Blogger: Mary Keeley
Someone mentioned in a recent blog comment that they appreciate the variety of topics we blog about here. That’s our goal. We strive to offer a well-rounded blend of insights on new topics or a fresh slant on a perennial topic surrounding writing and the publishing industry. One of those themes that never changes, though, is quality of the writing because the writing prompts doors to open.
You’ve probably heard that Harper Lee’s second book in over fifty years will be published this summer. I won’t take time to reiterate the details of how the manuscript for Go Set a Watchman was found by her lawyer because it’s off topic. What I want to point to is the endurance of her first book, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and continues to sell huge numbers of copies: 382,000 mass market paperbacks and 65,000 trade paperbacks in 2014, according to Nielsen BookScan. It’s use in literature and history classes accounts for a chunk of these sales. What is it about the first book that makes it a classic and is catapulting a buzz of anticipation for the second one? Let’s analyze.
Setting. The story takes place in the 1930s in Alabama, the heart of the Bible Belt, where segregation was legal. The book was published in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The author has lots of tension to work with in the setting alone.
Story and Plot. Harper Lee incorporates warmth, humor, and goodness of the main characters with serious issues of rape, racial injustice, hatred, compassion, revenge, and mystery, all of which evoke more conflict and strong emotional response to immerse readers in the story.
Characters. The narrator is six-year-old Scout Finch, out of whose eyes the reader receives a perspective of unbiased innocence. I think this is one of Harper Lee’s most brilliant techniques. The simple clarity of a child packed a wallop of gentle peace and truth in the turbulent action and injustice in the story and setting.
Atticus Finch, Scout’s father was an honorable, moral man, courageous in defending Tom Robinson, a Black man, equally gentle, moral, and good, who is wrongfully accused of raping a white girl. These characters are human, flawed, and fraught with inner conflict, but they choose to do what is right. I’ll stop reading a novel if there isn’t a main character with similar character. I think most readers want to see a really good character endure, if not come out a winner.
Bo Radley adds mystery. He evokes readers’ apprehension perhaps, and then compassion, and finally admiration for his courage at the surprising moment he steps out of his reclusiveness to protect Scout and her brother Jem.
Expression. Perfectly chosen words and descriptions so vivid that readers feel like they’re alongside the characters in the story, experiencing what they experience.
We in the writing world talk about character-driven or story-driven novels. I’m at a loss when it comes to categorizing To Kill a Mockingbird as one or the other. I think it has it all. The book hooks readers, then and now, in a multitude of ways.
The writing of Harper Lee’s first book opened wide the door for the second book. We’ll have to wait until July to find out if Go Set a Watchman has the same elements to make it rise to the level of To Kill a Mockingbird. One can but imagine what the advance was. And along with the buzz are the naysayers, of course. Those who are suspicious about the truth of the manuscript’s discovery after all these years. We’ll eventually find out. The proof will be in the pudding (the writing), as the saying goes.
When it comes down to choosing one among several proposals to take to pub board, assuming other factors are similar, the editor will always take the one with the best writing because the writing prompts doors to open.
Did the analysis give you ideas for further developing your main characters to make readers care deeply about them? How about ideas for using your setting to increase the tension? Are your sentences tight with strong verbs and tangible descriptions? What can you add to the analysis?
What makes To Kill a Mockingbird a literary classic? Here is one analysis. Click to Tweet.
Great writing can open doors, as shown by the mega-buzz over Harper Lee’s anticipated sequel. Click to Tweet.