Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Diary of a Conflicted Reader

by Holly West

I think it's kind of funny that I had literally no thoughts or feelings when HarperCollins announced earlier this year that it would publish GO SET A WATCHMAN (GSAW) by Harper Lee. Because now that I've finished TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (TKAM) and I'm half-way through GSAW, I have all the thoughts and feelings on the subject.

I'm happy that the publication of GO SET A WATCHMAN finally got me to read TKAM. At the very least, it got me, and probably more than a few others, excited about TKAM. TKAM is a book that deserves to be read. So there's that.

Once I finished TKAM, I was left with a hole in my literary life--so immersed was I in the fictional world of 1930s Maycomb, Alabama that I wasn't ready to leave it. Judging by the initial excitement brought on by HarperCollins' announcement, I was far from alone, even after rumblings of controversy arose.

Though I hadn't intended on doing it so soon, I began reading GSAW immediately. While it's not as compelling as TKAM, I'm enjoying it. As I write this, I'm not quite sure how to express myself. TKAM and GSAW are at once the same book and yet different books. Although it wasn't exactly clear when HarperCollins announced it would be publishing GSAW, it's quite clear now: GSAW is an early draft of TKAM. But it's so completely different that it's not like reading the same novel. I would simply say that there are shared elements, told differently in each book.

In trying to explain the situation to my husband, I began by saying it was as if someone published the first draft of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE, with no developmental editing whatsoever. But that's not right--the published version of MISTRESS OF FORTUNE bears a distinct resemblance to the first draft. They are the same book. TKAM and GSAW are essentially two different books with similar characters, settings and themes. TKAM is recognizable in GSAW but I can't say they're the same book. Except for all intents and purposes, they are.

Many questions have arisen with its publication--most notably, did Harper Lee want it published? Was she somehow taken advantage of? As readers (and writers), is it unethical for us to support the publication of GSAW by purchasing it and reading it?

There have been several articles and op-eds written about the circumstances of GSAW's publication. I've not said much on the subject because frankly, I didn't know what I was talking about. But now that I've read TKAM and much of GSAW, I feel like I'm on a bit more solid ground to share my opinion.

I really hate to say it, because like I said above, the hubbub surrounding its publication got me to read TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and I'm thankful for that. But I wish HarperCollins would never have published GO SET A WATCHMAN because now that I'm reading it, I can't, for the life of me, believe that Harper Lee, if she were of sound mind and body, wanted it published.

Keep in mind that there are no reports (that I know of) that indicate unequivocally that Harper Lee didn't want it published at this time. Much of my opinion is based on the facts surrounding its publication (as I know them), the speculation of others about the circumstances of its publication, and my own observations as I read GSAW.

GSAW, to my understanding, is an unedited manuscript (though I suspect it's at least been copyedited). And it reads that way. Even so, it's fairly well written, at least in the beginning. It's slow, but not boring. Unfortunately, I've reached a point, about thirty percent in, where the writing turns amateurish and its clearly in need of a polish. It's not completely cringe-worthy, but it's not far off from that.

For this reason I can't see why Harper Lee wanted it published. Why would she knowingly agree to put work out there that is sub par? Nothing in her history hints that now, at her advanced age, she'd suddenly say, "what the heck, go ahead and publish this first draft."

Some writers might want to cash in on that sort of thing--and I say that with no judgment--but I just don't see Harper Lee being one of them. Has the publication of GSAW sullied her personal reputation? No, I certainly don't think so. But I hate the idea that her legacy now includes the very real possibility that she's been taken advantage of.

And I feel terrible that in my small way, I've been a part of that by buying the book. Having read and loved TKAM, even if it was only recently, I feel suddenly protective of Harper Lee and her legacy. But I also didn't want to pass judgment on its publication based on speculation. It wasn't until I began reading GSAW that it became clear to me that it probably should never have been published. I just feel too strongly now that Harper Lee was far less complicit in its publication than we've been led to believe, though I can't speak to the actual extent of the deception.

So amidst the joy I feel for the reading experience TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD gave me, the circumstances surrounding my decision to read it sadden me. I'll finish reading GSAW and perhaps my feelings about it will change, but I can't see that happening so far.

I'd love to hear what others who've read both books think about this. Most of the opinions I've seen are from people who've said outright they've no intention of reading GSAW for the very reasons I've cited here. I absolutely understand their position but I'm also curious what others have to say on the subject. By all means, let me know your thoughts, whatever they may be.


John McFetridge said...

I don't have an opinion on any of this but my guess is there will be even more outrage when the inevitable Go Set a Watchman movie comes out - without Gregory Peck ;).

Rick Ollerman said...

I just wonder that if Ms. Lee doesn't remember the manuscript well enough to have a qualified opinion. If she had publishers or agents or lawyers or someone telling her it was Great and Wonderful, I could imagine her shrugging her aged shoulders and saying, Well, okay, if you think it's good enough....