Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Shall The Pot Contend With The Potter?

I started to write a paragraph or two as an update to the previous posting, but as usual it grew and grew into a separate post.

Jeffrey Weiss (who, I should mention, sent me a nice e-mail defending his case after I mentioned him in the previous post) commanded J. K. Rowling to shut up and recognize that “until those books were published, the characters and settings were yours to command and control.… Now they are ours.” (One of us, one of us! Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.) The meme spread like a radioactive virus, first to Rod Dreher (thanks to Roy Edroso for the link), then to one John Mark Reynolds (via a commenter on Dykes To Watch Out For). Dreher’s post, titled “Dumbledore, the Queen of Hogwarts”, was nothing if not succinct: “I’m with my Dallas Morning News colleague Jeff Weiss: J. K. Rowling really would do well to shut up.” (After all, if St. Paul would not suffer women to speak in church, why should Rod Dreher?) Reynolds was more verbose, rather like your own Promiscuous Reader: to show his evenhandedness despite his distaste for “disordered affections”, he wrote a second article to establish that he’d have objected if Rowling had declared Dumbledore a heterosexual. But he too agreed with Weiss: “Dumbledore no longer belongs only to Rowling. He also belongs to her readers who have been given a series of books in which Rowling was free to say what she wanted to say. … She wrote what she wrote and now it belongs to us.”

To borrow a word from Reynolds: nonsense. Just because the projected series is finished, that doesn’t mean Rowling is not allowed to revisit the Potterverse should she wish to. I imagine that she’s currently enjoying the freedom that comes from the end of her obligation to work on that massive project, but in years to come she might want to write about Harry again. Many authors have returned, for better or worse, to creations they thought they were done with: Ursula LeGuin to Earthsea, Roger Zelazny to Amber, Armistead Maupin to 28 Barbary Lane, Conan Doyle to Sherlock Holmes – hell, Shakespeare to Falstaff. If Reynolds believes that Harry Potter now belongs to him, he might try publishing a continuation of the Potter saga without Rowling’s permission. (Reportedly Rowling is more indulgent of fan fiction than some other writers, but even she draws the line at Potter “slash” erotica.) Harry Potter belongs to her until you pry him from her cold, dead fingers.

Echoing other objectors, Reynolds declares that Rowling “wrote about Christianity openly by Book Seven, but if Dumbledore was gay, she decided to hide it. She hid it so well that there is no evidence of it.” I wouldn’t go that far. In Deathly Hallows, tabloid reporter Rita Skeeter accuses Dumbledore of an “unnatural” relationship with Harry Potter. This is at least compatible with the way bigots have exploited homosexuality in the closeted, especially after they’re dead. Dumbledore’s was probably an open secret among wizards. Potter fans have also pointed to Dumbledore’s own account to Harry of his ambiguous fascination with Gellert Grindelwald.

“At this point it is too late for Rowling to change the text,” Reynolds declares. “She cannot decide to kill Harry now . . . or announce that Harry is actually a vampire, a member of the Tory party, or antidisestablishmentarian. She wrote what she wrote and now it belongs to us.” Again, nonsense. Rowling is not changing the text, though she could if she wanted to. Writers often do. In the days when popular fiction was serialized in newspapers or magazines, authors would often make changes, even of endings, for book publication. Rowling has her own constraints, grown in the construction of her massive project, which would prevent her from (say) declaring that Harry was a vampire all along.

It’s not surprising that People of the Book, a Book whose contents are supposedly set in stone, would want everything they read to be under similarly tight control. But if the Author of the Book wants to add some commentary, let alone some extra installments, those are authorized additions. Who are you, O Man, to reply against your Author? The vexed question is who owns the rights to the franchise.

In Jesus’ day the canon of the Hebrew Bible wasn’t set. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and the Prophets (which included “historical books” like Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were pretty much agreed on, but the third division, the Scriptures (Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles, and so on), had permeable boundaries. A lot of writings survive that didn’t make it into either the Jewish or the Christian lists. (The Christian “Old Testament” doesn’t quite match the Jewish Bible.) Some of them, like Jubilees, are retellings of stories from the Torah, often told from different perspectives, like the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. (Even within the canon, Chronicles retells material from Samuel and Kings.) Or minor figures like Enoch get to be the stars of their own books, often with two or three sequels.

The Christians added a whole new cycle, which didn’t sit well with the original owners of the franchise. What are the gospels, after all, but Jesus fan fiction? (Son of Yahweh. Son of Yahweh Meets Satan. Son of Yahweh Meets Sons of Satan. Son of Yahweh Goes to Heaven.) Christians wrote more stories about Jesus and his family and friends, including the further adventures of Paul and other apostles, full of magic – I mean miracle, excuse me! – and other fun stuff. Then came the lives of the Saints, with gore, sexual threat (the virgin menaced by a slavering infidel is a perennial trope), miraculous escapes and martyrdoms galore. It continues to this day. Two From Galilee, anybody? Or, for the snuff crowd, The Passion of the Christ. (Personally, I prefer Paul Rudnick’s Adam-and-Steve play The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.)

Readers have always felt free to differ even with the official, published, canonical versions of the stories they loved. As a child, writer Jean Kerr (if I remember right) so disliked the unhappy ending of Gone With The Wind that she wrote her own happy one. There was a big fuss when Rowling made Harry's romance with Ginny Weasley canon: "On one message board, posters decided to unite against Spartz, Anelli and Rowling, writing that the new purpose of the forum was to 'express your views and show why the evidence was there for the [Harry/Hermione] ship, even if Ms. Rowling, unfortunately, did not see it,' and to 'let her know the way you feel about her comments, or point out how, why and where she went wrong in her development of the characters, or simply discuss how she will have missed a golden opportunity to tell one of the greatest love stories ever told.'" I pointed out before that conservative Christians aren't alone in their tizzy about the unfairness of Rowling’s revelation; at least one avowed atheist has complained in very similar terms, accusing Rowling of being “freakily obsessive about her characters.” As Rowling’s critics insist, Dumbledore’s gayness is not on that order; it’s a minor detail that is part of the backstory, and strictly speaking it's an addition, not a change – but if it’s so minor, why are they making such a fuss about it?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Unbearable Straightness of Harry

Last week in New York City, J. K. Rowling announced to an audience of fans that Albus Dumbledore, late headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay. Pardon me if I’m underwhelmed, and not very moved by Rowling’s generosity in giving the world one more deeply closeted gay character, and a solitary token at that, but the British gay movement response was predictable: “a spokesman for gay rights group Stonewall added: ‘It's great that JK has said this. It shows that there's no limit to what gay and lesbian people can do, even being a wizard headmaster.’” Peter Tatchell showed more sense, pointing out that a gay character who can be discerned to be gay in the book is more meaningful for readers, gay or straight. The American antigay-bigot response was predictable too; I won’t bother linking to the more blatant cases. Among human beings I liked best the blogger who titled her post “I Love My Dead Gay Dumbledore.” This was a reference to the great dark comedy Heathers, in which a weeping father expresses his love for his dead gay football-player son; a skeptic in the church murmurs, “Wonder how he'd react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse.” I had the same thought about Dumbledore.

Then there were the straight liberals. PZ Myers is a scientist and an atheist who likes to twit Bible-thumping homophobes, but he was grumpy: “It's more fuss over nothing,” he harrumphed. “He's a fictional character, the author is getting a little too freakily obsessive over her characters, and it doesn't affect me one way or the other how the character swings. So Rowling says he's gay. Eh. Move on.” If only it were that simple. Some of his commenters promptly set him straight, so to speak, on authors and backstory. Me, I always get suspicious when a straight boy starts letting his imagination run too freakily free: “Dumbledore could have been written up as a flaming ponce who hung out in the Hogsmeade Bathhouse every weekend and did drag cabaret for fun”. I’ll bet he doesn’t care whether Dumbledore liked girls, boys, or Mackled Malaclaws! Someone has mild issues, I think, like the commenter on Blog@Newsarama who complained, “I didn’t really want to know this. Not that I care that a Harry Potter character could possibly be gay, but rather that it’s thinking of Dumbledore in a sexual way at all. It’s like seeing your grandparents doing it.”

Slinking further to the right, there’s this writer for the Dallas Morning News, who didn’t want to know it either, and apostrophized Rowling thusly:

Is Dumbledore gay? He is for you, apparently. But unless you said it in the actual books, must he be so for me? Your saying so now makes it harder for me to imagine anything different. Do you really want to limit your fictional world that way? …

For all of those years, until your books were published, the characters and settings were yours to command and control. But then you let them go.

And speaking for all of your happy readers I need to tell you: Now they are ours.

“Ours” evidently means “heterosexuals” here – it doesn’t occur to the writer that many of Rowlings’s happy readers are also gay, with opinions of their own on this subject. On Jeffrey Weiss’s planet, a gay character is somehow “limited” – can you imagine him making the same complaint about a heterosexual character? (Hey, Ms. Rowling, telling us that Harry got married to Ginny Weasley limits your fictional world!)

What surprised me a bit was the reaction among some gay men. When an article about Rowling’s announcement appeared on, the commercial gay chat and news site, many of the (presumably gay) commenters were hostile. Some accused Rowling of trying to exploit the gay male community to make more money, but some sounded just like homophobes: they didn’t want to know about it. One said he wouldn’t read the rest of the books because “this offends me”, but he didn’t explain why; nor did the one who wrote, “Like most fans around the world, I'm dismayed!!” Still another wrote: “Weather [sic] or not Dumpledore [sic] is gay has no bearing on the telling of the tale, it may be an interesting side note but the sexuality of his character has little to do with the story.” On the whole, the range of responses among these gay men was the same as on the straight sites I looked at, only with worse spelling.

Another ploy was the “They’re children’s books!” line. Strictly speaking, the Potter books are Young Adult fiction, which has always grappled with sexual and other social issues. There are a number of classic, if problematic YA novels that deal with homosexuality. Harry and his friends are adolescents, not children, and the series depicts their awakening heterosexuality (which was enough by itself to make some conservative commentators queasy). While it’s true that Dumbledore’s sexuality need not have been known to them, what about their fellow students? A Gay/Straight Alliance wouldn’t be out of place at Hogwarts, I’m sure. But that would raise the dread spectre of Politics, which was difficult enough when Hermione (no doubt thanks to her human background) tried to organize a movement to free the house elves. But Rowling’s world is one largely devoid of politics (except for the murky power struggles among the wizards); I think that’s one reason for its popularity, especially among adults of a certain age.

As Rowling herself said that night, “Oh, my god, the fan fiction!” Since the 1970s or so, there has been semi-underground erotica, known as slash fiction, depicting various manly couples as gay: Kirk and Spock of Star Trek, Starsky and Hutch, and more recently characters from the Harry Potter universe. Most of it is written by women, largely though probably not exclusively straight; SF writer and critic Joanna Russ wrote a famous paper about it, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love.” I haven’t seen any of this stuff myself, though I’ve looked at some of the Japanese yaoi and shonen ai comics, also about male love and also wildly popular among young women. What Rowling didn’t make explicit, her fans certainly will. As Jeffrey Weiss wrote with something different in mind, the characters belong to the fans now, and not all of them want Dumbledore or Harry to be straight.

Although I’ve read all seven of the Potter books, I don’t think I’d be considered a fan. I’ve never found Rowling’s wizards appealing; on the contrary, they are narrow and provincial at best, racist and homophobic at worst. In The Deathly Hallows a sensational writer accuses Dumbledore of an “unnatural” relationship with Harry. This supports Rowling’s claim that Dumbledore’s homosexuality had long been part of his backstory for her; it’s reasonable to guess that his enemies used his known queerness to smear him, just as Muggles do in the real world. That the ploy worked doesn’t indicate that the world of wizards is any more enlightened about sexuality than the Muggle world. There’s also the slavery of house-elves, and the common anti-Muggle prejudice that so many wizards indulge, from the crude gut racism of the Malfoys to the muddled, well-meaning liberalism of Arthur Weasley. Magical candies and Quidditch, which delight so many of Rowling’s fans, aren’t enough to make me wish I could have gone to Hogwarts.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Christopher Hitchens, the Ann Coulter of the Alcoholic Left

O Cthulhu, I've put Hitchens's name into the title of a post. Who knows what I'll do next?

My fellow atheists are such a disappointment to me. For example, this morning on Avedon Carol's Sideshow blog, I read this account of Hitchens's performance at the Freedom from Religion Convention:
He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy. Along the way he told us who his choice for president was right now — Rudy Giuliani — and that Obama was a fool, Clinton was a pandering closet fundamentalist, and that he was less than thrilled about all the support among the FFRF for the Democratic party. We cannot afford to allow the Iranian theocracy to arm itself with nuclear weapons (something I entirely sympathize with), and that the only solution is to go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up. The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties.
Avedon commented, "Hitchens' 'atheism' turns out to be indistinguishable from everything he's said is wrong with religion, Jihad, Crusades, and all." I'd noticed that about Hitchens too, and not just Hitchens. Sam Harris is a big supporter of the "war on terror" too, and The End of Faith bore a blurb from torture supporter (and plagiarist, and all-round liar and thug) Alan Dershowitz. I checked the book's index when I noticed that, and found that it contained a long attack on Noam Chomsky, which is one reason I still haven't read it. But I did read Letter to a Christian Nation, Harris's plea to Christofascists to join the crusade against Islamofascists. As though Christofascists weren't already foaming at the mouth for more Saracen blood! So much for Dawkins's argument that a world without religion would be a world without war, or at least a world with much less of it. To say this doesn't mean that I've started liking religion, only that being an atheist doesn't automatically make you rational, any more than being a theist automatically makes you good.

Thanks to Avedon's link to Maureen Dowd, I found this piece ("Carson-Era Humor, Post-Colbert", which may or may not work -- you may have to go to the Dowd piece to get to it) which also mentions Hitchens: "Mr. Hitchens, a one-time pariah for his support of the Iraq invasion and his savaging of Mother Teresa, still serves as something of a social arbiter in Washington." Social arbiter? Still? That's even more discrediting than supporting the Iraq invasion and endorsing Bush in 2004. "One-time pariah"? Why not "still", especially since he keeps adding reasons to shun him?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Stop Necking With That Dog, Beryl!

Another book review for GCN, published sometime in 1981.


A Liar’s Autobiography, Volume VI

by Graham Chapman
Methuen, Inc.
240 pp.
$13.95 hardcover

Since I am not, never have been, and do not expect ever to be a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I approached the task of reviewing Graham Chapman’s autobiography with trepidation. I mean, a little of these guys goes a long with me: I’ve never seen any of their films, never bought or read (except standing up, in a bookstore) any of their spinoff books, nearly dozed off during the one M.P.F.C. telly program I ever tried to watch, and although two of their albums are in my municipally-famous record collection, I haven’t played them in five years. And anyway, if you (O gentle reader) do happen to be a fan of theirs, you probably know already if you want to buy this book.

For the benefit of the rest of you, however, may I say that although I am still not a fan, I enjoyed A Liar’s Autobiography, Volume VI (No, it isn’t really Volume Six, that’s a typical Monty Python joke, borrowed from Gertrude Stein). Some of it is quite funny, such as the phantasmagoria of a gay bar in Chapter One:

At this point a man wearing a suit made entirely of wood is wheeled over my toe, and I look around to find David and see that he’s stuck talking to a group of people dressed entirely in leather, except for their spectacles which are made of glass and leather. He seems happily occupied so I continue to hunt for a drink. Someone shouts –
‘For Christ’s sake, Beryl, stop necking with that dog.’
‘But it’s an Alsatian …’ (p. 30)

…But I mustn’t quote too much of it, it’ll spoil it for you. One trouble with funny books is that the second reading lacks the freshness and surprise of the first, and the third … well, if there is to be a third reading, the book had better have more going for it than laffs. And (I hear you ask) does A Liar’s Autobiography, Volume VI have more than laffs going for it?

Well, yes, I suppose so. It is reasonably interesting to hear what it’s like to be the gay member of Monty Python, and I wish that more moderately famous gay people would follow Chapman’s example, come out, and tell us about themselves. Chapman comes across to me as a rather unremarkable man, not terribly insightful but not terribly dense either. He drinks too much, I mean way too much, and though he is prone for PR purposes to make much of the fact that he’s lived with the same man for umpteen years, he also has this compulsion to score sexually with at least one person in every town he passes through. He is commendably honest about his faults and decently modest about his virtues – loyalty to friends, hard work, and all that. The book is fragmented enough (mustn’t let the reader forget that this is a Monty Python book) that I had the feeling at times that Chapman himself wondered at times why he was writing it. There also seems to be a fairish amount of recycled Monty Python material used to pad out the text, such as the Oscar-Wilde-meets-the-Prince-of-Wales bit on pages 24 through 28, which I recognize from one of my two albums. The initiated fan will no doubt recognize more than I did.

Still, I’m always interested in the stories of gay people’s lives, and if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be the gay member of Monty Python, here’s your chance to find out. But I’d wait until it comes out in paperback.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Absolut Buttcrack

One rainy night in 2000, I sat in a gay bar in Chicago having a glass of wine and watching music videos. It was a weeknight, so the Closet was busy but not packed: there were people sitting on either side of me at the bar.
Two videos stand out for me in memory of that night. One was of Taylor Dayne, a woman whose music I knew very slightly. It was a big production number, with Dayne slinking and lip-synching through a horde of dancing couples, and being the Politically Correct old prune that I am, I suddenly noticed that though the choreographer had paired males with females and a few females with females, there were no males paired with males. This, although in a cast full of dancer/model types, there must have been a few gay males, and although Dayne’s target audience was presumably not homophobic teenaged boys. I leaned slightly over and mentioned this to the young man sitting beside me. He said, “Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed, I just love Taylor so much!” I grunted, probably only inwardly, and took another sip of my wine.
Not too much later, another video started, Madonna’s “American Pie”, a song she’d recorded for the soundtrack of The Next Best Thing, her movie with Rupert Everett. I hadn’t yet tried to watch the movie, though I’d read reviews of it. The video, however, surprised and delighted me. Madonna, in a tank top and rather grotty jeans, with a prom queen’s tiara on her long thick hair, lipsyncs to the song while prancing about in front of a large American flag and showing off her buttcrack. But intercut with her antics are short film clips of anonymous Americans, also posed in front of the large American flags. They range from industrial- strength rednecks in denim and adipose tissue to black folks in front of a mausoleum in New Orleans to a large woman in a wheelchair to a drum corps to cheerleaders. Some appear individually, or in couples, or in families or other groups. They are filmed in color, but the often harsh lighting and the people’s looks call up memories of black and white photos by Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus, and Larry Clark. Because my own background is rural, working-class Indiana, I recognized those people, and I felt an ache of love for them.
Good enough, but (again probably only inwardly) I sat straight up when two young women kissed each other onscreen: their style was punk/goth, with tattoos, black clothing, and chemical-looking dyed hair, blonde for the butch and reddish-brown for the femme. Having kissed, they smiled sweetly (and a bit slyly) out at the world. A few seconds later, two young men posed in front of a flag hung in front of a little country church also kissed, then smiled too, squinting under the lights as if they were the sun. These guys were very whitebread, with short neatly trimmed hair, though dressed in clothes that most resembled k.d. lang’s prairie look on the cover of Absolute Torch and Twang. Those clips left me feeling warm through the rest of Madonna’s parodic patriotism. I’m not exactly a fan of La Ciccone, but I do appreciate that she knows she lives in an America that includes gay people.
Later I found that the DVD of The Next Best Thing included the “American Pie” music video, but didn’t buy it until I found a bargain-bin copy several years later. I got it out tonight, as I do from time to time, to watch the video again. Partly because I never get tired of watching it, and partly to check something a gay boy had once claimed online: “I could have sworn that Midge changed the lyrics of American Pie from ‘With a pink carnation and a pickup truck’ to ‘With a green carnation…’ I really don’t know if she’d go as far as to make that change to the song. (Hist. Note: Green carnations were used to signal who was gay in 19th C. London)” (Hist. Note: Green carnations were a fad among “aesthetics” like Oscar Wilde in nineteenth century London, not all of whom were gay. Though if you wore your green carnation on the left side...)
I played that part of the video several times, and couldn’t tell if “Midge” did indeed change the lyrics: it sounded as if she were singing “pring carnation,” so perhaps she fudged it. Leaving aside the humor of the notion that Madonna would respect the artistic integrity of a True Classic like “American Pie”, what haunted me was that someone would get so excited about what might have been a hint in a song lyric attached to a movie where male homosexuality is overt and explicit as a plot and character element. (For those lucky enough to be ignorant, the premise is that Rupert Everett, as a gay gardener, and Madonna, his straight best friend, get so drunk one night that they don’t know what they’re doing, and end up having a baby together. They go on to form relationships with other people, and we see Everett with at least one boyfriend – this I’ve gleaned by fast-forwarding through the DVD.) Even younger gay men, it seems, are still living in the 1950s, where pinky rings, yellow ties, and other in-group signals were common among homosexuals; they’re so firmly embedded in that mindset that a possibly dropped hairpin on the soundtrack of a dreadful movie is more significant than an openly gay lead character in a dreadful movie. I have the impression that most gay boys to this day would rather worship straight divas (Leave Britney Alone!), identifying with them as they sing love songs to men, than hear a man sing a love song to a man.
Not that I’m one to talk, I who got teary-eyed because a diva included some queer kisses in her music video. But I’d rather see two boys or two girls kiss, or (better) hear a man sing a love song to a man, than watch a female female-impersonator like Taylor Dayne who doesn’t live in a musical world with gay people in it.
P.S. December 29, 2007: I embedded the "American Pie" video from YouTube. I've also tried to track down the Taylor Dayne video I saw (and dissed) in The Closet that night, but couldn't find it. The closest I could find was much smaller scale: TD and two male model/dancers. Maybe my fading memory just inflated them into a crowd? I don't think so, but I don't know which song or which video it was.