Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Why I Am Not Reading "Go Set a Watchman"

A reader asked me what I thought about the publication this year of “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee, and if I would be reading it. As I am sure readers know, this is the story of the same characters and events (more or less) as those in Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but set some years later. There is some dispute about whether this was actually a separate novel, or an earlier draft of Lee’s famous masterpiece. I have gone back and forth about reading it, but have concluded that I probably will not, for the following reasons. 1. It is disillusioning to find that Atticus Finch was actually quite racist, and not the pure hero that the other novel portrayed him as. This in itself should not be a reason not to read the book, as one should not flinch from the hard facts about the prejudices of that time period. But I am also concerned about the following. 2. The fact is that the novel, from all reviews I have read, is much less well-written than “Mockingbird,” and is in essence an early, unpolished draft, which Lee thoroughly rewrote following the suggestions of her editor, including changing the time frame and narrating the story from the point of view of the young girl, Scout. Reviewers have been restrained and diplomatic, on the whole, but it is clear that there is a big difference in quality between the two novels. This point leads to the third. 3. There is a bit of mystery about how and when the manuscript of “Watchman” was “discovered,” and about how much the author had to do with the decision to publish it. It seems that Lee had forgotten about this manuscript, and/or thought it was long lost. After her sister, who had managed her literary affairs, died, another person who got involved claimed to have discovered this manuscript, but the story that person tells about the discovery has changed several times, so what we know about what happened is a bit murky. Lee is elderly and in poor health, and it isn’t clear how much she understood about the decision to publish. I know that some readers are just so glad to have another novel by the author of “Mockingbird” that they welcome it no matter what, and indeed sales have been good. But some reviewers and others have felt, and I concur, that there is a whiff of exploitation about this whole publishing event. It would be sad if Harper Lee’s reputation were marred by the airing of a manuscript that was never intended to be published as such, and that reflects badly on the author. I may change my mind in the future, but right now I just don’t want to read “Go Set a Watchman.”
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