Frank Reads: Go Set a Watchman — Part 1: The Problem With Publication

Harper Lee Books

photo by me — these are my books.

If you’ve spent any time in the world (maybe watching the news or scrolling through social media updates), you have undoubtedly heard that Harper Lee, the reclusive author of one-hit-wonder (and one-hit-written, or so we thought) book To Kill a Mockingbird, had a “lost manuscript” that was recently published. You remember To Kill a Mockingbird. You probably had to read it in high school. Scout. Jem. Boo Radley. Tom Robinson. Atticus Finch. It’s a classic, and a much beloved one, at that. While TKAM isn’t really a book about race, per se, it does examine the topic in a way that is very memorable to most people who read it: Atticus Finch, upstanding southern lawyer during the Depression, defends Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping a white woman who lives on “the wrong side of the tracks.” In the end, it’s clear that Tom is innocent and the girl’s own father attacked her, but Tom is still convicted because it’s Alabama in the 1930s and that wasn’t how the world worked. It was barely, if at all, how the world worked in the early 1960s when the book was first published.

I spend a considerable amount of time on the “Bookternet” — the part of the internet that is basically just a whole bunch of book nerds reading, writing, and talking about books and publishing and all that goes along with them. When this “new” Harper Lee manuscript was first announced, it was maybe the biggest thing I’ve ever seen happen to the Bookternet, and though I’ve heard just about every review and criticism of the book in the loosest sense (second and thirdhand accounts that I only halfway pay attention to), I’ve tried to largely avoid and ignore them. This meant staying away from my favorite podcasts and websites for a while so that my opinion would be my own.

The Book is Announced and Questions Arise

When it was announced earlier this year that an unpublished Harper Lee manuscript had been unearthed and was going to be published, I, like many other people in the Bookternet, lost my shit entirely. I couldn’t even form words, much less string them into cohesive thoughts, for about 10-15 minutes. My jaw was on the floor. I was completely distracted by this huge news, but when the dust settled in the following day or so, my complete elation was replaced by concern.

In no particular order, these were my primary concerns about the “new” book, Go Set a Watchman:

  1. It would never live up to To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. It would never live up to To Kill a Mockingbird and critics and readers would destroy Harper Lee for it (even though we asked for it).
  3. It wouldn’t live up to the summer’s other big release, which was something E.L. James burped up to suck more money out of the already-bloated 50 Shades series (my opinion on those books, but if that’s what you like and that gets you to read, then read away). I honestly have no idea what the title is and I’m too lazy/don’t care enough to look it up right now.
  4. Harper Lee’s “permission” to publish was questionable. She is a very old and not terribly healthy woman whose sister Alice was her lawyer and primary caretaker for all of these years. Alice Lee died in November 2014, and now suddenly Tonja Carter, a lawyer with Alice’s firm, supposedly finds this unpublished manuscript and Harper Lee, who has been living an ultra reclusive life since the 1960 publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, “says” via a released statement that she had completely forgotten that it existed until her “dear friend Tonja Carter” found it.Many people believe, and I am inclined to agree with them, that this is not at all how it went down, despite whatever Tonja wrote for the WSJ. Even other lawyers have said that they’ve known that the manuscript existed, but Alice Lee was always looking out for Harper’s best interests, and so it was never published. So what it seems like is… Alice Lee died, and here comes Tonja Carter looking to cash in and rise to fame.
  5. Is it indeed contributing to some version of elderly abuse to read this book if you believe that it was published against an old woman’s wishes so that the “finder” could get her 15 minutes? I’ll come back to this point.

Ultimately, I decided that the book would be published either now, with Harper Lee’s questionable permission, or it would be published posthumously. There was no way it was just going to disappear. Sure, one could argue that if she wanted it published posthumously, she could have made arrangements for that to happen. But we read so many other pieces of literature that are published after an author’s death, and we never really know whether they had ever planned to publish those. A new Dr. Seuss book just came out. How can we be sure that he really wanted an editor to finish it for him and publish it years and years after his death? We can’t. Same with F. Scott Fitzgerald stories that come out. A new Tolkien is coming out. It’s just really difficult to know how the permissions really happened. So I can reason with myself, but I certainly do understand the people who choose not to read it because they can’t abide by its publication.

I need to be clear, though, that those are about the only people whose reasons for not reading are, in my mind, sound. I will also come back to this point.

Regardless of how we feel about its publication, Harper Collins pushed forward and announced that the book would be released on July 14, 2015. Once the countdown was on, the frenzy grew by the day. Suddenly there were people saying that Harper Lee had promised to write a story about an unsolved crime in their family years ago, and they were hoping that would be the unpublished story, and if it isn’t, they hope someone finds that manuscript because it must exist somewhere. There were statements from other lawyers disputing Tonja Carter’s claim about how the manuscript was found. There were many, many re-reads of To Kill a Mockingbird (try the audiobook — Sissy Spacek does a great job reading it).

It’s A Rough Draft

When we finally learned what the manuscript was, we didn’t really know what to think. It’s a “new” Harper Lee book, but then we find out that it’s a story about the Finches — Scout, Atticus, the whole gang (we hope?) 20 years in the future from when TKAM took place.

Oh, so it’s an unpublished sequel. 

Not quite. See, as the legend now goes, this book was actually written before TKAM. But it’s also not a prequel.

It’s a rough draft.

The Bookternet was losing its shit over a rough draft. Suddenly, I was fascinated again, but for different reasons. I’m a writer and, like other writers, am a little bit obsessed with everyone else’s writing processes. I couldn’t wait to read Watchman so I could try to figure out how Mockingbird had come from it. Apparently there had been a really good editor who said, “No, this isn’t the story you want to tell, and the flashbacks are the strongest part, so go back and work on this from a different angle.” That’s the story, anyway. It’s another big question mark as to whether or not that actually happened. Some people believe that Harper Lee really did write this draft later and hoped it would be a sequel. Based on the details of the book and some major Mockingbird plot points not even being present, I don’t see that, but maybe. The publication has become so muddled that it’s hard to say.

Not Reading It: Reasons vs. Excuses

So the two points I said I’d revisit both deal with choosing to not read the book. There are, of course, just people who aren’t going to read it because this doesn’t interest them. But there are people who typically would read something like this, and they’re adamantly refusing to read it for one of two reasons: either they can’t stand that Atticus Finch is a racist in this version, or they are concerned about buying a book that is published with questionable consent and may have taken advantage of Harper Lee, and so they see it as elderly abuse.

Let’s discuss the second scenario first. This is a legitimate concern and if you feel very strongly that an old woman was taken advantage of and that your dollars are contributing to something that does her harm in any way, then by all means, skip out on this one and stick to your principles.

But I call bullshit on the “I can’t stand that Atticus is a racist” scenario. This is something I’ll get into in more depth in part 2, but I firmly believe that your opinion of him won’t change unless you allow it to change. Don’t read Watchman Atticus in the same way you read Mockingbird Atticus. They’re two different books. Basically two different people who just happen to have the same name. Watchman Atticus was never meant to see the light of day. You have to remember that.

There is quite a bit of proselytizing on race — both from Jean Louise’s non-racist view and from the side of those in her family who are racist. In the middle of a bit from Uncle Jack about needing to accept racists too (a point that made me cringe because of all the people who don’t see how hatred, intolerance, and bigotry is dangerous for entire societies), there is this little bit where he tells Jean Louise that she is so upset with her father because she mad him out to be a god. In her mind, he was greater than human and infallible, and when she realized that he was neither of those things, that he was only a man, she was crushed. To me, that point, isolated from its context, perhaps, is exactly why the “I won’t read this because Atticus is a racist” reasoning fails. Do not make your humans (or book characters) into gods. If you do, you’re headed for heartbreak. That is what so many people are finding devastating about the mere concept of Go Set a Watchman. But you can’t be a critical reader if you don’t read.

On Refunds

It’s a news item for some reason that there are bookstores offering refunds (if you’ve ever looked a Barnes & Noble receipt, you can return ANY book for up to 2 weeks! … Not news). They’re claiming that it’s not what it was advertised as being. To this, I say… do your research. People who read this thinking that it was a sequel or prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird are, of course, going to be upset. You need to go into it knowing that it’s a completely separate work, a rough draft, about many of the same characters.

On the other hand, Harper Collins kept calling this (and we, the public, did this too, so we’re also partially to blame) the “new” Harper Lee book. It wasn’t new at all. Their marketing and advertising needed to be clearer so that it was less misleading for people.

In all, asking for a refund is kind of silly (in my opinion, anyway). Perhaps stick to libraries in the future if you can’t commit to owning a book, but we all surely own books that we didn’t particularly like.

And on that note, I’ll end with this picture. I moved recently which gave me a chance to reorganize and purge my bookshelves. I don’t really purge, though. I just move those books I didn’t like as much to the “book annex” (my guest room). Here’s my box of recently purged-and-banished:


In Part 2, I’ll get into an actual review of the book itself.


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