Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
What a fuss has been made about the discovery of Harper Lee’s manuscript Go Set a Watchman and its publication! I’m not eager to read it. Clearly, more than 1.1 million people don’t feel the same about it as I do because they’ve rushed out to buy it as soon as it became available.
What’s my problem?
It isn’t that I haven’t embraced the same warm feelings for To Kill a Mockingbird as has the majority of the U.S. population. The school requirement to read Mockingbird is akin to a rite of passage in America, but unlike so many of the other novels we’re required to read, this one is easily digested–and many find it downright enjoyable.
That was my experience as well. So three years ago, when the book club I belong to decided to read To Kill a Mockingbird, I was pleased. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I had seen the film a couple of times as well as the play version and found both entertaining and touching.
Imagine my dismay, then, as I plunged into the book to find it has some significant writing flaws. Reading it after years of being an editor, I saw cracks in it that never would have stood out to me before. I won’t go into all the messy details but point out the two biggest ones.
The first is Scout. We all love her smart-yet-naive view of the world, right? And I suspect every writer today who sets out to create a young girl as a novel’s main character, instinctively turns to Scout for inspiration. But Scout actually is portrayed as a child with an adult voice, a Scout who is looking back at the little kid she used to be. Which, now that we know that’s how Jean Louise Finch was initially conceived by Harper Lee, makes complete sense to me. Lee didn’t manage to rewrite Scout totally from the child’s POV.
The second is Atticus Finch, who is wise, courageous, kind, and fatherly to all of us–and also impossibly perfect. One critic described him as a plaster saint. Could we have a little shading of gray added to his person, please? (For a smart–and uplifting–critique of the book, read this article.)
Okay, so I didn’t love Mockingbird on my second reading of it. Shouldn’t I give Watchman a fair shot at winning me over?
Here’s my problem: I keep thinking about Watchman’s ignominious resume. The manuscript garnered Lee an agent and a publishing contract. But apparently the editor who bought it wasn’t offering a contract because the manuscript was so astounding, but because she spied a gold nugget–the story that became Mockingbird. The best of the book was mined out and created into a work that has become iconic. You can read about the editor, Tay Hohoff, and her work on the manuscript here.
Consider the immense pressure on Lee, Hohoff, and Lee’s agent to come up with a second manuscript after Mockingbird released to astounding success from the get-go. Yet none ever publicly mentioned the possibility of that second novel being Watchman. As the years slipped by, it became apparent that Lee would not provide us with a second novel–but instead insisted there would be no additional novels. Still neither her editor nor her agent seemed to consider Watchman a worthy manuscript to publish, or even to attempt to rework so it could be published.
We’ll probably never know what shenanigans transpired to bring us Watchman, but I’m pretty confident that Hohoff never would have agreed to its publication. And certainly not to its being published with only a light edit. (Every author’s nightmare!)
These factors make it clear that Watchman is not the finest Lee had to offer us–that was Mockingbird.
Having said all that as the genesis for my hesitancy to read Watchman, I confess that I know I’ll eventually tuck away my regrets and hesitancy and dip into the book. Here’s why: The editor in me is eager to examine the work. And that editor is glad the publisher didn’t fuss over the manuscript; I want to see it in as rough a state as possible. And writers of fiction should want to read it for the same reason; I suspect there’s much to be gained in studying how Watchman was transformed into Mockingbird.
When I do settle in to read it, I’m also going to keep in mind Billy Coffey’s perspective on the book. Coffey, whose own writing is really fine, responded to the unrealistically heroic nature of Atticus Finch in a beautiful way that I intend to mirror. With relief that, at last, we can meet an imperfect Atticus. You can read Coffey’s article here.
Now, tell us, will you (have you) read Go Set a Watchman? Why?
Why you should/shouldn’t read Go Set a Watchman. Click to tweet.
Why novelists should read Go Set a Watchman. Click to tweet.
No, I won’t read GSAW; I was not highly impressed with TKAM when I read it, and with all respect due Harper Lee, I’d just as soon not spend any more time in her fictional world. It may be metaphorically true, but it’s also cloying.
* The slightly schizoid POV didn’t bother me; I could accept the story as written by the adult Scout, looking back and trying to inhabit that childhood; indeed, that effort is one of the things I like, because it creates an underlying loss-of-innocence-and-trying-to-regain-it theme. I thought she handled it well.
* Atticus may be a plaster saint, but the portrayal seems to me to be consistent with Scout’s adult/child POV; it would be understandable for her to see her father this way. Indeed, given the social setting, for an adult Scout to write about any gray in her father’s character would be seen as disloyalty, a definite violation of the social mores of the time. I think we want to see more because we expect our heroes to have feet of clay; Scout, either as a child or as an adult, would likely be very uncomfortable in our world. Atticus, to her, was neither plaster nor clay; he was granite.
* I do believe that we have to look at TKAM and GSAW as ‘period fiction’, works that at the time of their publication would have fallen under the contemporary heading – both in subject and voice but also stylistically. The state of the craft has changed a lot in sixty-odd years.
* After giving Harper Lee’s magnum opus some thought – which resulted in a fairly spirited defense, the writing of which surprised me – I think I may have boxed myself into the corner of having to revisit tired old Maycomb in the near future.
I wonder how many reluctant readers will find themselves picking up a copy of Watchman for a variety of reasons.
I agree with Andrew on the adult/child POV. My mother recently asked me a couple pointed questions that sent the adult me nosing into my childhood self. I have no desire to relive my childhood, but the occasional visit is intriguing.
I don’t plan to buy Watchman, but I will bring it home after the public library rush is over, for a lesson in the evolution of a good story. Should I someday become a well-known author, please don’t pull out my early scribblings and pretend they are good. Because they aren’t.
I feel kind of sad for Harper Lee that her original work is available for all of us to critique. It really is every author’s nightmare.
Great thoughts! I haven’t jumprd on the train yet for Watchman, either. And Billy Coffey does indeed write fine!
James Scott Bell
Janet, Harper Lee left a clue in Mockingbird that points to a more complex Atticus. I wrote about that here
Thanks for the enlightening post, Jim. I had no idea.
Janet, I read a portion of the first chapter. Why? Because I was able to get it free (although I can’t recall the site). I thought, “This isn’t bad–could be better, but maybe it will get there.” I knew a bit of the background of the novel’s “discovery” but the more I heard about it, the more I couldn’t help think that someone, whether Harper Collins or the new lawyer, was trying to profit from a first draft that never saw print. So, I haven’t read the full book. Thanks for letting me know someone else–someone knowledgeable–has the same feelings.
I saw an article with a headline that read something like this: “Why I willed my $45 million estate to my best friend and attorney.” It was, of course, a sarcastic article on Lee’s attorney. She strikes me as smarmy.
A major factor in TKAM’s success may be that it came out at the end of a Golden Age in the US, and speaks to us not really from the depths of the Depression, but from the late 50s. It was a time when problems could be acknowledged, yes, but they could also be solved…for were we not the inheritors of a Manifest Destiny to bring a gentle order to the chaos of our human hearts?
* My feeling is that Harper Lee saw this, and knew that any step from the mountaintop is down. I would also guess that she liked GSAW better (she said it was TKAM’s ‘parent’), and wanted it to have its place in the sun.
* It took courage to release GSAW in its present form; it would never have escaped comparison and criticism, because it could never have captured lightning in a bottle the way TKAM did. It could be perfect in every way, but it would always be Harper Lee’s Other Book.
* That seems to be expressed in the emotion, including calls for boycott, that surrounded GSAW’s release. TKAM wasn’t just a book, it was a symbol, like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in “Gatsby”; and we beat on, boats against the current, trying to recapture just who we were when we first opened TKAM, and began to read.
And then we saw even greater dismay when readers who adored Atticus–and named their children after him–discovered that he was so utterly flawed in Watchman.
I’ll read it eventually. A friend had a copy and I thumbed through the first chapter then read the opening of chapter 2 aloud to our writing group (a description of Atticus). It was lovely. BUT, part of what made it lovely was the way I hear it in the voice of the narrator from the movie version of TKAM.
I’m prepared to love Lee’s prose just as much in book 2 as I did in book 1. And so, I suspect, I will.
No doubt Harper Lee could turn a phrase in beautiful and surprising ways. I’m looking forward to that aspect of Watchman.
I haven’t followed a lot of the opinions on GSAW. I’m curious about the book, and I’ll probably read it eventually. But I’ll most likely borrow it from the library or from a friend.
Knowing that it’s more of a rough draft copy of a story by an iconic writer makes me more interested in reading it. I’d love to see how her stories came to life.
And Harper Lee still has affection for the book. When she was first shown the rediscovered manuscript, she said it was the “parent” to Mockingbird, as one of the previous commenters mentioned. There’s a sweetness in the use of that word.
I won’t read it because I think she wouldn’t want us to, if she were thinking clearly. As for TKMB, I wasn’t bothered by Scout’s kid/grown-up voice or even Atticus’ perfect profile. What bothered me was the first few pages. It read like a weird prologue of boring back story that never seemed to weave into the plot later. I still love the memories that book left me with, though, even if it’s been many years since I read it.
Hannah, I understand your reluctance to read that which Lee withheld from us for decades. If I weren’t so darn curious, I’d do the same.
It was my turn to pick our next book club selection, so I suggested we read both Watchman and TKAM so we can discuss both in context of the other. I’m excited to read it and hear everyone’s insights.
What a great idea for your book club, Angela.
One year I proposed to our club that we read The Paris Wife, a novel about Hemingway and his wife during their time living in Paris while he was writing The Moveable Feast. Then we read The Moveable Feast. That pairing gave greater meaning to both books.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I’m excited to read it. I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time last summer and was pleasantly surprised that such a well acclaimed book had a plot and great tension. Yay! My best friend makes me read a literary novel each year for my birthday 5-24 and I make her read a piece of genre fiction for hers 5-25. We used to get each other dead plants and candles shaped like brains and things, but a book we normally wouldn’t read is even better. This year I read Life of Pi and she read How to Train Your Dragon. So awesome! Anyway, I love to learn from books and to see what it is about them that charms readers. Is it the writing or the fast pace or the romantic tension??? So I’m going to pick up the e-book, because I enjoyed TKAMB and am excited to see where that came from.
What a fun idea for your birthdays. It keeps your reading list from stagnating.
My book club does that for me. I end up reading several books each year that otherwise I would never have picked up. And I’m almost always glad I did.
I’m like you, Janet. I have no urge to rush out and buy something that is so obviously published solely for the money it will bring in. But eventually, I’ll get curious enough to pick up a used copy or check it out of the library to read and decide for myself.
Carrie, I’m pretty sure my book club will vote to read it. We do have a rule that we can’t nominate hardbacks; so we might not get to this one for awhile.
I like that rule!
Carrie, since three of the ten of us use our e-readers whenever possible, we think the rule is old-fashioned. Especially since three other club members tend to use library copies. But I love our group; we have a great dynamic. Most members have been in the group for more than 15 years.
To be honest, I was never a fan of Mockingbird for a number of reasons, all probably stated by others. It should be no surprise I have no interest in her new book. However, I love when a book is so beloved (even if not by me), that people are clamoring to read another years later. While the stories are certainly not comparable, I remember my daughter’s excitement when a new Harry Potter book came out. As a writer/reader, I loved how enthusiastic she was about books.
Good point. The release of Watchman is a boon to reading, to bookstores, and to publishing in general. And that’s plenty of reason to celebrate.
It would be interesting to see what a Harper Lee scholar could do if allowed to produce a fully edited version of GSAW. I doubt it would ever be allowed, but one does wonder what a polish could do for it.
Andrew, that is an interesting idea. And it would allow the publisher to release a new edition, thus infusing more sales into the system. But which editor would want the WORLD to peruse his/her edits? Yikes, that’s a very vulnerable position to put oneself in. Of course, with enough money offered…
If I had the qualifications, I’d do it for nothing. It would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – think of how much one would learn in the process!
You do have my curiosity up now. I have never read TKAM. I’ve only watched the movie, and that was many years ago. I’ll see bits and pieces of it from time to time, and I keep thinking I need to watch the whole thing again. I think we even have it recorded to watch. I like how you stated that the editor spied a gold nugget … 🙂 I’d love to have that said of me, regardless of the flaws.
Shelli, for what this may be worth…having read your comments here, and having read your blog faithfully, I’ll bet that when an editor looks at your work, she’ll have a Howard Carter moment, as when he first peered into the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Her assistant will ask, “What do you see?”
And the editor will reply, “Wonderful things!”
Andrew, that is worth much, much, much. 🙂 You always make me smile and tear up at the same time … my eyes brighten and my heart does a little flip! 🙂
anne martin fletcher
My child recently struggled through TKAM and when I asked why, when the movie was so great (child’s class also watched the movie), child wailed that the characters in the book were nothing like the characters in the movie. The book was “boring.” After skimming the chapter that caused the most angst, I had to agree.
Anne, I think the film and the play are, in many ways, executed better than the book.
I watched the movie for the first time about three years ago, and I found it boring.
I love TKAM. I think it’s a tremendous book for a variety of reasons. I was very nervous to read GSAW because of the high regard I have for TKAM. It couldn’t possibly live up to it.
And it doesn’t. Not from a apples to apples comparison. It’s rough. It’s not as well-written, not as compelling. However, I don’t regret at all having read it. I still think it was a good (if flawed and unfinished) book. And I think the only way you could read this story and have it really impact you the right way is if you have read and loved TKAM. It’s about discovering that your heroes are flawed, and that message can’t come off if you don’t view Atticus as a hero in the first place.
Jared, thanks for your view on Watchman. You’re the first person to comment who has read the book; so I really value your opinion. Your thought that Watchman works best if the reader saw Atticus as a hero to begin with makes sense. And gives us all another reason to be thankful that Mockingbird came before Watchman.
I can’t read this book; or any book. I taught high school English kids TKAM, and remember great things (and some not so great writing things).
Janet, in January 2015, I jumped from rocks to rocks (I’m a weird dork), fell 18 feet, and hit my head along the way. God’s given and is giving incredibly many miracles. However, with brain issues, I couldn’t read at all for months. Writing has improved must more than reading. God’s laughingly telling me not to read, but to write.
September 18th, I’ve signed to see Wendy nearby in Dallas at ACFW. Evidently you’re not coming, but the two of you “fought over me” in California, so you both mean much to me. I’d love updating my books I still believe I’ll finish. I know you both can still read…..
Kaye, thank you so much for updating me on your life. Oh, my, you’re facing high hurdles. How wonderful that God is healing you.
I’m trying to imagine what it would be like not to read…and I can’t picture it.
Not everyone has the “honor” of being fought over by Wendy and me! You’re in a select group.
I’m glad that you’re meeting with Wendy at ACFW. I actually will be there, but since we have so many agents from our agency attending, I chose not to take a slot on the faculty. I’ll be hanging as an attendee, stuffing my calendar with appointments with clients and editors.
See you there!
Thank you….yet another miracle will be that day!!
P.S. Don’t worry about my new tears — another thing God’s teaching me!
Anne Martin Fletcher
I’ve known several people struggling with TBI, so I very much empathize with what you are going through. I almost recommended some books on recovery to you — duh, Anne, read Kaye’s post. I have a friend who celebrated when he finished reading his first chapter book, about 2 years after his accident. For now, please sleep lots! Bless you.
God bless you!
Kaye, you are a beacon of courage. I knew a lot of guys with TBI (it wasn’t called that, back then), and you would have been welcome in their straightforward and unsentimental approach to recovery…you could have taught them a lot, and still can.
Andrew, I’m grateful you get guys with TBI…very few women. My instinct has always been fight or flight, even with God leading my life. I’ll never again be who I was, but I am and will be who God wants me to be. What a stinking cool life filled with new visions of God!
Thanks, Janet! While there are problems with the narrative perspective in TKAM, I still love that book. How many classic novels can young people read that have an admirable hero? Whenever I read Atticus’ closing courtroom argument aloud, I always choke up. Where are such other heroes in literature? Here is the review I posted today on Facebook for Watchman:
Should you read the newly-released Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee? No. It will hurt your heart — and the news does that everyday anyway.
Do you need a “coming-of-age” read to enlighten you that your heroes are fallible? Probably not–you learn that on your own.
Did Harper Lee write it? Who knows?
After this English teacher’s career ravings about To Kill a Mockingbird being my all-time favorite, I found this sequel is so much less that it’s just not worth the time or expense — not even for conversation purposes. Lee’s new attorney should have left the manuscript in hiding.
There were a couple lines that earned my underlining. From Isaiah 21:6, this was the best: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” However, I had already read that very verse and underlined it earlier last week — in the other book pictured below (photo of my dad’s Bible). Yes, each of us needs to be a watchman in his or her community — but more inspiration and how-to are available in the all-time best seller on the right (the Bible) as opposed to the one on the left (Watchman).
Janet, thanks for sharing from your perspective as an English teacher. Your points are well taken–especially in light of how dark so many YA novels are nowadays.
I was going to reread Mockingbird first and then Watchman. But I wonder if I should reverse the order to maximize the learning opportunity.
Peter, I’ve read them both, and in my view you need to read Mockingbird first in order to understand and appreciate what the protagonist is going through in Watchman.
Thanks, Jared. I do just that!
I was talking about Mockingbird this week at one of my blogs. Since Watchman was coming out, I wanted to read its predecessor. I ended up getting the audio version and I have to admit I don’t care for it (ducks tomatoes). There is so much set up of the town and its people, that I was onto the sixth track of the first disc before anything really happened.
I’m guessing I will read Watchman eventually, but I won’t be putting aside anything I really want to read to get to it.
Cheryl, I’m not rushing to buy a copy of Watchman either. I think it will be interesting to read, but not breathtaking.
I haven’t read To Kill A Mockingbird yet. If it was on our reading list in high school (I graduated in 1970), it must not have been mandatory, for I never read it. Same with Catcher in the Rye, BTW. I bought a used copy of Mockingbird; it’s in my reading pile. At my current reading pace it should get to the top around mid-2017—if I don’t add anything to it, that is.
I won’t read Watchman until I read Mockingbird.
David, I won’t be expecting to hear your response to either book in quite some time then. I am well-acquainted with how reading stacks go.