So Harper Lee’s new novel is out!
Who’d have thought that?! I’ve always used To Kill A Mockingbird as an example of why writers shouldn’t pressure themselves with deadlines and rushing, or be overly concerned with outcomes. For the author of one of the most beloved books in the world only ever published that one book. And if that was good enough for her …
(And if only some other writers were more cautious about their output!)
But then this week all that changed. And the verdict is in …
But I’m not going that way. Because: whose verdict?
Before it was even published, various hacks have tried to dig up a back story, piecing together fragments of a story about an old lady who never wanted this earlier manuscript published until the older sister who protected her legal affairs died … Rats were smelled, as was fishiness.
But I really doubt that the old lady who worries about the punctuation of the title of her book would really be deceived. (Old people are not necessarily stupid, you know?) And even if the old lady really was deceived: do we really care that an earlier draft has been published?
I avoided reading reviews until I finished reading the book. Some of the earlier ones seem a bit timid. Others are scathing, or bitchy, seeking out every (apparent) cliché or bit of (apparent) ineptitude, which feels to me nitpicky and somewhat pointless; we don’t need to suspend judgement entirely, but trawling over writing looking for problems in that way really takes the joy out of reading. Let’s leave that to the sadists. Clichés don’t always bother me, anyway.
I just want to say to such reviewers, to all readers in fact: This is Harper Lee. Just read the book. Just read it and savour every single word, because this is more than we ever knew we were getting.
As someone close to me said: ‘I don’t think reviews are relevant for some books. A review can be nothing other than “Here’s what *I* think”. It changes nothing in the world.’
Publishers might tell you that negative reviews will harm sales, and good reviews will promote sales, so reviews can change things in the world. But many books with bad reviews are loved by readers long after the death of their reviewers. And many well-reviewed books are soon forgotten. And some books just take off unexpectedly and capture the imagination and even become cultural phenomena: Harry Potter, Fifty Shades. Taste cannot be predicted.
And some reviews are just sanctimonious wank.
For what it’s worth, this review from We Love This Book seems to be the most balanced one I’ve read. I do find that new media and blogs often provide better books coverage than many of the traditional reviews and literary sections: more engaged, less stuffy, less posturing, more authentic.
So, question no. 1 for writers: Why do you read reviews and reviewers, and what value do you necessarily place on their opining?
[Inserted postscript, August 2015: I’ve since come across this excellent take on the book by Ursula Le Guin. Anne Rice was also praising it on Facebook. See, those old ladies know a thing or two.]
Atticus is a racist! Nooooooo! Well, actually, I think it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. (And NO, saying that does NOT make me a racist.) So: Atticus is a man of his time and place, it turns out. The saintly Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird gives that book a simpler moral clarity, whereas this version of Atticus is a member of a racist citizens’ council, something that was a fact of life in many small towns in the American South in the 1950s.
(I also enjoy a certain cruel mirth in reading all those stories of bourgeois parents who named their little boys Atticus. Here I frantically scrabble around to remember if any of my friends have little boys named Atticus. ‘Mummy, can I go to Hannibal’s for a play date?’ As a Wille, I’ve never approved of the way in which the chatterati often seem to give their children pretentious yet painful names.)
There are plenty of other conversations about the treatment of race in both books by now, and it’s becoming one of those subjects where I, as a white person, in the current climate feel uncomfortable about making public pronouncements. (If that feels cowardly, it is, but I’m not ashamed.)
But we are reading Go Set A Watchman at a time when race is a matter of great urgency in public life, especially in the United States. Maybe Harper Lee thinks that blacklivesmatter too.
We read Go Set A Watchman in the week that a woman who failed to signal when changing lanes on the way to an interview ended up dead in a jail cell in Texas (and if you really care about social justice, like our saintly Atticus Finch, you really must watch that video clip). We read Go Set A Watchman and realise that some things have changed little since the time that these books were set. We read Go Set A Watchman and we watch that video clip and we ask ourselves whether that took place in the South in the 1950s, or South Africa under the state of emergency. No, it was Texas last week.
Publication of this book certainly draws attention to certain unchanging facts of life in America. So question no. 2: What do you have to say about age-old political problems in your own writing?
So: what is the book like? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. It was like revisiting childhood friends (while they are still in their childhood, rather than acting out on Facebook). But I did find myself drifting at the end, I’m afraid. It does get clunky and didactic as Jean Louise, the grown-up Scout, digests the racism of her hometown when she returns on vacation from her new life in New York.
Jean Louise is something of a passive central character, who agonises on what she observes via reflection in close third-person point of view. Unlike some reviewers, I liked the way in which she responds to some of the conversations she hears around her, especially at a ‘Coffee’, an occasion where Southern ladies get together to discuss their husbands and the toilet training of their babies and other people’s marriages and the prospect of a ‘good nigger trial’. It’s rendered in something of a stream of consciousness, and it’s possible some readers have missed the point.
All the same, I finished the book a couple of days ago, and I thought I’d forgotten its ending, and then I looked back and realised the book fizzles out somewhat, lacking a significant dramatic resolution. It has big themes and internal musings, but they fail to crystallise in revealing action.
This points up for me, more than anything, how Go Set A Watchman overall lacks narrative and dramatic focus. It reminds me in that way of questions I frequently ask about a lot of early unpublished drafts I read in my work as a book doctor: What is at stake here? What do characters have to gain or lose in terms of both external action as well as their inner lives?
To Kill A Mockingbird by contrast has not only that trial but also and especially Boo Radley. Boo, who in the movie is hiding behind the door in one of the most terrifying screen moments of my life. No longer would I only be scared of things lurking under the bed; thereafter I’d be scared of things hiding behind the bedroom door, the door that had been left open with the landing light on because I didn’t like it closed and I didn’t like the dark.
All the same, Go Set A Watchman has a few other surprises, and other magical sequences. The most captivating are scenes with Scout, Jem, and Dill that call to mind some of those in To Kill A Mockingbird (though I’ve yet to do a direct comparison).
Go Set A Watchman is, certainly, a literary curiosity, in the vein of the scroll edition of On the Road or the published drafts of Howl and The Waste Land. But I think it’s more than that too – it’s a novel marked by plenty of accomplishment already, and it possesses real flashes of wit and saltiness. It has some of the hallmarks of a certain type of postwar American literature that perhaps feel missing in contemporary writing. And even if it has flaws and is apparently an unedited manuscript, it probably interested me far more than plenty of published and apparently flawless books that have been edited.
(‘Flawlessness is overrated.’ Discuss. Many of my favourite books have flaws.)
I’ve read a few commentaries suggesting that Harper Lee’s editor deserves some sort of honour for the way this manuscript was transformed into a great book, but I’ve not seen a paper trail about specific input from an editor, and I’d assume that any editorial conversation would have been followed by Harper Lee’s ongoing revision until she created the draft that became To Kill A Mockingbird. Let’s not forget: editors can be talented, but in the world of books writers are the talent.
Go Set A Watchman is for me, as a teacher and book doctor, an immensely useful textbook. Many beginning (and even experienced) writers seem to think that once a first draft has been planned and then written, editing requires a certain amount of pegging and tidying up, and then it’s plain sailing until you’re checking your Amazon rankings.
But in fact, especially for beginning writers, a first draft can actually be the planning. Terry Pratchett once said something along the lines that a first draft is just the writer telling herself the story.* Once a first (or early) draft is complete, the story is laid out beginning to end, and then the writer can decide how to tell that story: which emphasis to bring out, what to cut, what to expand, how to shift the tone, or vary the pace for narrative tension. The first draft can be more about the process of exploration and investigation, rather than grasping towards any particular outcome.
Go Set A Watchman amounts to one of those sorts of early drafts, perhaps. To Kill A Mockingbird is a seriously different novel: a different timeframe, a different period, a different spirit, a different point of view. And a key event from To Kill A Mockingbird has a very different outcome in Go Set A Watchman.
But both novels have the same setting, many of the same characters, much of the same wit and verve in its style, and it absolutely has the same concerns. It’s not hard to imagine a young writer taking a look at this early draft and thinking, What if I took this and did that with it … ? A focus would have been sought, and found.
Lesson no. 3: What things might lie within the rambles of your own early drafts, and how could you take them and form something else from them? It might not be radically different. But it could also be a wild departure into something that captures some initial spark and does something more compelling, or more heartfelt, or more entertaining, or more poetic, or more [insert adjective]. Either is possible.
Reviews. Race. Revision. Three R’s of Go Set A Watchman.
But lessons are chores. I first read To Kill A Mockingbird in the third year at school, in Miss Batham’s English class. I’d already read some Agatha Christies and having loved The Hobbit had attempted The Lord of the Rings, but this was the first time I really read an adult book with adult themes, and it left a profoundly strong impression on me, as subsequently would Huckleberry Finn, and My Family And Other Animals, and The War Of The Worlds …
These lessons were not chores. Books such as these are rare events in our lives that capture our imaginations. Sequels, or allied publications, should be treasured for what they are. They should be left to work their magic, and enjoyed for what they are.
* If you have a direct quotation and source for Terry Pratchett on first drafts, please email me!