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  • "Oh my God, the Fanfiction!" Dumbledore's Outing and the Online Harry Potter Fandom
  • Catherine Tosenberger (bio)

For anyone who wishes to observe the cultural impact of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, the online fandom is an excellent place to start. Readers who participate in the Potter fandom do not simply passively absorb the texts but actively respond to them.1 These responses to the Potter books include "wizard rock" (see Karin Westman's essay), experimental fiction, slushy romances, visual art, and densely academic analyses. Online Potter fandom is an invaluable repository of the creative and critical responses of the series' most dedicated and engaged readers. Jill P. May has critiqued the tendency of children's literature scholarship to invent an "imaginary" young reader and to base analysis upon a fantasy of what this imaginary reader will get out of a given text (82–83); though not made up exclusively of young people, online Potter fandom makes accessible the responses of the real, rather than the imaginary, audience. Fans' immersion in the texts and attention to detail often results in sharp, rigorous analysis; much fanwork is concerned with romance and sexuality, and fans' discussions of these issues with regard to the Potter books are especially thoughtful and nuanced.

Among participatory fans, one contingent was unsurprised when Rowling, during an appearance at Carnegie Hall, announced that Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore was gay: readers and writers of "slash" fanfiction. Slash—fanfiction that concerns a romantic and/or sexual relationship between characters of the same gender—is one of the most popular forms of Potter fanfiction.2 Slash fans are always on the lookout for hints of homoeroticism in the source text that can be spun into a story, and the description of the relationship between Dumbledore and his boyhood friend-turned-enemy Gellert Grindelwald proved especially fruitful in this respect; fans began creating stories, art, and critical essays concerning their relationship immediately following the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—anticipating Rowling's announcement by three months. Immediately after her revelation, Rowling laughed, "Oh my god, the fanfiction" (Italie). Over the years, Rowling has proven to be not simply [End Page 200] aware, but actively supportive, of fanfiction; her confirmation of Dumbledore's sexuality lends support to Sarah Gwenllian Jones's articulation of slash not as a perverse "resistance" to a given text's presumed heteronormativity but rather "an actualization of latent textual elements" (82).

Following Rowling's bombshell, journalists and fans debated the "canonicity" of Dumbledore's homosexuality. Journalist Jeffrey Weiss claimed, "If you didn't put it in the books, please don't tell us now" (Weiss), a view echoed by some fans. Further, Rebecca Traister, in Salon, argued, "[Rowling's] pronouncements are robbing us of the chance to let our imagination take over where she left off, one of the great treats of engaging with fictional narrative" (Traister). However, fans have always disregarded aspects of the books that are unequivocally canonical if they interfere with the stories fans want to create, so Rowling's extratextual pronouncements pose few impediments to fans' imagination. But the question of how much influence an author has, or should have, over the interpretation of her text is of obvious relevance to fandom, and fans were divided in their perceptions of Rowling's motives; some saw her as benignly supplying more information upon direct fan request, while others saw a more sinister desire to control the interpretation of her books.

Rowling appears to believe that her announcement of Dumbledore's gayness is not, in fact, extratextual; during a press conference after her Carnegie Hall appearance, she indicated that she felt the nature of Dumbledore's feelings for Grindelwald was evident within the text: "It is in the book. He had—it's very clear in the book . . . I think a child will see a friendship and a sensitive adult may well understand that it was an infatuation" ("Web Exclusive"; Ahearn). As mentioned above, Rowling is well-informed about fandom; without straying into the realm of intentional fallacy, it is possible that Rowling's conviction that Dumbledore's homosexuality is "very clear in the book" may be connected to her awareness of...