What's the spell for "rewrite the ending"? Photographer: Dave Hogan/Getty Images
What's the spell for "rewrite the ending"? Photographer: Dave Hogan/Getty Images

I admit that I’m not one of the fans who crashed the Pottermore website this week upon hearing the glad tidings that J.K. Rowling had posted a short story about the doings of an older Harry Potter and his friends. But the Potter world has been shaken to its foundations, with speculation already mounting over who should play the older Harry (Christian Bale?) in what will doubtless be the three or four films spun off from these 1,500 new words. (Fans already await with bated breath the series of movies based on the adventures of Newt Scamander. If you don’t know, you don’t know.)

But not everybody is happy. “Rowling giving fans what they ‘want’ now is like giving them unbirthday presents every day,” fumes cultural critic and avowed Potter fan Devon Maloney. “It just cheapens the sanctity of the thing they loved so dearly.” A fan commenting on another site begs to differ: “She hasn't retired from writing so she should give something to the people who made her rich.”

As an author who has created characters that appear in more than one novel, I find this whole business of getting into fights over whether an author “should” continue a series pretty amusing. After all, Rowling merely revisited her characters a few years on, probably spoiling a bit of fan fiction along the way. It’s not as if she made Greedo shoot first or something. (Or maybe it is.)

But what if she had? That is, suppose that in posting her short story, Rowling had not simply dipped into her characters’ futures, but made changes in her characters’ pasts? Perhaps she would have faced a popular uprising from Potterdom. On the other hand, lots of successful authors have done precisely that.

Sometimes the changes are small but significant. Consider Robert Ludlum’s trilogy of novels about Jason Bourne. In the first, Alexander Conklin, the Central Intelligence Agency operative who tries to kill Bourne in Paris, knows his target only distantly. In the second, they are longtime friends. The friendship works to dramatic effect as we proceed through the second novel and the third, so the change is plainly for the better. But it’s still a change. Yet Ludlum, who like Rowling sold hundreds of millions of books, kept his fans.

Sometimes the changes are much larger. John le Carré, in “Smiley’s People,” significantly rewrote the back story (from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) of the first meeting between his hero, George Smiley, and his nemesis, the Soviet spymaster Karla, in an Indian jail. Le Carré’s second version was better than the first, but the author had narrative motivations: Without the alterations in the back story, the ending of “Smiley’s People” wouldn’t have worked.

The author’s re-evaluation of the story can happen even within a novel. At a book event a couple of years ago, I sat on a panel with one of the top-selling thriller writers of our age. I asked him, offstage, about his (then) most recent novel, in which, it seemed to me, he had changed his own mind midway through about whodunit. Had he decided that he didn’t want a particular character to wind up as the villain?

“Possibly,” he said, smiling.

The point is that storytellers, like politicians, can come to dislike what they’ve already presented to the public. What often follows is an effort to correct the record. And fans, like constituents, have to decide whether to accept the new gloss or get angry about the death of the old one. (See Greedo shoots first, above.)

Novelists aren’t perfect, and it’s easy, looking back, to decide that you didn’t get a particular nuance right the first time around. The temptation to fix it in a later volume, simply because you can, often proves irresistible. (I’ve yielded to it myself.)

And it happens not just to those of us who labor in the trenches but also to the all-time greats. Many a college sophomore has cut his or her eyeteeth writing an essay about how Shakespeare revised his own vision of Mark Antony’s character between “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Or consider John Updike’s 2000 novella “Rabbit Remembered,” often derided as a messy effort to repair the flawed characters of his Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy. “‘Rabbit Remembered’ feels false,” fulminated a critic in the Guardian. “Its tone jars against the tumble that went before." Not so, contends the literary critic Bernard Rodgers Jr. in his collected essays: “The characters the reader has come to care about are all left as hopeful and safe as can reasonably be expected in a world of flawed human beings and constant contingency.”

Precisely. Fans who love an author’s creations often forget that the author, too, might be enamored. Novelists, like readers, can just want things to work out right. It would seem that J.K. Rowling is in this camp. More power to her.

To contact the writer of this article: Stephen L. Carter at stephen.carter@yale.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at mnewman43@bloomberg.net.