By now most of you are probably tired of hearing about Go Set a Watchman. Just a week ago I was mad as heck that news organs were putting spoilers in headlines. Since then Simon and I spent some time on The Readers talking about the hype (not the spoilers) and our feelings about the then impending release of the book and whether or not we were going to read it. Also, since then I have purchased the book and managed to read it within 24 hours. As I was in the middle of reading it, Simon further articulated why he wasn’t going to read it. His various reasons weren’t necessarily wrong, but having read the book now, all I can say is he is missing out on something.
Is the book a literary train wreck?
No. Could it use some editorial help? Yes, but this unedited draft is so much better than many books that pass for good these days. In fact, this might have been the talking point that most annoyed me on social media in the past week. Suddenly everyone and their dog was an expert on writing. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even think about it needing an editor until the last 50 pages or so. After reading the book, I feel like Tweets about how badly Harper Lee needed an editor had much more to do with know-it-all me-too-ism of the Tweeter and less to do with the book.
Isn’t Harper Lee being exploited?
I have a very simple–and admittedly simplistic–take on this point. Either Harper Lee is lucid and mentally in control of her affairs and allowed the publication or she isn’t. But if indeed she isn’t, then is she lucid enough to find any of this distressing? And I think the notion that artists should be able to control their legacy after their deaths is unrealistic. If you don’t want your juvenalia or correspondence published, you should burn it. If you are enough of an icon that people are going to care about that kind of stuff, you best burn it while you have the chance. The beloved Willa Cather didn’t want her correspondence published? Well she should have destroyed it because she is important enough that fans and scholars want to know more about her and her work. Why let something outlive you if you don’t want it to live? If we find a Mozart sonata he didn’t want published do we say “oh no, no one is allowed to play this because Mozart didn’t want us to”? Or what if we find a sketch book of Da Vinci’s that is marked “Private-keep out”? Do we not look at it?
Is it just a different version of To Kill a Mockingbird?
No. Not even close. Lee uses the same characters, she uses the same setting, she uses roughly the same period of time, and she references the trial that ended up in TKAM. But everything else is different. It really shouldn’t be seen as a sequel but I think it can actually work as a sequel if one doesn’t get too nitpicky about it.
Will it make me not like my favorite characters in To Kill a Mockingbird?
This is perhaps the one thing that has most readers worried about reading Go Set a Watchman. By now you probably have all discovered the main spoiler of the book. It is almost impossible that you haven’t given the cynical use of spoilers in headlines by most news organizations. But I still am not going to say what it is. But I will say this, in GSAW you will end up not liking a character you liked in TKAM. Will that dislike ruin your love of TKAM? I doubt it. TKAM is a wonderful, wonderfully written book that was inspiring to so many of us. Will it change the way you think about TKAM? I sure as hell hope so, but more on that in a minute.
The MS is so old, isn’t it stale?
No. Given the events in South Carolina recently and the discussions around racism and the Confederate battle flag, this book could not be more topical. In fact, I would say the book is maddeningly, and sadly far too topical. Almost all of the parts that deal with racism and how it was playing out in the courts and in the South are relevant not just to the issue of race but also to marriage equality.
Can I call myself a reader if I don’t read it?
Not really. I say that with tongue-in-cheek and with a wink, but there is some truth to it. There are certainly works of literary greatness that I know I don’t want to read, and this is no literary masterpiece, so why do I think you need to read it? Because TKAM is not just a good book it is a cultural icon and had an effect that went far beyond literary circles. To not be interested in what else was going on in the head of the author of that work doesn’t really fit the profile of a true reader. But if you don’t find that convincing how could a true reader not be curious about the writing process and how this early, rejected draft turned into what became one of the masterpieces of the 20th century? How can you not find that interesting?
Why was draft rejected?
Of course I don’t know the answer to this, but I am pretty damn sure it was not because the book was irredeemably flawed or beyond the help of an editor. However, one may feel about the quality of the text, there is no way that this can be the case. Fifty percent of the ‘properly edited’ novels published in the past 50 years are more flawed than this one. No, the reason this book was rejected was that the country wasn’t ready for it. Lee clearly had race on her mind when she wrote both GSAW and TKAM. Growing up in the deeply racist, Jim Crow South, it is clear that Lee wanted to say something about the hate she witnessed. Written in the 1950s, GSAW was way too militantly anti-racist to have found much of an audience. (One could argue that both of Lee’s novels, despite their outwardly anti-racist content, still evince the author’s own vestiges of racism or white privilege, but that is an essay I am not qualified to write.)
Even if it had been a literary masterpiece there is no way a book that so explicitly calls out the haters was going to be well received at the time. In fact, the explicitness of text is one of the things that keeps the book from being better than it is. Not because Lee shouldn’t have been so pointed in her criticism of racism but because the way she does it felt a bit like a breathless undergraduate railing against evil in a college newspaper. In places it goes from narrative to screed. As both TKAM and parts of GSAW show, Lee is a gifted writer. Her editor could have helped her turn Watchman into something pretty amazing. But he and probably everyone else in the white publishing world back then didn’t want to touch the issue in such a head on manner. In retrospect it is so clear why they, and the country, would prefer the much warmer TKAM. It doesn’t really deal with race head on, it waters down the issue into a more abstract focus on justice and due process that white Americans could feel better about than confronting their own racism.
There is no doubt in my mind that To Kill a Mockingbird was an important book to help ease the country along the path to a being a more just, less racist place. But to do so it had to soft-pedal the issue and sitting here now in 2015 almost 60 years after Go Set a Watchman was rejected, race relations haven’t changed nearly as much as they need to. It’s time we set aside our sentimental, happy, warm, righteous love of Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a sign of white privilege that we were able to see it that way in the first place.