I find it fascinating when people have this kind of debate: Is Holden Caulfield gay? Is Nick Caraway gay? Did Harry just dream Hogwarts, the way that Tommy Westphall dreamed St. Elsewhere and much of the rest of network television up to that point in history?

What fascinates me is this: What exactly are you saying when you say that, for example, Holden Caulfield is gay? I can think of three possibilities:

  • I think J. D. Salinger meant for Holden to be gay
  • I prefer to think of Holden as gay
  • If there really were such a person as Holden, he’d totally be gay

I think most of the time it’s the third option that’s at work: people forget that fictional characters have no existence independent of the words that describe them, and create all sorts of speculative back-stories and contextual frameworks for them — just as we do when trying to understand real people.

For literary critics, this can be a frustrating habit, which is why, back in the 1930s, the eminent Shakespearean L. C. Knights asked, mockingly, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” It annoyed him that, rather than paying close attention to the text of Shakespeare’s plays, readers were conjuring fanciful biographies for the characters. So much for the play being the thing.

But, however bad it may be as a mode of critical practice, doesn’t this readerly habit testify to the power of stories to agitate our imaginations? Fan fiction is the same thing in another form. I love Lev Grossman’s line about it:

Fanfiction is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker. They don’t do it for money. That’s not what it’s about. The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.

And there’s one more point about this that I think noteworthy. A few years ago, when “Dumbledore is Gay!” stories blazed across the pop-cultural sky, few people paused to note exactly what Joanne Rowling said in response to a fan who asked whether Dumbledore had ever been in love:

My truthful answer to you … I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. … Dumbledore fell in love with Grindelwald, and that added to his horror when Grindelwald showed himself to be what he was. To an extent, do we say it excused Dumbledore a little more? Because falling in love can blind us to an extent, but he met someone as brilliant as he was, and rather like Bellatrix he was very drawn to this brilliant person, and horribly, terribly let down by him. Yeah, that’s how I always saw Dumbledore.

“I always thought of Dumbledore as gay. . . . Yeah, that’s how I always saw Dumbledore.” Even as the author she’s taking the second position I describe above. There’s a pleasant humility in this: Rowling seems to me saying that, since she never wrote anything in the books that directly addressed Dumbledore’s sexuality, she’s in more-or-less the same position as her readers, speculating about something that’s not in the “canon.” Now, no doubt, her speculations carry more weight than others’ — which is why she didn’t hesitate to tell the filmmakers of the series flatly that “Dumbledore is gay” — but she clearly makes the distinction between what she wrote (which has a clear authority) and what she didn’t write but thinks (which has somewhat less).

So did Harry just dream Hogwarts as a way of escaping from the abusiveness of the Dursleys? You’re welcome to your own views about that. As is J. K. Rowling.