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.