The only opinion I have ever offered on this blog regarding the Harry Potter books is that the magic in them is not something evil, but merely a thematic element. I have never said, here anyway, what I've thought of the books (or at least the six I've so far read; it hasn't been a priority with me to rush out and read the seventh, though I figured eventually I would do so). But people who know me could tell you that I have found them to be a mixture of the admirable and the disappointing. J.K. Rowling would sometimes craft some small part of the story that I would think was well done, but almost immediately there would follow some clunky, overdrawn bit of sloppy writing, and I would sigh, and wonder why reading her books was somehow not unlike listening to a talented but completely untrained singer perform a too-ambitious aria--a handful of well executed notes in an evening of mediocrity.
I thought there were serious doubts, in particular, about whether or not her books would join the canon of beloved children's tales, or fade from prominence so far that in a century or so you'd be hard pressed to find a still-extant copy. I wondered whether later, savvier readers, already familiar with the elements of the tale, would find the task of wading through endless pages of ill-written dialog, uneven prose, and stomach-turning juvenalia to be worth the reward. I wondered whether Harry and his wand would provide some steady illumination in the annals of children's fiction, or merely create a flash in a slightly enchanted pan.
Though my opinion of the stories has been somewhat lower than that of many Catholics who have actually read them, I tried to be aware of three things. First, as a would-be writer of children's imaginative fiction myself, how could I be sure my criticism was fair, and not of the sour grapes variety? Second, I approached the books, not only as an adult, but as a former English major who did very well in literary criticism at the college level, so how could I be sure I wasn't applying unfair, far too high standards to these books? Third, and perhaps most of all, Rowling's vast commercial success and the overwhelming popularity of her books argued in her favor--who was I to be so critical of something that on at least a basic level obviously worked, and worked amazingly well?
Mindful of those things, I generally couched my criticism of Rowling in the most positive terms I could muster: she was a good storyteller, she needed better editing, she perhaps was unaware how often she left maddening loose ends or turned the story in a direction that made little sense from any critical perspective, she had the unfortunate tendency to try to relive her own teenaged years vicariously (and in a highly-romanticized style) through her various characters, she had never had the opportunity to develop her writing skills to the level where she'd have an "ear" for the too-long conversation or the too-wide digression. Behind all of these thoughts, though, lurked a suspicion that perhaps the truth was that the bulk of her stories' popularity hinged on the cliffhanger/to be continued motif lurking at the final chapters of each, and that once the books were finished it would start to be increasingly clear that whatever talent she did have, she had plumbed its depths, and simply wasn't capable of writing any better than she so far has; moreover, stripped of the dramatic tension created by the unknown ending, the stories themselves might begin to be seen for what they so often, unfortunately, are: tin-eared, derivative, mediocre, and cliched.
Occasionally, my true opinion would slip out. But for the most part, keeping in mind the three reasons I wrote above, I would keep my various conversations about Harry Potter to the point that the use of magic in fantasy stories isn't generally an attempt by the author to encourage children to take up the practice of witchcraft, and that I saw no evidence in the Potter books that Rowling was trying to encourage kids to take up the practice of evil magic.
But I've wondered, before, whether Rowling was capable of better work. I've wondered whether the Potter books would be forgiven their many and irritating inadequacies, their sometimes towering disappointments, for the sake of the author's storytelling skills and efforts. I've wondered whether anything about Rowling or Potter would really endure.
Well, now I know the answer.
What an incredibly foolish, stupid, shortsighted and arrogant thing to do. What incontrovertible proof that Rowling has already given us the best she's capable of doing, and will end up, in a few years, writing some overambitious and horribly written "prequel" to the Potter series as a last-ditch effort to produce something new. What a telling indication that Rowling is perfectly ready to trade what could have been a lasting literary legacy for some immediate but heady applause that comes more from the shock value and political correctness of what she said than from any actual appreciation of it.
Don't get me wrong; these are her characters. She's entitled to think of them as secretly engaging in all manner of dubious practices with each other if she wants to--but even if she does, she'd better not talk about it. The only possible excuse for revealing this aspect of this character now, when the book is ended, is to play a very adolescent kind of "gotcha" with her readers, some of whom aren't even old enough to know what "gay" means. There is, and I say this with all of the ire an amateur literary critic can muster, absolutely nothing important about her private speculations about the sexual orientations of her characters at this late date, for this simple reason: if it had been important for readers in their understanding of the character of Dumbledore to know that he was gay, she would have been bound by all the rules of honorable writing to reveal that fact to her readers long before the books were ended. It is utterly meaningless to tell us now, and if she starts pretending either that it matters or that readers should have guessed, than I will feel perfectly justified in dismissing her writings as the work of a dilettante and hack.
Worse, perhaps, is the consideration of what this "revelation" will do to the stories. Truly great literature doesn't tie itself in such a slapdash way to an issue of the day; either the issue is a central theme of the work, as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, or the issue is peripheral to the work, as in countless novels, plays, and stories, or the issue co-opts the work, as in The Jungle. But whether a contemporary issue blends seamlessly into a story or stands out like a sore thumb, the fact is that in order to do either the issue must be present in the story. If Rowling wants us to view Dumbledore as a character fraught with contemporary political meaning, she needed to weave the issue in, or mention it outright, or hint at it. If Rowling doesn't want us to view Dumbledore as a character fraught with contemporary political meaning, then she needed to remain silent about the "gay" identity of this character, because such an identity, in a work of present-day fiction, is always going to be political! But in neither case is she playing fair with her readers to insert Dumbledore's gay-contemporary-political-identity into the works after the fact! This is the worst kind of cheating, when the author decides to pander to some political identity group when the final book has been published, and the readers think they know everything important about the characters that there is to know. Bear in mind that it doesn't matter if she's always thought of Dumbledore as gay--she may think of Snape as a secret cross-dresser, too, for all we know, but it can't affect the outcome of the story now, so revealing it now is worse than useless--as is the revelation about Dumbledore.
From now on, the "Dumbledore is gay!" aspect of the stories will completely dominate any discussion or understanding of them. We will be told that our "acceptance" of Dumbledore as Harry's mentor and role-model means, subconsciously, that we accept gay men in these roles. We will be asked to interpret Dumbledore's every action in the light of his "gayness" and find the hidden angst which obviously relates to his own conflicts about his sexual identity. We will be encourage to compare and contrast other characters, and ponder the orientations of each (perhaps Luna Lovegood is a lesbian, etc.). The stories, whatever they used to be about, are now and forever more only about one thing.
If I thought Rowling knew this, I would have to wonder about her motivations. But there's something awfully familiar about her way of blurting out any old words, the clunkiness with which this was handled, the bad timing, bad taste, and bad instincts. With this incident to add to my opinion of her books, I am rapidly reaching the conclusion that whatever else she may be, J.K. Rowling is, quite possibly, a thoroughly stupid woman.