David Mitchell dissects Pottermore in his Observer column today. It discusses how the invitation only, JK Rowling endorsed site, restricted to a million users, reveals notes and inspiration behind the Harry Potter books. Rowling offers up 5000 words on the correct wood to use in making a wand. She reveals why she named specific characters. She publishes potion recipes and spell meanings.
JK Rowling has clearly never heard of the death of the author, or the structuralist notion that meaning is negotiated at the moment of consumption. She also doesn’t seem to quite get the idea that fandom isn’t so much a cult of disciples, hanging onto every broadcast word and notion, but a participatory culture.
Fans don’t want to be told everything. The debate about the details is what bonds them together.
This is not the first time that Rowling has shown she simply does not get that. When she sued the Harry Potter Lexicon web site over its intention to publish a book adaptation, she did so claiming ownership over its content. But the Lexicon was in the tradition of many fan works in popular culture, a pseudo-scholarly analysis of the Potter canon. It put her in good company, alongside Tolkien and CS Lewis, Trek and Star Wars. It talked about events in the book, extracted character analyses from them, gathered spells and divined geography. It didn’t simply reproduce the content of the Potter novels – it offered an interpretation.
Rowling’s “my way or the highway” attitude is at odds with contemporary literary practice, but it challenges the authority of far more powerful phenomena than that.
While fans once enjoyed the fruits of popular culture in relative isolation – with the convention or club the most sophisticated participatory mechanism to hand – they’re now so networked and connected that any cultural artifact can become the focus of a bona fide sub-culture. Millions-strong and scattered across the world, but sharing the same virtual space, the same tropes and mores and rituals.
You don’t mess with the crowd. It has a collective consciousness, but it’s made of memes and reactive emotion. It doesn’t feel for others or accept guilt. It is always right.
Rowling pokes the cage at her peril.