) were framed.

Regarding canon, then, I am more inclined to agree with the comments Keith made than with John Mark Reynolds. I don’t think that canon be defined as simply the seven books, particularly in the 21st century. I see two main reasons for this. Firstly, authors are more accessible to their readers than they were in, for example, Dickens’ time. Rowling has a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Pottermore, to say nothing of the many interviews she has done which are archived online, and the various Harry Potter/Rowling fansites out there which provide even more information on the author and her texts. It is thus far easier for a reader to get hold of information about an author or her books, and information that, in the 1800s would have never been available to the average reader, now affects the ways in which we view texts (consciously or not). Jonathan Gray calls this extra information paratexts and argues convincingly that both industry- and fan-created paratexts affect the ways in which the texts’ meanings are understood and, I would argue, in turn affect the canon. It also strikes me that Roland Barthes’ notion of the death of the author is one which would have sat well in this podcast. John Mark Reynolds suggested that as soon as a work is published it is no longer owned by the author; Barthes wrote “there is one place where this multiplicity is focussed and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed, without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. […] we know that to give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.” I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the author is dead, however, particularly in the age of social media where it’s far easier to gain access to an author, their interviews and any extra material they produce (such as Pottermore, for example). In that respect I think that John Mark Reynolds’ argument is flawed.

Secondly, I think that while canon does not simply stop with the primary text, we (fans, readers, academics, whoever) are able to perhaps distinguish between the importance of different texts, and their canonical worth, the further from the prime sources they become. Will Brooker writes a very interesting argument about this in relation to Star Wars fandom. He notes that the Star Wars Encyclopaedia considers canon to be the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition; coming a close second are the authorized adaptations of the films: the novels, radio-dramas and comics. After that, “almost everything falls into a quasi-canon”. However, canon in the Star Wars universe as understood by fans is complicated by the inconsistencies between the films and the authorised texts, and by the original trilogy and the special editions. Brooker argues that many early scenes were shot and then discarded; they are thus out of canon and officially deemed not to have happened. However, in 1997 the primary texts were altered to include other scenes which had never previously been featured. The special editions thus “brought key encounters out of limbo and into continuity, altering the official definition of what really took place. As such, the canon as defined by the primary texts is fluid”. There are some parrallels to Harry Potter in this – are the games considered canon, what about the school books, the trading cards, etc. etc.? They’re not questions which are easy to answer but I think it’s important they’re asked, not just written off because they’re not the first seven books.

I also thought it was interesting that neither ‘fanon’ nor ‘headcanon’ were really discussed, especially as fanfic was mentioned a lot. Headcanon, as the name suggets, is what one person believes about a text, when that view is supported neither by the canon or the wider fandom. Fanon, is when something is believed by the larger fandom, but is not supported by the text. A popular idea is that the individual ‘what ifs’ of fan fiction contribute to a larger meta-text, which derives from, but is not the same as, the canon. Henry Jenkins (whose work on fan culture really should be read) notes that “[f]an writing builds upon the interpretive practices of the fan community, taking the collective meta-text as the base from which to generate a wide range of media-related stories” and this ‘meta-text’ is often referred to as ‘fanon.’ I know that The X-Files (my primary fandom) has a lot of fanon – the idea that Mulder is an insomniac and Scully uses strawberry-scented shampoo are two of the most common. When things like this are continually reinvented, or written so persuasively by a few fanfic writers, they take on the status of fan-produced canon and are recognised as such by fans. Of course, not all of these ‘what ifs’ are given equal weight by fanfic readers; those which adhere to canon in writing characters which the reader will recognise are considered of high value, as are those which diverge from canon yet offer something new or unique. Fanon also fundamentally does not equal canon unless, as Will Brooker (2002) notes, it is endorsed as such. I would suggest that fanon nevertheless plays an important role in the struggle for power between fans and producers, though, and would certainly be interesting to examine in relation to Harry Potter.

This brings me neatly onto the second thing I wanted to comment on. I appreciate that John Mark Reynolds, Alicia Costello and John Granger all come from a literary studies tradition, but the way in which literature was framed as high culture and film (and fandom) framed as low culture frustrated me. One of the main reasons is that, as a fan studies scholar, writing my PhD on X-Files fanfiction, I’ve become used to my field of research being denigrated by other schools of thought. It’s not worth studying popular culture because it doesn’t teach us anything is a prime example of the types of comments my field gets. I presented a paper on Pottermore at a Harry Potter conference in Ireland a couple of months ago, and we were featured on the Irish national news as well as several newspapers, all apparently amazed that academics would spend time discussing a book about a school of magic. As fans of Harry Potter, as well as Harry Potter academics, we all have experience of people looking down at us, so it was frustrating to find a similar distinction being made by fans themselves, on a podcast made by one of the largest Harry Potter fansites.

There are two specific points relating to this that I want to address. Firstly was the comment that people study Dickens, not Dickensia. Translated into modern terms, this reads as people will study Harry Potter, not fans of Harry Potter. This not only draws on high/low culture arguments to further the divide between studying literature and cultural studies, but negates the impact that Harry Potter fandom has had in the wider world. Of course, ‘real world’ benefits are not the only mark of a fandom’s worth, but the work of the Harry Potter Alliance, the charity-fundrasing of Wrock bands, the role of Harry Potter in improving literacy all stem from the fandom, not simply the study of the books themselves. Harry Potter fandom is one of the most active around. Henry Jenkins has written many articles and blog posts about the fandom and to suggest that however many years down the line all of this will be forgotten is, I think, short-sighted. The second comment was how fans of the Harry Potter films aren’t ‘true’ fans. This, again, is something I have broached in my thesis, and draws on various taste distinctions as well as the idea of subcultural capital. Bourdieu coined the idea of ‘cultural capital’ to refer to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. This was developed by Sarah Thornton into subcultural capital, which refers to the cultural knowledge and commodities acquired by members of a subculture, raising their status and helping differentiate themselves from members of other groups. Thus, fans of the Harry Potter books see themselves as having more subcultural capital than fans of the films and are therefore ‘true’ fans. While interesting from an academic point of view, I think this creates a false binary and causes further divisions within fandom which don’t really need to be there.

I should add, however, that despite the issues I had with the podcast this week, I have really enjoyed listening to them and thinking about the ideas developed within them. Healthy debates are necessary when we undertake any sort of study, but I think they’re even more important when we engage with texts that we love. I know that at least some of the points raised in these podcasts will make it into my thesis, and I look forward to listening to many more.

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3 thoughts on “Harry Potter Canon

  1. Pingback: 10 books that left a lasting impression* | bethanvjones

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