Thursday, July 16, 2015

Random thoughts on “Go Set A Watchman”

Harper Lee’s “new” novel, Go Set A Watchman, was released a couple of days ago. Early reviews indicate the book is problematic at best, a mess at worst.

It’s been claimed this is an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird or possibly a sequel. Some claim it’s a great literary gem, others are not so sure insisting it’s little more than a lightly edited rough manuscript.

Whatever your view -- and if you’re a fan of Mockingbird you probably have a view and most likely a very strong one -- Watchman is going to have an impact.

At least one journalist even raises concern for all those who have been named Atticus after the lead character. But no word on those named Finch.

Whether the overall impact of Watchman is good or bad on the literary world remains to be seen. But a few pros and cons come to mind now.

The good

Publishers Weekly reported today that for some book retailers, the one-day sales of Watchman are “historic.” Even Canadian bookstores are doing a boffo business with the book.

These brisk sales have yielded a few immediate positives:
  • E.L. James’ “Grey” has been knocked off the top of bestseller lists. This is definitely a plus! Now if we could just make the whole series go away.
  •  Bookstores in general are drawing customers in to buy copies of the book. Anything (well, almost anything) that can get people into bookstores is a good thing.
  • People who read Mockingbird in school and liked it, but haven’t picked up a book in years, are buying copies of Watchman. Bringing readers back to reading is never a waste of effort!
But once the buzz fades like cicadas dying at the end of summer, what then?

Frankly, I’m a little concerned.

The bad

It seems that the primary driving force behind the release of Watchman is simply economics (aka profit).

The estate of the still living Harper Lee as well as the publisher look to make a bundle off the book, at least initially. And now there are rumors that there is a third or even a fourth manuscript floating around out there somewhere just waiting to break into the light of day.

Of course, without the reputation of Mockingbird, the success of publishing Watchman would be nil. It would most likely be a bomb of a book. In fact, I’m anticipating dozens of copies ending up in thrift shops for pennies before Christmas. I'll not be looking to buy a copy before then.

There’s been endless controversy surrounding the discovery and subsequent publication of Watchman. It’s not even clear if Lee even wanted it published. And, given the reports of it being a “draft” manuscript, one wonders if it really should have been. Most successful authors would be loathe to have a rough, imperfect draft of one of their bestselling books published, especially if it had been substantially changed through the various rewrites.

So, here are the concerns that grow from these observations:
  • When money overshadows all literary concerns, what gets published will inevitably be less and less readable.
  • Unpublished raw, flawed drafts of manuscripts by well-known authors may now become fair game for publishing, even though they really should not see print, harming the reputations of good writers.
  • Under force of pressure from publishers, successful authors may lose control over their unpublished manuscripts that are languishing in the files of their agents or publishers who just want to make money. Or, authors themselves looking to turn a fast buck could release their slush piles of less than good manuscripts, ultimately diluting their reputation and hurting future sales of their better books.
  • Those buying Watchman expecting something akin to Mockingbird may be so put off that they never take a chance on another “sequel” from a beloved author. In other words, old and new readers drawn in by the hype may be lost to the reality.
  • Bookstores gaining a surge of business now may see sales wane more once sales for Watchman have died down and the reviews become less and less flattering. This could discourage new business by disappointing readers.
But I could be wrong.

The unknown

Added to these concerns teachers of literature are hand-wringing over how now to teach Mockingbird since Watchman apparently characterizes Atticus as a racist.

Ultimately, only time will tell how all this fretting shakes out. My hope is that when the fog of hype clears away the positives will outweigh the negatives.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, since I haven’t yet, I guess I should finally take the time to read Mockingbird. (Let the shaming begin!)

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Have you read
“Go Set A Watchman”? What did you think of it? Other than To Kill A Mockingbird”, do you have a favorite book? Would you want to read an unedited early draft of it? If the storyline was significantly different in an early draft of your favorite book, would it make you mad? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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NOTE: I apologize for not posting more frequently lately! The reason is that we have been preparing to move to the Philadelphia area at the end of this month and have been busy packing, etc. Hopefully we’ll be settled enough by mid-August or so and I’ll be able to carve out the time needed to get back to posting more frequently.

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